Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik

Tom’s column speaks of China and India, but just one word — Sputnik — reminds us of Russia’s key role in creating the internet, as well as much of the open-source we use every day.

Tom’s column, written while he is in Shanghai, says he has “come to visit the country that’s most likely to shape U.S. politics in 2008: China.”

Several parts apply directly to open-source. For example, Tom quotes a Singapore educator who say that right now Asia is “the most optimistic place in the world,” and then goes on to say more people in Asia than anywhere else “wake up every day morning sure that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.”

There’s another group that wakes up with equal or greater optimism, the open-source developers who create open-source code as well as the millions of folks that make use of it every day. These folks can be found not just in Asia, but across the entire globe.

That’s because, as I have written earlier, open-source just keeps getting better … and better … and better, each and every day, as yesterday’s bugs are removed, yesterday’s code becomes more efficient, and as new function is provided that wasn’t even available at dawn the previous day.

Tom worries that the newly-empowered Democrats will seek new protectionist legislation, including “more WallMart bashing.” This is a reminder yet again that all too many people spend all to much time having a bash bashing something, as I noted in recent posts about “having a bash bashing Microsoft,” and “having a bash bashing homosexuals.” Most “bashing” is negative, directed against some group, and usually does much more harm than the good. The best kind of “bashing” — the positive kind — occurs whenever a programmer opens up a terminal window and starts using the “bash shell” to bash on open-source code and make it better.

Those who know me might expect I would write more about China, since my mother was born in China, though you wouldn’t guess it from the picture that can be found in the page Wayward’s author. My maternal grandparents were medical missionaries in Szechuan, China, for over twenty of the early years of the 20th century.

I do want to write more about Russia, just because of one word in the title of Tom’s column: Sputnik.

I expect few people under the age of 50 have any idea of the impact on this country, and the consequences that resulted from it, when news arrived on 4 October 1957 that the U.S.S.R had launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. Just a couple of feet across and weighing less than 200 pounds, Sputnik 1 drove a stake into the heart of the belief that the U.S. was comfortably ahead of the U.S.S.R. in technology. I can recall hearing the news — I was then 11 — and I am very aware the consequences, because that little ball flying around the globe had a direct impact on my life, and yours as well.

As a direct consequence of the Sputnik launch, the U.S. took a number of steps in response, primarily in the form of legislation, that have had and continue to have a major impact on our lives. See in addition to the above cited article, Sputnik program; the Space Race that resulted America’s spending billions to become the first nation to land a man on the moon; the Missile gap that was a major reason for John F. Kennedy winning the 1960 Presidential election; the Arms Race that resulted in President Eisenhower’s warning words about the military-industrial complex; the creation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); and, finally, the one closest to my heart, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), passed by Congress in 1958.

The NDEA had affected me in several ways. Let me start with the earliest and then list the others in order.

I studied Russian during my last two years in high-school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960-1961 and 1961-1962. The NDEA authorized the advancement of teaching foreign languages, including the use of innovative techniques. I learned Russian using a then new technique known as the Glastonbury Method, an audio-lingual program created as a direct result of the NDEA. [1] My teacher (I believe here name was Ms. Komarnisky) had been trained in this method, so for the first few months of the course we just talked in Russian. We didn’t get to the alphabet for some time. [2] I had first become interested in Russian a couple of years earlier after taking home from the library one of those “Learn .. is 30 days” record albums. I had found the sounds of Russian so enchanting that I leaped at the chance to take the course and learn more of the language. [3]

The first class began with her saying we would be using a new method. Instead of studying the alphabet and grammar we would learn by speaking entirely in Russian. Then she began by saying, in Russian, “Ya idoo na biblioteka,” or “I am going to the library,” and from there went on use pictures to show that “biblioteka” meant library, “Ya” was “I” and “idoo” was “I go (on foot)”.

The first written sentence didn’t come until some time later, when she read the start of a famous Russian short story by Lermontov, “Taman yest malenki gorodok na beregoo morya” — “Taman is a small town on the Black Sea.”

Though I never became fluent in Russian, my wife and I ventured to Russia on our first trip, in November 1973, to meet many of her Russian relatives.

I used Russian again in a trip to Russian in 1976 to attend a conference, and two trips on behalf of IBM in 2003, both to St. Petersberg.

I learned later that Russian as a foreign language was offered for only one other in New Mexico, so i was fortunate to attend high-school so soon after the passing of the NDEA legislation.

I used NDEA-authorized, low-interest, National Defense Student Loans (NDSL) to help pay my expenses for the last two years of collge. These allowed me to become financially independent at the age of 19, so I no longer had to rely on my single-parent mother to help pay my way. The NDSL program persists today in the form of “Perkins Loans.”

I did some of my first programming At Columbia University in the summer of 1965 while on scholarship participating in a NASA summer program meant to attract students to work in the areas of interest to NASA, perhaps even to come work for them, as part of the “race to the moon” that was a direct result of NDEA.

By the way, it was evident during my first visit to Russia in 1973 that the Soviet Union was so far behind the West that there was no hope it would ever catch up, and that Communists were doomed. For example, aside from military secrets, the most carefully-guarded technology in Russia was the copier, since it could be used to distribute underground manuscripts. During that trip I saw actual examples of “samizdat,” undergound writings creating by using a typewriter and a few sheets of carbon paper to publish a document in edtions of five or so copies at a time. Much slower than the copier, but still good enough to spread the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. For example, the most precious gift I took was a calculator made by HP that was literally worth more than its weight in gold. Western clothing, especially jeans, was almost as valuable. One of the oddest aspects of the culture was the total fascination with Western rock music; every public restaurant had it going. Some of the pieces were even then a bit dated, and it was jarring to hear a Bob Dylan song sung in Russian by someone who had no idea what the words meant.

These observations were later confirmed by others. Hank Warren, an IBMer who spent some time at Courant working on the SETL project, reported that IBM had been approached by the Soviet government in the early 70’s to investigate the feasability of creating a national airlines reservation system. After some study IBM declined, saying the phone system was so unreliable that it made no sense to pursue the project. For a year or so in the late 1970’s I shared an office with a recent emigre from the U.S.S.R who had worked in a military laboratory. His departure was delayed by several years because he was Jewish and had worked in a military laboratory. He estimated that about 40-60 percent of Russian’s GDP went to the military.

It’s also notable that the key idea that resulted in stealth technology was the work of a Russian mathematician, but the importance of the idea was first realized the scientists in Lockheed’s famous “skunk works,” as noted in one of the earlier postings in this blog, the letter of thanks to Lockheed’s current CEO.

But the action that perhaps had the most impact on all of us was the creation of DARPA. The ancestor of today’s internet was the ARPAnet — funded by DARPA. All messages are to this day sent in packets not because it is more efficient but because the ARPANnet was created to see if was possible to build a distributed command and control system that could survive a thermonuclear attack on parts of it. Messages were broken up to avoid reliance on a central switch, as that switch might be vaporized at the time the switch was needed most.

The variant of Unix known as BSD, which included the first versions of much of the code to support networking, was funded by DARPA.

Though unintended, in a way we owe a debt of gratitute to the old Communist Soviet Union because their launching of that sphere into space helped create the internet that we all use today — the one I am using to write this post and the one you are using to read iy.

The NDEA and the Civil Rights Act of 1963 are perhaps most notable in that they remind us there was a time when our politicians and legislators in Washington actually concerned themselves with the nation’s business, not just winning the next election. It is to be hoped that the new crop of legislators understand the charge the voters have given them.

The current election demonstrates the impact of another notable piece of legislation. Though Lyndon Johnson is among the most tragic of the American Presidents, due to his handling of the war in Vietnam — a war which was not started on his watch — he will most be remembered for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . Given the climate at that time only a President from the South and with Johnson’s political skills could have pushed that bill through Congress.

Johnson knew of the importance of the bill, and he also knew of its consequences. As noted in the wikipedia article:

The bill divided and engendered a long-term change in the demographics of both political parties. President Johnson realized that supporting this bill would mean losing the South’s overwhelming support of the Democratic Party. Legend has it that he remarked after signing the Act, “We have lost the South for a generation.”

Johnson’s prediction was proven true in the ensuing years, resulting in the Republicans taking over the House in 1992.


1. Wikipedia, which is written using an open-source program called MediaWiki in the same process of collaboration that characterizes open-source devopment, gets better and better every day as a consequence, but the entry for “Glastonbury Method” has yet been written.

2. The Russian alphabet is named Cyrillic, in honor of its developes, St. Cyril and St. Methodius. It’s mostly Latin, with some Greek characters, and a few special characters. The characters have different sounds; for example, the Cyrillic “C.C.C.P,” which stands for “Soyuz Sovetskia Socialilisti Republiki,” is translated into English as “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” or “U.S.S.R.” I knew many of the letters when I first learned the alphabet as I had learned some Greek in reading mathematics.

3. The NY Times reported on Friday that there is a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s Twelth Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend done entirely in Russian. Though unable to attend, I most recently heard Russian in New York while in Forest Hills, Queens, a couple of months ago. While walking briefly along a section of Queens Blvd. I heard more words spoken in Russian than in English. I also heard Russian often when in Israel.

Russian is easier to learn than English because it is entirely phonetic. If you can pronounce a word properly then you know how to spell it, and vice versa. It’s worth noting that one word for computer, “EVM”, for “electronichishkee visichilchitnesee machina,” or “electronic number machine,” is similar in sound and written form to “IBM.”


3 Trackbacks

  1. […] Click for complete article […]

  2. […] I hope that I did. I studied Russian for two years in High School, as I I have described in my post Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik, so I expect Jack would have introduced […]

  3. By Google Optimization « The Wayward Word Press on March 16, 2009 at 10:53

    […] Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik. Though Lyndon Johnson is among the most tragic of the American Presidents, due to his handling of the war in Vietnam — a war which was not started on his watch — he will most be remembered for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . […]

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