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Flying low

Almost eighty-three years ago, Charles Lindbergh took off from New York to attempt what had never been accomplished. Thirty grueling hours and 3,600 miles later, he landed in Paris. It was the first time a man had flown across the Atlantic.

It was a risky venture — six lives had been lost in the previous decade trying to fly across a sea that Brits and Yankees today fondly refer to as ‘the pond’. Whats more, Lindbergh went against conventional wisdom and used a custom-designed plane, hacked together in a couple of months, using only a single engine when all earlier attempts had used at least two.

It was a time of tremendous excitement and anticipation. Over the next thirty years, aviation progressed at a frenzied pace, and in 1957 the venerable Boeing 707 commercial airliner entered service, marking the beginning of the Jet age. What would the next half-century look like?

The sad, no, tragic, answer — exactly the same. Show them a file picture, and 95% of people today wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Boeing 707 and an Airbus A380, the so-called “latest and greatest” commercial aircraft. And while the rest of may be able to distinguish the two, isn’t it astounding how similar they are?

Yeah, yeah, there have been significant improvements. Carrying capacity, range, comfort, safety, fuel efficiency, blah blah. I’ve read the brochures. Whatever. Significant improvements is polite-speak for no leaps. The cruising speed of the A380 is actually a tad slower than the 707. Meaning it takes the same time for me to get from Point A to Point B while flying today, and don’t even get me started on the airport security lines. What the hell happened?

I don’t know. But this post isn’t about the aviation industry.

It’s about a sinking suspicion that I’ve been having. That the computing world is on the same kind of flight path.

See, when I was a kid, I used to hate having to go out anywhere, except to this family’s home that we knew. Because they had this awesome thing called a Computer. Much later, I would learn that it was the PC XT, the first computer that came standard with a hard drive (a 10 megabyte hard drive). But to me it was just the Computer. It was like a combination of a TV and a robot — it had a screen but the screen responded to what you did. Intelligently. It would produce words that you were typing, or it could show graphics. I played the original Prince of Persia on it.

Then my father bought home our first computer – an AT 286. With a colour monitor. That had VGA resolution. I cannot begin to tell you how much better Prince of Persia looked on it. And it was FAST. It had a small “Turbo” switch and light and when it was on, boy, did the machine race. The only time I turned it off was while playing Pacman because Pacman was so fast at Turbo that it was unplayable.

The next few years of my life were frantic. I grew so attached to the computer that I actually would agree to type pages and pages of work-related documents for my parents just to be allowed to use it. I learned AutoCAD and marveled when we upgraded to a 40 MB hard drive, because then we could keep AutoCAD installed along with the rest of our applications. Then came GW-BASIC, my first language, the first programs. The addition of a multi-media kit, we could actually listen to CDs on a computer!

I remember the two months a friend and I spent running around borrowing audio CDs from family and ripping them. And then filling up a 640 MB hard drive with MP3s and taking it to a guy in a garage who had a CD-burner; praying that the auto-rickshaw ride wouldn’t screw up the drive. And the badass feeling of “do we rock or what!” at possessing a 5-inch disc with 110 songs on it. All the years of painstakingly recording individual songs on cassettes were finally behind us.

Junior college in Singapore, where I discovered e-mail and keeping in touch with family; and finally, 1999, when I bought and assembled my first desktop in undergraduate school; discovered the Internet and that through it, I could get music and movies and news and chat with people half a world away, using these strange but exciting programs called IRC and ICQ. And using a neat little software called Photoshop, I could scan and edit pictures that I took from my little film camera.

It’s more than a decade later, now, and I have much nicer computers. But I’m still listening to movies and music and writing some code and trying to keep in touch with people half a world away. Some of them are using their computers to raise virtual pigs and grow virtual cabbage. I still use Photoshop, and the latest drool-worthy laptops from a company called Apple, I believe, offer a Turbo mode.

When I quote Star Wars it’s usually Yoda or Luke; but Han’s gotta have this one.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

What the hell happened? I think I have a vague clue; but I’ll leave it for next time.

3 Comments

  1. A body at rest will remain at rest :-)

    But seriously, is this not how progress is in every field? Few decades/centuries of frenetic discoveries, inventions and development. Followed by a phase of stabilization.

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Anshul wrote:

    Ashwin: Does it really seem to you that we’ve reached an asymptotic level of personal computing? It seems to me that there’s much more stuff to be striving towards (and people are actually doing that), but the sad bit is that consolidation in the big players (Apple, Microsoft, et. al) has somehow even led the mainstream geek media to argue about pointless things like how good the iPad is, and whether it should or shouldn’t have Flash.

    Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 3:56 am | Permalink
  3. Sherene wrote:

    Speaking of iPad and Apple-mania, check out today’s Abstruse Goose, haha: http://abstrusegoose.com/264

    I wonder if what you describe is a growing-up thing, like we’re getting jaded because of all the novelty we grew up with? Or a case of our generation of techies running out of imagination…?

    Monday, May 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

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