I 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
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!