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The time traveller’s adventures in science and technology


This April was a travel month.

For the first three weeks of the month, I was on the road. First, I visited my brother in South Jersey who is four years my junior. Sometimes I forget how old I am. I had a non-handicapped room and felt as though I didn’t need it. The first event of travel happened when I decided to take a bath. It took me 20 minutes to get out of the tub—an epiphany.

Then it was off to COFES 2013 (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software) in Scottsdale, Ariz. COFES is a high-tech conference that is about 10 years old. I usually attend and it is a “no suits” kind of conference. I traveled out on Thursday, April 11, and started attending the second day of the conference on Friday.
The first keynote on Friday was fascinating. Zander Rose (of The Long Now Foundation) gave a talk entitled “Resilient by Design.” His question was, “how do you build a machine that will last for as long as civilization?” He is now involved in the building of a 10,000-year clock that includes fabrication of the massive clock itself.

I was fascinated by the concept of building robust, available, long-lasting and usable equipment with long time horizons. I must admit I’m disturbed by my Apple OS number—I’m up to version 10.7.5. Do I need that many changes to write this column? There is an argument for robust design to fit the timescale of more than tomorrow. As a designer, I find that a design capture for society takes about 20 years, or a generation. A refinery has a lifespan of 20+ years. We seem to be designing for next Tuesday. Anyway, the message was not lost on me.

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The next session was called “technology suite briefings.” I lost out on many of these because I was rehearsing for and getting acquainted again with the Maieutic Perataxis rehearsal. I missed the Santa Fe Institute (Chris Ward) talk about “what kind of computer is the brain?” Aw, heck.

You might ask at this point what is Maieutic Perataxis? Long ago, in the days of wooden ships and iron men, the founders of COFES decided that much of the benefit of the event happened in the hallways, not in sleepy, overcrowded Powerpoint sessions. So they set up an hour’s worth of five-minute talks that are rigourous and rehearsed to do the job right. Rumour has it that Ben Franklin, while in France, needed to send reports back to the U.S. during the revolution. These memos were frequent and short. He then sent a memo that was very long with the covering statement, “This report would’ve been shorter but I didn’t have the time.”

The five-minute presentations at COFES do not introduce, in detail, the speaker or the subject, and do not entertain questions. We deliver the core of the point to be made in five minutes. I spent quite a bit of time at the show with the other presenters and Brad Holtz (the boss) to ensure sure that we had all the computers running, the audio system working and the order of presentation. My quickie was about cooling traction motor bearings using the physics of thermodynamics without complexity.

Later, we went out for an evening under the Arizona stars to talk over the music. I had to buy a sweatshirt, so I now own a red sweatshirt with Arizona across the front.

The Saturday keynote was by Esther Dyson on “when exceptions become the rule,” so we had the 10,000-year-old clock and Wall Street on sequential days.
I became part of a roundtable on “educating the next generation.” We talked a lot about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). As a physicist, I was concerned about the “moneyball” aspects of STEM. “What were the results for the students after they emerge from the program?” Even after I got home and looked it up, I could find no stats on performance.

It was a good conference with lots of mental stimulus, and I always learn something at these conferences. After the conference I went to San Diego to visit some good friends, one of which was Jim Pinto—another columnist of merit. On a personal note, I missed out on a lot the last 10 years because of illness with my son and wife. It was time travel. It was like knowing a nephew when he was 10, and then meeting him again when he’s in the Marine Corps at 22 years old. A shock indeed. To some extent, I was a time traveller that moved forward in time on a personal basis. Some of the things I noticed: everybody eats salads, the houses are more expensive but smaller and people believe in spiritual things (which makes it tough for the old physicist to have a rational conversation). ’Tis interesting to wake up after sleeping for 10 years.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.