Introduction

I gave this speech to the graduating class of ITT Tech, on December 14, 2002.

It's a christmas present for a lot of people that I've known, who work really hard, and try, every day, to make this world a better place. It's a speech that I hope will encourage more to work for that. I'll gladly give this speech again, anytime, anywhere.

But I wrote it for just one person. Josh Taht, my Uncle Bill's grandson, who had gone missing at the time.

My apologies to the engineers at Sikorsky - I got the helicopter wrong on this recorded version of the speech. I'd had the Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter fantasy since I was 8. It's now fixed in the text and I'll get it right next time. I'm only human.

Uncle Bill's Helicopter
("you've got to make your share of mistakes")
audio version: (wav,ogg,mp3)

Thank you.

I'm going to tell you about two things that inspire me, to get up, and do engineering, every day.

One's the Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion Helicopter. It costs 26 million dollars, seats 55, flys to 21 thousand feet, and lifts 7 tons. They've been flying since before I was born, and 55 still fly today.

Bill Taht, my uncle, was chief of design for it. He also built a pretty good helicopter for me. If one thing I've worked on lasts as long, and does as much good as what he built, I'm going to die happy.

How many of you use the Internet? Hands up!

I spent 17 years helping build that. It might just last as long, and do as much good, as my uncle bill's helicopter. And when I started working on the internet, I had hair! A little under three years ago, I figured out that it was ready to take care of itself. I've relaxed and had a little fun.

This story is a christmas gift for a lot of people I've known. It's a story I tell myself, so I can get up, every day, to do my job.

Mars

On September 23rd, 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter, after travelling from earth to mars, missed its re-entry to the atmosphere by 143 kilometers, and burned to a crisp. Why? One engineering group used english units, the other used metric. 3 years of labor. Toast. They'd made a big mistake. They'd screwed up.

Email to engineering: Clearly communicate essential facts. Otherwise, spaceships turn to smoke and ash. If you can't convert between meters and feet, don't leave the United States, or the planet!

Those same two teams managed to get up the next day, somehow, because they had to work on the Mars Polar Lander. It had to land in 9 weeks, on December 3rd, 1999. Working together, they fixed all the bugs where meters became feet. As the clock ticked... they tested their software, checked and rechecked every single line of the bug fix; and simulated and re-simulated the atmospheric re-entry, and tried really hard not to make another mistake.

They finish on time, make their deadline, and uploaded their new software, sending the bits, 345 million kilometers from here to mars.

And then they had to wait. Three days. To see, if it would really work. I'd like you to know, what a countdown like that, when what've just done has to work and two years of your life is on the line, is like:

Countdown

Three days out, from landing, you've got time to watch "the Right Stuff" and read the book, and replay the whole thing, several times, in your head. You've got time to read 2 more books. You can fit in a couple episodes of Star Trek. If you can eat without throwing up, great. Most engineers eat a lot of pizza, yet lose a lot of weight during the countdown.

On the second day you can read Russian Spring, and watch Blade Runner, & Apollo 13, the directors cut. If you can't sleep, which is likely, "the Moon is a Harsh Mistress", and the Foundation series are pretty good.

You might as well, read, you can't do anything coherently. Give someone else your car keys. During a countdown the government should automatically suspend your drivers license. Heavy exercise is good, but sex is impossible.

Nobody remembers the last day of a landing very well. You take multiple showers, and spend time counting the knotholes in the ceiling and talking to yourself.

The countdown resumes: 24 minutes out, the spacecraft makes the correct course change. Your stuff worked! You feel pretty good. You're not directly responsible for what happens next But you still gotta help will that thing to land.

12 minutes out, it makes another course change. Things look pretty good.

3 minutes out, the Polar Lander blazes through the martian sky, at 10,000 mph, right on course! In 3 minutes everything you've worked for, for 2 years, is going to work, or not. And the radio goes silent.

PAUSE

[Light cigarette, blow smoke across the stage]

The only thing I can compare this to, is when, at 17, your kid stops talking to you... For three months! We all have to land this way. In this case, it's just physics, but you'll notice a lot otherwise intelligent people in the space program smoke. Why? When that radio goes silent those three months are compressed into 3 minutes. You just need to live 3 more minutes. You don't care how long you live after that!

10 kilometers, right on target - 5 kilometers - 1 kilometer... I love a count down as much as anybody - 500, 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50 meters, the legs extend out and landing rocket fires!

PAUSE

And stops. Early. The Polar Lander, on December 3rd, 1999, crashed. It hit sideways, bounced, smashed itself to smithereens and the pieces rolled to the bottom of the crater.

PAUSE

The Helicopter

Now, you may think all the action in this story takes place on mars, but I tell you - I've been in a crater like that, more times than I care to remember. How many of you have tried really hard and failed and crash landed in a crater? Hands up! [ if your hand isn't up, you're not listening, or lying! ]

Have the courage to get up and try again.

I know that me just saying that, doesn't help. You're in bed with a 14 thousand pound pillow over your head. There's no way you're getting up, not that day, maybe not ever.

Peer out from under that pillow, and notice, how well something else is working. Sometimes it's easy - "Thank God the stereo still works!". Whatever device, around you, that's working well, admire it for while, think about its story. And get up. One time, I admired a traffic light for five minutes. I know that sounds weird, you'll understand later.

Other times, this isn't good enough. Let me give you a fantasy that works for me.

Off in the distance... through the pillow... I hear this:

chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop - It gets louder and louder. Suddenly there's dust and wind all around, there's this incredible noise, the smell of kerosene, and a huge sea stallion helicopter appears in the sky above me. I hear my uncle bill's voice. A spotlight lights me up!

chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop - A giant claw drops down and lifts that 14 thousand pound pillow away! A rescue chair drops down. There's a hint of perfume. Christie Brinkley leans out - this is my fantasy, I can do whatever I want - picks me up, straps me in to that rescue chair, chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop - and the helicopter lifts me up, out of that crater.

chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop [fade]

The role of Christie Brinkley can be played by just about anybody. If anyone here wants to audition for it, come see me after commencement. My cat sometimes plays this role. Her claws can lift 14 thousand pounds and get to skin.

Uncle Bill's Helicopter is great. It can rescue you every time you imagine it coming for you.

Take joy in how close you got.

In 10 hectic weeks those teams went 350 million kilometers to miss by 40 meters - this is if you drove from Los Angeles to Santa Clara... and missed your parking spot by 1/5th of an inch! And while this was the difference between total mission failure - or a nasty scratch on your car - Take a moment to cherish all the things you've done right in all the times this globe has spun around just so you could get to today.

PAUSE

I'm sorry, I know you've only got through a few things, but I have to finish the speech. As soon as you get some time, write all that good stuff down, or dictate it into a tape recorder, so it's there when you can't remember it.

Why did the Mars Polar Lander Crash? Murphy's law. "Anything that can go wrong, will." If you don't know this law, I'm going to talk to the dean, and make sure you don't graduate today. Real Life is dangerous and full of surprises. Engineers have battled with Murphy since the beginning of time. This particular bug was in a place where no-one had looked. While that was something of a mistake, it's really hard to beat murphy. They could have made it. They didn't.

Email to engineering: You can't simulate real life, sometimes you have to crash a spacecraft or two to learn something. Nice try. You got close. Get up, and try again.

Why am I telling you this story? Because these two screw-ups were essential for preparing us for the main event!

Y2k

If you think meters and feet are hard, dates are harder.3 out of 4 years there's 365 days, there's an extra one 3 out of four centuries, and for all that you're always still off by a couple of seconds. These two smashed up spacecraft were a wakeup call to a bunch of engineers that had got a little complacent about the Y2k bug, and had forgotten Murphy's law. This bug was real. It was in millions of machines, and hiding in hundreds of millions of lines of code, if we didn't make sure we fix it, by january 1, 2000, nuclear missiles were gonna go off, the banking system explode, and planes fall from the air. And that's just the big stuff! There was plenty of other things we had to fix by that deadline.

Fixing the Y2k bug was a problem that dwarfed that of the mars mission controllers by many orders of magnitude.

Y2K was a mistake. it was a mistake that I made, that every engineer had made.

Collectively we communicated over the internet, about the problem, kicked over rocks, and everywhere we found bugs, we fixed em. We fixed thousands of bugs in every system we had and in the internet itself. Everyone shouldered their part of that awful load. But I gotta tell ya, the 19 days from December 12th to december 31st of that year, were a lot worse, than the countdown I put you through earlier. A lot of guys, ate a lotta pizza, and lost a lotta weight.

We all know what went wrong on the day of the y2k disaster.

Absolutely nothing!!!

Trains didn't crash into each other, atms kept working, and planes kept flying! The Internet stayed up!

Some newspapers had the gall to sound disappointed that we hadn't screwed up - but I felt pretty good. In fact, I felt like I graduated school. Not only that, I felt like the Net itself had graduated, and that it had plenty of people that cared enough about keeping it working that I didn't have to worry about it so much any more. I could work on Linux. It's not ready to go to Mars yet. It's only 10 years old! I want to just play with it for a while. I've got an feeling, though, Linux just might make it to Jupiter's moons - or Alpha Centari, when it grows up.

If you so much as scratch an engineer about the Y2k bug, he'll tell you his part in fixing it, no matter how big, no matter how small 'cause we're all proud about the day we all brought Spaceship Earth in for a safe landing.

Finally, we did something right. We beat Murphy. and I'm proud of that, cause that doesn't happen every day. Fixing the Y2k bug was greatest engineering achievement, this century. We still have 97 years left to that, I think we can do better.

Close

All of us keep things working pretty good, every day. It's not always an anonymous spacecraft that we crash, and we rarely have a Y2k success story to tell.

But I know the mistakes that we make are still worth it. My uncle Bill killed several friends, while testing his helicopter. I don't think he ever really got over it... But he got up, somehow, pulled himself out of that crater, and tried again.

His Sea Stallion keeps on flying, they performed well in desert storm. In 20 years, when that bird's retired, it's still gonna be flying in at least one place, my mind. There are thousands of these wonderful machines, doing that kind of stuff, every day. If you look carefully you'll find helicopters like that everywhere.

Last week I cratered one of my projects, and while driving home, I sat at a traffic light.

There's a 4 bit microprocessor in that, an intel 4004, one of the first embedded computers. This chip has been around for 30 years!

The light turned from red to green. And from green to red. And from red to green. And from green to red. I thought about how many lives that little traffic light had saved, of the engineers who made it work that good, and of the people that had worked so hard to keep it working... the light turned from red to green, and I said thanks, and drove on.

End

My name is Michael Taht. I find it very ironic, that so much software today, has a bug that respells my last name, so... I usually go around by my login: M I K E @ A C K L E Y dot NET. Drop me an email, I'll be glad to drop you a rope, but I'm a little busy. I might not get back to you right away. I have the best job in the whole universe, and I'm glad you're all helping out. It's a fun job, but it can be tough. If you get down, and you've got a 14 thousand pound pillow over your head - I'd like you to hear, off in the distance, this sound:

chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop

Thanks for listening.

See my blog at: http://the-edge.blogspot.com for more musings on the intersection of reality and the internet.

I look forward to more attempts at making it to Mars in 2004. If we make it, we learn something - if we don't - we also learn something.



"The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost and presumed destroyed when it shot within 35 miles (57 kilometers) of the martian surface as controllers were attempting to put it into orbit. At that altitude, the craft -- which was traveling at least 10,000 mph -- would have been torn apart in the planet's atmosphere. The minimum survivable altitude was about 53 miles (85 kilometers), mission operators said, while the original target altitude was about 125 miles (200 kilometers)."

Actually, the crash was more complex than meters and feet, but I didn't think explaining newtons was going to help the story any.

Christie Brinkley made Billy Joel really happy for a while. Long enough to write "You're only human", which is the best video I've ever seen. The song ran through my head all through writing this. Get it. It helps. His "Innocent Man" album is so happy. It reminds me of my first love, and I can only rarely make myself play it. This is doubly sad, as so much of the other music of the last 70 years is depressing. I'm very grateful to them both, for what they did for me. The voice of Uncle Bill, in this story, is Billy's. I also heard "Goodnight Saigon" a lot, and replayed the movie "Bat-21" in my head. The CH-53 Super Stallion on a rescue mission in that movie... crashed.

When I wrote this story, I used my top 10 most inspirational books. But I felt I'd lose the audience, if I listed them all during the countdown. Just so you know:

When the legs deployed on the Mars Polar Lander, a single bit jiggled by a sensor during re-entry told the rocket's computer that the craft had already landed.

The part of Christie Brinkley was played by: