Thinking Machines

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  • JJ 2008-05-13 10:08
    I always thought Thinking Machines were supposed to be really great computers. Guess not.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-13 10:10
    It's a good thing the machines could think, since apparently none of the humans could.
  • my name is missing 2008-05-13 10:13
    I think the machines were smarter than the people.
  • JimM 2008-05-13 10:14
    So, what's the actual WTF here? That the original contributor went to a research lab and expected the projects to have real world relevance? Or that Thinking Machines was apparently trying to be a genuine commercial company rather than just admitting it was a purely research-driven organisation? Or that the government were dumb enough to fund the organisation? Or that the government were dumb enough to pull the plug rather than continue funding Thinking Machines but making it work on its own projects? Or is this one of those posts that isn't meant to lnclude a WTF, and is just an interesting story from real-world IT (or, in the case of Thinking Machines, theoretical-research-world IT!)?

    Whatever it is, it's a nice, if unsurprising, story. I'm ashamed to say that if I'd had that interview, i think I probably would've been a Believer - the chance to work with technology that cool without any real world connections? Show me the money...
  • ratis 2008-05-13 10:15
    (print "Who in their right mind would use LISP?")
  • NaN 2008-05-13 10:17
    So, this is how the Butlerian Jihad started.
  • dpm 2008-05-13 10:20
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here? {list}
    None of the above. Clearly, the WTF is the absurd interview procedure.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-13 10:22
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here?
    The fact that the article doesn't give us any of the recipes from the cookbook.
  • ratis 2008-05-13 10:25
    cook book:
    Open box of {name of recipe}, add water to form sloush mixture. Blob on plate and claim it is {name of recipe} to petty employees.
  • SomeCoder 2008-05-13 10:37
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here?...


    Probably all of the above, I'd say.
  • Grovesy 2008-05-13 10:39
    NaN:
    So, this is how the Butlerian Jihad started.


    lol... I was thinking 'where have I heard the term 'thinking machines' before...
  • The Spirit of the Electoral College 2008-05-13 10:43
    It reminds me of Google interview stories.
  • JimM 2008-05-13 10:48
    dpm:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here? {list}
    None of the above. Clearly, the WTF is the absurd interview procedure.
    Actually, if someone asked me for interview and when I got there I was told that I'd get to spend five days talking to existing developers, eating my lunch in their gourmet restaurant of a canteen each day, I don't think I'd be thinking "WTF?". Although I'll give you that Having to be approved by all the head developers and the CEO to get a job is a bit of an arse...
  • Some Guy 2008-05-13 10:57
    ... and nothing of value was lost.
  • Rune 2008-05-13 11:03
    Well, I should expect some real world relevance in there, else there would be no research labs whatsoever, cause their duty is to research stuff that can be used in 'the real world'.

    Furthermore, I would decline, I like cool technology, but playing around with cool stuff gets boring after a while when you don't have any appliance for it.

    Picture yourself in a really cool car, a big lambo or something, and you sit there, flashing the lights, honking the horn, perhaps rev up a bit. But then, after 5 minutes or so, you get bored. Without your drivers license it's really no fun at all.
  • CEO of Doom 2008-05-13 11:10
    At first I thought that someone really had an ax to grind with the CEO. Then I found this article:

    While the company was sinking, she focused her attention on putting out a cookbook with recipes from the company's now-infamous cafeteria. Increasingly paranoid, she had a video camera aimed at her personal parking spot and, by some accounts, made people take meetings with her in her parked car. She hired a bodyguard, telling her colleagues that she had received death threats.

    Some members of Thinking Machines' board suddenly seemed to realize that the person who had been running the company all those years had no business skills. The board discussed dumping Handler, but she managed to get her biggest enemies there kicked off.


    -- http://www.inc.com/magazine/19950915/2622_pagen_5.html
  • snoofle 2008-05-13 11:11
    dpm:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here? {list}
    None of the above. Clearly, the WTF is the absurd interview procedure.

    About 20 years ago, I interviewed at ATT/Bell Labs. It involved meeting 16 groups in 3 locations over 2 days; 1 hour with each group. In each group, you'd meet four people for 15 minutes each. Every single person spent the first 13 minutes asking you to essentially verify everything on your resume, and virtually no time seeing if you actually knew anything, and the remaining few seconds walking you to the next office.

    By the end of the second day, I had repeated my life story 64 times and just didn't give a flying f--- any more.

    After all of that, HR asks you which of the 16 positions you want. Then you go home, and they see which, if any, of the 16 groups would like to hire you.

    If the job you picked was offered, you're in. If you didn't pick one of the jobs that were offered (eg: if you picked # 1 (not offered) but 2-15 were offered), you're out.

    Somehow, I think I dodged a bullet on that one...
  • vlad 2008-05-13 11:18
    This would be a massively-parallel interview process, no?
  • Doc Monster 2008-05-13 11:21
    Reminds me of the saga of Systems Concepts and the Mars project, as told in the Jargon File:

    http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/M/Mars.html

    Particularly the epilogue: If you want to play in the Real World, learn Real World moves.
  • NeoMojo 2008-05-13 11:36
    vlad:
    This would be a massively-parallel interview process, no?
    only if they were interviewing 25 candidates at once.

    As it reads, this would be a extensively thorough, serial interview process.

    I'd be interested to know the motivations of the developers, if it wasn't for Science or Business. Maybe it's for religious reasons, or for candy.
  • Anonymous Scheme weenie, thinking of registering... 2008-05-13 11:42
    NeoMojo:
    vlad:
    This would be a massively-parallel interview process, no?
    only if they were interviewing 25 candidates at once.


    Beat me to it. As it is, this sounds more like a cult-of-groupthink recruitment and less like a job hire. The Bell Labs one, a few comments back, sounds like an actual job hiring system with a terribly cargo-cult interview process.
  • Ozz 2008-05-13 11:43
    Rune:

    Picture yourself in a really cool car, a big lambo or something, and you sit there, flashing the lights, honking the horn, perhaps rev up a bit. But then, after 5 minutes or so, you get bored. Without your drivers license it's really no fun at all.

    But that's when the fun REALLY starts. Without your drivers license you have nothing to lose #;-D
  • Air Hadoken 2008-05-13 11:44
    Anonymous Scheme weenie...:
    As it is, this sounds more like a cult-of-groupthink recruitment...


    1. Forgot to log in.
    2. I meant that the WTF sounds like a cult-of-groupthink recruitment, not the GP comment.
  • David C. 2008-05-13 11:46
    Sounds more like they're running a cult than a computer company.

    I've worked at startups where everybody wants to interview everybody, and where there isn't a very good business plan, but when the primary focus of the interview is to impress the candidate with existing products instead of trying to determine if he has useful skills, then something very screwy is obviously going on.

    Of course, given the fact that the CEO was a paranoid lunatic (and probably in need of psychiatric treatment), this doesn't surprise me much.
  • shadowman 2008-05-13 11:46
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here? That the original contributor went to a research lab and expected the projects to have real world relevance? Or that Thinking Machines was apparently trying to be a genuine commercial company rather than just admitting it was a purely research-driven organisation? Or that the government were dumb enough to fund the organisation? Or that the government were dumb enough to pull the plug rather than continue funding Thinking Machines but making it work on its own projects? Or is this one of those posts that isn't meant to lnclude a WTF, and is just an interesting story from real-world IT (or, in the case of Thinking Machines, theoretical-research-world IT!)?

    Whatever it is, it's a nice, if unsurprising, story. I'm ashamed to say that if I'd had that interview, i think I probably would've been a Believer - the chance to work with technology that cool without any real world connections? Show me the money...


    Except that Thinking Machines really wasn't a research lab-- it was a real company laughingly trying to make money while everyone treated it like a university research lab. Sure, I'd jump at an opportunity like that too, but it sounds like the well dried up pretty quickly for them. So in retrospect, fleeing was a good move for Andrew G.

    But I agree that the real wtf was the interview process. How did they ever manage to hire anyone?
  • Soviut 2008-05-13 11:47
    FredSaw:
    It's a good thing the machines could think, since apparently none of the humans could.


    I just had a funny mental image of a bunch of inept goof-offs sadly unplugging a self-aware super computer "when the bubble burst". "Sorry CONMACH, we have to put you down"
  • i wanted some 2008-05-13 11:49
    I was involved in some theoretical physics research at the time.

    We could have really made use of some hardware from Thinking Machines but could never get the funding to afford it.
  • NSCoder 2008-05-13 11:52
    Rune:
    Well, I should expect some real world relevance in there, else there would be no research labs whatsoever, cause their duty is to research stuff that can be used in 'the real world'.
    Some labs have the duty of satisfying our curiosity (which only kills the cat if you're curious enough to open the box.) The fact that they happen to invent useful things along the way is a bonus. It's called basic research. Of course, you need money from Daddy, and it's nice if your daddy isn't a military agency.

    Rune:
    Picture yourself in a really cool car, a big lambo or something, and you sit there, flashing the lights, honking the horn, perhaps rev up a bit. But then, after 5 minutes or so, you get bored. Without your drivers license it's really no fun at all.

    Some people would find it fun to whiz around a race track really really fast (but much slower than the speed of light) and winning trophies, even if they were prohibited from using the car to actually get anywhere.
  • Captaffy 2008-05-13 11:52
    Who on earth would go back for a second day of interviews upon learning about their hiring process? Did anyone actually get hired at this company?
  • Anonymous 2008-05-13 11:52
    dpm:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here? {list}
    None of the above. Clearly, the WTF is the absurd interview procedure.

    I had an interview with UPS a year ago. I had applied for an IT position. I talked to about 3 people for 30 mins each, the first 2 people seemed flustered when I went on about my experience with computers and programming, etc, but didn't say anything about why. The last interviewer was nice enough to stop me and tell me that they were looking to fill a management position. I BS'd that software engineering skills can apply to management, but I was happy to leave that interview. What can brown do for you? Well, they can't match up resumes to positions.
  • Jim 2008-05-13 11:53
    Being at a school in the Boston/Cambridge area, I can add that a Thinking Machine was a large black cube covered with red blinky lights/LEDs evenly spread over each of the four sides. It was an nice thing to look at. About 8 x 8 x 8 feet square. The front-end machines on the one I knew of were a Sun Microsystems 4/280 running Sun/OS and some DEC model running Ultrix. Both were in standard 19-inch racks. Biology related scientists used it.
  • alegr 2008-05-13 11:56
    NSCoder:
    Of course, you need money from Daddy, and it's nice if your daddy isn't a military agency.


    Most of the time it's DoD-dy who's paying.
  • Andrew 2008-05-13 11:57
    ratis:
    (print "Who in their right mind would use LISP?")


    LISP can be executed in parallel very easily. There are often independent sub-expressions to hand-off to separate processors.

    For example, an AI "knowledge tree" (written in LISP or Prolog) spans several competing goals. The "first goal" is (probably) the simplest computation. A parallel system can try each goal simutaneously, and return the first goal to succeed.

    The vector "dot product" is another good parallel example. For vectors a & b, a "dot" b = SUM(a[k]*b[k]). Each product term can happen at the same time.
    a = (1 4)
    b = (2 5)

    LISP: (+ (* 1 2) (* 4 5))
    CPU1: (* 1 2) => 2
    CPU2: (* 4 5) => 20
    CPU3: (+ 2 20) => 22

    Of course, modern Fortan has the "dot product" vector function built-in. On multi-core hardware, Fortan should run in parallel with no code changes.
  • Steve-o 2008-05-13 12:01
    It is my understanding that, as part of the agreement, the administration sold off the assets to recoup a portion of the losses. Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name. Brilliant!
  • Just Some Guy 2008-05-13 12:12
    Captaffy:
    Who on earth would go back for a second day of interviews upon learning about their hiring process? Did anyone actually get hired at this company?


    I guess that depends on how badly you want to work on one of the coolest pieces of computing hardware in the world at that time. If it's your dream job to crank out business logic, then no, you probably wouldn't go back for the second day.
  • akatherder 2008-05-13 12:24
    Rune:

    Picture yourself in a really cool car, a big lambo or something, and you sit there, flashing the lights, honking the horn, perhaps rev up a bit. But then, after 5 minutes or so, you get bored. Without your drivers license it's really no fun at all.


    Actually it would be more like driving a Lambo around on a race track all day long, going as fast as you want and driving however you want to. Except the chicks couldn't see you. No, the chicks could not see.
  • Anon Fred 2008-05-13 12:25
    David C.:
    Of course, given the fact that the CEO was a paranoid lunatic (and probably in need of psychiatric treatment), this doesn't surprise me much.

    How often did Sheryl threaten to quit?
  • Captaffy 2008-05-13 12:30
    A smart person would have to want it pretty badly in order to look past the fact that they basically have no chance of getting the job.
  • Saaid 2008-05-13 12:32
    vlad:
    This would be a massively-parallel interview process, no?


    Massively-Serial. They were held one at a time, one on one.
  • Steve 2008-05-13 12:33
    Okay, a lot of that interview story was pretty boguscomputing. The interviewee probably was lucky that he didn't get the job. He definitely would have been a square peg in the canonical round hole.

    I'd've dug working there immensely. My recollection of the mid to late 1980s was that it was an exciting time to be in computing.

    People were trying new things, often totally off the wall, wacky things, with respect to architecture and (gasp!!) operating systems (anyone remember Very Long Instruction Word architectures?).

    A lot of it didn't work, didn't work well, or solved non-existent problems, but still, it was a whole load of fun to get to play in and with all sorts of bizarre environments.

    I worked briefly at NASA Ames Research Center where we had a 8K node CM-1 and I know that some interesting and perhaps useful work was done on it. I recall attending a two-day conference on the CM where all sorts of applications, both computer science theoretical and real world, were discussed.

    Yes, the CM-1 was rather limited in the languages you could use (I believe that in addition to *Lisp or "StarLisp", there might have been an experimental C language -- I seem to recall talking to someone about it from TMC) but it was a visionary architecture and the contortions one would have to go through to map FORTRAN onto it would have been remarkable.

    The later systems, starting with the CM-2, by the way, did have floating point units, though they were Weitek "strap ons".

    I'm only sorry that I didn't get to play more on the machine than the brief introduction I had.

    Beats the hell out of the Windows/*NIX/Mac world in which we're living today.
  • Mumbly Joe 2008-05-13 12:35
    If my memory is correct, the CM-5 could most certainly run FORTRAN programs. The only other language I remember was C* (C-star) which was like a parallel version of C.
  • Anon 2008-05-13 12:36
    So did they actually tell the candidate before hand that the interview process would (or at least could) last 2 days? The article seemed to suggest that they hadn't. What if you had something else to do the next day?

    "Oh we'd like you to come back tomorrow for more interviews"

    "Sorry I can't, it's my mothers funeral"

    Very inconsiderate.
  • Chris 2008-05-13 12:39
    Yes, there was a C dialect that ran on the CM's - C*. I've worked with the team that developed it, and its actually an interesting, if cumbersome way of dealing with the matrix computing problem.
  • Paul Steckler 2008-05-13 12:40
    In grad school, I took a parallel programming course
    where we used a Thinking Machines CM2. My course
    project was written in C*.

    I used one of their visualization packages to display
    results and, as I recall, I found a bug in the
    line-drawing primitive (or something like it).

    -- Paul
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-13 12:41
    I was a system operator at a site that had a Thinking Machines CM-2 followed by a large CM-5.

    These systems did not have any interactive login nodes. So, you had to submit jobs to it using HP 9000 HP-UX hosts as a front end. (Neat mice had two wheels under them instead of a ball or laser.)

    The CM-5 had 896 air-cooled Sparc CPUs inside, partitioned into 4 system images. Each image would run a single job at a time. So the job submitter had to decide whether they needed 64, 256 or 512 CPUs for their MPP program.

    The heat sinks on each CPU were fanless and cylinder shaped, each fin being a disc above the other. There were large fans at the top of the cabinets. There were 7 cabinets in all, each 7 feet tall, arranged in a zigzag pattern in groups of 4 and 3 with a data bridge connecting them at the top.

    I would walk between the cabinets with the data center lights off. At the time it felt very ST:NG. The fan hum and thousands of blinken-lights made it a very cool experience. The lights were connected to the system boards and effectively showed activity. They also showed status codes when the system was in diagnostic mode. Mostly, they were there to look cool.

    The system was owned by a Darpa organization and eventually replaced by a Cray T3E. It stayed busy with a good sized research staff feeding it long running jobs every day. We had 3 full time Thinking Machines engineers on site to keep it running. They performed hardware fixes, software upgrades and provided system support services.

    After the company folded, the CM-5 engineers became employees of a new company that took over the TMC support contracts. It was a sad day when we finally turned the system off. The floor space remained open for many years, but not in memorium. All of our new, larger Cray systems were liquid cooled and therefore took less space.

    And hey, what's wrong with Lisp?
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-13 12:47
    Jim is right. It was not an HP front end, it had a Digital (DEC) front end Unix system running DG-UX. Jim's physical description was of the older CM-2 hardware, which was a black cube.
  • real_aardvark 2008-05-13 12:47
    David C.:
    Sounds more like they're running a cult than a computer company.

    I've worked at startups where everybody wants to interview everybody, and where there isn't a very good business plan, but when the primary focus of the interview is to impress the candidate with existing products instead of trying to determine if he has useful skills, then something very screwy is obviously going on.

    Of course, given the fact that the CEO was a paranoid lunatic (and probably in need of psychiatric treatment), this doesn't surprise me much.
    I've always enjoyed reading stories about Thinking Machines (and btw, Fortran would be a pretty bloody stupid choice for a machine targeted at the AI market. And every dialect of Lisp is "specialized." At least it wasn't Prolog).

    The interesting thing about Shirley, to me, is not that she might have been a hopelessly incompetent and under-qualified and paranoid lunatic -- note to any lawyers out there: I said might have been -- but that the DoD went ahead and splurged tens of millions anyway.

    Does this reflect even more poorly on the competition?

    Does it mean that the DoD only funds gibbering inadequates?

    How palpably insane do you have to be in order for the DoD to turn your application down? Would you have to pull a gun on ... no, wait a minute, that would be an instant "Funding approved," wouldn't it?

  • John 2008-05-13 12:51
    I read something about this company some time ago -- if I remember correctly it was started by a couple of grad students and they actually ended up employing Richard Feynman.

    Yes, here it is; pretty interesting read. [url]http://www.longnow.org/views/essays/articles/ArtFeynman.php[url
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-13 12:54
    Steve-o:
    Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name.


    I don't see how that is possible as either accurate history or even as a bad joke. Thinking Machines had nothing to do with commodoty PCs or even Intel x86 architecture. Brilliant!
  • http://jobs.thinkaloud.in 2008-05-13 12:56
    Rise and Fall of Thinking Machines is a WTF. I understood.______. :|
  • http://jobs.thinkaloud.in 2008-05-13 12:58
    So this Thinking Machine came outta a fairy tale ? Is this what J K Rowling wrote first ?
  • Anon. 2008-05-13 13:02
    Why the interviews aren't run in parallel?
  • newfweiler 2008-05-13 13:06
    WOPR in War Games was a Connection Machine too, wasn't it?

    Someone once told me that he and his colleagues at Thinking Machines actually came up with a use for their computer. They loaded the entire Wall Street Journal news archive into it. Text searches came up instantly. "We always get the right answer for the daily WSJ trivia quiz."

    Unfortunately, Alta Vista, Google and others figured out how to do the same thing on inexpensive standard computers.
  • Captaffy 2008-05-13 13:08
    Anon:
    So did they actually tell the candidate before hand that the interview process would (or at least could) last 2 days? The article seemed to suggest that they hadn't. What if you had something else to do the next day?


    Seems like their interview process would actually take at least five days. Five interviews a day, and you have to be interviewed by the entire development staff of 25, plus the CEO.
  • Jim 2008-05-13 13:09
    It's just not true that it didn't support any language but LISP. As a grad student I programmed one in C* (a parallelized version of C). The project was about light scattering through ice crystals.
  • Jim 2008-05-13 13:13
    Replying to myself, I see other's have commented on the C* support. (Why does the blog drop you into page 2 of the comments?)
  • NE 2008-05-13 13:19
    It sounds a lot like a recent article I read about google actually:
    http://money.cnn.com/2008/05/09/technology/where_does_google_go.fortune/

    Except google is making money hand over fist, and can turn some of it's zanny ideas into money making technologies.
  • KG 2008-05-13 13:20
    I think I would have loved to work at a company like that. It sounds like true computer science was occurring there, rather than this strictly business-oriented, dilbertesque, enterprisy wtf that most IT organizations are today.
  • jpers36 2008-05-13 13:22
    End note: After the bankruptcy of Thinking Machines, some of these guys evidently did end up asking themselves the question, "What's the business use of parallel computing?" I'm a developer in a 4GL called Ab Initio, which basically uses parallelism in a big information / data warehousing setting. The Ab Initio suite is the sole product of Ab Initio Software Corporation, which was founded by Sheryl Handler and various other former employees of TM. I don't know who slapped those guys upside the head with the compentency stick, but AI is an excellent tool, even if it has its own WTF or two.

    Addendum (2008-05-13 13:29):
    Dang -- "competency". I guess I'm the one that needs to be slapped.
  • Salvador G. Jr. 2008-05-13 13:27
    The real wtf is that the picture caption says "Connection Machines." Isn't it supposed to be "Thinking Machines?"
  • jpers36 2008-05-13 13:28
    Oh, and the interesting work environment still applies, I hear. Interviews are still very involved in order to determine whether a potential applicant "meshes with the company culture". Their IP protection is extremely secretive, and their PR strategy is counter-intuitive. But again, their software is excellent.
  • Steve 2008-05-13 13:28
    Following up on my own comment above, a couple of things occurred to me while I was walking across the parking lot to grab a snack just a few minutes ago.

    While, as I said, there were probably a few haphazard things about the interview process, it struck me that most of the interviews I've been on since I've been in the research business have been similar; that is, the scientists and true hackers usually talk about their research projects.

    The whole notion, other than probably a bit of egotism crossed with a moderate lack of social skills, is to draw you out about your interests and spark a discussion of the science involved. If you just sit there expecting a cross-examination, then you're going to be disappointed because scientists just don't work that way -- at least the ones I've been privileged to work beside.

    They probably don't care too much about the programming languages you know or the database systems you've worked on -- they assume that you can pick up whatever you need along the way, more or less the way that they have, and they're more interested in someone with an active and inquiring mind rather than a particular skill set.

    One of the telling moments in the story was the incredulousness of the interviewee regarding the hacked soft drink machine, as if this was an egregious waste of company time. Maybe it was, but you have to remember that the hackers at TMC were true hackers (not what the media have perverted the word into) -- they loved computing and computers and technology and what you could do with it. They probably worked 80 hours a week not because some boss told them that they had to work mandatory overtime but because it was fun. It was probably a weekend hack.

    It's completely different from the standard corporate mindset.

    Which is not to necessarily criticize the corporate mindset per se. We need both the process, product-oriented mind and the more scatterbrained, will-of-the-wisp scientist/hacker mind -- they complement and enhance one another.

    I happen to love being in research, if for no other reason than I get to screw off in the middle of the day writing blog comments and nobody's going to say "boo" to me, but mostly because when I get off the shuttle bus every morning I look around myself and realize that I have a rare privilege to work with some of the smartest people in the world on crazy projects that may or may not produce a result but always produce new ideas to try next and they pay me to top it all off.
  • klutometis 2008-05-13 13:36
    Rune:
    Well, I should expect some real world relevance in there, else there would be no research labs whatsoever, cause their duty is to research stuff that can be used in 'the real world'.
    Patently false; you short-sighted cats don't know the joy of non-saecular DARPA projects before 9/11: the whole point was being bereft of the market's impious quarterly demands.

    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.
  • Farmie 2008-05-13 13:45
    real_aardvark:
    How palpably insane do you have to be in order for the DoD to turn your application down? Would you have to pull a gun on ... no, wait a minute, that would be an instant "Funding approved," wouldn't it?

    No, for instant "Funding approved", you have to pull plans for a gun on them, and threaten them with the prospect of its future existence.
  • Tyler 2008-05-13 13:54
    So what happened to the big blinky-light server? It seems like, even with its monolingual capabilities, someone could find a good use for it?
  • Salami 2008-05-13 13:59
    klutometis:


    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.


    Like what?
  • A. Cube 2008-05-13 14:03
    How did they ever manage to hire anyone?


    Well, the fewer employees there were at the time of the candidate's interview(s), the fewer people had to approve and the easier it would be to pass. :) Seriously, though, it sounds like hiring new talent was the least of their problems, as it would avail them little of they were incapable of selling it--and it sure sounds like they were.
  • Farmie 2008-05-13 14:04
    Salami:
    klutometis:
    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.
    Like what?

    Like thinking outside the box is too scary, a better solution is to come up with a new box and think inside of that.
    Now if you're looking for a concrete example, you've obviously missed the point of research funding.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-13 14:05
    Salami:
    klutometis:
    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.
    Like what?
    Big bang?
  • Steve-o 2008-05-13 14:14
    CoderDevo:

    Steve-o:

    Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name.

    I don't see how that is possible as either accurate history or even as a bad joke. Thinking Machines had nothing to do with commodoty PCs or even Intel x86 architecture. Brilliant!


    I'm sorry, I didn't catch your title... was it official historian or humor cop? Constipated!
  • Steve Dekorte 2008-05-13 14:16
    They could do floating point ops and they did have a FORTRAN for it - FORTRAN 90, which was quite nice. The problem I found with using the machine was the same problem all supercomputers had - timesharing. Workstations had gotten pretty fast and it was often faster to run a job on a personal workstation than to wait for a batch job to run on a supercomputer - particularly when debugging.
  • Zygo 2008-05-13 14:22
    It does seem ironic to me that this candidate asked everyone he interviewed with about business applications for technology, but doesn't notice the Coke machine.

    Hello? Point of sale operations? Database systems? Enterprise networking? Business processes? That Coke machine screams "business applications for technology."
  • Zygo 2008-05-13 14:24
    I'm kind of wondering what their firing process is like.

    If it's anything like their hiring process, all it would take is one wanker who always votes "no" to bring HR to a dead halt.
  • Saladin 2008-05-13 14:32
    The real WTF is that they make their developers pay for SODA out of pocket.
  • Manic Mailman 2008-05-13 14:41
    Saladin:
    The real WTF is that they make their developers pay for SODA out of pocket.


    Best "real WTF" I've seen in a long time...
  • Anon Fred 2008-05-13 14:48
    Saladin:
    The real WTF is that they make their developers pay for SODA out of pocket.

    My boss has always paid for my SODA licenses.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service-Oriented_Development_of_Applications

  • Sejanus 2008-05-13 15:09
    Steve-o:
    It is my understanding that, as part of the agreement, the administration sold off the assets to recoup a portion of the losses. Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name. Brilliant!


    Wait, what? I call bullshit.
  • Someone You Know 2008-05-13 15:18
    CoderDevo:
    Steve-o:
    Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name.


    I don't see how that is possible as either accurate history or even as a bad joke. Thinking Machines had nothing to do with commodoty PCs or even Intel x86 architecture. Brilliant!


    Surely you mean "Brillant".
  • biziclop 2008-05-13 15:46
    I love these stories. They make my life feel kinda dull.
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-13 15:49
    Salvador G. Jr.:
    The real wtf is that the picture caption says "Connection Machine's." Isn't it supposed to be "Thinking Machines?"


    The company was Thinking Machines, but their product line was called Connection Machine. CM-1, CM-2 and CM-5.
  • lcrl 2008-05-13 15:59
    Maybe the original CM didn't have fortran, but certainly the
    later CM-2 and CM-5 did. I used them. Granted it was a wacky dialect of fortran 90, but it wasn't hard to port.

    Of course a lot of scientific code was written specifically for vector machines like the cray, and sucked badly on a CM, but that's another WTF altogether.
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-13 16:03
    Steve-o:
    CoderDevo:

    Steve-o:

    Those same hardware assets later resurfaced and are now sold under the new "eMachines" brand name.

    I don't see how that is possible as either accurate history or even as a bad joke. Thinking Machines had nothing to do with commodoty PCs or even Intel x86 architecture. Brilliant!


    I'm sorry, I didn't catch your title... was it official historian or humor cop? Constipated!

    Sorry. Yes, self-designated historian here. If you had written humor I wouldn't have responded. I'm no comedian, but I would have given you a pass if you had said,

    After their bankruptcy, Thinking Machine's assets were liquidated and later resurfaced as a Russian botnet.
  • Steve 2008-05-13 16:07
    Steve:

    Beats the hell out of the Windows/*NIX/Mac world in which we're living today.


    No it doesn't. You could run a more powerful computer on the sort of hardware inside the average games console controller these days, so in addition to everyone you could do back on that piece of crap you can do all the funky modern stuff, like realtime 3d games, multi-channel audio, massively multiplayer games with people from around the world etc etc. If you were back then again, and were offered the choice of working on that, or a modern Windows PC you'd have to be some sort of retard to choose the former.
  • brodie 2008-05-13 16:19
    That place sounds like one of the SBC-spinoff Community Cults... err.. Churches
  • UnHolyGuy 2008-05-13 16:32
    The main sin of Thinking Machines was not being an abstract research shop, but was being dishonest about the results of their research. They were pretending that they had an actual product that they were selling, when in fact almost all the sales were government subsidized.

    They cooked their books, pure and simple.

    Also, the paranoia and the insistence on a corporate mono culture are both negatives that in the end discourage creativity and innovation in my mind. You need some dissent to be a healthy organization, you need different kinds of people.

    Just look at the way Ab Initio has failed to capture the ETL market space even though they started with an immense lead over their competition. The one time I tried o buy Ab initio was a combination of a legal engagement on the order of the OJ Simpson trial and applying for a Top Secret security clearance. I think they would have polygraphed me if they could have.
  • fmobus 2008-05-13 16:38
    Andrew:
    ratis:
    (print "Who in their right mind would use LISP?")

    [...]

    The vector "dot product" is another good parallel example. For vectors a & b, a "dot" b = SUM(a[k]*b[k]). Each product term can happen at the same time.
    a = (1 4)
    b = (2 5)

    LISP: (+ (* 1 2) (* 4 5))
    CPU1: (* 1 2) => 2
    CPU2: (* 4 5) => 20
    CPU3: (+ 2 20) => 22

    Of course, modern Fortan has the "dot product" vector function built-in. On multi-core hardware, Fortan should run in parallel with no code changes.


    Your example is wrong. While instruction 1 and 2 can be run in parallel, instruction 3 will have to wait for the first two to complete.

    WRT "no code changes"... at least in C, to use hyper-threading capabilities, at least with OpenMP, one has to use #pragma directives to tell the compiler where exactly he can "paralellize" stuff. Wouldn't that be necessary in fortran too?
  • real_aardvark 2008-05-13 16:50
    jpers36:
    End note: After the bankruptcy of Thinking Machines, some of these guys evidently did end up asking themselves the question, "What's the business use of parallel computing?" I'm a developer in a 4GL called Ab Initio, which basically uses parallelism in a big information / data warehousing setting. The Ab Initio suite is the sole product of Ab Initio Software Corporation, which was founded by Sheryl Handler and various other former employees of TM. I don't know who slapped those guys upside the head with the compentency stick, but AI is an excellent tool, even if it has its own WTF or two.

    Addendum (2008-05-13 13:29):
    Dang -- "competency". I guess I'm the one that needs to be slapped.
    To quote Rowan Atkinson in his pre-Mr Bean days: "My body ... is my tool."
  • JL 2008-05-13 16:50
    FredSaw:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here?
    The fact that the article doesn't give us any of the recipes from the cookbook.
    Which is a pity because, as a company doing cutting-edge AI research, they probably had some revolutionary new recipes for cake.
  • Barf 4eva 2008-05-13 16:51
    Rune:
    Well, I should expect some real world relevance in there, else there would be no research labs whatsoever, cause their duty is to research stuff that can be used in 'the real world'.

    Furthermore, I would decline, I like cool technology, but playing around with cool stuff gets boring after a while when you don't have any appliance for it.

    Picture yourself in a really cool car, a big lambo or something, and you sit there, flashing the lights, honking the horn, perhaps rev up a bit. But then, after 5 minutes or so, you get bored. Without your drivers license it's really no fun at all.


    See, that's when you grow some balls and drive the beast anyways, driver's license be damned.
  • real_aardvark 2008-05-13 16:53
    FredSaw:
    Salami:
    klutometis:
    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.
    Like what?
    Big bang?
    Whatever happened to the Little Bang, incidentally? Not that I'm desperate: I just haappen to like short girls.
  • real_aardvark 2008-05-13 17:00
    fmobus:
    Andrew:
    ratis:
    (print "Who in their right mind would use LISP?")

    [...]

    The vector "dot product" is another good parallel example. For vectors a & b, a "dot" b = SUM(a[k]*b[k]). Each product term can happen at the same time.
    a = (1 4)
    b = (2 5)

    LISP: (+ (* 1 2) (* 4 5))
    CPU1: (* 1 2) => 2
    CPU2: (* 4 5) => 20
    CPU3: (+ 2 20) => 22

    Of course, modern Fortan has the "dot product" vector function built-in. On multi-core hardware, Fortan should run in parallel with no code changes.


    Your example is wrong. While instruction 1 and 2 can be run in parallel, instruction 3 will have to wait for the first two to complete.

    WRT "no code changes"... at least in C, to use hyper-threading capabilities, at least with OpenMP, one has to use #pragma directives to tell the compiler where exactly he can "paralellize" stuff. Wouldn't that be necessary in fortran too?
    Oh Jeez, more "code examples."

    Sit down, kids, and let me tell you a story. This is a story about computer hardware. (Well, actually, it's about the nincompoops who built a company that built the hardware.)

    Actually, I don't need to tell you this story. Read the OP: it may or may not improve your reading comprehension, depending upon how many grey cells you have to bash together.

    What's with this OpenMP crap? Why not bring in Intel's TBB?

    And how many bits are there in a CM-2 register, anyhow?
  • Sigivald 2008-05-13 17:01
    Newf: Given that WarGames came out the year TM was founded, I'd be shocked if WOPR was a CM, since none would have shipped. Plus the internet is silent about such a connection, and that is exactly the sort of useless geek trivia the internet best preserves.

    (The WOPR did have a lot of blinkenlights, but that's not unique to the CM, and the arrangement is radically different, if you look at the pictures)

    Regarding the lack of an FPU:
    http://www.longnow.org/views/essays/articles/ArtFeynman.php

    Evidently Richard Feynman (!) worked with the TM people, and didn't find the lack of dedicated FP or Vector units a limitation, when working with many thousand CPUs, for at least some scientific computation (Quantum Crap Of Some Sort I Won't Pretend To Understand).

    ("According to Feynman's calculations, the Connection Machine, even without any special hardware for floating point arithmetic, would outperform a machine that CalTech was building for doing QCD calculations. From that point on, Richard pushed us more and more toward looking at numerical applications of the machine.")
  • Theresa 2008-05-13 17:08
    Well, that absurd interview procedure was used all over the place in the 1990s. I got my first job after two days of interviews with just about everyone at a successful, money-making company with really utterly cool technology. Severely jet-lagged, I actually fell asleep in the last one.

    Oh, and I stayed for close to ten years.

    The full story is at:

    http://comediehumaine.blogspot.com/2006/04/sleep-makes-you-successful.html
  • dkf 2008-05-13 17:38
    CoderDevo:
    And hey, what's wrong with Lisp?
    What'th wrong with Lithp? It maketh you thound tho thilly, thatth what! After all, can you take a language theriouthly when it has a thyntakth bathed on Eth-Ekthpreththionth?
  • Pope 2008-05-13 17:39
    Salami:
    klutometis:


    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.


    Like what?


    Kama Sutra during compile time. This will bear the fruit that will harvest the next generation of widgets.

    The names Salami and Klutometis automatically sent my mind to this for some reason.
  • Djn 2008-05-13 19:51
    Steve:

    (...)

    People were trying new things, often totally off the wall, wacky things, with respect to architecture and (gasp!!) operating systems (anyone remember Very Long Instruction Word architectures?).


    Oh, it's still kicking around - Itanium is more or less VLIW.
  • ps 2008-05-13 20:02
    CoderDevo:
    (Neat mice had two wheels under them instead of a ball or laser.)


    I'm currently using one of them. Made by Honeywell (keytronic, really) around 15 years ago, still going strong.
  • Steve 2008-05-13 21:21
    Steve:
    Steve:

    Beats the hell out of the Windows/*NIX/Mac world in which we're living today.


    No it doesn't. You could run a more powerful computer on the sort of hardware inside the average games console controller these days, . . .
    You miss my point.

    Sure, the hardware today is much better, faster, cheaper, etc., than it was in the 1980s. That's obvious.

    Yes, an iPod has several orders of magnitude more memory and faster clock cycle than the Cray Y-MP that I programmed back then.

    The point is that there was more diversity in operating systems and a lot of them were much more interesting than Windows, *NIX, or Mac OS X (which is really essentially FreeBSD under the covers, and so is a flavor of *NIX).

    There were a lot of interesting ideas floating around and being tried. Some of them were, indeed, crap, simply different for the sake of being different, and some of them were absolute gems (Symbolics Lisp Machine, anyone?).

    The MFELAB Cray CTSS (Cray Time Sharing System, not to be confused with the MIT CTSS or Compatible Time Sharing System) had a lot of features that I miss today, such as drop files, which essentially contained the entire state of the machine, including I/O, all in one convenient package.

    If you wanted to (and sometimes you did) you could pause the execution of a job, copy the drop file to another completely different machine, and, under certain limited circumstances, restart the job as if nothing had happened.

    And, of course, the MULTICS system had security features and privilege separation which are missing from any "modern" operating system.

    There's no question that the hardware is objectively more powerful today but by its very ubiquity, it's not as interesting. The operating systems? Yawn.
  • Warthog 2008-05-13 22:15
    So, how was anyone supposed to deal with this if they already have a real job?

    First day: "I have a dentist appointment tomorrow, can't come in today."

    Next day: "Uh, I gotta go back to the dentist all day tomorrow too."

    Next, next day: "Um...teeth exploded...gotta go back"

    etc....

    Were they only hiring recent graduates?
  • Kuba 2008-05-13 23:12
    jpers36:
    The Ab Initio suite is the sole product of Ab Initio Software Corporation, which was founded by Sheryl Handler and various other former employees of TM. I don't know who slapped those guys upside the head with the compentency stick, but AI is an excellent tool, even if it has its own WTF or two.


    Oh well, I see that Sheryl's ways stay with her. Ab Initio seems to be a WTF of a company: who the heck offers a software platform that has no publicly viewable documentation to speak of, and is not really available? As in buy online / download a trial / see code samples, etc? If their approach was any good, it'd find lots of use at small businesses too. Lunacy...
  • Ken Jones 2008-05-13 23:29
    I actually worked at Thinking Machines Corporation (TMC) and I have a few comments. To the best of my recollection:

    The communication topologies of the Connection Machines evolved. The CM-1 used a grid, the CM-2 used a hypercube, and the CM-5 used a fat tree.

    We didn't, of course, provide full CM-5s for the set of Jurassic Park; we just provided a few CM-5 front covers. The lights could be programmed to blink in several different patterns. The most widely used pattern was the one produced when the lights were set to "random-and-pleasing mode". The only mode that reflected any aspect of the machine's internal operation was the mode used during boot-up. If an error condition occurred the lights could be used for diagnostics. For all modes except boot-up the lights were controlled by a single cheap dedicated microprocessor that had no connection whatsoever with the rest of the machine, so it was easy to provide Spielberg's crew with stand-alone blinking lights.

    We provided compilers for parallel versions of Lisp, C, Fortran, and PARIS (Parallel Instruction Set). PARIS supported low-level parallel primitives.

    The initial "vision" may have been to someday (in the very distant future) produce a "thinking machine", but our focus wasn't on AI. Our machines were used mainly for scientific computing. The NSA bought several of them too (presumably for code-breaking). I'm not sure where the author of the post came up with the notion that CMs were "pretty much useless for business and scientific purposes" and that they couldn't do floating point calculations. We used dedicated floating point coprocessors to crunched numbers.

    Sheryl Handler went on to found Ab Initio Software Corporation, where she is still the CEO. (Quite an accomplishement for someone referred to as "impressively inept" in the post.) Several thunkos (former TMC employees) joined her in the founding of the company. Sheryl made sure everything we did was aesthetically pleasing and our machines and literature were works of art. Danny Hillis was in charge of the technical aspects of our products.

    Yes, our office was magnificent and yes, a gourmet chef and her entourage came in every day to cook our lunch. The meals were awesome.

    I had six full days of interviews and I thoroughly enjoyed them (and no, I'm not a masochist). If a single person had "black balled" me I wouldn't have been hired. The company we just looking for a certain type of person and they were very careful about who they hired. I just happened to fit right in and I enjoyed every minute of the five years I spent there.

    Hey, the coke machine was cool! It was way ahead of its time. Only in the last few years have companies started to try to sell us toasters, refrigerators, and coffee makers that are hooked up to the internet.

    Uh, I hardly think the downfall of TMC can be attributed to a Wall Street journal article and an embarrassed Bush administration. During the same period of time I also did research at MIT and United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) and they were also hit very hard by the end of the cold war. UTRC's staff shrunk from 1,500 to 500 in a year or two and everyone was told only to focus on projects that could make a profit in two years or less instead of working of strategic projects that looked five or ten years into the future. TMC also made some very bad business decisions.



  • Spartan 2008-05-13 23:50
    Not only did they have no business strategy, they methodically put contraints in place to ensure that noone with a different outlook could get in. Sounds a lot like my current employer.

    My company does occasionally hire developers with sense but potential management must be increasingly vetted ideologically to ensure that they whole-heartedly embrace the status quo before being being considered for promotion. This may not be a problem for management structures that have a shred of competence but before sharing a case where this might not be so bat consider some highlights of the kind of it management I am talking about:

    - In a now legendary and infamous decision in 2002, management decided to hold off on developing for the internet to "wait and see if it sticks around"

    - As late as 2005 it was decided that the best way to implement a massive web application would be with COBOL.

    - When I was hired in 2006 the company's entire public internet presense was a simple set of static html pages with no meaningful info.

    - A single act of vandalism soured this fortune 500 company on wikipedia so that the company's page is regularly removed. It is speculated to be a weekly chore of someone in upper management.

    - Newly hired Computer Science graduates fully vetted in object oriented design are immediately trained in COBOL where they are expected to work for their first couple of years.

    - A 2 week in-house training workshop in java is all that is provided to train programmers whose only experience is decades of COBOL before throwing them into large J2EE web projects. (Wanna see lots of java classes that were written as COBOL modules and then translated? I have.)

    - New silver bullets are vigorously being pursued with the hope of allowing unskilled employees to create web apps without any substantial training.

    - From the project level to the component level, new development almost always starts by copying an existing quagmire which also serves to instruct newly trained developers how to code. As a result, antipatterns accumlate and pile upon each other like geological layers.

    I could go on and on with slighly more moderate WTFs I see on a daily bases but those are the real gems!
  • Andrew Garland 2008-05-14 01:40
    After seeing the comments, I can add some more info to the story. As usual in stories, things are changed and interpreted somewhat in the retelling.

    I had a background in mathematics, business applications, and large-system software development. I understood that Thinking Machines was interested in interviewing me because I might bring some business experience and some practical insights. Clearly, I couldn't bring experience in programming massively parallel computers.

    My interviews were with project managers who were working on applying the Connection Machine to various business areas. I didn't meet a manager who was applying the machine to mathematical areas. Each one described the business application that he was working on, or wanted to work on. Of course, I would ask about various parts of what they were doing. I thought this would show understanding and insight.

    It seemed to me (an unexpressed thought) that massively-parallel was not a good fit for many business areas, because order processing and inventory control didn't seem to need it, given the expense. On the other hand, some types of optimization and search might fit. There was also the problem of how businesses that used COBOL (shudder)would program it.

    My mind was open, and I wanted to understand how they saw this technology being applied. They were in the business, and I was new to it. Along with saying "Yes, that would be great", I asked in each case about what I saw as the possible problems in the "business plan" that came through the description. I expected to be told how the machine actually worked well for the problem area. Instead, I got the cold feeling that this didn't show enough enthusiasm.

    As people have noted, I wasn't so much interested in applying cool technology as in applying a technology well and in a profitable way. The coke machine was a cool application, but to me it showed a lot of free time and a search for something interesting to do. That is not a good sign for a company.

    It is unfortunate that, then and now, companies try to compensate for bad interviewing technique by assigning more interviewers. If everyone in the development staff, or the entire company (!), "likes" the candidate, then at least no one is blamed if the candidate doesn't work out so well. I think that Thinking Machines wanted enthusiasm above all, not someone who would gladly simplify a project in order to make it useful or profitable.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-14 02:32
    Ken Jones:
    The lights could be programmed to blink in several different patterns. The only mode that reflected any aspect of the machine's internal operation was the mode used during boot-up.
    So, they were as useful as the lights on KITT's gas pedal?
    Ken Jones:
    Sheryl made sure everything we did was aesthetically pleasing and our machines and literature were works of art.
    Ah, that explains the need for lights, then. Well, you know, you've gotta keep your priorities straight.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-14 02:36
    Pope:
    Kama Sutra during compile time. This will bear the fruit that will harvest the next generation of widgets.

    The names Salami and Klutometis automatically sent my mind to this for some reason.
    Karma Sutra - finally getting the sex you deserve.
    Kamikaze Sutra: sex to die for.
  • FredSaw 2008-05-14 03:11
    real_aardvark:
    Whatever happened to the Little Bang, incidentally? Not that I'm desperate: I just haappen to like short girls.
    Ha hah! To each his own, my friend; to each his own.

    (click for image)
  • brazzy 2008-05-14 05:03
    Zygo:
    It does seem ironic to me that this candidate asked everyone he interviewed with about business applications for technology, but doesn't notice the Coke machine.

    Hello? Point of sale operations? Database systems? Enterprise networking? Business processes? That Coke machine screams "business applications for technology."

    Except it had nothing whatsoever to do with the company's core operations.
  • brazzy 2008-05-14 05:07
    klutometis:
    Rune:
    Well, I should expect some real world relevance in there, else there would be no research labs whatsoever, cause their duty is to research stuff that can be used in 'the real world'.
    Patently false; you short-sighted cats don't know the joy of non-saecular DARPA projects before 9/11: the whole point was being bereft of the market's impious quarterly demands.

    Focusing on the ten-year horizon gives birth to violently creative, disruptive ideas.

    Except that in this case, it didn't really because they were focusing on neither the short term nor the long term horizon, they were not focussing at all and wasting the technological edge they might have originally had on scientific and economical masturbation.

  • JimM 2008-05-14 06:36
    shadowman:
    JimM:
    ... that Thinking Machines was apparently trying to be a genuine commercial company rather than just admitting it was a purely research-driven organisation?

    Except that Thinking Machines really wasn't a research lab-- it was a real company laughingly trying to make money while everyone treated it like a university research lab.

    You hear that "wooshing" sound? Methinks that was my point going right over your head.
  • real_aardvark 2008-05-14 07:55
    brazzy:
    Except that in this case, it didn't really because they were focusing on neither the short term nor the long term horizon, they were not focussing at all and wasting the technological edge they might have originally had on scientific and economical masturbation.
    "Economical masturbation?" Are we back to the Little Bang again?
  • Shambo 2008-05-14 07:58
    This sounds eerily like the business model of the failed car company Twentieth Century Motor Works in Atlas Shrugged.
  • anonymous 2008-05-14 08:18
    UnHolyGuy:
    I think they would have polygraphed me if they could have.


    How can you be sure they didn't?
  • jeremypnet 2008-05-14 08:31
    A lot of rubbish has been talked on here about why Thinking Machines went bust.

    In reality, it was because of the really badly designed GUI. For instance, the file system (which was similar to the Unix file system tree) was rendered in a sort of 3D view which the user would fly over in slow motion. This made navigating the directory hierarchy very slow and it could be a real problem in safety critical situations such as when trying to find the command to activate the door locks when the velociraptors are trying to get in.

  • Ricardo Bánffy 2008-05-14 08:54
    As a person smarter than me pointed out somewhere else (and didn't post it here), at http://www.ddj.com/java/184406029 you can find a nice interview with Guy L. Steele (among other legendary achievements, one of the creators of Scheme) and how he proved a CM-1 was roughly equivalent in computing power to a Cray 1.

    And the problem with Lisp is not in Lisp. It's in FORTRAN programmers. ;-)

    As for the bizantine hiring process... Well. That's perhaps the only part that deserves a WTF.
  • Ricardo Bá+1nffy 2008-05-14 08:55
    +1 Funny.

    Oh... Wrong website
  • Tim P 2008-05-14 09:33
    One quibble - maybe it's just me, but when you say "Cambridge", I don't automatically complete it ", Massachusetts" - we have another one which has been around rather longer (and is also a major centre of hi-tech companies). It only caused me a moment's double-take (why was DARPA funding a UK company?), but please remember the 40% of your readers outside North America....
  • James 2008-05-14 09:46
    JL:
    FredSaw:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here?
    The fact that the article doesn't give us any of the recipes from the cookbook.
    Which is a pity because, as a company doing cutting-edge AI research, they probably had some revolutionary new recipes for cake.


    It was a triumph. I'm making a note here: huge success.
  • random_garbage 2008-05-14 10:00
    James:
    JL:
    [Which is a pity because, as a company doing cutting-edge AI research, they probably had some revolutionary new recipes for cake.
    It was a triumph. I'm making a note here: huge success.
    THE CAKE IS A LIE!!!
  • k 2008-05-14 11:10
    Wow. I can only assume 'Dave C' is a nom-de-plume and we have worked for the same boss :-). Or gawd help us, there's more than one boss that fits the exact description!
  • notme 2008-05-14 11:51
    vlad:
    This would be a massively-parallel interview process, no?


    except it was serialised after all...
  • operagost 2008-05-14 12:45
    CoderDevo:
    Jim is right. It was not an HP front end, it had a Digital (DEC) front end Unix system running DG-UX.

    DG-UX was Data General's. DECpaQ's was variously called Digital UNIX, Ultrix, and Tru64 at various points in its existence (it has been superseded by HP-UX).
  • CoderDevo 2008-05-14 13:50
    operagost:
    CoderDevo:
    Jim is right. It was not an HP front end, it had a Digital (DEC) front end Unix system running DG-UX.

    DG-UX was Data General's. DECpaQ's was variously called Digital UNIX, Ultrix, and Tru64 at various points in its existence (it has been superseded by HP-UX).


    Ah, the mind fades... It's worse than that. The front end must have been the Sun 4/490 that was placed next to the DEC workstations that were running Ultrix. The Dec workstations were just what the engineers used when they were in the data center. They probably had similar workstations in their offices upstairs.

    Like I said in my original post, I was a system operator. I didn't do much with the CM-5 system except run backups. The TMC engineers did everything else. I had more responsibility for the multiple Cray and SGI systems, since the onsite Cray engineers were limited to hardware repairs. We maintained the system and user environments. It was a very fun job. Best datacenter experience available in my opinion. I do information security system integration now.
  • v.dog 2008-05-14 17:27
    FredSaw:
    JimM:
    So, what's the actual WTF here?
    The fact that the article doesn't give us any of the recipes from the cookbook.
    I like this one (page 47):

    One 18.25 ounce package chocolate cake mix.
    One can prepared coconut pecan frosting.
    3/4 cup vegetable oil.
    Four large eggs.
    One cup semi-sweet chocolate chips.
    3/4 cups butter or margarine.
    1 2/3 cups granulated sugar.
    Two cups all purpose flour.

    Don't forget garnishes such as:
    Fish shaped crackers.
    Fish shaped candies.
    Fish shaped solid waste.
    Fish shaped dirt.
    Fish shaped ethyl benzene.
    Pull and peel licorice.
    Fish shaped organic compounds and sediment shaped sediment.
    Candy coated peanut butter pieces. Shaped like fish.

    One cup lemon juice.
    Alpha resins.
    Unsaturated polyester resin.
    Fiberglass surface resins.
    And volatile malted milk impoundments.

    Nine large egg yolks.
    Twelve medium geosynthetic membranes.
    One cup granulated sugar.

    An entry called 'how to kill someone with your bare hands.'

    Two cups rhubarb, sliced.
    2/3 cups granulated rhubarb.
    One tablespoon all-purpose rhubarb.
    One teaspoon grated orange rhubarb.
    Three tablespoons rhubarb, on fire.
    One cross bore hole electro-magnetic imaging rhubarb.
    Two tablespoons rhubarb juice.

    Adjustable aluminum head positioner.
    Slaughter electric injector.
    Cordless electric needle injector.
    Injector needle driver.
    Injector needle gun.
    Cranial caps.

    And it contains proven preservatives, deep penetration agents, and gas and odor control chemicals.
    That will deodorize and preserve putrid tissue.
  • Jim Heffman 2008-05-14 18:59
    "The NSA bought several of them too (presumably for code-breaking). "

    That, and the snooper farm at Fort Meade. It takes a lot of power to listen for keywords in every single telephone conversation happening in America!

    There were several other special applications for massively-parallel computers. No, I'm not going to tell you what.
  • Physics Phil 2008-05-14 21:38
    Tyler:
    So what happened to the big blinky-light server? It seems like, even with its monolingual capabilities, someone could find a good use for it?

    At the university of Adelaide, they have a CM-5 that has become impossible to remove without demolishing a wall, and occasionally someone will play with the blinkenlights. It is of course too expensive to run it for any serious purpose. Apparently, it was last used for Conway's game of life, with the main processors disabled.
  • Andrew 2008-05-15 10:23
    OMG, a computer cannot do floating point math. . . wait a tick. . . my $5000+ desktop can't do it either. In fact no computer really can. They all estimate floating point numbers. So, what's the point?
  • Riley Dutton 2008-05-15 23:46
    You know, there's a line in Jurassic Park (the movie, not the novel) that I never understood. When they're taking the tour on how the dinosaurs are created, the little DNA animated character says "...Thinking Machines supercomputers break down the strands in minutes..." I capitalized that now because I now understand that it's the name of a company/manufacturer. Until this point, though, that line seemed incredibly odd to me.

    Thanks Daily WTF, for helping me understand Jurassic Park even better. Heh.

    captcha: vulputate
  • Steve 2008-05-16 16:08
    > We provided compilers for parallel versions of Lisp, C,
    > Fortran, and PARIS (Parallel Instruction Set). PARIS
    > supported low-level parallel primitives.

    I was going to say, I've programmed on those machines many moons ago and could have sworn it was FORTRAN and C..
  • John MacCarthy 2008-05-21 05:02
    People who would rather treat code as data than write code by hand?
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  • Dan Razzell 2009-01-12 18:31
    I wonder at all the disparaging remarks about the Connection Machine. It's pretty obvious that a massively parallel MIMD architecture is not for everyday business computing. Who would suppose otherwise? But it might, unsurprisingly, prove to be very useful for massively parallel computations, especially if the problem domain had topological features in common with the arrangement of processor interconnects. Computer vision, simulation and modelling, and search come immediately to mind.

    It doesn't take much imagination to consider that there might possibly be interesting business applications to some of these problem domains as well, perhaps enough to justify hiring someone with a background in business applications development to work with the CM, especially if the candidate might also have some experience and interest with parallel systems at the small scale that would have been typically available to university undergrads of the day.

    The mid-1980s was a time when there was a lot of interest in alternative processor architectures. The CM was just one example among many ideas that were being explored. Distributed computing was a very active area of research, board-level processors with fast interconnects were readily available, and funding for all this type of work was excellent. There was significant cross-pollination with AI research as well, giving rise to several varieties of Lisp Machine for example (Boeing Aircraft had hundreds of these at one time), excellent graphical user interfaces for data visualization, and novel languages such as Prolog and Occam, not to mention neural nets.

    You could argue that these were solutions in search of a problem. They also anticipated some of the architectural pressures that are now beginning to emerge in earnest as we reach the speed limit for single processor cores. Those pressures have created a growing demand for multicore CPUs, supercomputer clusters, and grid computing, not to mention the Internet as a kind of distributed computing engine in its own right.

    But all these solutions are imperfect in various respects. They will eventually be discarded or revised beyond recognition. Why then should the CM come in for such criticism? It was a legitimate exploration of some very timely questions about how to make computation scale to interesting problem domains.
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  • slevdi@yahoo.co.uk 2010-02-05 17:14
    Great company. I worked for them for nearly 4 years and left minutes before the troubles began. In the Eighties, I worked for Sun, Meiko and TMC. TMC was loads of fun as well as being very profitable (for me:-)

    Someone above said; "I guess that depends on how badly you want to work on one of the coolest pieces of computing hardware in the world at that time."

    Hell, that's right! It was the coolest machine on the planet with the coolest applications and the coolest corporate culture by miles. The people I met and worked with there were awesome.

    Innovative too. Coke machine toys were trivia. I remember using the www in late 1989 with some software the guy in the next room wrote (and gave to the community) called Lynx.

    I was trying to find ways to present the CM5 (we called it CMX in development) and what applications became feasible with a teraflops machine.

    My take on the fall is that the operational boss (not Sheryl Handler) truly believed that CM200 (not CM2) sales would stop the minute the CMX was announced.

    A few of us tried to present a survival plan based on the proven success of the CM200 (which was the computer in Jurassic Park, not the CM5 as someone said above). He didn't believe it.

    At that point I became <i>persona non grata</> so I left before the axe fell. Just in time as it turned out.

    Best wishes to all those I worked with if they ever read this.

    I have a mint condition copy of the cookbook in front of me now! I wonder if it is worth anything on E-bay?
  • Laird Popkin 2012-03-18 00:19
    "The real WTF is that they make their developers pay for SODA out of pocket."

    Actually, you just telnetted to the soda machine and pulled 35 cents from your account. No pocket involved!

    You could also remotely check the stocking levels of the different drinks, so you didn't have to walk to the machine to find out that it didn't have what you wanted.

    Same for lunch. Which was AWESOME! I could go for a week without any cash, just a T card and a TMC login.

    - LP
  • Laird Popkin 2012-03-18 00:31
    I've got my TMC cookbook. Amazing food.
  • Laird Popkin 2012-03-18 00:39
    My favorite application of the CM-5 was at American Express, where they loaded up all AmEx transactions for the last 'x' years into RAM, then ran all sorts of interesting AI algorithms on them. The CM-5 outperformed a building full of IBM mainframes (NB: IBM was not pleased by this, thus the IBM SP parallel computing clusters), allowing them to do "big data" analysis in seconds instead of hours. The ROI on the investment was amazing - supposedly they paid for a very expensive supercomputer in a matter of months by using it to optimize the value of ad inserts vs. mailing costs in the monthly bills.
  • Clark 2012-06-15 13:05
    Even after so many years, I find it odd that people still comment on their time at TMC. I too worked at TMC, for 6 years in support. It was one of the greatest jobs I have ever had. Although many people have commented about the well know foibles of TMC, like the gourmet kitchen and coke machine, the memories I have were born out hard work, late hours, and being in such a creative, consuming, and intense environment. I survived the layoff, because I was in support, but my remaining 6 months, were sad and depressing. Very few Thinkos were around after the massive layoff on black friday. I came back in and walked around the silent building. Personal effects, half filled mugs, coats on the back of doors, pictures, and mementos were all over the place, just no people. It was very eerie and sad.
    When they started to organize what was left of the company, hundreds of staplers were put on one white folding table(You do remember the folding white tables, right??). Another table held tape dispensors, and so forth. It was sad that you knew that everything was in use 1 week before.
    Anyway, I bought a few mementos, 4 white tables and one of the "air craft carrier" desks, which I still use to this day. I also have ~6 TMC mugs, t-shirts, my TMC black bag. I ended up with lots of TMC vcr tapes of training tapes, demo videos created on the CMs and recordings of internal events, that I have not had the heart to throw out. I think about my life at TMC often.