All aboard: Galloping to CES

Sensory overload ushers wave of nostalgia; plus, IT hiring on the rise?

As you contemplate all the hot product announcements that came out of CES last week, consider this: In 1855, just more than 150 years ago, nobody had any devices whatsoever.

Almost all Americans were farmers in 1855, doing backbreaking work six or seven days a week. Most people only lived to age 40. Chicago had 75,000 people but no paved streets or sewage system. People didn’t have to worry much about what to buy or do, because there wasn’t much to buy or do, except sit around the table by kerosene light, talk, and rest aching bodies.

I had the weird experience of reading this in a book while on a cross-country flight where seemingly every one of my fellow travelers was attached to some kind of high-tech device. I got up to take a break from learning about how people used to shoe their horses, and a walk down the aisle revealed every manner of widescreen laptop, iPod, video device, mini Game Boy, and PDA. Bizarre.

My carry-on book, published in 1955, was about technological progress from 1855 to 1955 and started with basics … like indoor plumbing, the Bessemer furnace, electricity, the automobile, sewing machines, and elevators. I was struck by the intense progression of change in this short period after maybe 1,000 years of life staying more or less the same (man could travel no faster in 1800 than in 800, for example). Those of us alive today have caught the tail end of this progress spurt, so dizzyingly fast that change seems to us as normal as flying in a small metal tube at 37,000 feet.

For IT professionals, it’s easy to lose sight of the dramatic changes that can occur in mere decades. As I once heard Bill Gates say, people always overestimate what they can do in a year and under-estimate what they can do in 10. What will software look like in 10 years? Will we even recognize it? My brain is overstimulated, time to go shoe my horse.…

Recession is over? I got an e-mail today from a PR person touting an IT salary survey. The major finding was “the IT hiring recession is OVER.” Salaries are up; hiring is up. Meantime, if you read the business pages, lots of economists are saying that the inverted yield curve (where short-term interest rates are higher than long term rates) is signaling a recession in the United States.

So what gives? Maybe IT is just a growing category (just like bankers or architects in 1855 — there were very few, but their number and usefulness was about to explode in the changing economy). Maybe the falling dollar is making U.S. IT professionals more competitive salarywise with offshore talent. Good news in any case.

And this just in from Omaha  I hate press releases from software companies. They try my patience and strain my delete finger. But I love railroads, so when I got one about a new railroad-industry software app, I bit. Here’s the gist: Union Pacific, one of the biggest U.S. railroads, spends $3 billion on fuel every year. Using real-time data from a New York Air Brake Co. software system to advise engineers on fuel efficient brake and throttle settings, the railroad estimates it can save 5 percent, or a minimum of $150 million a year on fuel.

It’s ironic that railroads, a throwback to the 1800s, are winning the software ROI wars with trucks, the ‘modern’ competitor that once kicked their butts. Simple reason: railroads are a system; trucking is fragmented. Plus, trucks use four times the fuel to move the same load. Go trains!