Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Cool Old Things Versus Cool Modern Things

Recently I’ve been thinking about cool old things versus cool modern things. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about binoculars and telescopes.

The coolest binoculars on the market right now are Canon’s 18x50 IS binoculars. They require batteries. They need batteries because although 18x is kind of high power for that aperture, the binoculars compensate for the power by using dynamic image stabilization mechanisms. When you look at something and focus, you then press the IS button and high-tech micro-electronics apply tiny motions to the prisms inside the binoculars to keep the view you see rock-steady. Every user report I’ve read says the technology works great and has completely eliminated the need for a tripod when using the binoculars for astronomy. That’s pretty cool.

The coolest telescopes on the market right now are in Meade’s RCX line. They need to be plugged in. They require power because not only does the telescope mount use electric motors to move the telescope around in altitude and azimuth, but the telescope itself uses micro-electronics to shift the secondary mirror forward and back to focus the telescope. Since everything is computerized—the mount uses GPS signals to help calibrate its GOTO mechanism—even collimating the mirrors is automated. With everything under computer control, astrophotographers can define and return to precise image settings from session to session. That’s pretty cool.

This is all techno-sexy and if I had a lot of disposable income I’d probably be a happy owner of the high-tech binoculars and telescopes. But they are certainly different from what I’m using now.

The telescope I’m using now is the same telescope my parents purchased for me back in 1968 or ’69. It was the first really good thing I ever owned. Optical systems built around lenses don’t really degrade if you refrain from using them to do things like hitting people on the head. My telescope is generally as good today as it was almost forty years ago. Of course, modern refractors are better color-corrected and modern eye pieces are better designed. But my telescope works as well today as when I was a kid. In fact, the telescopes works better, since I’m more familiar with the sky and can operate the telescope better.

The binoculars I’m using now are about thirty-five years old. My dad bought them when he and I were on our way to Wisconsin on a fishing trip. Like telescopes, if you don’t use binoculars to hit someone over the head, there’s little that will degrade over time. They still function great.

But what about modern binoculars and telescopes?

There is an acronym close to the heart of everyone who has worked in the computer business: MTBF   The letters stand for “mean time between failure.” Computers always break down. There’s never a question that computers will break down. Computer professionals distinguish between good and bad systems, however, by their MTBF. Bad systems will break down more often and more quickly than good systems.

Canon’s binoculars and Meade’s telescopes are built around microelectronics. There’s no question the equipment will fail. The question is, how long will it function before it fails? In the product documentation I’ve read the companies don’t address this.

A second, related, issue is, what happens ten years from now? Twenty years from now? Will the micro-electronic components at the heart of these high tech systems still be manufactured? Will ‘repair’ even be an option or will people simply be advised to purchase new equipment?

And is that a bad thing?

I don’t know.

I wrote six novels using the original Macintosh and its follow-on computer models. That hardware and software architecture doesn’t exist any more. For the most part, it is simply easier for me to use printouts and re-type the manuscripts than it is for me to track down some specialty shop that takes old disks and reads them, recognizes old software formats and translates them.

Computers make almost everything easier. They transform almost everything that once was regarded as a kind of chore into something like a kind of pleasure. The price for this transformation is constant change. Disconnection from the past. Not only constant residence in the present, but constant embrace of what is coming.

Is that a bad thing?

I don’t know.

I type fast and I make little corrections as I go so I don’t really mind re-typing old manuscripts. I enjoy high tech stuff so I don’t mind the constant turn-over of equipment.

But I’m aware this is a very different world we’ve created, very different than the world thousands of previous generations of human beings have lived in and I wonder if the techno-sexy consequences all will be benign.

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