Always Experiment / Think Outside The Box

Thinking outside of the box has made all the difference in my life. One technique that I have used is to try to assemble something from disparate parts that you wouldn’t think would go together – as I have in my Assemblage art. Its the most abstract version of this thinking – it literally is going through a pile of junk and seeing if some things might imply something – like the calipers helping accentuate the circle in the sprocket or that antique wine cork puller acting as the mechanics tool of some sort. Its actually a great mental exercise.

But in the real world, this thinking has helped me – when I took kayaking classes back when I could kayak between Sausalito – at Schoonmakers Cove and Angels Island (across Racoon Strait). When I got stuck in an eddy current, I remembered the instructor saying “take a hard right or left”. That could save your life if you were swimming in the ocean and you ended up in a rip current. A simple maneuver, but one not everyone learns. I have applied this approach in a mental sense – when life throws a curve ball or three at me, and when the “usual” approach just isn’t working and I get stuck, I then throw caution to the wind and try some very different things. It usually does the trick, and sometimes the answer is to do nothing.

One of the newest approaches in this realm of “Thinking Outside The Box” for me, is to go back in time and learn a little about history – how things were done 90 years ago, and then 60 years ago (etc). Pick some decade or era – especially when technology or society seemed to really be changing in a pretty clear way – a changing of the guard so to speak – and spend some time “exploring that space”. How did technology influence society and what part did art and science play in that – and then invert that question – how did what was going on socially influence technology. The National SW-3, produced starting in 1931 is still a marvel in “elegant design” – and was designed to be sold to people who did not have a lot of money just after the Great Depression. That thought just blows me away . . .

What is old is new again – there are repeating patterns – I have witnessed this so many times in my work in the IT field. What people see as new and “game changing” in technology, can almost always be traced back to another time in history where the seeds for that very thing were sewn many years ago – and in a way where its a progression more than some new “disrupting” event. The hype in technology really cracks me up, but I have learned to let people believe that some new technology just happened for the first time and that its a revolution more than what it really is – an evolution. I don’t burst their bubble.

Here are few examples in software – I worked for Oracle when the SQL RDBMS was a new thing. In 2010, Hadoop technologies were praised as revolutionary. I laughed – they were just an evolution of what IBM mainframes were doing in the 70’s – even before I worked for Oracle. The difference was that you could process data on cheaper, commodity hardware – but the Map and Reduce had been done in COBOL, and the file access patterns that were “NoSQL” were more like ISAM and VSAM data access patterns than anyone who hadn’t experienced that would know. And then most ironically – NewSQL has now replaced NoSQL – and now we have SQL on top of ISAM and VSAM style data access patterns – so its a lot like using SQL on top of what used to be a COBOL approach to processing data. Yes, the devil is in the details, but to the practitioner, those details are buried deep and cannot be manipulated since those workings are automatic and are taken for granted.

In electronics – I’m amazed at new technology and a radio on a chip – the NE602 seemed to be a turning point in the 90’s – and many QRP rigs were fashioned after that chip. But if you view chips as a building block for a circuit, you could go back to a 1931 National SW-3 and see that a 3 tube rig and actually very few parts also could be viewed as a block diagram – each tube had a function like a black box – and together a system was born. Today – we have boards that contain parts that perform a function – and they can also be viewed as a series of black boxes in a block diagram. Heck – “functional programming” can even be viewed as a way to string together a series of functions into a system of sorts.

The old tube designs offer a course in learning circuit design that is so much more approachable than modern day designs. With tube based designs, the radio practitioner can learn “what’s under the cover without needing a PHD in physics and math”.

The key here is taking something that yes, is very complex and shouldn’t be taken for granted – and to decompose and make the problem simple – and then iterate and drill down into the details and deep as you like, PHD or not.

Last year I designed and built a Data Dictionary. The idea was to take what is built into databases like Oracle, MySQL and Postgres (and others) – the system tables and their meta data – and create one that is “Enterprise Wide” – which covers any database or data file in a companies data landscape. Sure enough – applying that simple concept but expanding to the enterprise fit like a glove. And today – there is a “new class” of “Data Catalog” product – which goes back to IBM mainframes – which had a data catalog built in going back to at least the late 60’s – early 70’s. In fact, the Cloud is nothing but Time Sharing – remember that? What’s old is new again, the scope and scale differ, but it’s the same exact thing. Some vendors throw in AI or ML buzzwords, (Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning) which is a fancy way of saying pattern matching or “pattern recognition”. A new approach on an old topic in computing.

Most features in modern ham radio rigs started with some of the Collins rigs – the 60 year old 75A-4 that I have is an amazing specimen – light years ahead of the National SW-3 – and with a separation of only 25 years or so. Todays radios resemble the 75A-4 much more than the SW-3, but guess what? If I turn on my SW-3 and listen to my favorite AM radio station (KPIG), I actually like the sound on the SW-3 more than on my 75A-4 or ICOM IC-7300. Amazing – that. And the tuning on the regenerative receiver is WAY more fun.

I think a lot, almost constantly, and the fun thing is to recognize these patterns and build up and strip away complexity – which then reveals the seed idea, the essence of what makes something work. What I’ve learned by digging back into history is that it gives me ideas that I can apply moving forward into the future.

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