Mar 112019

Today is the birthday (1915) of Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, known simply as J. C. R. or “Lick,” a US psychologist and computer scientist who is considered one of the most important figures in computer science and general computing history. Chances are that you have never heard of him. If you are knowledgeable about the workings of the internet, you might know that LTP stands for Licklider Transmission Protocol. If I have lost you already, then I am sure you have zero idea concerning his importance. Lick is particularly remembered for being one of the first to foresee modern-style interactive computing and its application to all manner of activities; and also as an Internet pioneer with an early vision of a worldwide computer network long before it was built. He did much to initiate this by funding research which led to many innovations, including today’s canonical graphical user interface, and the ARPANET, the direct predecessor to the Internet. He has been called “computing’s Johnny Appleseed”, for planting the seeds of computing in the digital age. Licklider conceived of computers as becoming much more than complex number crunchers, and, instead, being extensions of all manner of human needs and occupations from games to general interaction.

Licklider was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the only child of Joseph Parron Licklider, a Baptist minister, and Margaret Robnett Licklider. He studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a B.A. with a triple major in physics, mathematics, and psychology in 1937 and an M.A. in psychology in 1938. He received a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics from the University of Rochester in 1942. Thereafter, he worked at Harvard University as a research fellow and lecturer in the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory from 1943 to 1950. He became interested in information technology, and moved to MIT in 1950 as an associate professor, where he served on a committee that established MIT Lincoln Laboratory and a psychology program for engineering students. While at MIT, Licklider worked on Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), a Cold War project to create a computer-aided air defense system. The SAGE system included computers that collected and presented data to a human operator, who then chose the appropriate response. Licklider worked as a human factors expert, which helped convince him of the great potential for human/computer interfaces.

Licklider became interested in information technology early in his career. His ideas were the forerunners of graphical computing, point-and-click interfaces, digital libraries, e-commerce, online banking, and software that would exist on a network and migrate wherever it was needed. Licklider’s contribution to the development of the Internet consists of ideas, not inventions. He foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces.

Licklider was instrumental in conceiving, funding and managing the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet. In 1960 his seminal paper on “Man-Computer Symbiosis” foreshadowed interactive computing, and he went on to fund early efforts in time-sharing and application development, most notably the work of Douglas Engelbart, who founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute and created the famous On-Line System where the computer mouse was invented. He also did some seminal early work for the Council on Library Resources, imagining what libraries of the future might look like, which he had described as “thinking centers” in his 1960 paper.

In “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, Licklider outlined the need for simpler interaction between computers and computer users. Licklider has been credited as an early pioneer of cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), but unlike many AI practitioners, Licklider never felt that humans would be replaced by computer-based entities. As he wrote in that article: “Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking”. This approach, focusing on effective use of information technology in augmenting human intelligence, is sometimes called Intelligence amplification (IA).

During his time as director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) from 1962 to 1964, he funded Project MAC at MIT. A large mainframe computer was designed to be shared by up to 30 simultaneous users, each sitting at a separate “typewriter terminal”. He also funded similar projects at Stanford University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the AN/FSQ-32 at System Development Corporation. Licklider played a similar role in conceiving of and funding early networking research, most notably the ARPAnet. He formulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network in August 1962 at BBN, in a series of memos discussing the “Intergalactic Computer Network” concept. These ideas contained almost everything that the Internet is today, including cloud computing.

In 1967 Licklider submitted the paper “Televistas: Looking ahead through side windows” to the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. This paper describes a radical departure from the “broadcast” model of television. Instead, Licklider advocates a two-way communications network. The Carnegie Commission led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Although the Commission’s report explains that “Dr. Licklider’s paper was completed after the Commission had formulated its own conclusions,” President Johnson said at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, “So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use”. His 1968 paper “The Computer as a Communication Device” illustrates his vision of network applications and predicts the use of computer networks to support communities of common interest and collaboration without regard to location.

All well and good. We know the capacity of the internet to store and make available mountains of information. Before the internet I needed a good academic library to do my research. Now I can do about 80% of my research online, which is wonderful because it means I can live in Cambodia and still have access to a vast array of information from around the world. I still need to travel to libraries for certain research because the materials I need to consult have not been digitized or are not publicly available. That’s the other 20%. Unfortunately the ready availability of masses of information does not make people any smarter. Having information is one thing, knowing how to use it is quite another.

In my last comment I am reminded of recipes as general blocks of information. You need to know how to read a recipe and how to interpret its instructions. Having a recipe by itself is not enough information if you don’t know what to do with it. If you are an experienced cook, I can give you a list of ingredients and some very general ideas and you can create a dish. If you have little or no experience, I have to go to extraordinary lengths to make that information usable. About 8 years ago, I was living in Buenos Aires and my son had it in mind to make a roast goose for Christmas dinner, and asked me how to do it. All through his growing up, I had roast a goose for Christmas, and this was his first year alone. If he had been an experienced cook, I could have explained in a few sentences, but he had only basic knowledge, so I ended up writing 2 pages of notes for him, and on Christmas Day I was on the phone with him 3 times explaining aspects of the process he was struggling with. Even as I write, I am periodically sending text messages to a former student in China who has decided that she wants to learn how to cook and has been going to the market after work and then sends me photos of what she has bought, and wants to know what to do with what she has. There is so much more to cooking than simply having basic information.

I’ll leave you with a puzzle. My Chinese student sent me photos of what she bought: ground beef, onions, leeks, tomatoes, Chinese greens, asparagus and mushrooms. What would you suggest she make for dinner?

Aug 232016


Today is Internaut Day celebrating the anniversary of the launch of the World Wide Web on this day in 1991. Sorry, I’m going to get a bit geeky for a while. I celebrated the birth of the Internet in April but today is a different birthday. If you’re into metaphors you can think of these two – Internet and World Wide Web – as father and son. Colloquially people use terms like “Internet” and “Web” interchangeably, but they are not the same. The Web sits on top of the Internet and was a later development. The geeks among you can ignore what follows and go straight to the whisky bottle for a cheery celebration.

In April I spoke a little about how, starting in the 1960s, the Internet was built to link up computers – eventually internationally. All well and good. Using the Internet originally was not for the faint of heart. Via my (then) brother-in-law, I had access to the Internet back in the late 1980s. He controlled a university mainframe which he let me dial into, and, by a painful process, I exchanged my research data with a few colleagues. It was arduous, but a lot more efficient than mailing floppy disks back and forth, and allowed a very fruitful collaboration. Then the World Wide Web came along, and my life improved immensely.

Let me try to put things in simple terms. The Internet allowed people to transfer data globally, but sender and receiver had to actively do something to make the system work. There were no browsers and no websites as such. In March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, wrote a proposal for “a large hypertext database with typed links.” Although the proposal attracted little interest, Berners-Lee was encouraged by his boss, Mike Sendall, to begin implementing his system on a newly acquired NeXT workstation. He considered several names, including Information Mesh, The Information Mine or Mine of Information, but settled on World Wide Web.


Berners-Lee’s breakthrough was to marry hypertext to the Internet. In his book Weaving The Web, he explains that he had repeatedly suggested that a union of the two technologies was possible to members of technical communities of the time, but when no one took up his invitation, he finally assumed the project himself. In the process, he developed three essential technologies:

  1. a system of globally unique identifiers for resources on the Web and elsewhere, the universal document identifier (UDI), later known as uniform resource locator (URL) and uniform resource identifier (URI);
  2. the publishing language HyperText Markup Language (HTML);
  3. the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

Let me break this down into simple terms. The Internet had been like an electronic postal system. One person (the sender) encapsulated data electronically in a package and gave it to an electronic mailman who delivered it to another person (the receiver). The receiver picked up the package and read it. These data were mostly text based, and, just like regular mail, we’re talking about mail that goes from just one person to another (or possibly to a group of people). Then the Web came along. Now instead of just sending packages, people could build websites – let’s say this was like opening up parts of their houses for other people to enter and look around. They could look at pictures on the wall, read books there, play games, or whatever. In turn, other people, instead of just sending packages, could get in their cars and visit any house that was open to them. This is the Web that we know now. All you need is a browser (a car) and you can go anywhere in the world and you can stop off anywhere. You don’t need senders and receivers any more. You don’t have to be home when someone stops by to visit. You just have to have enough security in the house so that they don’t touch anything (or leave muddy footprints) – just look.


The first effective browser was Mosaic. I remember it well. It was clunky and very slow. But it was a step forward. It might take 20 minutes to load a site that was text only, and an hour or more to load an image. Like many people, I used Netscape Navigator for browsing initially but moved up the food chain a long time ago (“long” in cybertime).


“Internaut” is a portmanteau word combining “Internet” and astronaut and refers to a designer, operator, or technically capable user of the Internet. Beginning with participants in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), it gradually expanded to members of the Internet Society (ISoc) and the larger community. Now an internaut is often used in English to describe someone who is online savvy, typically through years of online experience, with a thorough knowledge of how to use search engines, Internet resources, forums, newsgroups and chat rooms to find information. So the more someone knows about the Internet, its history and politics, the more likely the term internaut fits. The less he or she knows the more likely a different term would be more fitting. Other terms roughly analogous with internaut are cybernaut and netizen (Internet + citizen), though each has its own connotation. In other languages “internaut” just means anyone who surfs the Web, and that’s the connotation most apt for today, the Web’s official birthday – 25 today. Happy Birthday !!!

IT specialists use a conceptualization of the movement of data around the Internet known as the OSI (Open System Interconnection) 7 Layer Model. The actual physical structure of the Internet — wires, hubs, etc. – along which data is transmitted in the form of electrical pulses is layer 1. The top layer, layer 7, is the software in your computer, such as your browser.  Altogether there are 7 layers as follows:


You surf the Web using layer 7 and the information you input goes all the way down to layer 1, travels along the Internet, then pops up to layer 7 at the other end. This way the hardware and software does all the work for you, and it is these layers that marry the World Wide Web to the Internet. Since it is the Web’s 25th birthday today, a 7-layer birthday cake seems in order. The best I know of is the Dobos torte or Dobosh, a Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. It is named after its inventor, Hungarian confectioner József C. Dobos, who aimed to create a cake that would last longer than other pastries in an age when cooling techniques were limited. The round sides of the cake are coated with ground hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, or almonds, and the caramel topping helps to prevent drying out.


Since we are celebrating the Web I will leave it to you to find a recipe of your choice on the Web. Or go here:



Apr 072016


It’s all a bit arbitrary, but today is one of several days that is tagged as the birth date of the internet (1969). Things were happening both before and after 1969 that led to the development of what we now think of as the internet. But this date is taken by many in the geek squad as significant. I could go into a lot of detail about this, but I realize that if I do many readers will immediately glaze over. So I won’t start dribbling on about packet switching, DNS, TCP/IP, HTTP, encryption, IP addressing . . .  blah, blah, blah. If you are interested, you already know about this stuff. If you are not, my attempt at a dissertation won’t help.

Here’s just a small bit. Traditional telephone lines connect one phone to another via wires that are dedicated to a single call at a time. So if you are in Chicago and you call aunt Mabel in Miami, your call goes along lines that for the duration of the call are dedicated to that one call. You can build a pretty complicated system that way, handling millions of calls at a time. But you can’t build something like the internet that way.  The internet connects millions of computers – potentially to each other – AT THE SAME TIME. For that to happen you need a system that is different from traditional phone lines.

On 7 April 1969 the first Request for Comment (RFC) document was drafted by an engineer on the Pentagon’s ARPAnet (Advanced Research Project Agency network) project, a precursor of the modern Internet. An RFC is basically a technical document asking for input on an idea. This RFC essentially asked “how do we build a network that allows multiple computers to be connected to one another at the same time?” The answers led to the development of ARPAnet, and eventually the internet. ARPAnet was originally for military purposes, but as it evolved, its use as a general system of mass communication was evident. So now we have the internet – which is still evolving.


Academics and the military used early forms of the internet before it went public. I was sending academic papers back and forth between colleagues by 1989, and I remember having to explain to people at the time what an e-mail address was. I had to dial into a mainframe, upload my mail (in basic ASCII) and send it off manually. To receive replies I had to reverse the process. I used an MS-DOS computer without WINDOWS. Old timers will grunt in sympathy at how clunky it all was. But I was in seventh heaven. Being able to trade my research with colleagues in other countries was a marvel. Prior to that I had to send typed papers in the mail, so that if I was lucky I could trade comments on an idea about twice a month. Even though it was a clunker, it was great for the times. I’m glad to have been part of it in what now seems like “early days,” even though we are only talking about 27 years ago.

I am painfully aware that the internet has changed communications dramatically in a very brief span of time, and that our culture has changed along with it in ways that are both good and bad. I love having the ability to communicate with friends and family around the world when I want to, but I despise sitting in a room with a bunch of people glued to their smart phones.  I also love the fact that I can write a post on Medieval France or 19th century Thailand, and within seconds conjure up numerous ideas for a recipe of the day.

Even though this is nominally a foodie blog, as I sometimes do I am not going to give you a recipe today.  If you are reading this, you have access to the internet. Search for yourself. You’ll not only find any kind of recipe that you want from around the globe, you’ll also be able to find any ingredient you want, no matter how exotic, and mail order it to be delivered to your door. Me? I’m an old curmudgeon. I’m off to the market to see what is fresh, and talk to people, person to person, in the process.