Philo's Stories

"NTSB Mosaic"

during and immediately after WWII, the US military hid the massive power consumption of its early computers by using railway power rather than the conventional grid

at the time, electricity was rationed, and a hundred kilowatt load on the public grid for a secret purpose would have been impossible to justify or keep secret

as the strategic importance of computers grew, military leaders became convinced that a Soviet attack would target them, just as they targeted Soviet computing centers

they solved this by returning to their old friend, the railroads, and building computers into railway cars that could be constantly in motion and thus impossible to target with bombs

years later, the NTSB was eager to have their own supercomputer after a scandal in 1989 in which Boeing executives had intentionally blocked investigations into the mid-air disintegration of a newly-released aircraft by taking months to provide the agency with simulation results

after receiving funding paid for by the fine imposed on Boeing, the agency wasted no time in establishing a supercomputing lab with ex-DoE equipment

as one of the few users of supercomputers not handling classified data or trade secrets and with generous funding for anything that could potentially be useful in an investigation, the NTSB developed and distributed a wide variety of software, including a hypertext browser

on a rainy day, an engineer grabs onto the railing of a slowly accelerating caboose and swings aboard
the caboose ends a 4-car investigation train with 2-car computer consist on its way to the scene of a plane crash in Ohio

she takes a big step over the caboose's coupler and into a strangely quiet railcar
standing in front of a control panel that still has the DoE logo from the car's past career, she pulls a key from a pocket of her NTSB windbreaker and jams it into a slot marked "UP PANTOGRAPH"

this particular computer car had been built in the 1970s for the Atomic Energy Commission to simulate nuclear explosions, heavily upgraded in the 80s with Star Wars funding, and then handed off to the NTSB when it finally outlived its usefulness for nuclear secrets

with only a few sparks, a pantograph rises from the roof of the computer car, pulling power from Conrail's ample supply to power megaflops of computation

fans cooling the computers in the car whir to life with jet engine-like sound, and Emily Jacobs, Supercomputer Engineer II at the National Transportation Safety Board retreats to the relative quiet of the caboose

the go team in the field has already faxed over some preliminary details, so she gets to work persuading the somewhat cantankerous supercomputer to simulate what might have happened in the Ohio skies

unsure of some details about the airplane involved in the incident, she opens NTSB Mosaic and consults the agency's hypertext documentation library
triumphant, she hits enter to start the simulation, only to watch it immediately fail

only slightly deterred by her failure, she tries again, and soon the computer cars are churning through dozens of possible scenarios
she leans back and watches America slide past her as she hopes that the impending frantic adjustment of simulations goes by quickly


This story was inspired by this tweet from @caraesten: