If you recognized the title of this post, congratulations. You are a true übernerd, a geek among geeks. It's the launch code from the movie WarGames, which Boing Boing reminds me was the greatest geek movie ever and was originally released twenty-five years ago. Did you miss the silver anniversary celebrations in May? So did I, but Wired magazine offers a nostalgic retrospective for all of us who miss the days of 300-baud dial-up modems and 8-inch diskettes.
WarGames was a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence and human stupidity. The sermon was a timely one, albeit delivered in a candy coating of teen angst, love, and adventure with lead roles played by Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. In 1983 the president of the United States actually believed it was possible that Bible prophecy might require him to play a leading role in the battle of Armageddon. Certainly launching a nuclear war would be an excellent way to set off the Apocalypse—in accordance with God's divine plan (and love and mercy and all that). We tended to avoid thinking about it too much back then because it was difficult to function if you were shuddering all day.
I didn't own my own computer yet when WarGames came out, but I already knew about modems and punch cards (almost—but not quite—obsolete then) and computer terminals. The local university had a connection to the ARPAnet, the Internet precursor sponsored by the Defense Department, and my nerdiest friends were on it daily. Although I had my doubts about WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), the computer that could control the entire United States nuclear arsenal, the scenario seemed realistic enough. Yes, it was science fiction, but not beyond the limits of credulity. Suspension of disbelief was all too easy.
That is, until the grand finale. That's the scene in the command bunker where WOPR begins to crack the secret ten-character launch code so that it can follow a teenager's inadvertent command to play out a thermonuclear war. Fortunately for the dramatic impact of the movie, WOPR flashed its progress in code-breaking on the large screens in the command center. Ten-character alphanumeric strings flashed past the eyes as WOPR searched for the launch key. The audience in the movie theater was rapt.
I, however, got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Damn!
WOPR was being allowed to riffle through the ten-character strings without any limitations. There was no one-attempt-per-second rule. No three-tries-and-you're-out. WOPR was jamming through the ten-character strings without hindrance. With 26 characters in the alphabet (uppercase only it seemed) and 10 numerals, WOPR has 3610 possibilities to check. That's between three and four quadrillion. WOPR was presumably a state-of-the-art military supercomputer capable of sophisticated war game simulation. I imagine it would have had massively parallel computing architecture. If it could crunch billions of possible codes per second, WOPR would crack the launch security barrier within perhaps a year or so by simple brute force. If it could crunch trillions per second, then perhaps hours or minutes. Not very secure.
Even back in 1983 the IBM Personal Computer boasted a microprocessor clocked at 4.77 MHz. Sure, that was just a microchip, but it indicated the low end of the computing power of the day. Yes, I was mildly disgruntled at the ease with which WOPR would be able to crack the code. Not very reassuring or realistic.
But then things got worse. Dramatically worse. Suddenly the first character of the launch code was frozen on the display screen: C. WOPR had figured out the first character. People in the command room were horrified. Then: P. Oh, no! WOPR was getting closer!
Now I was really disgusted. If you were allowed to figure out the code one character at a time, then I could do it myself, in a couple of minutes, without any massively parallel computing power. It's boring, but it's easy. You do it like this, beginning with the first character:
“Is it an A?”
“Is it a B?”
“Is it a C?”
Then on to the second character:
“Is it an A?”
“Is it a B?”
“Is it a C?”
Yes, this one would take longer. If you make it all the way through the alphabet, then rattle off the ten numerals, one after the other.
In a few minutes you'd have the whole thing. Thermonuclear war. Boom!
No, it didn't actually ruin the movie for me, but I was rather disgruntled. To make matters worse, none of my friends cared. Sure, the nerdy ones merely agreed that it was a dumb mistake—but what did you expect from Hollywood, anyway? The less nerdy ones simply pointed out that it made the ending more exciting. Yeah, I got that.
It was probably only the math geeks like me that were really irritated. But we don't count.