Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Witterings of the past!

I seem to be in something of a wistful mood of late, frequently harking back to old TV series and such. But I was brought up at a time when television was in its infancy and it brought a whole new way of gaining information and entertainment. From the serious production of topical and current affairs programming. To the start of the fly-on-the-wall documentary which degenerated into big brother. 

For me however, it was the wildlife series "On Safari" based in Africa and filmed by Armand Denis. It was the royalties from his invention of the automatic volume control for radio, which allowed him to pursue a successful career as a wildlife film maker. 

However, he was also accompanied the very beautiful Michaela Denis. Armand's chief interest was always photography. To prove his merit he went to Hollywood to work as cameraman on several films. Once having established his reputation, and being a keen naturalist, he embarked on a life of adventure which, took him into the heart of Bolivia. 

There he met a charming, fair-haired girl, with an equally adventurous streak. She had come from New York to study native textiles, and ceramics. Within twelve hours of their meeting they were husband and wife. On Safari was a trailblazer for the later award winning BBC "Life on Earth" series fronted by David Attenborough and the stunning wildlife filming from all around the World.

I also enjoyed (in my pre conservation days) the underwater adventures of Hans and Lotte Hass, spear fishing around the World. Which in turn led to Jacques Cousteau and his wildlife conservation efforts around the World. All done from an ex British mine sweeper called the Calypso. For those of us with an interest in boats, the story of Calypso is well worth reading.

Most people are blasé and dismissive about television. Soap opera and other "entertainment" provided for the masses, has blunted our view of what television set out to achieve. But for many, it brought the chance of obtaining a better education and improved prospects. The Labour government of Harold Willson pioneered part-time Higher Education, which was enabled through correspondence and late night programming of the Open University. - Also to immortalise the 60's kipper ties and wool jumpers often worn by the presenters

Today we talk about "the time-line of man" in the UK. From a 12,000 year post ice age starting point. A history starting in the Neolithic, leading to the stone age, bronze age, iron age, the dark age, the medieval and the industrial revolution. However, the latest buzz phrase for describing an age is the Information Technology revolution. Somewhere in that swathe of the IT revolution is a small passage in time when the thermionic valve technology of radio led to television. Which later led to the miniaturisation of electronic equipment with the transistor. Which in turn has led to the micro electronic age of mobile phones, computers and the Internet. Each section of the time-line is happening faster and faster as our understanding and implementation of technology evolves. How soon will we begin to be blasé and dismissive about the Internet - or has it already started.

What "personal value" could we put upon the Internet now. Is it an educational tool, is it mainly a tool for sharing porn or a flea market driven by spam. In 50 years from now will we look back at the history of the Internet as a good portent for the future.

Working in Higher Education I was involved in the early days of the Internet. I'm not going to go on to give a summery of the life and times of the Internet. (that's been done before) Other than to point out that we did not realise that we were letting the genie out of the bottle. I can remember laying cables through mainframe server rooms that covered three floors of a building. Spending a week reading the manuals to get a PAD (Packet Assembler Dissembler) working. It was attached to one of our first Unix workstation to do the processing and internal routing. Then creating the first email message to flow out from our institution. I can't remember who I sent it to or what it said - so much for history. Within a week ten people had an email address, but they had to use an IBM mainframe to provide the email application.

Later going on to meet iconic individuals like Dennis Ritchie, Brian Kernighan and Andrew Tanenbaum. who were the giants in their own field. The sweetest of all being to talk via radio to Phil Karn KA9Q who's genius (put in the public domain) was the foundation (TCP over IP) of the Internet we all use today.

Such was the life in higher education, quality and innovation was the watchword. Today, Higher Education is almost a conveyor belt driven process. Gone forever is the time that I spent with students at all levels. Gone is the pleasure of watching young people (that I can still name) blossom and graduate. Today all that has been replaced by a blur of faces and unknown names.

We do live in a joined up world, but increasingly we live our "joined up" lives in isolation behind a computer screen. Emails replace a walk along the corridor. A text message replace a phone call. We all walk around observing people suffering from what looks like earache, only to find its a mobile phone held to their ear. The phone can ring at anytime and we are happy for it to disturb us. Let someone but-in to our conversation and we take offence. People are happy to text and phone whilst driving, risking their life and the lives of others. But if those same people were to trip over my feet there would be a hell of price to pay.

We have the technology to put man on the moon, but we don't have a cure for the cold. We have the technology to turn this Earth into a vast land fill site but we don't have an answer to fly-tipping. Its all down to economics, whilst someone makes a buck fast or otherwise we will have the technology off pat. But if there is a cost - then it can wait.

What will be the next age on the time-line of man.

How about the "Green Revolution" The development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. The term "Green Revolution" was first used in 1968 by William Gaud, who noted the spread of the new technologies and said "These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution." But not until there is a buck to be made from being green!

I remember Harold Wilson and his "White Heat of Technology" speech on the implications of scientific and technological change. I also remember all the claims of the "paperless office" now there was a concept that was bound to fail. Take a look around your office. Is it paperless yet? Will it be paperless any-time soon? I didn't think so. OK, how about virtual reality. The idea sounds fantastic put on special goggles, gloves and perhaps other connected clothing and immerse yourself in a training session or other activity. That idea made early VR proponents heroes to many technologists. VR Soon foundered on the real rocks. But we learned for our  all our endeavours. In eduction it is research-research-research that was and to a lesser extent, still is the driver in a race to publish any old twaddle as a research paper.

My research thesis was based on contrasting and comparing the use of terrestrial and satellite communications systems for use in the third world. My research suggested that the way to go in the future for places without a terestrial wired network would be through the Iridium global network.

Much later, the Iridium service was launched on Nov. 1, 1998 with major financial backing by Motorola. The first actual Iridium call was made by Vice President Al Gore. However, Iridium went into bankruptcy nine months later on Aug 13, 1999. this was because the cost of the service was way out of the reach of intended users. The first generation Motorola 9500 satellite phone was bulky and expensive when compared with cellular phones. Mismanagement was also a factor in the original company’s failure. The initial failure of Iridium also put pressure on other proposed satellite projects like Globalstar, which was soon following Iridium into bankruptcy.

Good research is not about proving that something works - sometimes good research is proving a theory is broken! In this instance it was a good technology - However, Iridium tried to claw back the infrastructure and development costs far too quickly and the projected users just walked away.

But was this the portent for much bigger Internet based "investment opportunities" to come.

Iridium's corporate fiasco should have been treated as something of a cautionary example associated with ultra-complex, expensive communications architectures and changing assumptions.

Do you remember the "Dot Bomb" implosion when just about everyone thought they'd get rich off the Internet! dot-com company after dot-com company was launched and promoted with money from the venture capitalists. A few went public and saw their stock prices go through the roof. This created a mad scramble to jump on the gravy train. Most people arrived in time to stash their dosh. They also hung around to watch the value plummet after the bubble burst.

What was it Leslie Bricusse wrote and Anthony Newley sang? Ah yes, "Stop the world I want to get off".

I have now arrived, I can see my new place of abode, its located just off a layby on the Information Super-Highway.

I can now look forward to enjoying my retirement by living in the past.

Vive la révolution!


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