Book review: The Cryotron Files

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Picture credit: popsciencebooks.blogspot.com

I found this book, published simultaneously in the US and the UK in 2018 (Icon Books Ltd., London, 2018), fascinating. It is cowritten by Iain Dey & Douglas Buck, and it is is subtitled: “The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist”. You could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the book’s main title, that it is fictional, possibly science fiction; but it isn’t: it is a narrative of what we have to accept (given the somewhat murky reputation of some of the organisations involved) as the truth, and the subject of the book is the father of one of the authors, Dudley Buck. Even if you feel you are reasonably well informed about how science & technology, especially that appertaining to computers, have developed over the last 80 years, from its hesitant beginning with Colossus at Bletchley Park, I think it is fairly unlikely that you would have heard of a cryotron. Even though (and without worrying about revealing any significant element of the narrative) this was ultimately a ‘blind alley’ for computers as we know them in common usage nowadays, it was fundamental to the development of computing in a wider sense than what we, as the vast majority of non-specialist users know of as computing, from our smartphones and laptops.

Those of you with any knowledge of etymology will have guessed that the stem of the word cryotron indicates cold, freezing or frost, and it is derived from the Greek kruos, icy cold, frost; this compound name was coined by Dudley Buck for his invention that he thought would revolutionise computing, and it is almost risible in its simplicity, and yet its operation is marvellously efficient, the biggest requirement being that it (or in common usage, they, in significant multiples) had to be contained within an environment as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible. The device consisted of literally nothing more than two pieces of thin metal wire: a straight section, and another that was coiled tightly around it with a ‘tail’ on each side (you can see it, tiny though it is, in Buck’s right hand in the above photograph, comparing its size with a contemporary vacuum valve); so, an input and an output. Depending upon the presence or absence of an electric current, this switch could be considered closed or open: the absolute minimum required for a binary switch, which could produce a positive or negative result – yes, or no, which is the ridiculously simple premise that allows all computers to function (although quantum computers, now reaching a fairly sophisticated stage of development, will muddy the waters somewhat).

Have you ever heard of Dudley Buck? I certainly hadn’t, hitherto. It was clear from an early age that he was gifted in all-round terms, and after the tragic accident suffered by his mother when he was only twelve, he & his younger sister were sent from their home in San Francisco to live with his father’s mother in Santa Barbara. It was there that he was able to satisfy his curiosity for all things mechanical & electrical, using a spare garage on his grandmother’s property. The family was god-fearing, so Dudley was included in all the religiosity, but that didn’t preclude him from the occasional mischief, including producing a stink bomb from the lab equipment he had hauled to bible camp one year! He joined the local Eagle Scout troop, and made a friend with whom he attended evening classes in radio electronics; before long, they set up what is claimed to be one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California. This was late 1942, and “World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California”; although Dudley’s self-built radio system did attract the unwelcome attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite having to surrender his equipment to be dismantled, the positive outcome was that, a few months later, “Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.”: a very sensible response!

After completing his college education in the V12 program, at Seattle, Washington, which was “a  fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors [sic] of naval training”, Ensign Dudley Buck was posted to the navy’s communications headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is when his involvement with the various security services began, and very possibly set him on the path to his untimely, early death. Although the immediate circumstances that caused his death are known, the big question mark that hangs over it is whether the Russian security services could have somehow engineered it. Somewhat surprisingly, given the vehemence of the McCarthy purges which were concurrent, there was also a willingness to share scientific research, especially in the field of computers, with the Russians; however, it was expected that this would would be a reciprocal arrangement, which was not always the case, and the research that was shared was carefully selected, because computers were increasingly being used in the euphemistically named “defence” sector, for the purposes of both detecting & targeting missiles. Buck had been working with the newly-formed National Security Agency (NSA), and the already existing CIA, including a secret mission in Berlin, although this was overseen by the highly secret 7821 Composite Group: “… a covert CIA operation run by a man who would later be dubbed the Spy of the Century … Reinhard Gehlen”. Before this, though, he had gained entry in early July, 1950, to the prestigious MIT, although not without some strings being pulled on his behalf. It was there that he had the idea for the cryotron, and was able to start developing it.

The first reciprocal trips involving the Soviets, after a couple of false starts, took place in the summer of 1958, after which a bigger exchange was suggested by the Americans. The Soviets wanted to see “among others, the young assistant professor at MIT whom the Russians believed was building the guidance system for America’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” The Russians were aware that Dudley Buck was one of the expected headline speakers lined up for the Eastern Computer Conference that December, in Philadelphia; the conference went ahead, but without the exchange, “and Buck was indeed a star performer.” The following April, a group of seven Russian scientists travelled to the US for a series of meetings & demonstrations at various locations, one of which was MIT, where they were eager to meet Dudley Buck, but: “Ever patriotic, Buck clearly just didn’t want to show them his work. … The group left MIT that night full of questions, not least about the cryogenic computer that they had not been able to see.” Around this time, Buck had begun working on electron lithography, but to achieve this required some very volatile chemicals, and they were not easy to obtain; it wasn’t until May 18th that the parcel of chemicals arrived. With hindsight, it would be very easy to condemn Buck for the careless way he handled the chemicals, which appear to have caused the fatal illness that killed him within three days, but the strange thing is that his assistant, who was very close by during the handling, was entirely unaffected. The main concern is that the Russian visitors could have somehow engineered this, but it is difficult to see how. Perhaps it was just an bizarre & tragic coincidence; the fact remains, however, that the Russians were aware Buck was a leader in his field, and the potential military applications of his work, so there will always be a question mark over his death.

It is possible that if he had lived through this early period of development, Buck might have been able to overcome the limitations of the ultra-cold environment for his technology, but it had to be modified quite extensively to be used in any practical application; according to Snyder’s official history of NSA computing projects, the cryotron “‘proved not to scale to high speed operation as had been hoped.’ The detailed explanation of how the cryotron was used and what went wrong with it remains classified. It seems that it never was used as a missile guidance system, in spite of the time that was spent on the idea; the semiconductor took that crown.” Sadly, Buck’s family earned next to nothing from his work and, outside the confines of the well-informed, Buck’s name quickly became a footnote in history, but his work was fundamental to the development of computer technology, even though, as is usually the case in most highly developed countries since the second world war, all technology has to be a slave to the military. The details I have given here only scratch the surface of Buck’s story and his achievements, but I can highly recommend this book, and as I said at the beginning, it’s a fascinating read.

Book Review – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.

Book Review – Breaking and Entering

Contrary to what you might think, this book is not a catalogue of actual burglary and/or housebreaking (other than a few minor instances in the early chapters), but the subtitle tells us specifically what it deals with: The extraordinary story of a Hacker called ‘Alien’. It is written by Jeremy N. Smith, and published by Scribe Publications, London, 2019; ISBN 9781911617006 (UK edition). I am interested in matters computer, and enjoy tinkering with code, becoming proficient enough to hand-code (a matter of some pride) a personal website (jonrisdon.co.uk) and a business website (wilfredbooks.co.uk), from which I sell the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon 1896-1967, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and also offer help to aspiring authors. With the best will in the world though, I am no genius when it comes to coding & computers: at best (and, ideally, free of self-deception) I am a dilettante.

I had read, maybe last year (how time flies!) an account of the hacking collective (although even that loose terminology is disputed by its participants) called Anonymous and, although it was acceptably interesting, it was somewhat confusing, given the myriad of groups & splinter-groups under that umbrella name, all, seemingly, with their own variant of a code of ethics (although some would even question dignifying them with so honourable a description); so it was easy to lose focus, and in the end, I was quite glad to finish it.

Jeremy Smith’s book, however, was not what I expected, and had me gripped from the word ‘Go’. It is effectively a part-biography (given that she is still relatively young) of a woman called Elizabeth Tessman, from New Jersey, USA, who adopted the pseudonym Alien when she became a freshman (freshperson wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?) at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This action is not as deceptive or devious as it sounds: simply that she needed a username for the college computer system, and eschewing something as mundane as her initial & family name, she tried ‘ET’. The film was already sixteen years old (this was August 1998) but still one of her favourites; unfortunately, 2 letters wasn’t sufficient; so, she thought back to the oversized essay with which she had clinched her acceptance, which concerned extraterrestials and how beneficent they might be; she tried ‘alien’, which was accepted, so, from there on, Alien she became.

Jeremy Smith takes the reader at a cracking pace through her life story from university to becoming an established, and still growing, independent consulting company in the field of cyber-security; a ‘white hat’ hacker, as they are known. Along the way, she has to face, and occasionally fight, almost unbelievably, at the end of the twentieth century, the prejudice & discrimination displayed by male colleagues, in a world where male ‘geeks’ tend to dominate the field of computers. It is also a salutary lesson, however depressing it might seem, given that it explicitly details an erosion of trust in human relations, that however well protected we might think the computer systems (and that encompasses all devices with processors and an internet connection) with which we interact might be, they are all, without exception, susceptible to attack by individuals and, increasingly, organisations, with malignant intent.

However (and I say this as the father of two wonderful daughters who never cease to amaze me with their skills & determination), this book is a heart-warming story of how Alien succeeded against the odds, which included working insane hours to prove that she was more than capable of holding her own and, latterly, with a burgeoning young family, running her own company in what was a highly competitive field and still, predominantly, a male-dominated world, although that has changed as the twenty-first century has progressed and more opportunities in scientific & technical specialities have opened up for women; when the pay gap is eliminated, these ladies might be able to consider themselves equal. This is an excellent read, and I hope that if you also read it, you enjoy it as much as I did.