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Space The Military Hardware

Looking Back at 1984 Report On "Radical Computing" 183

Posted by timothy
from the remote-viewing-next-big-thing dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The Department of Defense has just released a long restricted report (PDF) by the JASON group entitled Radical Computing. This 1984 study outlines a number of alternate computing methods that could 'result in a radical improvement in computing.' The study attempts to explain the paradox of how the Russian lag in developing VLSI chips curiously did not critically hinder their accomplishments in space missions, ICBMs and chess computation. The authors speculate that the Russians might have achieved breakthroughs in alternative computing methods such as residue arithmetic and symbolic computing. (More cynical types assume the Russians bought or stole US chips from the French or other too-helpful go-betweens.)"
"The paper, published by the Government Attic website, also mentions how, eventually, highly parallel computers could make use of these alternative computational methods. Also discussed are such things as functional programming, interval arithmetic, recursive machines, multiple processor concurrency, fast recurrence evaluation, DDA machines, data-flow, and hyper-column cortex model. Which of these ideas ever came to fruition?"
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Looking Back at 1984 Report On "Radical Computing"

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  • by bobdotorg (598873) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @05:49PM (#31969592)

    Umm. Crap.

    I've got nothing.

  • by Valdrax (32670) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @05:51PM (#31969608)

    The authors speculate that the Russians might have achieved breakthroughs in alternative computing methods such as residue arithmetic and symbolic computing.

    Never propose a simple solution when exotic, impractical sounding one will do instead.

    • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:06PM (#31969692)
      I' trying to remember who said this. But during the Cold War, the intelligence folks got so paranoid that they were attributing things and capabilities to the Russians that, after the Cold War ended, the Soviets were no where near having any sort of capability or had any sort of plans. One of the more well known over estimation was Soviet military capabilities. When the Cold War ended, the intelligence community couldn't believe how far off they were - most of there "insights" were over active imaginations.
      • by MarkvW (1037596)

        Not just the Pentagon. It's a general's disease. Generals (think McClellan) are prone to take counsel of their fears.

        Potential becomes probable becomes weapons of mass destruction. . ..

      • by NNKK (218503)

        Well, "over-active" is relative. I can't count the number of times I've been told I have an over-active imagination or I'm being too paranoid or similar things, only to spend the following day explaining to the people in question how this thing they'd said was impossible had just occurred and would they kindly pull their heads out of their ass.

        The Soviets did a lot of things that by western reasoning were unlikely or impossible given their apparent capabilities, I wouldn't blame the intelligence community f

      • by RobinEggs (1453925) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:28PM (#31969838)

        most of there "insights" were over active imaginations.

        Not quite. Sometimes, certainly, they just imagined the threat, but equally often they fell for some simple, yet clever, Soviet spoofs. Much was made in intelligence and in the popular press, for example, of those terrifying parade ground films showing division after division of Soviet infantry marching through Red Square, with air support flying over and armored divisions interspersed. It turned out at least once, however, that the hundreds of bombers flying overhead consisted of just a couple squadrons flying a continuous loop above the parade ground, circling behind the camera to pass by again and again. Very likely the same happened with the armor sometimes.

        The Cold War was all about fear, and when analysts fell for something that seems stupid now it's not exclusively that they convinced themselves or became hysterical; the armed forces of both sides did a lot of work to keep up credible appearances of overwhelming force, usually without the actual hardware to back them up.

        • And it was very easy for their fears, with scant evidence, to be carried all the way up the chain of command. There were a lot of Leo Strauss followers salted throughout the Federal government who wanted to believe.
        • by MrShaggy (683273)

          If I remember properly..

          This sort of thing happened in WW2.

          The allies used carboard tanks in order to lure the German troops away, to stage a surprise attack.

          Maybe that the Persian Army of a 1000 Nations was no more then 2000 men, with some black canvas?

          • by Taco Cowboy (5327)

            ... with some black canvas?

            The Persians used carpets, not canvas, you insensitive clot !

          • That was actually the German army doing the surprise attacking in Africa. Rommel was suffering was a complete lack of military supply refreshment from Hitler, and had to make do with just a trivial number of forces. He truly was a military genius, however, and continued to present a massive headache to the Allies despite being totally outnumbered.
      • by MrHanky (141717)

        Reminds me of the situation with Iraq just a few years ago.

      • by mestar (121800)

        "most of there "insights" were over active imaginations."

        Yet I'm sure they had no problems imagining things to spend money on, the money that they got because of those overestimations.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        I think it's worth remembering that if the Soviet Union had wonderfully exotic high-technology, the fabulously capitalist Russian Federation would now be making full use of it.

        If the Soviets had developed exciting computing methods far in advance of their western rivals, why are there no Russian companies conquering the IT industry and generating billions roubles in taxes for their homeland? The knowledge surely wouldn't have just disappeared (or been confined to that warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones).

      • by Artifakt (700173)

        This works both ways though. I can think of both at least one good counter-example and a good supporting example for your statements, so i suspect the truth on this one really falls somewhere near the middle:

        It took us years to prove the USSR had a serious plan to land on the moon ahead of the USA, once they started denying they were ever in the Moonrace. In particular, there was a civilian analyst who tracked down publications in a lot of european aero-space magazines and tech papers and sho

      • by dbIII (701233)
        The other day I read in a history of Antarctica where some complete clowns on the government payroll were writing about secret USSR bases full of nuclear missiles near the south pole to "outflank America". It was of course based on nothing but pure fantasy and paranoia. Somebody should have given those idiots a map and described how hard it would be to truck missiles 2000km across the Antarctic and how it would be a pointless and far worse result than you'd get with using a few submarines.
        You have to reme
      • by Kensai7 (1005287)

        Somehow, this was good. This invisible (and unjustified) competition with the USSR made the USA the true superpower it is today. Who knows if we would ever land on the moon if there wasn't competition from the Commies.

    • by 32771 (906153) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:28PM (#31969840) Journal

      >... and symbolic computing.

      The report states that MIR-2 had some symbolic computation capabilities the US seemed to have caught up with only slowly. Read the report, it's on page three.

      This report shows that the US was driven by the competition with the USSR. Who knows, it probably helped push MACSYMA along and people had some incentive to make some impractical sounding products out of this, like the little known Mathematica or also Maple.

      I'm beginning to think that the computing world became so boring lately mainly because the cold war is over. Just look at the table listing all those technologies on page 5. It doesn't mention Quantum computing alright, but things like the hypercolumn cortex model might finally materialize in form of the Blue Brain project. It could very well be, that this initiative was a driver for some computing projects that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

  • by Benfea (1365845)
    I think it's safe to say they didn't have any exotic computer technology. Of course, hindsight is 20-20. ^.^
    • Re:Eh. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by PCM2 (4486) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:34PM (#31969876) Homepage

      I think it's safe to say they didn't have any exotic computer technology. Of course, hindsight is 20-20. ^.^

      No? It's well known that the Soviets developed computers based on ternary logic [computer-museum.ru] (rather than binary) -- that seems pretty exotic to me. I thought it was equally well understood that it was more expedient to switch to clones of Western technology, so that's what happened.

      • by w0mprat (1317953)
        How does that work? True, False ... Maybe?
        • by samkass (174571)

          How does that work? True, False ... Maybe?

          Pretty much, although usually "unknown" replaces "maybe". It's isn't that uncommon to have Boolean objects in Java that are either true, false, or null (unassigned). It's kind of the boolean version of NAN.

        • by sznupi (719324)

          Think of it more as "-1, 0 and 1" instead of typical "0, 1". Apparently gives much better efficiency (Setun machines were replaced with something only equally fast...but few times more expensive)

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ternary_computer [wikipedia.org]
          ^"ternary logic's elegance and efficiency is predicted by Donald Knuth to bring them back into development in the future"

        • Google "Boolean algebra"

    • by Eudial (590661)

      I think it's safe to say they didn't have any exotic computer technology. Of course, hindsight is 20-20. ^.^

      We KNOW they had quite exotic computing technology. Setun [wikipedia.org], for example, used numeric base 3.

    • by sznupi (719324) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @07:39PM (#31970248) Homepage

      TFS reflects what US didn't know back then, not the current state of knowledge...

      Apart from Setun mentioned by other posters (which, although interesting, didn't really influence much the race in technology; about which the pdf is all about) there's also, most importantly, this gem:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbrus_(computer) [wikipedia.org]
      Soviet domestically developed supercomputers. Multiprocessor superscalar RISC machine few years before the report from TFS was written; later VLIW long before the Itanium. Used specifically in "how the hell Soviets are keeping up" areas
      (the man apparently responsible for them [wikipedia.org] works for Intel for some time now...)

  • Pffft. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by reverendbeer (1496637) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:15PM (#31969746)
    THIS is VLSI: http://www.mycpu.eu/ [mycpu.eu] ...ahem...just not all in one chip.
  • by gelfling (6534) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:22PM (#31969792) Homepage Journal

    We spent an awful lot of time and effort in the area of efficient function design as well. The crucial problem was how to derive a precise 'enough' result in a given number of CPU cycles. We did all kinds of functional partial solutions in order to break down complex problems into 'do-able' chunks. The simple fact is that computers aren't that good at Real Analysis, Solid Analytic Geometry and multidimensional trigonometry. You have to crush all that down into composite problems that computers ARE good at.

    • Computers are overrated. Most practical engineering problems can be (and were, before the 60s) solved with pencil, paper, and some compasses and rulers. Do a Google search on nomography [wikipedia.org] and related ideas.

      In the one hundred years before personal computers, literally thousands of mechanical devices were invented to perform all sorts of calculations by hand. These techniques are no longer taught these days, because computers are so easy to program and students are very weak in mathematics anyway.

      It would

      • Most practical problems can be solved with marginally acceptable accuracy without computers. In "the old days," modeling efforts were utterly crippled by the lack of computers so we had to give everything a good margin for safety and hope it was enough.

        Try to design an engine that meets modern emissions requirements without a computer.
        Try to make detailed predictions about the behavior of any circuit containing multiple transistors without a computer.
        Try to design a modern-scale bridge without a computer.
        • by arth1 (260657)

          Indeed. If we lost our computers (say a nearby supernova went off), the result wouldn't just set us back to the equivalent of the 50s, but I fear we would be back to the middle ages. Definitely pre-Victorian, due to the electicity system's reliance on working computers.
          And the recovery would not be quick; there would be few people who actually understand what the computers do for them that they could do the same tasks without computers, no matter how much time and non-computer resources they were given.
          Fo

          • I don't think our reliance on silicone technology is all that important. I mean in Hollywood maybe, but most of us do fine without it, well, except for maybe weather-stripping.

        • Hogwash! Using computers does not ensure accuracy, what ensures accuracy is the way that the problem is posed [wikipedia.org]. If the problem isn't well posed, computers give the wrong result, with a lot of digits. Conversely, when the problem is well posed, even graphical methods can be highly accurate [hint: think about the difference between absolute and relative errors].

          Don't get me wrong: computers have their place and it is inconceivable to stop using them, but they are not necessary for solving engineering proble

      • by sjames (1099)

        For all practical purposes we DID send man to the moon without computers as we know them. The massive clanking and whirring things NASA used back in the day were less capable than today's handheld game.

  • how the Russian lag in developing VLSI chips curiously did not critically hinder their accomplishments in space missions, ICBMs and chess computation.

    VLSI is not necessarily an advantage in space missions. You can do a lot of embedded computing just using low density, but radiation hardened parts. USSR had several chipsets that were suitable for military and space use. I can't find them on the Web right now (forgot their p/n). With regard to SWaP [altera.com], one engineer told me "our rockets are powerful enough" :-

    • by tftp (111690)

      For example, Series 587 [silirium.ru] (and there are many more here [silirium.ru]. If the part number starts with 'K' it means consumer part. Without 'K' it is a military grade part. You can see the difference in packages - ceramic packages are common for military grade components.

    • by mikael (484)

      There was story about how a pilot defected to the West using his fighter plane. After he had been taken into custody, the defence analysts had a field day examining the aircraft. They laughed when they saw that the avionics were all composed out of valves rather than transistors. Their amusement turned to shock when they figured out why this choice of valves over transistors - the EMP of a nuclear explosion would fry transistors, but have no effect on valves except to make them glow a little brighter.

  • Clones (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dynamoo (527749) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:24PM (#31969814) Homepage
    The Soviets built a lot of Apple ][ clones in the 80s, not really a difficult thing to reverse engineer. But in true Soviet style the cloning was sometimes a bit unorthodox. From memory, one clone was made entirely of flying leads.. not a PCB in sight, each track between each component used an individual copper cable. Another clone suffered from a mis-conversion between the US imperial system and Soviet metric system, which meant that smuggled in components wouldn't quite fit onto the circuit board.

    For further reading, see Byte Magazine from April 1991. Surely all good /. readers have a copy somewhere?

    • Re:Clones (Score:4, Informative)

      by sznupi (719324) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @08:39PM (#31970572) Homepage

      Some Soviet Block countries indeed built Apple II clones, but the Soviets, as far as home market goes, went largely with ZX Spectrum derivatives. This one [wikipedia.org] for example (yeah, I wonder how much tongue-in-cheek that name was ;p )

      More interesting are "official" home computers of the Soviet Union (ZX Spectrum clones were of small manufacture later on), compatible PDP-11 architecture [wikipedia.org] and with rather nice operating systems.

    • by garyisabusyguy (732330) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @08:39PM (#31970574)

      I worked in a college computer lab with a Russian expat

      He was extremely familiar with DCL (Digital Command Language) and VAX architecture. Apparently, he had spent years working on DEC VAX clones in the old Soviet Union.

      I also remember reading that DEC would etch stuff like "check six" in Russian onto integrated circuits to let the Russians know that they knew it was being reverse engineered

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by coaxial (28297)

        Apparently, he had spent years working on DEC VAX clones in the old Soviet Union.

        That wouldn't happen to be Kremvax would it?

    • by Tenek (738297)

      For further reading, see Byte Magazine from April 1991. Surely all good /. readers have a copy somewhere?

      Of course. I loved reading Byte when I was five.

    • by mikael (484)

      Some magazine articles/talks in the 1980's (Z80, 6502, 6809) explained how they worked their way around partially functional CPU's with missing/damaged instructions by using alternative implementations composed from other instructions - Boolean operations could be implemented using arithmetic operators (start with X mod 2 is equivalent to X & 0x01, then work upwards to all the other Boolean operators). This even worked for GPU's!

      If your conditional jump instructions were frizzled, then you could calcula

  • by jpmorgan (517966) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:30PM (#31969854) Homepage

    One of the main serious uses of computing, especially in the cold war, was solving partial differential equations. Whether these be for orbital calculations, stability analysis, EM simulation, etc..., solving partial differential equations is a critical part of any advanced engineering program.

    The American approach really started in the 50s with the advent of programmable computers, and is very stereotypical: just find a decent approximation. Modern western engineering is all about using pretty advanced computers to find arbitrary numerical approximations to tricky PDEs. It's reached its culmination in modern engineering design, where most advanced products are designed and simulated in computers, and prototyping only occurs at the very end of the process.

    The Soviets had computers.... some home built, some Western, but generally speaking they weren't very good. The Soviet approach was also very stereotypical: get an army of mathematicians and engineers to find exact analytic solutions to the problems you're trying to solve. You'd have armies of engineers and technicians designing things that in the west we'd give to a couple of engineers with some computer time.

    The end result is that some Soviet engineering is stunningly brilliant. And a lot is absolute crap. One of the reasons the west won the cold war is that we were just much better at solving partial differential equations. This report is unsurprising... the Soviet approach just seems so stupid to any Western engineer unfamiliar with it, that you'd have to assume they had some magic trick up their sleeve. But nope, just a lot of brainpower misdirected into a lot of horribly inefficient pursuits.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wiredlogic (135348)

      This report is unsurprising... the Soviet approach just seems so stupid to any Western engineer unfamiliar with it

      It isn't exactly stupid. It's just a continuation of the typical methods of engineering before electronic computers became integral tools in the process. With the ever advancing and sophisticated technology developed in the 20th century they needed to distribute a larger work load across more workers.

      • by sznupi (719324)

        Plus a boring, repetitive, perhaps even forced work - but nonetheless mental work (and requiring you to be properly fed, etc.) - was a mighty attractive thing in Soviet Union, given some of the alternatives...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bertok (226922)

      One of the main serious uses of computing, especially in the cold war, was solving partial differential equations. Whether these be for orbital calculations, stability analysis, EM simulation, etc..., solving partial differential equations is a critical part of any advanced engineering program.

      The American approach really started in the 50s with the advent of programmable computers, and is very stereotypical: just find a decent approximation. Modern western engineering is all about using pretty advanced computers to find arbitrary numerical approximations to tricky PDEs. It's reached its culmination in modern engineering design, where most advanced products are designed and simulated in computers, and prototyping only occurs at the very end of the process.

      The Soviets had computers.... some home built, some Western, but generally speaking they weren't very good. The Soviet approach was also very stereotypical: get an army of mathematicians and engineers to find exact analytic solutions to the problems you're trying to solve. You'd have armies of engineers and technicians designing things that in the west we'd give to a couple of engineers with some computer time.

      The end result is that some Soviet engineering is stunningly brilliant. And a lot is absolute crap. One of the reasons the west won the cold war is that we were just much better at solving partial differential equations. This report is unsurprising... the Soviet approach just seems so stupid to any Western engineer unfamiliar with it, that you'd have to assume they had some magic trick up their sleeve. But nope, just a lot of brainpower misdirected into a lot of horribly inefficient pursuits.

      I heard something similar from my older relatives who grew up in Communist countries.

      Their take was that the Soviet computers were about 10x slower or even worse. For them, it was worthwhile writing software as "hand tuned assembler" to optimise it to the point that it would run 10x faster. However, this takes a lot more programmer time for the same amount of functionality.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Nutria (679911)

      The Soviets had computers.... some home built, some Western, but generally speaking they weren't very good. The Soviet approach was also very stereotypical: get an army of mathematicians and engineers to find exact analytic solutions to the problems you're trying to solve. You'd have armies of engineers and technicians designing things that in the west we'd give to a couple of engineers with some computer time.

      But in the 1960s, the US didn't have *that many* computers. We got to the Moon mainly on the back

    • by mbkennel (97636) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @10:58PM (#31971156)

      The report really does sound like a bit of sophisticated propaganda to convince Congressmen to fund nifty research mathematics. It is very strangely focused like a review article on niche mathematics and computer science.

      The solution the paradox is simple: the USSR really was behind, but in the particular military areas mentioned (ICBMs, spaceflight), it is clear that advanced VLSI is not necessary. The USSR was not so far behind (or at all) in hard engineering like metallurgy, thermodynamics, rocketry etc, all the areas which are absolutely necessary for spaceflight.

      Remember that the difference between the West and USSR was in economic efficiency. VLSI was just way too expensive---so Soviets had to make do when the West would use economical, high performing chips. The necessary computers embedded inside weaponry and rockets through 1984 simply didn't need to be that complicated. They usually had to run a simple control loop & switching system, which was designed and simulated off-line by large stationary computers in the lab. And more often in the USSR's case, analytical pencil & paper computations. The USSR had a much stronger applied mathematical understanding of nonlinear dynamics and chaos---in the USSR fluid mechanics wasn't shunted off as a boring part of civil engineering, but stayed with the high-level physics community the whole time. The West started recognizing the importance right about in the mid 1980's.

      The deficiency in high performance semiconductors DID, in truth, hurt their military capacity in some areas: those areas where advanced semiconductor technology is essential, and not just an economically effective choice.

      Primary examples are anything which involves combined analog/digital operations, for instance CCD imagers, and modern wireless digital communication devices. A critical example: high resolution spy satellites which transmitted the results by radio and not film canister.

      For instance: despite great space flight experience, the USSR didn't come remotely close to having a capability in the 1980's like the Global Positioning System, or relatively cheap spread-spectrum communications (almost everything we have now is from original military developments), or fancy infrared imagers and image analysis software embedded in a warhead's targeting system. All those require advanced, embedded, launchable, semiconductor technology---a cloned VAX in a building won't cut it.

      After seeing the results of the Gulf War in 1990 a Soviet general was very relieved that they never went to war with the West. The USSR was astonished at the capability of precision bombing from the F-117 et al and the necessary logistics & ground & airborne communication systems supporting such a campaign. Iraq didn't have the capability and certainly training of the USSR but 1990 Iraq had some decent Soviet hardware, which was nearly totally ineffective in combat.

      It meant that in a war in Europe NATO could have smashed a Soviet armored assault without nuclear weaponry (, and the USSR strongly underestimated this conventional capability driven by technology.

      One lesson is that the technological capabilities of Chinese weaponry today shouldn't be underestimated.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 25, 2010 @05:13AM (#31972520)

        Your post Sir, is a fine example of brainwash. Anybody with a bit of background in remote sensing can tell you that in the beginning of the 90s satellite pics with a resolution of about 0.5 metres could easily be bought on the market, coming from decommissioned Soviet-Union satellites. And them pics surely weren't sent to earth by canister either (that practice ended in the 60s, thank you very much).

        I won't make any remark about your admiration of the precision bombing from the F-117 and the associated cost/effectiveness comparison (at least not until I've visited Iraq and Afghanistan), but really, using the Iraqi Army, after 12 years of embargo, as an example force in comparing the effectiveness of the US military versus the Warschau Pact?

        What I do wonder about, really, is that after your headlong demonstration of the inferiority of Soviet material, you come to the next conclusion: "One lesson is that the technological capabilities of Chinese weaponry today shouldn't be underestimated." Underestimated?

        • by ultranova (717540)

          What I do wonder about, really, is that after your headlong demonstration of the inferiority of Soviet material, you come to the next conclusion: "One lesson is that the technological capabilities of Chinese weaponry today shouldn't be underestimated." Underestimated?

          Well, China is manufacturing most of the electronics used in the West nowadays, is it not? If shit hits the fan and international trade stops, it's us who'll be without, not them.

          I guess that makes offshoring a form of treason...

          • by erice (13380)

            Well, China is manufacturing most of the electronics used in the West nowadays, is it not?

            Not exactly, no. Advanced chips and PCB's are mostly made in Taiwan. China does make a great deal of electronics but it is older, simpler tech.

        • by jpmorgan (517966)

          Perhaps you don't realize this, but there were two Iraq invasions. The Gulf War refers to the one in 1990, and Iraq was NOT under embargo leading up to that invasion.

      • The thing you are missing is that if it had came down to a NATO/Warsaw Pact war, when our "superior" conventional units wiped the Warsaw Pact units off the battlefield, pride and fear would had lead to the USSR launching nukes. And even with their sad state of nuclear weapon launching abilities (liquid fueled anyone?)our response alone would have seriously fucked up the planet, not to mention some of theirs would have it our country and fuck-up major swathes.
    • The Soviet approach was also very stereotypical: get an army of mathematicians and engineers to find exact analytic solutions to the problems you're trying to solve.
      ...
      But nope, just a lot of brainpower misdirected into a lot of horribly inefficient pursuits.

      You are wrong here on both accounts, though somehow close to truth. I was one of those engineers who worked with PDE at and through the end of the Soviet Union. Finding "exact solution" nether was a priority or purpose of research, it mostly impos

      • by jpmorgan (517966)

        You misunderstand my point about inefficiency. My point is that the American approach puts the brightest people building tools to enable others to accomplish many tasks with less resources. You can do your design work more quickly with fewer engineers by relying on numerical approximations, enabled by clever software and hardware.

  • Appendix 1a - and I call myself a FORTRAN programmer!

  • Space and Computing (Score:5, Informative)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @06:34PM (#31969878) Journal

    Knowing the parameters they have to meet now, amateurs have managed suborbital rockets with minimal computation. With the recent change in the upper bounds of amateur spaceflight (ie. when FAA says NASA takes over permissions) and the knowledge in hand, amateur orbital flight is a matter of time. NASA helped develop and made use of VLSI not because it made what they were doing possible, but because it made what they were already doing easier.

    As for doing without, the Russians provided us with proof positive during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. They flew first and we went up to meet them because we had better aim. Our guys used an HP 48 handheld for calculations and their clock was fed by the signals from the atomic clock at National Bureau of Standards. When we got there we saw they were using, respectively, slide rules, pencil and paper, and a stop watch. But our having the better technology did not prevent them from getting there. And their having lesser technology did not prevent them successfully participating in the several cat-and-mouse rendezvous practices that followed the first.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Though the times of Apollo-Soyuz were already during period when Russians were visiting routinelly their space stations. And not long after the unmanned Progress was ready.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by bernieS (834839)
      Um, our guys did *not* use an HP-48 calculator on Apollo-Soyuz, they used an HP-65 (w/mag card programmer!) The HP-48 wasn't introduced until 1990, a decade and a half later. -bernieS
      • by DynaSoar (714234)

        > Um, our guys did *not* use an HP-48 calculator on Apollo-Soyuz, they used an HP-65
        Thanks. Don't know how I got them confused, I sold them at a bookstore near Purdue (ie. I sold LOTS of them).

  • I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong on this, but aren't we still using processors designed in the 1970's [wikipedia.org] on our space shuttles? High degrees of VLSI lend themselves easily to interference from solar radiation, so why would not having VLSI have impaired the Soviet space effort?
  • by paiute (550198)

    The Americans spent billions fabricating chips that would work in zero G and high energy particle fields. The Russians just used pencils.

  • by marciot (598356) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @07:12PM (#31970072)

    A lot of people are dismissing this report, but the ideas of residual arithmetic may in fact be plausible for things like GPUs, which are good at doing parallel computations and where the magnitude of the results are finite and known (two things the report mentions as making a problem suitable for residual arithmetic).

    One thing which caught my eye is when they demonstrate how to evaluate polynomials using table look ups. It might be conceivable that things like ray/surface intersections in a ray-tracer, for example, could be represented by tables in a GPU specially built for ray-tracing. Without working through the math (which would be quite a chore), it certainly seems like a fairly plausible idea.

    • by pydev (1683904)

      Most graphics and geometry requires lots of sign tests (or some other comparisons), but those are expensive. So it doesn't really help.

      • by marciot (598356)

        Most graphics and geometry requires lots of sign tests (or some other comparisons), but those are expensive. So it doesn't really help.

        I was thinking about this last night and came to the same conclusion. The lack of ability to do comparisons between numbers is a huge problem for graphics. And what appears to be the big advantage of residual arithmetic -- the ability to use tables for polynomials -- is actually limited to polynomials of one variable, which doesn't help much with computer graphics.

        So I've changed my mind on this. It's certainly a clever mathematical curiosity, but it appears to have too many limitations to be useful in prac

  • Well, actually... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Fishbulb (32296) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @07:22PM (#31970158)

    (More cynical types assume the Russians bought or stole US chips from the French or other too-helpful go-betweens.)

    Back in the early '90s, one of my professors had come over from the USSR to teach Comp Sci. The local ACM chapter, at least a couple of times if not more, had him give a talk on the state of computing in Russia. This was exactly what he laid out. That shell companies were setup in France to lease IBM equipment (all you could do in those days for this very reason). The shell would fly-by-night the IBM to Russia where they would part it out. Notably, iirc, Romania was where they reverse engineered the machine code of the OS back into a somewhat usable assembly language. This, he would explain, was why all the really nasty viruses for PCs came from Romania - because the writers could eyeball instruction code and tell you what it was going to do. They also knew every crevice of the system, which became the advent of viruses hanging out in BIOS's and system clock memory.

    He eventually became uncomfortable giving the talks and stopped, to my knowledge.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      But what he spoke about doesn't preciselly follows the quote (really suggesting the chips were rather directly used) with which you started your post. Also the consensus in this article [wikipedia.org] seems to be, well, that Soviet mainframes were original hardware, similar to how few companies made IBM clones. The OS was "stolen", but supposedly later versions were also quite different and original.

      Plus there's Setun and Elbrus.

      • by Fishbulb (32296)

        But what he spoke about doesn't preciselly follows the quote (really suggesting the chips were rather directly used) with which you started your post.

        No, I just chose a single detail path to follow. All parts of the system were shipped out to various places. Reverse engineering of hardware, specifically the IBM mainframe chips, was done in Moscow. As I recall from his talks, this was significantly more difficult.

        And yes, this was an IBM 360 mainframe, not the IBM PC/XT or PC/AT. Just a tiny* difference in hardware.

        * - By tiny I mean huge.

  • The simple fact is that you don't need much more than a slide rule and a room full of mathematicians to solve most cold war era engineering problems. Russia also didn't have much trouble importing anything they didn't make themselves via 3rd parties.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday April 24, 2010 @11:58PM (#31971374) Homepage

    So that's what the JASONs were doing back then. All that stuff on "residual arithmetic", because they apparently thought that N-bit multiplication required O(N) cycles. By the late 1960s, high-end mainframes (CDC 6600, STRETCH, LARC, etc.) had multipliers that could beat O(N), by adding up the partial products pairwise as a tree. That approach is O(log N). This report was written in the mid-1980s, by which time that technology had filtered down to most larger CPUs. Today, of course, every serious microprocessor has it. "Residual arithmetic" just isn't needed. Most of the advantages of that approach were achieved, but by more straightforward means.

    However, division using table lookup is widespread. Modern dividers have sizable hard-wired tables. See "Pentium Floating Point Bug" for details.

    Data flow machines did catch on. They're just invisible. Inside the Pentium Pro/II/III and later machines is a data flow engine. That's part of how superscalar machines work. But, again, it wasn't necessary to export that painful paradigm to the programmer-visible level. (GPUs, though, are close to data flow machines.)

    The paper on "automated programming" is amusing. This was written just when the "expert systems" fad was tanking, as it was becoming clear that "expert systems" just didn't do very much. The "AI Winter" followed.

    I recognize too many names on the distribution lists for those reports.

    • by lennier (44736)

      Data flow machines did catch on. They're just invisible. Inside the Pentium Pro/II/III and later machines is a data flow engine. That's part of how superscalar machines work. But, again, it wasn't necessary to export that painful paradigm to the programmer-visible level.

      Are you sure dataflow actually is painful? I think it might be actually a more natural end-user programming paradigm than imperative code, especially in the age of the Web when the problem space is all about linking and transforming data from multiple sources.

      It makes me sad that we invented these wonderfully elegant dataflow machines then spent lots of designer-hours making them invisible so that programmers could continue to use C... and then reinvent the dataflow paradigm, slowly and painfully, in usersp

  • There have been clever scientists in the former Soviet and in other places in the world. Several have developed promising technologies and fewer have productionized them. This is not unlike the "smash Moore's Law" posts in Slashdot every month: 9 of 10 you never hear from again.
  • That's actually, an anarchist slogan, not Marxist, but it will do here.

    (More cynical types assume the Russians bought or stole US chips from the French or other too-helpful go-betweens.)

    Doesn't take much cynicism to infer that the Soviets bypassed import restrictions whenever they could. But could they smuggle enough chips to actually keep even a single electronics factory running? I doubt it. Make more sense to rely on homegrown technology, even if its grossly inferior. Having your space program or your military dependent on such an undependable supply chain would be a recipe for disaster. Not that Soviet supply chains

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