A Supercomputer Saga

November 24, 2009

Why did entrepreneur Steve Blank really, really hate one particular Cray supercomputer?

And why did he buy it?

Story here.


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November 24, 2009

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November 24, 2009

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January 1, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Charlemagne
Jeff Sypeck
Rating: 4 Stars — Recommended

The reign of Charlemagne is remembered as a brief flash of light in the midst of the Dark Ages: a time of revived respect for learning, of physical improvements, codification of laws, and relatively-enlightened and centralized administration. In this book, Jeff Sypeck tries to get beyond a thousand years of myths and portray the reality of the man and his time.

His real name wasn’t Charlemagne, of course: he was Karl, son of a Frankish king. Charlemagne–Karolus Magnus, Charles the Great, is an appellation bestowed upon him by scholars and keepers of legends.

Historical characters who appear in the book, in addition to Karl himself, include:

*Alcuin, the leading court intellectual, a theologian and poet. Also Theodulf, less well-known than Alcuin but an intriguing figure with a rather snarky sense of humor. At Karl’s direction, Alcuin and Theodulf undertook the preservation of old manuscripts, the recording of oral legends, and the creation of a Frankish grammar. Karl himself seems to have had intellectual interests considerably stronger than those of the typical warrior king of the time, although owing to a late start he himself was unable to learn to write. This did not keep him from objecting to poorly-phrased letters from others:

Letters have often been sent to us in these last years from certain monastaries, in which was set out what the brothers there were striving to do for us in their holy and pious prayers; and we found that in most of these writings their sentiment was sound but their speech uncouth.

One accomplishment of Karl’s scribes was to create a new and more legible form of handwriting, known as Carolingian minuscule. It so impressed the first European printers, 700 years later, that they assumed it must have come from the Romans and named it accordingly.

*Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, with whom Karl conducted long-distance diplomacy–Sypeck observes that Karl played on a “much larger game board” than is generally recognized. There is a vivid description of Baghdad by a contemporary writer;

In the entire world there has not been a city which could compare with Baghdad in size and splendor, or in the number of scholars and great personalities…Consider the numerous roads, thoroughfares, and localities, the markets and streets, the lanes, mosques, and bathhouses, and the high roads and shops–all of these distinguish this city from all others, as does the pure air, the sweet water, and the cool shade.

*Isaac the Jew, a merchant who became Karl’s emissary to the Caliph. It was a long journey, and on his return Isaac brought with him an elephant, the Caliph’s gift to the Frankish king.

The fact that Karl chose a Jew for such a sensitive mission says a great deal about the position of Jews in his empire…which was far better than it was to be in the later Christian kingdoms of Europe. The tolerance for Jews was probably partly due to economic reasons, but may have also reflected the strong interest that Karl and his court took in the Old Testament. (They referred to each other with Old Testament nicknames; Karl was “David.”)

*Irene, the empress of Byzantium, who had her own son blinded. Keeping Byzantium in check was an objective shared by Karl and the Caliph.

*The Pope, Leo, who in 800 AD crowned Karl as Karl, the most serene Augustus crowned by god the geat peaceful emporer, governing the Roman Empire, king of the Franks and Lombards through the mercy of God. The idea of the Holy Roman Empire, which was to last a thousand years, stemmed from this coronation–although the term was not actually used during Karl’s reign.

*Karl’s wives and daughters. Women’s lives in the Dark Ages tended to be short, and Karl’s wives were no exceptions. Theodulf described one of them, Liutgard, in a poem about life at Karl’s court:

The lovely maiden Liutgard joins their ranks
her mind is inspired with acts of kindness
her beautiful appearance is surpassed only by the grace of her actions,
she alone pleases all the princes and people.
Open-handed, gentle-spirited, sweet in words,
she is ready to help all and to obstruct none.
she labours hard and well at study and learning,
and retains the noble disciplines in her memory.

*The Saxons, Karl’s inveterate enemies, with whom he fought constant wars. These extended over decades, with terrible atrocities by both sides. Many Saxons were converted to Christianity at swordpoint–although Karl’s motivation was partly religious, territorial and economic factors also clearly played a role, as he was able to work amicably with Balkan pagans as well as with the Muslim Caliph and with Jews within his empire.

Alcuin argued for a kinder, gentler policy toward the Saxons:

Faith, as St Augustine says, is a matter of will, not necessity. A man can be attracted into faith, not forced…if the light yoke and easy load of Christ were preached to the hard Saxon race as keenly as tithes were levied and the penalty of the law imposed for the smallest faults, perhaps they would not react against the rite of baptism.

At its maximum extent, the Carolingian empire encompassed most of the areas now known as France, Germany, and Italy, along with part of Spain. After Karl’s death, his son Louis was a competent but uninspired ruler. His plan to divide the empire among his three sons, however, was a catastrophic failure, resulting in a dreadful civil war that marked the end of the Carolingian dream. At Verdun (843), the empire was divide into three parts. And it is chilling to reflect on the relationship between what happened at Verdun in 843 and what happened in the same place in 1916.

Karl’s reign has a great impact on the shape of succeeding centuries. As Sypeck notes early in the book, writing about Karl’s chapel in Aachen–now at the core of the city’s Gothic cathedral:

These stones–solid, unmoving, and easily unnoticed–are the foundations of Europe itself.

An important and very readable book. Recommended.

March 26, 2006

Greatest Debacle in the History of Organized Work?

About a year ago, I wrote about the failure of the FBI’s Virtual Case File System…which was intended, among its other purposes, to permit the integration of multiple sources of data about terrorist activity. Failures of large software projects are, of course, nothing new. One of the most famous failures was the FAA’s project to develop the “Advanced Automation System” for air traffic control. Robert N Britcher, who was involved with the project and has studied and written about it extensively, remarks that it may have been the greatest debacle in the history of organized work.

Before going further, I’d like to emphasize that this post is not intended as FAA-bashing. I think the FAA’s air traffic control organization, in particular, does, for the most part, a pretty darned good job. It is very, very rare for airplanes under ATC control to run into each other, and that is, after all, what it’s all about. Much of the strident criticism directed at the FAA in the media seems to be to be both unfair and not very knowledgeable.

The Advanced Automation System, though, really does seem to have been a goat rodeo on a truly amazing scale.

The AAS, which was begun in 1981, was to be a revolutionary system that would drive sweeping change in all aspects of air traffic control–“as radical a departure from well-worn mores and customs as the overflow of the czars,” as Britcher puts it. Computers had been used in air traffic control since the late 1960s, when an IBM-based system for enroute control was put in place, along with a UNIVAC-based system for terminal-area control. These systems operated successfully for many years, but by the early 1980s, they were growing a bit long in the tooth. Air traffic had dramatically expanded, and congestion was increasing. The federal government was facing budget pressures, and was looking for cost savings. And, in the aftermath of the controllers strike (1981), anything that would reduce staffing requirements was attractive to FAA management. Finally, radical automation projects were in the zeitgeist–it was also in the early 1980s that Roger Smith would kick off his gigantic (and ultimately not very successful) project for the comprehensive use of robotics in General Motors assembly plants.

The radical ambitiousness of the AAS was described metaphorically by an engineer who worked on the project:

You’re living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn’t flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it’s bulky and doesn’t save energy, and you’ve seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off…

The design run-off, in this case, was between Hughes and IBM. IBM won. The $3.7 billion contract was celebrated with a great ball at Union Station in Washington, DC, featuring Chubby Checker and “The Twist.”

Almost immediately things started to go wrong.

The new system was to put great emphasis on improving the visual display of information, via large, crisp, full-color display screens, and facilitating the controller’s interaction with that information. “Human factors experts” were employed to assist in this process. “Thousands of labor-months were spent designing, discussing, and demonstrating the possibilities: colors, fonts, overlays, reversals, serpentine lists, toggling, zooming, opaque windows–the list is too long for this summary.” Since human factors are so subjective, endless argument was possible. The problems were made even more complex by the FAA’s absolute insistance that AAS was to be an entirely paperless system–the paper flight strips, previously printed out for each individual flight being tracked, were to disappear and be replaced by some virtual incarnation on the screen.

The new system was to be fully distributed. Processing would take place at each controller’s workstation: there would be no centralized server for an an ATC facility. This would, of course, achieve a high degree of fault tolerance and availability. However, no one had fully thought out the problems of keeping the information in all these computers fully synchronized, and these problems turned out to be a lot harder than had been envisaged. “Over the years, I would observe tests and notice that the many instances of the altitude of one aircraft, spread across various workstations, would not match,” Britcher writes. Also, the system would need to be updated for new software without ever being shut down–“changing the fan belt while the engine is running,” in the hackneyed but vivid metaphor. The decision to operate without manual backup–necessary in the absence of the printed flight strips–made continuous operation even more critical. But no one really knew how to solve the update-while-running problem in a fully general way.

The system development was to be tightly managed. Everything was to be documented in detail and carefully reviewed (“Despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on new computers for the AAS, the most important piece of equipment on the project was the overhead projector). Procedures were to be followed without deviation. Britcher reproduces a memo that captures the sprit of the suffocating bureaucracy:

Subject: In your mail (in reference to Harmon’s mistake)

In your mail you will be receivieving a copy of a letter from Riebau to Dennis Trippel. The letter expresses a concern that IBM is modifying PU10 without FAA approval, namely by changing STNs (Software Technical Notes) that are fulfilling PU10 DID requirements…I will be working with my representatives to determine what ramifications this may have on the mechanism that we already have in place for getting FAA approval for STN changes. I hope that whatever we work out will be little to no impact on our internal process of STN change.

Have a nice day, Jenny.

What was this all about? Harmon, an IBM lead programmer, had decided to modify the procedure for code reviews. While the procedure had been for code to be read aloud by a third party, Harmon had decided this was too cumbersome, and for his team had directed that the programmer read his own code aloud at the reviews. It turned out that this was not in accordance with the system development plan, considered to be part of the contract. This was escalated to the highest levels on the project within both IBM and the FAA: the outcome, after expenditure of much executive time, was that Harmon was directed to return to the old way of doing things.

The project went on and on. Schedules slipped. Management changes were made. Schedules slipped some more. Despite all the “human factors” efforts, there were serious interface issues. One controller, after reviewing a prototype of the systems, said (on the CBS evening news) “It takes me twelve commands to do what I used to do with one.”

What was it like to work on this project? Rummaging through a closet one day, Britcher found an envelope left by someone who had left the company. The envelope contained a hand-printed document titled “A Brief History of the Advanced Automation System.”

A young man, recently hired, devotes years to a specification written to the bit level that will never be coded. Another, to a specification that will be replaced. Programmers marry one another, then divorce and marry someone in another subsystem. Program designs are written to severe formats, then forgotten. A man decides to become a woman and succeeds before system testing starts. As testing approaches, she begins a second career on local television, hosting a show on witchcraft…An ambitious training manager builds an encyclopedia of manuals no one will use. Decisions are scheduled weeks in advance…Human factors experts achieve Olympian status. The Berlin Wall collapses. The map of Europe is redrawn. Everything is counted…Dozens of men and women argue for thousands of hours: What is a requirement? A generation of workers retires. The very mission changes and only a few notice. Programming theories come and go. Managers cling to expectations, like a child to a blanket…The years rip by with no end in sight. A company president gets an idea: Make large small. Turn methods over to each programmer. Dress down. Count on the inscrutability of programming. Promote good news. Turn a leaf away from the sun. Maybe start over.

In 1994, David Hinson, the new FAA Administrator, terminated the project. The nation’s air traffic would continue to be directed by the code written in the late 1960s, as that code had been modified and extended over time.

In a sense, we were very fortunate in the aftermath of this project: no one was killed. As near as I can determine, there were no midair collisions that took place as a result of the unavailability of the enhanced capabilities which were to have been provided by the AAS. This speaks well for the work done by the original programmers back in the 1960s, whose work had proved robust enough to evolve far beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected when it was first developed, and for the skill and dedication of the nation’s controllers.

We may not be so lucky next time. Almost certainly, there are systems in the world for which the consequences of failure or unavailability could be far worse than even for the ATC system. Let us pray that one of these systems does not turn, in retrospect, out to have been the FBI Virtual Case File system.

It is important to think about why major software failures happen, and what can be done to minimize the occurence of such failures in the future.

So, why did AAS fail? Congress, particularly Sen William Cohen, was quick to blame “poor management.” Britcher, though, has a problem with this facile explanation:

Poor management? For decades, the FAA has managed to keep the most complex system on earth running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I know of no more competent and committed managers.

Nor does Britcher blame the programmers who worked on the project: I don’t know how they endured. They did good work. In the shank of the project, the suffocating bureaucracy and the beckoning of video games their friends in other places were creating in the new age of software did not affect them. They were a cadre of disciplined programmers, who would not cut corners on writing well-documented and thoroughly-read code, who tested their bottoms off, and believe in metrics, who wrote reliable programs, when they had every reason to give in to hurriedness. Or just give in.

So why is the failure rate so high among major software projects? In a future post, I’ll discuss some of Britcher’s thoughts, along with some of my own.

Britcher’s writes about his experiences with the AAS in Software Runaways, by Robert L Glass, and in his own book The Limits of Software.

Also, more on the Virtual Case File System here.

October 30, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey
Linda Niemann
Rating: 5 Stars
(previously published under the title Boomer: Railroad Memoirs)

What happens when a PhD in English, a woman, takes a job with the railroad? Linda Niemann tells the story based on her own experiences. It’s a remarkable document–a book that “is about railroading the way ‘Moby Dick’ is about whaling”, according to a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. (Although I think a better Melville comparison would be with “White Jacket”, Melville’s book about his experiences as a crewman on an American sailing warship. Which is still very high praise.)

Niemann had gotten a PhD and a divorce simultaneously, and her life was on a downhill slide. “The fancy academic job never materialized,” and she was living in a shack in the mountains and hanging around with strippers, poets, musicians, and drug dealers. Then she saw the employment ad for the Southern Pacific railroad.

When I saw the ad in the Sunday paper–BRAKEMEN WANTED–I saw it as a chance to clean up my act and get away. In a strategy of extreme imitation, I felt that by doing work this dangerous, I would have to make a decision to live, to protect myself. I would have to choose to stay alive every day, to hang on to the side of those freightcars for dear life. Nine thousand tons moving at sixty miles an hour into the fearful night.

Niemann is hired by the Southern Pacific to work at Watsonville, a small freightyard whose main function is to switch out all the perishable freight from the Salinas Valley. Other pioneering women are also joining the railroad at this time, and Niemann soon finds herself a member of an “all-girl team,” assigned to work the midnight shift during the rainy season. Their responsibility will be to reorganize all the cars that have come in during the day, positioning them on the correct tracks and in the correct sequence. They will have at their disposal a switch engine and an engineer, but it will be their responsibility to plan the moves as well as to execute them–coupling and uncoupling cars and air hoses, setting and releasing handbrakes, throwing switches. Before work, they meet at a local espresso house.

It was an odd feeling to be getting ready to go to work when everybody else was ending their evenings, relaxed, dressed up, and, I began to see, privileged. They were going to put up their umbrellas, go home, and sleep. We were going to put rubber clothes on and play soccer with boxcars…

They get some advice from an old hand nicknamed Wide Load: “Remember, don’t get in no hurry out there. Them boxcars have no conscience at all. They’ll roll right over you.”

With no injuries, but a few close calls, Niemann learns the work. She finds that she takes great satisfaction in it:

We moved stuff people used to build their houses, get from place to place, and to put on their table. I felt a part of it all, whatever ‘it all’ was–something I had never felt before.

The Watsonville job doesn’t last long, though; a seasonal downturn results in layoffs. Niemann is advised that if she wanted to keep working for the SP, she needs to go “booming”–to follow the work to the areas where rail traffic is strong.

Niemann’s journey takes her to Houston, to Tucson, to Tucamcari (“the loneliest outpost on the Southern Pacific system), and to Alamagordo (“the place where modern death came into the world, the birthplace of nuclear energy”). Her external journey is mirrored by an internal one, as she wrestles with her own demons. Along the way, there are intense relationships with people of both sexes. The railroad business is in decline (this is the early 1980s) and the renaissance is not yet in sight. The upper management of the road comes across as distant, not tremendously competent, sometimes even malign in its attitude toward its employees.

A few excerpts, to give you a feel for the lyrical quality of the writing:

The freightyard in Tucson:

The sun in Tucson rose with a brass band and accomplished its miracle in seconds. The town was a sundial surrounded by mountains. Working in the freightyard, you became highly conscious of the movement of the light as different canyons and ranges received their intensities of color, light, and shadow. The temperatures on the ground were fierce–105 on the street and 115 on the track. The black slag roadbed reflected the heat, and the iron sides of the reefers blew overheated air like monster breath as you walked the tracks. You couldn’t drink enough to pee. It just sweated out as fast as you put it in.

An intersection of railroading and literature (this passage occurs right after a near-accident):

“Far out,” I thought. “Gretchen almost killed me and she doesn’t even realize it.” The thought started to sink in about how careful I was going to have to be.

I got off the engine and just sort of stood there looking down two track. Maureen was supposed to be there somewhere bleeding the cars and knocking off brakes. All I could see was a particulate blackness. The hobos had lit a trash can fire under the tower and were clustered around it like witches warming their hands. Soft drips melted off switch stands and padded into pools of oily water like little lakes evenly spaced down the lead. The yard lights were fuzzy yellow balls hung in the fog. I couldn’t see a thing. For a moment it all seemed hopeless.

“Kind of reminds you of the Heart of Darkness doesn’t it?”

I looked up at the engineer, who clearly had his own story. It was a kind of intersection, now with the addition of literary space. A notation that this place was a book I was reading and writing, and at this moment I had found another reading over my shoulder on the same page. A kid of surreal shiver. A red light made tiny circles in the fog.

Sex and seduction:

But women need to get to that acrophobic edge and suffer there for a while. Men don’t seem to understand this about sex. They rush into it, and sex is over before the woman has even noticed that they are there. It’s like the sun waking up a sleepy earth. It doesn’t just turn the lights on. It sneaks up on the earth, lights a subtle fire somewhere else, makes the earth turn over in her sleep and face him. He throws a few drops of red into the inky waters of he sky, and lightens the palette with orchestral resonance. He also makes it colder. The earth realizes she wants to warm up. Unknowingly she starts to desire the sun. She creates the sun in her mind and then there he is, her creation, child and lover, returning from the dream of her sleep. Who would resist such a lover?

The pleasures of inside knowledge:

One thing about being a rail–you are never away from it. You wake up in big cities hearing some town-job’s whistle at 3 AM, and you’re home; you’re on that crew in your mind; you know what that job is like; you can picture the diner where they eat breakfast at four, and the city is yours; the night is yours. Driving along an interstate, you pass a through freight, and you know that train; where it’s been, where it’s bound. Who made it up and where. You know the switchmen’s lives, you know the change points for the braking crews, you know the container yards where it will end.

Unbelievably, this remarkable book seems to be out of print, but used copies are readily available. (Amazon link here.) Niemann has also co-authored Railroad Voices, which I have not yet read but which I bet is excellent.

On The Rails is highly recommended.

September 4, 2005


Thursday marked the anniversary of the beginning of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive invasion of Poland.

Britain and France were both bound by treaty to come to Poland’s assistance. On September 2, Neville Chamberlain’s government sent a message to Germany proposing that hostilities should cease and that there should be an immediate conference among Britain, France, Poland, Germany, and Italy..and that the British government would be bound to take action unless german forces were withdrawn from Poland. “If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces, then His Majesty’s Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.”

According to General Edward Spears, who was then a member of Parliament, the assembly had been expecting a declaration of war. Few were happy with this temporizing by the Chamberlain government. Spears describes the scene:

Arthur Greenwood got up, tall, lanky, his dank, fair hair hanging to either side of his forehead. He swayed a little as he clutched at the box in front of him and gazed through his glasses at Chamberlain sitting opposite him, bolt-upright as usual. There was a moment’s silence, then something very astonishing happened.

Leo Amery, sitting in the corner seat of the third bench below the gangway on the government side, voiced in three words his own pent-up anguish and fury, as well as the repudiation by the whole House of a policy of surrender. standing up he shouted across the Greenwood: “Speak for England!” It was clear that this great patriot sought at this crucial moment to proclaim that no loyalty had any meaning if it was in conflict with the country’s honour. What in effect he said was: “The Prime Minister has not spoken for Britain, then let the socialists do so. Let the lead go to anyone who will.” That shout was a cry of defiance. It meant that the house and the country would neither surrender nor accept a leader who might be prepared to trifle with the nation’s pledged word.

Greenwood then made a speech which I noted that night as certain to be the greatest of his life; a speech that would illuminate a career and justify a whole existence. It was remarkable neither for eloquence nor for dramatic effect, but the drama was there, we were all living it, we and millions more whose fate depended on the decisions taken in that small Chamber.

The reaction of the House evidently made an impact on Chamberlain: the declaration of war came the next day. France aso declared war on Germany, but little effective action in support of the Poles was taken by either country. Spears continues:

Many of my fellow Members of Parliament were as worried as I was that we were doing nothing by way of air attack on Germany to relieve the intolerable pressure the German Luftwaffe was exerting on Poland…The Polish Ambassador, Count Raczinski, a young man gifted with rare qualities of fortitude and courage, asked to see me. He was justifiably upset at an answer given by the Minister concerned in the House of Commons on September 6th, to the effect that the information available indicated that the Germans were only bombing Polish military objectives and were not attacking the civilian population as such.

Spears was aware that this was not true–that according to press reports the Germans were in fact attacking population centers, and Raczinski provided him with further details. Spears met with Kingsley Wood, the Secretary of State for Air, demanding that aggressive action be taken in place of the propaganda-leaflet drops on Germany that were then the only British activity in the air.

It was ignominious, I told him, to stage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy who was meanwhile destroying a whole nation, and to pretend we were therey fulfilling our obigations. We were covering ourselves with ridicule by organizing this kind of carnival. It was as futile as reading a lesson on deportment to a homicidal maniac at the height of his frenzy.

France, also, did very little to provide support to the Poles. An advance from the Maginot line was announced, with the intention of drawing off German troops, but it was more of a political demonstration than a serious military operation.

Writing after the war, General Spears quotes German sources on the opportunity that was missed by not taking more aggressive action:

The Germans, notably General Zlander, were puzzled by Allied inactivity in the air. He wrote (February 1941) that it was a grave error on the part of the Allies not to have made a maximum effort at the time their opponent was fully occupied in Poland. Their attitude, he avowed, completely justified the German strategy of temporary non-aggression in the West.


(German) General Jodl declared at the Nuremberg Trial: “In 1939, catastrophe was only avoided because the 110 French and British Divisions remained inactive in front of our 23 divisions in the West.”

On September 17, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland, in accordance with Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. Despite a valiant resistance, there was no longer any hope of preserving Poland’s independence, and the country was partitioned between the two dictators.

The Polish Government went into exile. Many Polish troops and pilots escaped, along with naval units, and went on to support Allied operations throughout the remainder of the war. Polish codebreakers also made a great contribution to the Allied victory: they took the first steps toward breaking the German “Enigma” code and devised the earliest form of the “Bombe” device (later improved by Alan Turing and others) which partially automated this process.

More on the war in Poland and its consequences here.

The Spears quotations are from his remarkable memoir, Assignment to Catastrophe.

January 30, 2005


In late January 1945–about the same point in time at which Auschwitz was liberated–Violette Szabo was shot, in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Like Noor Inayat Khan, about whom I have written previously, she was an agent of the shadowy British organization Special Operations Executive. Noor and Violette were very different people; the heroism was the same.

Violette Bushnell was born to a French mother and a British father; she grew up mostly in Britain. As a child, she had something of a reputation as a daredevil and a tomboy; this did not keep her from developing into an extraordinary beauty. She left school at 14, working first as a hairdresser and later as a clerk at a Woolworth’s store. In 1940, shortly after the fall of France, she met and married Etienne Szabo, an officer in the French Foreign legion. After Etienne departed for the fighting in North Africa, Violette decided that she wanted to do something on her own to aid in the war effort.

Although it not very well known in the US, Britain had a number of mixed (male/female) anti-aircraft batteries for home defense. General Sir Frederick Pile, the innovative head of AA Command, had elected this politically-unpopular approach as a way of dealing with severe manpower shortages. The division of labor in a mixed AA battery was typically this: the women operated the tracking, rangefinding, and computing instruments; the men loaded and fired the actual guns.

Violette became a member of the 137th HAA Regiment, Royal Artillery, and was assigned to operate the mechanical fire control computer. She was good at her job and was active and popular with her comrades during off-duty hours. She gave French lessons, and once did a dance exhibition which became legendary in the battery as a result of what would today be called a “wardrobe malfuction.”

Etienne was able to return to England for a short leave, and Violette had to quit the battery when she became pregnant. Their daughter, Tania, was born in June 1942; Violette herself was 21 at the time. Etienne never met his daughter: he was killed in North Africa that October.

Some time later, Violette received a letter from a Mr Potter, asking her to come in for a government job interview. “Mr Potter” did not, in fact, exist: the interview was really with Selwyn Jepson, a writer who had become a principal recruiter for Special Operations Executive. SOE had been created, at the urging of Winston Churchill, to “set Europe ablaze.” It was not an espionage organization; it was a resistance and sabotage organization. Agents were sent into occupied Europe by parachute, light aircraft, and even by boat…their mission was to develop, assist, and coordinate the local resistance efforts. Violette’s fluency in French, combined with her courage, spirit, intelligence, and athletic ability, made her a desirable candidate for the job of agent.

After being fully informed of the risks, Violette chose to join SOE. The training program encompassed security and deception, firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and cryptography. It’s said that Violette was not only the best marksman in her training class, but one of the best in the history of SOE…a legacy of the time she had spent at shooting galleries as a teenager trying to win free cigarettes.

Just before leaving for her first mission, she was given a refresher course in cryptography by Leo Marks, SOE’s youthful Codemaster. One of the methods used for encrypting messages involved memorizing a poem and then using the letters of the poem as a key. Violette was having trouble remembering the poem she had chosen (a French nursery rhyme) and Marks suggested that she might want to try a different one. She asked if he had any ideas, and he recited a poem beginning with these lines:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours

Violette liked the poem and wanted to use it as her code-poem. “Who wrote this?” she asked Marks, and he told her he would have to check and get back to her. In fact, Marks had written it himself for his fiancee, who had been killed in an accident before he could give it to her.

Violette’s first SOE mission was in April, 1944. Her objective was to go into Rouen, where resistance groups had been decimated by the Germans, and gather information about the strength of the remaining forces and the identity of key leaders. She made the trip by Lysander aircraft, and spent several weeks in Rouen. After completing her mission, she rewarded herself with a shopping expedition in Paris. She was picked up by Lysander and returned to Britain.

She agreed to participate in another mission and, one day after D-day, she returned to France–this time making the trip by parachute and with a group. The objective was to help coordinate resistance in the south of France, delaying powerful German units that were being sent to reinforce the German troops in Normandy.

On a courier mission with a local leader named Jacques Dufour, a German roadblock was encountered. Jacques and Violette tried to run, but Violette twisted her ankle and was unable to continue. Urging her parner to get away, she opened fire with her submachine gun, and held the Germans off long enough for him to make his escape. Estimates of the number of German troops she killed or wounded are highly varied.

Out of ammunition, Violette was captured and taken for interrogation: it is believed she gave away nothing of significance. With other prisoners, she was put on a train for Germany. A British fighter-bomber attacked the train, not knowing it contained prisoners and wounded. The guards abandoned the train. Escape was not possible, but Violette–although chained at the ankle to another woman–carried water to the desperately-thirsty men in another car.

She was taken to Ravensbrueck concentration camp and, after enduring months of suffering, was shot, together with two other SOE agents (Lillian Rolfe and Denise Bloch.)

After the war, she was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery. The medal was presented by the King to Violette’s daughter, Tania.

Violette’s story was told in the book Carve Her Name with Pride, which became a movie of the same name. (Violette was played by Virginia McKenna, best known for Ring of Bright Water.) A more recent biography is The Life That I Have, by Susan Ottaway.

Short biography, with picture, at 64 Baker Street. A small museum dedicated to Violette has been established in Herefordshire, in the house where she and her family often spent summers. The museum has created a documentary video about her, which is well worth seeing. There is also a vivid word-portrait of Violette in Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks. Marks was the SOE codemaster who met with Violette just before her first mission to France…it is through this memoir that I first became aware of Violette, the other female SOE agents, and the work of SOE in general.

December 26, 2004

Book Review: They Made America

Harold Evans

Rating: 4 Stars

You probably learned in school that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat. They probably didn’t tell you, though, that Fulton lived in a menage a trois while he was in Paris. (And he didn’t really invent the steamboat, though he made important improvements to it.)

This book is subtitled Two Centuries of Innovators. The category “innovators” includes, but is not restricted to, the classic inventor/entrepreneur. Along with people like Fulton, Edison, Ford, and George Eastman, the book profiles A P Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, Georges Doriot, who established the first true venture capital firm, Martha Matilda Harper, creator of the first retail franchise network, and Walt Disney. They Made America will be good reading for anyone who is interested in the history of technology and/or the history of business (and in my view, any practicing businessperson or serious investor would do well to become a student of business history.)

A couple of interesting tidbits:

*Elisha Otis, creator of the Otis Safety Elevator, wasn’t initially trying to create a product at all. He had taken on the job of converting an old sawmill into a bedstead factory, and he knew that the 3-story building would need some kind of hoist. He also knew that there had been many serious accidents involving such machinery. So he designed an arrangement whereby any loss of tension on the hoist rope would engage a latch mechanism which would stop the carrying platform. It worked, and that was it as far as he was concerned–a single job well-done. But customers started coming to him and asking him to install his safety elevator in their facilities. With orders in hand, Otis opened a small elevator factory. His big break came at the World’s Fair of 1854. With the assistance of P T Barnum, Otis arranged for his elevator to be a major attraction of the show. Hundreds of people watched as Otis was lifted up in a hoist–then cut the ropes with a saber. The crowds gasped and screamed as the elevator fell–but it fell only briefly before the latch engaged and brought it safely to a standstill. Otis repeated this stunt every hour of every day of the fair.

*For centuries, great efforts had been made to improve the speed and carrying capacity of ocean-going ships. The process of loading and unloading those ships, however, had remained pretty much unchanged…until Malcom McLean. At the age of 24, McLean loaded his truck with cotton bales and drove to a pier at Hoboken, New Jersey, where the cotton was to be loaded onto a ship. He had to sit around most of the day on the dockside waiting his turn. Individual crates and bundles were unloaded from trucks, and placed onto slings that would lift them into the hold of the ship. “With much yelling and arm waving,” the slings were then individually unloaded by the stevedores and put into their proper positions in the hold. McLean: “Suddenly the thought occurred to me. What a waste of time and money! Wouldn’t it be great if my trailoer could simploy be lifted up and placed on the ship without its contents being touched?”

McLean wasn’t in a position to do anything about his idea until he was 40, by which time he had built his trucking business (which started with a single pickup truck) into one of the biggest in America, with 1700 trucks and 32 terminals. He observed that oil tankers travelling from Houston to the northeastern U.S. usually carried nothing on deck, and noting at all (except ballast) on the return voyage. Why not use the deck space to carry trailers? He bought a small tanker line and got to work. The first container ship, the Ideal X, sailed on April 26, 1956, with 58 containers on board. McLean built his small shipping line into a substantial company known as Sea-Land, which he eventually sold to RJ Reynolds for $500 million. He got a $160 million personally along with a seat on the Reynolds board. He hated it. “I am a builder and they are runners (managers),” he said. “You cannot put a builder in with a bunch of runners. You just throw them out of kilter.

Prior to McLean’s innovation, transportation charges often amounted to half the eventual cost of the good; with containerization, they fell to more like 10%..sometimes even less. In 1988, the cost of sending a $200 VCR from Japan to the US was only around $2.

As much as any other individual, Malcom McLean can be said to have unleashed the era of globalization.


September 12, 2004


When a decision is made in an organizational context (as opposed to a decision by an entirely autonomous individual), additional layers of complexity and emotion come into play. The person who must make the decision is often not the person who has the information/expertise on which the decision must be based. Indeed, the information and expertise are often distributed across multiple individuals. These individuals may have their own objectives and motivations, which may differ from the objectives and motivations of the formal decision-maker, and which may conflict with each other. And the making of the decision may alter power relationships within the organization, as well as influencing the phenomena about which the decision is ostensibly being made.

The above factors are illustrated with crystalline clarity in the story of a seemingly very simple decision, which had to be made onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer sometime during the 1950s.

Don Sheppard was the newly-appointed Engineering Officer of the USS Henshaw, with responsibility for its 60,000-horsepower turbine plant. But his knowledge of propulsion equipment came entirely from study at the navy’s Engineering Officer School. Reporting to Sheppard was the “Chief,” an enlisted man with no theoretical training but with twenty years of experience in the practical operation of naval power plants. When Sheppard assumed his new duties, the Chief’s greeting “bordered on rudeness.” The man clearly believed that engineering officers might come and go, but that he, the Chief, was the one who really ran things, who was the “Prince of the Plant.”

During maneuvers off the Pacific coast, a bizarre accident resulted in the Henshaw dropping a depth charge which exploded very close to its own stern. The shockwave was enough to knock down men who were standing on deck. Sheppard asked the Chief if he thought the plant might have suffered any damage:

He furrowed his brow, glaring at me. “Damage, sir? We’d know about any major damage by now if the plant suffered. i don’t think we got any problems, sir,” he answered–patronizingly–in a civil enough tone, but barely so. Who was I, an interloper, to dare question the Prince of the Plant?

But Sheppard remembered a movie he had seen in Engineering Officer School: it suggested that a shock like the one Henshaw had just experienced might have damaged the stern tube packing and the bearings through which the drive shafts ran. He mentioned this concern to the Chief, who discounted it with considerable sarcasm. “Maybe in some of them fancy movies it happened that way, sir, but nothin’s wrong here.”

Sheppard went to see the captain, and reported his concern about the possible damage. The spring bearnings could not be easily checked with the ship underway. The decision that had to be made was this: to check and possibly replace the bearings while at anchor, or to sail with the flotilla. The flotilla was comprised of eight destroyers, and the commodore was looking forward to having them all sail into Toyko Bay together. Furthermore, if Henshaw didn’t sail with the group, they would miss the rendezvous with the refueling tanker, and would have to refuel at an upleasant place called Dutch Harbor. But if they did sail and the bearings failed, they would have to be replaced while underway–a difficult and possibly dangerous task.

Legally and formally, the decision was the captain’s. But he knew little about the propulsion plant: it is doubtful that he really understood what the spring bearnings actually were. He had to depend on the opinions of his subordinates.

He asked the advice of those assembled for the conference. The Executive Officer said “sail.” The Chief recommended, “sail.” Now the captain turned to his Engineering Officer and asked very formally: “Your opinion, Mr Sheppard?”

What a dilemma the captain was in. Here, a junior officer with six days’ experience as a chief engineer is obviously wanting to pull out of the squadron sail and check all the spring bearings in direct contradiction to a professional, well-experienced engineering chief who’d been doing the job for twenty years.

If the captain said yes to the inspection and we missed the squadron sail, he’d look bad. He’d look even worse if he suspected they might be bad and they were, and they failed at sea. in rough weather he’d still be left behind and another ship would have to be used as an escort. The commodore had his dream set on his full squadron of eight destroyers steaming proudly into Toyko Bay. It hadn’t happened in a long time.

If I said we should inspect the spring bearings and the captain agreed with me, and the bearings were bad, it would injure the chief’s pride and his position in the engineering department. A wise-ass ensign would have shown him up, thereby throwing into question his professional ability.

If I said don’t sail and the bearings checked out okay, it would reinforce the opinion that officers stick together no matter how stupid the officers’ actions might be.

If I said don’t sail before a bearings check and we sailed anyway and the bearings failed, the captain’s competence would be called into quesion by the crew. He would have been wrong, and the word gets around the fleet mighty fat.

On the other hand, if I said we should sail, thereby taking a chance of a failure and the bearings were okay, it would just show my inexperience and that I didn’t really know what was going on. After all I had been a chief engineer for only six days. There would be little harm done.

Who is the real decision-maker in this scenario? The captain has the formal authority, but little relevant knowledge, either practical or theoretical. The Chief has the practical experience, but no theoretical training, and lacks the authority of officer rank. Sheppard has formal authority for the plant, together with theoretical training, but almost no practical experience.

Most likely, the true decision-maker is Sheppard. From the dynamics of the situation, I suspect that the captain would have done whatever he advised.

“Sail, Captain, I think they’ll be okay,” I answered, as the ship whispered to me that I was wrong.

As the ship whispered to him that he was wrong.

Henshaw sailed with the flotilla, and almost immediately came the report that Number 3 spring bearing was running hot. The starboard engine was stopped, and sailors began the arduous task of replacing the bearing. This involved sliding jacks under the shaft and lifting it up a few centimeters, then sliding out the 80-pound bearing and sliding a new one in. This had to be done as the ship pitched and rolled, while standing in icy bilge water. The task wasn’t complete when the report came that another bearing had failed–this time, the Number 2 bearing on the port engine. That engine had to be stopped also, and Henshaw was taken in tow by another ship of the flotilla. Sheppard pitched in with the work, and had his hand badly cut by protuding metal slivers. Others were hurt more seriously; one man had his right hand badly injured when Number 2 bearing broke loose, smashing his hand against the bearing foundation.

Glassy eyed from the painkillers…Smallwood held onto the throttle board, trying to keep his attention on the gauges. His head nodded. Chief Maclin sent him to his bunk. “I’m sorry, Smallwood,” he said, helping him up the ladder. “Goddamn, I’m really sorry.”

Chief Maclin turned to me, wiping a tear from his eyes, and without word or expression offered his greasy, bloody hand.

After everything was under control, the captain called Sheppard to his cabin for a debriefing on what had happened. First, he critized himself for the mishap that had led to the initial proble, the accident with the depth charge. Second, he criticized himself for not listening more seriously to Sheppard’s initial concerns about the bearings. But he also had something else to say:

“And third, Don, you, you’re a direct contributor.” My face dropped. I thought I was a hero. “If you thought you wre right–and you did think you were right–you should have put up more opposition, not roll over dead because of the obvious resistance of the three of us. I think, Don, that’s the greatest lesson for you to learn in this whole thing.”

The kind of political anaysis that Sheppard conducted before making his recommendation–what will be the effect of this alternative on my relationship with the Chief?..what will be the effect on the Chief’s image with his own subordinates?–is made every day by people in organizations, and must be made, given the realities of organizational life.

But while considering the political dynamics–don’t forget to listen to the ship.

(This story is from Bluewater Sailor, by Don Sheppard.)