The Spy Who Patched Me

I mentioned a few weeks’ back that I took the family out to see the newest Bond adventure. That inspired my oldest to re-watch all 22 of the Bond films in order, from start to finish. Like all the rest of us, my oldest has found the transition from Connery’s Bond to Moore’s Bond to be a bit … unsettling.

Nope, no menial functionaries in this paradise, thankyou.

Still and all, that’s how we got around this evening to screening number ten in the series right after dinner. It was … exactly as you remember it: campy, unbelievable, and rife with continuity errors. The famous fish-in-the-Lotus scene was simply par for the course. That worked for me, though, since it allowed me to explain to my boys some areas where Albert R. Broccoli managed to adeptly predict the future.

Cast your mind back to 1977 … or just Netflix the film like I did. Either way. Fast-forward to about three-quarters through the movie to the point when Our Heroes get slurped up by the villain’s oil-tanker-cum-sub-swallower. When evil-doer Stromberg captures the US submarine, we see about three dozen gun-toting goons surrounding the vessel in the well deck and another batch of goons supplementing two dozen data entry clerks up in the command center.

One good soliloquy later, and darned near all of the goons have boarded the British and Soviet subs to go kick-start a global nuclear apocalypse. All that’s left on the Big Boat are (as far as we can see) the control room crew, Bond, and three submarines’ worth of torqued-off sailors down in the brig. When Bond breaks free of his captors, the only adversaries around are more armed goons … and there’s not a single maintenance man, engineer, janitor or paper-pusher in sight anywhere.

Go look for yourself. I’ll wait…

Want to explore the dark seabed ? Just try our submersible Lotus!

Right. Did you see that? Yeah. Even the original Star Trek episodes featured clerical types bringing in paperwork for the boss to sign, facilities techs taking a spanner to the insides of the ship every time you turned a corner, and bunches of mooks on mess hall duty.[1]

Now flip back to Bond #10. There? See it now? Cubby Broccoli very shrewdly painted a future in which a massive enterprise (in this case, a hyper-complicated marine life research venture) could be run entirely by operations staff without any pesky engineering types cluttering up the office. Automation – in the form of load of control panels, automated shark feeding tubes, ceiling mounted camera systems, electric everything and a truckload of Sony branded electronics – could completely take the place of a lesser corporation’s troublesome support staff.

A great many of today’s CEO’s watched that film back when they were in short pants and had an insidious vision planted deep in their unconscious mind: when you grow up, you won’t need support staff. They’ll all be superfluous. Replace them all with automation and you’ll be fine. Also, feed your underperforming subordinates to sharks for your amusement.

Even Star Trek is more credible. Ignore the empty bridge deck here…

Stromberg himself departs his primary production facility once the main operations begins and returns to his corporate headquarters to watch his strategic plan unfold from the comfort of his executive boardroom.[2] That scene, too, set a tone for our budding businessmen: if you’re the executive in charge of an operation, you don’t need to be physically on-site with your employees during existential crisis.

You can instead enjoy the luxury that your obscene wealth has provided you while your minions toil away on your assigned tasks, miles away from where they might disturb your brandy with their labors.[3]

Finally, the film aptly demonstrated exactly what happens when an adversary engages in a physical, low-tech hack of a main data center: Commander Bond and his newly-liberated sailors accessed the nuclear submarine-locator-o-matic™ computer in the operations center of the SS Liparus and undermined the entire, trillion-pound enterprise by sending two short text messages to the off-site work crews.

You don’t need to be physically on-site with your employees during existential crisis.

The entire plan reversal could have been prevented by the most basic of security measures: requiring a password to access the sub locator computer, for one. Or requiring a basic sender authentication protocol for messages. Or how about a general policy of not housing your dangerous, military-trained prisoners at the same facility where you keep your grenade collection and nuclear launch control equipment? Any one of those measures would have done the trick.

But this scene, too, predicted the future: that we’re now living in our top leaders will spend oodles of dosh procuring and putting into production the most lavish of critical information systems and then will protect them from misuse with a door to the server room that’s usually propped open with a folding chair so that the poor bastards in maintenance can get their work done without being bothered by a bunch of silly codes and keys every time they need to fetch a part from the van.

The impact of all of this is being felt today, thirty-five years later. The lads who were mesmerized by Mr. Moore and Ms. Bach up on the big screen must have carried some of those lessons-learned with them into their business careers because we’re seeing a concerted effort from the top of far-too-many companies to make our business look like Stromberg’s empire, circa 1977.

Folding chairs keep the server room secure, it’s well known!

Fabulous decorating, lavish style, fabulous automation, grandiose ambitions … and not a single IT guy anywhere in the picture. That’s not to say that us technologists don’t exist as such; just that we’re most often banished to the server room, not to be seen by more “normal” people.

Had The Spy Who Loved Me been a more realistic story – even for the era it was set in – the villain’s grand monologuing would have been replaced with twenty minutes of footage of a skinny fellow tearing apart Stromberg’s fabulous computer-chair while yelling at tech support over the phone. “No, I’m not getting an error message. The screen’s completely dark. Yes, I’ve rebooted it. No, it hasn’t been immersed in water. No, I said that the facility … No, it’s bloody undersea base, but the computer room doesn’t get … Look, just send me up to tier two already … Yes, it’s still under warranty …”

I agree that such a scene isn’t very fun to watch, but it is what goes on every day in every office around the globe. Our fabulous stuff doesn’t work right unless someone is constantly toiling away behind the scenes, maintaining all of the complex systems that just barely manage to keep the enterprise afloat.[4] You can only outsource or automate away so much of it before you’re dead in the water.

No, it hasn’t been immersed in water.

[1] I went Google searching for clips of these activities and lost a half-hour of my day. They’re not only out there, there are angry tribes of fans out there who can tell you exactly what’s being signed, welded or scooped in any given scene you wish to look up.

[2] Watch the first twelve seconds of that clip, and then try and tell me that your boardroom is cooler than that. Go on – try. I dare you.

[3] One might even say that Stromberg’s entire plan hinged on him outsourcing his core processes to the cloud.

[4] That does not mean “paying someone to maintain” the kit. It means actually maintaining the kit. Too many short-sighted businessmen assume that signing cheques is a perfectly acceptable substitution for actually doing real work. In reality, there’s no such thing as “fully” outsourced systems maintenance.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).

His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders

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  • Peacefull Anarchist

    I would argue that Cubby Broccoli was merely ahead of his time (as with all the Bond Tech), while Gene Roddenberry was behind the time and a poor visionary. Who was closer? A man who foresaw personal mini-submarines, or a man who thought the future would be cashless, and we’d all do jobs for the love of them?

    That might explain why you never see a cleaning staff in Star Trek. Move paper files manually? Ok. Snaking clogged toilets all day for the love of it? What a crock of….

    More likely all the people wandering around the ship were the future equivalent of welfare cases, doing odd jobs in exchange for a meal. Being a redshirt was even better–the chance of the sweet, sweet release of death instead of dancing like a puppet for the ship’s noble elite. Would you volunteer to be flown thousands of light years from home and …well, just ask Yeoman Leslie Thompson. Kirk came in peace, she came in pieces.

    If it can be automated, it will be. The most menial and repetitive jobs went first. USA manufacturing is at a historical high (measured in $), with a fraction of the workers–we match China in output. Investigation/Research jobs have been going as well (lawyers replaced by search algorithms that search faster and better, accountants replaced with accounting software, etc).

    Cotten gins taking away the jobs of field workers. Apple tree shakers taking place of pickers. Robotic scanners better –and faster — at sorting produce than humans. One could easily argue that the pace of agricultural innovation was stopped by the import of cheap labor from Mexico. Few jobs are safe….for now. Medical staff that requires the personal touch is safe…well, except for radiologists, who are seeing x-rays read overseas by cheap indio/asian labor.

    Of course, Amazon and Netflix buck the trend and use low-paid manual labor to fill envelopes and order baskets….again because it’s cheaper than automation. For now. (or until everyone streams video)

    Just look at your own office? Who typed that article above? Your secretary, or you? How long did it take the editors to check the spelling?

    You used to need a large staff to maintain IT. I mean thousands of people, just to do calculations. Now you’re virtually assured you can access a word processor from any machine that boots up, and store your data in the cloud. We do literally trillions more processing and storage, with a fraction of the people. IT is growing in numbers faster that it’s simplifying and eliminating jobs, but so was the manufacturing industry….for a while.

    Besides….why were flunkies bringing things to sign? No email? No electronic signatures? No thumbprints or other biometrics? Got to keep those monkeys…sorry, minions….I mean crew members busy earning their three squares and a bunk.

    Advanced Technology — which is what both movies demonstrate — eliminate labor. Bond got it right, Star Trek says we’ll need more people. When the supertanker work crew left, it was merely coincidence they turned on the ship’s automation systems, saw they were functioning, and left for the next consulting gig (they were outsourced) coincidental as the battle began.

    The only thing Cubby Broccoli got wrong? In the future, they’ll send in the armed robots to kill the soft, fleshy humans. But radar guided guns and missiles (which exist now) and mobile robots (ditto) would make for a quick ending, free of drama, and leaving the audience…depressed at their mortality. So a gunfight where heros win instead.

    • Keil Hubert

      I wonder just how much we’d enjoy an episode of Star Trek that showed the crew going about a more realistic day …

      [Enter bridge]

      [Ensign] “Sir, you have one hundred eighteen employee appraisals to sign. Each one needs unique comments, and you can’t reuse any comments that you’ve used in past appraisals.”

      [Kirk] “But didn’t we just DO all those?”

      [Ensign] “Yes, sir. While we were in warp, Star Fleet changed the appraisal system from one appraisal per fiscal year to one per Venusian rain cycle. Even though we did all of those last month, now we have to do them all again.”

      [Kirk] “All right, all right … give me the tablet.”

      [Tablet PC] “Your password has expired. Please choose a new one before you’re allowed to proceed …We’re sorry, your password must consist of an original Vulcan haiku and a color no one can pronounce.”


      [Sulu] “Captain, I think IT re-imaged the helm console. We’re experiencing an interface driver error and can only turn left.”

      [Chekov] “Keptin, we’re surrounded by Klingon lawyers. They’re preparing to send over copyright infringement lawsuits …”

      [Spock] “Also, we’re all needed on the recreation deck for a mandatory ‘violence int he workplace’ training hologram.”

      [Klingon barrister] “Is this a bad time? We can come back later …”

      [Kirk] “Just shoot us already.”

  • jm-yo

    this is the funniest damn thing I’ve read all week. This is one of those deals that entertains and teaches. As usual brilliant prose with a purpose.

  • Peacefull Anarchist

    A few days later, I saw these in the news. As the cost of developing robots goes down and the cost of illegal labor goes up, automated farming technology is picking back up again.

    While odds are low, an employer might be sued and held responsible of an illegal laborer is harmed working for you. You might go to jail. That’s why WalMart hires a company to hire their illegal workforce.

    But if your robot breaks, you take it to the repair shop.

    Robot in the garden and fields. Says they plan to eventually get to strawberry picking robots, as that’s hard.

    Japanese strawberry picking robot works 24/7. Slower than a human (for now)….but it never stops working, never wants a break, never goes on strike, etc.

  • Keil Hubert

    G’day, Peaceful.

    You’ve made some fine points about the trend towards automation. We’ve seen that in the manufacturing sector over the last fifty years. We’ve seen it within white collar work, too, especially within the sphere of back-office work. I partially disagree on a couple of points, though:

    First, there are still a lot of jobs that a machine can do half as well as a human can. I did a field test on a Roomba once and corroborated what the Amazon reviews said — it did a great job of appearing to clean, but a poor job of actually cleaning. Maybe the 23rd century will finally get the Roomba perfected, but I doubt it. Same goes for most other maintenance functions. No matter how precise a machine gets, it (so far) lacks the judgment and insight to know when NOT to perform its function. A human, crude as we are, has the capacity to bring his or her entire range of life experiences, training and sensory data to the party, while a robot can (so far) only do what it’s been programed to do. That might explain why our office Roomba was famous for cleaning the same office five times a day while missing two-thirds of the rest of the floor.

    Second, there’s a threshold below which crew reductions simply collapse. Remember the vaunted Littoral Combat Ship concept? A high-speed, highly-automated warship that could be crewed 24/7 by a crew of only 40 sailors? Great concept, but … not so great execution. The Navy is now looking to have to increase the crew size because that few sailors simply can’t perform all of the required tasks, even WITH all of the nifty labor-saving systems. The same goes for most business functions: if you eliminate too many people, you wind up overwhelmed and ineffective.

    Third, do you have a secretary I can borrow? The idea of dictating something and having someone else type and edit it sounds decadent. I’d like to try that sometime. I doubt it’ll happen, though. We’ve effectively eliminated functional secretaries in the workplace thanks to having PCs freaking everywhere, as if the ability to type one’s own content somehow also magically imparts the ability to spell-check and edit ones own work. That rarely turns out to be true.

    I do think that Broccoli predicted the future in as much as Roddenberry did, if only to the degree that people saw what each visionary had created and then attempted to create the future that they’d seen on the screen. I’ve always suspected that the Google Nexus tablet was designed by someone with a secret Tricorder lust.


    • Peacefull Anarchist

      Said statements seem to have been….misunderstood.
      I’ll counter your comments, with some contradiction.

      > …trend towards automation.
      Trend? To mis-quote Pirates of the Caribbean: “You’d best start believing in Automation stories, KH…’re in one.” Henry Ford was a trendsetter. GM, Opel, Vauxhall, GM-Opel-Vauxhall-Peugeot-Citroen, Fiat, Volvo, Mercedes, Honda, Kia, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda…they all say it’s not a trend, it’s the status quo. (And obviously, not just restrained to vehicles.)

      > …field test on a Roomba…maybe the 23rd century
      As a tech writer, certainly you’re aware of the parable of the first adopter? The first assembly lines were just that–conveyer belts. People still did everything by hand, except moving the main product (the car). They improved and now parts are pre-assembled on multiple lines, final-assembled on another, and people are more and more rare. Except to tend to the robots.

      It used to be a milestone if your vehicle got 150km (~100k miles to the Yanks). Now that’s a minimum. To quote President Bush, “You will pay the price for your lack of vision!” I believe he was quoting another, but still…..23rd century for a good automated vac? I find your lack of faith (in technology) disturbing.

      I sub’d two other articles (not approved) addressing a similar response in farm labor. When labor costs were higher, farmland automation drove increases in efficiency. When labor costs dropped (Mexican manual labor) and tasks were more complex, agriculture innovation stopped. Now that US farm labor costs have risen (economy/enforcement/immigration related), and automation costs have dropped, you’re seeing more investment in automated harvesters, including one of the more difficult tasks of strawberry picking. They’re slower than a human (for now)….but they work 24/7.

      So I agree there are still jobs people do better….for now.

      Speaking of harvesting, your view on military crew reductions is some pretty good cherry picking. Given there are many problems with the Littoral Combat Ship, compare it’s projection of power to a WW2 ship, and again a WW1 ship. Then to a 1700′s schooner. Which would you rather Captain to battle against a modern Navy fleet? A selling point to the huge C-7 was it’s reduction in crew size to 3.

      Now I’ll look to the future: Imagine a total immersion control system. You slip into a pod, slide on the helmet, and the ship is your avatar. You *are* the Navy ship, with a 360 degree view. It’s crewed by repair robots that fabricate on the spot, get into smaller spaces than humans, don’t care about smoke or lack of oxygen, etc. And if you fail, only you die. What takes less effort–drones, or F-22′s? Which has more kills? Now imagine an F-22 unconstrained by weak humans that pass out. The Japanese Kamikaze were visionaries, merely ahead of their technology curve.

      Or better: Scientists create ping pong ball-size swarming robots to create “a liquid that thinks”.

      To combine Mexican labor and total-immersion warfare, you might enjoy the 2008 Mexican movie Sleep Dealer, where the immigrants stayed in Mexico and controlled construction robots in the USA.

      > A human, crude as we are, has the capacity to bring his or her entire range of life experiences,
      > training and sensory data to the party, while a robot can (so far) only do what it’s been programed to do.
      You must have better humans there.
      You might also enjoy this:
      No one taught IBM’s Watson….it was programmed to “learn.” As we make machines that are better at learning, a human’s range of life experiences can be transmitted in seconds, without data loss. Here there be tigers (or dragons or sea monsters, your pick).

      It appears my Secretary commend was not understood. Your point was mine–technology took most of them away. Take mine, please! She’s called Clippy, from Microsoft Office. She allows me to send more (e)mail than ever before, much faster, doesn’t complain much about huge documents, etc. Another electronic secretary schedules my flights, works my receipts when I get home, searches supplies (google), and I just have to click a box to have them delivered to my desk. She is available 24/7 via work provided phone, almost anywhere. My electronic secretary even watches over me at night, and wakes me up in the morning. And my wife never worries about an affair with her.

      • Keil Hubert

        Ton of content there. As always, thanks PA.

        So, here’s the thing … the LCS was intended to have a smaller crew. So was the C-130J, the C-5M, the F-22, etc. ad absurdum. No one is arguing that eliminating unnecessary crew sizes is a bad thing. The problem, though, is that the workload is rarely actually reduced at the same rate as the reduction in crew size. Oddly enough, there’s always a threshold below which the crew reduction becomes counterproductive.

        I’d be very curious to know if the F-22 that we recently lost due to an oxygen system problem might have been avoided had there been a second aircrew member standard on the airplane. Yes, they’d both be on the same oxygen system, but maybe one of them might have recognized the problem in time to correct the descent. We’ll never know, unfortunately.