Locklin on science

The Fifth Generation Computing project

Posted in non-standard computer architectures by Scott Locklin on July 25, 2019

This article by Dominic Connor  reminds me of that marvelous artifact of the second AI winter (the one everyone talks about), “Fifth generation computing.”  I was not fully sentient at the time, though I was alive, and remember reading about “Fifth generation computing” in the popular science magazines.

It was 1982. Let’s not rely on vague recollections of what happened this year; some familiar things which happened that year. Tylenol scare, mandated breakup of the Bell System  and the beginning of the hard fade of Bell Labs, Falklands war, crazy blizzards, first artificial heart installed,  Sun Microsystems founded, Commodore 64 released. People were starting to talk about personal robotics; Nolan Bushnell (Atari founder) started a personal robot company. The IBM PC was released the previous year, somewhere mid year they had sold 200,000 of them, and MS-DOS 1.1 had been released. The Intel 80286 came out earlier in the year and was one of the first microprocessors with protected memory and hardware support for multitasking. The Thinking Machines company, attempting to do a novel form of massively parallel computing (probably indirectly in response to the 5thgen “threat”), would be founded in 1983.

Contemporary technology

The “AI” revolution was well underway at the time; expert system shells were actually deployed and used by businesses; Xcon, Symbolics, the Lisp Machine guys were exciting startups. Cyc -a sort of ultimate expert systems shell, would be founded a few years later. The hype train for this stuff was even more  lurid than it is now; you can go back and look at old computer and finance magazines for some of the flavor of it. If you want to read about the actual tech they were harping as bringing MUH SWINGULARITY, go read Norvig’s PAIP book. It was basically that stuff, and things that look like Mathematica. Wolfram is really the only 80s “AI” company that survived, mostly by copying 70s era “AI” symbolic algebra systems and re-implementing a big part of Lisp in “modern” C++. 

Japan was dominating the industrial might of the United States at the time in a way completely unprecedented in American history. People were terrified; we beat those little guys in WW-2 (a mere 37 years earlier) and now they were kicking our ass at automotive technology and consumer electronics. The Japanese, triumphant, wanted to own the next computer revolution, which was still a solidly American achievement in 1982. They took all the hyped technology of the time; AI, massive parallelism, databases, improved lithography, prolog like languages, and hoped by throwing it all together and tossing lots of those manufacturing-acquired dollars at the problem, they’d get the very first sentient machine. 

1) The fifth generation computers will use super large scale integrated chips (possibly in a non Von-Neumann architecture).
2) They will have artificial intelligence.
3) They will be able to recognize image and graphs.
4) Fifth generation computer aims to be able to solve highly complex problem including decision making, logical reasoning.
5) They will be able to use more than one CPU for faster processing speed.
6) Fifth generation computers are intended to work with natural language.

Effectively the ambition of Fifth generation computers was to build the computers featured in Star Trek; ones that were semi-sentient, and that you could talk to in a fairly conversational way.

 

People were terrified. While I wasn’t even a teenager yet, I remember some of this terror. The end of the free market! We’d all be Japanese slaves! The end of industrial society! DARPA dumped a billion 1980s dollars into a project called the Strategic Computing Initiative in an attempt to counter this (amusingly one of the focuses was … autonomous vehicles -things which are still obviously over the rainbow). Most of the US semiconductor industry and main frame vendors began an expensive collaboration to beat those sinister Japanese and prevent an AI Pearl Harbor. It was called the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC for some reason), and it’s definitely ripe for some history of technology grad student to write a dissertation on it beyond the Wikipedia entry.  The Japanese 5th gen juggernaut was such a big deal, the British (who were still tech players back then) had their own copy of this nonsense, called the “Alvey Programme” -they dumped about a billion pounds in todays money into it. And not to be left out, the proto-EU also had their own version of this called ESPIRIT with similar investment levels. 

 

Prolog was of course the programming language of this future technology. Prolog was sort of the deep learning of its day; using constraint programming, databases (Prolog is still a somewhat interesting if over -lexible database query language), parallel constructs and expert system shell type technology, Prolog was supposed to achieve sentience. That’s not worked out real well for Prolog over the years: because of the nature of the language it is highly non-deterministic, and it’s fairly easy to pose NP-hard problems to Prolog. Of course in such cases, no matter how great the parallel model is, it still isn’t going to answer your questions.

 

One of the hilarious things about 5th generation computers is how certain people were about all this. The basic approach seemed completely unquestioned. They really thought all you had to do to build the future was take the latest fashionable ideas, stir them together, and presto, you have brain in a can AI. There was no self respecting computer scientist who would stand up and say “hey, maybe massive parallelism doesn’t map well onto constraint solvers, and perhaps some of these ambitions, we have no idea how to solve.” [1] This is one of the first times I can think of an allegedly rigorous academic discipline collectively acting like overt whores, salivating at the prospects of a few bucks to support their “research.” Heck, that’s insulting to actual whores, who at least provide a service.

 

 

Of course, pretty much nothing in 5th generation computing turned out to be important, useful, or even sane. Well, I suppose VLSI technology was all right, but it was going to be used anyway, and DBMS continue to be of some utility, but the rest of it was preposterous, ridiculous wankery and horse-puckey. For example; somehow they thought optical databases would allow for image search. It’s not clear what they had in mind here, if anything; really it sounds like bureaucrats making shit up about a technology they didn’t understand. For more examples:

“The objective stated (Moto-oka 1982 p.49) is the development of architectures with particular attention to the memory hierarchy to handle set operations using relational algebra as a basis for database systems. “
“The objective stated (Moto-oka 1982 p.53) is the development of a distributed function architecture giving high efficiency, high reliability, simple construction, ease of use, and adaptable to future technologies and different system levels.”
“The targets are: experimental, relational database machine with a capacity of 100 GB and 1,000 transactions a second; practical, 1,000 GB and 10,000 transactions a second. The implementation relational database machine using dataflow techniques is covered in section 8.3.3.”
“The objective stated (Moto-oka 1982 p.57) is the development of a system to input and output characters, speech, pictures and images and interact intelligently with the user. The character input/output targets are: interim, 3,000-4,000 Chinese characters in four to five typefaces; final, speech input of characters, and translation between kana and kanji characters. The picture input/output targets are: interim, input tablet 5,000 by 5,000 to 10,000 by 10,000 resolution elements; final, intelligent processing of graphic input. The speech input/output targets are: interim, identify 500-1,000 words; final, intelligent processing of speech input. It is also intended to integrate these facilities into multi-modal personal computer terminals.”
“The Fifth Generation plan is difficult and will require much innovation; but of what sort? In truth, it is more engineering than science (Fiegenbaum & McCorduck 1983 p 124). Though solutions to the technological problems posed by the plan may be hard to achieve, paths to possible solutions abound.” (where have I heard this before? -SL)

The old books are filled with gorp like this. None of it really means anything.  It’s just ridiculous wish fulfillment and word salad.  Like this dumb-ass diagram:

 

There are probably lessons to be learned here. 5thGen was exclusively a top down approach. I have no idea who the Japanese guys are who proposed this mess; it’s possible they were respectable scientists of their day. They deserve their subsequent obscurity; perhaps they fell on their swords. Or perhaps they moved to the US to found some academic cult; the US is always in the market for technological wowzers who never produce anything. Such people only seem to thrive in the Anglosphere, catering to the national religious delusion of whiggery.

Japan isn’t to be blamed for attempting this: most of their big successes up to that point were top-down industrial policies designed to help the Zaibatsus achieve national goals. The problem here was … no Japanese computer Zaibatsu worth two shits which had the proverbial skin in the game -it was all upside for the clowns who came up with this, no downside.  Much like the concepts of nanotech 10 years ago, quantum computing or autonomous automobiles now; it is a “Nasruddin’s Donkey bet” (aka scroll to bottom here) without the 10 year death penalty for failure.

Japan was effectively taken for a ride by mountebanks. So was the rest of the world. The only people who benefited from it were quasi-academic computer scientist types who got paid to do wanking they found interesting at the time.  Sound familiar to anyone? Generally speaking, top down approaches on ridiculously ambitious projects, where overlords of dubious competence and motivation dictate a  R&D direction that don’t work so well; particularly where there is software involved. It only works if you’re trying to solve a problem that you can decompose into specific tasks with milestones, like the moon shot or the Manhattan project, both of which had comparatively fairly low risk paths to success. Saying you’re going to build an intelligent talking computer in 1982 or 2019 is much like saying you’re going to fly to the moon or build a web browser in 1492. There is no path from that present to the desired outcome. Actual “AI,”  from present perspectives, just as it was in 1982, is basically magic nobody knows how to achieve. 

Another takeaway was many of the actual problems they wanted to solve were done in a more incremental way while generating profits. One of the reasons they were trying to do this was to onboard many more people than had used computers before. The idea was instead of hiring mathematically literate programmers to build models, if you could have smart enough machines to talk to people and read charts and things the ordinary end user might bring to the computer with questions, more people could use computers, amplifying productivity. Cheap networked workstations with GUIs turned out to solve that in a much simpler way; you make a GUI, give the non spergs some training, then ordinary dumbasses can harness some of the power of the computer. This still requires mentats to write GUI interfaces for the dumbasses (at least before our glorious present of shitty electron front ends for everything), but that sort of “bottom up, small expenditures, train the human” idea has been generating trillions in value since then.

The shrew-like networked GUI equipped microcomputers of Apple were released as products only two years after this central planning dinosaur was postulated. Eventually, decades later, someone built a mechanical golem made of microcomputers which achieves a lot of the goals of fifth generation computing, with independent GUI front ends. I’m sure the Japanese researchers of the time would have been shocked to know it came from ordinary commodity microcomputers running C++ and using sorts and hash tables rather than non-Von-Neumann Prolog supercomputers. That’s how most progress in engineering happens though: incrementally[2]. Leave the moon shots to actual scientists (as opposed to “computer scientists”) who know what they’re talking about. 

 

1988 article on an underwhelming visit to Japan.

1992 article on the failure of this program in the NYT.

 

[1] Some years later, 5 honest men discussed the AI winter upon them; yet the projects inexorably rolled forward. This is an amazing historical document; at some point scholars will find such a thing in our present day -maybe the conversation has already happened. https://www.aaai.org/ojs/index.php/aimagazine/article/view/494 … or PDF link here.

[2] Timely Nick Szabo piece on technological frontiersmanship: https://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-succeed-or-fail-on-frontier.html

Golden age experimental physics memories

Posted in Design, physics by Scott Locklin on March 26, 2019

I’ve given some hints of my tastes in experimental physics, and that my taste is experimental physics rather than impotent theoretical cargo cult wanking. I didn’t exactly work on project SLAM, but my early work kinda had this flavor. I caught the last fumes of the heroic cold war age in experimental physics.

 

My first big project was an experiment for observing something called the quantum breaktime, which I believe nobody gives a shit about any more. If you observe a quantum (in our case, chaotic) system for a short period of time, it should look semiclassical. If you wait around long enough, because quantum bound systems are a recurrence map, it will end up looking quantum. Anyway, nobody cares any more, as it turned out to be a fairly trivial thing and nothing important was observed. But at the time it looked important; Anderson won the Nobel for a related idea, and so we tried to build a crazy contraption to observe the thing. None of it was my idea, other than a few gew-gaws to make it go, as I was just some redneck kid who was good at making mechanical things work. I think the PI on this project is still alive, shooting at crows in Kansas or some such thing, and the senior grad student (who graduated) has gone on to more gentle pursuits. I totally lost track of the laser jockey. Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Proof this actually happened; and I used to have hair

The physical embodiment of the idea was to build a couple cubic meters worth of vacuum chamber filled with calcium vapor and shoot lasers at it. The problem with calcium vapor is at the partial pressures we needed it at, the chamber needed to operate at 400 degrees C. Oh yeah, we also needed to distill the crap so we were only using one of the isotopes, to avoid some fine structure nonsense that would have sunk the whole experiment, but as I never got that far, we’ll just pretend it didn’t matter. So, calcium is a reactive metal that wants to bind with anything resembling an optical opening that can withstand a 500 degree C bake out. So, there was another chamber within the chamber, with a set of calcium fluoride windows resting on knife edges that hopefully would keep most of the calcium out of the main chamber and away from the seals and the sapphire windows that kept the air out and let the laser pulses in. Did I mention seals? Yeah, seals and 500/600 degree C bakes (you need to cook all the volatile shit out of the chamber at higher than operating temperatures) don’t get on well. You can’t use viton which is the ordinary high vacuum seal. You sure as shit can’t use conflats and copper due to different coefficients of expansion of stainless and OFHC copper. The PI came up with this brilliant thing involving bolts under preposterous strain, shallow spring like knife edges, and a thick brand of aluminum foil. I think it was used in the Mercury program and promptly forgotten by everyone but the PI who was actually alive and sentient in those days. I won’t tell you what we used to seal the optics; it was similarly insane (and, unlike the aluminum trick, carcinogenic) and found by scouring the literature using INSPEC and paper indexes rather than the garbage you ninnies use on your nerd dildos. I tested both technologies, and to my minor amazement, they both worked  reliably at the design temperatures.

The pump on this thing was something called a diffusion pump. You pump on the chamber with a piston driven mechanical roughing pump to rough it out to 10^-3 torr or whatever, then you fire up the diffusion pump. Diffusion pumps boil some dense fluid which makes a spray through various trumpet like things in a big cooled metal tube, and it creates a pumping action which works sort of like how the shower curtain gets sucked inward when the shower is on. The dense fluid is sometimes mercury, which is why every experimental atomic physicist of a certain age has a mad hatter twitch, though in this experiment, we used some weird fluorodated oil made by Dow-Corning which we hoped wouldn’t explode when calcium vapor hit it. On top of the diffusion pump sits some water cooled baffles and a “trap” of liquid nitrogen, which catches any stray diffusion pump operating fluid molecules and prevents them from futzing up the vacuum too badly. Believe it or not, this kind of pump stack was dirt standard for 60s-90s atomic physics before turbo pumps and ion traps became cheaper. Probably still often used where you need high pumping power in a relatively small place.

Now, to do atomic physics, generally speaking, you also need lasers. The kinds of experiments we were doing you needed pump and probe stuff. This was mostly someone else’s responsibility, at least in the early days, but I was keenly aware of the laser systems as I had to observe proper safety procedures when the laser setup was being run in the same room with me. Our stack consisted of a UV excimer laser (which lived in the other room and ran on poisonous gas and high voltage electricity), an infrared YAG setup which fed a dye laser which I believe made green light when everything was working right. There was probably a KDP crystal or two in it somewhere, since momentum generally must be conserved, and since I remember the laser jockey blowing them up from time to time to powerful slavic imprecations. I don’t remember how many watts these things were, but you could light each other’s pantaloons on fire with some of the things. The dye laser setup used DMSO, a membrane penetrant used to deliver drugs through the skin, and a soup of carcinogenic and poisonous dye (I believe it was coumarin). A dye laser is basically a pump and high pressure hose with some optics around it, and it would occasionally spectacularly explode, shooting deadly DMSO dye goop all over the place. It never hit anyone important. Oh yeah, in case some of you don’t have laser safety training: green light, IR and UV; what do you use for safety goggles? I’ll tell you what you use: a  steel bucket on your head.

 

Remember how the excimer laser was in the other room? How do you think the laser light got into the magic show room of tremendous grad student danger? Well, I couldn’t tell you exactly how this happened, but there was a convenient hole in the wall. I heard a rumor someone rented an electric jackhammer and blew a hole in the (load bearing) wall over a long weekend. The past is a foreign country, and the late 20th century was different, I tell you.

 

There’s all kinds of interesting little details here; how do you build something to hold the vacuum chamber up while you’re baking it? It can’t be well thermally connected to anything or all the heat will bleed out where you don’t want it. It can’t expand or contract at much different rates from the vacuum chamber steel. Oh yeah, and since you have two chambers made of of stainless steel, and barely touching each other, you needed to thermally link them together with a big spring loaded bar of OFHC copper.  Finally, how do you make an oven which bakes the thing to those kind of temperatures? Turns out, rockwool blankets and big ceramic resistors I found in a junkpile fed by silica coated wires worked pretty good.  If I happen to die of mesothelioma, I’ve always harbored the view that rockwool can cause this as easily as asbestos -feel free to name it after me. I won’t even mention the microwave feed throughs and  high-Q niobium microwave cavity that was supposed to fit into the thing, as I never really believed it possible to do this. All of this was done using two line equations and graphing paper rather than the preposterous finite element analysis people waste time with now, and it worked just fine.  на коленки.

Finally an illustrative anecdote: at one point I was putting liquid nitrogen into the trap for a vacuum test, and did so too rapidly. Just like they said it might in the manual, the trap cracked from cooling it too fast, rendering it a leaky paperweight. I knew there was another trap of identical manufacture hooked up to a chamber in an abandoned lab across the hallway (physics departments in them days had all kinds of weird stuff across the hallway; punched tape CP/M machines, weird pumps, high voltage DC generators, farad tier high voltage capacitors with no internal resistance, depleted uranium bricks, etc). I considered just pulling it out of the other setup. I thought about it for a few minutes, and realized I should manfully admit my blunder to the PI first, because who knows what kind of bonkers shit was going on in that old lab across the hall when it was active. Well the PI was real understanding, as he had blown up a nitrogen trap or two in his day, and thought it was a swell idea to nick the nitrogen trap across the hall to save a few bucks and some leadtime on a new trap … oh wait a minute, that might have been the chamber they used for the atmospheric plutonium experiments. Here’s the stack of (60s vintage, probably slightly radioactive) safety sheets on plutonium, and go borrow the mica-window Geiger from Jimmy down in the other building.  I did my best on the safety front; I wore a HEPA dust mask, some gloves and a baseball umpire vest I found somewhere. I gingerly stuck the mica business end around the inside of the vacuum chamber with the matching nitrogen trap bolted onto it.  Plutonium is weird shit; I think it’s an alpha emitter. I know you have to get right on top of it with the counter or you can’t see it at all. Well, I found some plutonium all right; so much it actually shorted out the Geiger tube -you could hear it shorting out bzzz bzzz bzzz. I gingerly shut the thick plexiglass door and tried to never go into that abandoned lab again.

 

My experience wasn’t particularly dangerous or weird, but it was from a bygone era. I mean, pretty much everyone in that lab (including me at the time) smoked. In the lab. Next to the mercury diffusion pumps and poisonous shit. By the time I arrived at LBNL, a mere year or two later, I was doing nonsense like attending weekly safety circle, and signing up for  classes on how to safely use the sonicator and a beaker of acetone for cleaning UHV parts. LBNL had plenty of dangerous stuff around, and jerks would regularly create dangerous conditions; mostly because they were visitors and tragedy of the commons, so it was probably necessary. It felt oppressive though. You could tell it wasn’t always thus; I distinctly remember a photo of someone (probably Owen Chamberlain, though somehow I remember Segre or Luis Alvarez) smoking a pipe next to 1000 gallons of liquid hydrogen bubble chamber.

 

not the photo, but like it

I don’t know if there are lessons to be learned here. The project fizzled out a few months after I joined it because the Clinton administration were weasels who preferred to spend the “peace dividend” putting factory workers in prison while they outsourced the industrial base to China. Maybe the way we used to do things was ridiculously super dangerous and we’re all lucky to be alive. Maybe it is OK to play fast and loose with safety, because frankly time is more precious than a 2% higher probability of dying prematurely. All I know was it was fun living like this, just like it was more fun riding a bicycle before they made you wear a helmet.  The attitude was healthy, even if the environment objectively wasn’t. I am pretty sure people routinely do vastly more dangerous things in unsavory hobbies. I’ll probably never do experimental physics again; if I do it will be at least this ridiculously awesome.

Ave Atque Vale: Marty Halpern

Posted in history by Scott Locklin on March 12, 2019

My pal Marty Halpern died over a year ago now. He was one of my oldest and closest pals who still had some presence in Berkeley. Though he was only a quarterly visitor to Berkeley in recent years, we kept in touch as best we could, and it was always like old times when we’d talk on the phone or see each other in person for some red meat and man talk.

Our first meeting was very Berkeley, and is still one of my favorite “Locklin being an idiot” stories. I was still a long haired grad student, just getting started on deadlifts and presses in the Berkeley 24 hour fitness place; it must have been late 2002 or early 2003. Marty Gutzwiller’s book on quantum chaos fell out of my locker while I was showering; it was one of those yellow Springer-Verlag books immediately recognizable as a physics text. When I got out of the showers, a large nude man was standing there reading the other Marty’s book. It’s not every day I’m confronted with large nude men reading books that fell out of my locker, so I probably said something somewhat rude like,

“What are you doing.”

“Oh, is this yours”

“Yes, it was in my locker”

“You know something about physics?”

“Yes, I study physics.”

“I know some physics too.”

At this point my eyes are rolling, and I figure I’m confronted with some Berkeley loon who is going to tell me how his quartz crystal gives him psychic powers. As soon as he introduced himself, I knew who he was; Marty Halpern, the eminent high energy physicist from UC Berkeley who helped invent the second generation of supersymmetric string theory.

 

As fellow physics nerds who enjoy lifting weights we became fast friends. We didn’t have even vaguely similar tastes in physics; his stuff was all high energy, tending towards noodle theory. Mine was experimental low energy. I don’t think either one of us understood each other very well when we talked about such things, and of course, my own knowledge of my field was ridiculously shallow compared to his. Yet we had some spirited conversations on the topic, as well as my later topics of quantitative finance and data science. Mostly though, that was work talk. Guys who do mathy things who also like lifting weights, shooting guns, eating red meat, being guys  and not taking shit from any pasty  nincompoops; that’s real talk.

Marty and I both appreciated our Robert E. Howard Conan books and our John Carter of Mars novels. In our own ways we lived these science fiction ideals in our daily lives as best we could in this degenerate age. Neither one of us cared much for the state and trajectory of modern life; America and western civilization in general was looking pretty weedy and green about the gills. Even physics wasn’t looking real healthy. It’s tough having such opinions while living in Berkeley. Berkeley is a place where the prevailing wisdom seems to be that everything is gonna be awesome because … cell phones or intersectionality or whatever. Then again, it’s great having proper friends in such places; a friend is a friend at all times, it is for adversity that a brother is born.

His hat, not mine

He was also a link to the physics past for me. I never got the chance to meet Heisenberg, Feynman, Abdus Salam, Schwinger; Marty did. Physics people love to hear about the stories of the great heroes of that era -ole Marty actually knew these guys in some capacity. I remember once he pulled out a Koran to make some point at a dinner party -turned out Salam gave that to him. That was pretty cool.

 

I think the below eulogy from the physics department captures some of his personality; the Limberger cheese incident being particularly choice (though his practical jokes … they were much better, actually), but it seems to be biased towards his early achievements on the career front.

 

One of the things they left out: Marty’s thesis adviser was Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize winner. Gilbert started as a physicist, but ultimately went into medical research, winning the Nobel for DNA research, and as I understand things making a decent pile of loot for learning to make insulin from toilet water. Oddly, Marty started as a sort of pre-med biologist himself (his dad was a doctor who served in WW-2), and ended as a physicist out of curiosity. Marty always told the stories about how Gilbert figured he and Marty were pretty smart, but guys like Schwinger were SO DAMN SMART he might as well go into biology for lack of competition. Marty just liked dat physics though.

 

To add a little color to what they describe as his early career; I think his Westinghouse prize project was actually building a tic tac toe “computer” out of relays; a considerable achievement back in the 50s when all knowledge of computers and digital logic was pretty obscure.

 

Another thing I know about from Marty’s career, he spent quite a lot time at CERN, enjoying the convivial physics to be had there, as well as developing his palate in the local restaurants (pro tip from Marty; avoid the Michelin rated places with too many stars; they’re just phoning it in -2 stars are often the sweet spot). I think he was really happy there. He also had a deep fondness for the Niels Bohr institute. Amusingly, he told me about this guy Predrag Cvitanovic at the Neils Bohr who told similar jokes to mine. This was the only person at the Niels Bohr I had the vaguest chance of  knowing anything about. I read das book and exchanged a few bantz anyway. Should I ever make the ridiculous money, I’ll make sure there is some kind of Halpern fellowship at the NB Institute. To troll Marty’s ghost, which, considering the nature of our friendship, I think he’d appreciate, I’ll make sure the recipient of such a fellowship works on semiclassical physics.

FWIIW for all your electronics nerds who think you need whatsapp, slack, discord, ‘tardbook, texting or whatever ridiculous communication application to keep in touch with friends; after he retired, since he didn’t need to send LaTeX to collaborators any more, ole Marty didn’t even use email. He considered it a waste of his time. Friends use the telephone and meet in person.

Marty told me a lot of wise stuff; some of which I will never repeat.  He left his friends at a bad time, and we miss him terribly, but then, there never is a good time.

 

“Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.”

 

 

Professor Martin Brent Halpern – World Renown Theoretical Physicist died in Tucson, AZ on January 21, 2018.

As a child, Martin Brent Halpern was drawn to chemistry experiments and other physical concepts such as tesla coils, perhaps to the consternation of his parents, Dr. Melvin Halpern and Blanche Halpern. Marty enjoyed playing practical jokes with his pals, including an infamous stunt involving a pound of limburger cheese. He was also active in the Boy Scouts for many years.

As a teen, Marty focused on the sciences, winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search at the age of sixteen. His work in the field of physics began as a chemistry and math major at the University of Arizona, where he was University Valedictorian. As Marty’s questions became more fundamental, his professors directed him to the physics department and Marty changed his focus from pre-med to physics, going on to earn a PhD in physics from Harvard in 1964.

During his post doctorate studies, he was awarded a NATO fellowship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (1964-1965), a post-doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley (1965-1966), and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton in 1966-1967. While at UC Berkeley finishing his post doctorate, he was invited by Julius Robert Oppenheimer to Princeton on a fellowship in the late 1960’s. He returned to UC Berkeley, quickly moving up the ranks from assistant professor to full professor, from 1972 until he retired as emeritus.

He greatly contributed to Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Orbital Theory, among others. He was a co-discoverer of affine Lie Algebra with Korkut Bardakci. He returned to CERN most summers and for a one-year sabbatical in 1996 to continue his research.

Outside of physics, Martin was a life-long, avid weight lifter, a devotee of books, theater, film and music, as well as a passionate comic book collector. Armed with a sense of humor and a well-traveled passport, Martin Halpern was able to explain the laws of physics in creative and colorful ways to his daughter, the filmmaker Tamar Halpern, as well as to his grandson, and his second wife (of over 39 years) Penelope Dutton Halpern. Marty fulfilled a lifetime dream of retiring to his childhood hometown of Tucson, Arizona in 2012.

 

Cybersyn and Allende’s Semi-Automated Luxury Socialism

Posted in econo-blasphemy by Scott Locklin on February 26, 2019

One of the interesting “what ifs” of history is “what if the 70s-80s commies used computers to do their planned economy.” Men like KantorovichNikolay Fedorenko and Victor Glushkov helped develop some of the mathematical tools and computer systems which would have made this possible.There were abortive attempts to build this in East Germany (pdf link), the Soviet Union and Allende’s Chile. As far as I can tell, the Soviet and German efforts were crushed by old guard party rednecks who feared losing control to technocrats. Oddly, Allende’s attempt at this, which would have been constructed of bone knives and bearskins, seemed to come closest to being deployed.

The visionary behind this was Fernando Flores, who is still alive despite being Allende’s minister of finance and later “General Secretary” back in the early 1970s. Flores was inspired by a sort of futurist “cyberneticist” operations research proponent named Stafford Beer. Operations research is generally now thought of as the field of applied work involving optimization; linear programming and all that. In those days  it was something more general: mathematics applied to the problem of management. Guys like Beer with this sort of training ended up running large parts of the war economy.

It’s difficult for me to characterize what “cybernetics” is, probably because it doesn’t really mean anything. Norbert Wiener, who I respect, coined the phrase, and more or less defined as a hand wavey general study of systems of feedback and control mechanisms. As far as I can tell, “cybernetics” was a complete bullshit field, and what it really meant was “I know futuristic looking words and have Wiener’s book on my shelf; pay me more.”  Stafford Beer was a proponent of “management cybernetics” which, as far as I can tell, meant “using data to make business decisions.”  The books are hysterical; you can go look at them on filesharing sites. They appear to be total horse shit. FWIIW the Soviets more or less agreed with me, at least in 1947; the field of cybernetics was condemned as “a science of obscurantists, a pseudoscience wedded to obscurantist epistomology.”

This looks like it pertains to something real; nope

 

Flores hired Beer. Beer cut his rates to $500 a day (about $2500 in today’s money) along with unlimited cigars, chocolate and wine; items the Chilean government had a surplus of. Mind you the Chilean government was being starved of dollars at the time as a form of colonial pressure, just as the Venezuelan government is now in 2019. The results were hilarious.

The thing Beer built for the Chilean government is most famous for its control room, so we’ll start there. It had a bunch of cool chairs where powerful human intelligences would examine data on the walls and vote on the cybernetically optimal next steps. The chairs are TOTALLY not based on Captain Kirk’s control chair from Star Trek; every account of the thing makes certain to mention this. I assume Beer got a lot of shit over it, and rightly so, because he totally copied this from Star Trek. Or, if he didn’t, his designer did.

The chairs come equipped with ash trays (men of power always smoked in those days) and a place for a whiskey glass, presumably in case Castro or Beer wanted to relax while making important decisions. There are 7 of the chairs to make sure they can always achieve consensus when they vote. They use ridiculous glowing geometric buttons (like on Star Trek) instead of keyboards. The main reason is because they’re all hardwired to physical mechanisms; the images and graphs on the wall are not computer generated or directly interfaced with a computer at all. They’re slides and viewgraphs that are manually put in there by human helpers behind the walls. The lack of keyboard has also attributed to keyboards being “feminine” or confusing to men, which may be true in some way, but which doesn’t make any sense, as male factory workers used the teletypes to communicate factory data with home base.

The important pieces in the background, besides the workers behind the curtain, were the computer, an antique that they had on hand, and dozens of teletype machines they distributed to factories and control points to relay important metrics and data back to home base. These metrics would be entered into the computer (by hand), which would presumably generate reports (it’s not clear this ever happened) which would be manually turned into viewgraphs and slides by artists. The display of these slides would then be controlled by heavy drinking/smoking men in Captain Kirk Star Trek chairs, just like when they show you their vacation photos on a carousel slide projector. Except it was 7 people controlling the projector and arguing about what it all means.

People go on about how futuristic this was, because … I dunno, muh internet and muh powerpoint is used to make business decisions now. The reality is, Beer built the Allende government the economic equivalent of one of those WW-2 era RAF air defence sector station operation rooms with a little futuristic woo slapped onto it. It has some trappings of high technology with the Star Trek like buttons, but those buttons really didn’t do much of anything. The data allegedly eventually feeding  back to the computer could have been more effectively gathered by people on the telephone with yellow legal pads rather than the teletype, just like it was in a WW-2 era RAF air defence command center. In fact, factory managers ended up routing around the central command center and teletype process by calling up other factory managers and working out potential supply issues.

The one time it was allegedly useful was during a CIA organized truckers strike. You’d expect any central data/controll station to be useful in a crisis situation, more for putting decision makers in a room where all the data is available than anything else. Pretty sure the slides, assuming any were made for the event, and the computer, assuming any data was entered into it, were not helpful here.

It may have eventually been a helpful tool if Pinochet hadn’t taken over, thrown many of those involved out a helicopter, and destroyed the room of socialist power. The fancy appearance of it was almost entirely Potemkin village though. It relied on people entering stuff into the system at the collection end. It relied on “data science” people writing code. And it relied on artists marshalling the data into useful and insightful visual reports. It also relied on people who managed the factories to obey, and in a timely fashion; presumably once you finished your whiskey and cigars, you summoned a telephone to tell the factory workers what to do. All of these things are guaranteed to more or less fail.

Even small design decisions were foolish. The controls; why should everyone in the room be able to control the view? How could everyone in the room control the view? We don’t give everyone a remote when we do powerpoint now. Beyond that, how does the cigar smoking drunk in the chair know what slides are where when he’s pressing his buttons? It changes every meeting, and some boob in the background could screw up the order of the things. Who sets the agenda? I strongly suspect the guys in the chairs would be shouting through the walls to get the secretaries to pull up different slides. Also the voting buttons. Seems very scientific and futuristic to have the seven cigar puffing drunks in the Captain Kirk chairs voting by some kind of electrical secret ballot to make decisions. Why wouldn’t they just say “dude this sucks?” How would it make a difference? And of course, there was no way to actually transmit decisions using all this fancy electronics, besides the telephones they should have used in the first place.

The SAGE system was a real world embodiment of this sort of thing, built 15 years earlier. Unlike Cybersym, it was a real time system, with real time data flowing into a central processing unit, and real time commands being sent out to remote bases. SAGE also had human operators who helped the computer make the right decisions. SAGE worked (we think) because it actually was entirely networked, and the data flowed quickly, and split second decisions were absolutely necessary. SAGE also didn’t have any goofy fake control panels with a place to put your liquor, or LARPY telex stuff where secretaries had to do data entry to put the data into a computer. But, at the time, it was probably fairly difficult to see this, and people who watched a lot of Star Trek were probably impressed.

 

 

I’m not sure how the detailed history of this played out. It’s entirely possible American spooks ramped up their efforts to depose Allende in part because of fear of this. US economists and analysts almost always overrated Soviet and communist efficiencies. In part this happened because the Soviets would occasionally surprise people with things like Sputnik. In part it was rice bowl politics; you get a bigger budget for the scary threat rather than the third world threats made of coconuts and rubber band slingshots. But mostly it was because the technocrats and economists who purported to study Soviet economics thought their own farts smelled of roses. Western economists in those days were not the mere bean counters and toadies for capital they are today: they had vast powers to regulate the economy, set prices and so on. They just assumed more regulation of the economy would cause it to run more efficiently. They believed their own bullshit.

The threat of a more efficient civil service is taken very seriously by governments. For examples from history, the late Imperial government of Russia was seen as a great threat by Germany as it had developed an efficient and productive civil service. One which was rapidly industrializing the country and improving its logistics with a fraction of the per capita civil service manpower of Germany. WW-1 may have been partially a result of this fear. I can’t  prove any of this without access to spook internal documents and reports on Cybersyn. But I do have the example of an article in New Scientist who described Cybersyn as potentially “one of the most powerful weapons in history.” I mean, it very obviously wasn’t and probably couldn’t have been with the approach they took. But the CIA had no real way of knowing this.

As a sort of weird coda to all this, apparently Brian Eno and later David Bowie and David Byrne befriended Beer. I kind of wonder what they talked about, or if they just partied. As mountebanks go Beer seemed like a fun guy. Any proto data scientist who puts ashtrays and whiskey cup holders in a Captain Kirk control chair can’t be all bad, even if he was full of shit.

Bones send whiskey and smokes, stat

 

 

https://www.newstatesman.com/world/2018/08/project-cybersyn-afterlife-chile-s-socialist-internet

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/planning-machine

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/cybernetic-revolutionaries

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/allende-chile-beer-medina-cybersyn/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2003/sep/08/sciencenews.chile

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn