For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 30,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
By Jack Ganssle
Miracle and Wonder
Every year my family has a reunion near the beach, and last week we all gathered in Cape May. Marybeth and I sailed there from our home in Baltimore. 20-some siblings, spouses, children and my parents had a few days of sun and fun in a hundred year old house situated in an even older neighborhood.
Two couldn't make it - my son, in school in New Orleans, and one of my nieces who is studying in Australia. But Katie did make an hour-long virtual appearance via video Skype. The laptop's wireless link let it run untethered in the garden while horse-drawn carts, carrying tourists down the street, hailed back to an earlier era.
My 80-something parents were amazed. They had no ideas such technology exists, and reflected on how even a plain old telephone call between states was a house-rocking event not so many years ago. I remember how the words "it's a long distance call!" would electrify the family. Long distance! It's was so expensive that we never, ever made inter-state calls.
An hour-long video chat with someone on the other side of the world was truly unimaginable to the oldsters. Neither could fathom how it all works, and both marveled for a day about the technology.
Yet in 1866, within the lifetime of my great-grandfather, it cost $100 to send a ten word telegram through Cyrus Field's transatlantic cable. A nice middle-class house cost $1000 at the time.
Later I ferried my dad and one of his equally old friends out to our anchored sailboat. There they both exclaimed about the GPS and AIS (a system that tracks ships via signals they transmit every few seconds). Jim had been a sailor all of his life but had never used a GPS. "You mean it's accurate to a few feet?" he asked. Yet both of these gents had been engineers in their careers; both had been in the business of creating incredible new technology, one in the space business, the other as a chemical engineer.
My dad was born in 1927, the year Hubble figured out those blobs were galaxies, not clumps of gas, and the year the Atlantic was first breeched non-stop by air. It was just a year after Schrodinger revolutionized quantum mechanics. The neutron hadn't been discovered. In a single lifetime the universe grew from a single galaxy to 100 billion, and the microscopic expanded from two fundamental particles to an entire zoo of quarks, muons, neutrinos and more. A few people were privileged to travel at a breathtaking 100 MPH; by the 60s a few people had traveled at 25,000 MPH. Perhaps also within that single lifetime Virgin Galactic will send tourists - tourists! - into space for less than the value of the Lindberg's Orteig prize, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
In The Boy In The Bubble Paul Simon sings:
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
Most of us blithely accept the amazing new technologies without wonder and go about our lives. I sometimes get a bit frustrated with dealing with my folks' computer problems, but their sense of awe about what most of us view as commonplace makes me realize just how right Paul Simon is: These are indeed the days of miracles and wonders.