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Why old is the new young

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This has been a standout week for old stuff – old technology and the people who can still work it.

The prize, in my book, goes to Edward C. Stone and Lawrence J. Zottarelli, both 77. They were in the news last week because of another longevity story: Voyager I, launched in 1977, is officially functioning in interstellar space now.

Stone has been working on Voyager I, among other NASA projects, since 1972. In a world where changing employers every couple of years and careers three, four or five times, that seems amazing. Every enterprise hopes to find dedication like that when it’s combined with continued learning and still-relevant expertise.

The space probe, primitive by standards today, has less computing power than an iPhone. It records its data on an 8-track! Powered by plutonium (at least that sounds “space age”), its transmitter has the output equivalent to a refrigerator light bulb.

That’s where Zottarelli comes into the picture. Voyager I went above and beyond the expectations of its creators and should, if all goes well, continue sending back data for at least another decade before its power gives out. There’s no reason why it won’t sail past its first star – in 40,000 years or so.

Zottarelli, a retired NASA engineer, came back to figure out how to adapt that creaky 8-track so data collection could continue once the primary mission of studying and photographing Jupiter and Saturn was complete. The young coder hotshots, one NASA official acknowledged, just didn’t know how to do that kind of work.

With all the whiz-bang technological advances to hit the workplace every year, we too often focus on finding young techs to bring current knowledge into our businesses. But most offices and factories have perfectly good “old stuff” around, if only they can keep it running. As older employees retire and take their institutional know-how with them, though, equipment sits idle or has to be replaced.

New and shiny isn’t always the best option. That can get needlessly expensive for a business, unless adapt, recycle and reuse have been thoroughly exhausted.

Voyager I is a nifty example of that philosophy.


The week ahead

This is the last official week of summer, though you wouldn’t have guessed from the steamy weather last week. Autumn begins next Sunday, and before you know it, Oct. 1 will be here. Are you ready? In the Sept. 20 issue of the Business Journal, reporter Heather Stauffer will update you on where things stand with the new health insurance marketplace set to open then and how midstate employers have been preparing.

Also Friday, the Inside Business focus is on wealth management. In addition to a look at what investment advisers are seeing these days, we’ll show you some of the more unconventional (dare we say, fun?) ways some people put their money to work.

In the meantime, if you’ve got the time to get out and about, here are the week’s networking opportunities.

The rewind

My first car came with an eight-track player (I was young; it was the car that was old.) I wonder if anyone even remembers those clunky gizmos today. I was tempted to explain the reference above, but then I realized I’d drift into computer tapes, how rewritable computer memory evolved (5-inch floppies, anyone?) and wind up mourning over the box of hard plastic coasters on which the bulk of my graduate papers and research articles are stored, never to be accessed again. Let’s not go there.

Let’s go retro a different way. Cassette tapes! They’re the new hot concert souvenir, according to this article on Slate. They’re cute, they’re cheap – and apparently the fans who buy them have no device to play them on. Go figure.

Finally, here’s a photo of Lawrence J. Zottarelli receiving an award a couple of years ago that was presented to him by actress Nichelle Nichols. Star Trek fans know the sci-fi franchise got almost as much mileage out of the Voyager program than NASA has.


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