Although the digital world has provided me with a wonderful career and countless enriching experiences, in my heart I will always have a special passion towards the analog world: vinyl LP’s, multiple print sets of the Encyclopædia Britannica, a manual wind watch, fountain pens, film cameras and a darkroom, and carbureted motorcycles all have privileged spots in my house. With digital equivalents being so much more accurate, faster, convenient, and cheaper, what could possibly be the appeal of these ancient artifacts?
There are a couple of dimensions to this. One is a bit academic and the other is almost spiritual in nature. Academically, I’ve always enjoyed “analog math” – i.e. continuous differential equations passing leisurely into Laplace and Fourier transformations while sines, cosines, exponentials, and complex numbers elegantly weave in and out. I remember the time I was introduced to the very sensible Z transform and how it related ever so practically to the Laplace transform; and how the zero-order-hold (ZOH), in a very no-nonsense way, can convert a recklessly organic continuous signal into a very useful digital equivalent. In many ways, the highly logical world of digital math seemed like … well … “work” to me. The only reason why people liked it was because they could realize some very innovative creations in the real world. These are code words for “work”. To achieve the same level of functionality using pure analog concepts was not just more difficult, it’s often pure Voodoo.
This leads me into the more spiritual dimension of this topic. Analog has a certain mysterious if not, magical quality to it. Unless you are an expert in the design of a particular device, you have no clue how the thing works, whereas in the modern digital world, as soon as you see a chip you immediately assume some fancy logic embodied in the chip will take care of everything, and some equally fancy software package took care of all the pain of the design and refinement of the logic. But gazing into complex traditional clockworks, you can’t imagine what kind of brilliance, dedication, and suffering could have gone into the conception and creation of this wonder. You imagine creaky workshops with bare incandescent light bulbs for lighting and a small radio playing something jazzy but not too off-beat, and careful, grizzled hands assembling delicate pieces with impossibly tight tolerances. But before you start believing that somehow the world of analog is exclusively the stuff of history and quirky hobbies, think again.
In recent years, modern control systems have become one of the most important application areas for Maplesoft, and there’s a very good reason for this. Control systems today are literally the purposeful interaction between digital and analog components. However, the machines and devices (the plants) that we need to control are still largely analog. They’re real gears, and circuits, and hydraulic lines, and such, but the control signal is delivered through a chip. Consequently, the plant modeling process remains heavily mathematical in nature, and this is why people are turning to new tools (like MapleSim) that are particularly adept at dealing with mathematics. Classically, this is the domain of differential equations – all that wonderfully eloquent expression of mathematics. In fact, it may even be differential-algebraic equations (DAEs); these mix, in even more mysterious ways, equations with derivatives with purely algebraic constraints.
These are, however, the kinds of things that the core symbolic computation technologies pioneered by Maplesoft have successfully unraveled over the years, and engineers are definitely taking notice.
Analog never really went away. People just stopped writing about it in popular magazines and media. Today, effective engineering treatment of the analog side of design is critical to the success of the entire engineering project. In fact, one can sense a shift in thinking in industry. For the past two decades engineers have refined the digital techniques to make controllers precise, accurate, and affordable to deploy in a wide range of products and systems. But as new engineering challenges emerge, engineers are realizing that they need to enhance their ability to work with the plant side of control system modeling which is heavily dependent on the mathematics that flow through the analog world. So as someone who has always had this fascination with analog devices and the mathematics of analog devices, this is great to see. Furthermore, for someone who works for a company who is building effective tools to help engineers manage the complexities that arise when digital meets analog, this is nothing short of thrilling.
My all-time favorite analog devices
Contax IIa film camera. If I’m in the mood, my preferred camera is a 1950’s vintage 35mm rangefinder made by the Zeiss people in Stuttgart. This particular camera has a very rich lore that involves engineering history, war history, and even cold-war history with a good dose of industrial espionage. I’ll let you explore this further on your own. Ultimately, this camera is a jewel of design and “useful complexity” and takes amazing photos (as long as you have the patience).
The Focault pendulum inside the Pantheon in Paris. Taken with a Contax IIa 35mm film camera and Sonnar 50mm f/2 lens. The Paris Pantheon is a must-see destination for any analogophile.
Telarc vinyl LP pressing of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (1979 Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra). When I was in high school, this particular record was what you used to test the quality of your turntable and needle cartridge. You can literally see the oscillation in the groove during the cannons and if your turntable was not “man enough”, your tone arm would be tossed mercilessly across the record. Funniest part was none of us could care less about the music. We always skipped right over to the cannons. Incidentally, my Thorens 166 Mark II turntable with a Pickering cartridge survived the Tchaikovsky torture test. (It was difficult to find a good Web reference for this recording but I found this fascinating forum chat on the kind of deep, meaningful, discussions that I used to have with my other analog friends in high school … things never really change).
Oxford English Dictionary. Now in its second edition, this 20 volume set is the most ambitious attempt to catalog the English language in history. First conceived in the mid 19th century, and with over 59 million words, it is perhaps the greatest expression of humankind’s intellectual ambition or the most poignant witness to the amount of free time that wealthy intellectuals had in Victorian England. Incidentally, the first digital version of the OED shares a common computational kernel ancestry as Maple … but that’s another blog posting.