Shred it!
July 2, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Computer and/or military history nerds -- please lend your speculations. Was Joe doing mundane data entry or something secret and spy-like?

A long time ago, when I was a wee slip of a girl, I held a summer civilian job in the MWR employment department of an American Air Force Base in England. I helped people find jobs, I filed things, I screwed around and made smartass comments. My cohort in those latter activities was a guy named Joe. Joe was part of the department but also kind of not. He frequently stood around a lot drinking coffee. He was civilian, possibly married to an enlisted woman (but I don't really recall) and American. He was probably between 28 and 35 years old. Crazy hair, kind of a goofball hippie type.

When he was working (and not affixing donuts to the ceiling or engaging in paperclip wars with me), he was entering in code into this old computer -- seemed even old for this time -- which was about 1992 or 1993. It was a rectangular slab of a computer with a screen maybe 5"x5" just green or white text on a black background. I recall that the keyboard was maybe integrated with the body of the computer. He would receive gridded printouts with numbers and letters handwritten onto them and he would painstakingly enter these into the computer. When he did this, he shut the door and asked us to be quiet.

I remember asking him about this and he said that if he made a mistake, it screwed the whole program up and he'd have to start over. Which would, of course, eat into his coffee-drinking time.

This guy was totally irreverent about the job. Often, I'd be stuck filing all kinds of stuff back in this forgotten part of the base. (Seriously, when people finally found our office they'd stumble in, looking all confused and go, "Wow. I really didn't think anyone would be in here!") Anyway, occasionally, I'd have some weird piece of paper I'd be instructed to file and I'd ask Joe what to do with it. "Shred it!" he'd say with a big laugh. "I'm gonna." "Do it!" And sometimes I would! Forgive me, I was 17.

Anyway, over the years, I've thought about Joe and even told stories about our wacky hi-jinks and it has become increasingly strange to me just what he was doing back there. So, was this just a torturous data-entry exercise that was par for the course in middle-90s computer technology? What computer was he using? And is it possible he was engaged in some security work, all hidden away in no-man's-land?

Possible red herring detail: our director was a British lady who seemed to function solely as Joe's boss but really had very little to do with the rest of us. She mostly sat in her office with the door closed.

And if you know Joe, I'd really like to get in touch with him. Best summer job ever!
posted by amanda to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Was the computer he used something like this old Apple?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:10 AM on July 2, 2011

Best answer: That sound a lot to me like machine code entry on an older computer. I did the same for summer jobs on old motorola minis (faster than loading paper tape!) and later on LSI-11 systems (patching diver code is fun!).

There's no discounting that it could have been security-related, but my guess is that he was responsible for some bit of custom programming and he was entering machine code. Being phased out, but still common enough in the early nineties.

I can't begin to guess what system he might have been using.
posted by bonehead at 8:13 AM on July 2, 2011

Response by poster: SuperSquirrel: Nope, that wasn't the computer. I recall that the front of it was rectangular with the screen oriented to the right and maybe vents or something on the left.
posted by amanda at 8:24 AM on July 2, 2011

Did it look anything like this? VT-100s were very common in those days (that's what I did my LSI-11 programming on).
posted by bonehead at 8:32 AM on July 2, 2011

How about this?
posted by fatbird at 8:51 AM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would gess it was data entry, Any type of secret/TS work wouldn't have been done in an open space with uncleared people in the area (like MWR staff). Probably a bored dude looking to sex up his job.
posted by aggienfo at 9:35 AM on July 2, 2011

Response by poster: I don't remember it looking as cluttered as the Osbourne 1. The VT100 may have been it or at least very similar to it. Looking through a bunch of old computer sites, I'm realizing that my memory is probably not so great for exactly what he was using.

If he was entering machine code -- who was doing the handwritten code for him to enter? We were all heavily reliant on paper (all that filing) and there were no other computer terminals in the office that I recall. So, maybe payroll? Would that have been computerized?

Aggienfo, he never implied it was any kind of fancy work. It appeared to be completely tedious.
posted by amanda at 9:37 AM on July 2, 2011

Best answer: In the mid-90s I was doing software testing at TRW for Army logistics. I didn't have a Top Secret clearance but certain of my co-workers did. Our system employed 'hardened' HP Unix workstations (with trackballs!) which (for the most part) wasn't classified, but there were other systems in other labs I saw occasionally, and even had to interface with sometimes, and yours sounds like one of those to me. Those older ComSec (computer security) machines had some pretty clunky interfaces from the early 1980s which were still in use, ten years later -- weird, black hardware; small, caps-only monochrome screens; small keyboards made waterproof with icky plastic overlays. This page will overwhelm you with diagrams, descriptions and acronyms of these (including my system, as well as those others -- STAMIS? SIDPERS?) Your operator sounds like he could be one of those priveledged but sometimes naïve/socially inept folk who can pass the upper-level TS clearance process. So, what was he doing? Can't say -- it's classified.
posted by Rash at 11:39 AM on July 2, 2011

When I was in the Air Force (weapons loading) we would have to enter work orders etc...into a terminal (don't remember the type some sort of AS400 system perhaps). We would get print outs of the work orders and after we were done we would have to enter information into "the system" regarding operations completed, staffing and time.
posted by MikeMc at 4:12 PM on July 2, 2011

ComSec (computer security Communications Security)
posted by Rash at 9:33 PM on July 2, 2011

Best answer: Maybe, but about that time I had a job working for NCR ordering spare parts for ATMs (can I say ATM machines?). A chunk of my job was entering long lists of part numbers into an effectively blank green screen. Nothing secure involved, but I would have loved a closed door and some quiet.
I would figure that military logistics would have been equally tedious, so I think the most probable guess is he just wanted some quiet time to order the pallets of MREs or similar.
posted by bystander at 6:16 AM on July 3, 2011

TRS-80 model 100?
posted by bhance at 8:37 PM on July 3, 2011

Response by poster: Well, it sounds like the most likely answer is that poor Joe was a civilian with some computer knowledge and got stuck doing some seriously tedious data entry while biding his time in England. I hope he got paid well.

Thanks for the speculation!
posted by amanda at 12:09 PM on July 4, 2011

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