One of the best things about being a writer and a generalist, is that you have a great excuse to ask all sorts of questions about the world, representing everyone’s curious ignorance (rather than having to admit to your own). If you also have some useful specific knowledge here and there, so much the better – that means you can ask better questions, and sometimes put together odd clues that others won’t so easily notice.
Back in the early eighties, I was selling clone computers that needed a bootleg ROM to operate properly (which is why I knew right away that those cyberpunk authors who anticipated illegal software spawning the same sort of socially complicated subculture as illegal drugs, were absolutely correct). Some of the technical weirdnesses involved were quite bizarre – I’m still a bit amazed that we sold so many expensive machines, considering that you couldn’t operate them at all, until you (the buying customer) went and made a private and completely illegal ROM deal (literally back-alleys, and lose this number – ’cause you sure as heck didn’t get it from me). Taught me that people will do much crazier stuff than you’d think, to save a few bucks (even when they were still shelling out thousands of dollars, for what now seems shockingly primitive gear).
And such gambles don’t just apply to ‘little guys’ either. One of my favourite regular customers back then was a clever hacker who went corporate almost accidentally. One day he saw a guy having a hard time trying to change a tire in a snowstorm, he stopped and spent almost an hour helping him out – turned out the guy was a vice-president at a huge local telecoms outfit – instant 80k job (I made 9 that year myself – just to scale it).
Now, even way back in the eighties, it was self-evident that fibre optic cables would ultimately replace wire-transmission for hardline signals-distribution. There are all sorts of reasons for this – but the big ones are simple – how many signals can you carry per strand – how much signal-loss per Kilometre, and the big one – weight – no kidding – copper is wonderfully conductive and ductile, but it really ain’t such easy stuff to haul!
The company invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology very early, certain that thanks to it’s incredible usefulness, the one remaining major problem with the system would soon be solved. Yeah, my hacker-buddy (a tech-head, like me) and I got a really good laugh out of that assumption – (If only wishing harder really did make technical problems easier to solve).
The huge problem? – again so simple it’s hard to believe – cutting the stuff! Not just breaking it, mind you – but doing that in such a way that you didn’t suddenly render the entire length of cable leading up to that cut, useless. Fibre-optic cable is essentially a big piece of glass – and what do we get when we pass light through a glass with imperfectly parallel sides? A prism! This might be cute or pretty in other circumstances – but when we’re talking about data transmission, every bit of ‘spectrum’ produced is pure error.
Let’s just say they had a shareholder-infuriatingly long wait before they could ever make full use of their investment – installing ‘backbone’ sections expensively trimmed to length at the manufacturer’s for many many years before they could finally offer us consumers a more flexible and customized domestic ‘drop’.
Of course I have noticed that this old problem has been solved, but being out of the game now, I wasn’t sure quite how that had been achieved until I ran into this fellow (a working technician, what do you know – not quite extinct after all).
His whole job is nothing but trimming and splicing fibre optic cabling – and the gear involved is now so well-refined, miniaturized, convenient and field-portable that it only takes a box-truck to haul it all around – and still the splice-point must be raised right out of the manhole and run into the truck, before it can be worked on!
Which is to say, grumpy as all those shareholders undoubtedly were for shelling-out all that treasure many years in advance of their eventual payoff – were they only a little bit better educated technically, they’d understand themselves to be lucky indeed it arrived at all. Efficient and profitable result or not – they might still be waiting! (Science is lumpy stuff, my friends).
And hey – where the heck is my handy-dandy nuclear flying-car, anyhow?