Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tale from the crypt

I was reading about Alan Turing last night, after going to see some good music (Mark Schlack and his John Paine All Stars). I wanted to refer to Claude Shannon, and recalled an obit/appreciation I wrote for ITWorld when he died. It was hard to find... so I am fair using it in great part here just in case and for reference.

... 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....

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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sunnyland Slim Meets Little Brother Montgomery

Sunnyland Slim Meets Little Brother Montgomery- This poem depicts Sunnyland's first encounter with Little Brother in Canton, Miss. in 1923. Jack Vaughan, of Boston, Mass. recorded this reading Jan. 19, 2013.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Velcro: Young Google's sticky little secret

The biggest stories in recent application development history -- and Google -- are so big that they are pretty much hidden. Both applications required a big helping of chutzpah to happen at all. And both disrupted existing industries, creating whole new ones.'s and Google's development managers stuck their necks out and trusted clusters of cheap computers to deliver the goods. In Amazon's case, it was personalized shopping. For Google, it was lightening fast Internet searches that fed-up usually useful results along with targeted advertising. Both applications, under the hood, employed a fair helping of warmed-over AI technology of yore. It was the cheap clusters, though, that made things possible. doesn't mind putting developer effort into making custom logic servers, or tweaking OSes to provide the type of fault tolerance this mega-site needs. Even in 2004 the Amazon crew thought of their end product as an application, not just a Web site. *** This reporter got another take on "fast, reliable and cheap" deployments at Usenix in Boston in June 04. At a keynote there, Rob Pike described a Google application development mentality that led the company to take on the responsibility for developing its own fault tolerance. Google's approach to constantly indexing 4 billion Web documents was based on the carefully honed notion that failures are always there. If you can admit that failure is always lurking, said Pike, you might as well not spend a fortune on fault tolerance as companies have done to a fare-thee-well on more than a few occasions. Pike is a member of the Systems Lab at Google Inc., as well as a principal designer and implementer of the Plan 9 and Inferno operating systems. "Failures happen no matter what you do," he said. "That means the software you use has to cope. That means replicate everything." Placing it all into perspective, he said: "Two pieces of crap are better than one." If your software can cope, then you can buy "really cheap, nasty" hardware. If your application is like Google's, and you have to write fault-tolerant software anyway, indicated Pike, you might as well buy cheap stuff. Cheap or expensive, they will fail. He gleefully described the cheapness of the hardware Google used, at least to get going, complete with photos of loose, stacked commodity disk drives held to racks with good old Velcro. Google, the killer app, uses cheap disks that are expected to fail. The company has been able to fashion Linux to make up the difference, creating a self-healing system, although day by day, individual humans - you might call them "Healers" - must go down the racks swapping-in good disk drives for bad. Fault tolerance is not a job, it is a mindset, Pike said, and to succeed "you better understand failure."
This is roughly how failover works as found in this reporter's notes after Pike spoke. The Google search-indexing problem is too large for one machine, so multiple machines are used. The search system uses Google's page rank system to establish the total order of things. The Index Server version of all the Web's pages is split into pieces called "shards." The shards are small enough that you can put multiple shards on one machine, but the shards are replicated on different machines so that you can failover the shards. The page rank tells you how much to replicate: A high page rank shard is copied many, many times. The same thing is done on the Google Document Server side. The software is aware of the structure of the app, and it spreads things around to avoid single points of failure. *** Pike is kidding when he says the commodity disk drives are held to racks "with Velcro." He says this to drive home the lesson that commodity hardware is the way to do fault tolerance. However, he does admit that the cheap hardware approach may not be the best choice in every instance. "We treat commodity disks like server disks and pay the price sometimes," Pike said. As always, a look at the notes on risk in an IPO prospectus provide caution to the optimist and tonic for the jaundiced. Google warns: "We may have difficulty scaling and adapting our existing architecture to accommodate increased traffic and technology advances or changing business requirements." So the future, as usual, lies ahead. In the past, of course, there have been snarls. As stated in its IPO in November 2003, Google failed to provide Web search results for about 20% of its traffic for a period of 30 minutes. But the usual result is that failures happen, but the end user doesn't notice. Not bad for Velcro.
Much of this sounds familiar. At least it should. The ‘fast and cheap’ theory is behind some of the work of Rodney Brooks, MIT Computing Science and AI Lab director, who favored the benefits of many cheap somewhat intelligent robots as opposed to fewer but more intelligent ones in his 1989 paper “Fast, cheap and out of control: A robot invasion of the Solar system.” I think Amazon’s and Google’s teams arrived at a similar conception through examination of primary principles, but Rodney Brooks had provided the rhetorical underpinnings in his work – which reached a wider audience as a result of the movie “Fast, Cheap, and Totally Out of Control.” [I mention this movie only because it gives me the opportunity to mention “The Batmen of Africa;” I couldn’t make sense of it, but it did include vignettes on Rodney, moles, an apiarist, and a lion tamer – one who studied under Clyde Beatty, who, you see was the star of “The Batmen of Africa,” portions of which are included in “Fast, Cheap and Totally Out of Control,” and which is in turn one of my favorite movies of all time.] Most are aware as well that NASA also got hold of the Fast and Cheap notion, which it backed away from after some interplanetary expedition failures that did not strike too many people as adequately “cheap.”

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Psaltery and sackbut dream

God is gone up with lyres, harps, tambourines, sistrums, and instruments of all kinds
the LORD with lyres, harps, -
tambourines, harps,
tambourines, harps,
tambourines, harps, -
and sackbuts, 
the LORD and David with all Israel celebrating
castanets and
Now bring me
a minstrel.
And it came to pass, when the minstrel played,
that the hand of the LORD came on him.
that was the time when you did hear the sound of all kinds of instruments
while me, a dreaming minstrel boy did play.
                                                                                  -Jack Vaughan, 2013

Some related foundational elements

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Best of

A poem about Las Vegas comprises a collection of aphorism which illustrate the Buddhist notion of Dharma, or moral system. Found in an old copy of The Dhammapada that wandered back into the living room here.

What can I say about this year except that there was an election that seemed to set the tone for every living moment? I could not stomach the news shows, but woke up at 5 am on the day after the election to find out my candidate had won by a decent margin. That same morning the contrarian crew did not admit it was fair, and we were left pretty much where we started, on one level at least. I continue to get my father’s money’s worth out of a class I took at Marquette that drove home the notion of circular or mythical time, versus progressive ( as in La Follett, Christian dairy co-ops, or milk) time. As I get older, I see things “at a remove”.

In terms of poetry, they were like jokes in old vaudeville. There was the one about Dr Ransils' garage, which owed a bit to Gene Autry' The Phantom Empire and A Beautiful Mind. There must be some chance that an alternate world is happening in the basement or in a cave. There was the one about a trip to Las Vegas (Oh let us live in joy), see above.  There was the one about Christmas in New York in 1972, which kind of captures a basic thing that’s always been going on inside of me (that will not let me just be). Penny in the River covers same space (NYC 1972), inspired by James Wolcott’s memoir (which Jake gave me, which I have been putting off finishing and reviewing).

Poetry 1972 2012

The mash that is media in 2012 was kind of cool. In the sunny middle of the year I played with Microsoft Windows Movie Maker (which disappointed me mightily on the job, when I discovered this software was not scalable. Did a take on Spysmasher (among the greatest of serials),  the last Shuttle flight ( coupled with riff on Freddie King’s I’m tore down – almost level with the ground),  and Blimp pilot blues, which is a blues, but also a blimp trip (something I have been pursuing since 1967).

Rich Media 2012

Had the fun experience this week to read a critique I did of Miami disco music in 1975. Lo! I still write the same! Must have osmosified Time Magazine drone pattern in my yout... Wrote set pieces about various in  prose. An obit on Bob Watt. He deserved my best effort. A trip to Fenway with Jeff Hull. A bonk on the Louisville Jug Band scene, writ for the departing co-worker Barney Beal.

Prose 2012

Looking ahead to 2013
What about 2013? I guess if I had it to do over I would have liked to have better covered space and technology advances; that and, say, the phenomenon of feedback. Maybe with that, and if I finally finish a poem on News, the whole Moon Traveller notion will become a bit more clear. As Leroy Carr said: “Nobody knows where the blues comes from, everybody’s glad when the blues they go.” To that I’d add: When the world is upside down, standing on your head is a valid approach. (Took pic below at Harvard-Cornell game. Feel like it could have gone into Garage in 1967. Times change and dont change.

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