Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Indistinguishable from magic

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 22, 2008

A 1955 airliner

A 1955 airliner

Last week I bought one of the new Ipod Nanos.  I’m listening to a Mozart string quartet on it as I type.  I’ve owned MP3 players for as long as there have been MP3 players but had resisted Ipods until now.  What convinced me to buy one was a. the price/specification: 8Gbyte, 22 hour (claimed) battery life, excellent functionality, b. Itunes synching is far better than the WIndows Media Player based synching of my current Philips machine and c. well, it’s just magic.  And, like all Apple kit, it looks really good. Plus, I’m a chap and we chaps like gadgets.

According to Itunes, the player now contains enough music for 36.3 days of continuous listening pleasure (that number looks wrong to me, I think it’s more like 10 days but either way it’s quite enough) and If I get bored with that there’s also a 12 hour audio book, 14 hours worth of podcasts and vodcasts, and 4 games (one of which makes clever use of the player’s motion sensor).  The thing could hold 1600 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare in text files.  Gosh.  The flight to Dar es Salaam is only 8 hours.

I know, of course, that there’s no magic involved in delivering 300 year old music from my shirt pocket to my ears.  The Melos Quartet’s performance is being reproduced in my ears by zillions of bits moving very quickly indeed between registers and some very rapid arithmetic.  Having. on an OU IT course years ago, manually moved bits one at a time between a microprocessors registers to make LEDs switch on and off, there isn’t much mystery there.  It’s the same thing, only more so.  But it’s still quite magical.  

I was 53 in August and, technologically speaking, it’s certainly been an interesting time to be alive.  A mere 10 years and 3 days before I was born Japan surrendered, ending the second world war which gave us the stored program digital computer, rockets, the jet, radar and nuclear weapons as well as over 70 million dead.  My earliest memories, in the early 1960s, were of the space race (I was five when Gagarin whistled (literally!) around the Earth and I’ve blogged before about the excitement of living through Apollo as a teenager.  

I remember a friend of mine being given a pre-cassette player miniature tape recorder in the days when we wer only had reel-to-reels.  In those days I recorded pop music (this was before I discovered J Hendrix and, OK I’ll confess, Yes and Wishbone Ash) onto a reel-to-reel from the radio and then cut out the DJ’s with a razor blade, splicing the tape back together with sticky tape.  I’ve also mentioned before visiting a BOAC flight simulator at Heathrow and walking through the humming frames (as in main frame) of valves which powered it.   And so on.

Head back 53 years in the other direction from my birth and there were still 12 years to go until Franz Ferdinands’ assasination, Queen Victoria had only been dead for 18 months and the first powered flight was 16 months in the future.  

It was Arthur C Clarke, of course, who suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.  To my teenage self, my new Nano would also have seemed quite magical.  I know that I would have had an irresitable urge to dismantle the thing to find out what was going on inside, had one been teleported back in time to the village near Henley-on-Thames where we lived.  I guess I would have known enough to say that whatever it was, electricity was involved and I might have figured out that transistors were something to do with it, as there clearly weren’t any valves (I’d have been right about that, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess exactly how many or known what an integrated circuit was.)

Returning to the present, we know, as a species, a fair amount more than we did in the 60s.  But by then most of the technologies we depend on today were well on the way to being developed and in some ways (commercial supersonic flight, the ability for humans to leave the Earth’s orbit) we’ve moved backwards.  By far the biggest strides recently have been in applied biology, but the combined efforts of Franklin. Wilson, Watson and Crick (Rosalind Franklin having missed out on a Nobel prize because they aren’t awarded posthummously) made the pioneering breakthrough which started it all two years before my birth.

If I could go back a mere four and a third times my life span and meet Wolfgang Amadeus (if only!), hand him the Nano and invite him to plug in the ear buds …. well, I’ll leave his reaction as he listens to his own KV174 to your imagination.


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