Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology

IMG_2350_PSI had a very good day recently. I bought a beautiful $400 book for $20 in Ventura, California! It also happens to be a very important book – literally, a foundation work for today’s Internet and our computer-based technological age . The book is titled: Cybernetics. While traveling south three weeks ago to the annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Music Festival – an annual event for us (see last week’s post) – Linda and I stopped in downtown Ventura, California – also an annual ritual. As always, we had lunch at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and browsed for a bit at one of our favorite used bookstores in town, The Calico Cat.

Often we find a book or two in this little shop, and sometimes, we do not. After perusing various sections for close to an hour with no luck, I moved to the science/math section. As I ran my eyes along the shelves, I recognized many of the books they held. My scanning gaze froze as I came upon a pristine little book titled Cybernetics: or Control and Communication of the Animal and the Machine, written by Norbert Wiener. Wiener was a mathematics prodigy in his youth who enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor of mathematics at M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The book’s title reflects its ground-breaking categorization of the messaging and control systems inherent in the two closely-related realms of computer control and the human/animal brain/body connection. Cybernetics appeared at precisely the same time as the first, large-scale electronic computers, and this little book was instrumental in determining the future path of computing and control (robotics).

I immediately recognized the title and author as very important, but could this be the 1948 first edition – a book I knew to be of considerable value? I excitedly pulled it from the shelf and opened to the verso of the title page which stated “Second printing. November, 1948.” I was holding the second printing of the first U.S. edition printed by John Wiley and Sons, Inc. There was a companion edition of the text published in Paris by Hermann et CIE, also in 1948.

I became very excited and called Linda over to show her the book and explain, “I believe this book is worth several hundred dollars in the book trade: It is a very famous, seminal work in communication and control engineering. For a copy in the like-new condition of this one, $400 is easily a realistic value on the market. The apparent penciled price for this pristine copy with an almost perfect dust jacket: $25! The store’s owner called my attention to the fact I misread the price which was actually only $20. With no hint of hesitation, I coolly announced, “I’ll take it!” The book’s original price, still on the dust-jacket: $3! Understandably, the store owners had no clue as to the book’s engineering/mathematical significance to today’s Internet and computer technology.

For a retired electrical engineer, like myself, finding this little book in such perfect condition at such a price is akin to tripping over a diamond protruding from the footpath. My many years in Silicon Valley spent designing computer disk drives all ultimately stemmed from a very few foundational works (books and technical papers) such as this one. Summoning my engineering background, I can read and understand the material in this book –while difficult, it does not require a PhD in Mathematics. That is the beauty of a foundational technical work such as this – profound, yet accessible to most engineers and scientists – given some effort.

The “Other” Book

11120467054[1]There exists another similarly concise book whose pedigree exceeds even that of Cybernetics. That book was authored by Claude Shannon at the Bell Laboratories and titled The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Interestingly, the book was published in 1949 after being first introduced as a technical paper in the Bell Systems Journal of 1948 – the same year that Cybernetics was published.

Dare I press my luck and hope to find a similar bargain for Mr. Shannon’s book? Not likely to happen, but it would be the perfect complement to Wiener’s little volume.

Shannon’s book elegantly achieves the unenviable task of defining “information” in mathematical terms and in a manner which lends itself to quantifying the maximum flow of  information possible over a given communication channel such as the Internet or the radio/television airwaves, to cite two of many possible real-life applications. Reading and decoding the magnetically recorded binary bits of data (1’s and 0’s) stored on computer disk drives occurs in the “read channel” of the drive electronics, as we engineers in the industry referred to it. All such applications concerning “communications” succumb to the mathematics presented by Claude Shannon in this little volume containing a mere 117 pages! Shannon’s methods are equally applicable to yesterday’s analog channels (radio transmissions, for example) and today’s pervasive digital implementations (computers, the Internet, et all).

The next time we are passing through Ventura, I will keep a sharp eye out for this second book and any other bargains like Cybernetics! Good fortune usually takes luck, but when good luck comes knocking, one needs to recognize the sound!

Cowboy / Western Music – from Santa Clarita

Last weekend, for the eighth consecutive year, we kicked-up our heels at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The pilgrimage to Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch at Santa Clarita, California, never fails to rejuvenate its large audiences through music and cowboy “poetry,” all tantalizingly served-up by some of the best professionals in the genre – anywhere!


This feast for the audio (and visual) senses takes place on the Melody Ranch movie lot, formerly long-owned by that most iconic of all movie cowboys, Gene Autry. There are several sizeable venues located around the scenic ranch whose central feature is the obligatory old “Main Street” of town, the scene of countless cowboy films and television productions. Many of Autry’s old films were shot there; the iconic and very popular television series, Gunsmoke, was filmed there as well.


The very “best of the best” entertainment at Santa Clarita takes place on the Melody Ranch Stage, situated in a gigantic tent which is capable of seating a very large audience. There are several smaller, partially-covered venues scattered around the grounds which offer a rarely- encountered intimacy between performers and audience.

Our first time at this festival, eight years ago, triggered flashbacks in my memory of the very first cowboy/western music I ever heard – at six years of age, back in Chicago. Anticipating last weekend’s festival, I wrote of those impressions made by the Circle-J Ranch group, way back in 1946 (See my recent post of April 20, 2014, Cowboy/Western Music – from Chicago).


The Messick family is one of the perennial favorites at Santa Clarita – a local family group that exudes both musicality and joy at each performance. That is the patriarch, Wayne Messick, on the bass fiddle, extreme right. He is in his eighties and still going strong. Being local and family, they perform only occasionally compared to the busy yearly schedules of virtually all the other professional acts. They lend such a nice touch to the musical festivities at Santa Clarita. It appears there are Messick grandchildren involved in music who may continue the tradition!


The California Battalion is a period “band” from the days of the U.S. Civil War. The group specializes in re-creating the music and researching the traditions that are on display during their performances. They play authentic period brass instruments, and they do so in stirring and often humorous fashion. You might notice that the trumpets and other brass pieces seem to be pointing in the wrong direction – backwards! The battalion leader explains that, because the regimental bands always marched up-front of the troops, the instruments were pointed south for the benefit of the soldiers and their morale.

The trumpets also have rotary valves, not the “plunger” type valves we see today. My wife and I encountered one of the trumpet players and a few other band members who were strolling about the premises between performances. Being a trumpet player myself, I asked about their instruments and how they acquire them. We had a nice discussion on antique band instruments.

The point to be made, here, is the informality of the event and the venues. One often encounters even the “star performers” casually strolling about the grounds; we have often greeted them and engaged them in conversation. They have always been gracious and pleased to meet the public. There are few such venues anymore, sports or entertainment, where audiences can meet and even get to know the performers they come to watch.


Main Street, early in the morning before the crowds arrive!


“The Old Chuck Wagon” and “The Blacksmith” on Main Street

There is a lot to see at Melody Ranch during the festival. In addition to the live entertainment, one can stroll about and absorb the aura of a real western film location complete with numerous and eclectic movie props scattered about the premises. For a closer look, one can visit the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Museum located just a short stroll from the entertainment venues.

Cowboy Cobbler (peach) and Cowboy Coffee

They make a big deal over cowboy cobbler…and no wonder – it is absolutely delicious! Try to limit yourself to only one bowl per each of the two days of the festival…good luck! And we always opt for an endless, two-day supply of cowboy coffee by buying the mug for eight dollars. The coffee is served, cowboy style, from pots hung over coal fires – by authentic- looking cowboy volunteers. Note: fans of weak coffee need not bother! The mug in your hand is your endless coffee pass for the entire festival; each year the cup changes color. Great fun!


The Steel Guitar is Back This Year!

This year we saw a group called “The Lucky Stars” which had not been at the festival since we started attending. They were great – a nice surprise, especially since they featured a swinging steel guitar. For me, nothing accentuates cowboy/western music like a steel guitar. The first one I had seen since the Circle-J Ranch back in Chicago so many years ago surfaced here, last year, in the person of Bobby Black, one of the venerable legends in western music on steel. He was not here this year, but Rusty of The Lucky Stars did a fine job on the instrument. Pure joy!


We, once again, saw two performances that are an annual “must” at the Cowboy Festival. The “Sons of the San Joaquin” (as in the California valley, north of here) have resided at the top of the list of best acts in cowboy/western for some time. Joe Hannah joins with his younger brother, Jack, and Joe’s son, Lon, to produce the sweetest harmony this side of …anywhere. Jack and Lon play guitar, but Joe has relinquished his base fiddle to newcomer Dan Kahler. Rounding out the Sons is Richard Chon who plays the most beautiful fiddle accompaniment one could possibly image. Richard can effortlessly “saw” and stomp his way through the most challenging up-tempo pieces in the program, then turn around and play the most plaintive, singing fiddle imaginable; I think he must have a Stradivarius masquerading as a fiddle! When you listen to his musical interplay with the Sons on the slower pieces, it is difficult not to tear-up – it is that beautiful. Jack Hannah is the consummate voice and leader of the group. His deep baritone voice is truly something to behold. He is also a renowned songwriter with many fine ones to his credit.


Last, and simply the best at what he does, is Don Edwards. His performances involve just him, his guitar…and the whole audience. His vocals always deliver a message, a message which connects with every person in the tent. That genuineness along with a great voice, diction, and superb guitar playing are the essence of Don Edwards. He chooses his songs carefully and well. He is never a “showman.” He is always a consummate professional who has researched much of the cowboy lore of which he speaks and sings. Seeing and hearing him perform on the big stage in the big tent – yet still up-close – is a memorable experience. One more thing about Don: He hates yodeling, but he does it well and usually inserts one short segment to please the crowd. Thanks, Don.


Thanks also to our dear friends, Gil and Linda (on the right) for convincing us to attend our first festival. They waxed so enthusiastically about the music…and the cowboy poetry? That poetry part scared me off, initially. There are a few performers who deliver soliloquys on cowboys and life on the range. They tend to have ranching backgrounds and know of what they speak. Some of the recitals are very touching; some are downright hilarious. I will admit that I go for the music which predominates and cannot be beat. Thirty dollars per person will admit you for both days, allowing access to the several venues which operate all day. What a deal! Cowboy cobbler and cowboy coffee are extra!!


Disclaimer: No, I am not a marketing front-man for the festival or for any of the performers or their products. I am merely a happy consumer of what they offer who would like to share the joy. That is my idea of what a blog should be. See you next year at Santa Clarita!


Cowboy / Western Music – from Chicago

Meet Clay, Bob, and Bill Mason of the Circle-J Ranch – from Chicago, circa 1946. I will always remember them and the several other performers of the Circle-J western stage show. Why? Because that singing/performing group first opened my eyes, as a lad of age six, to the spark and excitement of live music and entertainment; it was my first taste, up-close-and-personal of the “sparkle” of show-biz!

Chuck, Bill, & Bob Maitzen - Circle J Ranch_Crop

The experience was personal because Chuck Maitzen (“Clay Mason” was his stage name), his wife and two little girls were close family friends in Chicago. Chuck and his identical twin brothers, Bob and Bill, headlined the Circle-J western music show which performed regularly in the Chicago area; they also had a weekly program on a local Chicago radio station. Because my father had training in radio electronics during World War Two, Chuck asked him to operate the public-address system at Circle-J performances.

I recall vividly the evening that my mother and I were in the audience at their performance in a local high school auditorium. Dad was working the public- address system for the show that night, as usual. I recall the footlights and the overhead lighting which bathed the stage in a brilliant light. I recall the colorful and stylish western outfits of the performers. Most of all, I recall the opening number when Chuck counted off the downbeat and the group launched into a swinging western number, steel guitar soaring above all. I was so enthralled by that sudden rush of western swing melody that my behind must have elevated an inch or two off the seat at that precise moment!

My younger sister and I never had much during those early years in terms of exposure to entertainment, the pleasures of eating-out, neat toys, and extra amenities. We did have two wonderful parents who loved us and slowly built a comfortable life after years of hard work. So…at that young age, the Circle-J experience hit me like a bolt of lightning. No one in our extended Chicago family had any musical background whatsoever, so the instant enlightenment brought about by the music and entertainment of that evening was deeply implanted within me. I never forgot the experience through all those years.

I suppose the band’s gal vocalist, an exceptionally pretty woman named Helen Anderson, was the very first “crush” I ever had. I just thought she was beautiful, which she was, and she sang so “pretty.” I noticed her a lot, that evening!

Helen Anderson, Circle J Ranch

One other fascinating character on stage was the bass player, a fellow who had a very good comedic sense, an expressive face, and a bow-tie with electric lights that would flash on and off as he played and periodically twirled that big bass fiddle on its little spindle-stand.

In many ways, the latter half of the forties was a great time in this country as people mobilized toward a new prosperity after sacrificing so much during the war. It was a simpler time than today in many ways, a time when a young lad like me from a working-class family could sit in the first ten rows at a western musical show in a large high school auditorium and be thrilled by the spectacle on stage. The entertainment environment was close and intimate – not like the high-priced, impersonal mega-concerts of today which too often feature more production and less pure talent.

Chuck Maitzen & Circle J Ranch

Thanks, Circle-J, for the wonderful experience!

Note the bass player at right-front with bow tie; also note the steel guitar, second from the end, right-back row. How I do love the western sound of a steel guitar – rarely heard these days – until last year, when I heard the legendary Bobby Black at Santa Clarita; more on that in a future post on the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The festival is an annual event held at Gene Autry’s sprawling old cowboy movie set located north-west of Los Angeles. My wife and I will, once again, be attending this year’s edition, and we look forward to more fantastic cowboy/western music and poetry. Our first time there nine years ago awakened, in me, many fond memories of Chicago and the Circle-J.

For more on my relationship with music over the years since the Circle-J, click on “CATEGORIES” in the right-hand column of the “Home” page and click on “Music.”