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Analog SFF, March 2012

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Cover Art by Tomislav Tikulin
Cover design by Victoria Green
CONTENTS

Reader's Department: EDITORIAL: WHAT'S TECHNOLOGY FOR? by Stanley Schmidt

Reader's Department: IN TIMES TO COME

Novelette: THE EDIACARIAN MACHINE by Craig DeLancey

Science Fact: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING: RADIATION THREATS FROM BEYOND by Adrian L. Melott

Novelette: MOTHER'S TATTOOS by Richard A. Lovett

Department: BIOLOG: ALEC NEVALA-LEE by Richard A. Lovett

Novelette: ERNESTO by Alec Nevala-Lee

Department: THE ALTERNATE VIEW: MU NEUTRINOS AS TACHYONS? by John G. Cramer

Novelette: UPON THEIR BACKS by Kyle Kirkland

Novelette: TRIGGERS: PART II OF IV by Robert J. Sawyer

Reader's Department: THE REFERENCE LIBRARY by Don Sakers

Reader's Department: BRASS TACKS

Reader's Department: UPCOMING EVENTS by Anthony Lewis

* * * *
Vol. CXXXII No. 3
MARCH 2012
Stanley Schmidt, Editor
Trevor Quachri, Managing Editor

Peter Kanter
: Publisher

Bruce W. Sherbow
: Senior Vice President, Sales, Marketing, and IT

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: Vice President for Editorial and Product Development

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: Vice President for Design and Production

Stanley Schmidt
: Editor

Trevor Quachri
: Managing Editor

Mary Grant
: Editorial Assistant

Emily Hockaday
: Editorial Admin Assistant

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Published since 1930

First issue of
Astounding
January 1930 (c)

* * * *

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Reader's Department:
EDITORIAL: WHAT'S TECHNOLOGY FOR?
by Stanley Schmidt

It depends. Are you buying or selling?

For most of us, technology is to help us do something better, faster, or more easily, or to do something we couldn't do at all without it. The horse collar enabled people to plow fields more efficiently, to go places faster and with less personal exertion, and to haul heavier goods longer distances, than they could with only their own muscles. The automobile gave the same advantages, but to a dramatically greater degree. The airplane gave us a whole new ability: to fly, to move much faster than by any ground- or water-based conveyance, unencumbered by obstacles such as mountain ranges or oceans, and without the need for roads or other large-scale infrastructures. Computers gave us (among other things) the ability to do huge amounts of computation in a time that would have been impractical without them, which led in turn to brand-new lifesaving abilities like CT scans.

For other people (developers and entrepreneurs), technology is a way to make money, by making it possible for the first group (users) to have access to the tools they need to do things like those I've just mentioned. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Honda have revolutionized our cultural landscape by providing the general public with access to sophisticated, efficient means of transportation. Companies like IBM and Apple not only developed big, powerful computers for industry, but made
little
(yet still powerful) computers into common household appliances for a wide range of applications.

Both groups—users and providers—need each other. Sometimes they're the same—sometimes people develop new technologies to serve their own needs—but if the new technologies are really good at serving their own needs, other users will soon adopt them and developers will profit from selling them. Usually, or at least often, that mutual feedback benefits both groups. Developers have an incentive to keep improving their products, and users have access to better and better tools.

Occasionally, though, developers get carried away, so caught up in the fun of developing or the lure of selling snazzy new products that they become cavalier about the importance of what users actually want. They develop what they'd like to sell, try to persuade users to buy it, and ultimately force it upon them by discontinuing earlier stuff and refusing to provide support for it long before it becomes unusable.

Sometimes that's not a serious problem, particularly with “standalone” technologies. How satisfactory an automobile is, for instance, is essentially independent of how earlier models were built or what they could do. Within rather broad limits, cars as different as a 1910 Ford Model T, a 2011 Lexus, and a 2012 Hummer can use the same roads and serve many of the same functions. If you decide to adopt one of them as your primary mode of transportation, it doesn't matter what you were driving before or what you did with it. If a company makes changes in its new models that improve fuel efficiency, safety, and comfort, while reducing emission of pollutants and keeping prices comparable to what they were, people are likely to embrace the changes eagerly, with little if any grumbling about “This isn't like the old ones.” (Of course, there are other considerations, mainly psychological: to some people style is important, and almost anyone may resent having to pay extra for unnecessary features that they don't want.)

When technologies interact, things get a little more complicated. If a manufacturer of railroad cars decided to start building cars with six inches more space between left and right wheels, he'd find it impossible to sell them. Railroad cars have to be able to run on existing tracks, and cars that don't fit them would be completely useless. They could be used if all the existing tracks were replaced, but that would be a huge, expensive job that I seriously doubt anyone would consider worth doing just to get cars six inches wider. [1]

That example probably strikes you as so patently ridiculous that you can't imagine that any businessman would actually try to sell such cars and get people to invest in thousands of miles of new track to use them. But there's an analogous situation, in some ways subtler but in others even more bizarre, involving a whole broad category of technologies that practically all of us use, and frequently depend on. I refer to the whole collection of fields, long regarded as distinct but rapidly merging into a more or less unified whole, dealing with the collection, storage, accessing, and processing of information.

The most familiar historical examples include sound recording, photography, cinematography, word and graphics processors, and database systems. Until recently, at least some of these were complementary sets of recording and playback equipment, like cameras and projectors or recorders and phonographs. Now all of those functions, along with word processing, graphics, and database management, are often combined into a single system incorporated into or built around a computer.

And manufacturers keep developing new versions of those systems, which are often incompatible with work produced using earlier versions, and forcing users into a position where they have to buy the new ones whether they want them or not.

In the short term, this is fine and dandy for those who think the purpose of technology is to help them make money by selling it. It's not always so good for those who see technology as a tool for doing something else—a means to other ends, not an end in itself.

What developers too often forget—and many users let them get away with it because of their own shortsightedness—is that information technologies are an inherently and crucially special case. One generation of technology creates records that may still need to be used much later, and the utility of later generations must be judged in part by how well it preserves access to those. On that test, many of our most impressive new technologies—and the companies that make them—fail dismally, while older ones do much better. Stone tablets from thousands of years ago are still readable, by those who know how. I can still read books, or look at photographic prints, that my grandparents acquired in their youth. I can easily combine 35-mm slides from two years ago with others from fifty years ago, using projection equipment made anytime in that period (assuming, of course, that it has been well maintained). If no projector is available, the images are still viewable with a simple light source and a simple hand lens.

Digital pictures, on the other hand, are completely dependent on a complex technological infrastructure. If that collapses, or manufacturers decide to promote “new, improved” software incompatible with the old formats, those pictures may become unusable in just a few years, unless they are converted to a new format. That process is a time-consuming nuisance at best, and practically impossible at worst. The same consideration applies to
all
records stored in digital form—which, these days, means practically all of them. A great many have already been, for all practical purposes, lost to posterity simply because they're stored in old electronic formats and nobody has the time or equipment to translate them to new ones. In creating a civilization with far more information-handling ability than any before it, we may also be creating the most ephemeral civilization in history.[2]

Let no one misread any of this as meaning that I oppose progress or change. Many upgrades really do incorporate multitudes of impressive and useful new features. But the people developing them need to be reminded periodically that the primary purpose of their technologies is not to make them money, but to serve the needs of people who use them. In the case of information technologies, this means ensuring that records created with older versions remain at least as accessible and useful as when they were created. The fundamental reason for storing information is that you think you or others may want or need to use it later, and “improvements” that make that more difficult or impossible are, to the extent they do so, not improvements, but the opposite.

That's why I find it disturbing to read things like an article called “Last word on Lion[3] and application compatibility,” by Christopher Breen, which appeared on Macworld.com, an online magazine for Macintosh users, on June 27, 2011. In part, it's a useful piece, giving users of older operating systems advice on how to make sure they can continue using their older applications and files if they switch to the new operating system. But toward its end, it admits that, while sometimes they can do that pretty easily, sometimes they can't. After conceding that salvaging some kinds of files—including some of the kinds most likely to need long-term accessibility—will be “challenging,” Mr. Breen says his proposed way of dealing with the problem is, “Not a perfect solution, but at least it's a more forward-looking solution than clinging to an old OS (and, perhaps, old hardware) to keep a zombie application shambling along."

BOOK: Analog SFF, March 2012
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