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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment

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So, all of a sudden there are three 40-foot vans full of electronics, and I have six weeks to produce a 10-week course. I don’t even know what a course is, other than I took a lot of them. Well, I did a damn good job, I was promoted to the manager training of education, and then I got to work on this project that took me to these special locations. The special locations happened to be the most secret Cold War project the U.S. ever had.

Talk about between the nexus between the intelligence community and Silicon Valley, and how that evolved.

During World War II there was a guy named Vannevar Bush, who was head of engineering at MIT, and he had a brilliant idea. He had some experience working with the Navy in World War I, and he said we have the military developing advanced weapons—but forget it, they’re clueless. So, why don’t we do something different? Why don’t we draft scientists and engineers, keep them in their own universities, and have the military task them, and let them develop the weapons there? No country had ever done this before: Let’s give the money to the universities and not to the military labs. Basically, they draft 10,000 scientists and engineers and keep them in non-uniform. One of the projects is called the Manhattan Project, which is run by Oppenheimer.

But the other things were they set up 15 separate divisions, radar, electronic warfare, rockets, etc., and they poured the equivalent of $5.5 billion into universities. MIT gets a billion and a half, Harvard and Columbia 350 million, and Stanford gets 6 million. One of the labs was set up at Harvard called the radio research lab, which was a fake code name for a new type of electronics called electronic warfare.

What happened was the Germans had decided to defend occupied Europe from American and British bomber attacks with radar. They deployed over 15,000 radar sets and they had this amazing electronic air-defense system, but we had no idea what that was. So, the first thing we had to develop in less than nine months was the entire electronic intelligence business. We fitted airplanes with receivers, and then we had to build mechanical and electronic devices to shut down the radars. The guy who ended up running this lab was named Fred Terman, and he was an electrical engineer out of Stanford.

And after the war, Terman goes back to Stanford and becomes dean of engineering, and he decides two things: First, Stanford will never get fucked out of military money again. Second, I just ran a war center and the U.S. is now in a cold war, so it will be good for the country to build electronic intelligence in Stanford. So, as the Korean War breaks out and the Cold War ramps up, Terman turns Stanford into a secret weapons lab for the CIA and the NSA. So, Stanford becomes the center of excellence for electronic warfare, which happens to be what I’m working on in Vietnam.

I didn’t realize any of this until later, of course, when I checked into my office at Stanford in the Terman Engineering Building.

So, NRO, CIA, were all working through cover organizations based in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and ’70s and helping to create what becomes the hub of the computer business and the software business.

ESL, Argo Systems, had all the overhead stuff. Back in the ’70s there maybe five or six companies in the valley. At 24 I was accidentally working in the company in charge of training and operations. And it gets even weirder.

Two stories. One, I’m now at this secret, secret, site that’s so secret they don’t even lock the safes because if you’re there, you already know. And because I’m curious and like to read and I love nighttime, I always worked the midnight to 8 shift. Instead of reading a novel, I started on one safe and started reading my way through, keeping a notebook of everything I was learning. I was the guy who did Wikileaks without Wikileaks, but I wasn’t leaking anything—I was writing it down for myself.

I was the guy who did Wikileaks without Wikileaks, but I wasn’t leaking anything—I was writing it down for myself.

And this is when I get impressed with security: Back then I had a big Jew-fro, I swear I’m ¾ of the way through the safe, and I’m really learning a lot of interesting things. We were doing stuff you wouldn’t believe. To make a long story short, I get called in by the head of security for coffee. He said, “How are you?” I said, “Great.” He pulls out an envelope and goes tap, tap, tap, and three long black, curly hairs come out. He goes, “This was found in [name of manual you shouldn’t be reading]. Is this yours?” I said, “Oh yeah, I’ve been reading through all the manuals and keeping all these notes.” He said, “Where!” I said, “Oh, they’re in the bottom of the safe.” He was out of the room, into the vault. He brings back the notebook and starts looking at the code words and is like, “I can’t read this! And you can’t write this!” And I said, “Well, I did.” He said, “Why are you doing this?” I said, “Oh, it was great!” About a week later he said, “I want you to know how much trouble you caused. I have to have your word that you’re going to take up a new hobby.” I thought I was going to get in trouble, but instead they just asked me to take it down a notch.

The black world was completely segregated from commercial activities in the Valley. I think I’m one of the few refugees from the black world into the white world, only because I happened to have a roommate who was working at Control Data, and we knew other guys doing crazy stupid little Apple things and microprocessors. I mean they were a joke compared to what I was working on, but they were masters in their own fields.

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oaklandj says:

Wonderful interview!

Sillama says:

This is History that you’ll never learn in school! Amazing!

Yechiel Gordon says:

So, this guy used his considerable skills to help the US government kill about 3 million people in Indochina, and that’s what Tablet calls Tikkun Olam.

This guy reminds me of the stereotypical “Irish uncle” who’s sitting at a table boasting about his own accomplishes, beer in hand, and you sit there and you know half or more is trumped-up bullshit.

The whole “I worked on the most secret thing ever”. This is hilarious. This assumes he has full clearance at the level of a president to know that, and he obviously does not/did not have presidential clearance.

Then there’s the whole “they did stupid stuff compared to me” which he repeats like 3x times.
Again, notice the self-deluding grandeur.

He at least seems to have enough insight that he and Jobs were never a match because both were jerks. Except that Jobs was at least a talented one(and yes, he was extremely talented before his 13 years of exile too, Apple went to hell post-Scully).

The Jewish angle is more interesting, I think. (But then again if I didn’t think so, why would I spend my time reading Tablet?).
But it’s also less about meritocracy than this guy seems to suggest.
Here’s a look at a photo from 2011.

Jobs’ dead but otherwise, most of the picture is intact. Schmidt at that time was already executive chairman:

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9210359/Jobs_Zuckerberg_get_prime_spots_at_Obama_dinner

Doesn’t look super diverse to me. Also, you have Mayer, Rometty and Whitman as women CEOs of Yahoo!, IBM and HP respectively. Neither company is exactly in the small leagues even if neither is really that dynamic these days. All are WASPs though.

And as for the Jews, well; Zuckerberg’s intermarried. Page intermarried. And Page himself idolized his father, which came very clearly out through his latest speech at the Google I/O this summer when he admiringly described how his father fought hard to get him into robotics shows. Page’s father was a WASP dad – and a brilliant computer scientist professor at that – who married a Jewish woman.
Brin was the only guy who married Jewish out of the trio, even if his wife’s Jewish background is shaky at best(her own father was/is a WASP and her mother hardly cared for her Jewish background).

It’s true that there are more Jews in the valley now, but the depressing part is that they’re Jews by accident and most of them are intermarrying/assimilating with reckless abandon, even more so than the average secular American Jew.

Does anyone honestly expect that the children of Google’s CEO or Facebook’s CEO will be raised Jewish when the mothers are both non-converting gentiles?
Larry Page prefers to go to the burning man festival rather than going to the synagogue. I guess we can be happy that he was born as one of us but he leads his life as if he views it as something completely insignificant, which may be closer to the truth. In brief, this is a cultural issue, reflected in large part in the broader secular Jewish community, rather than any quesiton about meritocracy.

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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment