×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Looking Back at 1984 Report On "Radical Computing"

timothy posted more than 3 years ago | from the remote-viewing-next-big-thing dept.

Space 183

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?"

cancel ×
This is a preview of your comment

No Comment Title Entered

Anonymous Coward 1 minute ago

No Comment Entered

183 comments

In Soviet Russia... (3, Funny)

bobdotorg (598873) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969592)

Umm. Crap.

I've got nothing.

Re:In Soviet Russia... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969628)

In soviet russia.. Radicals compute you!

Re:In Soviet Russia... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969632)

instruction set reduces you

Re:In Soviet Russia... (1)

Dekker3D (989692) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969716)

in soviet russia, YOU need more cowbell?

i think i took a wrong turn somewhere..

Re:In Soviet Russia... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969780)

Albuquerque?

Very Large Scales (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969806)

Integrate *You*

Did I say that? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969982)

This is exactly what I was going to post.

Too late to the party this time ...

Or have I developed P.R.S.M.F.P.D. (Psychic Retroactive Slashdot Meme First Posting Disorder) ?

Maybe I did post this. My mind and I have been having some issues with each other lately.

Maybe that post isn't even there and I just think it is.

Then again Slashdot might be a total figment of my imagination. Nah, no-one could be that messed up.

"In Soviet Russia, XYZ statement" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969604)

Being Russian, I always enjoy reading "In Soviet Russia..." jokes on Slashdot

Re:"In Soviet Russia, XYZ statement" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969790)

In free America, we enjoy *you*!

Re:"In Soviet Russia, XYZ statement" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969816)

Thats what she said.

Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (4, Funny)

Valdrax (32670) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969662)

Yeah it's much better to make assumptions and not look into all the possibilities.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (5, Interesting)

AnonymousClown (1788472) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

MarkvW (1037596) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969736)

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. . ..

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (2, Interesting)

McGiraf (196030) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970002)

This was deliberate misinformation by the US government, to justify defense spending, wars and a bunch of other stuff. And also, to scare people.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

NNKK (218503) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969772)

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 for their paranoia entirely.

Not quite imagination (4, Informative)

RobinEggs (1453925) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Not quite imagination (1)

Hijacked Public (999535) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969946)

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.

Re:Not quite imagination (1)

MrShaggy (683273) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970016)

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?

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970132)

This was most likely done on purpose. Why? Just follow the money. If Russian have some better capability, that means funding. If Russians don't have it, then that means no funding.

It's all about the money, not about incompetence.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970704)

Funny thing - the "Team B" group that produced much of the most "out there" stuff? You'd recognize some of the names, as they all oddly ended up making the same kind of shit up about Saddam Hussein. Who authorized and funded them? If you said "Donald Rumsfeld", you'd be right...

My favorite fantasy of theirs? They couldn't find any evidence of advanced acoustic submarine detection devices, so rather than acknowledging that the Soviet's didn't *have* such a thing, they proposed that the Soviets had instead invented an *entirely new* way to detect submarines.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

mestar (121800) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970812)

"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.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (3, Interesting)

32771 (906153) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969840)

>... 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.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

Bing Tsher E (943915) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970270)

I'm beginning to think that the computing world became so boring lately mainly because the cold war is over.

The new 'battle fronts' allow for lots of cool new computing projects, though. Unmanned planes, etc. are awesome, not boring.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970212)

Eh? Both of these are trivially stated mathematical theories. "Exotic", only if you are ignorant about your craft.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

Valdrax (32670) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970492)

Eh? Both of these are trivially stated mathematical theories. "Exotic", only if you are ignorant about your craft.

Dig into the article a little more. They are talking about hardware based on residue arithmetic to get around slow hardware speeds by making use of look-up tables that would be impractical with normal binary representation. The problem according to the paper is that this requires you to convert the representation of your numbers before doing a number of common tasks, including comparison, division, and overflow detection.

As for symbolic computing, they basically propose that the Russians might have created a super-optimizing compiler that can simplify complex equations to work "smarter not harder." This is one of those areas where it might be possible the Soviets were ahead of us, but that's really all the paper says. That it was a possibility.

To me, the document reads like a lot of DoD reports on Soviet capabilities have -- an exercise in fantasy and "what-ifs." I mean, the bit about implementing a processor to do the FFT with gaussian arithmetic is really kind of neat, but I'm just seeing an attempt to justify some interesting theoretical research by shaking down the Red scare. The report even states at the very end that it's "unlikely" that the Soviets had made such advances, but the future, man! Gotta worry about the future.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970982)

They are talking about hardware based on residue arithmetic to get around slow hardware speeds by making use of look-up tables that would be impractical with normal binary representation. The problem according to the paper is that this requires you to convert the representation of your numbers before doing a number of common tasks, including comparison, division, and overflow detection.

I didn't need to read the paper to know what they were talking about (but I looked into it and found exactly what I expected: simple number theory to reduce a large space of numbers into a "conceptual" hash table). Look up the "Chinese Remainder Theorem". This is taught to first or second year college students. If I had studied computer science instead of mathematics, I would have known about hash algorithms, in detail, as a college student. (As it happens, I did algorithms analysis later)

As for symbolic computing, they basically propose that the Russians might have created a super-optimizing compiler that can simplify complex equations to work "smarter not harder."

Complex equations? Do you mean "complex programs"? You simplify equations by substitution and domain specific reductions.

In any case, this is the whole point of functional programming. Programs are constructive logical proofs, and vice-versa. If you get that, you will see that these is only one large-scale transformation that can be done to improve proof efficiency without adding extra primitives: the cut. Anything more is domain bound (which can be fair enough, if you don't expect the optimization to work on every program)

The Russians might have been ahead just for realizing the importance of keeping things symbolic, instead of trying to divorce mathematics from computer science. They might have been ahead merely for demanding that their computer scientists study mathematics.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31971200)

These 2 parent posts make many excellent points. too bad I can't mod. This also shows the cultural differences and the diverging approaches, coming from differing goals and means.

Re:Well, that's the Pentagon for you.. (1)

coaxial (28297) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971074)

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

That's the military-industrual complex for you.

Why would Russians (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969622)

...prefer US chips over French fries?

Re:Why would Russians (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969966)

MUUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA !!

I'm french and I can't resist this joke :-)

Anyway I'm sure that they would prefer their local favorite meal instead.

More cynical types... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969636)

The Russians MAY have stolen Einstein's chronosphere and travelled back in time to develop residue arithmetic and symbolic computing, but probably didn't.

Please reword the summary for neutrality.

Re:More cynical types... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970026)

The Russians MAY have stolen Einstein's chronosphere and travelled back in time

This sounds far more credible than the rest of the report... 26 years later we can see that this whole cold war stuff was really stupid.

Eh. (0)

Benfea (1365845) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969696)

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

Re:Eh. (4, Interesting)

PCM2 (4486) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969876)

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.

Re:Eh. (1)

w0mprat (1317953) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969998)

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

Re:Eh. (1)

samkass (174571) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970106)

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.

Re:Eh. (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970208)

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"

Re:Eh. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970384)

Oh Yes, Donald Knuth is a good theorician. Now let him implement his idea in CMOS and see if the result stands in comparison with binary logic-based circuits.

I once tried to integrate logarithmic base numbers in a CPU. Sure, it's very fast for multiplies and other complex computations. But this is dog slow for stupid tasks like... addition ?

The ternary logic and the other fancy theoretic (computer-fiction) ideas of the report remind me of this logarithmic fiasco. There are some sexy advantages but practical limitations for everyday tasks.

Re:Eh. (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970510)

But with ternary logic it seems the practice proved its worth. Setun was apparently significantly cheaper to construct (and used less energy) than binary computers of comparable abilities. It's possible that this would give us more efficient usage of CMOS structures, too...since there's no mention of any clear Setun drawbacks apart from being different from what rest of the world was standardizing on.

And on /., you should know that not always the best tech wins. "Best for given circumstances", maybe; the circumstances itself often are quite twisted though.

Re:Eh. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31971010)

Thank you for your comment, Sznupi, but I have a few remarks, that I may make because I am myself a computer designer. The Setun example was served to me several times in the last decade and the same arguments apply :

1) Just look around you : where does ternary logic live ? in some Russians' fond memory. OK.

Show me where ternary logic can replace things : AFAIK, it is used in *some* multiply hardware, under the name of Booth recoding.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booth%27s_multiplication_algorithm That's all, and it is not always practical : booth computations are a bit faster but recoding is a pain.
http://www.fpga-guru.com/multipli.htm

2) do the maths : Ternary logic values on binary wires :

  - either you use 2 wires to encode 3 values and you lose 1/4 of the coding space (as in any base conversion)

  - either you use the 3-wire 1-hot encoding and... well, you win nothing.

Now imagine you have binary memory : you lose 1/4 of the capacity. You can recode data so you lose less, but the less you lose in space, the slower it runs because it adds complex base-conversion circuits, with all the carry chains and the likes.

Memory in the first Russian ternary computer was certainly magnetic core memory : with the epoch's electronics, it was not difficult to encore magnetic 3 fluxes. But it does not work well in today's very high speed logic, where noise resilience and process variations can kill electric margins.

Conclusion : we live in a binary world, it's not by mistake.

Now if some electronic circuit worked WELL in ternary, it would not be enough : it would have to work WAY BETTER than today's binary circuits to even consider acceptation.

Don't get me wrong : I respect Russians a lot. But we all make mistakes and invent our little prides... All engineers have their failures... It's part of our learning. It is a greater failure to not learn from our mistakes.

Ternary computations were a "local minimum" for a given time and technology. And I don't regret the time when the US's supercomputers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CDC_6600) used 60-bit words and 6-bit bytes. The next generations of Cray designs went to 64-bits wide registers and 8-bit bytes, and they even adopted (reluctantly) IEEE Floating point numbers. This proves that even when technical merit is stellar, it is useless (and even laughable) if it can't interface to the other computers. Adapt or die bragging.

Re:Eh. (1, Interesting)

NNKK (218503) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971134)

1) Just look around you : where does ternary logic live ? in some Russians' fond memory. OK.

"If it was a good idea, everybody would already be doing it!"

This horrific fallacy automatically and completely discredits the speaker. You are not a "computer designer" or any other sort of useful human being. You are a pointy-haired boss.

Re:Eh. (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970304)

No. It was not ternary logic but ternary arithmetic. Big difference. It only means that they used 3 digits (0, 1, 2) instead of 2 (0, 1). Heck, Babbage used 10 digit (0-9) arithmetic more than 150 years ago in his analytical engine. Big deal.

Re:Eh. (1)

coaxial (28297) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971104)

But it was equally well known, that ternary logic computers are awkward to build and program, and so not very useful compared to "simple" binary computers.

Re:Eh. (1)

Eudial (590661) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969890)

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.

/. sets new "old news" record (4, Informative)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970248)

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...)

Except that we were using efficient functions too (3, Informative)

gelfling (6534) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969792)

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.

Space hardware (1)

tftp (111690) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969802)

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" :-)

Re:Space hardware (1)

tftp (111690) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969874)

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.

Clones (4, Interesting)

Dynamoo (527749) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969814)

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 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969954)

Actually most, if not all of the PC (as in personal computer) clones were built in Bulgaria. Russians were copying mostly mainframes.

Re:Clones (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970594)

"Copying" is not an appropriate word. Russian mainframes were clones (in vein of few other manufacturers which cloned IBM systems), with quite original hardware.

Re:Clones (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970096)

flying leads.. do you really mean that it was wire wrapped? When I was studying electronics in college, we had to build a computer (no Sparky, not what you mean "I bilt da 'pewter aw by miself" when in fact all you did was assemble pre-built components, no, I went from my own circuit drawings, and bought chips, resistors, capacitors, then wire wrapped the components in a pre-drilled fiberglass board). "Flying leads..." really sounds like leads that can take off by themselves, or a circus act involving either cannonballs or acrobats (or both).

Re:Clones (3, Informative)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970572)

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.

Re:Clones DEC was very popular too (3, Interesting)

garyisabusyguy (732330) | more than 3 years ago | (#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:Clones DEC was very popular too (2, Funny)

coaxial (28297) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971114)

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

That wouldn't happen to be Kremvax would it?

Re:Clones (1)

Tenek (738297) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970910)

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.

Soviet vs. American engineering (5, Interesting)

jpmorgan (517966) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969854)

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:Soviet vs. American engineering (2, Insightful)

wiredlogic (135348) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969910)

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.

Re:Soviet vs. American engineering (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970776)

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:Soviet vs. American engineering (2, Interesting)

bertok (226922) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969984)

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:Soviet vs. American engineering (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970186)

Give me a break. Until 15 years ago, most time critical software was written with assembly. Heck, that is true 10 years ago as well. Even now, assembly is used to produce small, fast code although mostly for embedded stuff that doesn't have much space. Remember that assembly is not exactly a difficult language. Very straightforward to code.

As to Soviet computers running 10x slower? I doubt it. They were reverse engineered from the west. That made them *older* hence slower. But Soviets smuggled lots of chips out too, so they had same things the west had for core projects where computational speed may have mattered.

1984 is the time of 8088 machines. So let's keep it in perspective.

Re:Soviet vs. American engineering (2, Interesting)

Nutria (679911) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970342)

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 backs of slide-rules and rooms of women continuously punching tabulator machines.

Re:Soviet vs. American engineering (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970346)

This is one area that countries like China can overtake the developed world. Where our programmers thinks too highly of themselves and their time choose to write bloated code, our competitors can afford to write optimized ones. The end results is that their products could need less resources and make for cheaper hardware.

They are not there yet, but it will happen.

Re:Soviet vs. American engineering (1)

Metrathon (311607) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970896)

I don't think orbit calculations require serious PDE calculations - high quality ODEs (and good data to support your calculation) will solve your problem of calculating trajectories. Fluid dynamics and any material science you want to work on, sure, but the problems concerning the practicalities of where you will be in space does are comparatively low-budge, computationally speaking.

The Soviets really WERE behind, but in other areas (4, Informative)

mbkennel (97636) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Is JASON related to JOSHUA? (1)

clyde_cadiddlehopper (1052112) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969868)

Re:Is JASON related to JOSHUA? (1)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969906)

You joke, but I recently watched that movie again. If you don't count how they finally defeated the AI, it is unquestionably the most realistic depiction of computer hacking in any movie, ever.

Space and Computing (4, Informative)

DynaSoar (714234) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969878)

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.

Re:Space and Computing (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970170)

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.

Don't Modern Spaceflight and ICBMs Use Old CPUs? (1)

Dragoniz3r (992309) | more than 3 years ago | (#31969902)

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?

Re:Don't Modern Spaceflight and ICBMs Use Old CPUs (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970280)

I may be wrong in my recollection but I think I have heard a Russian technician (I once worked a bit with him) telling me that some (?) space and ballistic engines were equiped with mecanical "computers". Highly radiation tolerant things, BTW.

He also told me how, during his military service, his team used the parabolic antenna of a truck-borne radar to capture and cook rabbits for their meals...

However, I have a lot of respect for the Russians. It is always fascinating to discover the logic behind their choices.

Re:Don't Modern Spaceflight and ICBMs Use Old CPUs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970722)

the shuttle uses old CPUs from the 1970s because it was designed in the 70s, eh? and you're not going to change a processor that works, just to be newer

Modern flight processors are things like the Rad750 (a Power PC) and various flavors of SPARC (V7 and V8), as well as a raft of microcontrollers (ColdFire, 8051, MicroBlaze)

And, for FPGAs, Actel and Xilinx are both popular (RTAX2000, Virtex II, Virtex 4)

Re:Don't Modern Spaceflight and ICBMs Use Old CPUs (3, Informative)

demonlapin (527802) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971110)

Not to mention that the Shuttle, and Earth-vicinity spacecraft generally, don't really need much computing power. You have ground-side machines to do the heavy lifting (which isn't all that heavy) and you transmit the plan to the orbiting craft. All it has to do is execute.

isolated ecosystems (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31969962)

as far as technology development is concerned. With non-native introductions quite possible. My car reference is in the shop.

Wait, I heard this one (0, Redundant)

paiute (550198) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970056)

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

Use of residual arithmetic in GPUs? (2, Interesting)

marciot (598356) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Well, actually... (3, Interesting)

Fishbulb (32296) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Well, actually... (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970710)

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.

Great User (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31970198)

Very important notice. Eu Curto Orkut [blogspot.com]

i like this notice because it's really...

Como para fazer, sem que os russos nos forneceu uma prova positiva durante a Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Eles voaram primeiro e fomos ao encontro deles, porque nós tivemos uma pontaria melhor. Nosso pessoal usou um handheld HP 48 para os cálculos e seu relógio foi alimentado pelos sinais do relógio atômico do National Bureau of Standards. Quando chegamos lá, vimos que eles estavam usando, respectivamente, réguas, lápis e papel, e um cronômetro. Mas o nosso ter a melhor tecnologia não impedi-los de chegar lá. E a sua tecnologia que menor não impedi-los com êxito vários participantes no gato-e-rato práticas encontro que se seguiu ao primeiro.

Good!!

Flashback attack (1)

dustin_0099 (877013) | more than 3 years ago | (#31970200)

...government document...
...government document...
...government document...
This page is intentionally left blank.

-- Whoa, the authors of Star Fleet Battles worked for the DoD?!?

Re: (1)

clint999 (1277046) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971024)

For example, Series 587 (and there are many more here . 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.

Monkeys with Slide Rules (1)

flyingfsck (986395) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971072)

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.

Re:Monkeys with Slide Rules (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#31971194)

Americans spent millions to develop a pen that can write in zero gravity while soviets use an old fashion pencil :D The alternative computing is to use a room full of Engineers with minimum IQ 200 :D

I thought the JASONs were smarter than that (2, Insightful)

Animats (122034) | more than 3 years ago | (#31971374)

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.

Load More Comments
Slashdot Account

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Don't worry, we never post anything without your permission.

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>
Sign up for Slashdot Newsletters
Create a Slashdot Account

Loading...