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The ABQ Correspondent                    

Last Two Issues

OCTOBER 2018

 

BEING THERE

Last month’s complaint about faces on robots was a bit ungracious, not recognizing cases in which human traits are useful. For example, the “collaborative” robot, Baxter, designed to work alongside people on production lines, has a face, well, eyes on a screen, that “look at” whatever has the robot’s attention at the moment. That’s helpful to the human workers around it who judge their immediate situations largely by noticing what others are paying attention to. The situational awareness that keeps us out of trouble is formed from a zillion clues, moment by moment, and the focus of attention of our associates is one of them. Another sensible use of anthropomorphic features is in remote presence systems, perhaps better thought of as avatars, which let the home-bound get out. This is all about enabling kids or adults stuck at home or in an institution to participate in activities elsewhere. They can attend school, ask questions, banter with classmates, go to games, have friends. There have been some not-notably-successful efforts to allow non-travelers to attend business conferences and roam exhibit halls, getting a direct sense of the events, rather than depending wholly on reports. Part, if not most of the value of conferences and shows is in the contact and discussion between formal presentations…the chance to have cuppa and a chat with people we don’t normally encounter. We haven’t seen any effort to enable personal avatars to take advantage of such opportunity, but these are early days. While the physical presence of the avatar is critical; the critter is not intended to be an autonomous entity, but an extension of the stay-at-home, real live person it’s representing. How much do you want people feel that they are interacting with the physical object, and how much with the person behind it? One approach is to mount a monitor with a camera on a mobile base…essentially putting Skype on a stick. The home-bound party may not wish to be seen, and it may be desirable to make the avatar a non-threatening, sympathetic form of some sort with whom the remote parties can interact comfortably. The BBC report in the link above briefly shows some alternatives. Nothing about this is straightforward. Must the avatar move on its own? Might someone carry/wear it (the second head of Zaphod Beeblebrox)? Might the home-bound have multiple avatars…even in multiple places at the same time? (Talk about multitasking!) Cost of communication* is a concern…should only the well-to-do have avatars? Should the state provide and control avatars, giving the state extraordinary control of the home-bound and all of their associates? How will hackers intervene to affect the lives of the home-bound and remote associates? Wild and exciting times for all, even for those who don’t get out and about. We’re all in this together. A modicum of grace may be welcome.

*Yeah, but one recalls getting a call here in the high desert from an associate in London in about 1971. After a brief exchange he commented “I should really get off; this is costing $12.50 a minute.” It’s extravagant now to make such a call on a system that charges as much as a dime a minute.

 

BUBBLES

Last month’s cyber fish wrapper (thanks, Joel) generated some thoughtful responses, this one from Paul Honoré: “Your article on balloons brings back a memory of WWII. Recall the Fugo balloons the Japanese sent over here to deliver mayhem with high explosive and incendiary bombs, lofted to float on the jet stream, timed to release a bomb every few minutes as they drifted by. Only one person is certified as being killed by one. A Sunday school teacher was herding her class through the Oregon woods on a picnic outing and stumbled on a downed Fugo, setting it off. The pieces of her that were recovered are buried in a nearby Port Angeles cemetery. More than 2000 hydrogen filled Fugos were released, and most found their way to their intended destination. They were made of paper, sealed from leakage with a coating of plum sauce and fabricated by battalions of Japanese High School girls (the same girls who were trained to fight American invasion troops with sharpened bamboo spears). Characteristically, the Japanese had asked about Jet stream activities over the U.S. and the weather folks happily sent them details.  By the way, there are an estimated 25 Fugos still lying about somewhere on the continent, their explosive cargoes becoming more and more unstable with time. If you find one, don't kick it.” 

A close friend was among the first hundred U.S. officers to enter Japan after the end of active hostilities. With a jeep and a translator, he toured the hinterlands…the first of the feared enemy to be seen by most of the people he encountered. Never a lick of trouble. They had surrendered, and a deal was a deal.
Back in the day (1960’s), Paul’s ambition was to have a Celestron telescope sitting on a harpsichord. He reports that he now has the telescope, with which he watches ships sailing from Puget Sound to exotic destinations, but doesn’t yet have the harpsichord to go under it. One of these days.

 

THE WALLS HAVE EARS

Folks at MIT have reportedly figured out a way to receive communications from submerged submarines…which has long been a challenge. Apparently, the sub can create ripples on the surface of the sea representing audio. (Seems pretty basic.) A plane above, scanning with a laser, can read those ripples, and turn them into intelligible messages. This calls to mind a project we worked on in the 1960s when it seemed useful to be able to detect what was going on under the jungle canopy along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Dr. Browning had a suggestion: placing diaphragms in corner reflectors on the ground, scanning them with a laser in a plane overhead, and simply listening to sound down on the ground. (If you cut the corner diagonally off a box, you have a piece in which three sides at 90° angles meet at the corner. If the inside surface is reflective, and you shine light into it, it’s bounced back to the source of the light...like index 2 glass beads on Scotchlight, it’s retro-reflective.) Iben’s mad scheme was to produce immense numbers of little paper corner reflectors maybe 3” on a side colored to look like leafy jungle stuff, with reflective diaphragms glued over a half-inch hole in one of the sides. A pin would be pushed through the very corner to provide weight there, and the outside edges of the thing would shaped rather like maple keys, so that when it was dropped, it would flutter quietly to the ground, pin-first, and probably stick into a leaf, blending pretty well into the foliage. With thousands of these gadgets scattered all along the trail, it would be hard to find them all, even if you knew what you were looking for. A high-flying plane could sweep the area getting reflections… some very likely containing identifiable sounds, even phrases of potentially revealing speech. The sound modulation/demodulation part was not mysterious, but we experimented with pins, paper, and glue, making and testing a whole lot of the fluttering gizmos in various configurations. Sure enough, they stuck in carpets, socks, sleeves, hair, foam cups, sandwiches, and such, ready to bounce back laser probes. In real production, they could probably have been made for a fraction of a cent apiece. When the idea was called to the attention of people who had a stake in getting the information from the ground, they expressed enthusiasm, and carried the idea off happily. Somehow, the concept transmogrified into the production of tiny electronic listening/transmitting devices that cost $800 apiece, and nothing came of it. Ah well.

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NELS MUSES 
 

Item:

Changing technology changes the language   Floundering for a way to describe having a mailbox at the front of his house filled with ads, a friend said that he had entirely too much snail mail spam. We used to call it junk mail. 

 

Item:

For the first time in a couple of years we also heard from Dr, Russell Eberhart, distinguished expert in the behavior of bunches of flying things, natural and artificial.  Russ says: “Am consulting in swarm intelligence in the cybersecurity area.” However, that wasn’t his real news. “I am also writing cyberthrillers and murder mysteries under the pen name Ross Carley. 

See http://www.RossCarleyAuthor.com and Facebook at http://www.Facebook.com/RossCarleyBooks​   Warning: My novels contain adult content...both violence and sex. My books are available from the usual suspects including Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and about a dozen e-publishers.”

Since he warned sternly about the sex and violence in successive emails, it must either be strong stuff, or he is defensively expressing guilt about defying the gentler teachings of his upbringing. 

When asked if it’s OK to reveal the real mad scientist behind the pseudonym, he said: “I’ll appreciate the publicity.”  You’re on your own.

 

Item: 

One is accustomed to posted signs saying “Yard Cleanup” or “Sheeps for Sail” but it was disconcerting to encounter this recently: “Snake Removal.”

 _______________________________________________

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This piece from 1976 preceded the Correspo by

nine years. We’d just undertaken publication of

Personal Computing Magazine (first issue hit the

streets in Jan/Feb 1977), and we weren’t the first

publication in the field; BYTE Magazine, described

by some as the best technical journal ever published,

and Creative Computing, based largely on work

started on the DEC PDP-8, and emphasizing gaming,

were already in publication.

This is the intro to a piece in the MITS newsletter,

Computer Notes which went to MITS staff and an

external readership of a few hundred, maybe more, 

who already had some notion of what we were talking

about.

“You’ve probably seen an ad and heard some rumors about PERSONAL COMPUTING, but we’ve been so busy getting our show on the road that we haven’t yet talked with many of the people whose interest is important to us.

We want you to know what we’re up to and how our approach to a technology-based magazine is different from what’s come before. It isn’t easy to put this in a nutshell, because personal computing is part of a major revolution in human thought. It would have been tough to explain to people in 1700 how much fun they would have in the coming industrial revolution. The information processing revolution has just begun to touch the common man and we’re looking forward to lots of excitement, though the crystal balls are cloudy.

The best way to tell you about PERSONAL COMPUTING, we decided, with to pass along the text of a short talk I’ve been giving to service clubs, most of whose members don’t know the difference between a computer and a toaster. They’ve found this useful. Maybe you can make use of it in estimating the excitement we all look forward to in PERSONAL COMPUTING.”

Mind you, this was looking forward ignorantly to the

digital society we live in now.

It was surprising to come across this forgotten,

lightweight thing; the talk is less embarrassing than

the intro.

I’d written a piece comparing the opportunity to sell

services using personal computers with lemonade stand

entrepreneurship, and publisher David Bunnell had the

sense to ask redoubtable illustrator Kim Behm to do

something graphic with the thought. Kim did…and it’s

nice to be associated with his wonderful work.

Oddly, the handwritten notes highlighting the talk

weren’t mine. Not my handwriting, not my words.

They’re appropriate.

Given BYTE and Creative, we needed a different niche,

and because I didn’t know much about electronics, didn’t

program and didn’t want to, I suggested that this was not

to be a magazine about computers, but a magazine about

people trying desperately to use a computer for something,

anything. David bought it, the idea stuck, and it characterized

the magazine for the several years it persisted under different

ownerships after David and I had left.

It would be easy to run on about this indefinitely, but

restraint is probably a virtue.

Oh, yeah, young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were still

associated with MITS when we started Personal Computing,

and they did a column that ran in our first three bimonthly

issues. If I’d known they would become the world’s richest

men, I might have cultivated the contact more actively.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 2018

 

GET AWAY! SHOO!                                 

It seems odd that people go to great effort to make machines humanoid...faces, eyes, bilateral symmetry, arms and legs, interesting voices…Japan in particular seem to take pride and comfort in producing cutesy figures. We uneasy old fuddy-duddies do not perceive these critters as machines working hard to be companionable; at their best they come across as people who have something seriously wrong with them, and may be dangerous. (Then again, maybe young fuddy-duddies have a different view that make all my notions irrelevant.) It’s hard to see how this gives an economic advantage to the manufacturers of those systems, helping them to sell more product. Why primate-like? That just makes the Uncanny Valley wider and harder to cross. It’s hard for monkeys and chimps to win relaxed acceptance in polite society; how much harder for monkeyish machines? This influences the development of machine intelligence. In fiction, the smart machines are commonly humanoid, and chillingly so, Hal and a few others excepted. Well, Hal is chilling, but not humanoid. Though we’ve not seen Watson in humanoid form, it would probably be unwise to bet against the notion that most people visualize that system as a not-very-sociable person with an immense memory, insatiably soaking data in, and passing out opinions based on it in response to direct questions…but not chatting affably about life in general. Covers of novels about smart machines and posters for movies tend to show humanoid machines with inscrutable expressions. The smart machines are perceived as separate, identifiable entities that are obvious targets for the fearful? Most journalists discussing machine intelligence probably filter their perceptions through the same filter as the rest of us.

Our own staff prophets, who have an embarrassingly poor track record for seeing what’s coming, guess that machine intelligence will be barely detectable to most of us. It will ease traffic a bit, reduce wasted effort and material, warn us of risks we’d not have been aware of, help to produce food and fiber more efficiently and abundantly. The smart part is that after being turned on, the programs doing this alter their own operation with experience to improve their performance and extend their reach…in ways that we could not predict, and cannot fully analyze. That’s the line they’ll cross, escaping our understanding. We don’t really know what they’ll do or how they’ll do it.

Never mind comforting voices and artificial bonhomie, the intelligent systems will be grinding away almost unnoticed, doing their thing on an ever larger scale.  We will surely find ways to cope.

Note: this is prompted in part by a recent reading of Quantum Enigma—Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner   2011 2nd Edition (a sort of Quantum Mechanics for Dummies) and partly by an exchange with Jake Mendelssohn about last month’s item about people attacking robots. He commented: “Yes, we often had the problem of people deliberately damaging the Robots. Many times it was just excited children, but there were also many adults and sadly, not all of them were drunk. In fact, we made internal structure of the arms out of springs so that they would be flexible in any direction. This was NOT to protect the people from the Robot, but to protect the Robot from damage by people.”

 

GETTING READY                         

The Correspo commented a while back on the virtues and scary security hazards of quantum computing. While implementation of practical systems may take a while (estimates range from months to decades) it was interesting that Microsoft had developed software that simulates the operation of a quantum computer on today’s slowpoke computers. The goal is to allow practice with peculiar new concepts in programming the quantum computers when they arrive. It’s reported now that the Microsoft Research Security and Cryptography group is working diligently on “post-quantum cryptography” intending to enable data to flow securely, avoiding snoopers. The activity involves such protocols as Supersingular Isogeny Diffie-Hellman, which means that some of us haven’t a hope of understanding much. One wishes the team well   

 

NON-SPILL                                                 

A young person currently struggling through the bureaucracy of the conventional U.S. school system is expecting to graduate at least a year early from high school, and move on to other challenges. To that end, he’s taking extra online classes, one of which involves a chemistry lab. We hearken back to the naive days of Gilbert Chemistry Sets, which were presented to kids on birthdays and at Christmas. The hope was that they could have fun learning how chemistry works by using the equipment, the instruction book, and the selection of twenty or thirty chemicals provided in the set.* Well, this online class doesn’t call for students to obtain such physical stuff. The lab is virtual, and surprisingly detailed. One sees all the equipment and supplies for experiments and demonstrations, and with dexterous use of a mouse, the student puts the right things together in the right containers in the right order under the right conditions, and sees what happens. The student can’t mix the wrong things, and can’t skip steps or hurry through them; if a reaction in a test tube is supposed to take five minutes, the system waits five minutes before letting the student move on. Pretty good stuff, if kind of eerie. He seems to be learning a thing or two without staining the carpet.

*No kidding, those kits contained exciting thing like potassium permanganate. A body could really create some hazardous problems with what was provided, and we who were less inclined to follow instructions thoughtfully than to play Mad Scientist, mixing things at random, could easily create trouble. The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab introduced in 1950 actually contained “uranium bearing ore samples” of various kinds, detectably if not “very” radioactive. The sharpest recollection of my own chemistry set is that the chemicals were not in glass jars, but in little wooden containers with wooden caps that fit reasonably tightly.  Those things must have been turned on a lathe by the tens or hundreds of thousands. The mind boggles. 

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NELS MUSES 
 

Item:                                     

Just in passing as you record events of interest on your smartphone: someone recently pointed out that in 1956 video recorders sold for US $50,000, and videotapes cost US $300 per one-hour reel. You’re more likely to be impressed by this if you remember 1956, but still…

 

Item:                                                                         

There’s been a lot of optimistic talk the last few years about sending aircraft to the edge of space with paying passengers who want to see the sights (um…no thanks). Spaceport-like facilities have been built in New Mexico and elsewhere, and hope surges. But, it isn’t easy, and things have dragged on. Now a company in Tucson, World View Enterprises, Inc. is proposing to offer such trips in comfortable cabins dangling beneath balloons that can approach 100,000 feet in altitude, and hang around up there for extended times. They say they can navigate these things, going from one particular spot to another, or staying more or less stationary for days at a time, not just directed by the winds of the moment. One suspects that the proposal to carry passengers is primarily an attention-getter for more practical applications like tracking events on the ground, but why not? Balloons were what we used before the era of spy satellites. We have many decades of experience in putting cameras and other sensors on big balloons and letting the prevailing high altitude winds carry them around the world as many as seven times before recovery. Surprisingly, the balloon work seems to have been pursued primarily by the big milling companies…Pillsbury and General Mills, for example. Friend Dr. Othmar Stuetzer (“Prisoner-of-War to GS-13…dot’s not so bad.”) commented that when he worked for General Mills in those far-off-days, he was given to understand that the FBI would not be greatly upset if he lunched with known Russian agents…but General Mills would have a fit if he so much as said good morning to anybody from Pillsbury. Anyhow, we know a lot about flying big balloons very high, and what World View suggests is intriguing. 

 

Item:                                                 

More smart bird stuff…this report with a pretty good headline says crows are being trained to pick up litter. Hard to imagine this becoming effective on a really useful scale, but…

 _______________________________________________

ITEM FROM THE PAST

 

This item from 1985 was brought to mind by recent

frustration over the need to use lackadaisical email

instead of almost-instantaneous file transfer while

working with a distant associate.

PORTERABLES

Standard IBM and Compaq portable computers work well, but are clumsy backbreakers to lug. Portables with liquid crystal screens are light and convenient, but the displays have been impractically dim. As we stagger through airports with computers, it helps to recall earlier portables. A chap installed a monster 1960's system in a semi trailer, so his clients could have computer service right there at their factories and offices on a monthly schedule. The Thomas Bede Foundation turned that approach inside out. Programmers in those days punched their work into IBM cards, and handed them to computer gnomes, who would run programs in a batch, returning the cards with the results. The programmers would groan, punch new cards with changes, and send the twenty pounds of cards back for another run. With fleet courier services, it was possible to run a couple of batches a day. For one crash project, TBF put a 200 lb. IBM keypunch machine in the back of my 1964 Studebaker Lark station wagon for Ed Whitaker to drive over to Sandia Livermore. He didn't have the clearances needed to enter the bomb works, and use their key­punches, but he parked next to the guard house at the gate, plugged into their power, and fired up his own. The Lark wagon had a roof panel that slid forward from the rear, making the car into a sort of pickup. Ed sat up there in the sunshine like a circus calliope player, banging out new cards, while the head of computer operations at Sandia ran back and forth from the gate to the big computer, giving Ed a dozen batch runs that day. It was widely hailed as a technical and social break­through. What we're dragging through airports now is better. 

Incomprehensible as it may seem, the IBM portable

I was lugging onto airplanes then (security, what

security?) weighed 38 pounds.  It fit in the overhead

compartment OK, but after an exhausting few days

on the road I barely had the strength to swing it up

there. It was worth the hassle at the time.

My iPhone now has more computing power and far

more memory, though the typing arrangements aren’t

convenient, and I still travel with a notebook.

The trigger for this recollection is that I routinely

work on documents with an associate thousands of

miles away. Using some analog of Skype, we exchange

files via instant messaging, while discussing their

content. The system went down briefly, and while we

could talk, we were reduced to sending the documents

by email. It took longer, and required more steps at

each end. We complained.

…and along these loose lines…At an Applefest in

San Francisco in the mid-eighties, things weren’t

going well for us. One evening, I was commiserating

gloomily with an associate when it struck me that we

were at a reception in the fabled Palm Court of the

Palace Hotel, and charming young ladies were bringing

us delicious things to eat and drink. We had damn-all

to complain of in this difficult world. It may even be

possible to get over having to use stone-age email.    

 

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