Tagged: Misc

Computer Science

Science 22 Sep 1967:Vol. 157, Issue 3795, pp. 1373-1374

Allen Newell 

Alan J. Perlis 

Herbert A. Simon

“Professors of computer science are often asked: “Is there such a thing as computer science, and if there is, what is it?” The questions have a simple answer:

Wherever there are phenomena, there can be a science to describe and explain those phenomena. Thus, the simplest (and correct) answer to “What is botany?” is, “Botany is the study of plants.” And zoology is the study of animals, astronomy the study of stars, and so on. Phenomena breed sciences.

There are computers. Ergo, computer science is the study of computers. The phenomena surrounding computers are varied, complex, rich. It remains only to answer the objections posed by many skeptics.

Objection 1. Only natural phenomena breed sciences, but computers are artificial, hence are whatever they are made to be, hence obey no invariable laws, hence cannot be described and explained. Answer. 1. The objection is patently false since computers and computer programs are being described and explained daily. 2. The objection would equally rule out of science large portions of organic chemistry (substitute “silicones” for “computers”), physics (substitute “superconductivity” for “computers”), and even zoology (substitute “hybrid corn” for “computers”). The objection would certainly rule out mathematics, but in any event, its status as a natural science is idiosyncratic.

Objection 2. The term “computer” is not well defined, and its meaning will change with new developments, hence computer science does not have a well-defined subject matter. Answer. The phenomena of all sciences change over time; the process of understanding assures that this will be the case. Astronomy did not originally include the study of interstellar gases; physics did not include radioactivity; psychology did not include the study of animal behavior. Mathematics was once defined as the “science of quantity.”

Objection 3. Computer science is the study of algorithms (or programs), not computers. Answer. 1. Showing deeper insight than they are sometimes credited with, the founders of the chief professional organization for computer science named it the Association for Computing Machinery. 2. In the definition, “computers” means “living computers” – the hardware, their programs or algorithms, and all that goes with them. Computer science is the study of the phenomena surrounding computers. “Computers plus algorithms,” “living computers,” or simply “computers” all come to the same thing – the same phenomena.

Objection 4. Computers, like thermometers, are instruments, not phenomena. Instruments lead away to their user sciences; the behaviors of instruments are subsumed as special topics in other sciences (not always the user sciences – electron microscopy belongs to physics, not biology). Answer. The computer is such a novel and complex instrument that its behavior is subsumed under no other science; its study does not lead away to user sciences, but to further study of computers. Hence, the computer is not just an instrument but a phenomenon as well, requiring description and explanation.

Objection 5. Computer science is a branch of electronics (or mathematics, psychology, and so forth). Answer. To study computers, one may need to study some or all of these. Phenomena define the focus of a science, not its boundaries. Many of the phenomena of computers are also phenomena of some other science. The existence of biochemistry denies neither the existence of biology nor of chemistry. But all of the phenomena of computers are not subsumed under anyone exiting science.

Objection 6. Computers belong to engineering, not science. Answer. They belong to both, like electricity (physics and electrical engineering) or plants (botany and agriculture). Time will tell what professional specialization is desirable between analysis and synthesis, and between the pure study of computers and their application.

Computer scientists will often join hands with colleagues from other disciplines in common endeavor. Mostly, computer scientists will study living computers with the same passion that others have studied plants, stars. glaciers, dyestuffs, and magnetism; and with the same confidence that intelligent, persistent curiosity will yield interesting and perhaps useful knowledge.”

The Blackout of 1977

The late 70s were a dismal time for most Americans. President Carter described it as a “crisis of confidence” in his famous “Malaise speech” in 1979. The darkest moment in this dark time, both figuratively and literally, was the blackout of New York City in the sweltering summer of 1977.

The summer of 1977 was a miserable time for New York. The Yankee’s hadn’t won a World Series in 13 years. The apocalyptic and imminent global cooling promised by activists at the First Earth Day in 1970 had failed to materialize and the high temperatures routinely broke records that July. Crime also reached new record highs that wouldn’t be broken until the crack epidemic in the 80s, as gangs took over portions of the city. (When “The Warriors” was filmed the next year, a near-futuristic dystopian modern take on the Anabasis where gangs tried to take over the city, New Yorkers weren’t sure if it was fantasy, fiction, or a documentary.) The pervasive sense of fear was palatable: that summer, the Son of Sam went about murdering random New Yorkers with a .44 cal revolver. No one felt safe. The overworked New York City police were powerless in the face of this wave of crime. Police officers were routinely targeted for assassination which greatly reduced their effectiveness. Furthermore, New York was in the midst of a financial and budget crisis which led to pay freezes and layoffs in the police and city administrations, and spread the already small NYPD even thinner. City services were curtailed, and city maintenance was neglected.

Around 8:30 pm on 13 July 1977, a lightning strike hit a power line which overloaded the large Ravenswood’s generator, and a faulty circuit breaker prevented it from shutting down. This overloaded the Consolidated Edison Indian Point Water Power Plant which did shut down. Further lightning strikes cut powerlines to other generators and power stations. In less than 30 minutes, 90% of the five boroughs, over 7,000,000 people, were without power, just as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was the sixth inning between the Mets and the Cubs when the lights went out. 

Then the chaos began. 

Hundreds were stuck in elevators and tens of thousands were stuck in traffic or on the subway, both of which came to an immediate standstill. 911 emergency lines were swamped with almost 20 million phone calls (!) that night, despite radio stations broadcasting desperate pleas from city officials to only make calls in life or death circumstances. However, most calls were less about the electricity and more about their fellow New Yorkers taking advantage of the darkness. 

The only lights in New York City after 9pm were car headlights and fires. The New York Fire Department responded to over 1100 cases of arson that night, and hundreds more false alarms, including many ambushes by gang members. Most of Broadway was on fire. The next morning, one city paper ran the headline, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning.” The city was lit by an eerie orange and purple glow of flashing lights and raging fires among its homes and businesses. But for all the fire damage to the city, the looters and vandals were worse.

The 2500 NYPD cops on the ground were quickly overwhelmed with the sheer scale of violence, destruction, and looting that began in the twilight of the setting sun. Before it got so dark on that moonless night that you could barely see the hand in front of your face, all 12,000 on and off duty police were on the streets. 

Home invasions were common but the looting of the closed businesses easier. On the night of 13-14 July 1977, New York City was sacked. The massive wave of looters took everything that wasn’t nailed down. One looter was heard yelling through the streets, “It’s Christmas time!” Few businesses in the city escaped damage. One car dealership lost 57 cars stolen off the lot. TV crews were usually attacked as their recording cameras were evidence, but one crew was offered stolen jewelry for cheap while broadcasting live. Many neighborhood blocks barricaded themselves in and shot at anyone they didn’t recognize, so the more industrious of criminals just mugged the looters. It was safer. 

In the frenzy, the looters took anything, if they didn’t need or want it, they could sell it or give it away. The police arrested one looter with a bag of clothes pins; and another with bags of macaroni. 3700 suspected looters were arrested that night: The largest mass arrest in New York history. 

What separates the Blackout of 1977 and the ones of 1965 and 2003 was the chaos continued in the daylight. The power finally came back on 25 hours later. $300,000,000 in damage was done to the city. The damage was almost as bad as the New York Draft Riots 114 years previously, when Union warships had to bombard the city. The New York State Power Authority canvassed all the best trade schools and hired and trained the best electrical students to work in the power plants, replacing the city run Consolidated Edison employees that were found negligent in causing the Blackout. Mayor Abe Beame would eventually lose the Democratic primary, and the mayor’s office, to challenger Ed Koch the next election. 

For New Yorkers it was a day akin to 9/11, the Challenger explosion, or the death of John F. Kennedy.

Down the Rabbit Hole

On 4 July, 1862, writer Charles Dodgeson took a friend’s three young daughters, Edith, 8, Alice, 10 and Lorina, 13 on an afternoon picnic trip into the countryside of south eastern England. In true Victorian fashion, he rowed them down the Thames River. During the trip, he regaled them with a tale of a young girl and her adventures after she had fallen down a rabbit hole. 

The protagonist of the story was named Alice after Dodgeson’s favorite of the three sisters. The girls so loved the story they wanted him to write it down for them when they returned from the picnic. The manuscript he gave them later would eventually be published under Charles Dodgeson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll, as “Alice in Wonderland”.

Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

“I don’t think…” said Alice. “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

Alice asked, “How long is forever?” “Sometimes, just one second,” replied the White Rabbit