For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

I Am Gandalf

At last year's ESC-Brazil I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Kridner from TI. One thing he said resonated with me. "I am Gandalf" he intoned, while not holding a staff arcing lightning to the clouds. I am pretty sure that just for a flash I saw him in a long beard and pointy hat, though.

Gandalf the Grey/White was a wizard in Tolkien's pre-technology Middle Earth. His ways were famously mysterious, and it was said "Do not meddle in the ways of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." The implication, of course, is invoking a wizard's ire might find you alight with fire and brimstone.

Gandalf knew far more of the ways of the foul things that crawl in dark spaces than about microprocessors. Jason's point was that his work - the work of all embedded engineers - is every bit as enigmatic to so many inhabitants of Middle America as that of a 3000+ year-old conjurer to those living in Middle Earth.

Not long ago a young insurance guy was here peddling his wares. He was puzzled by the gear on my bench and, for the thousandth time over the last 40 years, I tried to explain "embedded." He was astonished that the disassembled TV remote I showed him had a computer - a computer! - in it. "How can that little plastic thing you're pointing to be a computer?" he wondered about the MCU. He was even more startled to learn that software lives in the chip and that software directs all of the device's operation. His view of software was Excel. Word. The notion of software as a control element baffled and confused.

The insurance person never thought about how things work. Things just do. Frodo's sword glowed blue when Orcs were about. The trilogy never elicits the slightest curiosity on the part of any of the protagonists about why or how that happened. It just did. You'd think that Sauron would have a crash program in place to develop countermeasures. To an engineer the explanation that the weapon was of Elvish origin is as satisfying as saying the TV works by pressing the power switch. For many people (and hobbits), though, these are perfectly adequate explanations.

I've heard speculation that years ago people had more curiosity; that they wanted to know what was going on with technology. Cars, for instance, used to be much more understandable before they were filled with embedded systems. The shadetree mechanic could, and did, maintain and improve his vehicle, which meant developing an intimate knowledge of how it works. That's much harder today.

While it is true that young people, especially young males, once did do far more work on cars than they do today, that may be but a single data point. Few of my classmates (until entering engineering school) had the slightest interest in learning how anything electronic worked. Those few that did, those, for example, who flirted with ham radio, mostly became engineers or engaged in some other technical profession. Going back even further there was simply little to learn. A couple of centuries ago relatively few even knew how to read. Curiosity may have been detrimental to survival when long days spent getting the crops in was the fabric of life, day after day, year after year, till an early demise iterated the same dreary life for the next generation.

I'm rereading A Canticle for Leibowitz (one of my favorite books). In Fiat Homo, book 1, not only do the inhabitants of post-apocalypse Earth have neither curiosity nor technology, they have killed off the acolytes of science. It's not much of a stretch to see more than a bit of that today in some places on this beleaguered planet.

We embedded people are the holders of an arcane knowledge that brightens billions of lives. Yet it seems to be a sort of magic that so many unquestioningly accept.

We are Gandalf.

Published July 24, 2014