The Bright Side of Fifty Years, 1957-2006

2010 January 3
       

     My first fifty years from 1957 through 2006 were an exciting time to be alive in the United States of America. Good stuff happened like walking on the moon. Bad stuff happened like the Kennedy, King, and Kennedy assassinations. After the last three years, it might behoove us to spend a little time looking at the half century before. I'd like to take a a few pages to look at the bright side of that fifty-year interval.

    

     SPACE: When I was a lad of twelve, on 1969 July 20, I stayed up late, sat in front of a black-and-white television set, and watched Neil and what's-his-name on the ... moon. "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Further manned leaps to Mars were on the horizon as well. From Skylab and, later, from Mir we learned we could live in space. Our lives were enriched by NASA-product spin-offs (and not just Tang mix, the drink of the astronauts). Funny thing is that this program was fueled by prideful competition with the Russians rather than a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead.

     

     THE FINAL FRONTIER: The Space Age meant geeks were top dogs and smart people were revered. It was a hopeful time to grow up in. Nothing (in my view) typified this attitude more than the television show "Star Trek" that glorified long-term space travel and the science behind it. As a kid, I loved that show and many of the values it represented. As an adult, I love the idea that outer space is populated by incredibly-beautiful alien women who wear very little clothing. (Three attempts at sequels could not capture the spirit of this wonderful three-year series, although the second, fourth, and sixth movies did and every trekkie should see the movie "GalaxyQuest.")


     AVIATION: The Boeing 707 ushered in an era of commercial-airline aviation that changed our world's view of the world. It was followed by the jumbo jets and an era where trans-oceanic crossings became routine. Airlines are intricate businesses with complex problems to solve, a feast for a math-geek like me. For Northwest I worked in yield management, maintenance, Flight Operations, Ground Operations, and Marketing. The airlines may be run by idiots, but I can assure you the low-level decisions that assure punctuality and safety are made by dedicated, savvy people.

     

     MY AVIATION: Flying my own airplane has been a joy to me. Being a pilot was on my things-to-do-by-age-thirty list and I made it and flew my first solo with twelve days to spare. I bought a 1967 Piper Cherokee PA28-140 in 1988 August and I continue to enjoy it with an engine upgrade this year. In 2009 I've flown over 200 hours, I landed at my 400th airport, and I'm getting near 2000 total hours. I'm flying and loving the Utah back country.


     FAR TRAVEL: I like growing up in an age where I can be seven miles above the middle of the ocean complaining about the food. I've been able to live in Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Arizona and still maintain monthly visits to my Delaware-River-bight home zone for Philadelphia-Orchestra concerts, family, and friends. I've made all twenty-four alumni races at my high school and I do an annual day of four or five math lectures to classes there. Since 1991 I got used to going to Europe and solar-eclipse trips have taken me to Aruba, Hungary, Zambia, and Australia, Libya, China, and China again. I've been to six continents so far.

     

     NEAR TRAVEL: I drove a lot of places in the United States going back and forth between my east-coast home and graduate school at Stanford and eventually made it to all fifty states. General aviation has taken me all over this country, different places than my car takes me. Living in the American southwest means I'm close to the incredible desert rock formations of southern Utah (and northern Arizona).


     REAL MUSIC: This is my twenty-eighth season with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The old Academy of Music looks and sounds better than the new Kimmel Center.) I've had concert series in several places I've lived, the latest being the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts where I've seen and heard Emanual Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Dave Brubeck, Arlo Guthrie, Hilary Hahn, Lynn Harrell, Yo Yo Ma, Loreena McKennett, Marian McPartland, Gil Shaham, and others. Live music is a wonderful gift made all the more wonderful in an age where musicians and listeners can travel. I've heard unamplified, live, local music in Zambia, India, and China.

     

     FAKE MUSIC: One of our great achievements has been transporting the sound of a musical event from one place to another via radio and from one time to another via recording. The high point of production recording media was two-track, reel-to-reel tapes which lasted until 1960 (so they count in my 1957-2006 time window) until four-track tapes took over to save money. Vinyl, long-playing, stereophonic records were popular and cheap, compact disks gave up sound quality to be made more cheaply, and somehow buyers pay a premium for them. Go figure! Popular music is actually produced in a studio today with no live-music original to be reproduced by our hifi equipment. I have found the quest for closer-to-original sound increases the joy of both live and recorded music for me.


     RUNNING AND FITNESS: High school boys have run cross country and track since forever along with college teams for the good runners, but the sport has grown in a lot of directions. Post-college runners really didn't have anyplace to race back when, and now there are road race everywhere and a few trail races. There are even a few cross-country races for us grown-up folks. Women have equal access to cross-country and track teams as well as road races. The running boom has continued to the point where races with tens of thousands of runners aren't that rare anymore. Interestingly enough, the one direction the U.S. running boom hasn't grown is towards better and faster runners. There were two dozen high-school kids under nine minutes for two miles around 1980 and there are one or two today.

     

     MY RUNNING AND FITNESS: I got into running on a twenty-five-cent bet I couldn't break eight minutes for a mile (I won in 7:35), I ended up fifth-runner (17:45 for three miles) on my high-school cross-country team (six wins, six losses). Outclassed by the "real" runners in college, I ran marathons including bicentennial Boston in 1975 (3:09) and the first five-borough New York Marathon in 1976 (3:03). With five cross-country races and a couple of half marathons this fall, I'm still running. Living in the southwest, I've added hiking to my physical activity and bicycling to work for my last two jobs. I've also mixed two hobbies by flying places to run there.


     INDUSTRIAL MATHEMATICS: The business of making businesses run better was born around the same time I was. It requires wide interest in mathematics and solving problems (the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American started the month I was born) and the computing capability to carry out the solutions. Think tanks like Bell Telephone Laboratories and IBM Labs gained broad appeal in non-technical circles and businesses hired analysis teams (some were called "efficiency experts"), bought computers, and collected data for decision support. There were lots of jobs for bright analysts who could program computers and support business decisions to make money for their employers. Business managers may not have been super smart, but the prevailing attitude was they had to make smart decisions and that meant people like me had lots of job offers.

     

     MY CAREER: I call myself an industrial mathematician to emphasize that I make businesses run better. My field is Operations Research, an applied-mathematics field, that got me a job at Bell Telephone Laboratories doing capacity and quality analysis for the new technology of cellular telephones. As conditions changed at various companies, I found myself moving around a lot, so I have experience with telephony, printed circuit boards, airlines, broadband wireless, used car pricing, railroad operation, image processing, hotel booking, retail science, commercial real estate, and financial investments. What a long, strange trip it 's been, a very fun and interesting journey.


     COMPUTER HARDWARE: Our computing boxes have gotten so small and so cheap, it's amazing. The old picture of a room full of refrigerator-sized processors along with tape memory banks has evolved into a laptop for $300 with more computing power and memory. The scope of problems we could solve with these new machines is amazing, too, with the right management and vision. In the meantime, we have megapixels, gigahertz, and terabytes so we can store millions of pictures and hundreds of videos and we can play incredibly-realistic virtual-reality games on tiny, cheap machines.

     

     COMPUTER SOFTWARE: The evolution of programming from soldering wires through punched cards to screen-editing programs has been as amazing as the growth of hardware. At the combined peak of hardware and software together, math wizards and computer programmers could solve problems from moon-mission trajectories to business optimizations with hundreds of thousands of variables. I cheat and use yesterday's software on today's hardware to solve problems we couldn't dream of in 1956. My own skill in analytic programming makes me a perfect fit to the computing age.


     ARPANET: Somewhere back in the beginning of computers it occurred to some smart people that computers could do even more if they were connected to other computers. I first experienced this network at Stanford in 1979 where we could "log on" to computers at MIT and use their tools and they could use ours. Electronic mail was not immediate, it took a few hours to be sent from machine to machine, but it was faster and more reliable than post-office "snail mail." My first e-mail address was ROSENBERG@SCORE with no "dots."

     

     INTERNET: We computer geeks were concerned when the U.S. Department of Defense dropped the ARPAnet that the emerging Internet would not take up the slack. We needn't have worried, the Internet is getting bigger and better every day. E-mail gave up some reliability but gained speed and capacity. APRAnet protocols were expanded for greater-capacity sharing of file and computing capacity. E-mail has become almost as ubiquitous as telephone numbers.

     

     WORLD WIDE WEB: The real breakthrough of computer communication is the World Wide Web. They tell me a bunch of physicists from CERN were motivated by the need for exchanging large volumes of difficult data, but I suspect the force fueling the web was PORN as much as CERN. The great thing about the web is a formal standard to present text and images (like this page). It's a natural next step to have text and graphical user input so the web-serving computer can become a data server or a computing host. Companies that used to sell software and manage users with hours of frustrating telephone technical support now offer web-based interfaces so the service company can keep the work on their own computers.


     ECONOMICS: The United States enjoyed great political and economic freedom and managed to climb to a productive and prosperous economy. As our political and economic environment turned down, economies in Asia took a dramatic upturn as Japan became a manufacturing power. India made a decision to become a technology center and transformed itself from a starving nation of 500 million (50 crore) to a net-exporter of food at 100 crore. When Japan become more "upscale," Korea filled in the low-end of consumer electronics. Later on China became the world's manufacturer of almost everything with newfound economic freedom. All this time Europe was making a transformation from post-war frustration to industry and wealth. As the United States shifted from being a net exporter to a net importer (5% of its economy in 2006), Europe and Asia have been finding the good life, or at least a better one. As of 2006 (the end of my fifty-year window), half the world was increasing prosperity through productivity.

     

     POLITICS: In 1957 Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist smear-and-blacklist campaign dominated American politics, we were getting into a bullshit war in Asia (Vietnam, not Iraq or Afghanistan), we still had an involuntary draft into military service, black-white segregation ("separate but equal") was accepted, and there was no environmental consciousness. By 1960 McCarthy became history, the 1964 Civil Rights Act brought the law on the side of racial equality, "Earth-Day" marked the start of eco-awareness on 1970 April 22, the military draft ended in 1973, and we got out of Vietnam in 1975. Maybe we backed away from these successes, but these were glorious moments in the United States. The end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a political high point of exultation and joy.

    

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