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Bio: Technology

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The first computer I worked on was a monster. Not as in Skynet from The Terminator or the MCP from Tron, or even HAL 9000, but as in huge. It remains to this day the largest and most expensive computer ever built. It was a DOD project, and it was recreated in several locations to become the world’s first integrated nationwide air-defense system.

The computer was the U.S. Air Force’s AN/FSQ-7, built by IBM. It looked like something out of the 1950s science-fiction movies I had watched as a child, right down to the big magnetic tapes jerking back and forth in their vacuum-sealed cases. In fact, when the overall system was decommissioned one unit was sold to Hollywood for use in movie sets.

The Q-7, or “Clyde” as we called it for some reason, probably to help us deal with its overwhelming size, weighed 275 tons and used 55,000 vacuum tubes, each large tube being one “bit”. Tubes and tons all times two, for “Clyde” was fully duplexed. This was the Cold War, after all, and a minimum of ninety-nine percent uptime was a matter of national security. You never knew when you might be called upon to defend the Free World.

The particular iteration of the Q-7 on which I worked occupied one story of a three-story “blockhouse” with a total of 120,000 square feet. The external power and air conditioning plant took up an additional 12,000 square feet. Power consumption was about three megawatts. We were told that if the a/c failed the temperature of the computer room would rise from its chilly normal sixty degrees Fahrenheit to over one hundred degrees within a minute and a half. Such were the heat-generating capabilities of vacuum tubes. We never turned off the a/c to see what would happen, though we were tempted.

The formal name of the computer and all its connected parts was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment system, or SAGE. The SAGE system broke ground in so many ways: massive simulation capabilities, digital displays (light pens!), “hands-off” computer control of fighter aircraft by digital data-link (which the pilots hated), and more. And all this with less RAM than most of us have today in our watches. Plus, just think about being able to walk around inside a computer! When a bit went bad you swapped it out by hand. It was like “Fantastic Voyage” for technophiles – twelve years before the Apple II, nineteen years before the first Mac, and twenty years before Windows. It was an eye-opening preparation for the technology that the coming decades would bring, though few of us could imagine that future at the time.

From this I went on to train people for the next generation of North American computerized air defense, the Regional Operational Control Centers (ROCCs); ran an evaluation team for a similar NATO system in Europe; worked on Saudi Arabia’s C3I (Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence) system, “Peace Shield”; and ended my US Air Force career directing mission crew training for the Airborne Warning and Control System – AWACS – the modern tool of choice for force projection.

The commercial world was next…

It was the early 1990s, and what came to be called “the desktop video revolution” was just happening when I changed my work uniform from a flight suit to blue jeans. Windows was an ungainly infant, Apple’s Lisa had died, NeXT was fading, and the new Mac II was coming on strong.

And then there was the Commodore Amiga – the best computer of its time, hands down. Stereo sound and NTSC video straight out of the box, and so much more. The response by the user community – many of whom now work for Pixar, et al – was intense. A few highly innovative companies saw this early on, and started to build products specifically for the Amiga. Notable among them was Digital Processing Systems (DPS), who built the first-ever time-base corrector (TBC) for an affordable computer, and NewTek, with their Video Toaster for video editing. Broadcast-quality video production came into the reach of the average human being. “Garage” animators and videographers could compete on talent alone, working from home on a shoestring, and the world of animation and video-making was changed forever.

Two brilliant former AWACS crewmates and I set up shop to serve this new community of computer users, and created “The Event Horizon”, in Oklahoma City. We did pretty well – how many start-ups do you know that have gone from red ink to black in one year? – but then Commodore went under. It was an early Enron, though few understood this at the time. Offshore accounts, financial malfeasance, etc. Problem was, the “evil-doers” got off – but we didn’t. (Same as it ever was…)

From this I went on, not by plan but by great good luck, to join DPS, a true and unexpected pleasure. I became their first manager of technical communications, then group manager of technical services, and later their first director of corporate communications. A great company, run by the four men who founded it, good men all. Then DPS was bought by a much larger company, Leitch Technology, and I became their first-ever director of training. After the “dot-com bomb” there were several changes in management, and the main aim of the final new management was to be bought by someone bigger, in which they eventually succeeded, but in the interim it sure made life hell for the employees who just wanted to make better products. Many left. An interesting corporate lesson. As a comic strip “Dilbert” is funny; as real life, it’s not.

Since then I’ve been an independent contractor, and have had some great experiences, the best one of which was with Oculus Info Inc. (http://www.oculusinfo.com/), one of the most innovative and interesting organizations I’ve ever been associated with: good products, good people. Oculus specialized in providing visualization solutions for complex data sets (e.g., NASDAQ, big banks, the US DOD), and I created user guides and online help for two of their major products. The contract lasted for a year, and brought together several of the major threads in my work life: geographic information systems (GIS); military command-control-information systems; cutting-edge computer visualization systems; and the pleasure of being able to make a significant contribution to an organization’s technical communications. Great stuff.

My techno-journey until recently has been from mainframes with dumb terminals, to disconnected stand-alone cpus, to “cloud computing” (like a giant mainframe in the sky with smart terminals). Now comes robotics – UAVs, UGVs, USSVs, among others – doing the work of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and vacuum cleaners, with the potential to change our lives more quickly and profoundly than ever before. Read P.W. Singer’s Wired for War to get an idea of the potential.

I’ve worked with two UAV companies over the last year, been to some civilian and military conferences, and have realized that it pulls together many of the threads of my life: cutting-edge technology, airborne ops, science, technical communication, geopolitics. The work is exciting and fascinating, but the societal implications are profound. We should all start paying attention.

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