If I Told You I’d Have to Kill You: The Story Behind “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”

About a month ago I had one of the strangest phones call of my life. “Steve my name is Donald xx, and I’m the head of external affairs of the CIA’s venture capital firm and we’d like you to keynote our conference.”  CIA?  “Do you mean the Culinary Institute of America?  And you’d like me to do my talk on Customer Development and startups?”   “No, we’re the other CIA.”  74HGZA3MZ6SV

So I gave my “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” talk as the keynote to the CIA’s venture capital conference.

Their VC firm, In-Q-Tel, has been in business for 10 years, and like most VC firms they have an annual event where they show off their new portfolio companies to their limited partners and other VC partners.  Except at this VC conference, 100 or so of the 300 attendees had badges that had their first name and only the last initial of their last name.  (And I could have sworn they all had the same badge.) They were all from somewhere in the intelligence community.

As I was leaving someone asked me, “You must have been working on this story for awhile.” Until then I had never thought about how long I had been thinking about this.  But as I got into my car I realized that this talk was the result of my never-ending asking “how come” for 36 years. So this post is how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”.  (I’ll post more about the history itself later.)

So here it is in five parts.

Part I. Thailand: Bats, Moths and John Scoggins

I was 19 in 1973 and in Thailand in the Air Force working on electronic warfare equipment on fighter planes, gunships and Wild Weasels, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  I remember asking out of the blue one day, “Where does our equipment come from, what is exactly that we’re doing?”

My sergeant looked at me like the dog just talked: “What do you mean, what are we doing?  We’re fixing this equipment; that’s your job. When the pilots say it doesn’t work we take the stuff out of the plane, bring it to the shop make sure it really is broken, you know, and unbreak it.”  And I went, “No, no, no, but why are we doing this?”

I wanted to understand more about the North Vietnamese and their surface to air missiles and radar guided AAA they got from the Russians, and how we were trying to out-smart them with receivers to pick up their radar and jammers to jam the acquisition radars and missile guidance uplink signals — a little of which I had learned in my one year of training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi.  Since it was the military and I was a lowly airman (I was outranked by the rest of the entire air force), the answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep fixing that equipment.”

But I kept on asking enough questions until finally I got the attention again of the guy who had brought me off of the very hot and humid flight line into the shop in the first place, John Scoggins.  John said, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?”  I said, “Yeah, you know, like where did it come from, I mean, how long have the Russians had this stuff? Why did they build it? How did we figure out how to build jammers?” There was no public history about surface to air missiles, though I’m sure there were probably some good classified histories, which I didn’t have access to.

John said, “Well, Steve, it’s been going on for tens of millions of years.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  I’m asking about electronic warfare and countermeasures.”  He said, “Tens of millions of years.”  And I said, “What?”  And he said, “Meet me at the tennis courts tonight.”

John was a lifer, who I guess in hindsight was a nerd and was in his element as an enlisted guy, but a master sergeant.  He must have been in his 30s, so a real “old” guy to a 19 year old.

So, he said, tennis courts, 8:00 PM tonight.  You’re on an airbase with 180 fighter planes, but we had a tennis court and gym and all kinds of accoutrements to give thousands of airmen in the middle of a war zone an alternative to almost free drugs and women (note to military, nice try but it didn’t work.)

The tennis courts had these very bright lights, and they would attract all kinds of bizarre tropical insects, including these large flying water beetles. I don’t know their actual genus, but they were called “Baht Bugs” because the Thai locals would come and capture them and sell them for a nickel each since they were a delicacy, and the Thais would take the raw bugs and literally slurp out their insides in real time.  So, they would be running around the tennis courts collecting Baht Bugs.

Baht Bugs

Baht Bugs

There were also these large moths that would attract bats.

So, I go to the tennis court, and there’s John Scoggins, and there’s a pile of electronic equipment in the corner, and it’s night, and no one played tennis at night, even though they lit the tennis court.  But there’s a pile of electronic equipment under one of the lights with a parabolic dish antenna, kind of a miniature setup of stuff we had in the labs and our shop.

And I said, “What on earth is this?”  John put on headphones, and he gave me a set of headphones, and all of a sudden I could hear this chirping sound.  And I said, “What are we listening to?”  He said, “Bats.”  “What?”  “Bats.”

John explained that bats have the equivalent of radar.  Not radar in terms of microwave radar frequencies, but they use ultrasonic frequencies to locate their prey at night, and so it’s essentially radar to locate bugs.  And since they fly at night, they don’t use vision; their ultrasonics are essentially their eyes.  They’ve build up a mental map −– just like our vision −– with echolocation.  They send out these chirps, and when one bounces off an object, it comes back.  Then they would go after the moths. That’s what I was hearing was the radar signals of a bat.

We’re listening, and it’s very cool.  And John was recording all this stuff on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, recording the flight of the bats as they were going after bugs.  Every couple minutes he’d say, now listen to this one, and you’d hear the bat chirp, and then every once in a while you’d hear even a higher frequency but lower volume sound.

John said, “Listen, you can hear the jammer.”  The what?  “The jammer,” he said, “Watch the moths.”  It turns out the moths, through evolution, had developed their own electronic countermeasures to jam the bat radar. They had developed ultrasonic receivers and ultrasonic jammers and physical countermeasures. When they picked up the bat radar illuminating them by sensitive hairs on their antennas, they would send out their own little squirt of ultrasonics by rubbing their legs together, jam the bat radar, and then they would immediately take evasive action and dive to the left and right.

Through Darwinian selection over millions of years, these moths had developed an entire electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, electronic countercounter-measures suite, and here was a guy in 1973 in Thailand who was figuring this stuff out.  To be honest, it was my first insight that there was really a bigger picture.

So, John’s point was, “I keep trying to tell officers way above me that there’s probably a ton we could learn from watching these natural systems.  What we’re doing in the air war over the North is just nothing more than something that’s been going on in nature for millions of years, but I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention.”  (Thirty years later MIT would develop the Insect Lab and work on swarm behaviors for UAV’s and robotics.)

Years later, I searched Google for anything written on moth/bat radar and countermeasures, and while now there are quite a few papers, John had never published anything on the subject.  If he did he would have been 20 years ahead of everyone else. But I always had thought the bat and moth thing was incredibly cool, and it answered a question I had never even asked: where is all this coming from?

In exchange for helping John with his bats and bugs, I learned about the big picture −– about the North Vietnamese air defense radar network and SAMs and what systems our equipment were trying to shut down, what the Wild Weasels were doing, and what John had heard from friends in Utapao and Guam on why we lost all those B-52’s in Linebacker II, what worked and didn’t over the north, almost all which was classified way past my pay level (and his.)

But I was always a sponge for new data and curious about where it came from, and what the history was, and what we were trying to do.  Most of it went in one ear and out the other.  But some of it was sticking.  And all of it was interesting.  It gave me a sense of purpose for the rest of the war.  Under John’s tutelage I ended up running a small shift and part a very large shop and was being sent to other bases in Thailand to train others how to repair the new equipment.

Thanks John, wherever you are.

I had just turned 20.

Steve at 19

Part II of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here
Download the podcast here

14 Responses

  1. A beautiful example of consilience.

  2. Great story. The fact is, just like entrepreneurship, you can’t teach intellectual curiosity.

    Here’s another interesting observation from the natural world:

    Some species of antelope/gazelle “stot” (also known as “pronking”) when stalked by predators such cheetahs and lions etc etc. Stotting consists of fleeing via a jumping behavior that appears to be sub-optimal. On first glance it appears as if they are spending to much energy in the vertical portion of the jump, relative to the horizontal portion. That is to say, they look like they have pogo sticks for legs and would be better off should change the vector of the jump – less height, more horizontal distance.

    So why stot and why not simply bolt? It is thought that this behavior might be an evolutionary adaption that signals fitness and strength, meaning that stotting ostensibly communicates to a predator that it is better served pursuing another animal, perhaps one that is sickly, one that cannot display its fitness as well.

    We witness similar behavior in corporate finance. Paradoxically, firms in financial trouble, stalked by competitors and creditors, will often issue dividends or increase dividends in order to signal financial health to the market.

    It appears as if this strategy works in the natural world, but I wonder if it is as successful in the financial world.

    More here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stotting

    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ba3UxqXiXU

  3. Pretty impressive how much knowledge can be extracted from natural processes. Goes to show the importance of being able to observe and listen. Thanks for sharing the story!

  4. Great stories!! Thanks!!

  5. Fascinating story and serendipitous meeting up with Scoggins. I’m surprised you made it through your four years in the Air Force. Intellectual curiosity not required.

    Your sister (totally unbiased)

  6. phenomenal post, steve. it immediately made me view your ‘secret history’ talk, which is also excellent.

  7. It’s a very interesting story and, if you think about it, a very good piece of evidence for natural evolution. How else would the bat-beetle system have developed? Notice also, how the measures and countermeasures become more and more specialized in the interest of immediate survival.

    Eventually, the two species locked up in such a struggle become too specialized to adapt to environmental changes and are superseded by less specialized species.

    Look at the drug warriors and the drug cartels. Eventually that whole struggle will have to go the way of prohibition. It is much too costly and just painful to watch. The warriors (with their jails) and the cartels take on the character of blood sucking parasites.

  8. The story about bats and moths has an interesting second chapter that I learned from Rajeev Motwani at Stanford 10 years ago in a Randomized Algorithms course. There’s one more creature in this ecosystem — mites that live in the moth’s ear membranes. If the mites were to live on both ears, the host moth couldn’t hear the bat’s sonar and the bat would eat the moth and the mites. So the mites evolved a randomized approach to colonizing only one ear on a moth since this optimized their host’s and therefore their own chance of survival.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=QKVY4mDivBEC&pg=PA355&lpg=PA355&dq=randomized+algorithms+moth+mites&source=bl&ots=JvUm0ElcPF&sig=p1doAkOnLVAHikvj2kJdutK5vis&hl=en&ei=H5LfSbD5D5yxtgf3xJHCDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1

  9. Steve – I LOVE the pic of you at 20 while in the Air Force. It’s funny but I never knew you had a military past and I find it really cool that you have those memories and are so good at relating them to your experiences later in life.

    Heather and the kids and I were in your neck of the woods last week and spent the day at Pigeon Point and Ano Nuevo (thanks for all your work and investment in the Visitors Center) and thought of you and the Ranch. How is the Boar population these days?

    I hope all is well with you and the rest of the Blank clan. Would love to catch up soon.

    Take care…
    Sam

  10. Great Story! Thanks for Sharing.

  11. If anybody is curious what bats sound like just type “what do bats sound like” into google. A good link to a pitch-shifted sound file is here:

  12. The reason moths dive imediately after chirping is to gain maximum distance from the bat in least time.
    Ref: Chuck Yeagers biography, “We lost alot of pilots in evasive dives, the controls would become sluggish and counter effective, when speed approached sound.”
    How come insects,men, create similar systems of behavior millions of years apart and with such diverse backgrounds. Its the basic parameters and constraints involved in the equation are the same. Air travel, media that conducts waves, velocity, acceleration. Taking it a little further it becomes apparent it isn’t genes that make a species what it is but over time its the constraints and parameters of the species enviroment not the genes. Genes are just a way of repeating a slightly different experiment. In gene manipulation we are bypassing the enviromental process entirely. Chaos and evolution could seem the same thing in Biology. Evolution changes one thing per cycle or experiment and Chaos changes too many relationships in one cycle. The term consilience is new to me but it verbalizes a sense of something I had years ago. Akin to emergence: which how can such diverse complexity ever come out of the simple
    molecular assembly. I wish I were good enough and had the time to do the math of the complexity involved with molecular possibilties. If the math figured out the probability of certain obtained assemblies it would directly calculate life on other planets. The range of greatest possible complexity to minimum and where is carbon life in that range?
    Consilience verbalizes so much. I read an article by an author whom equated economies to energy.
    Which was pretty acurate. The more an economy utilizes energy the greater its wealth. Energy efficiency in nature rules all flora and fauna so ruled by the same rules and constraints, business and nature exhibit similar behavior to survive. I think there should be a University discipline in consilience.

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