first essay is on the Internet, as it is possibly one of the
most important developments that has occurred in the history
of mankind. So why is the Internet so important to me? Well
there are many reasons:
JUST THE BEGINNING.
The Internet is being developed all the time, and I
am lucky enough to be in a position that I can influence
its evolution (even in a small way). This might seem
obvious, but I missed some of the other recent breakthroughs.
In my time I have seen the electronics industry moving
from just a few transistors on a chip to millions of
them on an area the size of your thumb. Just think I
was not even born when the first transistor first popped
its head above its circuit board (well, of course, the
circuit board happened later, but it makes a great metaphor),
and I was just a child when Fairchild Semiconductor
first put a few transistors onto a single piece of silicon.
Then I missed the SSI,
phase, because I was still learning, from school to
college. After I left school I went into Electrical
Engineering, and I learnt all about DC motors and 3-phase
supplies. I remember learning about transistors with
their three pins: the collector, the base and the
SSI - Small Scale Integration MSI - Medium Scale Integration LSI - Large Scale Integration VLSI - Very Large Scale Integration
emitter. It seemed to me, at the time, that you needed
superior intelligence to understand all their graphs
and connections. I think it was the voltage between
the collector and emitter on the x-axis, and the current
in the collector on the y-axis, and then there were
graphs of the voltage between the base and the emitter,
of course. All very confusing, and that was just for
an npn transistor, when it came to a pnp transistor,
all the graphs went negative, or so I think they did.
I will always remember the electronics teacher who
first taught me semiconductor theory. He wore a white
lab coat, and for eight of the 10 weeks he taught us
electronic valve theory, and for the last two weeks
he taught us, under great reluctance, the theory of
the transistor. To be honest his heart wasn't really
in it, as he really didn't see the future for these
tiny little plastic devices. The transistor, in his
option, could never really measure
up to the mighty valve (I forget why, but I think it
was related to its power handling, and its linearity).
Where is he now? Retired, probably, or running a valve
production factory. For those formulative years, I don't
think I ever met anyone who really understood these
tiny plastic devices (and often I think that there are
few who really do understand them now). Later I even
wrote a book which tried to show how it is possible
to understand electronics, and silicon design, without
having to revert to complex mathematics (see image on
the right-hand side). In the next few weeks, I intend
to write an essay on electronics, and the way that it
is taught, so watch this space!
could see then, from 1977 to 1981, that the future wasn't
electrical engineering (my father and my father's father
had both been electricians, so it seemed a natural move
for me). For me it was electronics, so off I went to
do a degree in electronics. Computing, at the time,
seemed like it was too big a jump, as it was all to
do with big mainframe computers which performed a silent
magic, of whom were operated on by strange people in
white lab coats. So, luckily for me, as I started studying
for a degree, the PC was just starting to takeoff, and
I remember admiring the Apple II's and the IBM PC's
in the lab. From
then on, I knew the future was computing. It has since
blossomed as a subject, and now encapsulates not just
computer programming and computer systems, but now includes
networking, the Internet, databases, human/computer
interaction, multimedia, the World Wide Web, E-commerce,
Digital TV/Radio, and so on. It's amazing to be involved
in an area that is forever changing and spawning new
disciplines, each of which are more exciting that the
last (or maybe that's just my option, which it is).
Computing power allows users to perform many functions
that, in the past, would have taken many people and
lots of time to achieve. For example last year I helped
organise a conference. It would have been almost impossible
if I did not have e-mails, databases, spreadsheets and
mailing lists. With e-mail I was able to get everyone
who submitted a paper to send it to me in an electronic
form. Then using a database I archived all the papers,
then created lists of reviewers with their paper reference.
Next I simply e-mailed the papers out to the reviewers,
and got them to fill-in a form which they e-mailed back.
I simply archived the reviews and then cut and pasted
their rating into a spreadsheet which then give me an
instant rating on the paper. After it was a simple task
to e-mail on the congratulations, and the considerations
out to everyone who had submitted a paper. From acceptance
list I created an e-mail list with all the successful
authors, and then kept them up-to-date with any changes
(typically on the WWW page I had setup) and all the
details of the conference. No-one in the world could
ever complain that they were not kept up-to-date, as
I e-mailed everyone almost on a daily basis. Some conference
delegates where getting e-mails requesting whether the
needed special presentation aids, or the sights of Edinburgh,
or even average temperatures for the time of year. All
this would have required a whole team of people, from
administrators to typists, but these days, with e-mail
and the Internet, it can all be done with one or two
people. I must admit that Microsoft Outlook helped a
lot as I was able to quickly search through whole batches
of email messages search for any keywords (such as ECBS
or IEEE), so that I did not miss any important e-mails.
In the end the conference was a great success as everyone
knew where they were going, and what they were doing.
Oh and I even redesign the conference
logo so that it was a big more colourful (click
on the graphic on the right-hand side to see the
animated version of the conference logo).
I also design an animated version
(if you click on it you should get the animated
GIF version). The graphics were hardly earth-shattering,
but they didn't cost a penny (apart from my time,
which was much less than an hour).
The thing I really like about the WWW is that I can
publish material within minutes, where it would normally
take me many months, if not years, to publish in the
normal way. I think that there will always be a need
for traditional book publishing, as it is a totally
natural way to learn, as opposed to reading material
from a screen, but both methods have their usage.
Every so often something happens in technology that
makes you change the way that you think about something.
There's too responses to this, either you go with the
flow, and learn the new techniques, or you say 'Forget
it. I'm happy with where I am, and this new thing just
isn't as good as all these other things'. It happened
when Pascal and C came along and challenged FORTRAN.
Many old FORTRAN programmers said 'You can do everything
that you can do in C in FORTRAN, so why change?' Well
where are the FORTRAN programmers now? It's amazing
to think about how things have changed in computing.
About ten years ago I was writing simple Pascal programs
which did a few simple calculations, and would take
no more than 64KB of memory (for both the code and the
data). The computers were simple 8MHz 8086-based PCs
which, if you were lucky, had a 10MB hard-disk. Then
C came along, and then C++, and then Visual Basic, and
then Java, and so on. We had been taught to think in
functions and modules, and now we were told to think
in terms of events and objects.
education I think you either use the Internet as a tool,
or you'll loose out eventually, as the consumers (the
learners) will demand material to be transported or
presented over it. It is a time of great opportunities,
but it is also a time of change, and you can either
be involved in it, or someone will eventually come along
and enforce the material. What is so great about the
WWW? I was trained as an engineer, and the use of colour,
in any way, was always disdained. If we used coloured
pens for any of our drawings, the tutor would immediately
put a large red mark through it, and say something like:
'colour is not required'. On the WWW, colour is important
as the human eye will very quickly tire if it does not
like the layout of a page or a site. The think I have
found when accessing WWW pages, is that consistency
and content are the most important things. It does no
good have a nice fancy home page, when the
rest of the site is a jumble of old and new pages, and
there's nothing that can hide a lack of content. With
a book you can quickly flick through the book, and can
often tell its quality. On a WWW site, it is often difficult
to see what's below. The other thing that was lacking
in engineering is the lack of creativity involved. As
an engineer you often take other peoples ideas, and
then ask them about what they want, and how they want
it, and you just create exactly what they want.
Small Scale Integration
(1960 - I was minus one at the time). Placing
a few transistors on a single piece of silicon.
Logic gates, op-amps,
and linear applications
Medium Scale Integration
(1966 - England win the World Cup, and I was five
year old at he time). This was between 100 and
1000 transistors on an IC.
and so on.
Large Scale Integration
(1970 - I was nine at the time). More than 1000
64kbit ROMs and RAMs, Analogue-to-Digital convertors.
Very Large Scale Integration
(1975 - A teenager). More that 100,000 transistors
on an IC.
256 kbit RAMs.
Note: Well they didn't really know where to go after
Very Large Scale Integration, so, after much de-bating
about what came after very large, they went for ultra
large with ULSI (Ultra Large Scale Integration
- which is between 500,000 and 10,000,000 transistors),
and then they struggled again with the next size up,
so they opted for gigantic with GSI (Gigantic
Scale Integration - which is over 10,000,000 transistors).
Who knows the next step? Maybe UBSI (Unbelievably
Big Scale Integration), or YWBHLI (You Wouldn't
Believe How Large the Integration is). If any does ever
use these terms in the future, you know where you heard
them first, and the copyright case will follow very
quickly after that.