The “cancelled” Historian’s column

WITHOUT MASKS! (A parable)

By A. Ephremides

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History continues relentlessly. More than a year ago, the era of physical mask-wearing set in, to accompany the often-worn masks of hypocrisy and pretention. When talking about masks, the first thing that comes to my mind is Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera “Il Ballo in Maschera”, or “Bal masque”, or “Masked Ball”. Masks provide protection against all sorts of perils. Yes, they protect from viruses but they also protect the wearer from being recognized. In that opera, the wearing of masks concealed the identity of assassins.

In the IT Society, the past year-and-a-half with life under the threat of the pandemic has been a major landmark. First of all, it interrupted the regular “flow” of activity, as it did with almost everything we do. But, beyond that, there were other additional and more subtle effects. The “virtual” events that supplanted the in-person encounters created an almost unreal environment. The “zoom” sessions became a fixture that eventually led to mental fatigue and caused untold frustrations. Especially among the younger researchers and students it created a feeling of confusion and bewilderment. Many agree that the education process, but also research productivity, was seriously impaired during this time. But among the “operators” who run IEEE affairs it provided an almost perfect cover for their activities. The “disconnect” between, and among, close colleagues put everything into question and reduced the usual and necessary transparency that used to govern the Society’s affairs. An eerie feeling about forces operating beyond our control set in and added to the discomfort.

But now we have reached the point where the masks are being gradually set aside. Both physically and figuratively. The world has changed, and so has the scientific core of our field. And I am not talking only about the specific research directions that have become dominant. Such evolution is always occurring and it is natural and healthy. I am talking about the unique, defining feature of the Information Theory Society, which for over half a century has been the maintenance and promulgation of the highest standards of quality and behavior. Respect for excellence and intellectual brilliance was THE criterion that governed everything we did. It led to a “success story” the like of which only few scientific fields have experienced. Unwavering adherence to intellectual integrity was surpassed only by the openness with which new members were welcomed. It was indeed a pleasure to be part of this group of exquisite and talented individuals. Our workshops and symposia were unparalleled in quality and in intellectual rewards. Our Transactions were consistently the journal by which every other publication was measured. We were the envy of our peers.

Already, before the pandemic set in and before the masks were put up, there were some rumblings. Gone was the climate of collegiality and trust. Disturbing events had started destabilizing the unique structure of our governance and the unwavering adherence to quality. All of a sudden the prevailing “zeitgeist” in society at large enabled unheard of campaigns against imaginary threats. We were told that we should watch our behavior, “or else”. A strict “code of conduct” was imposed, not as a friendly reminder, but as a serious threat. As if there were tons of behavioral breaches at all over the past 70 or so years that necessitated the creation of “conduct police”! This meant that we could not even challenge a speaker who might be presenting preposterous or erroneous results because we might be hurting their feelings. It meant many more things. Above all, it meant “watch out because we can destroy you”!

Before we had a chance to sort everything out, the masks were introduced and covered up everything. Untold developments and processes were set in motion. The “darkness” of virtual relations obscured reality. Symposium after symposium and workshop after workshop, our interactions started sinking into virtual “blurriness”. New publications started appearing with little possibility of detailed discourse. The administration of the Society’s affairs slid into non-transparent oblivion. Until we reached the point where it seems that the masks that were being worn in the process, both physical and figurative, have started dropping.

The latest, of course, is the preposterous idea to make the ISIT, our flagship Symposium, permanently virtual or hybrid. A questionnaire/survey is underway to enable the transition into a regime of permanent (figurative) mask-wearing. With the allure of reduced costs and elimination of the need to travel, members are invited to consider supporting a permanent “cut” in the lifeline of the Society where live, in-person interaction is the proven means of making progress.

As the picture starts clearing, a worrisome reality is emerging. In the technical domain: confusion and uncertainty. In the quality domain: a truly disturbing abandonment of the gold standard by which the Society thrived for over half a century. The signs of opportunism are proliferating. Cancellation of the pillars on which the Society rested all these years has led to a destabilization that places its future into serious peril. The decision makers and the decision making process have shifted in ways and directions that are alien to the traditions of the Society. Without masks, everybody can see everybody else and draw their conclusions. Some keep wearing their virtual masks and are still difficult to detect. But developments have “vaccinated” us. We have developed (hopefully) some immunity to evil.

This column is a figurative Call to Arms. Stop the slide! Especially now that the masks are falling, it is easier to see what is going on. It may not be too late to react. But the risks are enormous. History has always been the means by which the “old” remember and the “young” learn. Wearing masks can deceive. Without them the task of the impostors is more difficult. Fear of retribution is widespread. But this threat is a paper tiger. Be bold and resist. Measure everything that is happening today with the standards that made this Society great. And resist any effort that aims to transform it into a vehicle of self-promotion by the unworthy.

The "Cancelled Historian"'s Column

December 2020

By Anthony Ephremides

After hibernation, bears emerge hungry and aggressive.

It has been a hiatus of about two years. But History never stops to “occur”. So, it is the duty of Historians (since the time of Thucydides) to record it and report it. After the invasion of the Information Theory Society of the IEEE by the “Cancel Culture” zealots, and the subsequent turmoil that has undercut its scientific and technical stature, our community has lost one more of the dwindling number of giants who made it what it was. Norman Abramson passed away in early December at age 88. The first “little” book on Information Theory that I encountered as a student was Norm’s brief but incisive monograph. He had been one of the “early” disciples of the Field. He studied at Harvard and UCLA, after growing up in the Boston area, and obtained his PhD at Stanford. It so happened, that his advisor there was Willis Harman who had also been the advisor of John B. Thomas, who was also my advisor at Princeton and one of the last “greats” in the department of Electrical Engineering there. So, that made me an “academic” nephew of Norm.

Of course, like many prominent scientists before him, Norm became famous by “simplifying” a complex phenomenon, identifying “correctly” its essence, and boldly disregarding the so-called ε/δ mathematical details. Just as Shannon had done when the famous Probability Theory and Stochastic Process mathematician Joseph Doob had accused him that his mathematical intentions were not “honorable”. Another memorable quote that establishes the “right” way to look at ideas and details is due to one more of the late “greats” of our Field, James Massey, who had said that “rigor is important, provided it doesn’t become rigor mortis”!

So, Norm stripped the details of the beautifully simple idea of random access to a shared channel and gave birth to “ALOHA”. It is not the purpose of this column to discuss the details of the ALOHA idea. It suffices to say that it “captured” the essence of random access and started a true revolution in computer networking. The first salvos were fired early in the 1970’s. At that time, Norm had already moved from Stanford (where he had joined the faculty and planted the seeds of quality in the Electrical Engineering program there) to the University of Hawaii. The way I became aware of what was going on with ALOHA was when a paper by Adrian Segall appeared in the Information Theory Transactions that included in its title the strange reference to “Aloha-type computers”! That captured my attention since I had been recently married to Jane who was born and raised in Hawaii and who had acquainted me with the “spirit of Aloha”.

By the way, Adrian was a student of Tom Kailath, who, in turn, was one of the main recruits of Norm’s to Stanford and who helped consolidate Stanford’s fame in the field. Also, in the brief time Norm spent at Stanford, he produced at least two “giant” PhD students, Tom Cover and Robert Scholtz, who dominated the fields of Information Theory and Communication Theory for over half a century.

It was no secret that one of the reasons Norm was attracted to Hawaii was his love of surfing. And this is proof of how “unsuspected” motives can have “unintended” consequences. Norm’s joining the University of Hawaii and his ALOHA breakthrough idea not only put its relatively unknown (at the time) Electrical Engineering department “on the map”, but it attracted a long series of visitors there who spent significant amounts of time there and increased the department’s visibility. The list started with Robert Metcalfe who was crucial in implementing Norm’s ideas of the ALOHA protocol and whose work led to the development of CSMA, which, in turn, spawned the Ethernet. It continued with David Slepian who shared his time between Bell labs and Hawaii for several years. It also attracted Shu Lin who joined the department and, in turn, caused a parade of coding theorists spending their sabbatical leaves there.

Norm’s activity did not stop with the invention of ALOHA. He eventually became an active consultant and carried on with actually transforming the idea to concrete protocols that became standard in parts of the Industry, including its use in Satellite systems. My entire career was triggered by my fascination with Norm’s idea (as it was, also, by listening to Bob Gallager’’s inspired plenary talk at the 1973 ISIT in Israel). And I felt even a dose of “silly” pride that I could consider myself the academic” cousin of Tom Cover. It has always been “all in the family” in our field!

As part of the now defunct tradition of holding the so called JWCC (joint workshop on coding and communication, also known for its affinity to fine wines), one edition of it was held in Napa Valley in 2008 and Norm was one of the invited speakers. It was the last time I had the pleasure of seeing, hearing, and interacting, with this affable, courteous, considerate, intelligent, and so special gentleman that Norm had always been. It had brought to my mind fond memories of a signal processing for wireless communications workshop in Paris, many years prior to that. Norm was there, too. And he had broken tradition (and some would say, common sense) by having a Mercedes rental car there that spent its expensive time mostly parked in the hotel’s garage!

Having the honor to meet and interact with such special individuals who have also sharp scientific minds is one of the many blessings one can have in our profession. As has always been the intent of this column to make the “old” remember and the “young” learn, I decided to resume writing it and distributing it, as well as posting it on my website. It will be as always quarterly. And it will defy censorship.

Even Historians dream sometimes

December 2018

By Anthony Ephremides

Even Historians dream sometimes. I know. They are supposed to only report on cold facts. But, they are human too, and sometimes they indulge in their weaknesses.

So, the other day, I had a dream! No, I am not trying to emulate Martin Luther King. My dream was so puny compared to his. But, I did have a dream. As it is mid-summer when these lines are written, this was a true Mid-summer Night Dream. Like Felix Mendelssohn’s musical dream, think of it starting as a whisper and gradually strengthening to its apex and then quietly receding back to a whisper and into oblivion.

As I looked back over 50 years of being part of the Information Theory Community, I saw images of the past. I saw people like Fano, Elias, Cover, Massey, Wolf, Pinsker, Dobrushin, and many others who more or less “defined” our Society and who are no longer with us. I did not even think of Shannon. He is outside our grasp. Then I saw images of the present, people like the standard-bearers whom we know so well, and so many others, too many to name. I saw these people and I vividly remembered their aura, their comments, their humor, their sense of values. They illuminated the darkness of my dreaming. Those who are amongst us, continue to enrich our subject of interest with their contributions, and still radiate their wisdom and class. I was wondering why these visions of the past (and present) were dominating my thoughts.

The dream evolved. I saw images of the future. I saw some talented young people who were emerging from the sides of the stage, as it were, and timidly were wondering whether they were worthy of the founders and the contributors who were bigger than life as they looked over them. They were wondering what it was that would make them worthy of entering this wonderful pantheon. Would it be distinctions and awards? Would it be giving speeches and getting applause? Would it be carrying banners of different causes?

My dream tuned into somewhat of a nightmare. I saw suddenly some people pushing each other and vying for position. I saw them planting unrest and discord. I saw them looking at indices of success as measured by numbers of papers published or grants awarded. I even saw them shedding the legacy of the founders on the side. They were ambitious. They were looking for opportunity. They were seeking dominance. They wanted to rise to the top.

What was going on? What had happened to the purity and dedication our elders had taught us? Even they had their little spats and disagreements (like the debate on stargazing and navel contemplation) but always with civility and mutual respect. This was a real nightmare. I went into a denial mode. No, this cannot possibly happen. This Society always had the highest standards of quality, fairness, and commitment to excellence. Is it possible that something terrible happened? Why was I having this awful dream?

Suddenly, it dawned on me. The field has changed. Times have changed. There have been new developments in technology and in the public perception of our field. What with AI, with Big Data, with Machine Learning? How could our Society catch up with those? Were we oblivious of what was happening? Had we drifted astray? Did we let our predecessors down? No, it cannot be! This Society was blessed with a singular legacy. Its name is excellence! So, it should be easy to adapt.

Indeed, the dream drifted into a different mode. I saw most of our members shaking off the lures of the sirens of easy success. I saw them tossing aside those who had tried to push them into extraneous endeavors. I saw a resurging of pride and optimism. I saw the clouds of discord dissipating. I felt like Faust who in his moment of epiphany shames Mefistofele into oblivion. Quoting from the libretto of the relevant opera by Boito, the devil’s words are “taci, guarda”, which means, “quiet, watch” (referring to the opening of the skies and the appearance of the divine light). To which Faust answers inspired by this moment of epiphany, “Arrestati, sei bello”, that is, “Stop, you are beautiful”! What a feeling of liberation! The malaise of the nightmare was lifting. What joy! The clouds seemed to part and reveal Shannon’s face again, serene, kind, and reassuring! Now, this was real catharsis.

I could not shake off the impact of this dream. Was I getting too sentimental? Was I imagining things? Had something really happened? Something terrible? Something transformative? One of the definitions of the word “transformative” is the process of a cancerous cell taking over a healthy one. But, there is also another meaning. It is the process of an amorphous and undefined entity acquiring a new and dominant profile, which changes completely its previous condition.

I tell you! It is good to dream, occasionally. It can have curative effects. It can push aside disturbing events. It can escape the haunting effects of discord. It can turn one’s attention to the rising sun. It can lower your blood pressure. It can assure you of the goodness of fate and destiny. It can reinforce your faith in the good forces of nature.

For a historian, dreaming is also an escape from harsh reality. It allows a detachment from awful developments. It permits seeing beyond them and detecting glimmers of hope in the darkness. It can boost the faith in the forces of good. It can confirm that the laws of nature simply ensure that in the end only what is good and right prevails.

I hope the readers pause and wonder what made a mature historian get into this mode of dreaming. Was it phantasy? Was it too much white wine? Was it indigestion? Was it perhaps the distillation of recent events that shook him up?

We will never be sure. But, such a dream, even if it borders to a nightmare, in the end it heralds hope and faith in the soundness of the solid roots of our Society and the healthy stock that was bequeathed to us that nobody can corrupt.

December 2018

By Anthony Ephremides

The History context of this column is simply the fact that about 35 years ago a playful editor of our Newsletter was inspired to emulate a common wordplay game that was (and is) popular, especially in the United States. The idea is to choose standard terms, notions, or names from a discipline or a topic and “corrupt” them slightly to change their basic meaning and to make them sound hilarious, funny, or simply “weird” and provide a new definition that captures the intended meaning of the corrupted term.

Obviously, this cries out for examples and I intend to provide several (which, to my knowledge, are in fact “original”).

To begin with, we know there are fellow human beings who have a phobia of information technology and who shed cold sweat when confronted with computer misfeasance. How do we measure the degree of their phobia? Perhaps an appropriate measure would be their “Bit Terror Rate”.

How would we call machinations by evil people who happen to work on Information theory and who aim at illicit objectives? Perhaps the term should be “Shannonigans”.

What should be the name for the kind of attire appropriate for presentations at our Symposia, especially in sessions on Coding Theory? How about “Dress Codes”!

As there is a movement in parts of the world by some governments to walk away from agreements on climate control and emission control and the like, we need a term for this phenomenon. My friend the WordSmith came up with “Eco-cancellation”.

When we take samples of an ongoing process, we know that the sampling rate is an important variable that determines how well we can reconstruct the process form its samples. Of course, we may miss samples or we may make erroneous measurements of them. The rate at which this happens will affect the quality of the reconstruction and should be referred to as the “Stumbling Rate”.

Fishermen who try to catch prized species of salmon know that there are intricate methods and procedures through which one can “read” the water as it flows in the river to determine where it is most likely that the big salmon is holding. These methods are known (or, should be known) as “Read-Salmon Codes”.

We all know that people often tell lies, white lies, big lies, and, lately, news media are accused of spreading fake news. Of course, not everyone can lie to the same degree. There are fundamental limits that are different for every individual. Those limits should be referred to as “Lying Capacity”. We do know that for some people no known bounds to that capacity are known.

It is a common habit today among most people who socialize through the electronic media to exchange text messages. Some people, especially youngsters, tend to overdo it. We could say that these people engage in “Textual Harassment”. There should be zero tolerance for that!

There are people who are afraid of heights, or have a fear of flying or are terrified by different environmental phenomena or ...other people (who sometimes are known as “forces of nature”, after all). There should be therapeutic procedures that could be developed to re-duce or eliminate such phobias. Such procedures could be called “Terror Correction Codes”.

Wiener Filtering has been a major topic in Estimation Theory and there have been many variants of it pro-posed and/or used. Often these variants have pounded and “tenderized” the basic method to the point where the original method has become unrecognizable. Such as variant could be called “Wiener Schnitzel”!

Just in case you have had enough of that and just in case you may invent your own new terms, we could shift to a somewhat different approach to mixing terms from our field with extraneous entities. This approach uses acronyms that could be used to abbreviate common concepts in our field, yet they have their own independent meaning out there.

Consider the innocent sounding term “Inter Symbol Interference System”. The acronym, ISIS, is rather ominous. How about “Machine Learning Digital Calculator”? Those with a knowledge of the Italian language would enjoy the resulting acronym MALEDICA (means Curse).

A term of interest for those who follow the special prosecutor investi-gations in Washington would be the “COLLaborative Unbiased Digital Estimator”, or COLLUDE. In a different vein, we could consider the “Ultimate MAssive MImo”, which brings visions of UMAMI.

And then we have the “System and Network Optimization for Wireless”, or SNOW, which is actually a real annual workshop taking place in the winter months at a ski resort of a Scandinavian country. We just celebrated the 9th one this year.

There are other angles of approach to this nonsense as well. For example a colleague has on his door the following quote: “Avoid electric shock; it Hertz. But only Faraday. Then it Gauss away”. Which reminds me of the joke about the thief who stole valuable impressionist paintings from the Jeux de Paume museum in Paris and put them in a van but was promptly caught. When asked how he managed to get caught he quipped: “I did not have the Monet to pay Degas to make the VanGhoh”!

One could go on but I am sure the readers are getting the... drift (or have had enough).

I would like to close with a reproduction of some distorted opera titles that show a sublime affinity of Opera to Fish. This was a joint exercise between Jerry Hayes and myself during a boring session of a NATO Advanced Study Institute in Italy in 1986. We were surprised by the ... possibilities. Here are some examples:

Tannhaeuser can become Tannhoyster; Madama Butterfly could become Madama Butterfish; Rosenkavalier easily transforms to Frozenkavalier; and Porgy and Bess is one letter away from Porgy and Bass. When we related these stunning pairings to colleagues, their one-track mind attributed them to the.... Poisson assumption.

With that it’s time to rest my case.

View the archive of newsletters from the IEEE Information Theory Society from June 2001 to the present.