Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. I know, Canada has a Thanksgiving, but it's really a harvest festival and has very different roots. We enjoy having foreign guests at our Thanksgiving dinners because it is very family-oriented, remarkably non-commercial and a time of optimism.

In my family, we typically have people at the table say something they're thankful for. The typical answers involve being thankful for family, friends and health.

As I was preparing to write this column, I asked some of my friends about what I should write that would be topical to Thanksgiving. The real problem is that Thanksgiving is probably one of the most un-technical holidays we have.

Big advances have been boiling your turkey in peanut oil and a remote temperature sensor. Big deal.

But the idea that one of my colleagues gave me is to create a list of technologies that I'm thankful for. The idea sounded great, so here is my list:

1. The Internet: My wife and I were talking about the Internet and how it has changed so many things about our lives, from how we obtain our news and information, to how we buy things, how we communicate with friends, family and colleagues near and far, even how we consume our entertainment. It's clear to me that the Internet has truly transformed our lives for the better.

2. The personal computer: When I started my first job in computers way back in 1977, the mainframe I used filled a large room. Compared to today's computers, it did very little. The personal computer came along a few years later and brought computational power to individuals. Over the past 30 years, the value of computing has increased so dramatically -- it's essentially immeasurable. And as the cost of computers has decreased, computers have become available to more and more people, most recently as portable computers such as the iPhone.

3. Space flight: This encompasses a whole lot and I know that. Some have claimed that space exploration has delivered medical advances and electronic advances that could never have been achieved on Earth or without the desire to reach beyond our own planet. But I also look at the inspiration it gave to Americans and the world to quite literally reach for the stars. Setting lofty goals is a great way to see people excel.

4. Telecommunications: When I think about how telecommunications have changed since the party line my family had when I was a child, it's astonishing. Not only has the nominal charge of long-distance phone calls essentially gone to zero, but the cost of international calls is pennies instead of dollars per minute. Tie that in with the explosion of fax machines and now telecommunications enabling the Internet, and it's easy to see how telecommunications has changed the world.

5. Medical technology: I am blessed with a remarkably boring medical history. But when I read about advances in medicine such as minimally invasive surgery, MRIs, medicines that can address just the parts that are afflicting you, and more, it is simply staggering. Looking back on medical technology from even 20 years ago, they seem almost barbaric by today's standards.

6. Engines: Engines, motors and other power plants continue to amaze me. Whether this is an engine in an automobile, an electric motor in a kitchen appliance, or some rotating or reciprocating device, I am in awe at how people have managed to turn one form of energy -- typically gasoline or electricity -- into another type of energy that can lift, push, or produce some other value. Between cars, vacuum cleaners, airplanes and power tools, engines make life much easier for us. Even my dentist recommended that I use a toothbrush with a motor in it, saying that it will do a better job than I can by hand.

I could go on about other technologies for which I am thankful, but I am very happy to be living now when we have so many technologies making our lives more livable and fulfilling.

But on Thanksgiving, I will remind my family and the others with whom we share our dinner that no amount of technology can surpass family, friends and health.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Tuesday 24 November 2009.
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