Editorials as Editor of IEEE Control Systems Magazine

December 1998

My thoughts lately are somewhat reflective. Reflecting back on my six years as Editor of the Magazine, I find mixed feelings swelling within. As I exit, I certainly will not miss the numerous constant deadlines associated with this job, nor will I miss the stress and pressures of attempting to produce the best possible product. What I will miss, however, is the feeling of family this editorship has brought to me.

So it is, then, that I thought now, at my last possible opportunity, I would formally introduce James and B.J. These guys have learned how to control me quite well by now, as has Tricia, my lovely bride (who passed up the photo opportunity). This naturally leads to the obvious definition of family, the one that has inspired many of the thoughts I have written about over the years (by the way, for those who asked, my past ramblings are accessible through the web address shown at the top-left of this page).

Not only has this editorship afforded me the opportunity and license to become philosophical, motivated often times by things I’ve learned from my immediate family, but it has given me a rare opportunity to be touched by a much larger family, the CSS members. So, a more inclusive definition of family seems appropriate; one I like is: "A group of individuals derived from a common stock." But what is that common stock for the CSS family? Have you ever actually thought about what we all have in common? It must be more than the fact that we spend most of our waking hours (and some unawake) in front of a computer. Is it our penchant for attractive equilibria? Do our invariant subspaces overlap? Is it due to those warm fuzzy feelings, or those resonant peaks, we get when we meet? Do some of our response surfaces lie together on the same plane? Do we share common poles and zeros? On second thought, let’s not go there.

Mixed with my reflective thoughts on the past are feelings of anticipation for the future. The next Editor will undoubtedly take the Magazine to new levels; in fact, it’s no coincidence that this issue features Tariq Samad in the INTERVIEW column and as Guest Editor for this special issue on emerging technologies. Of course, my future is to move into another service role to our members; as I say "Goodbye" in this issue, I will be saying "Hello" in the next when I write my first PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE. I know it will go well, because my family --- CSS and otherwise --- will be there with me. Besides, I’m anxious to tell you what James said to me the other day… .

I sincerely hope you all have enjoyed these last 36 issues. If not, feel free to direct your comments to the Editor (wait till next month, after the holiday rush).

It’s been fun.

 

Steve Yurkovich, Editor (for one last time)


October 1998

My thoughts lately are on emptiness. That’s right, emptiness. For days I have thought about what to write in this, my second-to-the-last editorial in my six-year career as Editor of the Magazine, and I keep coming up empty. It is emptiness unlike no other I experience, because I would really like to produce something profound….for a change.

So, I guess my thoughts are really on change, which never comes easy for me. Returning to school in the autumn is always a difficult-to-accept change, but I can accept that it is much more traumatic for my children. While some children accept such change as a natural course of events, others resist it to the bitter end. Last week my son James, reflecting on his entry into second grade in just a few days, lamented quite sorrowfully, "Why can’t we just do away with school? It ruins my life." This from the same child who defined for me what a good teacher was (see my August message); go figure that one out. Is it possible that attitudes can change that easily? Or are the attitudes we hold close more a function of how we react to change? (Have I reached "profound" yet?)

Then again, changing attitudes are the mainstay of our existence, I think. The changes that have been most difficult for me to accept have been the changing relationships with my friends; in fact, I think my very concept of friendship has changed over the years. I guess it wouldn’t matter to me so much if it weren’t for the fact that friends are so important to me; so, I sit around and ponder these things. There’s a quote that keeps ringing through my head in this regard: "Nothing so fortifies a friendship as the belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other." While one interpretation of this statement could be regarded as rather cynical, it provokes me to think about friendship in a different light. Indeed, getting to a point in a friendship where each friend can accept a superiority in the other, requires a slow, gradual change in attitude which is not altogether natural, nor easy.

I now realize that my empty feeling is not just because I can’t think of profound things to say; it’s really because of the changes that lie before me, changes that will no longer involve editor-type stuff. I suppose that leaving the Magazine will be like saying goodbye to an old friend. On the up side, however, this editorship has created a multitude of good friends, friends who have contributed articles, columns, and advice. I’m reminded of my son’s favorite book, Charlotte’s Web, which ends with a thought James likes to quote: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." It has happened quite often to me; thanks to all my friends.

Steve Yurkovich, Friend and Editor


August 1998

My thoughts lately are on teaching, a topic that all of us, as perpetual students, can relate to in some way or another. I would guess that everyone reading this could readily conjure up memories of a favorite teacher from the past, someone who had a positive impact on life from this noblest of all professions.

Have you ever thought about what makes a good teacher? I can't help but contemplate my professorial profession and ask myself, "If I'm a good researcher and publish more papers, does that make me a better teacher?" Or, is that just part of a mythology propagated at major "research" institutions? Will one more paper, read by perhaps a handful of people, have a greater impact than putting effort into preparing extra materials for a classroom full of students?

I'm sure that as adults we can all come up with profound guidelines for what makes a good teacher. Usually, however, it is the simple explanation, often overlooked, that helps to drive the point home. For thoughts of someone discovering learning at a very early stage, I asked James, my seven-year-old, what makes a teacher good. He took my question very seriously, and responded carefully; he said, "It's someone who makes you learn more than you're supposed to."

To me, whether it's teaching control theory or how to read, making an impact is what teaching is all about. We all need someone to nudge us in the right directions throughout life, because it doesn't happen automatically; we all need teachers in our lives. Henry Adams said, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." I can definitely relate to that, because teachers I have had in the past are still, to this day, influencing my life. Perhaps my greatest teacher was my father, who taught me Morse code when I was ten years old, taught me how to build and operate a crystal radio, how to rebuild an internal combustion engine, how to swing a hammer, how to pour concrete, and taught me values of family and hard work. As I write this, he is taking his final breaths in his battle against cancer; somehow, he is still teaching me when I think back on my life with him.

I have a favorite quote that my best friend, Tricia, embroidered and framed for me when I entered the teaching profession; it said, "A good teacher is one whose spirit enters the souls of his students." I took that piece of wisdom down from my office wall after I was granted tenure because, while still reeling from the tenure process, I didn't think I was living it anymore. I think I'll get it back out now and hang it up. Maybe it will force me to pass on what my teachers have done for me, because I feel I've been really lucky.

I think I've learned a lot more than I was supposed to.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


June 1998

My thoughts lately are on orderliness. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I actually strive to attain order, and to keep things tidy in my day-to-day affairs. Unfortunately, with the enormous amount of "stuff" that comes our way these days, it is extremely challenging to maintain the degree of order I prefer; sometimes I feel smothered.

I clean my office periodically, but the only constant seems to be that I am always about two weeks from finishing. Recently I peered into my colleague's office, and noticed that the usual tall stacks of stuff were shorter. When I commented about it, he explained that reducing the piles of stuff on all surfaces to a consistent level was, in a sense, applying an H-infinity control algorithm (making all the errors lower, but consistent). Amused at this thought, I stepped inside, only to notice that behind me, out of sight from the hallway, all the stuff had been piled to the ceiling (I guessed that must be the controller itself, which had grown to an enormous size). The next day, I entered the same office and noticed some (minimal) further improvement (a space had opened up on one of the surfaces). This time he cut me short and immediately said, "The important thing is that progress is being made." I surmised that such a response was a product of the quarterly-report-syndrome in sponsored research.

My insistence on orderliness is most evident, I fear, in my private life; that which I can't achieve at the office, I must achieve at home. Complicating this is the fact that young boys can find the most creative ways to avoid putting clothes (clean or dirty) where they belong. In fact, we had a discussion at dinner the other night on this very topic. I asked James (now a wise seven years old) why his clothes are often crumpled up in a pile, in the corner of his room. "I missed the drawers," he said seriously. Turning to B.J. (an even wiser 11 years old), I asked him whether he could think of any good reason to keep his room tidy. The best he could come up with was, "So I won't trip into my clothes and suffocate."

Right then I realized the importance of that description; I feel like I'm suffocating when my office is a mess. And, I feel like I've no room to breathe when my e-mail "in" box is overly full. I suppose a good reason to do some spring cleaning is to avoid such feelings of suffocation; but there must be more.

When B.J.'s mother heard his suffocation response to my query for a good reason to keep his room in order, she insisted on a more acceptable answer (or else he would receive no dessert). He took a long, calculated look at us both, and gave a quiet, slow and serious answer: "To please you guys."

Progress, indeed. He got his dessert.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


April 1998

My thoughts lately are on tolerance. As engineers we learn early on about thresholds and tolerances. I even recall learning about the colored stripe at the end of the common resistor (remember that?). And, in our fundamental courses for materials, structures, and mechanics, we learn that tolerance is something engineers must respect and pay attention to. But as I was exploring these thoughts, it occurred to me that the whole concept of robustness in control systems actually comes down to an issue of tolerance.

My recent travels to southern India (Bangalore) have actually turned my thoughts in these directions. This marvelous country, through its colorful culture and gracious people, has made a lasting imprint on my own views of the world and the practice of tolerance (incidentally, despite the misplaced concerns I encountered from some of my friends about traveling to that part of the world, my advice is this: never turn down an opportunity to visit!). Throughout history, the Indian people have, in my mind, figured out this tolerance thing; with the varying cultures, languages, and religions in this vast country, tolerance has become a guiding principle.

So it is, then, that when I returned from India I had a new-found enthusiasm for instilling tolerance in my sons (as a parent, I have found that I often try hardest to transfer things to my children that I, myself, am lacking). And, I thought, where better to begin than with my seven-year-old, James, who frequently shows little or no tolerance for his older brother. I therefore asked James what he thought it meant to be tolerant. "Does it mean to be nice?" he asked. I started to respond positively to his question, but then I thought it wise to remind him that his first-grade teacher may not tolerate certain inappropriate behaviors from him or his classmates. He tested me with, "So, it means being not nice?" After attempting to explain it further, and watching the calculated look on his little face through it all, I asked him, "Do you think you're a tolerant person?" His answer was evasive, and characteristic of how this little guy sometimes tolerates my annoying attempts at fatherhood; he responded, "I don't think I know what it means."

I'm still learning about tolerance, at home and in my travels abroad. But, when I dwell on my own tendencies for tolerance, I wonder if I wouldn't respond just as James did if someone put me on the spot. From a control point of view, a possible ticket for success in life along these lines could come from a sort of "robustness" in our dealings with people. Many design possibilities come to mind, but robustness can be tricky. Claiming ignorance is probably not always the best solution…unless, perhaps, it was termed properly. Think about it; if James was a control engineer, he would probably refer to his own evasive method as "disturbance rejection."

I guess I can tolerate that.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


February 1998

My thoughts lately are on writing. Back in my Kansas high school days I wrote a series of tongue-in-cheek, controversial editorials for the school newspaper admonishing the administration; little did I know that one day I would be writing editorials here on such topics as golf, dressing robots, gender in education, Santa, phrenology, coaching, cat control, and my new car. I must say, however, that of all the writing I've done --- pieces of textbooks, book chapters, journal articles, conference papers, countless reports --- this column, for each issue of the Magazine, is the most challenging.

One reason for this is an ingrained notion I have as someone who has come through the ranks of graduate student, assistant professor, associate professor, to professor. That notion, right or wrong, is this: Whatever I write must be a "contribution." As I think back on the 30 editorials I've penned, however, I cannot think of one that really contributed to the literature in this sense (well, maybe the one on cat dynamics, or maybe the one on robots dressing themselves, or…). I can't help but think of how this relates to what we read in our archival journals: How much of what is published is really a contribution?

I heard someone say recently that 50% of what is submitted to our Transactions should not even be considered for publication, even papers that are technically correct. Or, put another way, if a paper is just not interesting (may not, for example, be read by more than five people, including the author, editor, and reviewers), then it shouldn't appear. A part of me agrees with this sentiment; yet, I still hold to the old adage that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." If a paper is technically correct, but uninteresting or seemingly useless, should it be published? Of course, most people feel their work is interesting, I suppose.

I asked my sons at dinner the other night what they thought about the idea of someone's paper getting published just because it had nothing wrong with it, even if very few people found it interesting (by now I've learned, by the way, that these guys are wary of these "interview" occasions). They both studiously agreed that this didn't seem "fair" to other authors who had to wait, because there wasn't room, to have their (presumably more interesting) papers published. Easy issue, right? But then B.J. (my oldest son at a wise 11 years) looked quizzingly at me and asked, "Is this another editorial with me in it?"

In that moment I had a revelation. I was reminded that critical questions such as publishability certainly depend on the disposition of the person being asked, and what can be gained from a calculated response. I asked B.J. in return, "Do you think it's interesting enough to be an editorial?" His answer, without hesitation, was an enthusiastic, "Sure!"

Hmmm … a young control systems author in the making?

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


December 1997

My thoughts lately are on value. I am writing this on the 10-year anniversary of "Black Monday," the day when the U.S. stock market took a huge nose dive and lost almost a quarter of its "value." I must confess that one of my passions (along with golf) is playing the stock market. Over the years, more times than I care to admit, it seems that I have reversed the old adage, "buy low, sell high." However, as in golf where I tend to only remember the good shots, I can only recall my good stock trades.

My dictionary defines value as "Worth in usefulness or importance to the possessor." Of course, we usually associate value with things; in fact, I have attempted to teach my sons the concept of value for years, particularly when they cannot understand my reluctance to purchase a "hot" toy item which retails for at least 50 times what it is actually worth. I recall about a year ago when a group of BJ's friends (he's my fifth-grader) came up to me and asked whether it was true that I "owned a bunch of companies." I of course said "no," but later I realized what was going on; a little information can be dangerous. My son apparently was attempting to increase his own value (in the eyes of his friends); earlier that week I tried to teach him about the stock market, about how owning stocks was equivalent to owning small pieces of companies.

How do we tend to measure the value of a person? I pursued this by asking James (my first-grader) what my value to him would be as we grow older together. He informed me that my value would certainly go down because, "When you retire you won't make as much money for us." All I could do was sigh.

So it is, then, that I ponder my own personal value. I suspect that one's own value (particularly in a professional field) generally rises to a certain point, reaches a "plateau," then gradually declines. Like the stock market player, I believe that one should consider "cashing in" when one's value is approaching a high point. Giving invited lectures, accepting positions of service to the CSS, and so on, are the types of opportunities for cashing in; sell high and go for it!

As the holiday season approaches, I am upbeat on this value thing. A father's value (perceived or otherwise) is probably highest on Christmas morning, when children are unraveling their newfound fortunes. Of course, my hope is that my sons' perception of personal value is not entirely tied to the value of things. When I approached BJ with the same question I asked his brother, he didn't answer right away. Instead, he went away and drew a bar chart of "value versus years," and returned in a couple of minutes. The bars were all the same across the years; and, they rose to the top of the page.

Sigh … Thanks, Beej. Let's go work on James before Santa arrives.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


October 1997

My thoughts lately are once again on getting older. Although I have already pondered my entry into the "over 40" status in a previous message, this time I am thinking in terms of things that grow old. Please do not think I am obsessed with growing old, but it is difficult to ignore. Yesterday my lovely wife, Tricia, commented to my barber that he should stop putting that "gray stuff" on my hair each time he cuts it. At least she blames him.

Prompting my "old" thoughts is my recent experience in purchasing a new automobile, which somehow relates to my own existence. For years I have been driving a white car which is now 14 years old (Tricia says that engineers always see everything in black and white). I like that old car. It still runs really great (well, okay, maybe not great), still looks fine (well, okay, it does have a dent in the front, the right side mirror is cracked in several places, and the rust around the edges is starting to take over), and has good fuel economy (well, okay, it used to be much better). But, somehow I feel comfortable with this car.

Then, why did I purchase a new car? Family pressure. Tricia revealed her feelings to me recently, saying frankly "you shouldn't be seen in such a vehicle." My son, B.J. (he's ten years old now, dreaming of when the new car will be his in a few years), was adamant that I desperately needed a new car, lamenting "…but this car is old." Only James, my little buddy, was on the side of keeping the old car (of course, I realize this was just to be counter to his brother), commenting that, "the insides are nice." In fact, it was James who told me that he felt "a connection" to this car (I'm not sure what he means by that, but six-year olds have definite ideas).

So it is, then, that my thoughts turn to my own existence. How is my family going to regard me in a few more years? Will a little rust (perhaps graying) be reason to trade me in? Then there's my profession and my colleagues. Are my "words of wisdom" getting old? When I'm no longer Editor, will you still send me email? As for control methodologies and technologies, how long should we hang onto old technologies (perhaps fearing the abyss between black and white)? Better phrased, should we leap into new trends when some of our standard (comfortable) tools grow old? I've encountered sponsors who wish to take such a leap in their quest for popular "emerging technologies." It's not family pressure, but it can be almost as intense.

I think I'm changing. New methodologies are capturing my attention. I have found a newness between black and white. Such changes take time, however. My new car is black…but the insides are gray. There must be a connection somewhere.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


August 1997

My thoughts lately are on careers and career choices. I was at dinner last night with a young executive, a general manager of several radio stations in the southwest part of the U.S. This guy was clearly motivated and swept up in his career. Over my green chili stew, my mind began to wander as he went on about corporate takeovers, cash flow, market shares, program directors and a host of other items. I was almost off on a totally orthogonal plane in my own thoughts during his oration, when suddenly I heard "…and everyone knows this guy is a real control freak."

Naturally, my thought patterns immediately rebounded back to the present conversation at this apparent reference to my own career. I quickly realized, however, that he was referring to a different kind of control, and not to me at all. So my mind began to drift again, this time toward my own son's choice of career.

Near the end of the latest school term, my fourth grader, BJ, had the assignment of making a presentation about his own career choice. The assignment entailed doing a little research and interviewing an individual in the field of choice. To make a long story short, BJ chose to be a professor of electrical engineering. I was proud when he asked to borrow my dissertation and an overhead transparency for "props" in his presentation. Then he interviewed me. After discovering the various areas within the field, he got me to describe what exactly it was that I did in this area called "control." During my description of several different application areas I work in, ranging from glass furnaces to paper machines, his questions always came back to the same theme: "…and so you use computers in doing these things, right?" "Well, yes," was my response, "But the computer is a tool to make the system do what I want it to do." Puzzled, he asked, "So you design the computers?" I knew where the conversation was going. "No-o-o," I said slowly. "I use the computer to control real systems."

With my new-found paranoia, I now realize what I was seeing in BJ's eyes: "This guy's a control freak," he must've been thinking. After the father-son interview was over, he paused briefly, squinted his eyes slightly, and announced, "That's nice, but I think I want to work on computers, because they seem to really do all the neat stuff." And off he went to finish preparing his presentation. Where did I go wrong?

By this time my appetizer was getting cool. As I waded through these thoughts and memories, my mind returned to my dinner companion, who apparently had paused to get my reaction to his last few statements. "So I'm a control freak?" I mumbled. "Excuse me?" he asked. "Oh, nothing," I said. "I was just pondering something you said." "Really makes you think, doesn't it?" he asked. "Indeed it does," I said. "Indeed it does."

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


June 1997

My thoughts lately are on paper reviewing, prompted by a conversation I had the other night with my six-year-old son, James, when he was in bed for the night. Out of the blue, James reasoned that, "You know, there really ought to be six senses." After rattling off the first five we usually think of, he informed me that the sixth sense should be the sense of feel. "But isn't that the same as 'touch?'," I asked. "No," he said, "because touch is something I do, but when I feel, somebody does something to me." I was beginning to understand. "It's like tag," he continued, "when you're 'it,' you touch, but when you're not 'it,' you feel."

This led me to conjecture about a sense of feel in reading and writing reviews. Most of us have undoubtedly lived through a humbling experience in the review process at one time or another. As Editor, I get to experience many interesting phrases that proliferate reviews, and some are quite amusing. So, I searched through two years worth of files from papers that were never published, and read the reviewer comments.

The first thing I noticed was that the majority of negative reviews were generally written in a nice manner; for the most part, reviewers tend to "lower the boom" softly, many times offering critiques about how the authors might improve their work (authors have feelings, too, you know). But I noticed that often the "not so nice" review generally got meaner as the review went on. I suppose that such reviewers tend to convince themselves that once they get rolling, they have license to say whatever comes to mind. The thinking must be that the person on the receiving end deserves whatever comes because they are wasting the reviewer's valuable time.

Be that as it may, I still have to wonder if James' allusion to our sense of feel should be given more attention when writing reviews. Some of the reviewer comments I came across in my research were the usual, "this paper is poorly written," or, "the organization is haphazard." More biting comments were the types such as, "the main theoretical result…is completely fallacious," and "the authors' approach is contrived and complicated." Or, more to the point, "…calculations appear to be correct. But - who cares?" And, "There seems to be no engineering reason to use such a controller." Finally, what review would be truthful without, "The authors obviously did not pay attention in writing their paper." Ouch!

It is certainly true that comments received back from authors (which I must absorb - groan) about their reviews are not always rosy. And, I suppose it could be true that some authors just don't get the point unless it is put in no uncertain terms. Nonetheless, I have a request. The next time you're tagged, gentle reviewer, please be kind to your fellow authors - and, therefore, to your Editor.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


April 1997

My thoughts lately are on intelligence and learning. This special issue has several interesting articles on these topics, with some papers solicited from the 1996 International Symposium on Intelligent Control. Perhaps because of these inspiring articles, I ponder my own intelligence and learning capacities, and a profound question comes to mind which is counter to conventional wisdom: Is it possible that, as I grow older, my learning increases as my intelligence decreases? In the limit, where does this leave me?

Think about this for a minute. Instead of decreasing the rate of learning in "growing older and wiser," I think I am learning more and more that I am getting dumber and dumber. For example, as a volunteer Editor I am sometimes reminded of my intellectual deficiencies by interested readers who kindly share their observations. High-level involvement in major conferences has been a real learning experience for me, but has clearly uncovered (perhaps created) holes in my intelligence. And as a professor in Academe (to some, an elevated state of being), I seem to learn more from students than vice versa; occasionally, however, I do experience temper tantrums on the job and come in contact with the intellect of children --- and I'm not just talking about the students.

I think this is why I always turn to children (age-wise, that is) for answers to my profound issues. As a father, baseball coach, soccer coach, basketball coach, and scout leader, I have a collection of experiences indicating the learning mechanisms of children. I remember one scorching hot day when I was perspiring after finishing an animated 30-minute exposition on some of the finer points of catching and throwing a baseball. I recall feeling that I really had the attention of my young subjects; in my mind, I felt they were actually learning something. When a hand when up after this teaching experience, inside I was thrilled that I had connected with these youngsters, that a follow-up question was coming. Then it came: "Coach, why is your shirt all wet?" Where had I failed?

Later it occurred to me that in the grand scheme of things I was probably the one who learned the most that day. Besides learning that when my right fielder is nowhere to be found I should look first to the portable bathrooms across the way, coaching children is teaching me which things are really important in life. And it is teaching me how to interact better with non-children, but I still have a lot to learn in that regard.

Maybe I am all wet; nonetheless, I am encouraged. Despite learning each day that I am growing more stupid, there's definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. If, in the limit, I end up in the intellectual world of a child, I will have one good thing on my side: other children always seem to like me!

Coach Steve, Editor


February 1997

My thoughts lately are on autonomy and robots. For the last ten years, the February issue of the Magazine has been done in cooperation with the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. In keeping with the fine tradition, this issue has several articles that were originally presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, held in Minneapolis in April 1996.

The pages of the past nine special issues have seen robots that talk, walk, brachiate, catch mice, and juggle. We've even had serious discussions on cat dynamics and their relation to control experimentation. But despite all the truly interesting papers (and editorials) we've seen on applications of control for robotic systems, we have not seen work on robots that can dress themselves. I suspect that this is not a trivial problem. As always, I have some thoughts to support my point.

Several weeks ago my oldest son, BJ, came down to breakfast before going off to school, and paused to stand sleepy-eyed before me. It took me a moment to realize what exactly was different; his pants had two large square pockets on the front, with no apparent discontinuities (snaps or zippers). When I pointed this strange sight out to him, he groggily looked down, immediately gave me an aghast look, spun around, and ran; as he moved out of sight, sure enough, I noticed a half-open zipper and a snap on the backside, speeding away. Apparently a skinny nine-year-old can slip pants on without unsnapping…I dare say that most of us would experience some difficulty doing that successfully.

Once the dust cleared, I turned to my youngest son who was munching happily on his breakfast bar, and who had witnessed the entire event. It's important to note at this point in the story that since entering kindergarten, James has miraculously become an expert in almost every area, technical or otherwise (or, so he thinks). He was staring at me intently, seemingly unaware of what had just happened. Without directly referring to his brothers' misfortune, he smiled, tilted his head slightly, and announced proudly, "I'm very good at getting dressed." By now I know better than to challenge the claims of a six-year old. "Oh?" I asked, not really knowing what to expect next. "Yea," he began, "when I put my sweatshirt on, and notice that the hood is in the front when I look down, I know right away that I'm facing the wrong way."

It later occurred to me that if I were to program a robot to dress itself, I would probably take James' viewpoint, and first face the robot in the right direction. Then, if the clothes were properly laid out (as James does with his, every night before bed), the problem merely reduces to finding the correct direction, thereby establishing a coordinate system.

Sometimes a little kid's views on things have algorithmic appeal. I'm still apprehensive about the autonomy aspect, though. At times I feel like I'm the one being programmed.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


December 1996

My thoughts lately are on the upcoming holidays, and on what's ahead in automotive control systems. How are these connected? Other than the fact that this month's issue features papers on trends in automotive control (special thanks to Dr. Jim Winkelman of Ford for his assistance in this project), this time of year always provides a challenge for me: finding that perfect parking space when I'm out doing my holiday shopping.

When I arrive at the mall for my gift shopping, I am invariably baffled at the first sight of what seems like millions of parked cars. Did all these people drive there that day like me, or did they actually park there several weeks earlier just to claim all those spaces?

But I enjoy this type of challenge, and use a couple of algorithms to find a parking space. On those rare occasions when I'm not feeling particularly aggressive, I turn to the Schrödinger method: At any given moment there is a positive probability that the space closest to the door will open up….pull over and wait. But real success for the competitive sort is ultimately tied to sensor technology (sound familiar?). I have found that it is best to hone a keen, vulture-like eye for spotting vehicle back-up lights, often from 100 meters away. Or to listen with a sharp ear for an automotive ignition. Then one must be prepared for the "race to the space," and attempt to calculate the optimal control in real time (smallest distance and shortest time) to get there. Once there, the probability is quite high that another car will converge on the space you claimed; enter game theory. Do you ever plan routes to cut off the other guy? Or, do you think anyone will really care if, just this once, you violate a one-way route? Somehow, being safely in our vehicles isolates us from society and turns us into aggressive animals; I love this time of year.

Once my car is snuggled into a parking space, however, the problem is only half solved: I have to find this same space again after my shopping is complete. I seem to be missing those brain cells that help me find my way out of a shopping mall and back to my parked car. It's always a challenge. If my children are with me, they usually arrive home with rosy red cheeks after shopping; I tell my wife it's due to the joys of the holiday season. The truth, however, is that this effect is either from wandering around for a long time in a cold outdoor parking lot, or from inhaling carbon monoxide for too long in an enclosed garage.

So where are we headed with automotive control systems? I'm absolutely sure it will be exciting and challenging from a control engineering point of view, and I'm really looking forward to technologies that will give me that competitive edge. In fact, I'm gearing up for that holiday spirit right now.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


October 1996

My thoughts lately are on securities. Not stocks and bonds .... rather, I'm thinking about intangible securities, like things that make us feel safe and comfortable. I just finished wishing goodnight to my five-year-old son, James, and asked him why he needed those seven stuffed pandas surrounding him in his bed (no kidding .... he has Papa Panda, Mama Panda, Big Brother Panda, and on down the panda family tree ... seven of them). Without hesitation, he said, "I want to get as many as possible before they get extinct." That's security ... and planning ahead.

I suppose that security takes on different meanings for us as we get older. Just the other day, my oldest son and I were alone when he posed a serious question to me (B.J. is nine now). He prefaced his question by making me promise to give a truthful answer (I knew I was in trouble then). He asked, "When I lost a tooth, and put it under my pillow at night, did you put money in its place, or did the Tooth Fairy do it?" I had to pause and ponder the situation before I answered.

As I think back on that tense moment, I wonder where securities lie for the control engineer? What is it that gives us a "warm, fuzzy feeling"? Are we secure when encircled by a Nyquist plot? Do we feel safe on a sliding surface? Think about it for a minute; just how secure are you with a linear model? Does that Lyapunov function you rely on so much really give you a safe feeling? Then I begin to wonder if stability is really all it's cracked up to be. Did you ever stop to think that all your stability proofs are inherently and intimately tied to some equation which supposedly represents a physical reality, then try to rationalize that your proof is still solid, even though in the back of your mind you know that equation must be a bit erroneous? But, then again, are we ready yet to throw away stability theory when working on realistic applications? Or, put another way, can we be content with a warm, fuzzy feeling, even if stability eludes us?

As I thought about how to answer B.J., my security as a parent was waning. After I confessed to him that it was me who put the money under his pillow (that as far as I knew the Tooth Fairy hadn't visited our house), I quickly found out where this all was leading. It was time, I decided, to bring Mom into this, so I asked him what she says about these things. He informed me that he knew about the Tooth Fairy, but that when he asked Mom about Santa Claus, she assured him that she still believed in the jolly old fellow. B.J. then got that familiar, wry smile on his face and said, "I guess she feels I'm not ready for that one yet."

I know the feeling.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


August 1996

My thoughts lately are on pressure. I'm thinking more in terms of pressure we feel in our everyday lives (as opposed to stress, which is evil), such as with final exams, deadlines, and so forth. In fact, I'm feeling intense pressure right now to write this column (believe it or not, for the twenty-first time).

When I think of pressure, I think of the internal combustion engine. Having recently been in Indianapolis for the Indy 500 race, I learned all about the "pop-off" valve, a device mounted on the engine which releases intake manifold pressure at a certain level to limit the amount of turbo-charged boost an engine can receive. If the pressure in the intake manifold is increased, more fuel/air mixture can be forced into the combustion chamber, increasing rpms and engine horsepower. The analogy is a good one, then, to our everyday life, as we typically increase the pressure on the front end to increase productivity at the output. At least this is what my students tell me. And, it often works well.

But what really got me thinking about pressure happened to me just this morning. It's what I consider the ultimate pressure: waiting on the first tee at the golf course, preparing to hit that first shot of the day. Golf courses around the world are full of people like me who dream about hitting beautiful golf shots. When we get that chance to go out onto the course, we think about it for days before the event (and start building the pressure). We picture ourselves blasting a long, straight drive on that first shot; this is all normal, I hope. What makes the pressure increase exponentially as the tee time draws near, however, is that typically there are a dozen people or more watching you on that first tee. In fact, you imagine that every golfer on the course at that moment has stopped play just to get a glimpse of your first tee shot.

Then an interesting thing happens; as all those people watch, in tremendously loud silence, you completely forget how to hit the golf ball. Everything you've ever done correctly in your golf swing is foreign to you now, and you cannot even feel the club in your hand. You may as well be working on your laptop, or studying the cat. Then, as you stand frozen in some ridiculous-looking position over the ball, you realize that nothing has moved for several seconds, and that something had better happen fast. So, you rush your backswing, twist like you've never twisted before, and uncork. I'd rather not relate to you what typically happens next, but stability figures in (yes, a type of "pop-off stability").

So, sometimes pressure can lead to good results, and at other times to disaster. As I release some pressure by finishing this column, I can start to think about other pleasant things. I'm playing golf again next week. Fore!

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


June 1996

My thoughts lately are on history, life, death, and fame. Kierkegaard, who must have studied optimal control, once said, "Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward." I've concluded that we study and interpret history in our own way, often marked by important events. Trauma and natural disasters typically mark points in our own personal histories; for example, I still remember where I was the day the number of lawyers in the world passed the one million mark.

I asked James, my five-year-old, what "history" means. He immediately responded, "It means famous" (my wife later surmised that this response probably had something to do with the last line of the song about a famed red-nosed reindeer). Further questioning revealed that his definition of history also is tied closely to old people, and those no longer with us. He did tell me, however, that I was the most famous person he knew; so what if a five-year-old's horizon is a bit limited?

I guess we all "go down in history" for something, sometimes for things we did in control engineering. And, my guess is that some of us would admit we are at least mildly concerned with our own fame. I would even go so far as to say that some of us are consumed by a search for fame (say it isn't so). Of course, one could argue that the academic environment fosters this atmosphere, where even as students we are programmed to lay claim to little pieces of control history whenever possible. It is true, I suppose, that if we could all speak at our own funeral, we would have a captive audience; it seems a shame to come so close, only to miss the chance by a couple of days.

History of Control

We are, therefore, left with other ways to evolve our own fame, and to be remembered. But how will control be remembered? Is control dead? Before you write a eulogy, please read the excellent collection of articles in this special issue on the history of control, all written by colleagues who are young in their zest for control engineering. I must extend special thanks to Dr. Linda Bushnell, who helped organize this issue and worked very hard to make it happen. A tremendous amount of time and energy went into this project, and the contributors should be thanked above all for making this a truly "historical" issue for the archives of the Magazine.

Through the process of putting together this special issue, I have learned that one needn't necessarily be old (or dead) to be a part of history. Most importantly, I have come to realize something worth noting. Being famous in the eyes of my little buddy James is pretty important, too. In fact, I'd go so far as to say...

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


April 1996

My thoughts lately are on education and passing time. This month I turn 40, which my lovely wife tells me is a milestone occasion, adding that, "it's all downhill from here, dear" ... bless her heart (which is older than mine). I guess I've always felt young by hanging around with older people; but, that's getting more and more difficult, especially in the classroom and on the basketball court.

"Daylight Savings Time" has always intrigued me. Conceptually, we "save" daylight for use later in the day (of course, early risers lose it in the morning). Apparently even Benjamin Franklin promoted the idea, towards saving resources. But what are we really saving? Certainly not confusion, particularly when countries change at different times, or not at all. Somehow I feel we must be able to extend this concept toward reducing workloads, thereby giving me more time on the golf course. When I find time, I'm going to look into it.

Alas, there's probably no hope of truly saving time for later use, although personally I tend to operate as if I am approaching a receding horizon. I have thus pondered lately that I am getting closer and closer to the proverbial "limit." For years I have written on the chalkboard, "as t goes to infinity," in front of sleepy-eyed students, without really thinking about it. But lately I find myself stopping and wondering if that is a relative statement; is the end of time relative to the age of the beholder? Or, will I ever get to see if all those mathematical, asymptotic results actually come true?

Time for Education

As time passes, I have observed a strange phenomena in the classroom. Why is it that my rapport with the class just isn't the same as it was when I first started this business? I tell the same jokes, wear roughly the same clothes, have the same haircut, and teach (hopefully better) much of the same material that I did ten years ago (go figure, eh?). Nonetheless, I go on, undaunted, because I am committed to this business of education. So it is that I had the idea of putting together this special issue on control education. The look of this issue is a little different from the usual, and many people put in a lot of work to make it happen; thanks to all the contributors. My special thanks go out to my Guest Editor, J. Jim Zhu.

I've been told that the trick to growing up (which I am still doing) is to do so without growing old. From a scientific point of view, however, I have come to the following conclusion: Age is a question of mind over matter; if you don't mind, it doesn't matter. I guess I really don't mind.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


February 1996

My thoughts lately are on cats, members of that fickle, fastidious feline species. My own opinion of these creatures aligns with that of philosopher, poet and story teller, Garrison Keillor, who said, "Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function." But, given that my wife has for her entire life placed majestic value on her feline pets, I am compelled to explore the worth of cats from a control and robotics viewpoint.

As a graduate student I remember sitting around talking about what we thought were interesting control problems (we thought we appeared intellectual back then). I particularly recall one day discussing the dynamics of "falling cats." Indeed, from a robotic and control point of view, it's interesting to analyze what happens when one drops a cat from the inverted position ("belly up," as it were), because these clever creatures have the innate ability to land on their feet consistently. Underactuated (and perhaps overfed) systems certainly present interesting robotic and control design challenges. But let's not discuss internally generated torques, kittinamics, or conservation of meowmentum. Instead, as I often do, I turn to the inquisitive minds of younger scientists, and the subject of experimentation.

A couple of weeks ago my eight-year son, B.J., asked me a curious question. He wondered just how far from the floor he must hold our cat, prior to the drop, so that it could no longer land on its feet. I should point out that this determination certainly varies from cat to cat, as our own queen of inertia has re-defined animal obesity. I immediately asked him if he'd performed any experiments; he smiled, said nothing, and walked away. Way to go, Beej, I thought. Then a week later my 15-year old nephew, Justin, said he "had heard" that if one first spun the cat around several times prior to the drop, thereby affecting the internal inertial navigation capabilities, results could be quite different. How different? To maintain my professional posture in front of these boys, of course, despite my enthusiastic interest in this problem, I refrained from pursuing an answer to the question. Besides, my wife was there beside me.

In This Issue

Although there have been analytical studies on this control problem (probably not quite like those of B.J. and Justin, where the problem no doubt lies in instrumentation), none appear in this special issue on robotics and automation. This is the ninth consecutive year the February issue has been done in cooperation with the Robotics and Automation Society, this year with papers originally presented at the 1995 (annual) conference held in Japan. Thanks go out to the authors and reviewers for meeting the tight deadlines.

In the end I have come to realize that cats may actually have worth, depending on your viewpoint. For example, as control engineers we often search for practical, convenient, "hands-on" examples for control analysis and implementation. Perhaps there's such an example up under your bed, right now. But you didn't hear that from me.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


December 1995

My thoughts lately are on what control theory has done to improve the quality of my life. Along these lines, and appropriately for the season, I'm wondering what particular "emerging" control technologies can impact my Christmas wish list? Lo and behold, I've run across some possible gift items.

Recently one of my students found an ad for the "thinking man's shaver that thinks on its own." Hmmm. I wondered what control technology was being utilized here to improve the quality of my life. You guessed it: fuzzy logic was the "elaborate artificial intelligence system" which allowed this mere shaver to learn how to give me the best possible shave. Reading on in the ad, I was astounded to learn that this shaver senses the length, thickness and density of my beard (every 0.4 seconds...wow), so that the "fuzzy logic circuit board" could continually narrow down to the one pattern (from hundreds) that best fits my facial and beard condition at that moment. What really drew me in was the LCD graphic display, right there on the shaver's handle, that shows me the "amount of power the Fuzzy logic is delivering" (does your shaver have an LCD display?). The bottom line said "$249.95" which may be quite a bargain for such an advanced product. After a minute of reflection, however, I realized that I hadn't spent that much on shaving in my entire life.

Here's another possibility. While global positioning systems (GPS) will likely be extremely important in control systems for future automated vehicles, there are, as most of us know, other critical applications of GPS for improving the quality of our lives. A few days ago my colleague working with intelligent vehicle highway systems handed me an announcement for another product that I don't think I can live without. In test marketing right now is a GPS-based automated golf yardage system designed to provide accurate yardage from anywhere on the course. GPS receivers are mounted on golf carts, and determine position of my golf ball (measurement corrected through local radio differential signals), displaying the length of my drive, distance to hazards, and actual flagstick location (pin placement). Would it improve my score? Who cares? At the very least it would keep my mind off my awful golf swing.

In this issue

So there you have it: two ideas for emerging technology stocking stuffers. Surely there are many more. In fact, for the second consecutive year, we present this special issue on Emerging Technologies. Marc Bodson once again helped me in putting together this issue, and my thanks go out to him and the reviewers for their efforts. Although there is no mention of fuzzy shavers or GPS golf aids, we hope you will find the issue useful for tutorial views on some other important emerging technologies which certainly affect the quality of our lives.

The rest is up to Santa.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


October 1995

My thoughts lately are on appearances, which is quite odd for me. Ordinarily I am not attentive to how people are dressed, or how their hair is combed. But the other day I got a much-needed haircut, and as best as I can tell, only three people noticed. My assistant, Darla, and my doctoral student, Julie, both gave me an unsolicited "it looks nice" comment. Later, near the elevator a colleague said, "You look different." When I explained that I had gotten a haircut that morning, he said, "Oh, that's what it is...you look neat and groomed." This, of course, made me feel really good.

When I went home, midway through dinner, I had to ask my wife if she liked my haircut (affirmative response), then if she even noticed it. Diplomatically, she said she had; but because she ordinarily would have said something without being asked, I delved further. My mistake. After relating the compliment from my colleague earlier that day, Tricia announced to me that I normally have a "disheveled" look. Noticing my facial expressions at that point, I think she realized she had dug a small hole for herself. So, she went on to insist that most engineers she knows have such a look. A trench was opening.

It's true, I suppose, that I have never really been very concerned about my appearance. I even used to get anonymous comments in student evaluations about my apparel. In fact, many years ago I made the "mistake" of wearing hiking boots, brown corduroy pants, a green shirt, and a red tie on the day evaluations were conducted (that is, I contend that my mistake was not what I wore, but rather when I chose to wear it). On his anonymous evaluation that term, one student ended an essay about my choice of wardrobe by pointing out that, for example, I looked like a Christmas tree on that day. Fortunately, there was no mention of ornaments.

Does there still exist a stereotype about our engineering appearance? If so, is it well founded? Often for issues such as this I would sample opinions from trusted friends; but, in this case, I choose to turn this around. How many of you want to look like a lawyer? (For me, vivid images abound.) From now on I'm going to start noticing what you all look like when I see you at meetings. The pressure's on.

In a final effort to rescue herself in our conversation about why it is engineers have this distinguishing disheveled look, Tricia finally added, "Of course, I think it's because engineers are always thinking of more important things than how they look." Well, lots of things make a successful marriage; ego smoothing is not the least of them.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


August 1995

My thoughts lately are on baseball, professors, and control. Most of you have read how sick the dollar-dominated sport of American baseball is, from owners' arrogance, to players' greed, to fans' anger. And maybe some Americans have pondered, "something must be done." Something is being done: it's called Little League Baseball.

For two years now I have coached and watched my sons play baseball. For a young boy, hitting the ball, whether from a rubber tee or thrown by a friend's dad, and striving to get your opponent out with a heroic throw, is what the game is all about. These players don't complain about their playing time, they don't play for salary arbitration, nor do they worry about athletic shoe contracts. Usually they're more concerned with what the snack will be after the game, or whose pants got the dirtiest. Where else can a wide-smiled boy get hand slaps, a story to tell friends, and a tear from dad's eye, all from a mighty swing that results in a fizzler traveling a few meters (but resulting in a two-base hit because the pitcher, catcher and third baseman couldn't decide who, if anyone, should field the ball)? In what other atmosphere can an aspiring youngster get congratulated so much, with such a feeling of accomplishment? Baseball for the fun of it. What a concept.

I find my thoughts wandering from little boys playing baseball to the professorial profession, particularly in research institutions. This profession has received worse press, I fear, than American baseball; to wit: What sort of reward system is receiving a guaranteed job for life for selling one's research, for focusing relentlessly on publishing (more beans for the bean counters), and for occasionally teaching an undergraduate a thing or two? In what other atmosphere is a professor driven to sometimes feel that teaching is a distraction? Where else can young professors spend embarrassing numbers of long hours writing proposals and courting potential sponsors when they would much rather be doing the research being proposed? Realistically, of course, money shapes our behavior, whether we are college administrators or professional baseball players, and I am confident that the vast majority of professors get into the profession for all the right reasons.

So, I propose that professors and their administrators should watch a few little league baseball games. Perhaps in so doing we can find ways to keep the fun in what we are doing. For me, one way is through applications research, and bringing it into the classroom (this issue focuses on control applications, with six of the articles from the 1994 CCA held in Glasgow). Are we at a point where "something must be done" about the engineering professoriate? Is there reason for concern?

Teaching and research, for the fun of it. What a concept.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


June 1995

My thoughts lately are on learning and intelligence --- so much so that I read a book entitled "40 Years of Phrenology," by N. Sizer (circa 1880). If you aren't familiar with phrenology, it's the study of the shape, size and protuberances of the skull, based on the belief that they reveal character and mental capacity.

According to this credible reference, a brain mainly in front of the ears indicates a man with talent, but little force (sorry ladies; 1880 literature was rarely politically correct). Great development between and behind of the ears, but short in front, indicates lack of intelligence but a very passionate man who is selfish and animal in his instincts. Fullness and height in the top-head, but small at the base of the brain, indicates a moral, persevering and dignified man, but lacking in energy. But if one is very long in the back-head, and upward and forward the head is moderate in development, that man is extremely social and loving, but lacks intelligence and morality. You'll be interested to know that all these forms of head come from longer or shorter brain fibers, which radiate from the base of the skull, between the ear openings, to the brain surface.

Since learned men once believed this, can learned control practitioners put stock in a similar "theory" to characterize our inclinations in control research? Dr. Sizer had 40 years of phrenology to study more than 200,000 subjects; we couldn't hope to catch up starting this late, but perhaps we could make some "headway." For example, one could hypothesize that the nose determines whether we prefer to operate in the frequency domain or state space. Does lack of hair indicate a penchant for modeling natural systems? Maybe the distance between our eyes is a measure of how inclined we are to research continuous-time or discrete-time systems. Does the slant of the forehead indicate a linear or nonlinear thinker? Imagine the possibilities; what are the characteristics of a fuzzy-systems type (probably nothing plastic surgery couldn't take care of)? Wouldn't it be great to be able to spot people in a crowd (closet fuzzy controlists, for example)?

Intelligent Learning Control

While you're pondering the implications of this new science, carefully peruse the fine articles in this special issue. All of the papers were invited, but none of them venture into intelligence from phrenological viewpoints; rather, they focus on learning control systems. For an overview of the issue, see the opening article by my Guest Editor, Panos Antsaklis, whom I would like to thank for his efforts. And while you're reading, consider the implications of my idea; maybe the author photos will lead to some interesting conclusions.

So, what are your inclinations for control systems research? How big is your nose? How do you measure up? Get out your ruler.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


April 1995

Do you ever get the feeling that people are watching you? That your colleagues are looking over your professional shoulder (in my case, the left one)? That when someone responds "uh-huh" to your offering of a profound opinion, they're not really inspired? In these days of being politically correct, one cannot help harboring a little paranoia. I contend, however, that our professional careers foster these feelings.

When the time is approaching for the annual performance review from your boss or branch chief, and you pass her in the hallway (score one), what thoughts cross your mind? Can you resist wondering how you're being sized up at the moment? Perhaps it's worse in Academe, where junior professors smile and chat with a whole group of full professors who, as a matter of policy and procedure, scrutinize the careers of their younger colleagues. The one watching definitely has an advantage over the one being watched, regardless of vita.

And how about the review process for nurturing feelings of persecution? Although the system is designed so that vengeance is the fuel for self-perpetuation, it still hurts to digest artfully crafted, cutting comments on your proposal or paper. Have you noticed that human nature causes one to immediately react against the anonymous reviewer, pinning blame on the messenger? On the other hand, it must be a wonderful system, since many of us continue to partake.

Computer-Aided Paranoia?

An often cited example of watchful eyes is the computer. I'll bet Orwellian feelings crop up in many of us from time to time; for example, have you ever repeated a sure-to-fail Matlab or LaTeX command in frustration, hoping that the computer wasn't paying attention (and might let it slip by)? Nonetheless, the computer is our friend, watchful or not, as witnessed by the fine collection of papers we have in this special issue on Computer-Aided Control System Design (CACSD). My thanks go out to Guest Editor John James, who endured my constant peering over his shoulder throughout the entire process, and to all the courteous anonymous reviewers who helped. Feature articles in this special issue were presented in earlier forms at the IEEE/IFAC Joint Symposium on CACSD, held March 7-9, 1994 in Tucson (see the Conference Report department).

So, the next time you feel someone (including that computer on your desk) is watching you, try to consider it a healthy part of your professional existence in the cosmos. Above all, rest assured that the funny looks you get are well-intended. Uh-huh.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


February 1995

My thoughts lately are on that February event of Valentine's Day. Let's face some facts; how many of us really get fired up about this event? A recent article I read suggested that changing Cupid's name to "Gus" would help Valentine's Day gain some manly respect. Perhaps, but I have never been one for romance; in fact, several women (mostly non-engineers, including my lovely bride of 18 years, Tricia) have told me that male engineers, in general, are not very romantic. My assistant, Darla, claims "it has something to do with that left-right brain thing." Okay, since we're getting scientific, let's analyze this.

It's all relative, I suppose, but I would contend that there is more to it than meets the eye. I've always wondered how one can gradually (or suddenly?) acquire romance, because young boys tend to lapse into convulsions when romance is mentioned (James, my four-year old, recently chanted "Get me a bucket!" during a romantic encounter in a movie). We could probably debate whether romance is acquired, developed, or derived.

Let's begin by asking how one defines "romance." Because I have made attempts in previous columns to define robot, intelligent control, and cybernetics, I think it is time to take a stab at this "softer" issue. For "romance," my dictionary gives the following: "a love affair; a strong, sometimes short-lived attachment, fascination, or enthusiasm for something." Thus it would seem that control engineers could certainly be characterized as having much romance, particularly regarding our enthusiasm and fascination for control theory and technology. What has more romance than proving a theorem on exponential stability? (Don't bother answering that one.)

But are control engineers romantic? I must say that when the word is used, the usual connotation is the romantic love affair. But for "romantic," my dictionary gave me this: "imaginative but impractical; visionary; not based on fact; fictitious." (I confess this isn't the first definition). Hmmm . . . so it would seem that I can have a life full of romance, but, because I prefer to be firmly rooted in facts, I can actually ligitimately choose not to be romantic! Tricia . . . did you hear that?

Romantic Robots?

So it is then, that many control engineers have found romance with problems in robotics. As this February issue represents the eighth consecutive year for a special issue of the Magazine on the theme (robotics and automation, that is, not romance), in cooperation with the Robotics and Automation Society, there is no doubt in my mind that such romances have existed for years. In fact, I'd wager that many have accused their spouses of misdirecting romance toward a robot in some laboratory, maybe even around Valentine's day (such as the day after, when the event has come and gone without fanfare . . . I speak from experience).

So, send in your Valentine's Day wishes. Although I may not be a romantic guy, after all this, I now feel that my life is full of romance. Get me a bucket!

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


December 1994

Here we are at the holidays again, the end of my second year as Editor of the Magazine. As I prepare for these happy times, my thoughts are on Santa and his entourage. In particular, when I think of my own schedule and capabilities, I wonder, "How in the world does he do it?".

I've done a few calculations. Given that there are roughly 400 million children in the world who would be inclined to expect a visit from Santa (a conservative 15% of the world's children), with an average census rate of more than three children per household, there are about 92 million homes to visit. And given that the jolly fellow has approximately 30 hours to work with (assuming he travels westward to maximize time zones), he has more than 800 visits per second! If you think about this for a moment, that leaves a mere millisecond per stop to do what he does so well (up and down the chimney, eating cookies, distributing gifts, and so on).

And then there's the travel and payload. Assuming an even distribution of households around the earth, more than 75 million miles must be traversed (with no pit stops), requiring a cruising speed of more than 650 miles per second. Hmm...even an athletic reindeer can only reach 15 miles/hour, tops; but that's on the ground, of course. Then supposing each child gets, on average, a one-pound gift (a mere fraction of what my boys receive), Santa's sleigh is carrying about 200,000 tons. Whoa, Rudolph! Conservatively speaking, given the capabilities of typical beasts of burden (the size of Prancer and Dancer), this would require about two million reindeer to pull. What's more, at the required speeds, with even minimal air resistance, poor Santa is pinned to his sleigh seat by literally millions of pounds of force. Ouch!

Emerging Technologies?

Clearly, Santa is on to something here, perhaps some advanced technologies heretofore unheard of by the common engineer. This got me thinking about how far we were from achieving some of these amazing feats in the control engineering community, and what directions we were headed.

Our answer has been to present in this issue, for the first time, a look at emerging technologies in control engineering. While there are probably many such technologies which qualify (Santa would surely have something to say on that), we decided to focus on some application areas where emerging control technologies are making an impact. Special thanks are due to Guest Editor, Marc Bodson, for his diligent work with me on this issue, and to Panos Antsaklis for helping formulate the original idea.

Happy holidays to all of our readers. And, if you get a chance, stop Santa and ask him how in the world he does it!

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


October 1994

Preparing for this new school year, my thoughts have been on education. And while I still focus a lot on so-called higher education, since that's my job, in the last couple of years I find my attention shifting more and more to my sons' education. As B.J. enters second grade, I have begun to wonder how my son is doing compared to the other boys, and how that compares to the progress of girls.

For years I have heard that boys are better than girls at math, whereas the opposite is true for reading. Could this be so? Rather than interview B.J. again (see my message in the February 1994 issue), and since James is only this year entering pre-school, I resorted to "academic" sources to investigate this claim. I found an article in Psych. Bull. (by Hyde et al., p. 139, 1990, in case anyone cares) which summarized 100 studies by many researchers, on millions of school children. The findings: in math, girls actually have a (very) slight edge in elementary and middle school years. Based on standardized tests, boys then have a slight edge in high school (however, based on grades, girls have the edge in high school...go figure). And this: the more recent the study was, the narrower the "gap" was.

Having just been through the experience of a child first learning to read, I was also curious about the claim on reading skills. Hyde co-authored another paper in 1988, concluding that although studies in the 1940s (when aptitude tests were first given) indicated that girls excelled at spelling and language skills, recent studies indicate that there is essentially no gender difference with regard to verbal abilities. I always wondered about that.

As a result of this brief investigation, I have concluded that boys and girls are basically (genetically) equal in these matters, and that the claim of gender superiority is a myth (at least in math and reading...to be politically correct, and to maintain a happy home life, I normally carefully avoid these issues). I've also concluded that such myths could actually influence the study habits of young students, particularly in the way parents, not to mention teachers, interact with children. But that's another subject. Besides, I'm off now to drill my sons with math problems, since my wife handles the reading lessons.

In this Issue

The field of cybernetics doesn't deal with gender issues, particularly in the area of education. In fact, many people don't know what cybernetics is about (my folklorist friend queried, "Isn't that where they cut off your head and freeze it?" I should note, however, that she has good verbal skills.) This issue features papers presented at the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics (SMC) held in Le Touquet, France on October 17-20, 1993. For the eighth consecutive year we have an issue of the Magazine in cooperation with the IEEE SMC Society.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


August 1994

My thoughts these days are on the subject of "theory versus applications," because this issue features papers which are directed toward real applications. In this frame of mind, I had a dream with some interesting images.

In my dream was a large and populated forest with a white pedestal rising above the treetops. An elite group of geese lived high atop this pedestal in an isolated, yet highly visible encampment. It was clear that these geese considered themselves central to the existence of all other creatures in the forest. The amazing thing about these fowl inhabitants was their penchant for things theoretical. For instance, they took pride in the fact that they could all communicate well with the mathematicians in the next forest (although few were accepted there). Some renegade mathematicians even tried living with the geese on the pedestal from time to time; like the geese, they found little reason to communicate with the other birds in the forest. It was the other birds who circled around the pedestal daily, carrying on the basic day-to-day workings of the forest, often cleaning up after the elite geese. Occasionally a raven or two would venture up to the top of the pedestal, land on the edge, and peck at the fodder lying around (even though the geese were well fed, there clearly wasn't enough to feed the entire forest). The ravens would be swatted away immediately by some of the fatter geese.

A strange thing I noticed during this dream was that most of the elite geese couldn’t fly. In fact, some were born, lived their entire lives, and died on the pedestal, never having ventured off. On the other hand, a few often left the roost, experienced flying, and returned to tell of their experiences. While they were still held in the high esteem by the other flightless geese, there were not revered. After all, the flightless geese claimed that they could always fly if they really wanted to (or had the time), whereas those silly ravens way down below couldn’t hope to ever join the gaggle. It wasn’t surprising to me (in my unconscious state) that most of the ravens down below didn’t think too highly of the flightless geese, although there were some ravens who aspired to reach the top (and frequently cackled their respect for the pedestal dwellers).

My dream ended with no incidents. It was clear to me, however, that the gap between the ravens and the geese, narrowed too infrequently by the adventurous few from both sides that intermingled, was as wide as ever. Of course, when I awoke my thoughts returned to the reality of control engineering. Alas, it was just a dream. Right?

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


June 1994

Defining intelligent control is a difficult task. If we limit ourselves to technical definitions, the report in this special issue by the Task Force on Intelligent Control covers that topic pretty well (see the From TAB column). Since I consider my own perspective to be an "un-intelligent" one, I thought I should ask some friends, "What is intelligent control?" My wife has convinced me that when a question requires an intelligent answer, I should ask a woman.

A folklorist friend of mine claimed that for her the term intelligent control conjures up oxymoronic notions, like military intelligence, or jumbo shrimp. Another friend offered the following definition: "...the control of a machine by a system that makes intelligent or well-programmed decisions." And just when I thought this definition seemed closer to home, she added that her son would consider it the act of minimizing the time spent on homework in order to control intelligence. I should have stopped there, but in pursuit of a general, all-encompassing definition, I pressed on to find something more technical. For example, when can one identify that his or her work is in the area of intelligent control?

Among the "experts," many perspectives arise. Through them all I've come to the conclusion that the thread which ties these perspectives together involves funded research. Therefore, I offer the following simple definition for intelligent control research: If you write a proposal which uses the term, and especially if you get your proposal funded, then you are working in the area of intelligent control. One reason I like this definition is that it reveals the interesting phenomenon of the "closet" intelligent controllist. I have witnessed this phenomenon to see people come out of the closet when the money comes in. On the other hand, if you are on the other side (the one funding the research) I suppose it doesn't really matter; after all, everyone wants to be associated with intelligent work (whether or not it's by particularly "intelligent" people).

My wise folklorist friend reminds me that, "literature is literature because we call it that." Is intelligent control defined by buzz words, funding fashions, or applications? Hopefully within this issue you'll find the necessary ingredients to form your own definition.

In this Issue

This is the second consecutive year the June issue focuses attention on Intelligent Control. Three of this month's feature articles were presented at the Eighth IEEE International Symposium on Intelligent Control, held in Chicago on August 25-27, 1993. The opening article summarizes the plenary address by CSS President Herb Rauch at that same Symposium. Many thanks to my Associate Editors for meeting tight deadlines in the review process for this issue; meet these dedicated individuals in the special feature, From the Editorial Board.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


April 1994

My thoughts lately have been on April Fools' Day. A little research (the topic offered a refreshing change) revealed that the practice of practical jokes on this occasion is said to have its origin in any number of legends, depending on whom you ask. For example, there's the Scottish custom of "hunting the gowk, cuckoo or fool," or "Poisson d'avrir" (the fish of April) from France, or the Roman myth where Ceres undertook a search for her daughter's voice as the daughter was being abducted by Pluto. Ceres' search was a fool's errand, for it was impossible to find the echo which she sought.

As most of us know, the goal of April fooling has always been to pull some prank on an unsuspecting victim who has not yet noticed what day it is. This can be stressful; some people, I am told, have even developed aphrilophobia (fear of April Fool's Day ... no kidding). Personally, I refuse to get involved in pranks, especially as an instigator, so don't look beyond this page for any. Still, I can't help but wonder what connection there may be with engineering. Very little, it would seem. However, in my research I discovered that in the April 1, 1948 issue of The Physical Review, there appeared a paper by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. So, as usual, I have come up with some thoughts to offer.

At one time or another we've all probably chased research directions which did not bear fruit. Have there been topics which control researchers have chased on a "fools' errand"? Some may claim that fuzzy logic represents such a topic (but in that case, who's the fool?). On a broader scale, a disgruntled friend of mine might suggest that writing proposals to some funding agencies is a common fools' errand for many. Please say it isn't so.

The thought of funding and fools' errands brings to mind an analogy from another friend of mine. Funding agencies, he would say, are akin to the tender of the chicken coop. When feeding the chickens, handfuls of grain are thrown on the ground, and the fastest and fattest chickens make it to the feed first. While crowding out the other chickens and pecking away at the feed which presumably was distributed in the yard for all, these fat chickens have one eye on the feed and one eye on the feeder. When the next handful of grain is thrown in another location, those same chickens are off like a shot and are, once again, the first to feed. In the meantime, the slower chickens (or, perhaps those that are more cautious and prone to fowl thoughts) are left to clean up what's left. I guess that even fools' errands can sometimes pay off. Again, though, who's the fool?

Enough foolishness. Finish reading this issue of the Magazine, then get on with your proposal writing; I think I see the chicken feeder coming this way.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor


February 1994

My thoughts are on robotics lately, such as on the question "What is a robot?" I asked my first grade son, B.J., for his definition. His answer was "it has a head, a body, and legs." Simple minded? Maybe so, but it occurred to me that many adults would probably respond similarly. Most engineers know that robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning work. My Merriam-Webster dictionary (vintage 1974) offers the definition: "a machine that looks and acts like a human." So it is, I guess, that B.J., Spielberg, Roddenberry, and scores of others are propagating our collective perception of what a robot is.

So I pressed further, asking my son what robots do; he answered by saying that they "make things," and "they help people...if they're smart enough." I then felt like I was making progress. Certainly robots play an important role in modern manufacturing and automation systems (whether or not they have a human-like anatomy), in that they make things. And no one disagrees that robots (even the dumb ones) help people. But, if they're smart enough? Indeed, intelligence seems to be a key ingredient here. Expecting a robot to learn --- be it to juggle or balance, to catch mice, imitate gibbon apes, or walk --- is no longer a pipe dream. On the other hand, expecting an android to command a starship may be pushing it (but try to tell that to a seven-year old).

Control engineers obviously play a big role in robotic applications. Often I have heard people refer to engineers in robotics as control engineers, and visa versa. While neither side would agree unanimously to accept such a statement of equivalence, it is interesting to note that my old dictionary has an alternate definition of robot as "something guided by automatic controls."

I finished my enlightening conversation with B.J. by asking him, "What makes a robot go?" You and I may try to answer such a question with a discussion on architectures and processing power, or a tutorial on control algorithms and actuators, or a lecture on kinematics and dynamics. His answer was considerably more to the point; after a brief pause, he smiled and said, "Engineers." Think about that one.

In This Issue

This is the seventh consecutive year for a special issue of the Magazine on the theme of "Robotics and Automation" in cooperation with the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. Five of the feature papers in this issue are based on papers presented at the 1993 International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The others were solicited as part of an effort to focus on "real learning robots"; special thanks are due to Judy Franklin of GTE (co-author of one of our featured papers) for her help with that effort.

Steve Yurkovich, Editor