Bill Todd -- Jones: A Novel of the Early Cold War
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 Chapter 20

General Smith

The next weekend was the second consecutive Washington one for Jones, and, since the computer was to be delivered to CASP around noon on Friday, it was a time of high excitement.

They began, early in the morning, at JOAD. The emotions were still running high, and Captain Stallman was visibly seething, but most people were going about their ordinary business. Heike, with her usual tact and foresight, had appealed directly to General Smith to have Went included as a member of their team with free access to the computer. He was never likely to sit at the console, but he had a holiday look on his face as they set off for Virginia.

Went insisted on taking his car, and his driving, while quite different from that of Heike, was at least as alarming. Indeed, their arrival on the gravel driveway at CASP featured a cloud of dust, a skidding swerve, and an abrupt stop. When Heike gave a little gasp, he explained,

"When approaching the army, you want to make sure you aren't mistaken for a foot soldier."

Much of CASP was already assembled in the railway yard as a switcher came chugging along with two flatcars. The loads were carefully chained down and covered with overlapping tarps of various colors. The ragamuffin look might have suggested a cargo of little value, but those present knew better. As if anything else were needed, an armed soldier stood on each car. As the little train drifted slowly to a halt, enthusiastic cheering broke out among the spectators. Went, with his ironic smile, clapped and cheered the loudest of all.

Another switcher brought up a railway crane on the next track, the crowd having to shift to make room for it. When the tarps were removed, a lot of unremarkable wooden crating was revealed, and Jones could only speculate on the wild ideas some of those present might have entertained as regards the contents. Each section was already on a large wooden pallette, and the chains were hooked up. Everyone watched closely as the first one was lifted, swaying, up to the opening in the building at the fourth floor. It was still teetering a little, but was soon tethered to the building. The men who had gone up on the pallette then pushed the large crate, which was on wheels, inside. Went remarked,

"I see that General Smith isn't willing to have the computer hoisted up without an escort."

It turned out that the general was standing right behind them. He responded, with good humor,

"Workmen are always more careful if you arrange for their lives to be at risk."

Went was quickly introduced to the general, who suggested,

"We can go up the back stairs and watch them assemble it."

After a few more hoists, he led the way to the basement door, which he held for Heike, and also for Went and Jones. There was small animal life in the cold dank basement, and also a good deal of broken glass from the previous days' activity. The general said,

"Rats and mice don't constitute security risks, and we have good bars on what's left of the windows."

With that, he led the way to the stairs. It seemed to Jones, and probably to the others, that the stair climbing might develop into a competition.

Heike, even in the middle heels she wore for work, went up fast. She didn't weigh much, and, as a European used to walking and bicycling, she had strong legs. Went followed, perhaps not so easily, but doggedly. It was fortunate that the stairs weren't wide enough for passing, and all Jones had to do was follow Went. General Smith was pounding up behind him, and Jones was sure that he would be right on his tail at the top.

They all arrived, trying not to seem winded, just as the wooden crates were being removed. Heike said to the general,

"We've studied computers, and even programmed them, but this will be the first one that we've actually seen."

"By the look of things so far, it's going to be dull compared to a pinball machine."

As the crates were removed, gray metal casings, about six feet high, were revealed. Heike, peeking inside, discovered that the first few contained nothing more exciting than air- conditioning units. However, since almost no buildings in Washington were air-conditioned against the brutal summers, that was of interest itself. Smith said to the others,

"Since you'll have offices right here, you'll be cool all summer."

After a moment, he continued,

"In fact, I'm going to have a cubicle put in here for myself, even if I have to learn to program to justify it."

Went made a face at the thought of learning to program, but, with very little encouragement, General Smith expanded on the idea.

"Air force generals know how to fly, so computer generals ought to know how to program."

This, Jones realized, was the final straw for JOAD. Admiral Benson was extremely unlikely to learn to program, still less to think of himself as a computer admiral. Smith was a former artillery officer used to differential equations, and his technical ability would allow him to completely eclipse Benson in any discussions or conferences that might occur.

Smith wanted to get started right away, and he commandeered Heike as his tutor. He then led her down to his office, saying to Went and Jones,

"You gentlemen can stay here and oversee the assembly. We'll be back up presently."

When they were gone, Jones asked Went,

"What do you think?"

"Game, set, and match."

"Do we belong to JOAD or CASP?"

"Are you prepared to tell General Smith that you can't comply with his instructions until you first check with Admiral Benson?"

"There might be some way of not getting in that position."

"General Smith will see to it that there isn't."

"Yes, he probably he will want to test the issue. I don't think I'll try to put through a call to Admiral Benson."

"There you are, then."

"What about you?"

"A more complex matter. Benson, Smith, and I are all on active duty. Benson's my CO, and Smith, even though he's four ranks higher than myself, wouldn't presume to give orders to a naval officer not assigned to his command."

"That sounds pretty simple."

"It will be if I don't come around here much. If I do, I'll start getting suggestions that are rather like orders."

"If JOAD is going to have any representation at all here, you will have to come around."

"Yes. If for no other reason than to witness an historical accident with great consequences."

Went was smiling again, but Jones was at a loss. Went informed him,

"The senior officer with the dominant personality happens to be an army general."

"So CASP will produce data and conclusions that the army likes."

"It goes straight to the Joint Chiefs. The man who supplies the JCS with its information controls, in large part, its decisions."

"And General Smith is going to say that all his advice is based on computer science."

"By the time Heike's taught him a few things, he'll be able to get the computer to say whatever he wants it to."

Jones found himself admitting that computers could probably be manipulated to human advantage. He then asked,

"What will army information turn out to be?"

"Consider the army's position. The Red Army outnumbers it by a huge margin, so it can't attack the Russians. But it can defend the countries just outside the periphery of the Soviet Union against local or regional attack."

"The air force is perfectly capable of attacking. To a lesser extent, the navy."

"General Smith will try to keep them from getting the chance."

"I wouldn't bet against him."

"No. His policy also happens to coincide with President Truman's containment policy. Hold the line everywhere, and wear the Soviets down economically over the course of decades."

Went seated himself on an empty crate, and then stood up quickly as a protruding staple stung his rear. Having finished swearing, he commented,

"At least at JOAD, the seats don't have goddam sharp things sticking up."

"That's because they aren't having things shipped to them in crates. Things are more exciting here."

"If containment policy rules, it's not going to be much fun anywhere. The army fights nasty little wars while the air force and navy play secondary roles. The subs none at all."

Just then, the removal of a crate revealed something more interesting, the console of the computer. A little shelf or desktop jutted out at right angles, and there was room for three people to sit at it. Above the shelf, there was an array, some six feet wide and four high of a vast number of tiny switches and lights. Went drifted over and pointed at one line of lights with switches below them.

"If you set these right, do you get a whiskey from room service?"

"Possibly. That's the accumulator, a double-length register of seventy two bits."

"Bits of what?"

"When each switch is thrown, it not only turns the light off and on, but also a tube in memory. That's the bit. When the light is on, it has the value of one, otherwise zero."

"Let's say there's one switch for each person on a ship. Will it tell us which people are ones and which zeros?"

"We'd already have to know which people are which and set the switches. But that information would then be stored. When we find out that more people are zeros than we thought, we'd flip the corresponding switches and watch the lights go out."

"It sounds as if the ship must sink when all the lights go out. It you have six men on a PT boat, how would you know which light is which man?"

"We'd choose a thirty six bit register of connected bits and only use the right-most six. At the extreme right, we'd have the most junior seaman, and move left until we get to the captain. Those six bits will also constitute a single number, anything from 0 to 63, which can be taken as representing the whole crew. The more crew members are ones, as opposed to zeros, the bigger the number and the more effective the crew."

It took a little doing to explain the binary number system to Went. Jones was morally certain that he wouldn't have listened if he hadn't known that General Smith, downstairs, was on the point of leaving him in the dust. At the end, he said,

"Okay, that makes the captain twice as important as the exec officer, which is moderately reasonable, but it also makes the next to junior seaman twice as important as the junior. But he may have the same rank, and only a few weeks' seniority."

"Right. We also have to recognize degrees of competence in between one and zero. So we use all thirty six bits, six bits for each man. He gets rated from zero to sixty three."

"That's probably too many degrees, but never mind."

"We then write a program which first looks at the left-most six bits, the captain. How much more important is he than the the most junior seaman?"

"Maybe eight times."

"So we multiply that number by eight and store it in the accumulator. Next we move right six bits and look at the exec. How much more important is he than the junior seaman?"

"Try five times."

"We multiply his number by five and add it to the accumulator. When we get down to the next to junior seaman, we multiply his number by something like one point oh five. The most junior doesn't get multiplied at all, but just added to the accumulator. The final sum is the measure of the quality of the crew."

"Not entirely. A great captain contributes nothing if his men are all zeros. In that case, he should get a zero too."

"We need a more sophisticated program to handle that fact."

"I bet that, whenever I find something wrong, you'll say that you'll improve the program."

"Exactly. If you tell me what's wrong with the existing one, I can fix it."

"Are you saying that this is a field in which failure isn't possible?"

"Predictions based on a model may turn out to be false, but we disown them as we improve the model."

"There may be more to this than I thought."

The assembly of the computer involved a good deal of pushing and shoving cabinets full of banks of tubes and air conditioning together. Went and Jones lent their hands, and, just as they were heaving on one heavy un-wheeled unit, Heike and General Smith reappeared. They also helped, Heike curving her slim delicate body into an improbable, and probably dangerous, form. Went and the general together got her to desist, and the professional movers took over. As they withdrew, Jones wondered whether Smith's future dinner-table conversation would contain occasional references to "helping assemble one of the big early computers."

As Jones expected, Smith had written a couple of simple little programs. It wasn't that hard for an intelligent person, particularly one with a technical background. He seemed to realize that his accomplishment was distinctly minor, and he was instead interested in a program Heike had written. It was, in fact, the one that operated the paper tape reader and entered information into the system. Each hole in the tape represented a one, and the reader, which detected light coming through the tape, had to be programmed to turn the correct bits (tubes) on in the machine.

This program was of central importance because, once it was entered into the machine by the hand-throwing of bit switches, other programs, entered on the tapes, could be read in automatically.

It was important always to write programs with a minimal number of commands in order to economize on the limited memory capacity of the machine. In the case of a program like Heike's, which remained in memory all the time, it was even more critical. She laid her coding forms on a packing case, and said airily to Jones,

"General Smith can explain it to you and Went."

Smith, looking like schoolchild called up to perform in front of the parents, began smoothly,

"In the middle of the main loop here, there's a block of four instructions that should only be executed the first time through. She's accomplished this most elegantly by having this instruction here modify itself."

Jones, reminded of certain oddball statements of logic which referred to themselves and generated paradoxes, felt slightly sick. The instruction in front of the four one-timers was (abbreviated in octal):

Address OP u v

10002 21 17001 10002

The operation code, 21, signalled addition, specifying that the number stored in the register named in the u-field be added to the number stored in the register named in the v- field. It thus amounted only to the adding of the number in one register to the number in another register, the sum being left in in the latter position. The number originally in that position was, of course, wiped out. The odd thing here was that the address in the v-field was the address of the instruction itself. Smith noted,

"The upshot depends on what's stored in seventeen thousand and one, which is just a data register, not an instruction at all."

It appeared at the end of the coding form:

17001 OP u v

24 00000 00005

The result of adding 10002 and 17001 was the new content of 10002:

10002 45 17001 10007

In this case, the OP of 45 was a direct jump to the location in the v-field, the u-field being ignored. As Smith explained,

"The first time through the loop, ten thousand and two modifies itself, and the machine, not yet recognizing its new form, passes on to ten thousand and three, the first of the one-timers. But the next time through, the new ten thousand and two jumps the program ahead to ten thousand and seven. From then on, the four one-timers will be by-passed."

Jomes asked,

"Does the program restore ten thousand and two to its original form as it exits?"

Smith hadn't thought of that, and Heike answered,

"No. It would take an extra instruction to do that. The program runs continuously as long as the machine is turned on."

Smith asked,

"Does that mean that it won't work if the machine is ever turned off?"

"Not without making corrections by hand. I'm assuming that it never will be turned off."

The play of emotion on Smith's face rather amused Jones, and he could see that it also amused Went. Everything in Smith's background militated against taking unnecessary risks, and it was surely part of his military thinking to anticipate all reasonable possibilities including, in this case, power outages. But he also wanted to be modern, and he didn't want to take issue with Heike, much less issue a countermand. In the event, he said,

"I'll make arrangements for back-up power."

Heike smiled.

Bill Todd -- Jones: A Novel of the Early Cold War
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