Search This Blog

Friday, 28 March 2014

Steering a course through cyberspace

Cyberspace, that ill-defined area controlled by computer technology, first appeared in William Gibson's Neuromancer, but that was just one point in a long trail that began with the ancient Greeks.

The old Greeks called the art of steering a boat something that sounded like 'kubernan', but for complicated reasons to do with the ways we transliterate Greek into our alphabet, we write this as cybernan. The Romans were more accurate when they adopted this word into Latin as gubernare, calling the steersman a gubernator, a word that lives on in American English in 'gubernatorial race', a competition to elect a governor.

In the engineering sense, a governor is once again involved with a sort of steering. In simple terms, it is a control device which stops something from running out of control, and cybernetics is intended to carry that same sense of control, of maintenance of the status quo.
Watt's governor

James Watt did not invent the first steam engine, but he invented a governor, the first automatic speed control for a steam engine. This neat gadget featured two brass balls and a series of levers called a pantograph (another Watt invention that he later adapted to reproduce drawings, among other things). Watt's 'governor', from the Latin word, reduces the steam supply when it spins faster, and increases the steam supply when it runs slow, and thus by feedback (another Watt invention), it controls the engine's speed.

With careful design, the steam engine and the governor ease into a compromise where the engines spins at constant speed, and the governor holds the balls at a constant angle, so the steam supply is held constant.

Norbert Wiener went to the Greek word to name his method of aiming guns to shoot down German 'buzz bombs' (which used feedback controls as well), he dubbed his control systems and their study "cybernetics". And that, in turn, gave us cyborgs, cyberspace, cybercrime and cybersex, so now 'cyber' means anything done by computer communication. But the language progresses: if people who know each other in cyberspace meet in the real world, they are in meatspace.

In nautical space, the item used by the steersman to control the ship was a stéorbord in Old English, a rudder or paddle placed over the side of a ship, traditionally on the steerboard side, which became the starboard side. The other side of the ship used to be called the larboard side, and this is often explained as a corruption of lee-board, but this is unlikely for a number of reasons.

It is rather more likely that larboard comes from the Middle English laddeborde or latheborde. This indicated the side of the ship from which loading took place, now called the port side, also meaning the side from which loading took place, but preferred by sailors because it was less likely to be confused with 'starboard' when shouted in an order given in a howling gale.

Sadly, one bit of folk etymology attaching to port and starboard, the alleged origin of 'posh' is completely untrue. The yarn has it that 'posh' stands for 'port outward, starboard home', indicating those who, in travelling from England to India, were to be allocated the cabins on the shadier port side while sailing to India, and the shadier starboard cabins sailing back to England. It is a pretty tale, but one entirely unsupported by any evidence. In reality, 'posh' probably was a slang term for money.

Some things change slowly: young people going to see are still taught that "If two lights you see ahead, port your helm and show your red", which means swinging the tiller over to the port side, which turns the bows to starboard, showing the port light, which is red, yet the tiller was replaced by the ship's wheel soon after 1700.  Small boats still have a tiller, but few of them have navigation lights.

This tiller, nothing to do with farming, was the grooved stock of a crossbow, and hence a beam of similar size used to control a rudder, a word which comes from the same root as 'row', reminding us that originally the helmsman steered with an oar-like paddle.

But why was he called the helmsman? Did he have a special hat, a turn-helm? Apparently not: the steering sort of helm was a hjalm in Old Norse, and that was just another name for the tiller. When Mao Zedong was acclaimed as the Great Helmsman, he may have governed many people, but he did not need a Chairman Mao hat to qualify for the title.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Finding a lost mountain

The problem with searching for lost mountains is that they have probably been lost for a very good reason. In Australia, the early traditions was to slap the name of some wealthy and powerful patron or potential patron on each feature as it was added to the map.

Later, it became more common to actually ask the locals what the name of a place was, and to record that, but in the early days, the names given by savages were of less interest. So the largest river near Sydney is named the Hawkesbury after a worthless trimmer in the British government, and the main geological element seen around the city is now called the Hawkesbury sandstone, though Wiananatta shales and Narrabeen shales lie on either side of it.

If you are naming things after people, there are a few rules: you cannot name anything after yourself, though two colleagues can each claim a discovery and name their find after the other. The only problem is that sometimes the thing they see as a significant feature can be less so when you aren't trying to carry out a trigonometrical survey.

From page 157 of one of the books that
came from the search described here, my
Australian Backyard Explorer.
Triangles were very important in convict days. As every convict-oriented tourist attraction likes to remind us, just before a re-enactment that involves splatting somebody's back with tomato-soup-covered thongs, convicts were tied to an iron triangle before their lashing. Out in the bush, though, as people set out to map a new continent, triangles were central to the whole mapping thing, which commonly went by the name of triangulation.

The Greeks understood triangles, Mason and Dixon used them when they surveyed the Mason-Dixon line in the US, European surveyors understood it when they used triangulation to accurately plot lines up and down meridians at different latitudes so they could plot the shape of our globe, which is not quite the perfect sphere that the Greeks had assumed.

It works like this: if you have a carefully measured base line, you can get compass bearings on a prominent landmark from each end. Then if you draw a scale version of the baseline on your chart, you can locate that landmark in relation to the base line by completing the triangle. You just need to know the length of one side of the triangle, and the angles, which you get from the bearings, and that landmark is located. Repeat this with landmark after landmark, and you can begin to fill the map in, adding names as you go.

Now comes the beautiful part: if you are in a new place, like the junction of two streams, and if you can get bearings on any two known landmarks (though three will always be better), you can locate that point on the chart as well, and so accurately locate the river at that point. Then, as you work your way into new territory, new landmarks may be added to the map and given names.

Triangle by triangle, the chart builds up, each point being pinned down: and you don't just have the angles to play with, because you can also make an accurate measure of the distances between two mountains that are separated by a chasm, a burning desert, shark-infested seas or crocodile-ridden swamp. If you have one side measure, and the angles, you know the lengths of the other sides, and putting everything on the map is just simple trigonometry.

In short order, what began as a base line measured along a beach or across a plain, anywhere that is reasonably flat and open, is quickly parlayed into a chain of triangles linking named features that may extend over many degrees of latitude or longitude, or both.

And in time, the mountains and other features that were used at first as reference points, fade into the mists. Instead, surveyors will rely on a small number of accurately placed "trigonometrical survey stations", trig stations to the unwashed like me, poles with what appears from a distance to be a ball.

Far beneath the Hawkesbury sandstone, the Narrabeen shales and other rocks, the whole Sydney sedimentary basin sits on a bed of coal, the Permian coal measures, coal that comes above sea level in Sydney's south and north, and also approaches the surface of the ground in the west at Lithgow, past the mountains that hemmed in the colony.

The coal outcrops to the north were found in 1797, when Lieutenant Shortland entered the mouth of what was briefly known as "the coal river" in 1797, but he had the sense to dub it "Hunter's River", close to the modern name of Hunter River, celebrating the name of the then governor of the young colony of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter.

Newcastle is still a coal port.
It seems that even before official exploration, fishermen had found their way along the coast to the coal river and brought back lumps of coal to sell in Sydney, and there is evidence to suggest that boats were visiting the Hunter to cut timber (one branch of the river was already known as "the cedar arm").

Whatever the earlier history, it all became official in 1801 when a party that included Lt Colonel George Paterson, Ensign Francis Barallier, Surgeon John Harris and Lt James Grant, RN, arrived in His Majesty's Armed Surveying Vessell (sic) Lady Nelson, to survey the entrance to the river, and to assess the land for agricultural potential, as a source of timber, and as a source of coal.

The colony, based at Sydney, continued to grow, but the colonists were hemmed in until 1813 by a range of mountains to Sydney's west, which seemed to offer no way through. These mountains are made of the tough Hawkesbury sandstone, which also makes the insipid and sandy soil of Sydney, stuff unfit for a decent vegetable garden, incapable of supporting flocks and herds, deficient in trees suited for building work or minerals to be dug from the ground.

Even shell banks, suitable for making lime, were in short supply, so the group were expected to look into many things. (In fact, the first commercial export from the colony was a small cargo of 45 tons if coal, sent to the Cape of Good Hope in 1801.)

Before they left, all of them, except Barallier, who surveyed the area and made the chart, knew where their names would appear on the map, along with the name of the colony's governor King and King's wife, Ann, Paterson's wife Elizabeth, Harris' brother surgeon, William Balmain, and even a Mr. Edgerton, who was a friend of a friend of Grant. Today, all of those names have disappeared from the maps, even if they were once key features in the charting of the lower Hunter Valley.

I knew from Grant's journal that it was he who named "Mount Edgerton", shown on Barrallier's map as the "Egerton Hills", and Paterson had named Mount King and Mount Grant, while Barallier's map revealed Mount Harris and Mt Balmain, and a river branch called Paterson's River, which is now the upper reaches of the Hunter. Paterson's River has gone, and no modern map, shows any of them. A visit was needed, but the wilderness of 1801 is now a sprawling city of 400,000, and I rather feared that my mountains would be underneath suburbs.

I selected a finite set of targets: Mts Ann, Elizabeth, Grant and Harris, and called in at the Newcastle City Library. I had emailed them to say that I was coming, what I had read so far, and what I hoped to find, so I was met with several helpful books, but far more importantly, a copy of Barrallier's chart, an older-than-me Ordnance Survey map, and more modern maps were also on hand. It soon became clear that my lost mountains were beyond the city limits.

I expected the maps to be a little disappointing, because I thought they were Grant's work. Governor King, later in 1801, when Grant asked to be allowed to leave the colony, was rather dismissive of his skills: " . . . I should [have] been glad if your ability as a surveyor, or being able to determine the longitude of different places you might visit, was in any ways equal to your ability as an officer and a seaman."

Instead, the chart was the work of that supposed paragon of cartographic virtue, Ensign Barallier, and I began to understand why Barallier's chart of his wanderings in the Blue Mountains has been impossible to reconcile with today's landscape. In short, I soon realised that Barallier's chart of Coal Harbour was not a close match for either present-day charts or reality. Barallier wasn't as good as people had thought.

Whatever the man's deficiencies as a cartographer, the layout was more or less right, and as I looked at the windings of the river on the different maps, I began to link up some common features, and to spot some possibilities. Working with maps on different scales, and with Barallier's eccentric rotation of the map to put west at the top, it helped to have some clues left by one of the librarians, in the form of an indication that "Mount Grant is below Clarencetown".

That gave me Mount Grant as a small prominence, 3 km SE of the town, far from any roads, on the thoroughly modern Clarencetown CMA sheet. Working systematically, triangulating from one map to another, one prominence to another, I pinned the assorted hills down, more or less, in a hypothetical way, perhaps. One high point stood out as worthy of attention: it was near a road, just after it crossed a railway line, and it had a name.

There was a trig station shown on it, so I knew it would be prominent, even if it now bore the dismissive name Comerford's Hill. Better still, there was another marked trig station near the hamlet of Largs that appeared to match another of my mountains, so I headed for the area outside the rural city of Maitland.

Then, my potential Largs mountain (Mt Edgerton) proving elusive, I headed for the second target, and by asking around for the Rosebrook road, found myself crossing a bridge where a side road was labelled "Mount Harris Drive".

Did I mention that my note-taking methods are a bit chaotic? I write everything down as I spot it, so I can always go back and reconstruct the processes, so I wasn't sure which mountain this was supposed to be. There is another Mount Harris in New South Wales, named in 1817, but that is also rare on maps, and a target for a later search, so I was delighted to find this one.
The Hunter River, seen from what is now Comerford's Hill.

The sign said Mount Harris, so Mount Harris it was. I should, perhaps, have mentioned that the mountains in this area are vertically challenged to a marked degree. This may help to explain why this Mount had been downgraded to a mere Hill, but at least it was small enough to drive around.

Comerford's Hill must once have been a farm, now it is several swanky hobby farms behind an unwelcoming gate across a muddy track, so I went up the gravelled Mount Harris Drive instead. This took me past a water reservoir with a trig station on top, but there was a higher rise, a little further on, so I drove further, and got out.

Being unchallenged (I was rather hoping somebody would come out to question me, so I could question them in turn), I walked to the crest, and found that I was looking down on the Hunter, Paterson's River to Barallier. I cannot reconcile this with the map, but Grant's description of it as having "extensive and picturesque" views tallies with what I saw (except that the locals have created a rubbish dump at the highest point).

Of course, it was only later, when I realised that Mount Harris is quite a long way from there, and that this hummock was in fact Mount Ann, that I realised I had another serial geographical victim on my hands, besides Dr Harris (and Barallier, whose name appears on no map that I know of). You see, in an effort to curry favour with Governor King, Lieutenant Grant had, five months earlier, named "Ann's Island" in Jervis Bay, unaware that it had already been dubbed "Bowen's Island", the name it bears today on the charts.
The other Mt Harris on the Macquarie River is also unimpressive.

So in sum, I have found just one of the lost mountains. lurking where it always was, but under two false names. I need more maps, more research time, and another 500 km of driving, in order to sort the question.

When I set off to pursue John Oxley's travels, when he named the 1817 Mount Harris, I pursued it. This one is 46 metres above sea level (I wasn't joking about vertically challenged!), but it is still findable.

It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but plain travelling isn't all that bad, either.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Looking at Atlases

Do you recognise this fellow on the right? If you think you do, then you have probably fallen for the same wrong belief that I have accepted for most of my life. Here's the low-down, but don't worry: it turns out that we are in good company!

The first Atlas was a particularly strong person, the brother of Prometheus, and like Prometheus, he was a giant. Atlas was given the task of holding up the sky, after the gods of Olympus defeated the Titans in battle. Set to this task in some undefined place to the west of the Mediterranean Sea, Atlas even lent his name to the ocean he stood in, which we still call the Atlantic Ocean.

The ancients assumed that part of the sky rested on some very high mountains in Morocco, still called the Atlas Mountains, while Mount Atlas was the tallest of that range. One legend says that Atlas was turned into the mountain after he refused accommodation to Perseus after Perseus had killed and beheaded the Gorgon Medusa.

The head was a useful trophy, as anybody who saw the Gorgon's face was turned to stone, and the incommoded and unaccommodated Perseus flashed the severed head at Atlas, who promptly became a mountain.

There was just one small problem: even the ancient Greeks knew that the world was no flat slab, but an orb, a globe, and around 150 BC, they even had a good estimate of the size of our planet, so there was very little need for Atlas in the thinking of scholars, but to the common folk, the world was flat, and remained so until sailors started sailing around it , around 500 years ago, which kept Atlas gainfully employed, so far as the common folks were concerned.

Once the sailors started going off and filling in bits of the map where once there were only dragons, there was a need for new maps, showing the true relationships of the parts of the world, and globes became popular. When Mercator published a book of flat maps, his son illustrated the cover with a picture of the world globe, held aloft on the shoulders of a strong man. From supporting just the sky, Atlas now had the task of supporting the whole world. It is perhaps from this mapping context that we get the drawing paper size called Atlas, which is 26 inches by 34 inches, or the same as eight sheets of foolscap.

Back to our man-mountain, though, the Perseus-Medusa-Mount Atlas tale has another problem. A second Greek legend says that later, when Heracles was given the task of obtaining the golden apples of the Hesperides, he approached a distinctly non-mountainous Atlas for help. Atlas asked Heracles to take over the load-bearing task while he, Atlas, fetched the apples. Then on his return, Atlas told Heracles that he was fed-up with carrying the load, and that he, Heracles, could carry on holding up the heavens.

He may have been physically strong, but Atlas was not very bright. Well, to be honest, he was seriously thick in the noggin department, so when Heracles said in his most affable tone that he agreed, but would Atlas take over for a moment while he, Heracles arranged a pad for his head, Atlas took the load for a bit, and as you may have guessed, Heracles made off, taking the apples of the Hesperides with him.

That eminent playwright of the appropriately named Globe theatre, Shakespeare, has Cleopatra speaking of Mark Antony as "the demi-Atlas of this earth", while in the third part of Henry VI, Warwick the king-maker tells Edward "Thou art no Atlas for so great a weight" — in this case, the weight of the kingdom, which Warwick plans to take away from Edward.

Milton mentions Atlas as a high mountain in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, to give the idea of a giant Satan. And Charles Atlas, of course, made his fame as a strong man. All in all, it seems that time has taken away the load-bearing role that Atlas once had, leaving just the strong-man aspect — except in one case.

That venerable guide to all things in the human body, Gray's Anatomy, tells us that "The first cervical vertebra is named the atlas because it supports the globe of the head." In other words, even though the load-bearing function is recalled, it is in terms of the picture on the cover of Mercator's atlas book, rather than in terms of what a rather thick-witted Titan really had to do in older days.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Picking a good book

This story began with a headline that read Scientists find secret to writing a best-selling novel. You can read the whole of the story here and you can read the actual paper here. It was in the Proceedings of the 2013 Conference in Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

I will just quote one paragraph from that paper: it says a great deal if you read it aloud, so you can savour the clumsiness in the construction.

For our experiments, we procure novels from project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg houses over 40,000 books available for free download in electronic format and provides a catalog containing brief descriptions (title, author, genre, language, download count, etc.) of these books. We experiment with genres in Table 1, which have sufficient number of books allowing us to construct reasonably sized datasets.

I think it makes me wonder: do these people know how to write coherent English? To put it another way, I would not be asking them to review or revise one of my manuscripts.  They are junior academics, and I am sure they are trying hard, but they needed more sage advice before they rushed into print.

True, they had some quantitative measures such as counting the connectives (good) and mention of body parts (ludicrous). They also concluded that prepositions were good and verbs were bad, though apparently not as bad as foreign words, symbols and interjections!

Basically, Vikas Ganjigunte Ashok, Song Feng and Yejin Choi, a trio of computer scientists at Stony Brook University in New York, had grabbed a whole bunch of classic books from the Project Gutenberg collection.  Then they analysed the  texts and compared their measures with historical information on the success of the work.

They ran their study over a number of books in different genres measuring things like “interestingness”, novelty, the style of writing, and how engaging the storyline was. Yeah, right, no chance of any halo effect there, eh?  No chance of somebody saying "This is a book about Harry Potter, so it mustn't be very interesting, right?

Wrong. That's the first flaw: the analysis is far from objective.

What followed reminded me of a dodgy attempt by the Control Data Corporation in 1980 or 1981 to foist an outdated and kludgey system called PLATO on four government instrumentalities in New South Wales: they wanted to sell the BSLS (Basic Skills Learning System) to Correctional Services, the Apprenticeship Directorate, the Education Department and TAFE.

I am fairly certain in retrospect that somebody had been bribed, because it was getting an and uncritical easy run, with a total of $200,000 to be shelled out--a lot of money back then, when a deputy principal got less than $20,000 a year. Subtext: it was a lot of money!

My boss thought that there was a rodent-like odour to the proposal, and asked me to have a play with the evaluation reports they had given us, some 400 words of raw (and cooked) data.  He and I had done the same Master's course in evaluation and he knew my weird penchant for dissecting out buried dross and detecting things that do not compute. It didn't take long before my antennae began to twitch.

No wonder: there was dross everywhere.  From memory (the original papers are two floors down, in an unmarked box), they showed us an evaluation where the control group size was zero (but the control group still had scores). There were other cases where the control group was scoring at the ceiling level of a test, but the experimental group had the grade levels of their equivalent scores extrapolated.

In plain language, the control groups were fitted with hobbles and a ball and chain, the experimental group (the ones using PLATO) were issued with JATO packs, and then the groups were sent out to run a race.

The perceptive reader may be wondering why I don't mention the Hawthorne effect here.  Yes, that was alive and running as well, but that was minor compared with the procedural fudging that was going on.

These people weren't even good cheats. In the batch of research papers they sent (apparently hoping we would weigh them rather than read them), they accidentally included a memo where a distraught underling told the shiny gung-ho boss at Control Data that the whole thing was a fiasco, and I was able to look at the dates on which the shiny boss had published his latest glowing reports. I could show that they came after the date received that he had stamped on the deadly memo.

I had this bloke chapter and verse, because like him, I used to submit stuff to the ERIC clearing-house. I knew when one of my submissions was received at ERIC, and I had a lower accession number than one of his glowing reports, but the date stamp on the memo was even earlier than my submission.  It followed that after he got the heads-up, he kept on flogging the dead horse.

In short, these people were frauds, but they were hopelessly incompetent frauds because they gave me the evidence on a plate, but the funniest part was one study where they had used regression analysis to present an equation which claimed that the students using BSLS would gain one whole grade BEFORE they started the course. That's what happens when you apply any sort of statistical analysis without knowing what you are doing.

That was what reminded me of the book-quality study complained of above.  You see, figures don't lie, but liars can figure.  Proof is here.

I was told to bury my report, which made me wonder if somebody higher-up either suspected or knew that bribes had gone out.  I know from the attitudes of the people I spoke to that they weren't on the take — either that, or they were better actors than I would expect.

The purchase was blocked, so I did as instructed, leaving my report in a drawer for several years. Then I learned that a known muppet and dodgy character (he back-stabbed me once) was spruiking PLATO at AARE (the Australian Association for Research in Education).

So, being full of charity and having itchy shoulder blades, I gave a paper the following year, outlining the damning faults and showing what a rort the whole PLATO thing had been.  I guess it had the desired effect, as the muppet left the country.

I kept all of the evidence, just in case one of those I foiled ever reads this and decides to try a lawsuit.  It won't fly, my friend. It's past history, but if you want to be silly, I eat people like you.

Note in September 2014: I have now told the whole PLATO fraud story, in complete and technical detail. Note the comment about detail: the new piece isn't for the faint-hearted.

Coming up to modern dodginess, the funny thing was: before I even got through the abstract of the book-quality paper, the same antennae were twitching.

All I can say of this paper is that I hope no publisher ever hears about this idea, because this appears to be a great example of what we old computerists call GIGO.  They tried...

Or was this one of the 120 papers of computer-generated gibberish that Cyril Labbe of Joseph Fourier University detected recently?

That's about the only logical explanation.