Sunday, May 31, 2009

Modern Communications...

Reader Larry E. writes:
I was sitting here thinking how communication has changed so much.

Right now I’m sitting in a room around a table with 10 people. Developers, tech writers, qa. There are at least 5-6 other team members working from their homes at the moment.

In the room there are two distinct conversations going on verbally and at the same time a lot more going on via IM and still others via email. I’m sitting right across from my QA lead and I IM him asking for the updated QA Plan. I tell him that Christophe in France has a patch for our import problem which I got from email and he says, Christophe told him (via IM) and that Christophe is looking the ETL run as well. With a team spread over 5 sites in 3 countries this instantaneous communication is so important.

The other day I realized that when I left home for the USMC, communication with my family and friends back home dropped off to a trickle. Occasional letters and phone calls. Now my son left home for the USMC and even though he is on the East Coast, I hear from him a great deal. He calls me on the cell, text messages and emails. I get emailed pictures occasionally or he just takes a picture on his phone and sends it to me in a message. My son keeps up with his friends still in California via text and sites like facebook.

While it may not be as personal as face-to-face communication, and it is certainly very different, it is communication that would not happen at all without this technology. It enables you to maintain relationships you would not otherwise be able to do so otherwise.

Fascinating. At least from the perspective of someone that didn’t grow up with it.
This is a topic I've often thought about. Usually what brings it to my mind is “talking” (usually by email) with one of our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. This always reminds me of my days in the U.S. Navy, and how sawed off from the world we were whenever we deployed to the Western Pacific or Indian Oceans. There were intervals of months when I had no communications of any kind (not even mail!) with friends or family. Often the only news we got was from highly-filtered one-page news summaries sent to the ship's radio room (weekly, if I remember right) and made available in the ship's library. Very urgent family news (births, deaths, etc.) was occasionally sent via U.S. Navy radio traffic; it was a big deal when one of these came in. I remember very clearly the profound sense of isolation while on one of these deployments.

Contrast that with today's military, as Larry points out. Soldiers literally on the front line of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are using cell phones, email, instant messaging, and blogs to communicate with friends, family, and the whole world. They take digital photos and video, and post them up on Flickr and YouTube. I've watched videos of countless battles and actions just hours after they occurred, thanks to these technologies. And certainly our troops aren't cut off from the world in any sense of the world.

Neither are the homeless:
Like most San Franciscans, Charles Pitts is wired. Mr. Pitts, who is 37 years old, has accounts on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. He runs an Internet forum on Yahoo, reads news online and keeps in touch with friends via email. The tough part is managing this digital lifestyle from his residence under a highway bridge.

"You don't need a TV. You don't need a radio. You don't even need a newspaper," says Mr. Pitts, an aspiring poet in a purple cap and yellow fleece jacket, who says he has been homeless for two years. "But you need the Internet."


In my profession (hardware and software engineering), another Internet-enabled phenomenon has been equally revolutionary: search engines and freely available technical information.

Years ago, if I wanted to design a piece of electronic hardware, the starting point was to talk with the hardware resellers and try to convince them that they should supply me with “data books”. These were thick catalogs of the parts from a particular manufacturer, and owning a library of these was an absolutely essential prerequisite for any hardware design work. Today those data books are completely unnecessary. You can look up the parts on any of hundreds of web sites (for hardware vendors), and just click to get a PDF of the data sheet for the exact part you're interested in. It's hard to overstate the extent and importance of that liberation from the data book tyranny – it means now that any individual (not just engineers working for big companies) has wide-open access to all electronic parts.

In software engineering, the Internet has been just as revolutionary. Years ago the only method available for advancing your knowledge of the field was to buy (and read, of course!) expensive texts. Often you also had to buy expensive software development tools as well. These days that model has completely blown up. There are tens of thousands of web sites chock full of interesting and relevant technical information on any conceivable (and sometimes inconceivable!) and arcane software engineering topic. I still buy some books, but it's more for the convenience of at-hand access to a familiar reference than it is for learning. Perhaps an even more profound impact has come from sharing knowledge with others, often through web forums. Now when I run into some kind of unfamiliar problem, or I have a how-do-I-do-this? question, the first thing I do is launch a Google query – and very often this will lead me directly to a solution in a few seconds. In the past, I might have beat my head against the wall for these problems, for hours or even days. Not any more.

This Internet thingie has had quite an impact!

Fire Lookout Tower...

This caught my eye in a U-T article:
The forest service also will have two lookout towers staffed around the clock this fire season, one near Jamul in the south central part of the county and the newly renovated High Point Lookout Tower on Palomar Mountain.
Naturally, being the U-T, there are no more details. I can only think of two lookout towers they might be talking about: Los Pinos and Lyon's Peak. Los Pinos is regularly manned (though not full time), and Lyon's Peak hasn't been used in a long time. Do you know for sure what the plans actually are?

Grab You by the Ankles...

Don't miss today's Day-by-Day cartoon. An excerpt:
Amusement ride operator: “So...can we take you all for a ride today?”
Customer: “What's the ‘Stimulus Surprise’?”
Amusement ride operator: “Hydraulic grippers grab you by the ankles, bend you over, and – let's just say the ride's over when we say it's over.”