This post will conclude my review of the Hollywood movie “Hidden Figures“, which I saw recently. Using as my particular slant the movie’s cavalier contempt for Russia and Russians which, alas, is just an ideological given in Hollywood movies and films. Rule #1 in Hollywood, as in the American media in general:
Rule #1: Russia/Russians must never be mentioned in any positive context. Russian failures, mistakes and errors must be emphasized and gloated over. Any Russian success [like the first man in space!] must be mentioned with a sneer, an implication that they cheated or lied about this success; and/or accompanied with an epithet such as Commie Bastards!
And if you think that I’m kidding or exaggerating, then you are clearly not sufficiently tubular! And for American readers who say, “Well, the Russians do the same thing,” I retort: No, they do not. Russian media, and Soviet media before that, is not at all denigratory of America or Americans. It is way more fair and balanced than is American media. I can assure you that no Russian movie would treat the heroic and amiable American Astronaut John Glenn the way this Hollywood movie treats Cosmonaut Yury Gagarin.
Granted, a major theme of this 2016 film is the Space Race itself. Why, our plucky Negro heroines — probably not even the white girls — would never have gotten their big chance to work at NASA if it weren’t for the space race, the fact that Russia was ahead, and America’s desperate need to employ number-crunchers. It was an “all hands on deck” type of moment. With the Soviet space program looming in the background. That much is legitimate history. It is said that the Sputnik satellite put a shock-wave throughout the American establishment. Decisions were taken at the highest level to jump-start America’s space program. The consequences rippled down throughout the sociological layers, eventually leading to reforms of America’s rigid caste system involving Negroes, and also women in general.
And any Hollywood movie which forthrightly discusses these sociological issues of caste, race, and gender can’t be all bad, and is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination, anyhow.
But the one thing that Hollywood never discusses is the American class system, how the vast majority of black people are exploited under capitalism; how discriminatory, for example, is the U.S. military and its use of blacks and Hispanics as cannon fodder for American adventures across the globe. How the Cold War was started by the Americans, not the Soviets. In “Hidden Figures” we are told that the Russians are the threat to humanity, that they want to place a ballistic missile in space to attack America, yada yada. And every red-blooded American, black or white, male or female, must hold hands and come together to oppose this nasty commie threat. Let our own bygones be bygones. Jim Crow? Ha ha! He’s gone forever, thanks to Martin Luther King and JFK!
Women In Computing
But I digress… Because what I really wanted to talk about in this segment is the history of women in the Computer business. And this is precisely the sort of topic that was supposed to be discussed when, in the 1960’s and 1970’s American universities established degree programs in things like “Women’s Studies” and “Black Studies”. It’s easy to mock those curricula now, and the monstrosities that they have become; but the original intention was to teach American youth about some interesting people who got left out of the traditional textbooks. Which tended to be: The Histories and Biographies of White Males.
Who even knew that people like Katherine Johnson existed, before this movie came out?
So, let’s start with Ada Lovelace, whom Computer Scientists regard as the first computer programmer, ever. Ada worked with Charles Babbage, who had invented an early mechanical programmable computer. Charles and Ada enjoyed the traditional division of labor which still exists in I.T. departments everywhere: He specialized in hardware, and she specialized in software.
Moving forward in time, our “Female Studies” curriculum takes us to sex vixen Hedy Lamarr, who invented wireless Bluetooth technology back in the early 1940’s; and then moving on to Admiral Grace Hopper of the U.S. Navy, she’s the one who invented the COBOL programming language.
Which brings us to NASA’s Dorothy Vaughan, one of our three Hollywood heroines. The movie shows Dorothy applying herself to learn the FORTRAN programming language, using a textbook she stole from the white folks library. Dorothy can smell which way the wind is blowing: She realizes that human computers such as herself and the girls she supervises, will be put out of a job by electronic computers. But she senses an opportunity: Instead of human computers, NASA will need more programmers. And who is better qualified for such a job than brainy and dependable women?
Near the end of the movie, we see Dorothy’s gambit paying off: She is promoted to Supervisor of an ever-expanding army of female (integrated black and white) Fortran coders and data-entry card punchers. The movie definitely got this right: As everybody in the I.T. world knows: Every computer installation or software implementation, instead of eliminating jobs, actually sees an increase in job opportunities. It’s just that the new jobs require a different skillset. People who work for a living in I.T. need to be flexible and expect that their careers will involve study, travel, re-training, continuing education, and re-certifications. You have to keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and you have to be good at taking tests!
A small personal beef: Outraged as I am at the way the movie treats Russians, I am even more outraged at the way it treated those abused IBM technicians who came to install NASA’s brand new computer. “I’m not paying you!” Kevin Costner snaps at the hapless IBM techs. Meanwhile, everybody in the I.T. world knows that IBM computers were the best of their time: In the 1960’s, 70’s and up through the 80’s IBM produced a solid product. They manufactured both hardware and software, everything rock solid and virtually without flaws. Technical support was 24/7, and as reliable as King Xerxes postal service. If a machine failed anywhere, any time, even in the middle of the night, be it a hardware or software failure; whether it needed a new memory board or a fix to a bug — an IBM tech was in his car, he would drive for hours, if needed, to fix it. And he would fix it! All the while wearing a nice suit and tie. Not like those Microsoft hippies in their jeans and T-shirts, who were only good at pointing the finger at the other vendor….
And so, Dear Readers,
There is still so much to talk about, starting with the Soviet space program, and the role of women therein. [Hint: Soviets put the first woman into space.] And did the Soviets have their own “human computers”? According to this piece, they did; these people may not have been Negroes, but they were most certainly multi-cultural, and they were struggling with the same issues around the same time as Kevin Costner was cursing out those bumbling IBM techs:
Between March and August , engineers carried out computations to select and refine the trajectory of the launch vehicle and the satellite during launch. These enormously complicated computations for the R-7 program were initially done by hand using electrical arithrometers and six-digit trigonometric tables. When more complex calculations were required, engineers at the OKB-1 were offered the use of a ‘real’ computer recently installed at the premises of the Academy of Sciences at Keldysh’s request. The gigantic machine filled up a huge room at the department and may have been the fastest computer in the USSR in the late 1950s: it could perform ten thousand operations per second, a high-end capability for Soviet computing machines of the time.
Unfortunately, even with so much interesting stuff to discuss, I must end this post now, and I see that I never even got around to discussing Katherine Johnson’s specialty, Analytic Geometry, which was the sole reason why she was able to worm her way into the “White Boys” lab in the East Wing. Where she became a thorn in the side for NASA engineer Jim Parsons, otherwise known as Wonderboy Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Even though he is a racial bigot, and even though Katherine is constantly showing him up in front of the boss, Sheldon does start to warm up a bit towards his darker-hued co-worker. And this is straight-up Hollywood ideological scripting: Tolerance wins out. Foes must become friends for the greater good.
And thus, Kevin and Katherine and Sheldon and Dorothy, and their Hollywood agents, all hunker down in their Engineering Laboratory to figure out how to beat those damned Russkies and put their boy Neil Armstrong on the moon!