How hackers ruin everything with computers
I make no secret of the fact that I think real technological progress has slowed in many fields, possibly even reversing itself. There are probably a variety of reasons this is so, most of them fairly depressing to contemplate. In the interests of not causing despair, I’ll try to keep focused on one obvious symptom of the disease: computers.
Of course, computers are good in that they give me a job, and they and their networks allow me to broadcast my curmudgeonry through the whole of the civilized world for free. But computers also ruin a lot of things, such as technological development.
For example: cars. I used to work on cars. Cars are cool machines: they work via hydraulics, gears and fire, more or less. Modern cars unquestionably have many advantages over cars made when I was born; they’re safer, faster and cleaner. They’re also impossible to repair, have more stuff which breaks, and generally embody planned obsolescence. Does anyone believe a modern Benz will be able to drive for 1,000,000 miles the way old ones regularly would? I don’t. Is this an improvement? Well, what I’d really like is a simple old style car with an air bag and slightly better fuel injectors. It’s not impossible to do. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. There is more money to be made using the razorblade model and so, people will continue paying for overpriced garbage with … “technology” in it. Meanwhile, people still drive W-123 cars with 3/4 of a million miles on ‘em: made in an era when people still believed in old fashioned engineering, and didn’t put so much faith in computer doodads.
Cellular telephones are another example. When they came out, they worked via analog electronics. Digital was a distinct improvement in reliability. Unfortunately it was also an improvement in capability. Really, all you want your cell phone to do in principle is get phone calls while you’re not at home -which is, in itself, kind of a niche thing -how many people really need to be that available for telephone calls? But, no, engineers need something to do, so they added …. digital features; SMS, 3G, 4G. This is understandable. I used to carry around this giant calculator thing called the HP100LX. Pretty cool thing: it ran Dos-5 (which wasn’t real far behind the state of the art 18 years ago). You could use it to check your email: I often did, because I was too cheap to buy an actual computer. You could even run Lynx on it and get WWW. It even ran emacs (slowly) and allowed me to work on Fortran code while away from my desk.
Now, with fancy pants new telephones, we can do all the stuff I could do with my 20 year old calculator, and we can make phone calls with it without jacking into a phone plug. I loved my little calculator, but I mostly used it as a calendar and calculator. The other stuff was more or less a silly parlour trick. Now I see lots of people buying telephones based, more or less, on these parlour tricks. Amusingly, they don’t work very well as telephones, but people do love them as status symbols and nerd dildos. Can’t stand the things, myself: I think they’ve ruined polite conversation.
I don’t think I need to complain about the use of computer “animation” and “special effects” ruining the cinematic experience. If you never noticed how much this trend sucks, there are plenty of talented commentators on this sad state of affairs.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: I think computers have ruined the design process. I have already pointed out the catastrophic time lags it takes to develop a modern aircraft in the West. Revolutionary jets like the SR-71 or the 747 took months to design. Regular evolutionary developments like the F-35 or 787 seem to take decades. Why do you suppose this is? I think it’s because people are screwing around in CAD and finite element analysis programs far too much, and not, you know, designing stuff. I’ve seen this at work in my days at LBNL. The “correct way” to get parts made for experimental apparatus is to get a CAD engineer to design it in SolidDesigner over the course of several days. Then the CAD goes to a CAM machinist, who will eventually send it back to the CAD engineer pointing out the 11 ways in which making this object is impossible without resorting to EDM. If you’re lucky and bother everyone on a regular basis, you’ll get your part in a few months. Then it won’t fit because the designer didn’t bother to come look at the machinery it’s supposed to bolt to. Why should he? He has the “engineering drawings” for the rest of the thing! Of course, electrical “drawings” on a computer are not solid objects, so the damn thing often won’t fit. The other way to do it is to grab some blue collar Navy dude with a greying moustache, tell him what you want; he comes and looks at everything with a tape measure and have him deliver it to you, freshly machined from aluminum and 304 steel in a couple of days time. Sure, it will be uglier, chunkier and bigger, but it will work, generally the first time. If it doesn’t, he’ll scratch his moustache, go away and make it work the second time ’round by filing something away or drilling a new hole in the thing.
Russian aircraft designers have a saying; на коленки -to work with paper on one’s knee. This is real design philosophy. One which has mostly been abandoned in the West. Western engineers prefer doltish computer masturbation to cleverness, pencils and graph paper. Sure, the computer makes a lot of stuff possible which was previously impossible, but it’s also made a lot of stuff difficult or impossible which used to be easy.
I would imagine only a few people reading this have anything to do with designing physical objects any more, but for the dozen of you still involved in making things which exist in the world, do consider на коленки when you’re making things. Consider whether that computer doodad you’re adding to your project is necessary or useful. And for the love of all that is holy, put your stupid nerd dildo away when you’re talking to people.