Tag Archives: technology



This was a plaque in the German city of Kaiserslautern commemorating Johann Gutenberg, the man generally credited with inventing movable type. The book which, for mass consumption at least, would not have been possible without him has done more to spread knowledge and advance technology than just about anything else in the last thousand years.

I think it is, therefore, a fitting entry to this weeks “Technology” theme on PhotoFriday.


I though I’d start the new year with an unusual, for me at least, positive message. The message: we’ve never had it so good technology-wise and often we forget that.

I started thinking about this when I realised what I was doing with my computer. Right now, for example, I am typing this into Emacs. In the back-ground I am scanning in some film and burning the previous scans onto CD. Only a few years ago any one of these activities would have been more than enough for a simple home computer. A joke at the time was that Emacs stood for “eight megabytes and continually swapping,” and now my iPod has thirty-two megs of memory as a convenience, basically to avoid letting the battery run down too quickly.

Even better, for the sake of clarity I’ve missed out the programs that I’m not actively using. Mail and Adium are happily keeping a look-out for new messages, iTunes is bashing out some good music. iCal is ready to tell me that I was supposed to be meeting a friend an hour ago, I left the Address Book open last time I looked up a phone number, I can’t even remember what I was editing in Word but that’s open too and Safari is primed, just in case.

But even that is a simplification. The disc image that’s being burned is on a different computer, they’re connected wirelessly and using a protocol that’s native to neither (Mac to Linux using SMB).

I don’t mention any of this to brag, or suggest that I’m doing anything odd or unusual here, quite the contrary. I just mean to point out that these are complex but every day activities that we expect not only to work, but to work seamlessly at the same time as lots of other stuff. And that, frankly, is absolutely amazing.

Quality in Typefaces & Fonts

This links in with my earlier post about good technology being invisible. Fonts and typefaces have a far bigger impact on the readability of text than most people think yet you almost never notice their design unless it’s bad enough to make it difficult to comprehend.

This blog, “Quality in Typefaces & Fonts,” by Thomas Phinney, an Adobe employee, doesn’t discuss the design of typefaces — which is an interesting area in itself — but does give some insight into how much effort goes into making a good electronic font.

Unappreciated technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” or so said Arthur C. Clarke. What struck me when I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago is that there’s a level beyond that: when you don’t even notice.

We were sat in a restaurant having dinner and for reasons that I can no longer recall, conversation came round to the first UK hit by the Rolling Stones. ‘H’ said that it was “Come On,” ‘J’ swore that it was something entirely different. This all being at least ten years before I was born I had no real opinion on the subject but I did know a man who would have the answer. I immediately took out my mobile and texted him. A few minutes later the answer came back (‘H’ was right).

Of course, this was all taken for granted, except ‘J’ who now owed ten thousand dong. But have you ever considered the level of technology required to make this happen?

A very much simplified sequence of events looks something like this: my phone sends the message to the local cell tower (those things they put on top of schools that fry pigeons and cheaply microwave the chicken nuggets the kids are having for dinner). The cell tower transfers the message on to some “command centre,” a big room with stacks of computers, noisy fans and flashing lights being maintained by men in white coats clutching clip-boards. From here it zips all six thousand miles back to the UK, only pausing to make a note in the billing system. Once back in Blighty the network tries to find the phone, transfers the message to the nearest cell and on to the phone itself. The return trip would be similar but with the added complexity of having a UK phone operating on a foreign network.

All this happens faultlessly in just a few seconds. Isn’t that amazing?

Of course I’m not claiming to be the first to notice this. I remember hearing an interview with Douglas Adams where he marvels at the complexity lying behind a light switch. The difference, in my mind at least, is how quickly this immensely complicated technology has moved from magic to invisibility.