Breakthrough occurred while I was being taken around an art gallery.
I should point out immediately that the venue alone would make this a very unusual event, for I very rarely visit art galleries. In fact the only time I find myself in one is when I am under pressure from a visiting relative (usually female), or trying to impress someone (again usually female) with the depth of my cultural background.
By reading up the catalogues before, I can usually give a fair impersonation of an art lover, but in point of fact I know very little and until recently also had little interest in art. The sum of my knowledge was that there are two sorts of art, like hymns: Ancient and Modern. Ancient I can live with. It's understandable and I respect it because I can't do it myself. Modern Art I don't understand but I feel I could quite easily imitate it. It is weird, extreme and seems to be deliberately ugly, almost as if to stop people like me wanting to imitate it.
Not that I haven't tried to understand Modern Art. I have often questioned people who consider themselves experts, but after a few minutes conversation I have always felt that they don't know any more than I do. They seek refuge in unusual words in unusual sentence constructions, which if I don't follow show me to be a slob who isn't made of the fine fibre to understand anyway. But just because there are a lot of phoneys around doesn't necessarily mean there is nothing in Modern Art. After all there is an awful lot of it and apparently reasonable people are ready to pay fabulous sums for it. What am I missing?
So when a young girl appeared in my circle of acquaintances and professed to know something about a current exhibition of particularly preposterous items, I challenged her to make some sense out of them for me. But I cannot hide that my interest was more in her (a very understandable and not at all Ancient artform) than in the exhibits on view.
The Breakthrough occurred in the course of a whispered conversation with my beautiful guide in front of an "Abstract Expressionist" labelled "Painting Number Two". The catalogue explanation of this opus was filled with expressions such as "illusionistic space", "clearly deny and dissemble the picture's material surface". Actually on view was a painting with three coarse roughly parallel horizontal strokes, two roughly vertical strokes and a big smudge top centre where the artist had apparently finished by contemptuously cleaning his brush on the canvas. I was silent, trying to think of a non-obscene reply to the question as to how I "responded" to this rubbish, when a word used by my guide broke into my reverie. It is a rather overworked word, a word that usually arouses faint feelings of irritation in me, in the same way the glib use of "the subconscious" probably does to a psychiatrist. But this time, and in that context, it worked like "Open Sesame" on my sub-conscious:
"...something, something, something, communication ... "
My heart missed a beat and suddenly it was on me. To a deep-toned chord from a celestial organ, radiant angels slowly pulled apart sky-high portals and beams of shimmering golden light streamed earthwards. The organ chord deepened and rose majestically in volume as through the open portals the heavens could be seen to be opening, revealing the silvery dust of distant galaxies strewn across the black velvet depths of infinite space. The angels raised long trumpets to their lips and to the accompaniment of a supernatural fanfare the stars swam together then moved apart to form strange cabalistic symbols.
Strange...almost mathematical symbols. No, not so strange! That looked like... just like ... it was! It was a well-known mathematical equation!
C = W log2 (1+S/N)
The Universe suddenly slid sideways and re-arranged itself. The portals slowly closed, the organ chord sank to a whisper and merged into the sound of the air-conditioning. The symbols glowed in letters of fire across Painting No. 2, dimmed then disappeared. The revelation was over.
I blinked, swallowed and sat down weakly on a bench.
I had just seen Shannon's formula for Channel Information
Capacity written across the painting!
I had had Insight.
"Are you all right?" asked my companion, her beautiful eyes mirroring a flattering anxiety "You look quite pale."
"Art is communication," I said.
"I just said that," she said. "Weren't you listening?'
"The receipt of information in the form of a message implies uncertainty in the mind of the recipient before the message arrives. A measure of the information content of a message can thus be based on the amount of uncertainty it has removed," I quoted.
She looked at me doubtfully. "I'd better call an attendant," she said and disappeared.
I forget how the afternoon ended. Badly, I fear.
But not to stretch this anecdote any further, now is perhaps the time for me to reveal, with modestly downcast eyes that yes, I am an Electronic Engineer, and I recognized the equation because I am often called on to solve problems of communication, or Data Transfer, as we call it.
And that was it. Art is Communication. I know a lot about communication and I couldn't wait to sit down and start to think of Art under the familiar headings of Information Theory: Data Bandwidth, Signal to Noise Ratio, Redundancy, Error Correction..
On the way home I had a smaller, but probably more important insight. Here was I proposing to use well-known technical concepts to analyse a subject that on the face of it couldn't be further removed from science and engineering. What other subjects could also be fruitfully analysed using the well-known engineering concepts of (eg) Feedback, Filtering, Resonance, Pattern Recognition, Statistical Analysis, and Associative Memory? What after all was selling but a search for resonance? What was falling in love but the construction of a matched filter? What is a riot but positive feedback? A Devil's Advocate the application of negative feedback? Astrology but the search for patterns in noise?
How this book came to be written
But to get back to electronic engineers for a moment. We use small cheap components that can be wired together in an afternoon to demonstrate quite complicated principles like Feedback. Change a wire here and it goes from Negative Feedback to Positive Feedback. (See Tutorial). We can have an idea and check it out in no time at all, whereas a mechanical engineer who has a new way to build a bridge will have to convince lots of people to give him the money and then it will take ages to build it. So it probably won't be a very great advance: he can't take the risk. The same for an aircraft designer who has invented a new type of wing. The end-result of this is that electronic engineering is relatively far in advance of most other branches of engineering. (I suspect optical and genetic engineering are catching up, though).
Electronic engineering is in fact so far in advance that most other branches of technology (including medicine) use our products and have taken over lots of our vocabulary too. When management courses talk of people "interfacing" or an advertiser looks for "resonance" in the public, they are using words that have either originated in electronics or are particularly well understood by the average electronic engineer. I haven't heard of a travel agency advertising "System Reset Holidays" yet, but it can happen any moment.
With this sort of encouragement it is not surprising that an electronic engineer who has been working all day designing (say) some complex robot control system, sometimes lifts his head up from his work and looks around at Life, seeing it momentarily through the eyes he has just been using for his work.
The "Fresh Look" essays are an attempt to show you something of what he sees.
The materialistic viewpoint
The possibly unpalatable rationale behind a lot of these essays is that all natural phenomena, ourselves (our characters and behaviour) included, are ultimately understandable. We are very complicated biological machines constructed in the real world out of "normal" material. Being machines we must obey the same well-known principles that we use when we construct our machines. In these essays I show how we can sometimes look at our behaviour and see the operation of some well-known principle (even though we cannot always explain exactly where or how it is operating).
Now the principles themselves are well-enough known and are reviewed in the "Tutorial" section for anyone who has forgotten. But their application in studying humanity requires a certain ruthlessness that not everyone can stomach. Nor can everyone face the logical conclusions of some of the analyses.
More about engineers
By now you will have seen that an alternative title for this collection of essays would be "Life - an Engineer's Viewpoint". You would probably agree that everyone is "deformed by their métier" to a certain extent. I'm sure that a soldier back from Northern Ireland cannot walk down a quiet village street in Essex without automatically worrying if he sees an untended baby carriage outside the local police station. An artist's eye would see beauty (or ugliness) in the same scene. A writer might weave some fantasy about the hysterical mother seeking help to find her stolen child. An engineer would probably observe the interesting foot-brake on the carriage.
But I like to think that engineers, because of the particular way in which their métier has deformed them, have a certain advantage, a certain extra acuity in their view of life. So let me tell you something about the life of an engineer.
What are Engineers and Scientists?
As I am writing in English, a lot of my readers are probably British and it is a sad fact that in Britain an engineer is looked on as a rather comical type who appears in reel three on one of those old war-time movies where the hatch to the Engine Room opens and the oil-stained Chief Engineer looks up at the deck-officer, clad in impeccable tropical whites. Rubbing his hands on a piece of cotton waste he says something like "I canna give ye no more knots."
But outside Britain the engineer is a person respected by all sections of the public for his ability to get complicated and useful things done, without talking too much about it.
Yes, engineers use their "right-brain" a lot – intuitive rather than "left-brain" talkative. My contribution is that I am both, possibly because I had a very practical English mother and a loquacious Celtic father.
There is a lot of overlap in the two professions of engineer and scientist. Basically a scientist is one who is trying to discover something and an engineer is one who is trying to build something. The scientist's output is papers; the engineer's output is "things" - machines, systems, constructs.
The scientist has a more leisurely life than the engineer but is expected to drive himself. He is expected to find new things. He is an intellectual. He can make mistakes, which may take a long time to rectify because he is perhaps the only one in his field.
Something about engineers
The engineer is rooted in the "real" world of well-known physical laws, budgets, delivery times, competition. Engineers can rarely make mistakes because they have Mother Nature peering over their shoulders. The computer program must run, the two halves of the bridge must meet in the middle.
The situation is covered by a wryly humorous set of laws, called "Murphy's Laws". In detail they are different for each branch of engineering, but in general they state that "If anything can go wrong, sooner or later it will". Of course everyone knows of this effect, but in engineering it is brought much more to our attention, probably because of the risk factor involved in all innovative engineering and also because of the immense number of steps between conception and construction. "Murphy's Laws" have a strong influence on the character of an engineer.
On balance, engineers are optimistic, but not in the same way most other professionals are. In starting a project the engineer is very optimistic indeed. He looks back at all the problems he has solved and feels confident that he can solve this one too. But as soon as he has sketched out a method of solving the problem he immediately becomes a pessimistic Devil's Advocate looking for the mistakes in his reasoning which experience tells him are there. A few experiments are made which hopefully show him the method is feasible and he is optimistic again. But immediately the pessimistic phase is switched in again: "OK so far, but will it work in the worst conditions (heat, cold, vibration, contaminated atmosphere, low/high mains voltage etc.) And components are never perfect: they all are built to some tolerance and at some point in the construction all these tolerances are bound to add up in the wrong direction. Sure, we can buy components with tighter tolerances but that will cost an arm and a leg and take us over budget and we'll lose the job to the competition". This pessimistic approach is called "worst-case design".
Think then of an engineer as someone having, almost at the same time, two contrasting personalities. The one is inventive, full of fantasy, good associative memory – a cheerful, expansive salesman-type extrovert. The other is narrow-eyed, cautious, a miserably pessimistic introvert.
Training to be a engineer
Before an engineer becomes an engineer he has to follow long and arduous training course. Unlike the more fortunate arts graduate, it is not enough to have an opinion and to be able to defend that opinion. In engineering a problem has only one solution, although there may be more than one way of arriving at it.
The engineer at college is trying to jump on a rising spiral of knowledge and what he learns there may well be out of date before he graduates. So what he has to concentrate on are the unchanging physical principles, mathematical techniques, measuring methods and some knowledge of how problems were solved in the past.
When he gets out in the world he starts learning some job
involving a technology he has probably only vaguely heard of. But if he is any good he will master it in a short time and start making a contribution.
And all the time he must keep up with new technology. In my technical life I started off learning about valves, (remember valves, or tubes as the Americans called them?). Valves used as distortion-free amplifiers. Then with radar came pulse techniques with valves used as switches. Soon transistors arrived - and all the technology changed. Transistors made digital technology practical so we had to drop analogue techniques and learn to live in the digital world. This quickly got more complicated with the invention of integrated circuits, culminating in the micro-processor. This last was particularly hard to swallow. The micro-processor is a computer. The computer people had been beavering away since 1945 or so, but their computers were so big we could safely ignore them for our day-to-day problems. But now computers-on-a-chip were available and so we had to learn about them, with all their jargon like "vectored interrupts". Suddenly a lot of older engineers decided to seek their future in management or sales and leave technology to the young whiz-kids coming from the Universities.
The rewards of engineering
The engineer finishes his courses, starts to work and accumulates experience. Like me, he may try his hand on his own.
To see the reward he can expect, let me relate an anecdote about a job I did once for a German aerospace customer.
In order to design a new fighter, a model about 2m long was built and it was to be tested in a wind tunnel. The model was covered with gauges which measured airflow, temperature, stress. My contribution was to build an electronic device called a "multiplexer" which took the outputs of all the 128 gauges and converted then into a "bit stream" (at 107Mbps) so that they could go into a fancy new tape recorder, just bought by the customer. I had also built, in the same box, a "demultiplexer" which would take the output of the tape recorder, during play back, and reconstitute the original gauge signals.
So my device, which took me a year to build, the tape recorder, a large new costly computer and the model of the fighter were sent up to Göttingen in north Germany, together with a team of technicians, engineers, aerodynamicists etc., where they were going to rent the very expensive wind-tunnel facilities.
After the equipment was installed I started getting panic calls - "Your equipment is not working!" (Translation – the overall system is not working and the tape recorder or computer service technicians who have been called in are accusing absent me). Fortunately I was able to convince the customer, over the phone, that my thing was OK - mainly because my unit had a switch on it which connected the demultiplexer part to the multiplexer part and could therefore do a convincing self-test.
Still more panic, service engineers now arriving from the States and France while I stayed at home in Munich, occasionally giving advice. Finally - silence.
After a week or so I remembered there were a number of wind-tunnels in Göttingen, other teams would be using them, maybe they would be interested in my device - interested enough to buy one even. Perhaps I should go up there and drag over a few of them to see my thing in actual use?
So I called up my customer at Göttingen to see how things were going on but all I could get was some technician, speaking in an apparently empty hall.
"The Eurofighter lot? I dunno, mate, they all shoved off a coupla days ago and took all their junk wivem".
Jesus! Had the tests finished? Did they get the results OK? Had my device performed properly?
I called up the customer here in Munich but could only get the department secretary:
"Yes. they returned the day before yesterday and have all gone on holiday. No, I don't know if it was a success. Yes, they all looked happy enough. Why do you want to know?"
I thanked her and hung up. And suddenly I smelt it - the Sweet Smell of Success! Success to an artist is to be surrounded by beautiful girls at a vérnissage, an actor gets a standing ovation, even successful salesmen get commemorative plaques and a handshake. But if he is an engineer - silence, no complaints is the most he can hope for. The bridge didn't fall down, the ship didn't sink, the program ran, the vital data was collected.. "You got paid, didn't you?"
So why do people become engineers? It takes a lot of work to become one, it takes a lot of work to stay there, there is a lot of competition for the interesting jobs, it's not especially well paid and they have the hardest taskmaster in the world - Mother Nature. It's looked on as a "good" profession but is considered socially far down the scale from those juju men the medical doctors, or even money managers.
Obviously engineers like their job. How do you think the Wright brothers felt when the their aeroplane finally flew at Kitty Hawk? How Watt felt when his steam engine turned continuously for the first time? How Marconi, with headphones clamped to his head in a little remote wind-blown hut on Signal Hill in Newfoundland felt when he heard those faint Morse code dots coming from 3000 miles away in Cornwall?
I can tell you. They felt great. And that is why they want to stay engineers, even if they can only talk about it to other engineers.
Yes, that is the author of this collection of essays. To complete the picture add that I:
- am probably older than you
- have lived and worked in the UK, Canada, the US,
France and Germany.
- was married and have two daughters. One I brought
- was a practising electronic aerospace engineer.
The essays - how they are written.
Apart from using the various "concepts" or "principles" familiar to science and engineering, I have used five other procedures for analysing my subject:
1.In studying some human institution or activity, it is more instructive to go back (even in the imagination) to the roots of that organization than to look at the fantastic, often extravagantly overdeveloped final product we see today. These roots can sometimes be seen in the activities of monkeys or children.
2.It is very useful to remember that however complicated and apparently intellectual a human activity, it is motivated by one or more of the simple drives of survival, sex, or the instinct of the herd.
3.I try to see us through the eyes of others. In some essays I imagine the observers to be an inter-galactic survey team of three Andromedans.
4.I try to imagine what our descendants will think of us. They will certainly regard our activities as coldly as we look in our history books and judge the activities of our predecessors.
5.I resolutely ignore voices that cry "But you can't generalize!" There are differences between national characters, old and young, male and female, and we should not ignore them just because they all have (and should have) one vote in a democracy. Our pattern seeking brain is one of the most precious tools we have to help us understand the world.
The essays - why they were written.
I suppose the real reason was that I bought a word processor and found how much it reduced the drudgery of writing. Then I found how writing enabled me to tap the sub-conscious, to dredge up ideas and connections between ideas, which I never knew, existed. (see "Writing") A sort of brainstorming with myself. It was interesting to find where I could be led by the rigorous application of logic and physical principles to hackneyed themes.
I hope that you find these essays as thought provoking as I had fun in writing them.