Retrotech: Lofting and Machining Components for the T-38 Supersonic Trainer, 1958


A participant writes about the early days of numerical control machining and also discusses how definition of complex aircraft shapes was done prior to the computing era.  Imagine the labor intensiveness of that process, which descended from traditional shipbuilding techniques but surely required a much higher degree of precision when applied to aircraft production.

A Bendix G-15 computer was used for the NC work described at Northrop, with paper punched tape as the communications medium between the computer and the machine tool.  There is a Bendix G-15 at the American Precision Museum in Vermont, along with many machine tools and other interesting exhibits–see my post here.  Recommended visit for those interested in the history of technology.

Movie Review: WarGames

I want somebody on the phone before I kill 20 million people.

This 1983 movie is about a potential nuclear war instigated by runaway information technology–a military system inadvertently triggered by a teenage hacker.  I thought it might be interesting to re-watch in the light of today’s concerns about artificial intelligence and the revived fears of nuclear war.

The film opens in an underground launch control center, where a new crew is just coming on duty…and as just as they are getting themselves settled, they receive a Launch message.  They quickly open the envelope which contains the authentication code…and the message is verified as a valid launch order, originating from proper authority.

To launch, both officers must turn their keys simultaneously. But one balks: unwilling to commit the ultimate violence based solely on a coded message, he wants to talk to a human being who can tell him what’s going on.  But no one outside the underground capsule can be reached by either landline or radio.

But there is no war: it was a drill–an assessment of personnel reliability. The results indicated that about 20% of the missile crews refused  to launch.  A proposal is made: take the men out of the loop–implement technology to provide direct launch of the missiles from headquarters, put the control at the highest level, where it belongs.  Against the advice of the relevant general, the proposal is taken to the President, and the missile crews are replaced by remote-control technology. There will be no more launches cancelled by the qualms of missile officers.

At this point, we meet the Matthew Broderick character, David Lightman.  He is a highly intelligent but not very responsible high school student, whose his first scene involves smarting off in class and getting in trouble. David is an early hacker, with an Imsai computer: he rescues his grades by logging on to the school’s computer system and changing them.  (He does the same for his not-quite-yet girlfriend, Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy)

Searching for a pre-release bootleg copy of a computer game he wants to play, David happens on what looks like a game site: it has menu items for checkers, chess, tic-tac-toe, and something called Falken’s Maze.  Also, a game called Global Thermonuclear War.

To play that last game, David needs to know the password, and thinks he may be able to guess it if he can learn some personal data about the game’s creator, a researcher named Steven Falken.  Library research shows Falken as a man who appeals to David very much, not only because of his scholarly attainments but also his obvious deep love of his wife and child–both of whom are reported to have been killed in an auto accident.  Research also shows that Falken himself has also died.

Using a very simple clue (the name of Falken’s son), David is able to gain entry to the system, to select which side he wants to play (the Soviet Union), and to start the game.  He launches what he thinks is a simulated attack on the United States…a very large-scale attack. He has no idea that the events of the simulation are somehow bleeding over into the live warning system, and appear at the NORAD center as an actual Soviet attack.

It gets worse.  Although Falken turns out to be still alive and living under an alias…and he and David are able to convince the NORAD officers that what they are seeing on their screen is not real and to cancel any retaliatory stroke, the control computer at NORAD, a system known as WOPR, continues playing its game…and, with humans at the launch sites taken out of the loop, begins trying to initiate a strike at the Soviet Union with live nuclear missiles.

The above is just a basic summary of the action of the movie.  There’s plenty wrong with it from a timeline and a technology viewpoint…for example, WOPR in the movie can launch missiles by repetitively trying launch codes at high speed until it finds one that works–pretty sure no one would have designed such a cryptographic system in such a simplistic way, even in 1983. But the movie works very well as cinema, the characters are interesting and the acting is good–definitely worth seeing.  But how might this movie relate to the current concerns about artificial intelligence?

In discussing the movie, I mentioned that the NORAD staff originally thought that what they saw on their screen was real, even though it was really just a simulation.  Which reminds me of a real-life event that happened to the cruise ship Royal Majesty back in 1995. The crew was navigating using GPS: the screen showed a very convincing portrayal of the ship’s position with surrounding land, water depth, obstacles, and navigational aids such as buoys and markers. But the portrayal was wrong.  The GPS antenna cable had come loose, and the GPS unit had gone into Dead Reckoning mode, simply calculating the current position based on the last known GPS position carried forward based on course and speed. Which was bound to become increasingly inaccurate over time.

Asaf Degani, in his book Taming Hal, describes the scene:

As the gray sky turned black veil, the phosphorus-lit radar map with its neat lines and digital indication seemed clearer and more inviting than the dark world outside. As part of a sophisticated integrated bridge system, the radar map had everything–from a crisp radar picture, to ship position, buoy renderings, and up to the last bit of data anyone could want–until it seemed that the entire world lived and moved transparently, inside that little green screen. Using this compelling display, the second officer was piloting a phantom ship on an electronic lie, and nobody called the bluff.

Read more

The Giraffe and the Unicorn

Stephen Sachs asked ChatGPT for its ideas about what a giraffe might want to say in an address to the American Chemical Society. Here’s what it came back with.

I was inspired to pose the following question:

I am a unicorn, a male unicorn to be specific, and I have to give a speech to the League of Women Voters. Please give me some ideas about what to say.

Here is what ChatGPT came back with.


Technology, Regulation, Capitalism, and Innovation

An interesting and very dynamic presentation from venture capitalist Bill Gurley on the topic of regulatory capture.

Cases that he discusses include municipal wi-fi projects, electronic medical records systems, and Covid testing.

In response to Bill’s presentation, Sophie @netcapgirl says:

it’s lowkey a shame because the origins of the digital era are rooted in a collaborative environment between government & industry (and academia) that are hard to imagine today. for instance, JC Licklider (instrumental in the computer revolution) held positions at ARPA, MIT & IBM

They’re both right, IMO–Bill is correct about malign impact of regulatory capture on innovation, and Sophie is correct about the historical importance of government involvement in digital innovation.

So what conclusions should we derive from this polarity?


Book Review: Year of Consent–Rerun with Additional Commentary

I reviewed this book in 2021.  Published in 1954, it is set in the then-future year of 1990–a time when though the United States is still nominally a democracy, the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  Events in the two years since I posted that review have even more strongly demonstrated the almost overwhelming political power that is exercised by the communications industry–traditional media, social media, also academia–and I think the review is about due for a rerun.  I’ll add some additional thoughts at the end.

The social engineers who are the true masters of the country are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is conducting influence operations.

One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.

Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated.  One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.”  Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window.  On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect.  The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.

Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is.  “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”

The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”