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"History is just people doing things"


                 ISSN 1087-2302   Online Edition Number 260......July 2017

Published since 1985 for clients and contacts of 
ABQ Communications Corporation, the fuzzy focus

of The ABQ Correspondent is "the impact of new 
technology on society." If you'd like to receive e-mail 
notification when each monthly issue is posted, please 
let us know.   correspo at swcp dot com


CIRCULATION NOTE: Some have recommended that The ABQ Correspondent campaign for broader readership. Well…no. This has been an effective, low pressure way to maintain a network of contacts, but the Correspo is rather personal, not to everyone’s taste. The incremental cost of adding somebody to the mailing list is trivial, and if you think others should receive posting notices, we’d be glad to hear from them.  



Back in the Sixties, Paul Honoré gloomily reported development of software that could generate new music in the style of Stephen Foster. “Unfortunately,” said Paul, whose idea of music is Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of von Weber, “it sounds just like Stephen Foster.” We’ve made a trifle of progress since then, not on a grand scale, but down at a very practical level. Most people producing videos for distribution via YouTube et al need a bit of music, not only for aesthetic reasons, but to signal the beginning of a presentation by letting the viewer know what the audio level is.  You don’t want the viewer/listener to miss some of the following narration while distractedly adjusting levels. Many good tracks are available free in various music libraries. (It’s always better to have music composed for the specific production. Late brother Jeff composed elegant stuff for our productions.) NPR reports that a service apparently calling itself Jukedeck is now offering computer-generated music at little or no cost. The article presents a quiz in which you are asked if you can determine which of two “Vivaldi” selections was genuine Vivaldi, played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Orchestra under Neville Marriner, and which was a simulation of Vivaldi. You’d have to be tone-deaf, with a bad head cold, not to detect which is which, but the simulation really is pretty good. The tracks aren’t all “classical,” and the service is splendid.

Another example of computer-generated sound is a bit disconcerting. A startup in Montreal called Lyrebird is developing software that lets the computer listen to a sample of somebody’s voice…then simulate their sound and delivery, saying anything. Listen at their site to familiar politicians discussing Lyrebird’s technology. (The company somewhat uneasily acknowledges ethical concerns inherent what they are doing) Even back in the sixties, all of this was clearly possible, but its realization in the Digital Age is still astonishing. The Lyrebird folks are nuancing the “spoken” material, changing emphasis, intonation, etc…so its delivery need not be the same every time. One can easily imagine this stuff passing the Turing Test. You could talk to an automatic voicemail system about routine matters for minutes on end without realizing that you’re talking to a machine. Technically marvelous, socially stressful. Very well done with steady improvement anticipated.

*Old gag: A musician practicing his trumpet at home disturbs a neighbor, who knocks at his apartment door, asking “Don’t you know there’s a little old lady sick upstairs?” No, says the musician, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.”


Variant #2: Guy comes into a bar, saying “Do you know there’s a Peruvian Indian playing Inca music on a nose flute, right out front?” No, says the piano player, but hum a few bars, and I’ll fake it.”


Variant #3 (best and most elaborate): The situation leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis is building in 1962, and President Kennedy seeks wise advice. He jets to Africa to consult with physician, humanitarian, and famed expert on the works of Bach, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Arriving at Lambaréné by helicopter at dusk, the President walks slowly up to the mission/hospital, where he hears the great man playing the pedal organ created especially for his use in the jungle. As the last chords of a fugue fade away, Kennedy asks simply “Do you know Berlin is about to fall into the hands of the Russians like a ripe apple?”  “No,” says Schweitzer, “but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.”



Back to the machine intelligence issue…Some years ago, sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge (Vinge’s near-future stories are unsettling. In one, for example, the State of California is trying to save the cost of operating physical libraries by digitizing everything…not laboriously scanning every page in every book, but by shredding all books, and blowing their confetti through chambers where the fluttering fragments are laser-scanned in flight. The virtual text and images are then reassembled automatically. Anybody, anywhere could have access to all of the material. No stacks to search, no heavy lifting, no putting things back on shelves. Also, there would be no original sources, the state would know who was reading what, where, and when, and could assign Winston Smith to censor/edit/reinterpret the digital materials suitably for public consumption. We are on the ragged edge of being able to do just that.)…anyhow, Vinge articulated the idea of The Technological Singularity, which could come about when “…the new superintelligence would continue to upgrade itself and would advance technologically at an incomprehensible rate.” The intriguing idea has received both support and criticism. Let us add some confusion.

Last month’s Correspo talked about Dar Scott’s long-ago proposal to enable multiple computers to figure out how to divide work among themselves effectively and economically. The concept isn’t too complicated to follow, and one can imagine the network functioning, serving its purpose, achieving its goals, without intent, apart from the original intent of the people who set the system up to improve performance and save money.

It’s easy also to imagine that with improving communication and neural net technology, the system might expand, “upgrading itself,” and bringing other computers into the system with new knowledge and new capabilities. At electronic speeds, that expansion might occur so rapidly that people couldn’t keep up, and wouldn’t quite know what those new capabilities are and what the system is basing its judgment on. We’d never catch up with the accelerating rate of change. We’d have entered the singularity.  

That isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, the results might be so pleasing that nobody would much want to turn the system off. (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”)

How smart is the superintelligence? Maybe it just knows a lot, and can make fairly basic calculations and correlations. It isn’t necessarily very bright, but would be patient and FAST. (Dr. Reid Bryson, climatologist at the University of Wisconsin some decades back, talked delightedly about a study indicating that the average intelligence of PhDs as measured by standard tests was the same as the average intelligence of the general population, measured by those same tests. The implication was that sticktoitivity counts for a lot.) The primary feature of the superintelligence of The Technological Singularity may be tireless persistence.

“Motive” has always been a puzzle. Why would the smart system want to take over beyond its initial assignment? Dar’s system doesn’t require a lust for power. Its concept is simple enough so that most of us can imagine it “upgrading itself.”

It’s nice to have an example we can almost understand, and it’s scary that something we can almost understand has this potential.




A friend’s Army assignment in Europe in the early 1970s was to transport small nuclear weapons  from base to base.
Nobody wanted to be anywhere near him and his packages, so he was typically dropped off on the distant fringes of airbases where he stewed in the sun and the rain until somebody who had drawn the short straw drove out to get him.
During one long wait in the hot sun, he saw a small commercial jet land nearby, and sit waiting for a few minutes, when a second, identical plane landed and pulled up next to the first. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger climbed out of one plane and into the other, then both promptly flew away. Our friend realized that he'd just seen Kissinger trying to lose his tail, if any, as he engaged in the "shuttle diplomacy" that was his trademark.
Dr. Kissinger probably did not realize that he had made his transfer right next to an angry man with an atomic bomb.



Those of us who were involved with systems that used luminescent bacteria to detect toxicity in water back in the day are charmed by a report in Science that a team has engineered E.coli bacteria to produce green light in the presence of a byproduct of TNT. These critters, encapsulated in polymer beads (about100,000 bugs per bead) are sprinkled over a minefield. Some hours later, after the exposure of the bugs to chemical vapors from TNT-laden mines below, the bacteria emit their light. Each mine can be located by the green glow above it. The mechanism of this is not made clear in the brief article. This is all experimental so far, and calls for some refinement. Who sprinkles the bugs in the minefield? and how many beads per square unit? and how do you map these things? and must it be dark…and so on. (Much of this sounds like work for drones.) Lots of questions, but a splendid start. So far, nobody seems to have raised a concern for the well-being of the living bacteria so indifferently treated. No, they’re not classed as animals, despite the casual use of “critters” above.



Nothing in particular prompted a revisit to this piece,

but it jumped out during a review of past material,

because things have changed appreciably since 1998.



As long ago the late 60's, when we saw that the basic copy of the Wall Street Journal was being transmitted from New York via satellite to a printing plant in Palo Alto in digital form, so the West Coast edition could be printed there timely, it was obvious that the data necessary for reproducing pictures, text, movies...all text, graphic and audio materials...could be stored and transmitted digitally anywhere, at electronic speeds. No need to ship paper, plastic, printing plates, etc. But...just try to do it! When European distributors asked for the elements of literature, so they could rework it to suit their needs, we had no economical way to provide them. We knew we could send digital files...but in what form, to be played on what system, using what software? We couldn’t even find common language in which to discuss it, and agree on what we needed. In practice, we couldn’t do for our clients what we knew was possible, and should be straightforward. Aaargh. Well, now there’s at least one way.

A company called Wam!Net, Inc. - - which says that WorldCom is a “strategic and financial partner,” suggesting plenty of muscle, has created a service that lets even small companies send and receive big files with relatively little hassle. Wam!Net allows paying members of their network to pass files among themselves, using standard systems and protocols.

To work, the system must have a critical mass of members, enough so that it’s worthwhile to join. (Recall that when the US Postal Service started Priority Mail, it could be used only to certain cities...not, oddly, including Washington DC.) Wam!Net has approached this by creating separate nets of customers with common interests. Their first major net is for graphic arts, letting printers, publishers, ad agencies, and the like exchange files efficiently. A medical net and an entertainment net are already being built. One supposes there’s no technical reason those nets can’t be linked, but the standard systems for handling film clips are probably enough different from the systems for handling color separations to make matters awkward. This is a new sort of business, not quite a courier service, not quite a phone company. Remarkable

It was a new sort of business. The biggest files that must

be passed around rapidly and accurately worldwide seem

to be files of material to be printed. No one has been more

affected by the digital revolution than the graphics industry,

and the problem of dealing with immense files was urgent,

requiring not only technical, but organizational changes.

These days, if you want to send files of most any size,

anywhere, in any of a bunch of different formats, you may

want to contact Data Expedition, Inc, for example, or Smith-

Edwards-Dunlap Company, a commercial printing company

that seems to have a clear understanding of the Digital Age.

Somewhat surprisingly, we still haven’t seen reports of

the files of feature movies being transmitted to local theaters

for display. Maybe we’ve just missed the reports, because

that seemed early-on like a good thing to do instead of

physically shipping heavy, fragile, expensive film prints

all over the place. Then, too, the movie business is changing

dramatically, and the local movie houses are disappearing.

As a matter of fact, Wam!Net is still among us in altered

form, having been bought Savvis Communications in 2003,

which was itself acquired by Century-Link in 2011.

The business is no longer remarkable.

   ------------------------------------------------------------- After some years of working and reworking, this has become a real book, via Lulu Publishing. The blurb on the back (under a picture of the author looking unnaturally cheerful) says:

 “This book is Nels Winkless’s wry look at his half-century-and- more as a “professional outsider” writing, editing, interpreting, presenting new ideas, and serving as a sounding board for interesting people who have influenced some of the major technical developments of the era. While fascinated by the dazzling advance of technology, he’s most intrigued by the savage resistance people have to every sort of change, making technical progress virtually miraculous, and he suggests an explanation for this puzzling conflict.
   His recollections of the work and people are often funny, sometimes painful, and usually surprising.

ISBN: 978-0-557-05785-6    
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