Hrvoje Lukatela: Geodesists lobotomize the world

Friday, 22 January 2016

Question: Tell us a little about yourself. How a surveyor, graduate of the University of Zagreb in 1971, was able to work for IBM and sold one of his inventions to Microsoft?

Answer: I graduated from the Faculty of Geodesy of the University of Zagreb in the spring of 1971. After a short field surveying period on urban cadastre, hydro-regulation, and similar projects, I found myself one day, out of curiosity more than anything else, writing some "abstract thinking test" that IBM was using in those years to select candidates to employ and train in computer-related work. It was a time long before any comprehensive academic training "in computers" was available, anywhere.

At the time, this appeared as something so novel and interesting that I did not think twice before I bid adieu to geodesy, and started working as an IBM "systems engineer". The computer training they offered in those years was simply excellent. However, my work there was in general "data processing" (another term of the times). It looked like I would never again practice geodesy, cartography or surveying.

All this was of course happening in the context of the former Yugoslavia. The first years of my professional life coincided with the gradual deterioration of both the political and the economic situation, specifically in Croatia. A short period of liberalization, known as the "Croatian Spring", was crushed by the Belgrade communist government under Tito by the end of the year of my university graduation.

Things looked bleak for a young, newly married Croatian engineer. The seed of an idea to move - perhaps just for a couple of years - to either the US or Canada did not take much to germinate. In December of 1973 we landed in Toronto.

Q: Was it difficult to start a new professional life in Canada?

A: No matter how welcoming a country Canada was in those years, for most of overseas professionals it was indeed quite difficult. But I was lucky: work "with computers" was then something so novel, and the demand for any competent individual was so great, that I was working practically from the day of our arrival. But even better, while in Zagreb and with IBM I could only do "general" computer work, in Toronto I quickly found an interesting position with a team doing software development on what was at the time the most advanced geodetic control network adjustment computer program anywhere. This was when the idea first hit me of moving away from the "Gaussian" approach to calculating fundamental geodetic propositions (direct and inverse problem of geodesy, intersection of two geodesics and so on) to something better suited for use with digital computers.

Q: Have you had a chance to work as a field surveyor in Canada? How well were you prepared for such work? What distinguishes the Canadian Surveying system from the rest of the world? From Europe for instance?

A: I did only a limited amount of field-surveying work in those early years in Canada: some suburban subdivision layouts and an interesting astro-observation project with a Toronto company working in Saudi Arabia. The geodetic engineering education I received in Zagreb was every bit as good, and probably even better, than the typical surveying engineering university-level courses offered anywhere in North America. Actually, in those years, there was only a handful of university-level geodetic engineering schools on the continent: Ohio State in the US and University of New Brunswick in Canada.

Here is however one observation about the surveying and mapping in North America that I noted at that time. Vast areas, especially of the West of the continent, had to be surveyed and parceled for agricultural settlement quite recently, only some hundred and fifty years ago. At that time, central-European countries were already developing full-coverage, technically rigorous, integrated control networks and land-parcel boundary cadastre. Compared to that, the so-called "Jeffersonian surveys" might appear primitive, but a massive amount of field work was completed over just a few decades, in adverse political conditions and with the majority of the field workers consisting of half-baked "surveyors", with absolutely no theoretical and only minimal practical training. However, the work was done, and it served the intended purpose quite adequately. But one can not escape a fascinating fact: this was all happening at about the same time as when Carl Friedrich Gauss was busy with Hannover triangulation...

Q: Let's return to computers: what was this previously mentioned software product, one that was later sold to Microsoft? Why did you choose name "Hipparchus" for it?

A: Over time, I experimented more and more with the construction of computer code that departed from the traditional methods to solve the fundamental geodetic computational problems. Those typically took a differential equation that describes some ellipsoid geometry proposition, then expanded such differential equation into a continuous polynomial series on the growing powers of eccentricity. For a given "size" of the problem (for instance, the geodesic edge length) only those terms that influenced some pre-determined precision are retained, and the resulting mathematical formulas are used to perform either manual computation, or are turned into the computer code.

However, if the computation is performed by a digital computer, working with the angular measurements of latitude and longitude and the expansion into ellipsoidal eccentricity series is not the best way to obtain the numerical solution of those differential equations. It is much better to use self-adjusting, iterative algorithms which, if constructed properly, converge quickly to a numerical solution of any desired precision. Thus the required precision can be determined not before the computer code is constructed, but at the time when it is executing. In addition, computations with angular latitude and longitude values are slow on the digital computers, because of the evaluation of transcendental trigonometry functions. It is much better to represent the ellipsoid normal with its direction cosines, and use vector algebra instead of trigonometry. Incidentally, the same method of computation is also applicable to the fundamental problems of celestial mechanics; for instance, solving numerically the position of a satellite as a function of time, as postulated by Kepler's second law. I'll stop boring you further with this, as it can all be found among the technical papers available on the web-site:

The product, Hipparchus Library, was a computer code library of fundamental geodetic algorithms, as well as the vector algebra based location indexing and searching functions. Together, they made possible construction of the "round-world" GIS, i.e., spatial data systems constructed not in some arbitrary, local Cartesian plane, but in seamless, continuous global ellipsoid coordinates. Hipparchus, the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician, was the first to conceive a system of latitudes and longitudes: a numerical representation of a location of a point, not on some a limited, planar patch of land, but on the boundless, continuous surface of our whole planet. Stretching it perhaps just a bit, we could say that the ancients knew two types of GIS: Egyptian, flat-Earth, fit for the agriculture on the mud of the Nile, and Greek, round-World, fit for the navigation of the endless seas. Computerized GIS-es of our days begun all as the "flat-Earth" systems, and are being transformed, slowly and with a great reluctance on the part of their custodians, into the "round-World" systems.

Q: You become particularly famous in 1992 when you’d calculated the Nemo Point. Who needs this point? Why Nemo? Nemo in Latin means No one. Who is the Godfather of this point?

A: "Famous" is hardly the right description; in today's culture the term is reserved for popular entertainers, skilled athletes, successful businessmen and businesswomen and bombastic politicians. So it is perhaps quite telling that my modest notoriety, such as it is, is due not to my experimentation with a novel method of numerical solutions of the differential equations of ellipsoid geometry, but is instead due to a geographical trivia-snippet, one that nobody really "needs", one that just happens to be making the rounds of the pop-culture nooks and crannies of the Internet.

Captain Nemo was the central character of Jules Verne's best known novel, one that is - to quote from the web page at - "a romantic mixture of maritime exploration, technological wizardry and fearless resistance to the British Empire. Characters such as captain Nemo tend to remain indelible occupants of the memory of those that met them in the literature of their youth." And yes, the very same copy of Verne's book on whose pages I first met Nemo as a schoolboy, survived over sixty years and innumerable moves, and sits on my bookshelf next to the complete set of Jordan's "Handbuch der Vermessungskunde", Bomford's "Geodesy" and Mueller's "Geodetic Astronomy". Nemo, Verne's character, wowed to spend his days navigating the seven seas, never to set his foot on dry land again. The name therefore seemed to me to be appropriate for that point on the World's oceans that is most distant from any land.

Q: There is too much literature and tooo much mythology around this point named after Captain Nemo and Jules Verne with his 20000 Lieues sous les mers. How and why did you get to calculate it's latitude and longitude? Have you ever been there?

A: Let me take a step back.

In addition to the mathematical functions that dealt with the ellipsoid geometry, Hipparchus Library (my software product) required a lot of computer code that is commonly described as "software development scaffolding": code examples of the use of various Library functions, generation of test and debugging data, and so on. In order to be really useful, most of that code had to produce cartographic output on the computer monitor. My friends knew that I was always on the lookout for interesting geographical problems, ones that could be used as examples of the Hipparchus Library use in the computer application development.

A friend, computer programmer associated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, heard some oceanographers speculating, while "shooting the breeze", on the exact location of the point on the world's oceans that is furthest away from any land, and told me about this. At the same time, an outdoor magazine editor approached Nick Chrisman, at the time the professor of Cartography and GIS at the University of Washington, with the same question, and Nick pointed him my way for the answer. With the same question, arriving in my e-mail in-box from two directions at about the same time, I realized that this global geometry problem would provide an intriguing narrative for another example program for the use of Hipparchus Library. However, to a true geodesist, the problem was worth tackling with a certain rigor: the maximum distances to the nearest three land points had to be computed as ellipsoidal geodesics, not just as the "great circle" spherical approximation lengths.

A couple of days later, I had an additional example program, complete with cartographic display, tested and ready to be included in the Hipparchus Library "scaffolding code" repertoire. Not giving it much thought, in addition to including the code in the product, I created the aforementioned web-page with the description of the problem and the presentation of its solution.

Much to my surprise, this immediately caught the attention of a diverse crowd of Internet denizens: blue-water sailors and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as many more or less "original individuals" that were, for their own reasons, drawn to the idea of being, if only in their imagination, as far away as possible from the mundane and irritating reality of our collective everyday lives.

Was I ever there? No. I did some blue-water sailing myself, but only across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean. Will I ever get to Point Nemo on a sailboat? Who knows, there just might be a sail-boat skipper about to make a traverse of the southern Pacific, looking for a crew, ready to take on, in the absence of young and strong, someone old and resilient. Who knows...

Q: Your creations all seem to have somewhat unusual names: the programing Library used to calculate the Nemo Point is named Hipparchus – after the ancient Greek astronomer and your geodetic company is named Geodyssey Limited – on the Odysseus / Ulissys. Why?

A: Perhaps it was my European background, toiling in the contemporary, self-absorbed culture of North America, one with not much interest in antiquity. However, the name of the company, "Geodyssey", a catchy fusion of Odyssey and Geodesy, was actually coined by my friend and partner, John Russell, head of the business arm of the company, way back in 1990, when we started the venture. Among the greats of antiquity, Odysseus is pretty near the bottom of the list of those that I admire, as just a greedy and crafty sea plunderer, with a blind but extremely talented press agent, that went by the name of Homer. But the name of our company was easily remembered and served us well.

Q: What other points on Earth are important to you, but are little known?

A: In my younger years I had the chance to climb some mountains on the East coast of Greenland. The beauty of that place is breathtaking: steep, ice-sprinkled mountains of sharp ridges and vertical rock faces, with glacier-carved fjords and open ocean with ice-floats on one side, and an endless, mostly flat in-land ice-plain on the other. When we climbed there (in 1971) we experienced something that is denied to members of any contemporary expedition equipped with mobile and satellite telephony: one month of an incredible sense of a complete and un-yielding isolation from the rest of humanity.

Q: What is today's successor to Hipparchus Library? The software was made in 1987 – at the beginning of computing era. How it would look like today?

A: As mentioned in your introductory question, when my partner and I decided to retire, we sold the software to Microsoft. They have included different pieces of that technology in various spatial data processing products of their own, but did not choose to also make the Library available as a stand-alone product to the outside software developers. After the expiration of the "non-compete" period common in such transactions, I decided to re-visit the geodetic computations based on the direction cosines of ellipsoid normal instead of the angular measurements of latitude and longitude. The results of that on-going (but a rather relaxed) involvement is something called "Globecalc", and it can be seen on web-page.

Q: Where are we, people of today, with the technologies and science?

A: I don't think we are anywhere near where we should be. This is, however, an almost endless topic, so I'll mention only one specific "adverse condition": the so-called "intellectual property" laws. I'm talking here specifically about the institution of "patents", not about the trade secrets and copyright laws.

The initial purpose of patents was to strike a mutually beneficial bargain between an inventor and society: in exchange for an immediate and full disclosure of the inner workings of his invention, the inventor was granted, for a limited period of time, the right to collect a reasonable licensing fee from anyone wishing to commercially produce the invented device. Both sides therefore profited: society, by enabling those that worked in the same field to build upon already published knowledge, instead of repeating the work that went into the creation of that knowledge, and the inventor, who could commercialize his creation without the need to keep a trade secret - usually a very onerous undertaking, especially when a large workforce is required for economically viable production.

In the second half of the last century, in the United States specifically, the patent-granting process was gradually but irreversibly corrupted: government institutions which were responsible for rejecting non-qualifying applications started granting patents to "inventions" that were either "previous knowledge", that were completely trivial, that intentionally obscured the "inner workings" of the invention, or were the product of a normal, everyday work activity expected of any competent professional, with no extraordinary effort or creativity. This was done in order to reduce the work necessary for the examination of patent applications, and with the assumption that any errors resulting from a sloppy patent-granting process can and will be rectified after the fact by the legal system.

As a result, not only do we now have an obscenely costly North American "intellectual property litigation industry", sucking the life out of new, innovative ventures, but the jurisdictions which were originally not negligent in administering their patent granting process are being forced to integrate into the North American model ("honor our patents, grant every application, let the courts sort out the errors later"). This is happening by a combination of political pressure and a heavily manipulated public narrative about the presumed "importance of the globalization of the intellectual property rights", in the interest of the international commerce and technology.

Q: Specifically, what is, and what should be the role of surveyors in computing and the computing for surveyors?

A: An interesting question. You may find my answer somewhat surprising: there is really no dividing line between the two. Design of engineering discipline specific computer software is not some "Voodoo", existing outside of any modern engineering discipline, it is an integral part it.

The whole field of computer mapping and GIS originated in the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis in the late 1960ies (Nick Chrisman, Geoffrey Dutton et. al.). There was not a single individual among those pioneers that had any formal academic training in geodesy. They were brilliant, but they were building "flat-Earth" computer mapping and GIS (such as the granddaddy of them all, SYMAP). On the other hand, all university-level geodesy schools I know of, even today, teach software engineering - or maybe just some programming - as an "encyclopedic subject", similar to how my geodesy curriculum included geology. This follows an assumption that new geodesy graduate will be a user, and not a builder of GIS computer applications.

Because of all this, a segment of our craft, as important to it today as the calculus of errors or differential ellipsoid geometry was in the time of Gauss, is drifting out of the control of geodesists and therefore out of the domain of geodesy.

Q: You have worked for IBM, consulted with Shell, dealt with Microsoft, Motorola was among your customers. What is it like to work for, or with, such large companies?

A: As the saying goes, "A nice place to visit, but..." Looking back, I would not have fared well at all as an employee in one of these large multinational behemoths. The balance point between security and freedom is different for each and every one of us. The relatively short time, early on in my professional years, that I worked for what was at the time the best of them all, lead to valuable experience. But at the end, it is just as important to know where one belongs, as it is to know what to avoid.

Q: Do you think yourself as a man from Balkans?

A: Certainly. Balkans and Levant! For instance, I was active in the small and obviously unsuccessful conglomerate of groups and individuals that were actively advocating for the "no" side in the Croatian referendum on joining the EU. Our collective sense of belonging to Balkans was clouded by the bitter experience of the long years of Yugoslav hegemony and oppression. I am however certain that as the EU problems grow and multiply, our sights will turn once again to the South and East, hopefully with considerable more wisdom than we had either in 1918 or in 2012.

Q: Have you ever been to Bulgaria? Do you know Bulgarian colleagues - surveyors and cartographers?

A: Unfortunately, I haven't. But Sofia is less than eight hundred kilometers from Zagreb, just a day or two away by a leisurely motorcycle ride. Your question just created an entry in my PDA to-do list.

Q: We will go back to the literature and to Jules Verne, who in his book from 1870 showed the empathy towards indiens and became the founder of the idea "I am ...", launched later by US President John F. Kennedy on June 26, 1963 in his historical speech in divided Berlin "Ich bin ein Berliner". Today people around the world are united under the motto Je suis Parisien. What are the biggest threats to the Earth in your opinion?

A: There are many threats, and we ignore them at our peril. They are not, as is so fashionable to proclaim these days, a consequence of environmental change, whether real or imagined, or caused by human activity or the forces of nature. The threat is our behavior towards each other and even more, much more, the behavior between the nations of this world. The threat is, more than anything else, the fact that we stubbornly refuse to accept a simple truth: there can be no peace without the justice. If I was to proclaim "Je suis Parisien", I would first have to declare my empathy for those suffering in Afghanistan, Congo, Gaza, Syria or Pakistan, for the indigenous populations in Mexico, Brazil, and Australia, for India's Dalits, in short, for millions and millions of known and unknown fellow human beings that can't seem to push the face of their misery onto the screens of TV networks or the front pages of glossy magazines. Unlike Paris.

Q: What is the future of geodesy?

A: We measure the angles and distances on the boundless, round planetary surface, then do as little computation there as possible, just enough to be able to "press", to lobotomize, that precious round-world measurement data into some arbitrary cartographic projection. With rare exceptions, all our high volume data organization and computation is thereafter performed in this twisted, distorted and imprecise computational domain.

If the data is organized in a digital database, and if the computations are carried out by digital computers and not by a human computationist with log-tables or hand-calculator, there is absolutely no reason why this should not be done in the natural geodetic data domain: the surface of an ellipsoid of rotation. The transformation of data into some cartographic plane system can then be done only one-way, and for only one purpose: visualization.

We are on the very edge of this proverbial "paradigm-shift". There are many other changes that we will see in the geodesy of the future; particularly in the automation of the source data acquisition. I am commenting here only on that segment of geodesy with which I happen to be familiar.

Q: What would you like to be the future of our planet?

A: The planet does not care much about us humans, one way or another; the planet will do just fine, whether we are around or not. It is Humanity that deserves our affection, the Planet deserves only our care. The planet did not embrace our early ancestors; they had to work hard to overcome adversities, such as the Ice Age, that the planet threw their way. So as far as the future of the planet is concerned, I hope only that it will include us. We must however understand we have neither the guarantee, nor can we count on any outside help to ensure such outcome.

Q: Finally, are there any outstanding individuals that you remember as having influenced you, perhaps during your engineering training years?

A: I remember with great fondness Franjo Braum, my photogrammetry professor at the University of Zagreb. For many different reasons, I never had a chance to actually practice in the discipline that was the subject of his lectures, but those lectures were of great value in developing the skills required to perceive spatial relationships not only as a manifestation of solid geometry, but also as a manifestation of algebraic productions. The skill at describing three-dimensional space with numbers, and not just with drawings, proved of great value later in my geodetic engineering career.

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