The Doric Column

October 26, 1999

Three Steps to Oz
Tesla, the Serbian Prophet
Spiritual Machines and "Bran-New Brains"
Kansas and the "Genesis Rock"

Three Steps to Oz

  "The Silver Shoes," said the Good Witch, "have
  wonderful powers. And one of the most curious
  things about them is that they can carry you to
  any place in the world in three steps, and each step
  will be made in the wink of an eye...."

  "The wonderful wizard of wireless telegraphy
  has scanned the headlands of Cape Breton
  seeking for a suitable point on which to erect
  a station where he may stand and through
  ethereal heights hear the messages signalled
  across old ocean from Britain's coast, twenty-two
  hundred miles away."

The 20th century's moving pictures found their way into my family's living room in 1953. They began to appear on the 20-inch screen of a Philco TV that just seemed to show up one day when I was four years old.

All the movies were in black and white because that was where commercially affordable television was at in the early 1950s. Most of the movies I watched with consuming interest were westerns. With one exception. The "Wizard of Oz."

My numerous siblings and I were perfectly happy watching the magic and frightening world of Oz in black and white because we knew nothing better, at least not at home. Not until I was in the Army did I realize what I was missing. A buddy ran a movie theater near Fort Ord on California's Monterey Bay, where I was stationed. One Sunday afternoon, in the summer of 1971, he opened up the theater for his GI friends and treated us to "The Wizard of Oz." In color.

My early experience watching the "Wizard" in black and white and my reaction to seeing it in color the first time mirrors that of celebrated movie critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times.

"As a child I simply did not notice whether a movie was in color or not," he writes. "The movies themselves were such an overwhelming mystery that if they wanted to be in black and white, that was their business. It was not until I saw 'The Wizard of Oz' for the first time that I consciously noticed B&W versus color, as Dorothy was blown out of Kansas and into Oz. What did I think? It made good sense to me."

Ebert writes that the switch from black and white to color would have had a "special resonance" in 1939, when the movie was made and when nearly all films were still being made in black and white. It was technically demanding then, but the story, one that "fills such a large space in our imagination," was worth the effort.

Ebert observes that when Dorothy is whisked back to Kansas and the color "has drained from the film," her magical friends are mundane once again." He quoted a writer who grew up on the film: Oz "wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in. It beat the farm in Kansas."

I first saw "The Wizard of Oz" when analog television was in its embryonic stage. Today, that technology's days are numbered.

Minnesota Public Television station KTCA announced in September that it was launching the state's first digital television channel. A headline in the Financial Times reads "TELEVISION: Deadline of 2010 for analogue TV." The British government is signaling the end of analog television by announcing that the existing TV signals are likely to be turned off by 2010 A.D.

The analog and digital worlds have as much in common as Kansas and Oz. In a segment entitled "From Analog to Digital" [RealPlayer sound clip], National Public Radio correspondent David Kestenbaum examined the language of computer science. One of his subjects was Paul Ceruzzi, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the book History of Modern Computing [MIT Press Books, 1998]. Analog devices reflected a deeply held belief in the electrical engineering community on how machines should be built. "You somehow built electric devices that mirrored how the world worked," Ceruzzi said. "The digital world is totally different. It's totally artificial."

With the invention of the transistor in 1947, everything began to change. The binary world was born, practically speaking, and soon started to show its muscle. Analog machines with their devotion to mimicking the way things really are in the real world were gradually passed up by the raw speed of the integrated circuit.

One of the transistor's inventors was Madison, Wisconsin-native John Bardeen, a University of Minnesota faculty member from 1938 to 1941. After serving as principal physicist for the U.S. Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Washington, DC during the war, Bardeen joined a Bell Laboratories' research group focusing on solid-state physics. Within three years the team of Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain had developed the transistor.

At the middle of the 20th century, in a research laboratory in Murray Hill, New Jersey, modern civilization embarked inexorably on a binary course. Today, at century's end, the wizardry of Oz is at hand. Binary virtual worlds beckon us at every turn -- digitally processed sound, music, pictures, and television, not to mention digitally processed time. Digitized "smells" over the Net are coming, too, thanks to DigiScents, a Silicon Valley start-up. Wired and wireless worlds weave us intricately into the fabric of a global membrane, a membrane pulsing with modulation and bellowing capacity and dissonance.

Worlds that transport us, "in the wink of an eye," to realms once secure in imagination and dreams.

Tesla, the Serbian Prophet

If Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain were noted for working collaboratively to usher in the fruits of solid-state physics, the century's dawn featured two other geniuses who were anything but collaborative: Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi.

As we enter the vestibule of dreamworlds to come, dreamworlds animated by that pulsing global membrane, Tesla and Marconi come into sharp focus. Their work furnishes the bedrock of where we are now.

Four years ago, on a weekend sabbatical at the University's Lake Itasca Forestry and Biological Station, I read Margaret Cheney's Tesla: Man Out of Time [Barnes & Noble Books, 1981]. I knew beforehand that the wired world owed more to the enigmatic Serb than he had been credited with. But until I read Cheney's biography I hadn't realized just how much.

"There are many of us Serbs who sing," Tesla remarked to a young writer who had just discovered that Tesla was a translator of Serbian poetry as well as an inventive genius. "But there is nobody to listen to us."

A few weeks after reading the book I arranged for Manny Villafana, the noted medical device entrepreneur, to speak to a group of biomedical engineering students. In a promotional flyer for the event, I quoted Tesla. I recall that the quote caught Villafana's notice and he asked for information about Cheney's book:

"I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything."

For Tesla, surely one of the thrills was his success in the field of electrical circuits, specifically, his 1903 patents 723,188 and 725,605. Experts say that these patents contain the basic principles of the logical solid-state circuit gate, the key element to modern computing technology.

"The Nobel Prize was awarded to John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William B. Shockley in 1956 for their work on developing the transistor," Cheney wrote. "Yet Tesla has only recently been so much as recognized for having pioneered the field."

On my jogs along the Mississippi River, I pace myself with help from a Sony Walkman. The music, transmitted over the airwaves, captured by my Walkman's receiver, and drummed bilaterally into my brain, is in analog format for now. That's the way "wireless" began, with patents no. 645,576 and 649,621 filed on September 2, 1897 by Nikola Tesla, the inventor of radio. Yet just today, October 21st, National Public Radio ran a segment on emerging "digital radio" with CD quality.

The converging worlds of digital technology and wireless transmission are about to throw us for a loop. "The sheer rapidity of the spread of mobile phones would be enough to explain why wireless is the most exciting area of the telecommunications industry," writes the British weekly The Economist in a survey of telecommunications published October 9th. "Add to this the birth of the wireless Internet, this survey will argue, and you have the makings of a new telecommunications revolution..."

"The recent mantra of the techno-savvy--being wired--is about to change to being wireless."

The wireless Internet promises to be a "huge new market" reads a headline on the BBC's website in announcing the joint venture between British Telecom and Microsoft in the battle for domination of the that market. The alliance is said to be a boost to Microsoft in its battle against the Symbian consortium involving the world's biggest mobile phone makers, Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Matsushita. Symbian and 3Com's Palm Computing, the world's biggest maker of handheld digital organizers, "said they were discussing an alliance," according to the BBC story.

On the medical front where I'm stationed, BioMedNet, "the Internet Community for Medical and Biological Researchers," just announced that you'll be able to access Medline with the new Palm Pilot VII Connected Organizer, a personal digital assistant (PDA) made by Palm Computing. [Note: BioMedNet closed in 2004] Things are moving fast.

But the public interest in and excitement over wireless could be no greater than it was a century ago. On December 12, 1901 Marconi signaled the letter "S" across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland. News of the feat riveted the general public in North America and Europe when it arrived over the next several weeks. The "wonderful wizard of telegraphy" and "the world's most famous young man" captivated audiences wherever he went. He was an international hero.

Alexander Graham Bell wrote to him: "Congratulations and best wishes. If you make use of my estate in Cape Breton, near Baddeck, as a temporary station, you are welcome to it, and my manager, Mr. McInnis, will be glad to take care of you and your party and do everything possible to facilitate your experiments. Telegraph reply to Washington." Marconi cabled Thomas Edison: "Thanks for your very kind letter to the press. I hope soon to show you wireless telegraph working between the United States and Europe. I wish you a happy Christmas."

While Marconi was basking in glory, Tesla was building his mammoth broadcasting station at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. When he got wind of Marconi's feat he was reported to have said to a colleague. "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents."

But the dispute over who was the inventor of radio, the "Great Radio Controversy," was just beginning. It would not be settled legally until June 21, 1943, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an earlier finding in Marconi's favor to rule that Tesla's fundamental radio patents preceded all others [Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America v. United States]. Tesla never experienced his final vindication as the inventor of radio. He had died earlier that year, just as Eleanor Roosevelt was working behind the scenes to persuade her husband to honor him.

In an article published in Electrical World and Engineer in 1904, Tesla wrote of powerful transmission towers, the basis of a global network for sending and receiving messages. "A cheap and simple device, which might be carried in one's pocket, may then be set up anywhere on sea or land, and it will record the world's news or such special messages as may be intended for it.

"Thus the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts. Since a single plant of but one hundred horse-power can operate hundreds of millions of instruments, the system will have a virtually infinite working capacity, and it must needs immensely facilitate and cheapen the transmission of intelligence."

1999 AD. The year that wireless telecommunication really took off. The year Tesla's vision started to become reality. The year that wireless armaments rained on Belgrade, shaking his ashes in their ceremonial home.

Spiritual Machines and "Bran-New Brains"

"Imagine a world where the difference between man and machine blurs, where the line between humanity and technology fades, and where the soul and the silicon chip unite."

So reads a blurb about The Age of Spiritual Machines by writer and inventor Ray Kurzweil, a man dubbed the "restless genius" by the Wall Street Journal. Kurzweil is best known for developing advanced speech recognition, for which his book gets a plug from Stevie Wonder. This places him at ground zero in the current software upheaval.

I'd never heard of Kurzweil until September 13th, when he popped up on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. I was reading the paper, not paying much attention to the TV, when I heard a fellow saying some fairly outrageous things to David Gergen, his interviewer. What follows is part of the transcript of that interview:


DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm. Let me just read one sentence to you and have your comment on it. "The emergence in the early 21st century of a new form of intelligence on earth will be a development of greater import than any of the events that have shaped human history." Tell us what you mean by that.

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, within 30 years we'll see the emergence of machines, non-biological intelligence, that equals and ultimately exceeds human intelligence. In fact, once a machine can replicate all of the endearing and subtle qualities of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it. If I spend years learning French, I can't just download that knowledge to you. But machines can share their knowledge and databases. So once one machine learns something, every machine can master that skill within seconds. Machines are already... I mean, our electronic circuits are ten millions times faster than interneuronal circuits today. Machines have much more exact memories. So machines already exceed human intelligence in certain ways. They're still a million times simpler than the human brain, but that discrepancy is rapidly shrinking because non-biological intelligence is growing exponentially. And by 2020, a $1,000 computer will be equal to the computing power of the human brain. By 2030, a $1,000 computer will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain...

DAVID GERGEN: The bottom line, the machine will become more intelligent than the human beings by the 2020 or so and then will surpass...

RAY KURZWEIL: By 2020 we'll have the hardware.


RAY KURZWEIL: It will take another ten years to actually organize those resources. By that time, the hardware will already be much more powerful.

DAVID GERGEN: And then it will surpass the intelligence of the entire human race by 2060 or so?

RAY KURZWEIL: The exponential growth will continue. We actually have working in labs circuits called nano tubes which operate at the atomic level. A one-inch cube of nano tube circuitry would be about a million times more powerful than the human brain. By 2060, a $1,000 of computation will be equivalent to ten billion human brains.

[Later in the interview]

DAVID GERGEN: You suggest there will be almost a merger of humans and machines. Machines will look more like humans and humans will integrate some of the aspects of actual components from machines.

RAY KURZWEIL: Right. We'll be actually putting intelligent machines in our brains. We're doing that today with disabled people. I have a deaf friend who has a neural implant that allows him to talk with me on the phone, that patients of Parkinson's Disease who put neural implants actually overcome the dysfunction in their brains caused by Parkinson's. Thirty years from now we'll all be using neural implants. They won't require surgery, we'll introduce them through this nanobots that travel through our blood stream. And they will allow us to enter virtual environments. Going to a web site will mean entering a new virtual reality environment. They'll be expanding our memories, even our range of emotional abilities, our pattern recognition and cognitive functions. We'll be expanding human potential by marrying with our technology.


"Come in," said Oz.

The Scarecrow went in and found the little man sitting down by the window, engaged in deep thought.

"I have come for my brains," remarked the Scarecrow, a little uneasily.

"Oh, yes; sit down in that chair, please," replied Oz. "You must excuse me for taking your head off, but I shall have to do it in order to put your brains in their proper place."

"That's all right," said the Scarecrow. "You are quite welcome to take my head off, as long as it will be a better one when you put it on again."

So the Wizard unfastened his head and emptied out the straw. Then he entered the back room and took up a measure of bran, which he mixed with a great many pins and needles. Having shaken them together thoroughly, he filled the top of the Scarecrow's head with the mixture and stuffed the rest of the space with straw, to hold it in place.

When he had fastened the Scarecrow's head on his body again he said to him, "Hereafter you will be a great man, for I have given you a lot of bran-new brains."

Kansas and the "Genesis Rock"

Thirty years ago the NASA photograph "Earthrise" forever changed the way we think about ourselves, capturing "the spirit of the human venture beyond his world and into the universe."

Take a look at this photo. It was taken by the crew of Apollo 15, the mission that brought back one of the prize trophies of the Apollo program -- a four billion-year-old sample of the lunar crust nicknamed the "Genesis Rock." Look hard. Can you see Kansas? It's there.

The very same day that people traveled to see the century's last solar eclipse -- to Nova Scotia and Cornwall, the early transcontinental connecting points for cable and wireless, and to Turkey via World of Oz Scientific Expeditions -- the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove the subject of evolution from the state's science curriculum. The wonder and curiosity of the ages meets Genesis properly understood. Dorothy meets Miss Gulch.

The Board handed down its decision on August 11th, a decision the New York Times called "one of the most far-reaching efforts by creationists in recent years to challenge the teaching of evolution in schools." Creationists say that "since evolution cannot be observed or replicated in a laboratory, there is no evidence that it actually occurred."

But such is the world we live in that the following day, August 12th, scientists from Caltech, Michigan State and UCLA reported in the British weekly Nature [400, 661-664 (1999)] that they had succeeded, after a fashion, in creating "digital organisms" that "self-replicate, mutate and adapt by natural selection" much in the manner of organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and fruit flies. These novel computer programs "offer an opportunity to test generalizations about living systems that may extend beyond the organic life that biologists usually study."

The scientists plan to develop a trimmed-down version of their program to give college students hands-on experience about evolutionary processes. In a story in Wired, "Digital Evolution Enters Debate," one of them is quoted as saying, "It is, in fact, possible to see the process of evolution even in simple lab settings. This is something that people who question evolution simply don't realize."

Let's return to the sun's co-star in that final solar eclipse of the 20th century last August. Transport yourself again to Hadley Rille on the lunar surface 30 years ago.


The Genesis Rock

Spur Crater is big enough that the north (downslope) rim provided a big, nearly-level parking pad and the work at this stop was relatively easy. It was also very rewarding.

One of the first things that Scott and Irwin noticed was that they were standing on more of the greenish soil. Irwin began to wonder if the greenish appearance might not be due to their dark visors. What if they got the rocks home and they weren't green after all? The ribbing would be merciless.

"I've got to admit it really looks green to me, too, Jim, but I can't believe it's green," said Scott.

"Oh, it's a good story," said Irwin, laughing. "Something about green cheese? Who would ever believe it?".

Independently, Scott and Irwin decided to try the obvious experiment and raised their visors. As their eyes adjusted to the brighter light, the greenish tint faded a bit but, as Scott said, it was definitely "a different shade of gray." Two soil samples went into bags - samples that still had a greenish cast when they were examined after the mission - and then the astronauts turned their attention to other matters.

About fifteen minutes into the stop, as they were scanning the rim to make sure that they were getting a full suite of samples, Irwin spotted a four-inch rock that glinted in the Sun, sitting up by itself on a pedestal of breccia. It seemed to beckon, Irwin thought, and to say "come and sample me." As they looked more closely, there was no doubt about what they had found. Here was a crystalline rock made up almost entirely of the mineral plagioclase; and it was very different in character from the breccias and mare basalts that they had collected so far.

"I think we found what we came for," Irwin told Houston.

        Apollo 15
        Hadley Rille, Moon
        July 30 - August 7, 1971


Look closely at the earth as it comes into view over Hadley Rille. Look as if you were Dorothy looking into Professor Marvel's crystal ball. Can you see Kansas? Can you see the "transmission of intelligence" over the earth's surface that Tesla imagined.

Can you see Oz?


  --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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The Doric Column



The last eclipse
Economy, Nova Scotia

Partially-eclipsed sunrise over the Fundy tidal flat at Economy, Nova Scotia, August 11, 1999, the 20th century's last solar eclipse. The eclipse pathway followed that of early wired and wireless transmission from England. Nova Scotia was the western hub for the Transatlantic Cable, called the "original information highway." It also hosted the continental introduction of Marconi's "wireless" telegraph system at the turn of the 19th century. Now it will be in the continental vanguard when Y2K ushers in a century of networked intelligence, digital evolution, and the eclipse of time. Photo courtesy of John Potter, ValleyNet, Pembroke, Ontario. All rights reserved. Used with permission.