Four Score and Seven Years Ago

Today, August 5, has a number of interesting anniversaries in the world of technology and government. In 1858 the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed, allowing President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria to share congratulatory messages the following week. (Unfortunately within a month the cable had broken down for good.)  The first quasar (“quasi-stellar astronomical radio object”) was discovered on Aug. 5, 1962. And exactly one year later the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed on August 5, 1963, between the U.S., U.S.S.R., and Great Britain.

But one important date I’d like to commemorate was a bit different: eighty-seven years ago today, on August 5, 1923, my father was born, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Happy Birthday, Dad!

There’s a shorthand way of telling my father’s life-history which fits with the theme of technological advance: he graduated from college (his beloved N.C. State) as an early recipient of a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering; he worked for decades for a growing company interested in adopting new technologies to drive its business; and he capped his career as Corporate Vice President for Research and Development at a Fortune 300 company.

But that misses the fun he had along the way, and the close-up view he had of innovation. He was an early adopter, even before college. (I like to think I get that from him.)  So I thought I’d illustrate a couple of vignettes I’ve heard over the years of his interaction with computers along the way, simply to portray the thrust of radical change that has paced along during the course of one man’s life.

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A few words about a few great Pentagon leaders

I was thinking about the Pentagon over the long weekend – appropos, given the Memorial Day celebration. But my thoughts were also sparked by viewing a 9/11 documentary, reviving all the memories of that dark day’s attacks on New York and Washington - which ultimately led to my joining the ranks of defense intelligence for a while.

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WIRED Cracks Cyber-Battle Code

Just a quick note between conflicting conference sessions in different locations around the DC Beltway, to note that WIRED’s premier national-security blogger Noah Schactman may have just cracked the code – or at least “a” code – on where the ongoing dispute over “control of cyber” is heading in national security circles, in his latest DangerRoom post (“Air Force Cyber Command Could Return, with Nukes“).

The dispute has been reported lightly, in places like the NextGov blog (“The Cyber Command Power Play?”), and usually boils down to a perceived battle between the U.S. Air Force and the nation’s Intelligence Community, over control of the increasingly central issue of cyber offense and cyber defense.

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Theory of the Fireball, Supercomputing, and other Los Alamos Tidbits

Back in the early ’90s when I was first dating Kathryn, now the lovely bride, we went on some awesome roadtrips, including many cross-country – great way to get to know someone.  At the time my brother was an Air Force pilot, flying the F-117 stealth fighter, so we once paid him a visit at Holloman AFB on a 10-day drive through the Southwest.  I’ll have to find and upload to Flickr the pictures he took of each of us sitting in its classified cockpit – surely a massive security violation which I lay entirely at his feet (lucky for him he’s retired from the Air Force now and flying for Delta). 

Sadly, the F-117 Night Hawk has also now been officially retired, replaced by the F-22 Raptor.

As much as that was a thrill, though, the highlight of that particular roadtrip was driving up to the Los Alamos plateau and spending some time touring around the Lab, the Museum, and the interesting little town that’s grown up around all that PhD talent in the middle of the high desert.

That lab’s on my mind because I’ve been thinking about supercomputing and the revolution it could undergo thanks to quantum computing. I’m in Santa Barbara visiting the “Station Q” research program in quantum computing, and will write more about quantum computing soon, since I’m actually beginning to understand it.

But as an interesting artifact in my preparatory reading, Microsoft’s John Manferdelli sent me a link to a Federation of Atomic Scientists archive of declassified Los Alamos National Lab technical reports and publications, from “the good old days” at Los Alamos.

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How to Run a State-of-the-Art Technology Program – Quietly

FACT: In the new movie “Iron Man,” defense-contracting billionaire and engineering genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) designs and builds a suit capable of individual flight (highly engineered control surfaces powered by an “arc-reactor” - it is Hollywood after all). During his first test flight, zooming straight up from Malibu and stressing the system to its max, he asks his onboard computer, “What’s the altitude record for the SR-71?” His computer responds back, “85,000 feet,” whereupon he zooms past that ceiling.

ANALYSIS: Funny moment, and excellent movie.  In its honor, below I’m going to give you access to a remarkable, recently declassified document describing one of America’s boldest Cold War technical achievements.  If you’ve ever run (or wanted to run) a high-tech company or program, like Tony Stark in the movie, you’ll appreciate the startling scope of the work – and if you’ve recently worked in DoD or the Intelligence Community you’ll marvel at how they did it “in the good old days.”

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Spying on the A-12 OXCART

FACT: Today’s Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News has a great elegy for a pilot who died forty years ago: “Jack Weeks, University of Alabama graduate and Birmingham native, died in service to his country [on June 4, 1968]. Reports from his most famous mission wound up on the president’s desk during one of the flashpoints of the Cold War. His widow accepted his medal for valor shortly after his death. But for 40 years, nobody knew what he’d done. Only his wife knew he was a hero…. Weeks was a pilot in the Central Intelligence Agency flying the super-secret A-12 high-level surveillance aircraft from 1963 until his death in 1968. A couple of weeks before his death, he became the pilot who located the USS Pueblo, the American intelligence-gathering ship, after it was captured by North Korean patrol boats…. Next month, Weeks will finally get the public recognition he was denied for so long. Battleship Park, home of the USS Alabama, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death on June 4 with a ceremony that will include an Alabama Air National Guard fly-over.”

ANALYSIS: Friday I was over at CIA headquarters at Langley meeting with a friend, and once inside the compound I parked by the Agency’s newest historical exhibit. Situated on a new traffic island between two parking lots behind the original headquarters building, looming over rows of parked cars, is a massive, gorgeous, sleek black aircraft perched on shiny steel struts as if in flight, twenty feet off the ground.

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SecDef Blasts Air Force on ISR

FACT: U.S. military use of airborne drones (UAVs) dawned at the turn of the millenium, with nearly 100 vehicles in use before the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. By the end of that year the number had doubled, with the majority in use in Afghanistan. Today, according to a speech today by Sec. of Defense Bob Gates, “We now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001.”

ANALYSIS: The Gates speech today, to an Air Force audience, is being covered mostly with a focus on his “harsh criticism” of that service. For example, CNN’s headline was “Defense Secretary Scolds Air Force for War Effort,” or Fox News “Gates Says Air Force Must Step Up Efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan.”  And there was plenty of raw material for the tough stories, including CNN’s inclusion of the Gates soundbite that getting the Air Force to send more surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan has been “like pulling teeth.”

Others (like a Reuters story) struck a less frenzied tone, including more depth about his proposals going forward, and the Defense Department’s actual plans for improved acquisition and use of Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR. I’d encourage you to read the full transcript (get it here).  (By the way, here’s some background on ISR and its variants.)

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Air Wars: the Air Force Takes Heat for its PR

FACT: A heated online debate is erupting about a particular photo posted online, and the brouhaha around it focuses on whether or not classified details are contained therein, thus revealing them. 

ANALYSIS: Given that others are even now writing extensively about this photo and its controversy I thought I would add a couple of thoughts.  Don’t bother blaming me for linking to the photo, by the way; given the attention and reposting/rehosting it has already received, the glare of publicity can only serve to prod better security practices. 

I expect to see parody versions on Flickr soon, with “Area 51″ touches.

And so to my related thoughts: recently, an active-duty USAF officer and regular reader emailed me about one of my posts concerning Rod Beckstrom and the new National Cyber Security Center, which he had not previously heard of.  He wrote that in discussing it with a colleague, the response was “I thought the Air Force Cyber Command already had the mission to coordinate all cyber security efforts.”

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Driving during the Super Bowl? Use a Mashup First

Fact: According to a report, “Taking Back the Airwaves” in the Buffalo News last month, “Listeners’ relationship with radio has changed in the last 25 years. Radio used to be the main source of music, … but now, like other industries, radio is fighting to reinvent itself in a digital age.”

Analysis: Let’s say you were an Air Force mission planner, and wanted to plan a particular flight over enemy territory.  Time-honored practices (and traditionally clunky but powerful software built custom for the purpose) allow you to overlay the enemy’s known radar-emitting sites, using circles or shapes to indicate the covered and non-covered areas, and to do the same with anti-aircraft missile ranges, allowing the precise planning of a safe flight route.

Now let’s look at a nifty adaptation, showing that there are much more fun and practical everyday uses of such an approach – and now new technologies make it much easier and faster to accomplish! Continue reading

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