Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Equinox

As the autumnal equinox approaches, I am reminded that it's my dad's birthday in a few days. On his next birthday, he will have completed his 71st year on this plane(t). Dad's a great fan of science fiction. I can't remember a day when I didn't see him with a dog-eared paperback book in his hands when I was a boy. Dad turned me on to Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven and Piers Anthony, three men who started to give me a sense of the grandeur of the universe.

I still like science fiction, but I don't really have the time to read it. So I watch movies instead. I've become a big fan of the movies featuring Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky and Minority Report. I have also enjoyed Tron, Tron II, Lawnmower Man, Strange Days, Total Recall and the Matrix Trilogy. One of my all time favorite movies is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many of those movies are virtual reality movies, but all of them feature some technology that is truly science fiction, even today.

When the equinox comes, particularly in the fall, I tend to reflect on what my life has become relative to where I've been. There are many things in my life now, that would have been considered science fiction in my lifetime.

Here's an example. I have a nice 19" LCD monitor that I use for my computer. I can't remember exactly when I bought it anymore. Probably sometime around 2006 or 2007. I only remember that my wife Alice was in my life at the time, so I got it sometime after 2007. These flat screens seem so out of place when I think about it. They display the images from the computer nearly perfectly and when I look behind them, well, there isn't much behind them.

The LCD monitor exists in stark contrast to the massive, bulky CRT monitors that I have had before. I didn't imagine such a thing before they came into my life. If you had shown me an LCD when I was 15 years old, that would have been science fiction to me. I would not believe it to exist then, but it was plausible that they would someday come into existence.

The LCD screen is just one example of science fiction born into reality in my life. In the past, there was such a thing as "flat screen envy", and having a flat screen on your desk at the office was a sign of status. I kid you not. As an IT worker, I have had people begging me for a flat screen and my reply was, speak with your supervisor. Now, flat screen monitors are mundane, taken for granted and considered the standard display. Many people have two monitors at their desk.

The cell phone, laptop computers, GPS, and giant Tee-Vees up to 90" these days, are the science fiction of the 1970s. We just didn't have these things in common use that ordinary consumers could buy. The first commercial space flight will launch in a few years to transport a few wealthy passengers in sub-orbital flight. In about ten years, sub-orbital flight may be as commonplace as jet flight is today.

The computers we have today are much faster than the supercomputers of the 1970s and 1980s with billions of transistors. The graphics card in my computer as I write, is capable of hundreds of GIGAFLOPS, billions of computations a second. In 1990, that would be a supercomputer. All of it is science fiction come to life.

Years ago, when I a teenager, Dad took us on vacation in Hawaii. He took us scuba diving in the reefs around Hawaii, which was a fascinating adventure in and of itself. I learned how to submerge while breathing through the scuba tubes. I learned how to take the mouthpiece out and put it back in, while resting on my knees, 25 feet underwater. I'll never forget that experience.

Dad made two very interesting comments about that experience. First, while we were all swimming together, Dad said that all he could do was count, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" to make sure that all of us were still there, 25-30 feet underwater, swimming with him. The second comment he made was that 50 years ago, even the richest man in the world could not do what we could do then. Imagine that. The richest men in the world 80 years ago did not have scuba diving to resort to for recreation.

The internet, computers, cell phones, and a long list of other technologies we enjoy now, did not exist at some point before us, or even during our lifetimes. We had to make do with rotary phones, land lines, and paper. Lots of paper.

The equinox is an interesting time for me every year. The golden sunlight coming through my windows at sunset are a reminder that time is passing and that winter is coming. When I reflect on what I have seen in technological change, I note that my dad has now seen much more change. The world is a far different place to him than when he was a boy. Same for me, too.
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