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28.4.16

Cutting Diamonds With Stone Axes

Note: today's column produced using Ubuntu's new version 16.04. Click to download your free install file.

Back in the Stone Age, I worked at one of the largest cancer centers in the world as a video producer.  My job was to record surgeries and create training videos to pass on techniques to other surgeons.  Kind of a scary thought.  I do have certification as a Biomedical Photographer, though, which required me to receive the same anatomical training as a doctor, which I got at Baylor Collage of Medicine.  I've actually had my hands inside a human body.  Thankfully, they were already deceased.

That's beside the point.  The point here is that the job gave me access to something that would eventually become the internet.  It was a far different beast in those days, though.  There were no site names.  Access to databases required knowing the IP address of the server you were looking for.

It was quite limited.  There were no graphic browsers then, so I had to use things like Archie, Gopher, Veronica, and Jughead apps to search the network using keywords, addresses (if I knew them), server names, or file types.  A search didn't return a nicely laid-out set of links and descriptions.  Instead, I got a list of folders and files to choose from.  If I found a file I wanted, I had to download it to my Mac Quadra 950 with 7 gig of storage (massive at the time) and open it with the appropriate software.

If the file wasn't what I was looking for, I had to repeat the process until I found it.  Given the speed (or lack thereof) of the net and the time to search and download files, looking for one item could take all day if I didn't have the exact address of the file.

One day, one of my colleagues sent me an address to download a new application to try.  It was located at University of Illinois (back then, universities and government were about the only entities on the net), meaning it took forever to get it onto my machine.  It was called Mosaic Beta, and was the first freely available graphical browser ever.  Instead of a list of folders and files, it could display the actual contents of many file types, meaning I didn't have to download anything until I found exactly what I wanted.

It didn't take long before students at various universities started using something hypertext to build customized pages that displayed information in a pleasing and even artistic way.  This was a major breakthrough!  Suddenly, it seemed like everyone was building custom pages for their projects, or schools/departments/clubs, or their curricula vitae, or just for fun.  One early site got me started in home brewing by visually detailing the steps to making home brew.

More and more updates for Mosaic came along and soon it transformed into Netscape, the first commercial browser on the market.  Combined with the ability to mask IP addresses with natural language names and sorting them by .com, .net, .org, or .edu, the internet exploded.

Having tinkered with hypertext, I was soon getting quite a bit of work building websites (as they became know) for many of the oil & gas companies in Houston.  I used BBEdit, which was one of the first WYSIWYG hypertext editors available.  I still had to hard-code a lot of things, but it greatly simplified the mind-numbing lines of code and troubleshooting.

Believe it or not, websites were a hard sell back then.  Companies didn't understand the web or what it could offer them.  A lot of folks were quickly buying up domain names, like IBM and CocaCola, and then selling them to the corporations at outrageous fees.  Didn't take long for that to become illegal, and now most of the big names (and dozens of iterations) are safely locked up.  It was heady times then.

Those of us who were early adopters and saw the vast potential of the web made a lot of money early on.  Soon, though, the technology became plug-n-play and a lot easier to use, and the marketplace got really crowded really quick.

I then went back to non-linear video/film editing, which was got me into the web in the first place.  At the time, Avid, D-Vision and EMC2 were the top platforms, and I was one of the first in my region to use the technology for direct mastering.  Most folks used it to generate "edit decision lists" or EDLs, and then take the file and the original tapes to an online house to conform and master.  I also used a Video Toaster, which was one of the first all-in-one editing and animation suites.  It was another massive pile of equipment that is completely replaced with Adobe Premier and a good video card and set of cans.

Those online houses have all but vanished now.  What used to be over a million dollars worth of high-end switchers, time-base correctors, video tape recorders (reel to reel then), monitors, scopes, and an army of technicians is now at my fingertips as I write this and cost me about $1,000.  Sitting in a comfy swivel chair in a dimly lit, well chilled room with free-flow beer and wine while an online editor conformed your EDL is now sitting in my dimly lit home office by myself with free-flow beer and wine while I squint at the screen and try to read all those tiny characters on the screen.

As for the web, the webmaster has all but vanished, replaced by a IT department that farms out the construction of websites based on the specifications of a committee.  It is then loaded on the company server and maintained by the in-house techs, who spit out various usage reports every Friday, while backing up the private network data to a safe server in India.

It's really amazing how far the technology has evolved.  As a kid trailing along with my dad on interview shows, I watched the teevee cameras go from massive black-and-white tube-type boat anchors, to hand-held HD (and now 5K) devices.  Tape has vanished and become chips.  Punch cards evolved into massive disks, which evolved into floppies, which evolved into chips.  I can do more now with three laptops, four monitors, two printers, and a handful of palm devices linked to my home network, than I could with rooms full of noisy equipment with dedicated A/C circuits that only the largest corporations could afford to own just 20 years ago.

The only thing I find retro at this point is the movement toward dozens of specialized apps instead of a one-does-all package.  I suppose it's better in some ways.  I don't have to have stuff I don't use taking up memory.  On the other hand, I spend a hell of a lot of time launching and closing things.  It's almost like having Archie, Veronica, Gopher, and Jughead again.

The one downside to all this is that a person's skill sets can quickly become obsolete if they don't spend a lot of time reading the trades and learning new packages.  It's hard to say which will survive (I loved Betamax) and which will thrive (I hated Adobe Premier).  You can be in the middle of learning the latest fad package when the Next Big Thing comes along and wipes out hundreds of hours trying to master the last Big Thing.  Remember CDs and DVDs?

In some ways, all this is good.  It has democratized communications, along with distribution hubs like YouTube.  But damn it if it doesn't play hell with folks trying to keep up their skills in the job market.  Anymore, employers figure you're washed up by 40, since you can't possibly be as up-to-date as the pimple faced Bangladeshi sitting in your old office.

I feel sorry for folks who think education stops when they get their degree.  I have always stayed on the cutting edge by reading constantly and tinkering with new tech as it comes along.

It's not just a hobby, it's survival.

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