Posts Tagged ‘1991’

This is one that I remember pretty well…

In May of 1991, Gang Lu received his Ph. D. from the University of Iowa.  On November 1, 1991, this young man was dead, along with five others.  Gang Lu, who studied physics and astronomy, was a pretty smart guy, but he was apparently pretty angry as well.

When Mr. Lu was awarded his doctorate, it did not come with special recognition.  The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was much coveted by Lu and, while the monetary prize it offered was modest, he believed it would smooth the path to a professor’s position at the University.  Instead, the prize went to Linhua Shan, at one time Lu’s college roommate, and Lu was not offered a job at Iowa, mostly due to the economics of the day.

His frustration and rage at his supposed rejection grew until it exploded.  On this morning in 1991, Gang Lu attended a physics department meeting and, shortly after it began, Lu took out a gun and shot four people dead.  Three of them were members of his dissertation committee (the ones that evaluated his doctoral thesis).  The fourth was Linhau Shan, the winner of the prize.  He left the building, walked to another, and killed Anne Cleary, an academic affairs officer.  Gang Lu had talked with her on numerous occasions about his failure to win an award for his work.  She died the next day.  He also shot a temp student in the office for good measure (who lived, but was left paralyzed), then shot himself.

I was in my final semester at Iowa State University, working (kind of) feverishly to finish my degree in Computer Science, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club.  We happened to be meeting that afternoon and I still can remember sitting with them and discussing the incident, trying to grasp what would make someone act in such a heinous manner.  As a club, we sent a card of condolence to Iowa City, and I seem to recall that we were sorry for the tragedy.

But looking back, it wasn’t a “tragedy” at all.  Yes, it was terribly sad, and a bunch of families were forever changed.  But Gang Lu’s actions were despicable…a horrific crime committed solely out of selfishness, greed, and envy.  The dissertation committee had to make a choice, and it didn’t go one man’s way.  So rather than accept the decision, that one man let his fury control his life…and his death…and the unwarranted deaths of others.

I still shake my head over this, 20-some years later.

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The computer world is sadder this evening with the news of the passing of Steve Jobs.  Few people have had more of an impact on our technological lives than the founder and long-time CEO of Apple.  Everybody knows about iPhones, iPads, and iPods.  They have become as much as a part of American culture as apple pie and corn on the cob, and all have come into existance under Jobs’ leadership.  Obsessively finicky about product design, incredibly intelligent, and a true visionary, he will be sorely missed and never forgotten.

While I’ve got Jobs on my mind and computers on the brain (they’re what I work with every day, after all), let’s talk for a quick second about Linux.  In case you don’t know, Linux is a computer operating system.  It’s the software that allows a computer to run and manage all the other programs installed on it.  There are many different operating systems functioning in the world, but only two that have a large footprint:  Microsoft Windows and Apple’s (there’s Mr. Jobs again) MacOS.  They run the vast majority of all computers, and are the best known.

Linux is something of a niche OS (but don’t say that too loudly among its avid followers).  It’s also really unique in that it’s an “open source” system, which means no one individual or company is responsible for its development and maintenance.  There are a bunch of different varieties of Linux that have been put together by various groups (Red Hat, Caldera, Debian, and Ubuntu come immediately to mind), but all are based on a single Linux kernel, which was developed by Linus Torvalds.

Torvalds started Linux as a college project in early 1991.  The young Finn, then just 21, had an Intel 386-based machine (remember those?!?…I do) and (much like Steve Jobs) an inquisitive mind.  By mid-August, he had the guts of an operating system and had ported one the more popular C-compilers (gcc, the GNU compiler) to function on it.  That meant more rapid development could take place, since programmers use compilers to turn lots of code into instructions that computers can understand.

On October 5, 1991, Torvalds released the first official version of Linux: version 0.02.  Of course, the 1991 model of the Internet didn’t look anything like it does today.  I don’t even recall that we had a web browser.  We mostly used ftp and knew the raw octets of an IP address to navigate around…ah, the good ole’ days.  Torvalds published the code to an ftp site, posted a notice on a NetNews forums, and the rest is history.

Over the last twenty years, thousands and thousands of people, from all walks of life and all corners of the planet, have collaborated to make Linux a solid, stable, viable operating system with as much (or more) power and flexibility as the big guys.  And because it’s open source, you can simply go to the Internet, download it, and build a Linux-based machine.  If installing an new OS directly from the Web is a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you for feeling that way), there are the various companies I mentioned earlier that have built nice boxed editions with smooth Windows-like installers.  The cost is nominal (I think I paid $40 for my version of Linux).

So, if you think Windows is too big and bloated for your tastes and you don’t have a Mac in the house, Linux just may be your baby.  Inexpensive, solid, fast, and constantly maintained, Linux has come a long way in just 20 years.

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The Gulf War (the first one fought back in 1991) can probably be summarized in just a few sentences.  The U.S.-led Coalition forces won big.  The Iraqi forces lost big.  A bunch of oil wells got set on fire.  General Norman Schwarzkopf emerged a hero.  President George Bush’s approval rating topped 70%.

But I suppose there’s more to it than that…probably a lot more.  A lot more than I’m capable of writing.

It’s true that this six-week battle, which ended with a cease-fire on February 28, 1991, was one of the most lopsided affairs in military history.  In fact, the term “war” should be used somewhat loosely, because it implies two (or more) enemies fighting against each other.  Other than their invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990 (accomplished without much warfare itself), the Iraqis did very little actual fighting.  The U.S. and her allies assembled behind their “line in the sand” a staggering array of firepower…and the Iraqis spent most of their time (after January 16, 1991) absorbing it and trying to stay alive.

It’s also true that this was the first conflict where the world was really given a front-row seat to the action.  We watched bombs hit buildings.  We saw bridges explode in real live color.  Cameras on the streets of Baghdad caught cruise missiles in flight, heading towards a target.  We watched Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams and General Chuck Horner give briefings, with their maps and pointers.  Then we’d see the camera footage.  And then there would be endless questions from reporters, most of which the briefer wouldn’t be able to answer anyways.  In a developing video-game age, the Gulf War was the video-gamest thing of all.

It’s also true that, occasionally, coalition forces would sustain losses.  Aircraft would get shot down, there would be accidents or, more often, incidents of “friendly fire” would cost lives.  But only about 400 coalition lives were lost, the most concentrated of those being when a Scud missile hit the barracks in Dhahran.

But unfortunately, it’s also true that, while we “stomped the other guy real good” in this one, there was this sense of incompleteness that hung over the whole affair.  Saddam Hussein was still in power.  There was a cease-fire, but peace and stability still seemed beyond our grasp.  Oil wells were burning out of control.  Guys were coming home with strange ailments.

And it’s also unfortunately true that circumstances, little more than 10 years later, would see us back again, fighting another war.  And while that war was won almost as easily, with that liberation of Iraq came an occupation and peace-keeping mission that has been far more costly, in dollars and more importantly, in lives lost.

We didn’t see peace on February 28, 1991.  We also didn’t see it yesterday, and there’s every possibility it we won’t see it today.

I’m reminded of a lyric buried deep in my music collection, and it seems appropriate, so I’ll share it…

Maybe one day before someday
There will be peace in the land
Maybe one day before someday
We will stand hand in hand
Maybe one day before someday
We will step across the line and love one another
The way we oughtta love


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.3433 seconds.  A third of a second isn’t very long.  I try to think of things I can do in that amount of time, but it’s pretty hard. I could maybe blink my eyes, or swivel my head, or count the cash in my wallet.  But not much else comes to mind, which must mean I can’t think very quickly, either.

But search times for computer hard drives are measured in milliseconds, or .00000x seconds.  Computer memory speeds are measured in nanoseconds, which is .00000000x seconds (that’s super fast).  In the computer world of circuits and gates and discrete logic, .3433 seconds is an eternity.

.3433 seconds in a computer can get people killed…it has gotten people killed, and it’s the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

In February of 1991, eyes all over the world were glued to their TV’s, and the TV’s were glued to the Middle East, as massive Coalition military forces were expelling the Iraqi military from Kuwait.  We watched in wonder as TV-guided bombs gave us front-row seats as they plowed into buildings.  Tomahawk Cruise missiles lauched from planes, ships, and subs traveled hundreds of miles and blew up designated targets with impugnity.  And then came the 100-hour ground campaign, where Coalition ground forces swept in from the west, bludgeoning every enemy in its path.

It’s here that our focus narrows.  During this 100 hours, the fear of Scud missile launches from Iraq was at its greatest.  The small possibility that they would be loaded with chemical agents targeted at either Saudi Arabia or Israel kept everyone on high alert, including the Patriot missile batteries that were used as missile defense.  Nobody dared shut anything off, and for the Patriot, that caused a problem.

The Patriot missile used probability to interrogate target value and the path to that target.  If a target object was in one place at one moment and then traveled a certain distance in the next, the system determined it to be hostile and projected a “path of interception.”  But since ballistic missiles (like the Scud) travel at very high speeds, and Patriots traveled very quickly, the closure speeds were measured in the thousands of miles per hour.  So that intercept and detonation window was extremely small, which is fine and good.

But the Patriot’s memory constraints had caused the programmers to “round off” the clock value, and then use that slightly inaccurate value in the next calculation.  So over time, the Patriot got less accurate.  Again, this wasn’t a problem by itself, because the Patriot battery was a mobile system that was designed to be put in place, run for several hours (or a day), and then moved.  Shutting down the system for transport would clear the inaccuracy.

But these Patriots, with the heightened concerns, were not shut off.  And by February 25, 1991, they had been running for more than 4 days.  So when a Scud was fired towards Dhahran, Saudi Arabia that evening, the triggering device in the Patriot was off by .3433 seconds.  And the immense closure speeds of the two missiles meant that the Patriot detonated more than 2,000 feet below the descending Scud.  The shockwaves were enough to damage the incoming Scud, but not destroy it.  Scuds were not sophisticated enough to be precision-guided, but they could be area-targeted, like on a city.  This Scud hit a random target (like all the rest), but that happened to be a U.S. military barracks, and it killed 28 U.S. Reservists.

The next day, a package arrived in Dhahran.  In a tragic coincidence, Israeli Patriot operators had discovered the timing error on February 11th and notified the authorities.  Immediately, Raytheon (the missile designer) set its programmers to work and, on the 16th, sent out a software “patch” that addressed the problem.  The software for the Dhahran batteries arrived on the 26th.

Timing is everything.

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There were several other topics I was planning to do for today (Devil’s Tower or maybe the creation of the Attorney General’s office),  but they’ll just have to wait.  I decided to put them aside when I saw that Theodor Geisel had passed away on September 24, 1991.   Geisel’s name probably means little to you, though the teaster photo likely gives the gig away.  But Geisel’s middle name is legendary.  Its mention brings instant recognition, takes many of us back to our childhoods, and conjures up some of our earliest memories.  That name is…Seuss.

Yep, Geisel is none other than the immortal Dr. Seuss.  And like my other favorite doctor, Dr. Science, Seuss wasn’t a real doctor, though his intentions were to study for a doctorate of Philosophy.  But advanced degree or no, Seuss has provided children (and not a few adults) with some of the most entertaining books ever.

It’s hard to really describe a Seuss book, simply because they’re so completely different from any other children’s book.  Most books tell a simple story, so there’s a plot, and flow, and at least a little character development.  And some of Seuss’ books do that a little…I’m thinking of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (one of Seuss’ first books).  They’re books that move toward an end.  But many others simply have no real point at all.  They bob and weave from idea to idea and from topic to topic in a most precarious way.  Plot?  Forget about it.  Characters?  Who cares, they’re creatures that don’t even exist anyway.

But in a way, those are the perfect books for children.  They’re silly, they have creatures with fantastic names, they’re beautifully illustrated, and they defy any kind of categorization…except as “classics for children”.

Seuss wrote dozens of books in his lifetime, many of them enormously popular.  You’ve probably read some of them (or at least looked at the dazzling artwork).  The Cat in the Hat is, quite possibly, the most popular children’s book of all time.  If it isn’t, Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t be far from the top.  The 500 Hats… was a favorite of mine (I always loved it when, after about 400 hats or so, the feathers started appearing), I’ve read Hop on Pop, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Mr. Brown Can Moo!  Can You?, and If I Ran the Circus.

But my favorite Dr. Seuss book is, without question, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The story is so simple, the rhyming is so clever, and as a children’s tale, it takes a light-hearted approach to an important lesson that every child needs to know:  you don’t have to have lots of stuff (or even anything at all) to be happy.

Of course, Boris Karloff’s narration of the Grinch cartoon is superb, and I watch the video version every single year around Christmas (“Why, the Grinch even took the last can of Who-hash!“)…my wife bought me the DVD.

So, while Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss left us on this day, he left us with an astounding collection of terrific books that children will enjoy for generations to come.

Recommended Reading: How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Read this Dr. Seuss classic.  It might take you 15 minutes or so.

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