Monday, December 31, 2007

Secret Museum of Cybernetics Revisited

Everyonce and a while I pull something over from a former blog. Here is such an occassion..bunch of notes on Cyber.

Wiener - The efforts of Norbert Wiener’s biographers always will be shadowed by I Am a Mathematician. This, his own biography, is likely to overwhelm other attempts to write his story - He was able as a writer, engaging personally, and he ably perceived threads of significance as he viewed his own life.

A fair helping of subdued vanity aside, the threading never seems overstressed. This is important because, on the face of it, Wiener’s work, which ranged from estimations of Brownian motion to artillery shell trajectories and beyond may appear disparate, even topsy-turvy, in the light of history.

Wiener’s life was both blessed and vexed by the fact of his prodigiousness, which he handled in greater depth in another autobiographical installment. As much as he finally was to become the iconic image of the absent minded professor, he had a grounding in real life. That, he somewhat credited to growing up for a time in Fitchburg Mass where the kids treated him as different but still a kid. As the years went passing by his was a delicate dance of pure science and [mostly mathematical] thought partnered with an engineer’s, and sometimes, a medical doctor’s quest.

Ending up at MIT rather than Harvard might have been a cause or effect of this quest. His work on harmonic analysis fed readily into work on electronic valve implementations of Fourier transforms, and [thence] to the study of harmonics.

He discusses early interest and work in Harmonic Analysis and the Fourier Transform; and sees similarity of thread in these. Discusses his important work on Brownian Motion and his later work in feedback estimation and cybernetics.


WIENER. more - Norbert Wiener was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 26, 1894, and died on a lecture swing of Sweden and Norway in Stockholm on March 18, 2004, after having fathered the field of cybernetics, which seeks to study the nature of control in animals and machines.

Cybernetics, 40 years after Wiener’s death, is not so much a science or even segment of science – although the issues considered in cybernetic man-machine interaction are still at the heart of most considerations in science fiction and many other types of fictions.

Of course, the 1990s term cyberspace [and more recent siblings such as cybersecurity] derives from cybernetics. So Wiener’s influence in the public arena continues in a fashion.

The mature Norbert Wiener with a pince-nez and coke-bottle eye-glasses looked the very emblem of the European intellectual. [Stories of absent mindedness, too, are offered. ] But he was a son of the Midwest and New England. His father moved from Missouri to Massachusetts in 1895 and eventually became a teacher at Harvard. His son was prodigious. He was to finish high school at 11, and receive a Harvard PhD at 17.

Wiener the younger wolfed-down literature and was interested especially in natural scientism, although he admits in one of his biographical writings, ‘Ex-Prodigy,’ that he was as much occupied in the ‘diagrams of complicated structures...’ as in the adventure of naturalism. Turn-of-the-Century Norbert’s interests straddled the philosophical and the mathematical in way that is hard to imagine today.

Awkward – not physically dexterous among sportsman schoolmates, he was. In his own terms he was a combination of ‘mental quickness and physical slowness.’ In a way, this sets the scene for future studies of human and machine control systems.

Primary influences on young W. were philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz Spinoza for his somewhat mathematical approach to religion, and Leibniz for being a universal [the last universal thinker – the last individual to hold the existent world of knowledge in his own head.]

After Harvard Wiener took a travelling fellowship and met with Bertrand Russell, where he met up with Einstein’s works, and just basically became imbued in the heady [not Lamar] environment around Russell. Russell built upon Boole, to forge a link between mathematics and philosophy [logic] that became the foundation work for modern computing.

Wiener never lost a fond attachment to Harvard, Mass., and its surroundings, where his father had a farm, and where Norbert grew up. He like the fact that he could return there, and be himself, an eccentric genius, but a part of the order of things there. As his career continued at M.I.T. , he seemed to mix both theory and practice, and not too stray too far from one or the other. His basic practicality, neither conservative nor liberal, is seen in his critical comments on Russell’s personal preenings [libertinisms] .

He differed from Russell, in another, more pointed, way. He was far from a Pacifist, and Russell was one of the most famous pacifists of all time. When he returned to the U.S. prior to the country’s entry into World War I, he repeatedly tried to join the army – but indexterity, poor vision, and bad marksmanship mitigated against his initial conscription. Early after his return he worked at the GE Factory in Lynn, Mass. [echoes of Ernie Lillyia], and then in Albany, N.Y. at the Encyclopedia Americana [echoes of Jorge Borges!]. In 1918, math friend Veblen hired him as ‘computor’ at the U.S. Army Proving Grounds at Aberdeen, Maryland.

There he worked on range tables, which would ultimately lead, in World War II, when aircraft became the [moving] target, to his vision of cybernetics.

Wiener wrote autobiographically at some length. The notes here come upon reading “Norbert Wiener” by Pesi R. Masani.
LAMAR - Breakthroughs in the mathematics of information encoding are not too frequent. Lately – meaning over the last ten years – turbo code schemes have gained attention. As described in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum, Frenchmen Claude Berrou and Alain Glavieux have described an iterative approach that would seem to provide error free communication at data rates with incredible transmitting-power efficiencies.

Think of it as another step forward in the alchemists’ quest for unquenchable fire. Maxwell’s demon machine that scoffs at physics.

The inventor of modern communication theory, Claude Shannon, had shown in 1948 that the entirety of a communication channel could be used, if the error correction codes were up to snuff. As time transpired, this has remained true in theory but not in practice. The French coders’ turbo means promise to close this gap, and improve computer and cell phone technology, the latter of which seems to have maxed out and turned into as much of a nuisance as a savior in consumer hands.

Ah but what of the most likely unlikely encoder, Hedy Lamar? She - in the buff - of the breakthrough ‘30s art film Extase? Together with avant-garde composer George Antheil Hedy, remarkably, conceived a secure encoding scheme in wartime Hollywood. The method’s purpose was to foil radio jamming, and to enable radio-directed torpedoes [not too different conceptually from Smart laser-guided bombs of today]. Femme fatal Hedy had it in for the bloody Nazis. But, because she and Antheil fashioned a mechanical method - based on the then-familiar concept of piano rolls - or, because they were Hollywood artistes, their idea did not get much of a hearing at the time.


SHANNON - We live in an age highly influenced by information technology. For many people, it has become the basis for a life's work. For a few, at least, it has meant great fortunes.
Most of the great technologists who set the stage for this era -- for example, Norbert Weiner, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann -- are long dead. But Claude Shannon, the great theorist who formed the most basic tenets of the information age, survived until last weekend. He died at 84 last Saturday in Medford, Mass., after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease.

Shannon's work, like his passing, may not be widely noted among many who have followed him in the information, technology, and e-commerce industries. But there is little question that he is the chief progenitor of information theory and modern digital communications. Shannon's mathematical thinking and writing laid the groundwork for most of today's information technology industry. He is the man who discovered 1's and 0's in electronic communication.
Shannon was born in Petoskey, Mich., and grew up in Gaylord, Mich. He worked as a messenger for Western Union while in Gaylord High School, and attended college at MIT, where he was a member of Tau Beta Pi.

Although the algebra of digital binary bits was first uncovered by mathematician George Boole in the mid-19th century, it was Shannon who saw the value of applying that form of logic to electronic communications. As a student of Vannevar Bush's at MIT in the 1930s, he worked on the differential analyzer, perhaps the greatest mechanical (analog) calculator. His paper, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," which led to a long association with Bell Laboratories, laid out Shannon's theories on the relationship of symbolic logic and relay circuits.
While at Bell Labs, Shannon wrote the landmark "The Mathematical Theory of Communication." The information content of a message, he theorized, consists simply of the number of 1's and 0's it takes to transmit it. In a real sense, Shannon conceived of the "bit" that is now so widely used to represent data.

Later, he became a professor at MIT. His students included Marvin Minsky and others who became notable in the field of artificial intelligence. While Shannon's thinking could captivate academicians, it was equally appealing to practical engineers.

Shannon's work led to many inventions used by both technology developers and end users. His theories can truly be described as pervasive today.

When I was young, Shannon's work was a tough nut to crack, but it certainly was intriguing. As a high school boy, I was interested in the future -- maybe more so than now, when I live and breathe and work in what that future became. Grappling with Shannon's basic information theories was part of my education about the future.

Growing up in a Wisconsin city across the lake from Shannon's birthplace, I tried to plow through the town library as best I could. I wanted to learn about computers, automation, and the combination of the two that was known in those days (the 1960s) as cybermation. I discovered for myself -- by chance, really -- that the fundamental elements of those ideas were Shannon's inventions.

For the better part of Shannon's life, analog communication ruled. Of course, his greatest achievement was visualizing digital communication. Much of his greatest work revolved around defining information in relation to "noise," the latter phenomenon being quite familiar to anyone who often tried desperately to home in on radio signals before digital communication filters came into being. I came to appreciate that aspect of Shannon's work later on when, as a journalist, I had the opportunity to learn and write about digital signal processing.
Then I found out that Shannon had laid the groundwork for modern error correction coding, an essential element of things like hard disk drive design and digital audio streaming, and probably many things yet to come.

Day and night, data, messages, music, and more swirls around us -- all made possible to some extent by the idea of communicating electronically in 1's and 0's. It is something to think that a Western Union messenger could have conceived of this new world.
The Saga of Cybernetics – Some Young Guy

On reading Cybernetics, by John F. Young, published by American Elsevier Pub, 1966, New York, N.Y., Sci Q 310 Y66.

John F. Young writes in the late ‘60s. The author’s background is as a lecturer in electronics –at the University of Aston, Birmingham. But he is especially concerned with cybernetics as a bridge from electronics to neurophysiology, which later came to be known better maybe as neurobiology. Elements that are part of cybernetics for Young include machines of various kinds - game playing machines, which in chess and the like were one of the more entertaining aspects of early computers, included. Also studied by Young, but now less aspects of cybernetics [What’s that?] and more aspects of other enterprises were: Artificial nerve cell; visual pattern recognition; and speech recognition.

[p. 46] He gives a history or prehistory if you will mid-book on cybernetics. He worries that cybernetics will become regarded as an up-to-date form of Black Magic. In fact, that kind of happened as he forewarned. He posits first Descartes [who thought upon animal autonomics] as the father of cybernetics, and then, second, Wiener. The dream of an efficient machine, an engineer’s dream, is the dream here. Machine as discovered in the age of industrialism as [potentially] efficient engine, he notes, interested Wiener. NO CONSIDERATION HERE WOULD BE COMPLETE WITHOUT A LOOK AT FREDRICK TAYLOR.]

Later, as efficiency was sought for “machines capable of processing information rather than power,” the nature of the study changed. This set up things for Shannon among others. Radio and valves, and amplification are considered. The signals that are the input and output of the machine are the point. Noise and content within noise are the point. Returning output signal to input form of feedback or regeneration is discussed. FOR MY PART I SHOULD GET A SENSE OF HOWARD ARMSTRONG IN THIS>

The thermostat is given in the foreword as a case of the cybernetic machine. As is the automatic pilot. “Blueness” that I relate to “Blues” is discussed as something machines have problems with. [p. 129~].


Spam in a can, man – or the acme of cybernetics
When pretending to be pilots in the Rambler or Pontiac as kids, and enacting Flash Gordon style heroic epics, the plot could always move along faster on at least one level if we would ‘set the controls on autopilot.’ We could riff on a higher philosophical plain, before one of us would take the wheel again and buffet through the asteroids.

The autopilot predates and still stands perhaps as the acme of cybernetics. In reviewing some sparse notes I gather that it came to be in WWII, the result of work by Sperry on gyroscopes, and Honeywell , extensions of its control system work on thermostats.

The autopilot was pretty well established by the time Nasa came into being and started to pursue manned space travel. But this cybernetic demon becomes a nemesis in the hands of Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, one of the best ever epics on technology. Nasa’s program was juxtaposed versus the X-15 program; true pilots were juxtaposed versus Nasa human guinea pigs. The later in Wolfe’s phraseology became ‘spam in a can.’

The X-15 argument was that autopilots could be taken to an extreme – when chimps could be pilots, or pilots had no more to do than be probed as chimps, true flying was dead. As we look out in fighter pilot technology, the general feeling is that this next-gen of planes will be the last directly piloted by humans. [This week, Nek Muhammad, one of Pakistan’s most-wanted militants, was either gunned down by a drone, or setup by a drone to be gunned down by a missile.]

From Wolfe’s The Right Stuff:
He notes that as Project mercury was a scientific enterprise, scientists and engineers outranked the heroic test subjects. He paints the picture of cybernetics as adversary.
''Engineers were ... devising systems for guiding rockets into space, through the use of computers built into the engines and connected to accelerometers for monitoring the temperature, pressure, oxygen supply, and other vital conditions of the Mercury capsule and for triggering safety procedures automatically -- meaning they were creating with computers, systems in which machines could communicate with one another, make decisions, take action, all with tremendous speed and accuracy ...
Oh, genius engineers!''

The engineer in Wolfe’s depiction can be as manfully robust as the astronaut, kicking back some Virginia A.B.C. store bourbon and ‘letting his ego out for a little romp, like a growling red dog.” – P.150 Bantam Books Edition

My CyberarchiveThe Apollo Guidance Computer site At MIT
NASA Office of Logic Desgn - scientific study of the problems of digital engineering for space flight systems,with a view to their practical solution. 25-years ago
Between Human and Machine - Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) by David A. Mindell
Cybernetics timeline - The Americn Society of Cybernetcs

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