Section 4: Nuclear Shadows Chapter 2: Dining on History
late May, 20yy Los Alamos New Mexico.
Entering Marilyn’s favorite Spanish-style restaurant, Casey glimpsed a familiar face and voice. A young gent, alone, garbed in a touristy T-shirt, khaki shorts and sock less loafers sat beside them on the heavy wooden bench in the crowded waiting room. They nodded to each other.
“How did you ladies like the LANL tour?” he asked, bending across to speak over the din of a noisy crowd at the bar.
Casey replied, “For me, historical back stories came to life under the ‘nuclear shadow’. I’m glad to see today’s broad range of computing applications.”
Sally added, “I enjoyed the trip back through the ever-changing landscape of world leading supercomputers. It’s refreshing to remember something more complex than a smart phone app. How about you?”
“Wow, are you computer scientists also? My name is Matt. I just sold my ‘Life launcher’ app company to Yoogle.”
He pointed to his phone screen showing a colorful time line of faces and dates. I’m “looking for my next project, possibly something about social policy implications of Big Data. Or, maybe I’ll pitch an app to simulate the taste of red versus green chili’s.”
“Oops, Enjoy your meals, ladies.”He apologized as Casey stumbled over the young man’s outstretched legs as their group was called.
Sally whispered to Casey. “Maybe this young dude could be a consultant for our Pink Page Rampage Team”.”
Casey poked her arm, “And he’s rich, also. I heard him interviewed on ‘TWIT zillionaires’. Let’s invite him to join us. Is that OK, Marilyn?”
Marilyn was preoccupied with messages from Bob, who stayed home alone. When Matt entered the dining room, Casey beckoned him over to their empty fourth chair. He motioned for the waiter to bring a pitcher of Margaritas to their table. After seating himself, they exchanged names and home towns, saving their Whisperer profiles for details.
Marilyn explained she was a ‘local gal’ and occasional museum docent. At that moment, she was trying to keep up with her teenage son’s modifications to his wildfire simulator. Casey was silently guessing at Matt’s millions.
Sally went through her ritual folding and stowing her white cane to remind Matt of her partially sighted status. Just in case, she explained, “Matt, I’ll be a better conversation partner if you always address each of us by name”, pointing around the table, “Sally, Casey, and my young niece Marilyn”.
“Got it, Sally!” said Matt, “Thanks for the etiquette lesson.”
“I’ll go easy on you, Matt. My Capitol colleagues call me ‘Access Sally’, after the World War II propagandist you’ve probably never heard of. Look up ‘Axis Sally” sometime.”
After digging into the chips and salsa, filling glasses of Margaritas, they settled into conversation about the 2018 collapse of the social media industry. The CumuLinker social graph takeover and exodus of social media godfathers left everybody wondering what’s next. Casey decided not to bring up her OMG Reunion fiasco, but she was curious about Matt’s timeline app. They stumbled into the touchy topic of age and gender diversity in Silicon Valley.
“I have a different professional predicament,” groused Marilyn, taking only a sip of her Margarita.
Sally added, “Marilyn’s our driver. I’m the ‘designated drinker’. Let’s hear Marilyn’s case.”.
Marilyn explained how she was ready to re-enter the workforce after 20 years off rearing an exceptional child. She’d left the industry at the Dawn of the Web, when file transfer protocols ruled and graphical user interfaces were simple. Security failures were rare , such as the Morris worm. Software processes were waterfalls, not yet modernly agile. She knew parallel processing code libraries but not current multi-processor architectures. Prospects for coding or managing programmers didn’t look good for her in corporate or government work.
But, diversity-oriented nonprofit’s led by apologetic technologists intrigued her after years of Girl Scout leadership. If she faced a life of itinerant assignments or remote contracts, she favored returning to her love for writing and journalism.
Casey interjected, “Marilyn, the world needs more Cassandras. Not the pretty name, I mean the prophets who envision system failures, who can visualize complexity. They overcome declining expertise and ignore ‘innovation BS’. Think about this new field called ‘Threat Casting’.”
Casey’s passion rose. ” You only need to be right once and your wisdom will be golden. Consider ‘Vocal terrorism’ where synthetic speech enables school shooter rampages. Our DellVille police are developing a response. Everybody has a smart phone voice trigger app. ‘It will happen soon’, sayeth I, Cassandra Hawke.”
Matt refilled Casey’s Margarita with a serious look on his face. Marilyn lightened up with her fear. “My biggest worry about my son Bob is that he’ll waste his data-driven mind as a ‘Wall Street quant’, not a scientist or humanist like we raised him.”
Matt laughed, “yes, like the best physicists of my generation.”
Sally patted Marilyn’s arm and shook her head. “Maybe we need to track his interests with caution. He picked up on audio representations of computations for his wild-fire app. Let me know if he shows signs of ‘little brotherism’, you know, taking social action on security techniques. I’ll be glad to talk with him. Ok?”
Mat changed the subject to Marilyn’s experience as an online course student. While she messaged back to Bob, Casey described how her septuagenarian friend Chuck, a world-class Morse Code expert, often took the open classroom exams and broke the curve with his perfect scores.
Marilyn described the most rigorous course she could find was Introductory Python from MIT. She understood modern Object Oriented Programming’, but didn’t appreciate the minor differences among languages that seemed to accomplish the same types of computations.
“No big deal” she scoffed “but I really want to be the next ‘John Markoff’ or ‘Julia Anguin’ of technology journalism.”
Sally offered to help Marilyn mind-map her career options. Casey suggested they partner to publish career reflections of her contemporaries. She pointed out Cassandra Moments where systems failed, like 9/11, fake news in the Great Trickster election, and refugee home owners fleeing sinking coastlines. She wished the ‘Lazy Memoirist’ blog were farther along.
Marilyn thanked them for the support and relaxed. Not wanting to break up the conversational flow, they all ordered the combo special and saved the waiter from Sally’s menu querying.
Sally and Casey explained how their earlier paradigm of choice, ‘consequential Reasoning’, had been swept away in the 1980s.
Matt, working on his shrimp appetizer, hesitated, then asked. “Got my degree in 2005, never heard about that ParaLog, or whatever, paradigm, just a little functional-ism. I avoided Artificial Intelligence because I really like human-computer interfaces better. What are the advantages and disadvantages compared with any modern brand of object-oriented programming?”
Sally explained how patterns were expressed in ParaLog, like natural language processing in IBM’s Watson, which bumped human experts on Jeopardy in 2011. Casey complained that computer science had cut of opportunities for everyday users to learn and apply knowledge representation, which supports algorithm accountability. She asserted this led to the current Weapons of Math Destruction. Mistrust that branded some computations as pure evil.
Sally referred Matt to the essays in A Programmer’s Place, extolling the beauty and diversity of earlier programming philosophy, especially ParaLog.
The ladies’ new friend Matt showed signs of conversational discomfort. He didn’t seem to have a broad range of topics beyond business or flirting. Casey realized that in modern computing fields he rarely talked technically with women, let alone three who were older and credentialed. Sally’s disability probably unnerved him. And they were using technical terms he didn’t understand.
Casey continued, “Let’s go back to supercomputing. Professionally, I never got my hands on a $100 million machine but regularly read about triumphal computations at national labs. Think of computations as abstract events, similar to marathon races or movies. These have starting and stopping criteria, go on for days, accumulating errors, with occasional total shutdowns. An audience of scientists, and technicians, and their funding cheerleaders worry through the actual event. Big time computations summon numerous profession sand miles of journal article pages. Am I getting too poetic?”
Matt said, “Wow, that sure lays out a heroic view of computation, not like the terse interactions in our apps today. How did your own professional work relate to supercomputing?”
Casey smiled. “Modestly, not so much. I published the — now, don’t laugh, please — ‘Fundamental Theorem of Software Testing’. I had a reputation as a ‘testing intuit’ who could break a system with just a few keystrokes. I’ve been fascinated since my first IBM 1620 program about the consummate questions: ‘Does the program deliver correct answers? How do you know that?’.”
Casey watched Matt’s expression, “You’re probably recalling professors writing out long correctness proofs for short programs, right? Especially for large system models, like climate or astronomy, believable correctness requires decades of measurements to validate models and computations. Think about all the computing going into a Mars rover expedition. With problems of this size and complexity, we have to be right the first time and may not see the results in our lifetimes.”
Casey emptied her Margarita glass. ” I was one of the little people who tested the hell out of the library subroutines that large parallel programs depend upon. That work kept me bored, but employed, for years.”
Sally chimed in. “Here’s a bit of history that might be worth an article for you, Marilyn. I remember the 1980s demonstration by Berkeley mathematician William Kahan showing how a roomful of various brands of hand held calculators delivered different answers on arithmetic boundary points. You didn’t need to know a sine from a tangent to understand these computations were crazy. We worried about how many real world errors occurred in the hands of unwary calculator users.”
Casey pounded the table. “And that’s when designers at major companies got religion about standards! The liability issues were staring them in the face. Even physicists in the age of Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ strategic Defense Initiative became cautious, like who wants a missile to divide by 0 then fail to hit its target and end the world.”
They all laughed nervously, as Casey suggested the error message: a mushroom cloud behind the “fail wail” of all time.
Matt wiped his worried brow, “And now we’re stuck with the nuclear spat between the Great Trickster and the North Korean dictator. I wasn’t around then, but Reagan-era negotiators didn’t have to put up with Saturday Night Live skits, did they?”
Matt picked a red hot chili from his enchilada. He groaned, “Ah, those ‘good old days’ sermons I. knew they were coming.”
Sally frowned, then continued, “Standards helped, but then system interactions grew complex, sometimes fatal, like those cancer over-doses discussed on 60 Minutes in the 1980s. Not all computer entrepreneurs got the ‘risks’ message, killing a few beta testers on autopilot in so-called self-driving cars. We computing professionals during the 1980s applauded the Usenet group Comp.Risks. Do you know what I’m talking about, Matt?”
Matt shrugged and waved his hand, “Uh, no, I was in kindergarten. Continue, Sally.”
“I recently heard a great podcast about the 2009 Air France mid-Atlantic crash. The autopilot gave up due to erratic icing readings, turned back control to human pilots, but never told them which instruments were unreliable. The crew fell into ‘mode confusion’ due to their inexperience flying without autopilots. Over 200 souls perished!”
Marilyn sipped her iced tea in silence, then asked, “Casey and Sally, you have so much historical knowledge I’ve never heard before. If I go the journalistic route, these nuggets of insight will play a role. Many computing history books are told without the spirit of first or second hand experience. Do either of you plan to publish your own memoirs?”
“Not me,” said Sally. “I’m a futurist. I do write a magazine column about web accessibility.”
Casey flashed her iPhone home page. “Check out my research autobiography, everybody. I’m starting a blog with a Canadian environmentalist friend to capture memoir snippets.”
Marilyn followed up. “So, what’s the most interesting story you recall? Or most interesting person?”
Casey thought a moment. “One fascinating retrospective is from a retired Michigan engineering professor. A notable computer was designed while she was a young male researcher. She lived under a different identity for 30 years after her sex change. A few years ago a computing historian surfaced that early accomplishment. Her web site celebrates today’s opportunities for trans-gender adjustments without as much career sacrifice. Of course, you know this was the Conway of Mead-Conway VLSI design that changed hardware education.”
Matt looked up from his plate with amazement. “Whew! Even I know about Mead-Conway, but I never heard her story. Today her life would be a lot easier, socially speaking, I would hope. But, there would be almost no way to retain privacy since nobody can easily disappear and then reappear without gossip or somebody noticing similar skill sets. CumuLinker would probably blurt out their pasts through our Whisperers, right?”
Marilyn was scrolling through Casey’s blog. “What did you learn from writing your research autobiography, Casey?”
Casey continued, wearily. “It took a few days to structure my life phases. Hardest was acknowledging that I was a rather ordinary researcher with only early recognition. I realized now how different life might have been with a more rigorous education and greater awareness of professional pathways. Like many first generation college graduates, I benefited from the educational changes from the ‘Sputnik Moment’. I never felt comfortable in my profession and got into too many squabbles.”
She swept her hands across her shoulders. ” In truth, I have lived for decades with a chip on my shoulder. My career jigged and jagged from one opportunity to another. Most of the time, I enjoyed the ride and travel and professional encounters. You’re just getting your first ride on that roller coaster, right, Matt?”
He nodded. Casey continued.
“Not so long ago, I tried a traditional un-retirement, call it ‘Adjunctivitis’. I got a chance to open the pre-Web History of Computing to my students at DellVille Poly Tech. Now,I wish we’d had more discussion of ethics to prevent personal catastrophes like social media ‘algorithmic cruelty’. I’ll send you my write-ups, Marilyn, if you want to edit these to expose academic failures. You’ll see that my main concern, privacy, is an academic orphan.”
Matt’s phone alert sounded. “Oh, damn, my Tebler-X-2 has been recalled, something about a lawsuit for not changing lanes safely. I guess you ladies are not paranoid, but you just know how hard it is to make software trustworthy. I hope this was a software bug and not a security hack.”
Turning the conversation back to the LANL tour, Sally asked. “Just out of curiosity, Matt, how much did you learn in school about the big ideas and thinkers of the 20th century? Not just WW II, but Vannevar Bush and Memex, Licklider, Grace Hopper? Sputnik, Reagan Star Wars? Do you know who wrote the first compiler? the earliest spreadsheet? widest used 1980s word processor? earliest popular video game? mouse interface?”
Matt whapped his forehead. “Oh, my God, I cannot pass this quiz! I vaguely remember a Youtube showing the funny Admiral COBOL lady on Letterman. I’ve heard of Digital Equipment and the PDP 1 Star Wars game. I think Sun did Java. That charming Google VP, Vint Cerf, co-invented the Internet. I don’t recall much else.”
Casey stared into his eyes. “Wonderful! Now that you’re thinking about history, maybe you’ll grow up to be a Threat Caster.”