“Hidden Agendas” – Why Hollywood Be Hatin’ On the Russians – Part II

Dear Readers:

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!

Sputnik: the first orbital satellite

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.

The real Katherine Johnson gets a standing ove at the Oscars!

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.

Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

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….

In Conclusion…

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:

Dr. Cooper: “My brilliance does not require peer review, least of all from a Negress!”

Between March and August [1957], 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!

This entry was posted in Human Dignity, Space, Science and Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Hidden Agendas” – Why Hollywood Be Hatin’ On the Russians – Part II

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    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.

    If you are interested, here is web comix devoted to Lowelace and Babbage, which makes fun of the two and early Victorian period and personalities (including Her Majesty Queen VIc herself).

    “Every computer installation or software implementation, instead of eliminating jobs, actually sees an increase in job opportunities.”

    More cynical person (like, I dunno – me) could have referenced Murphy-Parkinson Law, which states: “Any so-called improvement introduces enough bugs into the system, as to make said improvement irrelevant”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lyttenburgh says:

      ArrrrghЪ! Forgot the link


      • yalensis says:

        Brilliant! A must-read. You find the insanest links!

        I particularly love the idea of turning Babbage into a super-villain!
        And unfortunately it’s all true — the guy got grants galore, and could barely ever finish anything! Without Ada’s programming skills, nobody would remember his “difference engine” today. Ada, by the way, invented the concept of the “loop” which is crucial to all digital computer algorithms.
        And explains why I sometimes feel like my life is constantly going around in a loop – heh hheh!


    • Cortes says:

      The bugs being introduced guarantee the professional future work opportunities. The same scam works in engineering and the Law, both for in-house specialists and bought-in consultants.


      • yalensis says:

        Matters could be worse.
        Ada could have introduced a virus into the Difference Engine.
        Which would then go on to infect all the other Difference Engines.
        Which are connected on the “Intertubes” via pneumatic tubes!


        • Lyttenburgh says:

          “Matters could be worse.
          Ada could have introduced a virus into the Difference Engine.”

          Worse! She introduced the whole world to kitties pics!


  2. Fern says:

    yalensis, thanks for a very interesting couple of articles on the movie “Hidden Figures’. I saw the film a couple of months ago and thought it genuinely moving and inspiring – I certainly wouldn’t have heard of these women and their contribution to NASA otherwise. As far as the ‘evil Russkies’ element is concerned, I think it’s impossible to overstate how propagandised the US was during the Cold War and, of course, still is.

    You can measure the success of the anti-communist propaganda by the ease with which millions of Americans are persuaded to vote against their own economic interests in defence of some spurious notion of ‘freedom’ a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union ended. I watched a documentary a few years back on the US healthcare system and the response of people to Hillary Clinton’s proposed reforms – there were folk who clearly didn’t have the proverbial two pennies to rub together but who were adamantly opposed to ‘socialised medicine’ because it was a threat to their ‘freedoms’. Extraordinary how this favours elite interests – anyone might conclude it was designed that way……


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks for reading my review, Fern!

      This movie was genuinely thought-provoking, and raised so many issues, way more than there was time to discuss. Which I reckon is the sign of a good film.
      Although I imagine the Hollywood writers barely even thought about the “evil Russkies” angle, to them it’s just normal to bash on the Russians.

      I still think the overall “political agenda” of the movie, which could be called “Hollywood Liberalism” goes something like:
      “Black Americans and White Americans should overcome their differences and past conflicts, and come together against a common enemy — the Russians!”

      I would like to see a Hollywood movie about the Civil Rights movement which also gives the Soviets and Commies their due. Hey, I just thought of one: “The Paul Robeson Story!” In which Paul, while fighting against Jim Crow in the American South, becomes the first African-American astronaut, he blasts off into space, all the while belting out the Soviet national anthem….


    • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

      I wouldn’t get too inspired – knowing Hollywood the movie is probably about as accurate as U-571.


      • yalensis says:

        I read that the screenwriters took certain liberties to make things more dramatic – duh! — and also made a couple of “adjustments” to the timeline, but on the whole got it mostly right.
        Supposedly the writers nailed the John Glenn character – he really was that amiable, and a natural-born politician.
        I don’t even care so much about that — anybody who would allow themself to be strapped in a tin can and shot into space — now that’s truly the Right Stuff!


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