Crossing the chasm

June 13, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

My father’s father, Claude, would probably find our modern technological wonders magic. Or unbelievable.

Imagine getting in a time machine and over coffee explaining to him that we can talk with anyone anywhere in the world. That within a matter of hours we can be transported in luxury anywhere in the world. That the entire knowledge base of humanity is available at the touch of a button. And let’s not forget our ability to watch any movie or listen to any music by just asking a robot.

He would likely just smile and think me a nutjob.

But, here’s the thing. I could probably manage to help him understand many of the basics including a turntable-based music system. It’s not that far-fetched to show the principles behind the technology. A string and two cans would be a great help.

Now imagine explaining how digital audio works. Try to make sense of an optical disc and a pulsating laser to a person who just saw their first automobile.

Between the electro-mechanical era where inventors like Edison and Tesla could convert physical objects like horns, wires, wax, and needles into miracles, and the age of digital electronics spans a chasm so deep and wide as to be either magic or witchcraft.

In fact, do you think you could explain to someone with zero knowledge of electronics or science how music is stored and retrieved from an optical disc or a solid-state memory?

I would wager to say that when we crossed the deep divide between the electro-mechanical age and were thrust headfirst into manipulating electrons that we lost our grip on the ability to manipulate our own world. It wasn’t that many years ago I could set the timing on my car. Now my car has no timing to set.

It feels a bit humbling to have crossed the greatest chasm of humankind.

I am happy to be here. What a ride!

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37 comments on “Crossing the chasm”

  1. I probably understand lasers and electrons about as well as Claude ever did. It’s a complete mystery to me. The good news is, not knowing anything never stopped me enjoying listening to music at home.

    I suppose we all apply our own mindset to our hobby. With an economics background, I am curious about the business behind consumer audio. The electronics guys have their home where they can reduce it all down to a single number. Marketing types can just enjoy the shiny magazines. Maybe some Age of Enlightenment philosophy bods could club together and set up an audio forum, which would question whether we ever have enough empirical evidence to make any judgements about home audio. It would of course have to be called the Audio Skeptics Review.

  2. “…magic or witchcraft.”
    Yes, it would appear that we are hell-bent on building some sort of
    ‘Heaven on Earth’; just remember that there are no free lunches 😉

    Or, in other words, as we strive for perfection in an imperfect world,
    that there is a price to be paid…just sayin’.

  3. If anything is explained properly to anyone it can absorbed !

    Mysteries are created by people who do not have understanding of a topic let alone trying to relay inaccurate information to others.

    I attended three very very expensive
    Universities that people would drool to attend. After several weeks in attendance in each , I realized the library was my best teacher.

    So now I have three prestigious diplomas non of which day
    “Self educated” at the library!

    Let’s not sell Claude short
    Let’s just provide him with a good instructor!

    1. My favorite Einstein quote is… “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I use that all the time to check myself.

  4. Computers are at the heart of it all. They keep getting faster and smaller. If something doesn’t have one in it, it was fabricated or designed by something that does.

    I was thinking the other day how many cool things hit the market all the time. As a consumer and user of new technologies, my expectations have changed. Living through the 80s was filled with amazement. You were hit with cool stuff that you marveled at, thinking “How did they do that?”.

    It’s different now. I’m not really marveled or amazed at anything these days. Anti-lock brakes on cars were a marvel. Now you can push a button and your Tesla will pull out of its spot and come to you. As cool as that is, it doesn’t really instill a sense of amazement. It’s almost like it’s expected.

    Apollo was fascinating as a sub 10 year old. I bought books on it, studied the moves required, made models of the spacecraft, etc. It was incredible. Step forward several decades and we land a rover on Mars. As cool as that was, it doesn’t astound in the same way.

    I have traded the sense of amazement with enjoyment of cool gadgets.

  5. I don’t think that the divide between the electro mechanical and electrons represents the “greatest chasm of humankind.” Sure, it’s a marvelous step forward, but what do we know about human consciousness that Claude didn’t know? What have we learned about greed, love, hate? What benefit has been derived from the movement away from organized religion towards ideology of the self with its emphasis on getting the pronouns correct? How is the Russian invasion of the Ukraine different from the Roman suppression of Gaul? Sorry, but I think in the context of genuine advancement, we’re talking about toys and trifles.

  6. Hello All,
    Here’s one for you that I learned on Saturday. I went to an organ concert at The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. It is the largest concert hall organ in the world. It has 2 giant keyboards, the traditional mechanical one in a loft several stories above the stage, and an electronic one that can be rolled around by 3 guys on the stage. (It has a fraction of a second delay, so the organist must play the notes in advance of the orchestra. To do this, the organist cannot listen to what he is playing or it will throw his or her timing off.) That is not the amazing part.

    After the concert I spoke to the organ chief engineer. I asked what guage of wire connects the electronic keyboard. He said no wire. It is going wireless. That is still not the amazing part.

    He told me that in another 2 years an organist will not even need to be in the hall. An organist will be able to log in from California, and if he has the right keyboards, pedals, stops, and software and permissions, she or he will be able to play the largest concert hall organ in the world along with the Philadelphia Orchestra from California, or anywhere in the world!

    I believe the largest pipe is 42 feet. The lowest note is 16Hz. It is so powerful that the acousticians had to design the hall for it. Once the conductor stopped the Philadelphia Orchestra in the middle of a Symphony and walked off the stage. He came back 3 minutes later to tell the audience he was reassured there was no danger. The noise we heard did not mean the hall was in danger of collapsing! The hall could sustain it. That organ will be able to be played from anywhere in the world! Magic!

    Jeffrey, Philadelphia

  7. I remember when the first silicon chips were being produced and TIME magazine did a feature cover story on the significance of their future impact and their exponential power. I remember thinking that this would be a good business to invest in.

    However, I did not have much money to invest in anything at the time.

  8. Today’s post causes me to face my greatest failure in life. I am an ordinary human being, just like all of you. I am not some incredible genius like Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Dirac or Fermi. Yet, I understand ( in detail ) what each of these superstars discovered, how it works, and how it has been used to give us the technology that we have today. I realize that not everyone is going to spend the first 30 years of their life being educated in physics and then work another 30+ years in highly technical jobs.

    What makes me feel like a failure is that I remember as a child when some of my fellow students shut down when certain things were introduced. For some it was as early as fractions in basic math. For others it was equations and solving for the unknown quantities ( X and Y ) in algebra. And it happened again with trigonometry and sine and cosine. At each of these times I struggled as to how to help some of them ( they were my friends ). I tried to help them, but I failed.

    At the age of ten I was sent to school for the “gifted” and everyone there understood things like I do. Yet I still wondered why can’t the teachers teach everyone to understand like we do. Even today I cannot figure how to make the light shine for other people the way it shines for me. I see it as my greatest failure.

    1. Thanks, Tony. What a wonderful person you are.

      Our brains are all wired a bit differently (as you know). Using the keys that unlock what works for you will rarely open the doors for others. And worse, you can succeed only when the other person has let down their guard – a feat many people are unable to do.

      What I discovered (after too feeling like a failure because I couldn’t share) is that I can share and elevate to anyone once they have let down their guard.

      It’s not that you are a failure.

      The only failure is perhaps not realizing no amount of cleverness or smarts can open locked doors.

      1. Paul, Thank you, but you should get my wife’s input on how “wonderful” I am ( How many times do I have to tell you the soap dish doesn’t go there? – Yes dear, I’m sorry. ).

        I know what you mean about someone letting down their guard and me letting down mine. When I was in grad school in the 70’s a friend of mine who taught high school science asked me if I could give a demonstration of lasers and holograms. I said yes. grabbed a demonstration laser and some props, went to the HS and gave a short talk on the stuff. At the end I setup the classic chest board hologram ( it was classic back then ) and had the students come up to the bench to view it, which all did except one. I asked him why he did not want to see the hologram, but all he did was shrug his shoulders and then the bell rang and he was gone. On the drive home all I could think of was what did I do wrong.

        1. When in 1970 I was a second year physics major, one of my work-study jobs was to clean a classroom and take care of the demonstration equipment storage room. One night when curiously examining the physics department’s only hologram, a very expensive glass cylinder, I dropped it. It shattered into a hundred pieces. I shook when the next day I reported my clumsiness to the physics department head. Sensing my contrition, he told me not to worry, and life went on. Whenever Paul or anyone else uses the word “holography” it reminds me of that broken hologram.

        2. I imagine every class has its rebel along with a number of other stereotypes, (pun intended) you were probably lucky only having to deal with the one.

          I’ve recently read ‘An Officer, Not a Gentleman’ by Mandy Hickson. It details her career in the RAF and becoming only the second woman to fly the Tornado GR4 operationally. I throughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone, especially if interested in aviation. In the last chapter she describes her work with the Air Experience Flight which gives a broad range of students a chance to fly and take the controls. To cut a long story short there was one particularly uncommunicative and apparently disinterested female student who, after the flight, Mandy went on to describe as potentially the best pilot she’d ever flown with. Following a post flight debrief the reason for this attitude was the students fear of failure. It just shows how unknown attitudes can fuel behaviours which create mystery and confusion for the rest of us.

    2. Maybe biological (psychological) system are by far much more complex than chemical or mechanical systems? 😉 I know a guy who designed and optimizes passive giant horn-loudspeakers since 1970 while being fully aware of the degrading effects of passive crossovers and colorations of multi-driver horns. Either he refuses to learn based on his rigid view of the (audio and stereo) world or the profits from his sales are that huge and his customers that naive that there is no need to progress.

    3. Well there is this thing called socialism that so many college professors seem to be pushing on our children these days. I never really understood why there’s this battle between socialism and capitalism in this country. If there are a group of people who want socialism they can just all lump their income into one big pot and everyone’s bills in that group get paid from that pot. Leave those who love freedom out of it. One big happy family living in utopia. Problem is socialism never works out thus they need to go after those who worked hard for what they have and tax them to death. It’s what destroyed Venezuela that was once a rich nation so now everyone lives like shit in socialist poverty. Socialism and Capitalism cannot survive in harmony with each other. There’s going to be winners and losers and most of the reason for it is some people are more ambitious than others. The ambitious shouldn’t have to support the lazy. Also to pass someone’s college tuition onto tax payers like bus drivers and other blue collar people is wrong and it’s just spending other peoples money in exchange for votes. If you signed a contract to pay off a school loan it’s up to you to pay it back not the tax payers. If the colleges knew the bill was going to be sent to the tax payers to pay than the amount they charge for tuition will sky rocket because they figure why not keep raising the cost and pass it to the tax payers, which is why free market competition is the best way to go to keep tuition down. Eventually the social debt will destroy us. These schools are charging ridiculous amounts of tuition and many of these kids never find a job that pays enough to pay the loan, many do and those people should not be off the hook to pay it back. The others who have no luck out of college should have not gone to college to begin with. There are many jobs they can do without college. College is not for everyone so the socialists should not be pushing that expense and debt on everyone.

      1. Maybe if there was an even playing field this would be the case. As things are, it is not even close. It is not just the poor and underprivileged who are potentially getting their debts forgiven. What you call socialism, is what a lot of people call empathy. Would you call the high taxes we pay for our schools socialism? If so, then why don’t we get rid of these taxes or at least just tax people that have children? Things are not so black and white.

        1. Yes paying for schools is socialism and also government indoctrination of our kids when they teach them to hate their conservative parents and embrace socialism. When they are trying to covert our children into transgender’s and teaching them about that at the age of 5. When they teach CRT. When they coerce our children into taking a vaccine shot behind the backs of their parents and tell those children not to tell their parents. Schools should be teaching our children math, science, reading, not politically indoctrinating our children. Who do they think they are doing that? Parents install their values into their children without government or some liberal teacher interfering with it. That’s not why we send our children to school. When our children reach an age where they are mature enough they can evaluate everything on their own.

  9. Imagine if you turned 100 old years ago today. Think about the technologies and societal changes that have occurred and how much they have changed everyday lives.

    How much has in home 2 channel audio really changed? Digital is ‘main stream’ now from the recording side to the playback side. Vinyl remains strong, whether sourced digitally or all analog.

    Now on to the preamp / amplifier side. Tubes designs are still highly regarded and sought out, but circuit design remain virtually the same. Solid state in audio has made incremental baby steps forward, but like tubes circuit designs, they are virtually unchanged. Some different bias classes have gained popularity and sonic improvements. Granted individual components have improved and relatively small changes continue. The general consensus seems to be that IC based op amps do not sound as good as the same circuit functions of discreet components.

    In the air movers, things are virtually unchanged except for materials and crossover designs. Again nothing too revolutionary, just refinements.

    Maybe modern electronic processing will usher in some great revolution in home audio and attract a whole new group who are amazed by its technology.

  10. My Grandmother had a superiority complex, and always wanted to appear educated and cultured. We kids for a laugh once asked her if she knew how a television works. She responded, “Sure I do. It’s electricity. I’ll bet you boys thought I didn’t know.”

  11. Children’s brains develop pathways and belief systems as they grow up. Those who grow up with abuse or neglect or suffer traumatic experiences can have a lot of hurdles in their adult life, not to overlook how receptive to learning they are when in school. Furthermore, our mainstream education systems do not fit every child. Some kids learn more by doing while others learn more from reading.
    It gets a lot more complex than this, but the seeds for our adult lives get planted in our early years. And not all of us grow up in fertile soil. If it hadn’t been for my little table radio as a kid, I never would have been interested in music, much less high end audio.

  12. Just think if aliens from another world had visited earth 10,000 years ago they would have been worshipped as Gods. Makes you wonder if that is where some religions were spawn.

      1. Yes that’s true. Even us. Did you know there are parts of the world where tribes have never had contact with modern day civilization? One tribe was shocked at the sighting of a helicopter hovering over them. They might think they were Gods in that helicopter. Interesting episodes of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel goes over those things.

        1. Joe, My father was in a bomber group in the Pacific during WWII. The started from Australia and island hopped towards Japan. In New Guinea on a reconnaissance mission they discovered a tribe of people who had never seen the outside world. Talk about a chasm!

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