Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 1 Number 1, Sep. 2002
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
Welcome to my new, free e-Zine. Thank you for trusting me with your
email address. (See my Privacy Promise at the end.) I wrote the
"Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems Theory" a dozen years ago,
and first published it on the Web in 1996. Although I had a general
counter on my home page (1874 unique visitors from 6 May, 1999,
to 30 Sep. 2002, about 1.5 a day), I had no way of tracking how many
were visiting that particular page. I did observe that I got more
email in response to this one page on my website than all the other
This year I added "Amazon Affiliate" links for all of the books in
the "Curriculum..." page, which gives me not only a commission on
book sales (thank you for your support), but also automatic web
tools for tracking click-throughs and orders. From this I
discovered that lately an average of 1.5 to 3 new people a day have
been visiting the "Curriculum..." and clicking through to Amazon.
I had no idea. I also checked and was surprised how many individuals
have chosen to link to the page (in addition to the automatic links
from search engines). Again, thank you all for the interest and
It was this high level of interest that inspired me to begin this
newsletter. The first issue will be a little longer than usual
(3398 words, compared to my target of 600 words), as I attempt to
briefly answer the question, "What's new in cybernetics and systems
theory in the last 12 years?" (Also, I list a few great things
older than 12 years, that I didn't yet know about in 1990.)
Happily, Bateson has continued to publish books posthumously since his
death in 1980. His final manuscript "Where Angels Fear to Tread,"
shortened to "Angels Fear," was completed by his daughter Mary Catherine
and published in 1987.
My friend and associate Dr. Art Olson at The Scripps Research Institute
) has been filling my ear with
his predictions about the rise of "biological computing." More and more
biological research is being done with software instead of "wet"
lab work. For example, see:
for information on the "FightAids@Home" project, in which Art's
group has taken a program to search for an AIDS cure and coded
it to run in a massively parallel environment, and then with the
help of software vendor Entropia distributed it as a "screen
saver" which volunteers anywhere on the internet can use to donate
computer cycles to the search. Art writes: "We have established
an internet-based community (currently over 20,000 individuals)
who have donated their computers to run our docking computations
on HIV-protease drug screening. "
In a future issue of C3M, I will describe more of Dr. Olson's
projects and predictions. Meanwhile, here are some resources
for getting caught up on the rise of computing influenced by
biology and biology influenced by computing.
For a long time the theory of evolution has been hampered by the
inability to do experiments. That has changed with artificial
life. Research on self-reproducing programs has shown how such
inexplicable phenomena as "punctuated equilibrium" can be explained,
and why parasites are so important to evolution.
Oddly it is the computer programmers who have gotten most excited
about this stuff -- the biologists don't seem to notice or care much.
(That of course will change.)
- "Artificial Life: A Report from the Frontier Where Computers
Meet Biology" (1992)
by Steven Levy
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679743898/hip-20 )
Kevin Kelly, who has done many good deeds, here pulls together
a whole lot of strands to weave a tapestry of "neo-biological
civilization," including practical ecology, computer-simulated
flocking behavior, Biosphere II, virtual reality war games,
breakthroughs in biotech, "hive" intelligence in insects, and
chaos theory. I don't know where it's all headed (hence his title)
but is sure seems exciting.
- "Out of Control -- The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization" (1994)
by Kevin Kelly
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0201483408/hip-20 )
Every one of the 23 chapters in this next book blew my mind.
DNA is starting to resemble computer software more and more,
especially to those of us who have studied how computer viruses
evolve, or have coded in assembly language on hardware running
without an operating system to protect us from the more bizarre
behaviors of programs, and have seen what happens when a CPU
begins "executing data" by mistake.
The most common non-junk DNA in us is a fragment of a virus
that was very good at copying itself into our DNA over and
over until it killed us (by keeping our DNA from doing the
jobs it needs to do). We are descended from the folks who
almost died, but whose bodies somehow found a defense in
the nick of time. But we never managed to get rid of all
the leftover self-copying virus code.
- "Genome -- The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters" (1999)
by Matt Ridley
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060932902/hip-20 )
Nobody's passed the Turing Test yet, but there've been some
solid advances in cognitive sciences. The elusive research goal
is to duplicate human intelligence in a "bug-compatible"
way, that has the same weaknesses and strengths we do.
Well, a couple of things have happened in computers since 1990,
don't you think? It's hard to take it all in sometimes.
One thing I am continually struck by is that most of the
fundamentals of 3D graphics, virtual reality, image processing,
and scientific visualization were worked out by 1993. Since then
the internet, Windows 95, Pentiums and MP3s have distracted us
quite a bit. Sure, this has resulted in a whole lot more people
having cheap computers. But now we have the post-dot-com-crash
irony of being able to -- literally -- rescue a computer from
a dumpster that has more power than a cryogenically-cooled Cray 1
from 25 years ago, while the people who know how to program them
to do 3D graphics, virtual reality, image processing and scientific
visualization are scrambling for jobs keeping e-commerce web sites
Keep the knowledge alive. Do your own garage experiments on
There have been some advances in user interface design in the
last dozen years, as well as some great leaps backward (like
right-clicking the mouse to copy a file). One of the more
vocal theorists has been Brenda Laurel. The book below has her
well-argued thesis; for examples of her principles in action,
see the Purple Moon series of games for girls, once thought
lost but now being re-issued by new owner of the intellectual
Did you notice when the income from video games passed that of
movies in theaters in the early 1990s? Billions of dollars later,
I have to ask myself, where are the "edutainment" games that are
going to make our kids into geniuses? Instead, almost everybody
is chasing the adolescent boy market with ultraviolence.
(Maybe networked games will save us. Computer-generated sprites
aren't good for much but target practice, anyway, but other live
Well, Mr. Gates sure was busy in the 1990s. Mr. Jobs too.
Get the backstory from these two books.
Clifford Stoll had a high level of credibility after his
"Cuckoo's Egg" revealed the low level of computer security
at the time, but then a lot of people snickered at his
curmudgeon-like "bah, humbug" to the dot com revolution.
By 1999 he looked like a fool, because we were in "the long boom"
(as WIRED called it) and the New Economy had new rules!
By 2002 he doesn't look so foolish anymore.
The technological underpinnings of the internet are remarkably
simple, but the story of their development is fascinating.
The story of the solving of the data packet reassembly buffer
size problem by analogy to container ship packing problems,
and of testing by simulation of the network, is amazing.
So what went wrong? Why couldn't we have new rules for the New
Economy that included a Long Boom Without End? (Well, for one
thing, as Bateson was fond of pointing out, no variable can rise
exponentially forever without "crashing" in a biological system.
And our economy is a biological system, isn't it?)
One of the driving forces in the ongoing market "correction" is
technology price implosion, which is still happening. (It's killing
the telecomm companies right now.) The best explanation I have read
of why this happens is in this book from the Harvard Business School.
What with all these Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) everywhere, it
comes as a shock to many people that, at the lowest levels, computers
are still programmed with the keyboard. And you know what? I don't
think it's ever going to change. A menu can only give you about a
dozen choices, maybe a hundred if it has cascading drop-down menus
(which can drive you crazy). Just typing five keys gives you about
92 to the 5th power, or over 6 and a half million choices.
Cyberpunk sci-fi author Neal Stephenson explores this technical
wizardry in this little essay-book:
For a while there everybody seemed to forget that the internet was
supposed to give the little guy a huge advantage. With zero overhead
you too can run a mail-order business! But then the giant companies
were going to pump millions into websites and flip that around somehow,
leverage that little guy advantage into a big-guy advantage by adding
massive over-investment. Huh? Well, guess what, the little guy still
has the advantage on the web. Just look at me. I'm following the
advice in this book, written after the dot-com crash, and it's working
great. (It's amazing to see the "memetics" at work in the web's small
All aboard the Digital Video (DV) revolution! (Try doing a Google.com
search for "George Lucas" and "digital video" or for "Sundance 2002"
and "digital video" and see what you get.) Here's the know-how
you need to become your own little digital studio for under $2000.
If you haven't already, learn Java, the cross-platform language of
the internet. I have a PC running Windows ME, a Mac running system 9,
and a Linux system on a 486 all on my desk, and it does my heart
good to see my code, like this applet to display a tetrahedron:
running the same way on all three. And, it's free!
The visualization software I recommended in my "Curriculum..."
(even though it only ran on a $100,000 Graphics Supercomputer
at the time) now runs on any x86 or Pentium-based Linux system,
and is price-reduced from its $6500 level in the 1990s to only
$500 today. Available from:
This book, along with the Firesign Theatre's comedy album "Boom Dot Bust"
me to get out of the market in early 2000. I recognized when we got to the
phase where the gullible were rushing in despite nagging doubts among
Reading about the crashes of 1792, 1819, 1885, 1929, 1973, and 1987
is a sobering experience. I only wish the book wasn't so light on
actual chaos theory.
This next book is by the Libertarian editor of Reason magazine,
who argues that free markets are necessary for innovation for some
very cybernetic reasons.
The first person mentioned by name in this book was
a friend of mine in high school -- we paddled down the
Colorado River together as Boy Scouts. Which is of very
little importance now, except that he brought this book
to my attention, and it's an amazing tale of the successful
use of chaos theory.
I'm going to devote a newsletter in the near future to
science fiction since 1990 and what it teaches us about systems,
but for now I have to include this non-quite-a-science-fiction-book
by sci-fi/cyberpunk author Neal Stephensen, since it sheds so
much light onto the importance of cryptography for winning World
War II and for making the web safe for e-commerce.
This book covers much of the same territory in non-fiction form.
We should say a prayer of thanks that the National Security Agency
(NSA) didn't manage to suppress the technology of dual-key
encryption, and we now have the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) standard.
It's a bit discouraging how little fundamental work on the
mathematics of cybernetics and systems theory I've seen in the
last 12 years. The teaching of control theory has improved since
the adoption of state-space methods and the availability of cheaper
computers, but these methods were known a long time -- they were
just impractical without the compute power. A recent text is:
One of the biggest benefits to cyberneticians in this time frame
has been the availability of increasingly affordable, good math
software like Mathematica ( www.wolfram.com
) and Matlab,
) along with numerous books and
article on using them to solve systems problems.
For example, see:
SCI 2002, the Sixth World Multiconference on Systemics,
Cybernetics, and Informatics, included two sessions involving
"Applications of Mathematica in Technology and Research."
One very nice connection I made in the early 1990s was to meet
Dr. Alan Garfinkel at UCLA, and read his pioneering article:
"A mathematics for physiology" (1983)
American Journal of Physiology 245: Regulatory, Integrative and
Comparative Physiology 14: R455-66.
by Dr. Alan Garfinkel
It gave me some very useful mental constructs for understanding
the development of chaos models in science:
Scientific theories advance through definite qualitative stages
of thought like Piagetian children. We can make a rough
classification of these stages in terms of their typical motions,
i.e., in terms of their attractors.
Topologically the simplest attractor is the point: a point
attractor represents a static equilibrium or a steady state.
Motion in the basin of a point attractor is an approach to
a static equilibrium. Theories that image their phenomenon
as point attractors are typically in primitive stages of
[examples from mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry,
biochemistry, kinesiology, population dynamics, and
In brief, each science seems to begin with the point
attractor and then go through a profound revolution
beginning with the empirical observation of oscillations.
These empirical observations are dismissed at first,
either as nonexistent (because not theoretically possible),
as mere fluctuations due to chance noise, or as exogenously
produced (e.g., by cycles of the earth). When, after some
battle, it is shown that none of these are the case, it
becomes a problem to show how such oscillations are
theoretically possible. This requires new levels of theory.
(Finally... the same scenario is reenacted with the discover
of aperiodic or "chaotic" motions.)
Unfortunately, this article is not now available on the web.
The journal it was in is only on-line after 1997.
(Maybe someday soon.)
In the early 1990s a spate of books explaining chaos;
I found these to be of value:
This one describes the creation of the Santa Fe Institute and its
mandate to find better models for complex systems.
The master tells the tale his way.
Then, right around the turn of the millennium, I became aware
of a breakthrough in machine learning called Support Vector
Machines, or SVMs for short. The best description I have found
is this on-line article:
For more in-depth information, here is a text:
And then, out of nowhere, Mathematica-creator Stephen Wolfram
emerged from an eight-year cocoon and gave us his new magnum opus,
which is so profound, so revolutionary, and promises to unify
so many fields of inquiry, that I must save my review of for a whole
future issue of "Cybernetics in the Third Millennium."
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Copyright 2002 by Alan B. Scrivener
- "Gene Selection for Cancer Classification using Support Vector
by Isabelle Guyon, Jason Weston, Stephen Barnhill, Vladimir Vapnik
( citeseer.nj.nec.com/guyon00gene.html )