Jul 16, 2008

LANL unable to release history report

By ROGER SNODGRASS, Los Alamos Monitor Editor

A Los Alamos National Laboratory librarian was unable to release a 30-year-old report on the early history of computing, Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy, reported Monday.

“I got an inquiry from a graduate student who was trying to locate a copy of the report for academic purposes,” Aftergood said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The subject matter seemed intrinsically interesting. It wasn’t some isolated detail in nuclear physics, but rather a broad sweep of technological history.”

He said he found references to the report, “Computing at LASL (Los Alamos Science Laboratory) in the 1940s and 1950s,” but the document itself was not readily available.

“So I naturally turned to the Los Alamos research library,” he said, where he found “a polite but disappointing response.”

The library was unable to provide a copy of the document.

He was, however, able to obtain a copy independently, which was added to the project’s collection of Los Alamos documents.

A spokesperson for LANL said Tuesday that the document could not be released at the time of the request because it did not have a Los Alamos Unclassified Report number (LAUR). A formal clearance is required to indicate the document has been approved for release, said James Rickman of the LANL communications office.

“If the document had not been approved,” he said, “guidance was to tell the requester to seek the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which assures a uniform process and that the document receives a proper review.”

The paper was developed from four talks given publicly June 13-16, 1977, at the National Computer Conference in Dallas.

One of the talks was given by Mark B. Wells, a retired laboratory employee who worked in the computer group at the time that later became the Computer Division at the laboratory.

Contacted at home in Los Alamos, Wells said, “The work was never classified.”
In fact, he said, “It was published in a free and open way. It was part of a computer conference, open to anybody.”

Wells’ essay reminisces about the MANIAC computer, especially the MANIAC I, which was located at LASL from 1952-57.

MANIAC was the acronym for “mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer, Wells notes, but he also relates an anecdote about an alternative interpretation expressed by the astronomer and physicist George Gamow, who said it stood for “Metropolis and Neumann invent awful contraption.”

Nicholas Metropolis was the genius behind the early computer research in Los Alamos – “the instigator,” Wells calls him in the paper, for the MANIAC computers.

The laboratory’s computer facility that will soon house the Roadrunner, now rated the fastest supercomputer in the world, is named after Metropolis.

John Von Neumann was also a Manhattan project member and another of the great computer pioneers.

Among the interesting tidbits in Wells article are stories about a chess-playing program on MANIAC. MANIAC’s limited memory restricted a play to board that was six squares by six squares and no bishops or pawns.

“Even then,” he wrote, “moves averaged about 10 minutes for a two-move, look-ahead strategy.”

“That quickly became three moves, four moves, five moves ahead,” Wells said Tuesday, adding the current capability was at least 12 moves ahead.

His essay also includes an anecdote about a moment when the computer seemed to have a mind of its own.

When Princeton physicist Martin Kruskel checkmated the MANIAC on the 38th move of a game, the machine responded with an illegal move.

“We were dumbfounded for a while, until we traced the trouble and realized that the program had never been taught to resign,” Wells wrote.

Facing no moves, the machine was stuck in a loop and the loop changed the program.

“You might call that a learning program,” he recalled.

Rickman said the review policies originated at the National Nuclear Security Administration after the 9/11 attacks, requesting that the lab review its documents to make sure that nothing might be able to aid terrorists.

“We hope to have that task completed soon,” Rickman said, “perhaps by the end of the summer.”


Anonymous said...

Interesting to see that LANL's latest policies can look as crazy to the many people outside LANL as they do to those who work inside LANL. Where will it all end?

Anonymous said...

The only news here is why a 30 year old report doesn't have an LAUR number yet.

Anyway thank goodness for a news story that says we're protecting information, even if excessively.

Anonymous said...

You mean, this readily-available-at-the-LANL-research-library report is not approved for release from LANL?


Frank Young said...

"Thank you for using our website.

Access to these resources is restricted for one of two reasons:

* LANL policy
* LANL Research Library copyright and license agreements

LANL employees

* If you are using a public terminal in the Research Library, you can access these resources by moving to a yellow terminal and authenticating.
* If you are using a computer off-site, you can access these resources by using a LANL VPN client.

General public

* You may use our Library catalog, which is available to the public.
* For further assistance, we suggest that you contact your local library."

Anonymous said...

Ah, forgot about the firewall.
Here's an outside link.

Anonymous said...

So is LANS covered by FOIA? I recall that they claimed not to be earlier, but I could be mistaken.

Anonymous said...


That someone didn't want to wait for an LAUR isn't really newsworthy and tells much more about the 'I want it NOW!' approach than it tells about the lab (or any other large organization). Remember the concept of 'a delay on your part does not automatically imply a rush on mine'?

The overlooked report didn't get an LAUR because sometimes stuff happens while you're dealing with large quantities of documents and sometimes the documents take years to even make it to the main storage areas of a large organization from the originators' collections.

The entire story can be realistically balanced by inserting a few words at the end of the sentence: "The library was unable to provide a copy of the document in the time frame requested."

Anonymous said...

It is kind of a commentary on our modern information infrastructure. Remember the days when you had to fill out a form to ask the librarians to hunt down a copy of a report, and 3 months later it would show up in your slowmail box? It was like Christmas, because by then you'd generally forgotten you asked for it.

Anonymous said...

Don't be such a d**k 6:44. IIRC, this guy asked for a copy of publicly released information a year ago, and LANL stonewalled. This turned a routine academic query into bad, albeit minor, publicity.

Anonymous said...

Truly, if LANL wanted to comply, they would. It is not that LANL is "unable" to provide the 30 year old report, it is because LANL is "unwillingly" to help and provide the report. Let's get that straght - we have seen this type of behavior before.

Anonymous said...

7/18/08 9:28 PM Anonymous said...
"Don't be such a d**k, 6:44. IIRC, this guy asked for a copy of publicly released information a year ago,"

Hmm, that detail wasn't mentioned in the article. Since the article was the only info I had to go on, my comment was relevant given the stated details.

Which leads to some questions such as:
- "Why did the Monitor leave out the 'requested over a year ago' part?
- Did that info not provide something of value to the article?
- What was happening a year ago at the lab (or at the library) that might have had an impact on the outcome of this request?
- Why bring the story out now rather than a year ago?
- Did the requestor check on the progress of his request in the 365 days since he submitted it since there was, at one time, about a week or two turnaround on unclassified documents being reviewed and released with an LAUR?

I still say "Yawn".

Anonymous said...

1:00 pm: "Did the requestor check on the progress of his request in the 365 days since he submitted it since there was, at one time, about a week or two turnaround on unclassified documents being reviewed and released with an LAUR?"

I think the classification group's own internal data shows a much better turnaround than that (less than a week). Check with the Group Leader there, but I think you are including your own group/division signature/release times, plus walk-in times, in that estimate. Surprisingly, internal Lab mail is often only about a day delay, as opposed to a secretary walking it over, who may not "get around to it" for a few days.

Anonymous said...

The most interesting detail in the story is that the requester obtained the document independently! In other words, all of LANL's deliberate barriers to public disclosure in this case were futile.

Anonymous said...

Steve Aftergood needs to start a new project, called "Project on LANL Stupidity." Start with the "guidance" Rickman mentioned and where it came from. Hint: it wasn't from the security division, and no one at NNSA can now be found who will accept responsibility for, or mandate continuance of, this "guidance," which dates from right after 9/11. This has now become set policy at LANL (but not at other DOE/NNSA sites) since no one at LANL has the guts to say "stop it."