Back Grazing in Familiar Pastures; Shannon’s Milestone Book on Communication Theory

IMG_2499

Do you use the internet and personal communication devices such as cell phones? Since you are here, you must! Who doesn’t these days? One look at people in public places with eyes riveted on phone screens or tablets speaks to the popularity of personal communication. DSL (Direct Subscriber Line) services like AT&T’s U-Verse reliably bring broadband television and the Internet into our homes over lowly, antiquated, but ubiquitous twisted-pair phone wire connections. That miracle is only possible thanks to the power of modern digital communication theory.

The gospel of the engineering/mathematics that enable that capability is this 1949 book edition by Claude Shannon of AT&T’s famous Bell Telephone Laboratories. Its title: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. “Bell Labs” made immense contributions to our body of technical knowledge over many decades through its familiar, blue-wrappered Technical Journal. The authors of its featured papers include many of the most important scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of the past century.

Claude Shannon was one of them; the contents of his 1949 book, published by the University of Illinois Press, first appeared in the Bell System’s Journal in 1948. The paper’s unique and important approach to reliably sending electrical/optical signals from one point (the source) to another (the destination) through a “channel” was instrumental in realizing today’s communication miracles. Shannon’s methods are not limited to this or that specific channel technology; rather, his work applies to virtually all forms of communication channels – from digital audio/video disks, to AM/FM broadcasting, to the technology of the Internet, itself. The wide applicability of Shannon’s insights to communication systems as diverse as Samuel Morse’s original telegraph system and modern satellite communications is quite remarkable and underlines the importance of his findings.

Claude_Elwood_Shannon_(1916-2001)[1]Interestingly, some of the foundation for Shannon’s ideas emanated from the early design of Morse’s first telegraph system which began service in 1844 between Washington and Baltimore. The first message sent over that line was Morse’s famous utterance in Morse code to his assistant, Alfred Vail: “What hath God wrought?” While Claude Shannon is fairly identified as the “father of communication theory” thanks to his famous 1948/49 publications, there were also many grandfathers! Most of them made valuable contributions to the speed and reliability of early communication vis-à-vis the telegraph and early telephony, as pioneered by Alexander Graham Bell. One of the early, key contributors to communication technology was R.V.L. Hartley who, in the July, 1928 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, published a very original treatise titled Transmission of Information. This paper of Hartley’s and one in the 1924 Journal by Harry Nyquist were acknowledged by Shannon as prime foundational sources for his later ideas.

Hartley Bell Journal_2 1928 Journal w/ Hartley’s Paper: Transmission of Information

What Were Claude Shannon’s Contributions?

A brief but inclusive answer comes from the well-regarded book of J.R. Pierce, Symbols, Signals and Noise. I quote, here:

“The problem Shannon set for himself is somewhat different. Suppose we have a message source which produces messages of a given type, such as English text. Suppose we have a noisy communication channel of specified characteristics. How can we represent or encode messages from the message source by means of electrical signals so as to attain the fastest possible transmission over the noisy channel? Indeed, how fast can we transmit a given type of message over a given channel without error? In a rough and general way, this is the problem that Shannon set himself and solved.”

Although Shannon impressively refined our concepts regarding the statistical nature of communication, Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, had, long ago, recognized statistical ramifications, and that fact was reflected in their telegraph code. Notably, they made certain that the most commonly used letters of the alphabet had the simplest dot/dash implementations in the Morse code – to minimize the overall transmission time of messages. For example, the most commonly used letter “e” was assigned a short, single “dot” as its telegraphic representation. Reportedly, this “code optimization” task was handled by Vail who merely visited a local printing shop and examined the “type bins,” equating the frequency of use in print for a specific letter to the size of its type bin! The printing industry had a good handle on text statistics of the English language long before electrical technology arrived on the scene. The specific dot/dash coding of each letter for Morse’s code proceeded accordingly. From that practical and humble beginning, statistical communication theory reached full mathematical bloom in Shannon’s capable hands. As in Morse’s time, coding theory remains an important subset of modern digital communication theory.

Revisiting Communication Theory:
Grazing Once Again in Technical Pastures of the Past

The most satisfying portion of my engineering career came later – particularly the last ten years – when I became immersed in the fundamentals of communication theory while working in the computer disk drive industry, here in Silicon Valley. My job as electrical engineer was to reliably record and retrieve digital data using the thin, magnetic film deposited on spinning computer disks. As the data demands of personal computers rapidly increased in the decade of the 1990’s, the challenge of reliably “communicating” with the magnetic film and its increasingly dense magnetically recorded bits of data was akin to the DSL task of cramming today’s broadband data streams down the old, low-tech telephone twisted-pair wires which have been resident in phone cables for many decades. Twisted-pair wires make a very poor high speed communication cable compared to coaxial cable or the latest fiber-optic high-speed cable, but they had one huge advantage/motivation for DSL’s innovators: They already fed most every home and business in the country!

I retired from engineering in 2001 after a thirty-seven year career and now find myself wandering back to “technical pastures of the past.” During the last ten and most exciting years of my career, I came to know and work with two brilliant electrical engineering PhDs from Stanford University. They had been doctoral students there under Professor John Cioffi who is considered the “father of DSL.” The two were employed by our company to implement the latest communication technologies into disk storage by working closely with our product design teams. Accordingly, the fundamental communication theories that Shannon developed which enabled the DSL revolution were applied to our disk drive channels to increase data capacity/reliability. Under the technical leadership of the two Stanford PhDs, our design team produced the industry’s first, successful production disk drive utilizing the radically new technology. IBM had preceded our efforts somewhat with their “concept” disk drive, but it never achieved full-scale production. After the successful introduction of our product, the disk drive industry never looked back, and, soon, everyone else was on-board with the new design approach known as a “Partial Response/Maximum Likelihood” channel.

I always appreciated the strong similarities between the technology we implemented and that which made DSL possible, but I recently decided to learn more. I purchased a book, a tech-bible on DSL, co-authored in 1999 by Professor Cioffi. Thumbing through it, I recognize much of the engineering it contains. I have long felt privileged that I and our design team had the opportunity to work with the two young PhD engineers who studied with Cioffi and who knew communication theory inside-out. Along with their academic, theoretical brilliance, the two also possessed a rare, practical mindset toward hardware implementation which immensely helped us transfer theory into practice – in the form of a commercially successful, mass-produced computer product. Everyone on our company staff liked and deeply respected these two fellows.

When the junior of the two left our company as our drive design was nearing full production, he circulated a company-wide memo thanking the organization for his opportunity to work with us. He cited several of us engineers by name for special thanks, an act which really meant a lot to me…and, surely, to my colleagues – an uncommon courtesy, these days, and a class act in every sense of the word!

Even in this valley of pervasive engineering excellence, that particular experience was one of a select few during my career which allowed me a privileged glimpse into the rarified world of “top-minds” in engineering and mathematics – the best of the best. A still-higher category up the ladder of excellence and achievement is that of “monster minds” (like Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli) which the Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, so humorously wrote about in his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. A very select club!

The recent event which tuned me in, once again, to this technology and my past recollections was the subject of my May 2, 2015 blog post, Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology (click on the link). In it, I describe the incredible good fortune of stumbling upon one of the two scarce, foundational books on communication theory and computer control: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. More recently, I acquired a nice copy of Claude Shannon’s 1949 first edition, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (the other book). That one came at no give-away price like my copy of Cybernetics, but, given its importance, it still represents a bargain in my mind.

IMG_2479 PSLike many engineers who are familiar with Shannon and his influence, I had never read his book, although I had taken a course on statistical communication theory in my master’s degree program over 45 years ago. Unlike many engineers, today, whose gaze is fixed only upon the present and the future, I have a deep interest in the history of the profession and a healthy respect for its early practitioners and their foundational work. Accordingly, I have been brushing off some technical rust and am now immersed in Shannon’s book for the first time and in the subject material, once again.

Old, familiar pastures – a bit like coming home, again, to peacefully graze. While the overall “view” improves with age and experience, the “eyesight” is not so keen, anymore. But my curiosity is up, yet again, and I will soldier-on through the technical difficulties and see where that takes me, all the while relishing the journey and the landscape.

Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

School Seals_1

How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

School Seals_2

The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

Leland and Jane Stanford: Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

Today, as I write this, Linda and I visited the local Los Altos History Museum to see an exhibit titled “Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends.” The theme of the exhibit centered on the technology explosion which has taken place over the last one hundred years in this former valley of orchards. As a retired electrical engineer involved in and intrigued by this colorful history, I know the stories well – the people and the technology companies, many of which have come and gone and changed our lives forever. The institution most responsible for all of this is still here and thriving like never before: The Leland Stanford Junior University.

Stanford Campus_1

Founded in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to Leland Stanford Junior, their only child who died suddenly and early at the age of sixteen years, the university in nearby Palo Alto, California, was the seed-stock from which Silicon Valley took root. It continues to influence the region in a major way, to this day.

MrandMrsLelandStanford1850[1]The eastern academics who the Stanfords initially consulted ridiculed their proposal to erect a first-tier university out in the “intellectual wastelands” of frontier California, but the Stanfords had the foresight, the will, and the money to brush aside discouraging nay-sayers and proceed with their dream. The echoes of Horace Greeley’s well-publicized advice to “Go west, young man, go west!” must have resonated with them. The Leland Stanford Junior University was to be a memorial to their only child… and a gift to the “children of California.”

Seldom in history has a personal vision played-out so well. The university not only fulfilled its original, stated purposes, it has played a major role in transforming life as we know it through the technology companies it has spawned over the last several decades. Besides educating generations of engineers, like myself, the school provided the impetus for its graduates to stay in California and start new companies to pioneer new technologies. Prior to the nineteen-thirties, newly-minted engineers from west of the Mississippi would head to the east coast where companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM were the established industrial players….with ready jobs.

Stanford soon had something else besides fine weather and elbow-room that none of the old, established schools in the east, including the Ivies, could match – and that was professor Frederick Terman in the electrical engineering department – later longtime Dean of Engineering at Stanford.

Like Leland and Jane Stanford, Fred Terman foresaw the potential of the young university and its western environs. It was Terman who, as early as the nineteen-thirties when orchards still covered the land around here, envisioned Stanford University as a technology center surrounded by vast numbers of research and development companies which derived their mother’s milk from Stanford’s presence. Fred Terman was dead-center with his vision, and what he visualized is precisely what we have today in Silicon Valley – thanks largely to his efforts.

To ponder the changes in this valley over the last sixty years as the result of Stanford University’s  influence is to marvel at the enormous gamble of Leland and  Jane Stanford in the eighteen-eighties and how marvelously prescient they were!

Leland_Stanford_p1070023[1]As perhaps one of the earliest examples of the university’s role in this valley, I am able to show you an early founder’s stock certificate dated 1910 from the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company located in Palo Alto, near the campus. It is for over one million shares of the company, assigned to the president and founder of the company, Cyril Elwell. Elwell was a 1907 engineering graduate of Stanford whose company pioneered early wireless (radio) in the area and quickly became the Federal Telegraph Company. To initially finance his company, Elwell borrowed $500 from 4.0.4David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. Additional funding came from other faculty members thus heralding the beginning of the huge venture capital tradition which has always played a key role in this valley’s dynamic growth.

 

img001

The scope of Stanford’s influence is not confined to just the local region, or even to California; the university and its influence have significantly determined the way many of us live our lives, today. I can cite many specific reasons for the truth of that statement, but that would not be appropriate, here. Suffice it to say that technology has changed the world, and Stanford has played a major role in its pervasiveness within society. The companies spawned by Stanford and the research which takes place on campus have revolutionized all aspects of human existence – from our understanding of nuclear physics to state-of-the-art cancer research at the Stanford Medical Center.

For those young students interested in studying the liberal arts, business, the law, or medicine, Stanford also offers a top-tier education that is second to none. My advice to young students: Keep those grades up; you’ll find it very tough to be admitted. If you don’t make it here, try the Ivy League schools!

A visit to Wikipedia on the internet will yield many of the pertinent facts about Stanford which support the above contentions. The school’s large array of Nobel laureates is but one indicator of Stanford’s world-role.

Yes, I knew all of this before, but I had to pause and reflect on it all yet again after seeing the Silicon Valley exhibit and film, today. Periodically refreshing one’s perspective (I love that word!) is so important. The story of Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley is unique; what a fine gift to the “children of California,” and what a timeless memorial to young Leland Stanford Junior.

Rain at Last in California! The Bleaker Picture?

Finally, the rains have come to central and southern California! We have been in severe drought, now, for many months, and anxieties run high as reservoirs run low and even go dry.

 IMG_1918_CROP

Although the three to four inches over the last few days is quite literally “just a drop in the bucket” in terms of alleviating our drought conditions, the coming of such significant rainfall raises hopes that more is to come this season: It must!

Linda Was Right About “Water”

I recall my wife voicing concern many years ago about California’s rapid growth outrunning its resources – particularly water. At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought; today, I think a lot about the possibility – fast becoming a likelihood!

There has been a huge influx of people in California and, specifically, in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last several years. The primary reason aside from the region’s wonderful climate is the booming economy and the tech job magnet which is Silicon Valley. Every vacant space (and there are not many!) is giving way to developers and the apartment/condominiums they love to build. The housing demand is fierce which begets sky-high home prices and rents. However, it seems our city fathers and the state politicians in Sacramento have given little thought to water and the skyrocketing population/resource imbalance. Now, California’s long-term drought has finally spotlighted the seriousness of the situation.

IMG_1932

Locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents have been asked to cut water usage by 10 to 20%. Lawns have been going brown and showers have gotten shorter among the citizenry. The central valley of California, long known as “the salad bowl” of the world for its bountiful produce, continues to farm although there are sections of the valley that lie fallow for lack of water. In other locations, even such water-intensive crops as almonds are still grown in abundance.

Where Do the Farmers Get Their Water?

More and more, California’s farmers are going far below ground for their water, drilling deeper and deeper wells. Some of these wells are so deep that they cost a farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill. Most of the shallow, easy-to-reach aquifers have been depleted over decades of easy drilling. Small farmers who cannot afford the drilling costs of deep wells see the handwriting on the wall.

I was surprised to learn – and not that long ago – about land subsidence. Here is how it works: Over a period of continual pumping of well water from the aquifers, a significant lowering of land elevation occurs. The nearby large city of San Jose, California, experienced some thirteen feet of subsidence in its early days when water came exclusively from wells. That degree of land recession can cause all kinds of problems today: New flood-zones (not a problem at the moment!) and infrastructure damage, for example. Imagine the potential stresses and strains on underground utilities like water and gas pipes as the land settles in a slightly uneven fashion.

The “60 Minutes” Program on California’s Water Problems

Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” recently devoted an entire program segment to California and its growing water problems. The program highlighted data which shows serious depletion of the state’s aquifers – mainly by big agriculture. The implications are clear: Any long-term climate change in California which results in less rainfall each year for an extended period will, in the not too-distant future, take a severe toll on the state’s agricultural output as aquifers are pumped dry faster than they can replenish – precisely the present situation. The resulting damage to California’s agriculture will have huge economic consequences on the state in years to come.

The de-salinization of salt water is seriously being considered right now in some regions of the state. Down south, Orange County and San Diego have already implemented sewage treatment plants which reclaim waste water (even sewage) back into drinkable water. At the end of the “60 Minutes” segment, Ms. Stahl finally gave in to urging from her host at one of these re-processing plants and drank a glass of water which had been reclaimed from sewage/waste: She apparently remains in good health and even admitted that it “tasted OK” – to paraphrase.

IMG_1915

Barely visible at the base of the Japanese Maple in the above picture is a little sign my wife has in our garden. It reads, “For all things, there is a season.” How true for the annual seasonal changes which we expect. I fear that little sign may portend a darker cycle – one with a period of hundreds of years – a cycle of severe drought in California. I hope not.

For more on the subject of unbridled growth here in Silicon Valley and cities and towns, in general, click on the following link for my post “Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life” (archives, May 31, 2014).

See “Our Cities and Towns…”

Apple Computer History: Sadly Saying Goodbye

There comes a time when we must say goodbye. So it is with me and a significant slice of computer history – Apple Computer history, to be precise. The Apple II computer system I purchased in 1979 at the dawn of the personal computer age must go. It is time to face the fact that my wife and I need the storage space in order to make everyday living bearable these days. My system has been carefully packed away and stored in the garage for many years, now, while I have periodically turned to the newest, latest, most powerful personal computers that have come along. My latest is the Apple MacBook Air laptop which I purchased several weeks ago.

IMG_1530

I purchased my Apple II in 1979 from a small local computer store (remember those?) here in Sunnyvale, California, called Computer Plus. I still have the original sales receipt, my cashed personal check, and the business card of the salesperson who sold me the system: Mark Wozniak, the younger brother of Apple co-founder and designer of the Apple II, Steve Wozniak!

IMG_1479

The Apple II was my initiation into the world of computers and computing systems – a realm not served by college and university curriculums in the nineteen-sixties when I was at Stanford – consequently a realm of knowledge which presented us working engineers with a very steep learning curve in the late seventies. Yes, we had the Hewlett Packard HP 35 scientific pocket calculator since 1972 which replaced the old slide rule, but simulating electrical circuit designs on one’s own personal desktop computer was a wholly-different ballgame which required a tremendous learning leap. Such personal engineering computing and the replacement of tubes with transistors in electronic circuits were the two major “leaps” my generation of engineers were required to make in order to stay highly productive… and employable – especially in Silicon Valley.

Comparing the Apple II with my newest computer, Apple’s MacBook Air, is somewhat akin to parking a Model T Ford automobile next to a Ferrari. There are similarities between those two cars: They both have four wheels and an engine – that’s pretty much it! Similarly, the two computers also have similarities: They both have electrical circuits for computational purposes, and they both have memory in which to store information. Other than that, it is truly astounding to contemplate the vast difference in capability between the two computers. The Model T Ford compares infinitely more favorably to the Ferrari than the Apple II to today’s computers. Take a bow, Mr. Wozniak and Mr. Jobs; equally astounding is the fact that this has all taken place in less than thirty-five years!

The year 1979 marked the beginning of Apple Computer’s tumultuous rise in the fledgling personal computer arena. Aside from hobbyist kits, there were few competitors – Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and the Commodore PET were the most notable. IBM’s “PC” was still two years away. I remember distinctly the dawning of the commercial personal computer age for me: I was an electrical engineer with the Memorex Corporation in 1976. One afternoon, I came across two colleagues examining an advertising flyer in the hallway. One was excitedly pointing out the Commodore PET computer which had just been announced…the first integrated, affordable, desktop PC.

 Woz & Jobs & Apple IISteves Wozniak and Jobs and the Apple II – ca. 1979

At the same time in 1976, two youngsters named Jobs and Wozniak had, like good surfboarders, anticipated the coming wave and were tinkering with computers in the garage of Jobs’ parents in nearby Cupertino, California. Thanks to their efforts, Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was destined to become corporate headquarters of one of the most valuable companies in the world – Apple Computer. Apple is currently uprooting a considerable tract of nearby land to build their huge (and revolutionary) “circular ring” headquarters – in Cupertino, of course. Apple currently occupies a myriad of large and small buildings throughout the Valley region, so space consolidation will surely result.

The whole Apple saga and the travels of Steve Jobs – Apple’s corporate visionary – is already the stuff of legends. In thinking about it, only Henry Ford and Thomas Edison come to mind as corporate individuals who have had equal influence on the way we live our lives, today. Other corporate giants come to mind, but not many possessing the flair, foresight, and imagination brought to bear by these three.

IMG_1500

My Apple II system is very unique and desirable for a number of reasons:

  1. It is a complete system with matching Apple CRT monitor and twin Apple Disk II floppy disk drives. This, in itself, makes my Apple II very unusual.
  2. The entire system is in pristine, working condition – also rare.
  3. All boxes, packing, and papers that originally came with the various components are present.
  4. I have the original system software cassettes and system floppies as well as a plethora of various Apple Manuals – all in “like new” condition. Also present: The famous Apple II “Redbook” system reference manual.
  5. I am the original owner and have the original sales ticket, my cancelled personal check, and Mark Wozniak’s business card from Computer Plus.

Basically, I would describe what I have as a one-in-a-million Apple II system which qualifies as far better than museum quality.

Gee, the more I talk about my Apple II, the more reluctant I become about putting it up for sale soon on E-Bay. I think I’ll wrap up this post right now!

The Palo Alto Garage Where California’s “Silicon Valley” Began

California’s “Silicon Valley” is justly known as the technology center of the world. Why here, in this former agricultural valley nestled between San Francisco and its neighbor sixty miles to the south, San Jose? As recently as the 1950’s, this fertile region was covered with apricot, cherry, and plum orchards. Interspersed here and there among the orchards were new, start-up tech companies, but mainly, the region was still about agriculture. Today, the orchards are gone.

Stanford University, in Palo Alto, was the initial catalyst for the chemistry which created Silicon Valley. In a sense, the 9600 acre Stanford campus is where it all started, but a small garage tucked behind a venerable old home just a mile or two from Stanford is where Silicon Valley truly began. A garage?

IMG_1248

Yes, this is where electronics giant Hewlett Packard was born in 1938/39 with a roster of two, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Hewlett Packard, long known as “HP” by the tech community, was merely a pipe-dream of two friends and recent Stanford graduates in electrical engineering (Class of 1934). Stanford was very fortunate at that time to have Fred Terman – a most uncommon individual and educator – as professor of electrical engineering. Terman is rightly considered to be the Father of Silicon Valley and the legacy which ensued, here. Terman had a vision for Stanford and its surrounding environs, one which he proceeded to implement through his prescient encouragement of young engineering grads like Hewlett and Packard. It was Terman who suggested to his two young charges that they go out and start their own business … in this unlikely locale. Up until the 1930’s when Fred Terman’s influence took hold, it was not uncommon for young engineering graduates, here, to pack-up, head east, and take the “safe option” by joining established companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, and that growing company in New York, IBM. Under Terman’s influence, the two recent grads decided to give it a try, right here, in Palo Alto.

Any seasoned “techie” in this region knows of the house and garage at 367 Addison, about a mile from campus and mere blocks from University Avenue, the main drag of downtown Palo Alto. Linda and I often walk in the area and have passed by that house many times, always pausing to reflect upon the little garage at the end of the long driveway. Often, we continue our walk from there to dinner at a favorite downtown Mediterranean Café and on to see classic movies at the Stanford Theatre, located at the campus end of University Avenue.

A few weeks ago, we were walking again, and I said, “Let’s go by the HP garage on Addison!” As we rounded the corner, we saw a group of people going in and out of the house – we had never seen that, before. The house and garage were purchased by Hewlett Packard several years ago, being properly deemed an important historical site both for the company and for the region. The house and garage were given a loving (and first-class) renovation, an effort that reflects the importance of the site.

I asked a man standing in the driveway who appeared to be part of a security detail what was happening. He explained that HP had opened the house and garage for (new?) members of the company’s marketing/sales staff to tour. I explained that I am a Stanford electrical engineering graduate (class of 1963) and a retired engineer, and I added that we often pass by, here, on our Palo Alto walks.

He offered, “Would you like to see the garage?” Would I ever! Would a kid like to be let loose in a candy shop? The green front doors of the garage were wide open; inside, I could see the various treasures that I knew the garage contained, some of them original items that had returned home, but which I never expected to personally see up-close-and-personal inside the garage.

IMG_1218

IMG_1234

Two HP 200 audio oscillators (Bill and Dave’s first commercial product) sit on shelves above the workbench (the metal cases with the three dials). In front of the slide-rule and the soldering iron is a vintage photo taken as the two young graduates worked tirelessly to birth Hewlett Packard, today a global giant which, along with its offspring companies, has tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. In my heyday as a working engineer in this Valley, the R&D development laboratories where I and my colleagues worked were chock-full of HP electrical test equipment – of all types; HP was THE standard in lab equipment – here, across the country, throughout the world.

IMG_1229PS

 Electrical schematic of the HP 200B audio oscillator initialed “DP” (1939)

I felt privileged having that garage to myself for a while with Linda and the security man in the background. HP has long been to high-tech as Coke is to soft-drinks – practically synonymous. From the humble beginnings before my eyes was born the iconic company that millions of electrical engineers have known like a family member for decades since 1939. In fast-forward fashion, I recalled the countless hours I spent in development labs surrounded by HP test equipment throughout my thirty-seven years as a practicing development engineer.

With those working years of my life as an electrical engineer behind me, walking into that garage was like entering a time-machine which transported me back to the beginnings of so much that I knew and experienced over those years. I have known about the garage and been intimately familiar with the HP legend for a long time, but there is no thrill quite like being there and experiencing it first-hand.

IMG_1219

One of the first capital equipment expenditures made by the two young founders was the purchase by Dave Packard of a Craftsman drill press – present alongside the workbench.

 Before Personal Computers, Came the HP 35 Scientific Calculator

One of Hewlett Packard’s greatest products was introduced in 1972 – the world’s first pocket-sized scientific calculator. The announcement and the product itself created a tidal-wave of excitement…and demand from the engineering and scientific communities. Now, complex calculations, including logarithmic and trigonometric functions, could be completed in seconds with accuracies well beyond the three significant figures of the venerable old slide rule.

IMG_1276

Bill Hewlett, the more engineering-oriented of the two company founders, personally wanted such a device to become a reality and became involved in the program. At $395 in 1972, the price was steep, but sales boomed. As a retired engineer, I can recall no other product introduction that impacted the rank-and-file engineering profession to a greater extent – except personal computers which followed several years later. I still have my HP 35 (and my old slide-rule, too).

photo 3

Hewlett Packard engineered the HP 35 beautifully after targeting a ready-made market of engineers waiting to be liberated from the limitations of the slide-rule. Packaging so much capability inside a pocket-sized device with LED display and decent battery life was quite a challenge for the HP engineers.

The technology utilized in the HP 35 anticipated the coming microprocessor revolution which would emanate from the start-up Intel Corporation – also located here in the Valley. Robert Noyce, a legendary engineering genius who co-founded Intel, was, a decade prior to that, a principal architect of the whole semiconductor integrated circuit revolution which began at Fairchild Semiconductor in nearby Mountain View. Prior to that, Noyce was a principal engineer at Shockley Semiconductor, in Mountain View, which was founded by William Shockley who shared the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories, back east.

Such is our history, here, in this Valley! People like these and their companies have largely defined our way of life, today.   

IMG_1246

IMG_1241

Humble beginnings from which grew a technology giant!

 IMG_1251

 The house on Addison

Dave Packard and his young wife, Lucille, were renting a floor of the house by 1938. Although there were few company “perks” back then, the fledgling founder did have an enviable commute consisting of eight steps out the back door to the garage. Co-founder Bill Hewlett, unmarried at the time, stayed in a very primitive “shack” in the backyard, near the garage. The early years were a struggle. The pair’s first “big” contract came from Walt Disney in the form of an order for eight HP 200 audio oscillators to create the then-revolutionary sound-effects in Disney’s upcoming movie, Fantasia. From that point on, Bill and Dave were on their way.

The Silicon Valley start-up model fashioned by Hewlett and Packard has been followed by countless entrepreneurs, many of whose small companies have blossomed into mighty tech-corporations – right here in this valley.

Have you heard about those two guys in a nearby Cupertino garage named Jobs and Wozniak and that company called “Apple?”

 IMG_1256PS

 This way to the Palo Alto birthplace of Silicon Valley!

Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life

This evening my wife and I are attending a presentation on “growth,” in our cities and towns. The program is being presented by a local environmental group, and we hear that the featured speaker is excellent. The topic of “growth” is of considerable interest to us. Many in America and other parts of the world have serious questions about the upside and the downside of growth in their local regions.

Prune_Orchard_near_Santa_Clara,_California_(3655751146)[1]

“The Valley of Heart’s Delight” – today known as Silicon Valley, Ca.

Linda and I have had the great good fortune to live here, in Silicon Valley, California, since 1970. We are located between the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose. Silicon Valley is named after the natural element, silicon – the key and ubiquitous “ingredient” in semiconductor fabrication. Silicon and its attendant technologies constitute the modern-day California gold-rush. Before “Silicon Valley” was so-named in the late nineteen fifties, this fertile valley was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” As recently as sixty years ago, aerial views of the land revealed one vast landscape of orchards – as far as the eye could see. At ground-level, the view of fruit-tree blossoms in spring and the effect of their perfume in the air were the essence of the term, “delight.” Apricots, cherries, and prunes were especially prevalent and were acclaimed as the very best that could be found – anywhere.

Today’s aerial views reveal a very different landscape; the transformation of the area over the past sixty years is nothing less than phenomenal. The fertile soil of the valley has been paved over in favor of roads, roads which connect the myriad of technology companies covering the region. Today, one is hard-pressed to locate even a one-acre orchard anywhere in this valley.

The city of Sunnyvale maintains a small portion of its former apricot orchards as part of its community center. The orchard is carefully tended and its delicious cots are sold on-site every year at harvest time – a boon to the local residents. This orchard will be protected and preserved for generations to come.

Nestled next to the orchard plot is the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum which opened in 2008. It does an excellent job researching, preserving, and presenting the rich historical heritage of this entire valley. This is a history which is both fascinating and crucial to intelligent planning for the future of the region. The presentation on growth which we will be attending is being given at the museum tonight.

Like California’s gold rush of 1849 which gave birth to boom-towns overnight, today’s technology boom has converted sleepy valley towns into a wall-to-wall conglomeration of thriving metropolises. Unlike the boom-towns born of the gold rush which were quickly abandoned and fell to ruin once the easy gold was taken, these modern-day cities will be around for a long time to come. Unlike gold, silicon, the major constituent of sand, is and always will be very plentiful, as will the technological applications for it in the form of semiconductors.

Discussions about the upside and the downside of growth are particularly meaningful in this most unusual place, because the effects of growth, for better or worse, are so amplified and accelerated in Silicon Valley. I would characterize this region as THE “test tube” locale for city planners studying the effects of growth on residents and their quality of life.

Been Here Since 1948: Oh, the Changes that Have Occurred!

My credentials for commentary on the changes in this region actually go back beyond 1970 to 1948, the year our young family moved to California from Chicago, Illinois. We lived north of here, in San Mateo – about twenty miles toward San Francisco. Orchards were not so prevalent on the northern peninsula, nearer “The City,” but the life-style in those little population concentrations was distinctly “small town.” I recall the late forties when San Francisco International Airport was one small building that looked much like a suburban Greyhound bus terminal does today. When your plane boarded at gate 2 in those days, you actually walked along a covered open-air walkway and entered the apron where the plane was waiting by going through a four-foot high, swinging “garden” gate. A modern new terminal was opened in 1954 which was a delight for travelers.

SFO 1960

 SFO in 1960 when you could park and walk to the (only) terminal

As a young boy with a new driver’s license and a penchant for airplanes, I loved to drive to the airport, swing into a parking place just outside the modern new terminal and watch the airplanes come and go from the roof. How exciting that was! Good luck trying that today. Like most of today’s international airports, SFO is a nasty complex of multi-terminals, elevated skyways which criss-cross each other in confusing fashion, and multi-story parking garages.

sfo2-200dpi[1]

SFO today. Is this really “progress?”

My wife and I have lived in our house for the last forty-two years. We have seen, first-hand, the changes I describe, and we have been a part of those changes in the valley: Me, as an electrical engineer in the world of computer technology/start-up companies and my wife as a schoolteacher.

For the first twenty years after settling here in 1970, life was beautiful in our little city. Most “things” were new and fresh and manageable – like buildings, shops and shopping centers, the local library, and roads that were smooth with plenty of capacity for the traffic back then. Then things began to change. Today, we have horrible traffic – not just at rush hour, but virtually all day long. What used to be a pleasant five minute drive to the new Sears with its wide apron of ample-parking, is today an effort due to a blizzard of cars and a string of traffic lights that never before existed.  And good luck finding a parking space at Sears! That same store that was once the brand-new focal point of its spacious surroundings is now surrounded by a shopping mall and numerous other businesses and their office buildings. The massive new Apple headquarters under construction near that location will prove an additional, notable housing and traffic challenge to the area.

 Too Many People and Too Much Traffic!

There are too many people here, now. What was once the major attraction of the region – great weather and surroundings – has been surpassed by the money that can be made in the local tech industries. The fine colleges and universities in the area are also a draw for the techies who come here. Stanford University is here, in nearby Palo Alto, and can rightly be termed the catalyst for the whole phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The remarkable story of Stanford University, itself, deserves a whole blog-post of its own (will happen) – in fact, a whole book of its own.

Returning to the main point, the money and jobs which power this valley have increasingly undermined its quality of life by attracting too many newcomers, increasing the traffic immeasurably, and decreasing the air quality of this one-beautiful region. Yes, that may sound hypocritical since most of us were newcomers to this region at one time – in my case, decades ago, but there is another viewpoint to be considered. When we older residents arrived here, the valley had plenty of open space, easy access, plenty of services, and a long way to go before its economic promise was to be fulfilled through the efforts of us, its new residents.

For me personally, and in the opinion of most old-timers in the region, continued “growth” in the form of new jobs and more people is not a positive trend at this juncture. If one is OK with the transformation of suburban living into urban living with its necessary population densities, the trend will not be a problem. For local officials who salivate over more tax revenue and for developers who turn silicon into gold, the situation is marvelous. Four to six-story “condominium blocks” are sprouting up all around the region, adding hundreds of new cars to the road for each new development. The modest homes in some neighborhoods that have stood for decades are increasingly being “shadowed” by two and three-story mini-mansions. These, of course, were built on proportionally small lots made available by the purchase and subsequent demolition of older homes.

A favorite way to relax, for me, is stepping out on our patio at dawn to greet the day, a cup of coffee in hand; I often bid the day farewell in like fashion. In addition to the increasing roar and boom of traffic noise from distant freeways, one often hears the wail of sirens – fire or police. The sound of emergency vehicles was once a great rarity, here – no more. Now it is commonplace, not quite like NYC or downtown Chicago, but definitely on the rise as this area becomes more and more urbanized.

 The Morning After (the Presentation on Growth)

Now, as I complete this post, it is the next morning, and my wife and I have additional insight from last night’s aforementioned presentation on the complex issue of “growth” in our towns and cities. The former city planner who delivered the talk raised some good points. I would like to have had some post-presentation discussion time with him, but that proved not to be feasible.

The one question which intrigues me: What is the major paradigm underlying the evolution and ultimate destiny of towns and cities? Specifically, is it possible for a region to grow and reach an equilibrium point where both booming growth is curtailed and population densities stabilize well before the quality of life is adversely affected? The variables involved in the dynamics of growth are fascinating and complex – Phd thesis material. A caution: It is important for city planners to succeed in identifying both the variables involved in growth dynamics and the “handles” available to modulate those variables. But one must realize that, at a given time and circumstance, the specific handles that need pulling (the necessary corrections) are not always available or operable for various reasons. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect can kill many generally meritorious municipal building projects, for instance.

I suspect that the real answer to my above question is this: Towns and cities are destined to grow and achieve an optimal quality of life for their residents. From that point forward, they seem ultimately doomed to continue the urbanization trend until aging infrastructure, population density, and other of the many variables involved make life in such cities and towns unpalatable. External events and trends can drastically alter the status of regions. The histories of once-great cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit provide interesting case studies. Like Silicon Valley today, they were once the industrial gemstones of this country’s economy, and look at them now. The external trend that changed Detroit completely was the emergence of the global economy and Japanese auto manufacturers.

Detroit-Train-Station-Smith[1]

The abandoned and trashed, once-proud central rail terminal in Detroit

The notion of towns and cities being destined to grow to their eventual destruction is quite troubling. One would wish for wise local governments and populations who could recognize a good thing and declare that “more is not good.” But perhaps we are doomed to a version of the “Shembechler doctrine,” Bo Schembechler being the former great football coach at the University of Michigan. Schembechler’s mantra for inspiring his players went like this: “You are either getting better, or you are getting worse.” In other words, there is no viable state which allows maintaining the status quo, staying at the current level. If you are not improving, you are slipping according to coach Bo.

Similarly, perhaps town and cities must also either continue to grow (the illusion of getting “better”) or curtail growth and face the prospect of quickly wilting (getting “worse”) and a premature demise. History provides many instances of sustained, uncontrolled long-term growth which, while prolonging life, seems to impose an inevitable day of reckoning. Perhaps we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!