Silicon Valley Origins and Stanford University

I live in the Santa Clara Valley of California, the high-tech capital of the world – yes, the world! As recently as the nineteen-fifties, we locals were surrounded by acre after acre of apricot, cherry, and prune trees, and people called the region the Valley of Heart’s Delight. And a beautiful, bountiful landscape, it was. Today, after monumental change, the heart of the Santa Clara Valley has become known as Silicon Valley, and the cash crop of the region derives not from produce, but from silicon, that natural element crucial to the ubiquitous transistor and the integrated circuits which combine hundreds of thousands of transistors on a tiny silicon “chip” no larger than a fingernail. There are virtually no producing orchards left in the Santa Clara Valley. Today, the landscape is covered with pavement connecting hundreds of industrial parks and large corporate campuses. Electrical engineers are everywhere, and venture capitalists are here, too, ready to loan money to promising fledgling operations whose founders have “the next big idea.”

hp-garageThis is where it all began: a tiny garage on Addison Avenue, in an unassuming residential area near downtown Palo Alto and just down the road from Stanford University (more, to follow). Fortunes have been made (and lost) in Silicon Valley as fragile, seedling companies strived to take root and grow, over the years, into towering trees whose far-reaching branches continue to merge with those from neighboring seedlings. The result is an overarching canopy of scientific knowledge and technical know-how which has changed the way we live our lives.

           The Famous HP Garage

How and why did this remarkable transition occur in fewer than six decades, and why here? The local story of Apple Computer is familiar enough to present-day residents of this valley. As impressive and ubiquitous as the company and its products may be, Apple is but the result and not a primary cause of the tech culture we witness today in the region. Apple Computer was founded in 1976 in a nearby Cupertino residential garage by two youngsters, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who truly believed they could build a better computer than those produced by other “hobbyist afficionados” back in those early years. Wozniak had the technical knowledge necessary to create a viable Apple II computer for the market and Jobs was the corporate/marketing visionary with the stamina to make Apple Computer happen as it did.


                     Stanford University: The Catalyst for Silicon Valley

Two young electrical engineering graduates from the Stanford University graduating class of 1935 came along much earlier than the two Steves of Apple, and it was their success that heralded the transformation of the Santa Clara Valley. William Hewlett and David Packard were the names, and their fledgling company became Hewlett Packard, also known as HP, one of the truly great icons in Valley history. Have you visited the famous “HP Garage” at 367 Addison Street in downtown Palo Alto? Although rarely open to the public, it is visible from the sidewalk. It was in this tiny, detached garage directly behind their rented quarters that Hewlett and Packard began HP by designing and building a simple piece of electronic test equipment called the 200A audio oscillator. From such a simple beginning, these young entrepreneurial engineers built corporate giant, Hewlett Packard, long the leading supplier of state-of-the-art electronic test/measurement equipment, computers, and printers. During my thirty-seven year career as an electrical engineer in this valley, many of my working hours were spent in a product development lab surrounded by stacks of HP test and measurement equipment. Any older electrical engineer, anywhere, can relate!


                     Workbench in the HP Garage ( As It Looked Back Then )

The Hewlett Packard story showcases the two primary reasons that cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose find themselves at the focus of the world’s tech capital. The two prime movers underpinning today’s Silicon Valley were: Stanford University and its famed Professor of Electrical Engineering during the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, Frederick Emmons Terman. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were both electrical engineering graduates, class of 1935, who studied at Stanford under Fred Terman. It was Terman who recognized the talent of his two charges and suggested that they consider an alternative to the long practice of recent west-coast electrical engineering grads which was to pack their bags and head east to where the jobs were. Famous corporate names like General Electric, Westinghouse, IBM, Bell Labs, and countless others were well established on the east coast and always on the lookout for engineering talent. Looking southward from the Stanford campus in 1938, little, save acres of orchards, could be seen – certainly few established companies with good opportunities like those on the east coast.

Fred Terman was, himself, an accomplished electrical engineer who wrote the “industry standard textbook” titled Radio Engineering back in 1932. As a student at Stanford in the early nineteen-sixties, I myself used the 1955 fourth edition of his book. Terman was not only a nationally recognized engineer but an uncommon visionary, as well. At the center of his vision for the future, was Stanford University. Accordingly, he convinced his talented pair of students, Hewlett and Packard, to break tradition, remain in the region, and begin their very own company, right here! They did precisely that at 367 Addison Avenue, less than three miles from campus. HP grew rapidly to become an industry giant with an uncommonly fine corporate culture and identity. And the rest was history, as Terman, from his Stanford faculty position, took an ever more active role in promoting the local region and seeding it with other start-ups during the years that followed. Not only was the proximity of Stanford University an attraction to young entrepreneurs bent on acquiring state-of-the-art knowledge, the fresh, scenic beauty of the region and the fine weather were not to be discounted, either!

Terman was instrumental in Stanford’s important 1951 decision to incorporate some of the University’s prime, ninety-four hundred acres of extensive campus as the Stanford Industrial Park. HP, in its heyday, established its corporate headquarters on the edge of the new industrial park – a familiar sight on Page Mill Road, just west of the El Camino Real. Many tech and venture capital firms followed suit and settled nearby on Stanford land. The Stanford Shopping Center sits on Stanford property under a very long-term lease agreement with the University. The founding grant from Leland and Jane Stanford stipulates that the land they bequeathed as part of the university charter shall never be sold.

Stanford University is a fascinating study in itself. Founded in 1891, in memory of their only son, Leland Stanford Junior, who died at the young age of sixteen, Leland and Jane Stanford dedicated the school to “the children of California.” Stanford has made an incredible mark not only on this valley, but on the world at large, thanks in large part to the vision of Fred Terman.

Once his former electrical engineering students, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, were convinced by Terman in 1938 to plant the seeds of their start-up company near Stanford and downtown Palo Alto, things happened quickly. In 1953, the Varian brothers, Russell and Sigurd, were the first to occupy the university’s newly established Stanford Industrial Park which was ably promoted by Terman. The headquarters for Varian Associates was located at the juncture of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. It was there that the brothers manufactured their important klystron tubes, devices which operated in the microwave spectrum and proved so vital to the burgeoning communications industry. The author fondly recalls his summer job at Varian in 1961, testing large, water-cooled, high-power klystrons. My first full-time employment after college was with a small electronics company just up the road from Varian Associates, also within the Stanford Industrial Park.

                            Enter William Shockley and Transistor Technology

2N697In 1955, William Shockley left Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey, where, in 1947/48, he developed transistor technology working with two colleagues. For that momentous achievement, the trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. In that very same year, Shockley, with funding support from industrialist Arnold Beckman and Stanford, began operations at Shockley Semiconductor in a tiny converted storefront building on San Antonio Road in Mountain View. His plan? To make transistors a commercial success – and himself a lot of money! The transistor was, in most significant respects, a miniature replacement for the large, “clumsy,” and power-hungry vacuum tubes which had long served electrical engineers as signal amplifier/switching devices since first introduced by Lee De Forest in 1906.


        2N697 Transistor

Although germanium was the “solid-state” semiconductor material originally used by the Shockley team at Bell Labs, Shockley, a brilliant physicist with a Phd in physics from MIT, ultimately surmised that the future of commercial transistor technology would rely on another semiconductor known as silicon. Thus, we locals are residing not in Germanium Valley, but Silicon Valley. The development of the transistor proved such an important and pervasive a technology that its silicon ingredient symbolizes much of the other incredible and related technologies that were to emerge from this region – hence the name Silicon Valley.

Shockley on Electrons and Holes - 1950 1stIn 1950, Shockley published the first authoritative book (indeed, the bible) on semiconductor behavior, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors. The publication of Shockley’s famous volume heralded the coming age of computers.

Transistor technology was the “big new thing” (a vast understatement) in 1955, destined to replace the vacuum tube and change our world – which it did. Transistors, with their constantly advancing “solid-state,” semiconductor technology and incredible miniaturization continue, still, to change our world, and Shockley deserves much of the credit for that. But, after bringing silicon to this valley, Shockley’s start-up company, here, was destined to be only an indirect factor in all that was to quickly transpire.

William Shockley was a brilliant physicist, but a terrible manager of the men he hired into his new venture. He also knew virtually nothing about the business world, but he had personally recruited an extremely talented band of engineers, physicists, and chemists into Shockley Semiconductor. The best and brightest of the bunch were destined to leave Shockley’s employ after only one year and make real Valley history at another fledgling company – Fairchild Semiconductor, in Mountain View. That group of employees became known as “the traitorous eight” after handing Shockley a mass resignation and heading out the door for Fairchild and better prospects.

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were the spiritual and technical leaders of this band of eight. By 1961, they, and their team had catapulted Fairchild into fame and fortune by developing the “integrated circuit” manufacturing process which allows the economical mass-fabrication of thousands of interconnected transistors on a single tiny chip of silicon. That post-Shockley leap in semiconductor technology/fabrication was THE pivotal point for everything – literally the beginning of the digital computer age as we have come to know it. Coupled with Claude Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication and Norbert Weiner’s pioneering book, Cybernetics, Fairchild’s brilliant band of eight and their breakthroughs in semiconductor fabrication allowed digital technology to mushroom in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere to heights unimaginable even to the most optimistic of visionaries. Just contemplate your own iPhone!

Shugart Associates in Sunnyvale along with Quantum and Maxtor were other fast-growing companies in the Valley that developed and manufactured data-storage devices known as “disk drives.” These electromechanical devices used magnetic recording to store hundreds of millions of data bits (1’s and 0’s) on their whirling, plated aluminum platters. Fairchild’s integrated circuit technology gave us powerful small computers requiring immense data-storage capability, hence the burgeoning disk drive industry, which became a very big and important player in the growth of Silicon Valley. Today, most computing devices use – you guessed it – semiconductor data storage instead of magnetic recording.

In 1969, Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start yet a new venture which emerged as Intel whose fabulously successful and quickly ubiquitous microprocessors (computers on a small silicon chip) further enhanced Silicon Valley’s status. Almost on cue, garage start-up Apple Computer, under Steve Jobs’ visionary guidance, surfaced around 1977/78 right next-door in Cupertino and very successfully implemented the Apple II vision of semiconductor computing technology for the “masses.” This, while consistently attaching its renowned brand of imagination and excellence to the products Apple continues to produce. The iPhone concept/implementation has changed everything, has it not?

In closing, I should add that Stanford University was not an idle spectator to all of these world-changing developments after getting things started in the Valley. Rather, the University quite brilliantly adopted an active investment role and cultivated an on-going influence on many of these success stories, including even Shockley’s ill-fated effort. For starters, the school remains a long-time landlord, collecting rents on its numerous ninety-nine year property leases – prime Palo Alto property which was included in the original ninety-four hundred acre Stanford endowment. Stanford also rapidly expanded its engineering and computer science curriculum over the years, providing both personnel and expertise to the region.

When former Stanford engineering student Cyril Elwell (class of 1904) opened his Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company (a forerunner of radio) near the campus in 1908, he obtained a five-hundred dollar loan from Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan. Several of the faculty also invested. In that sense, Stanford can claim credit for the emergence of venture-capital financing which has long been so prominent in the Valley and so vital to start-up companies!

Poulsen Elwell Stock 1910_1001

This historic stock certificate from 1910 for over one million shares of Poulsen Wireless reflects Elwell’s founding interest in the newly organized company.

Many years later, in a newspaper article addressed “To the [SF?] Examiner,” Elwell wrote: “Your editorial …did not go far enough back in crediting Stanford University as the pioneer of the fast growing electronic and atomic eras.” Elwell proceeded to relate my account of the early history regarding Stanford’s influence on his fledgling company. Poulsen Wireless ultimately became Federal Telephone and Telegraph – a very long-standing company.

How often have you used the Google search-engine on your computer? Thank two former Stanford students who founded Google and provided the world a revolutionary way to search for (and locate) most any information one can imagine. The importance of Google search to enhancing the flow of vital information and collaboration for the worlds of tech and medicine can scarcely be overestimated. The list of similar examples involving Stanford’s influence is long and signficant.

Suffice to say, Stanford University has not built its huge endowment since opening its doors in 1891 by collecting tuition and room and board from its students. Look to Fred Terman and wise investing by the University to account for its continued funding – to the tremendous benefit of Stanford students in need of financial aid, to this Valley, to the state of California, and, without exaggeration, to all the world that depends on technology.

Such fame, fortune, and game-changing technology has happened within this regional neighborhood – in barely more than one human lifetime. There is a cost, of course, to all of this, and many choices will be required as we go forward. The region fairly hums today to the activity and progress within. Sadly, gone forever are tranquil afternoons amid the blossoms in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” The simple fact is this: this Valley is permanently changed, and so is the way we all live our lives because, in large part, of what took place, here.

Talbot’s Toyland Closing After 66 Years in San Mateo: Another Victim of Internet Shopping

After sixty-six years in the same location, Talbot’s Toyland in downtown San Mateo, California is sadly closing its doors for good. But the closing is decidedly not good given that this is happening to what has long been the go-to toy and hobby store, here, in this high-tech mecca known as Silicon Valley.

When Talbot’s first opened its doors in 1953, I was a thirteen-year old lad in the eighth grade living within three miles of downtown San Mateo. Talbot’s Toyland quickly became my other go-to downtown location – a welcome addition to San Mateo’s long-time local hobby shop, Hobby Haven. Hobby Haven was owned and operated for many years by Howard Yonkers and his wife. Yonkers catered to all ages and ranks of model airplane builders and model rail enthusiasts. The Yonkers’ little shop was also located on B Street (and First Avenue), several blocks across the downtown from Talbot’s. Many were the occasions during those early years when I excitedly hopped on my bicycle with a few dollars in my pocket, cycled via the Third Avenue overpass over the 101 freeway (known then as the Bayshore Highway), and headed downtown. There were always plenty of desirable model airplane kits on the shelves at Talbot’s and Hobby Haven, models whose aura was literally “eating a hole in my young pocket.”

Talbot’s Closing, the Changing Nature of Downtowns,
and the Evolution of Our Shopping Habits

Talbot’s Toyland in the very early years

Downtown San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties was idyllic in so many ways. Even though my sister and I lived on the “wrong side” of the Bayshore Highway back then, our family of four realized we were fortunate to be so close to the downtown and the western foothills of San Mateo. Looking back in time from this new year of 2020 with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, we could not have fully appreciated, then, just how wonderful life and living was in San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties – even for families like ours living on tight budgets with little extra money.

Today, I am constantly reminded of the stark contrast between present-day San Mateo and the downtown environs of my boyhood in the nineteen-fifties. One particular recollection surfaces every time we travel north to spend an afternoon, there with our daughter and her family. As was true back then, the two major streets leading to and through the downtown are Third and Fourth Avenues. At any time of the day, the traffic into town on Third and out of town on Fourth is continuous, fast, and heavy. Today, whenever we leave the downtown to drive home, we take Fourth Avenue for the short hop to the 101 freeway. I recall very well the days when I and a few of my friends played touch-football in the middle of Fourth Avenue with only an occasional passing car halting play! With so many more people living in and around San Mateo today, the days of motoring into downtown and casually swinging into a parking space in front of one’s destination are at once an amusing and troubling recollection.

Today, Talbot’s Toyland is closing after sixty-six years of exemplary retailing to the residents of San Mateo. Hobby Haven disappeared many, many years ago, and downtown San Mateo has, like so many now-older downtowns in the region, morphed into numerous hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants and food-bars. The images of the old, iconic downtown highlights remain only in photographs and the memories of those of us who were there back then: Stately old St. Matthews Catholic Church in the heart of downtown, Sherman Clay for pianos, music, and records, Foreman’s Camera on Fourth Ave. for everything photographic, elegant Blum’s Ice Cream/Creamery on Fourth Ave., home of the “banana-bonanza,” the venerable Benjamin Franklin Hotel on Third Ave., the San Mateo movie theatre right next to the Ben Franklin, Levy Bros. department store on Fourth Ave., the Baywood movie Theatre on B Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, to name a few. These were but a handful of the landmarks whose presence truly defined the nature of such an ideal, young, and prospering downtown.

It is fascinating for me to still occasionally discover a small remaining storefront, or section thereof, which awakens long-held memories of downtown San Mateo in her glory days. Central Park, located on Fifth Avenue and El Camino Real, is still much as it was back then. The spacious baseball field with its green outfield and its bleachers, known then as “Fitzgerald Field,” is virtually unchanged as is the venerable, black wrought-iron fence that has long separated the ball field and the park itself from busy El Camino Real. El Camino is that storied artery which traverses the better part of the San Francisco Peninsula, north to south. The name translated from Spanish reads, “The Highway of Kings.”

I recall sitting in the bleachers of Fitzgerald Field and watching Dan Lacy’s varsity baseball team from nearby San Mateo High School play ball in Central Park. I myself roamed right field as a (very) occasional substitute outfielder on the San Mateo Lions summer league baseball team in 1955. I also recall seeing Howard Yonkers, the afore-mentioned owner of nearby Hobby Haven, fly his fantastic, U-control, dyna-jet powered, large-scale model of the De Havilland Vampire in the middle of the outfield, there. Yes, San Mateo still evokes many special memories!

Shopping Today in the Amazon Jungle

The changing nature of downtown in cities like San Mateo all-across the country can be directly attributed to the effects of internet technology. High-speed communications/inventory management made possible by computers along with the rapid delivery of goods made possible by high-speed, economical air travel have transformed the way we shop. The economy inherent in Amazon’s internet storefront has altered forever that quaint and comforting nature of the downtown “general store” and the personal touch to shopping which naturally devolves from a first-hand relationship with the proprietor and sales-people who own and operate the business. Big department store chains like Sears, J.C. Penny, Macys and the Emporium have fallen victim to the economy and the convenience that the internet offers shoppers. But everything in this world has its price, and for the shopper that means being largely on one’s own when it comes to finding the best product for the money or obtaining detailed information on a potential purchase. Unskilled, part-time, and generally uninvested labor now sparsely populates the cash registers of mall shopping sites. Good luck trying to locate anyone on the floor who really knows their merchandise. Often, there is no one in sight to even ring-up a sale!

Support Your Local Merchants!

My wife and I make it a point to do this on a regular basis. When browsing at our local bookstore, we often discover what looks like a must-read and, as often as not, we purchase the book there even though it might cost several dollars more than the same book on Amazon. No, we do not have money to throw around, and, yes, we often purchase from Amazon because, like most folks, we need to watch our spending. Buying from our local bookseller is our way of saying thanks: thanks for providing a cozy, downtown venue in which to browse, and thanks for putting before our eyes a book that we might otherwise never have discovered!

We patronized Talbot’s Toyland in recent years with the same attitude: trying to do our part to keep them viable in downtown San Mateo. Clearly, not enough folks had the same approach to buying. The last two years saw a distinct fall-off in “foot-traffic” in the store which was noticeable in a store as large and complete as Talbot’s. This past Christmas, we were in the store on a Thursday evening two weeks before Christmas buying a few gifts for our grandsons. We were virtually the only shoppers for the half-hour we were in the store. I knew, then, that the end was near for this iconic San Mateo landmark. The store’s closing was announced soon after the holidays. Seemingly, like a law of nature, all good things must end!

At play, along with the economics and shopping convenience associated with Talbot’s closing, there is also the undeniable fact that the favorite toys of today’s young set have changed drastically from the toys we seniors loved in our youth.

Above: a display case in Talbot’s hobby department taken several years ago. These exquisite die-cast World War II warbirds rather quickly disappeared from Talbot’s display cases as us old-timers who remembered them began to “die-off,” as explained to me by Talbot’s staff! These iconic propeller-driven airplanes were soon replaced on display by jet aircraft and star-wars type “galactic fighters!”

My World War II British Spitfire –
purchased at Talbot’s during the store’s transition to the jet-age!

The large World War I Fokker Triplane which hung there for years

Last, but not least, recent years found Talbot’s selection of Lionel electric trains to be a mere shadow of that in the earlier days – as pictured, here!

Sadly, the trend toward present-day realities convinced me long ago that Talbot’s ultimate demise was not a question of if, but a question of when.

Thank you, Talbot’s Toyland, for the great years and the fond memories!

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


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.