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Author Topic: Meyer Musings … An Amp Hour Editorial … Passing of the Torch  (Read 555 times)

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Offline bgm

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Death … it’s a real downer, and I say this having only just this morning having found my father dead in his bed. 

He died in his sleep somewhere between 1 and 3 AM this morning (if I’m to believe the estimated time of death of the medics).  Take it from me, nothing starts off a Sunday better better than having to assist the undertaker wrapping a parents body up in a body bag for transport to the morgue. 

Now you will have to forgive me as I’m typing through somewhat teary eyes.  I’m naturally grieving, for him, but also more for myself (and others such as family and friends) as the amount of acquired knowledge that has now been ‘lost’ to the world is huge. 

Ok … so what the hell does death have to do with the Amp Hour, and EEs’ in general?  Well … allow me to continue and it will all become clear (well … about a clear as mud … but I digress). 

Ok, so back to my father. 

He died fairly peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of this morning.  It was just him and me here on the property in FNQ (that’s Far North Queensland, Australia … just south of Cooktown for those who have no idea what/where Australia is … and yes … I’m a Queenslander … but lets continue). 

With his passing he took with him, countless stories, bits of wisdom and no end of other knowledge that one acquires after a life of 87 years that started in South Africa, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe for the younger generation), Europe and finally Australia having done pretty much everything from being pilot in the SAAF, a miner, a farmer and resort operator, a tour guide and numerous other jobs that I’ve either forgotten about, or he simply didn’t tell me. 

From the Bushveld in Africa to the Australian gemfields (Emerald, Saphire, Rubyvale) to the Tin mines of FNQ he had pretty much done it all. 

You do that, and you pretty much have a pretty good stock of knowledge to draw upon for most things in life....

One thing he was pretty good at was “passing” on this knowledge.  He told stories of the old days, of what he did, what problems they had, how they solved sometimes painful problems and when they couldn’t solve a problem, how they could sometimes work around it to mitigate it. 

… and this is where we come to the EE part … this passing of knowledge. 

Another way of putting it is “Oral Traditions” … and it was something that Bryan Cantril voiced beautifully (seriously, if you haven’t listened to some of his stuff, do so.  Start with a google search of Oral Traditions Bryan Cantril). 

So back to electronics …

It’s something that in recent years in the technology industry, and especially in the areas of electronics design … we have just plain lost. 

How so you may ask?  After all … in software we have open source (Linux, BSD, etc), we have open(ish) hardware with the likes of Arduino, etc....

It’s all good right? 

Err … no … not by a long shot. 

Lets rewind time a bit, so lets go back to what I would consider the start of the “golden” age of technology … the 70s and early 80s. 

When someone come up with something of the day, they usually published it (Microsoft BASIC not withstanding). 

I’m not just talking hobby stuff here … I’m talking commercial and even industrial grade gear here. 

Examples … we’ll lets pick something that pretty much everyone should be vaguely aware of … let’s pick the humble Commodore 64 computer. 

By far one of the most popular computers of the day in terms of sales and profitability. 

Now, you would think that something like this, Commodore would have guarded their IP (and god how I loath that term) pretty well … right? 

  ...  Right??? 

Nope.  Believe it or not, with every computer you got a manual, that amongst other things actually included a full schematic and block diagram along with theory of use and design in the back of it. 

It’s wasn't the exception or alone in this, but I’m picking this one because …

(A) well it’s pretty well known
   and
(B) it was a market leader so it is a good example of a company that actually had the most to loose. 

Lets compare that with today and their nemesis of the day … Apple. 

Would Apple today provide a schematic for even a G4 notebook that has been discontinued for the better part of 10 years if you asked nicely …

Hell no! 

It is their ‘IP’... they are not going to release that.  No matter how old and crusty it may be. 

Heck … if you were to ask them for 6502 ROM code for their Apple I (and II) series, they would tell you to take a hike. 

Why …. 

Well … there are two possibilities here … 

1.It may be due to wanting to monetize (spelling) knowledge...

or

2.… or in the case of Apple … it could be just because they are in my opinion, just a large bunch of pr*ks with far too many lawyers and an over inflated opinion of their own importance … but I digress …

For the Apple fanboys though …. and just so you don’t think I’m just paying out on Apple … lets’ pick something else that I have more than a bit of familiarity with … Caterpillar … yes … the heavy equipment manufacturer. 

In days of old, if you wanted schematics, and other bits of info (in fact owners manuals, service manuals, etc) … you only had to ASK. 

These days … oh no … you have to buy that. 

Lets not go down the John Deere road … (yes, I have more than enough familiarity with that one as well)....

So knowledge … humanity owes it’s success to the fact that knowledge is passed, and yet in recent years … in so far as the “passing” part in Electronics is concerned … it can only be described as a return to the dark ages. 

How many products have you seen in either industrial or commercial where they supplied schematics? 

How about open source to firmware? 

You want to search first … sure …

   … go ahead … I’ll wait. 

Not that many is there. 

So why the hell should you care? 

Well … lets face it.  As an armchair engineer who designs gizmo A and then moves onto the next thing and never has to maintain what they have designed … you probably don’t. 

As the person who has to live with poor life decisions made by someone who has never had to deal with the product in the field … yeah … that person is most definitely NOT going to be your friend and you would probably be well advised to keep well steer of them after dark - welcome to my world.

Put simply, I think all designs ultimately SHOULD go into the public domain, and this includes schematics and firmware. 

If you are creating a product to work in 20 years time … everything about that product should be documented.  It should be public.  It should be able to be built upon and learnt from. 

A company certainly should certainly be able to hide it’s ‘secret sauce’ for current generation products, but older products, the moment they go out of support, all documentation for them should be released – irrespective if a product is for a red widget with a design life of one year to an industrial controller with a design life of 20...

A company that is going under should also release its IP to the world, unless the buyer is agreeing to the afore mentioned conditions. 

Humanity is far from perfect and we learn by building on the lessons learnt from mistakes – there is no better example of this than air travel.  Time and time again, defects in aviation design are remediated at a painful cost in lives.  We as a species improve by failure. 

… and yet with electronics design … we are deliberately inhibiting this by withholding knowledge. 

I bring this up as I was actually discussing a problem with my father the other night when we were talking about the “lack” of information for a product that I having to support for an old industrial device.  It was an interesting discussion (and not one I’ll bore people with here), but one that brought out some very practical and quite interesting observations from one as wise as he who could look in from the outside as an outsider. 

How was I to know that this would be my last conversation with him. 

Maybe there is something to be learnt here.  Can this trend be reversed?  Maybe?  Maybe not.  One thing however is certain and that is if no one is willing to try to make a stand, then most definitely nothing will happen to improve things. 

Knowledge is a powerful thing.  We are presently benefiting from having been standing on the shoulders of giants in technology who have preceded us - Dennis Ritchie, Bob Pease, Bob Widlar, Jim Williams and the list goes on. 

These giants were never known for withholding knowledge or wisdom.  Their work and designs was published far and wide for all to learn and improve upon. 

Will your next project be something that everyone can learn from or will it be up to someone like me to have to reverse engineer in order to support in a far off year in some weird edge usage case? 


Brendon Meyer (aka BGM)
(The mug with the PALASM printout...)
/BGM
"Forward to the past!"
 
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Online BradC

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Re: Meyer Musings … An Amp Hour Editorial … Passing of the Torch
« Reply #1 on: October 15, 2017, 10:29:01 PM »
Would Apple today provide a schematic for even a G4 notebook that has been discontinued for the better part of 10 years if you asked nicely …

<SNIP>

Heck … if you were to ask them for 6502 ROM code for their Apple I (and II) series, they would tell you to take a hike. 

It was nicely commented and printed in the back of the manual along with the Schematic.

Maybe there is something to be learnt here.  Can this trend be reversed?  Maybe?  Maybe not.  One thing however is certain and that is if no one is willing to try to make a stand, then most definitely nothing will happen to improve things. 

Probably not. We can all try but at the end of the day you get overridden by some pencil-neck MBA who has the sole purpose of "enhancing shareholder value". The engineers get driven over.

Word of mouth, published documentation and tutorials are about where it's at. Thankfully we have the wayback machine (for now).
« Last Edit: October 15, 2017, 10:32:23 PM by BradC »
 


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