Engineering’s Future

Writes Robert Lukcy in IEEE Spectrum:

Engineering today feels like that window seat on the airplane. Those can’t be real transistors and wires down there, can they? Watching the simulations on my computer monitor is like watching the movie on the airplane – an unreality wrapped in another unreality. I feel that I have lost touch with Edison’s world of electricity – a world of black Bakelite meters, whirring motors, acrid chemical smells, and heated conductors. I miss Heathkits and the smell of molten solder and burning insulation – the sensual aspects of engineering that have been replaced for many of us by the antiseptic, ubiquitous, and impersonal CRTs.

I have a deeper worry that math itself is slipping away into the wispy clouds of software that surround us. I walk down the aisles of laboratories, and I see engineers staring vacantly into monitors, their desks piled high with anachronistic paper detritus. Is anyone doing math by hand any longer, I wonder? Do they miss the cerebral nourishment of solving equations? Perhaps math in the future will be the exclusive province of a cult of priests that embeds its capability in shrink-wrapped, encrypted software.

I can’t believe that 20 years from now engineers will still stare into displays, run CAD tools, and archive their results in PowerPoint. But what will they do? My deepest fear is that the reality gap becomes so great that the best-selling software will be called Engineer-in-a-Box.

Slashdot thread

Perhaps the best thing I learnt in my engineering is the ability to think differently – there are multiple ways to approach the same problem. If one does not work, then try another. Engineering instills in one discipline and logical thinking laced with a practicality, because at the end of the day one has to solve real-world problems.

I may not remember much of what I learnt within the classroom during by BTech and MS days, but I do know that I would not have been what I am had it not been for my learnings in the schools of Electrical Engineering at IIT and Columbia.

Browser Options

Three articles:

– O’Reilly: Let One Hundred Browsers Bloom surveys many of the alternate Mozilla browsers currently available including Chimera, Galeon, Phoenix and Aphrodite.

– O’Reilly: Roll Your Own Browser (using Mozilla) [Slashdot thread]

– News.com: Mozilla browser gets some bite writes about Phoenix 0.1, which is based on much of the Mozilla code, includes a customizable toolbar, new design, improved bookmark manager and loads in nearly half the time of Mozilla 1.1.

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Fallacy behind Fibre Glut

Writes WSJ:

Of all of the myths that drove the 1990s technology boom — dot-coms made good investments, the New Economy would never experience a recession, small telecom companies could beat the mighty Bells — the most damaging may have been the fallacy that Internet traffic was doubling every three months.

The belief that Internet traffic could grow so quickly — if true, it would have meant annual growth of more than 1,000% — led more than a dozen companies to build expensive networks as they rushed to claim a piece of the next gold rush. The statistic sprouted up in reports by industry analysts, journalists and even government agencies, which repeated it as if it were the gospel truth. “Internet traffic,” the Commerce Department said in a 1998 report, “doubles every 100 days.”

Except that it didn’t. Analysts now believe that Internet traffic actually grew at closer to 100% a year, a solid growth rate by most standards but one that was not nearly fast enough to use all of the millions of miles of fiber-optic lines that were buried beneath streets and oceans in the late-1990s frenzy. Nationwide, only 2.7% of the installed fiber is actually being used, according to Telegeography Inc. Much of the remaining fiber — called “dark fiber” in industry parlance — may remain dormant forever.

It is quite amazing in retrospect how much money was invested (and has been lost) due to such mistakes predictions. As I was reading some of the older magazines for the latest Tech Talk series, it is now evident that many among us were taken in by such optimistic views of the future. The more outrageous the prediction, the more realistic it seemed!

Another story in the Journal quotes a rueful Dr. Brinkman, a distinguished researcher who spent 35 years at Bell Laboratories, as saying, “Maybe we should have been less smart.” The story adds:

Never before has the efficiency of an industry’s technology gotten so far ahead of demand, creating a glut of capacity that will take years to work off — and crippling dozens of companies in the process.

Scientists perfected once-exotic methods for cheaply sending vast amounts of voice and data, such as Internet traffic, over fiber-optic lines. These advances far exceeded the pace of telephone-industry innovation in the 100 years before it. Prior to 1995, telecom carriers could send the equivalent of 25,000 one-page e-mails per second over one fiber-optic line. Today, they can send 25 million such e-mails over the same fiber strand, a 1,000-fold increase. Yet the cost of making that upgrade rose by just a few times over the 1995 price, and in some instances actually declined.

A similar thing may be happening in the compuer indsutry where microprocessor speeds are moving ahead far rapidly than what we can use. They challenge here is to expand the market (target the underserved people in the emerging markets) rather than overserving the same existing set of users, who have little incentive to upgrade.

Mapping Ideas

Writes Walter Mossberg (WSJ) reviewing a software called MindManager from Mindjet:

Mind mapping, or brainstorming, software has been around for years, but hasn’t caught on except for a small cadre of devoted users, mainly from big business and academia.

To see what mind mapping is all about, I tested MindManager for a week or so and found it to be a fascinating way to organize one’s thoughts about a subject or project. It’s not for everyone, and it has some downsides. But I suspect it could be effective for many people in many walks of life.

MindManager’s so-called mind maps are special documents that look like spider webs. The central idea or project title is at the center, and a series of branches radiate outward to represent subtopics.

As you build the map, fine-tuning your ideas, you add branches, and all the branches, in turn, sprout subnetworks of lesser branches. The branches are labeled with text and graphics, and can be linked or related to one another. Mindjet calls this visual thinking.

The software costs USD 99-269. Mossberg’s conclusion: “If you want to improve your writing or planning process, MindManager is worth a try. It just might make you look smarter.”

I find a blank sheet of paper the most effective for thinking. A mix of doodling, writing and redrawing works well. Of course, the pre-requisite is thinking and generating the ideas in the first place.

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Recycling Computers for Social Change

Salon writes about how anti-globalization activists in Oakland, Calif., are recycling old machines, loading them with free software and shipping them off to Ecuador:

The software part of the project is less hit-and-miss than the hardware. The activists are using Mandrake Linux with installation scripts provided by Free Geek, which makes the whole thing rather foolproof — it’s the kind of pop-in-a-CD, point-and-click thing a 10-year-old could do. Or a 60-year-old, for that matter. The average volunteer can build about 10 computers in a day, Henshaw-Plath says; people with lots of experience and some luck can build as many as 25.

If you just look at their specifications, the systems the activists are building here seem almost worthless, Pentium 100-class machines with about a gigabyte of hard drive space and 80 megs of RAM. The sort of computer that went for thousands in 1996, but that wouldn’t fetch $50 on eBay today.

But if you wipe Windows off these systems and replace it with a Linux-based operating system, and if you just plan to use them for the Web and e-mail, they can be quite useful, says Henshaw-Plath.

In the remote villages of South America, “all they need computers for is communication,” says Henshaw-Plath. “They’ll use it mostly for e-mail — and it’s not e-mailing someone far off, it’s just someone in the next village. They only need some way to communicate between the two of them that will allow them to coordinate and articulate strategies for social change.”

The recycling of old computers from the developed world to the developing world will great the next big opportunities for technology.

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BI’s Importance

Writes InfoWorld:

BI vendors that once limited their wares to reporting and querying technologies are increasingly adding BPM (Business Performance Management) analytics on top of their platforms. This extends BI data outside the realm of the traditional “power user,” such as business analysts, to propagate the entire enterprise via scorecards and executive dashboards.

The ultimate goal is to ratchet the BI data locked in transaction-system silos up to the executive suite for daily comparison to strategic goals and budget targets. As a result, an executive can be notified within minutes of critical variations in sales or production, instead of learning about them at quarter’s end.

“The transaction-capture piece is important, but what companies really want to get to is this information system that gives them a good barometer of where their business is at any point in time,” says John Hagerty, an analyst at AMR Research in Boston.

TECH TALK: The Years That Were: 1995 (Part 2)

Business Weeks June 26, 1995 issue carried its first Annual Report on Information Technology. The theme was the Networked Corporation. Wrote Business Week:

Even though networks are pervasive, the benefits they promise are maddeningly elusive. The technology is here. The problem is not with the technology , but with corporate processes. Companies must fundamentally change the way they do business, and thats hard, says Daniel Shubert of EDS.

Getting the most out of the network means giving up control. A key difference between companies that makes the net work for them and those that dont is their approach to information. Until a company is willing to share information with workers at the sales counter or the shop floor, the most sophisticated network technologies wont help the bottom line.

An excerpt from a story on the Internet and business attitudes towards it in the same issue:

More than 25 million people will have access to the Internet by the end of this year, a more than tenfold increase from 1990, says Yankee Group. The primary driver of this explosion of Net surfers is not interest in the Internets educational offerings or even its famous (or infamous) chat areas. Today, the Net is being overrun by the business world. Yankee estimates that 21,000 businesses are connected to the Internet. Today, more than 75% of all new users are logging on via corporate connections.

Even in the midst of this rush, however, business executives and information systems managers keep asking the same question: What exactly will the Internet do for me? Right now, companies are pretty much still kicking the tires of the Internet, says Stephen Franco, a Yankee Group consultant. Theyre not completely comfortable with it. The companies hooking up to the Net are using it primarily for communications.

Forbes ASAP (August 28, 1995) had Marc Andressen on the cover as the kid who could topple Bill Gates, according to George Gilder. The coming software shift, according to Gilder, was because of the browser and Java. He wrote:

Dynamically portable programs are suitable for a nomadic existence on the Net, rather than a mere settled life on the desktop. Java emancipates software from computer architecture. It offers a software paradigm radically different from the Microsoft model, which is based not only on static compilation, but also on often-concealed, proprietary source code.

Suddenly, the entire world of new software is potentially available to every computer owner. Rather then being restricted to the set of programs you own, you can use any program on the Net, just as you can now tap any information on the Net.

Owning the operating system and associated tool libraries becomes irrelevant to selling applications. Owning the application or channel becomes irrelevant to selling the content. To the extent that Java or a similar language prevails, software becomes truly open for the first time. The Microsoft desktop becomes a commodity; the Intel microprocessor becomes peripheral the key microprocessor is the software code, the Java interpreter.

The computer hollows out, and you are no longer concerned with its idiosyncrasies, its operating system, its instruction set, even its resident applications. Instead, you can focus on the content on the world, rather than on the desktop architecture.

Your computer will never be the same again. No longer will the features of the desktop decide the features of the machine. No longer will the size of your hard drive or the database of your LAN server determine the reach of your information processing. No longer will the programs in your machine determine the functions you can perform. The network is the computer. The computer becomes a peripheral to the Internet and the Web.

Tomorrow: 1996

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