Thinking About Communications, and a Farewell

by Don Tuite
Apr 17, 2015

Looking at the calendar, I see that according to today's date, I am . . . just about . . . RETIRED!  I am almost 71-and-a-half, and feeling the deadline stresses a little too often to be as comfortable as I used to be.

Before I take off for new adventures, I wanted to say something about the state of technical communications to you readers, the audience that has constituted the other end of my communications channel over the years that I have written technical articles as a ghostwriter, and for the last 11 years as an editor here at Electronic Design.  You are important to me, because, without you, I would be just a noise source. 

I’ve always liked the communications-channel metaphor for what we do as editors in the technical media—in part because the metaphor is so flexible.

Back in 1948, Bell Lab’s Claude Shannon published A Mathematical Theory of Communication. That was steeped in mathematics, but Shannon was a creative enough thinker to go beyond the equations that related noise, data, and entropy when sending bits over a wire, He asked newspaper writer Warren Weaver to expand the concept and look at channels in all sorts of communications. 

That paid off a decade later when media analyst Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore became sudden celebrities with the publication of The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. McLuhan was already using the phrase “The medium is the message” to imply that the concept Shannon considered a channel could be extended to any mechanism for extending one person’s idea to another, and that mechanism was related in a symbiotic way to how the message is perceived.

That’s where I’m coming from when I speak of myself as a potential noise source: When I write an article for Electronic Design, I am a transmitter; you, the reader, are my receiver; and Electronic Design is the channel. All of that is subject to noise, which in turn introduces entropy (Shannon), and which by its very nature, influences the receiver’s perception of what is communicated (McLuhan).

But something interesting has been happening to the channel. While some of you are reading this in ink on paper, many more are reading it online.

The easy way to look at this is to say:  “Well, yeah. Papyrus killed clay tablets, vellum killed papyrus, scribe-pens on paper killed vellum, the printing press put the scribes out of business, and, lo and behold, digital data has killed the codex (an old word for any book-shaped thingy), and it’s killing the printed magazine as a communications channel.”

I am told (and I believe) that that’s not going to happen to the print edition of Electronic Design any time soon, but somebody has to pay to advertise in a medium, and interesting things are happening there. In this case, “somebody” means a company that makes a physical product—a passive component, a semiconductor device, a test instrument—or some kind of intellectual property like a design tool.

That somebody needs to reach new customers, and guess what . . . the younger ones are not conditioned to think of ink-on-paper as a communications channel. It’s not just that they’re familiar with digital media, they have faith in it as a reliable, low-noise communications channel, with deep, archival capacities for the maintenance of old information. The Cloud is unfathomably deep, right?

Moreover, if a company has a web server, it doesn’t need anything else to reach customers. It controls the channel.

“Yeah, but,” some would say, “there are drawbacks.” I could speculate about what kinds of events would limit or eliminate access to cloud-maintained data, but any other storage mechanism has similar Achilles heels. (You’ve heard about Achilles, right?  Okay, that’s because the Iliad was preserved via oral tradition, but it takes a special encoding methodology, called poetry, to minimize the effects of noise in the oral transmission channel.)  Alternatively, you can try multiple redundant copies in widely dispersed places, but since you do not have a means to deal with entropy, errors will inevitably evolve.

For shorter periods of time, though, say the lifetime of some kind of electronic product, the Web backed up by the Cloud becomes an attractive channel.

But in the end, the channel is irrelevant without a transmitter (me) and a receiver to direct its content to (that’s you), and nothing I write has any meaning unless it reaches you and reduces your personal entropy on the topic I’m writing about. So, thank you for helping me communicate over all of these years.

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

on Apr 17, 2015

Best of luck and enjoy retirement. We are going to miss you. I know I will but I will still be sending you emails. It has been great working with you. I know a lot of experts in this industry but few that have your breadth and depth.

on Apr 19, 2015

Thanks for your help over the years Don. Congratulations on your retirement and I hope we can hook up for a beer next time I come to California.

on Apr 20, 2015

Glad to hear that Electronic Design is sticking with print and solid journalism. Thank you for your years of "transmitting." I wish you all the best in your next adventure.

on Apr 20, 2015

Best wishes as you embark on the holy grail of life and what you have toiled away to earn - retirement. May you experience all the beauty of the world as you rid yourself of deadlines and tedious processes. Your contributions have been valuable and numerous, and through the wonder of the Internet, will always be available to all. I'll miss you -

on Apr 20, 2015

Best wishes, Don. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the communications-channel metaphor. I've enjoyed working with you over the years!

on Apr 20, 2015

You are truly a gentleman and have been a mentor to me all these years Don. I have been a receiver of your transmissions loud and clear for many years as a designer and apps engineer and I read your articles even now as well as an editor and tech writer. Good luck my friend and enjoy your well-deserved retirement!

on Apr 20, 2015

Don, I have enjoyed connecting with your 'mug shot' on-line and getting your take on many things. Earlier this year I added a folder on my server for Don Tuite (right up there with Jim Williams, Bob Pease), as I try to reduce my own personal entropy. I haven't heard anyone mention Marshall McLuhan and the 'Medium...' since the late 60's at University of Michigan, but you really have a good and entertaining handle on source, channel and receiver concepts. I could definitely read more of you expounding on everything you just touched on here today. Have a great retirement and new adventures!

on Apr 20, 2015

Congratulations on your retirement. I too have retired last year and am enjoying my time off. I still read the Electronic Design articles and will continue to do so. I am 80+ years and electronics have been part of my life since elementary school, a long time ago!! Good luck and God Bless.

on Apr 25, 2015

Best wishes on your retirement. Great articles, I will continue reading them [the ones I've missed out on, since I've only started reading ED 6/7 years ago]. Mind you, clay tablets killed stone wall drawings.

on Apr 27, 2015

Congrats Don on your retirement and thanks for all the compelling content over the years. I imagine you won't ever be out of the "power" business. As Bob Dylan sang.. may you be forever young.

on Jun 1, 2015

Have a good retirement, Don. At least you will not have to deal with spell checkers that recognize valid English words, even wrong ones. Marshall McLuhan's book is "The Medium is the MESSAGE". A massage is something entirely different... (lol)

on Jun 26, 2015

Retirement is an outdated concept. Onward to the next project.

This is mine:

on Jul 23, 2016

Very fond of, I have been looking for

on Nov 23, 2016

We're faced with analyzing data as it passes by on a high-speed conveyor belt.

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