24/09/2021

Back-door knowledge

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The guy I worked most closely with on this project, Roger, had previously been a management systems guy. They were the globe-trotting, big-drinking team, that everyone envied. Roger explained that while with them he had been part of a ring that enjoyed skiing near the Rieti plant, so they inserted some code into the plant’s management systems that went haywire every 28th February, prompting the leap-year as a possible explanation. The team arrived at the office on that day with all their ski gear and waited on the emergency call to go and sort out the plant’s systems, something they knew they could do in seconds. They flew down and spent as many days as they could spin it out for – now perhaps you can see why we envied them.

Electronic Battleships

Mind you I could have killed Roger in our shared office when he was tasked with creating the sound used for the ballistic travel of a shell in Computer Battleships. I think he was tweaking and playing the damned sound every few minutes for several weeks. It came with a noise for its flying through the air then either a splash for a miss or an explosion for a successful hit, it was pure mental torment.

But then Roger had one massive benefit. All staff had a TWX code that the computer systems recognised and wherever you were you could access your messages, remember this was 1978, only seven years after the first email on ARPANET and fifteen years before it had taken off. The then President of TI stated that he didn’t like surprises, he had a bubble-memory computer with him at all times so there was no excuse for him to have any.

Dallas would communicate any news and developments directly with the Euro-HQ. Then Villeneuve would kick it around a bit, then insert their own spin on it before sending it on to us. But Roger could get me access to what Nice saw, as they saw it. Of course, as with Churchill and the enigma code-cracking, we had to be doubly careful what we said as a result, constantly reminding ourselves what we should know and what we did know. In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, stumbled over this sort of thing and was lampooned for it. He said, ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’ In his defence (or defense?), scientific research is often, of course, based on investigating known unknowns.

There was a second strand to this back-door grapevine. The company was a semi-conductor company and the semi-conductor team developing the 9900 series, at the heart of our new products, were usually better informed than us on progress. We also had some limited access to their comms, otherwise we could get them drunk in a face-to-face. The favourite tipple was Margaritas – Texas again?

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