Black Boxes

I refer, of course, to what is generally the 2nd level definition of the term: any complex piece of equipment, typically a unit in an electronic system, with contents that are mysterious to the user.

When I first started competing in the sport of paintball, the technology was relatively primitive.  Gun owners will appreciate that we were trying to do mock battle with single shot pistols.  Action was very much like what one sees when combatants are wielding muskets.  A projectile must be loaded, the firing mechanism cocked, then the whole shebang aimed and fired.

Good shooters (I count myself among them), could fire accurately at about 6 to 8 rounds per minute or one shot every 9 to ten seconds.

Considering what the technology was accomplishing – the acceleration of a very fragile object up to 300 feet per second (204.5 mph) over a distance of about 8 inches (barrel) without shattering that projectile except when it impacted its target – we were pretty pleased with what we had.  Cops-n-Robbers was no longer a game consisting of endless arguments over who shot who first.  We had evidence.

It didn’t take long for the arms race to find its way to the game.  Inside of my first year competing, someone had invented the “pump”, the “gravity feed” and the “autotrigger”.  Like a shotgun, pumps allowed our guns to be fired more rapidly.  The gravity feed kept a steady supply of projectiles feeding into the breech and the autotrigger eliminated the need to pull the trigger for each shot, instead allowing you to simply hold it in the firing position.

Rate of Fire increased to approximately 7 rounds per second, an  order of magnitude greater than previously.  (If you’ve ever had 15 shooters firing 7 rounds per second at you, you’ll really appreciate that difference.)

Eventually (about ten years after the above), we figured out how to add electronics to the mix and the rate of fire increased by another order of magnitude, with some top of the line guns capable of firing nearly 40 rounds per second.

Sheridan 3 Barrel “rock-n-cock” mechanical pistol and Planet Eclipse SL-74 electronic gun

But it wasn’t the volume of fire that concerned us.  It was the nature of the technology.

Cheating in paintball took many forms – wiping off a valid hit, simply ignoring a valid hit to distract your opponents, sneaking extra players onto the field, even down to the level of fixing games between teams or fixing a game with the officials.  All the normal asshole competitive behavior one sees in any sport.  It also extended to the guns we used.  A very common cheat was to increase your guns firing velocity beyond the legal 300 feet per second limit.

“Shooting hot” increased range (though usually not accuracy), increased pain and was therefore used as an intimidation tactic, but most importantly, it violated the safety regulations.  Our eye protection was only rated to a certain impact level and just about anyone will tell you that force is a product of mass and velocity.

But there was a problem.

With mechanical guns, it was very easy to determine if the gun was a cheater.  All manner of techniques were devised by players to get a hot gun onto the field.  We used shooting chronographs to test velocities before the start of every game.  It was often quite humorous to see how many players got out of the testing line when it became apparent that the officials were physically examining the guns.

But when electronics hit the scene we had to throw out the rulebook.  Opening up an electronic gun showed nothing but a black box of circuit board, wiring, switches, LEDs and an electronically operated valve.  It was not possible to look at a gun and determine what it was or was not doing.

A vast market in “cheater boards” grew up in the industry, chips programmed to allow the shooter to manipulate their gun’s performance in illegal ways that were undetectable.

Some of us recognized this potential early on and fought tooth and nail to prevent this technology from being used in competition.  We lost that battle.  To the best of my current knowledge, gun cheats remain rampant in the sport.

When I was growing up, we had a black and white television that ran on vacuum tubes.  (We did not have remotes and sometimes you had to go up onto the roof to adjust the antenna, but that’s a different story.)  The ability to fix that television remained in the hands of the common individual.  If the set didn’t turn on, you opened up the back and observed the performance of the vacuum tubes.  The one that didn’t light up was removed with a twist, a trip was taken to the hardware store or the drug store, the tube was tested again, a replacement purchased and installed.

You could observe the mechanism in operation and, at the very least, evaluate whether or not the repairman should be called in.  Most times, not.

I distinctly remember when Admiral television introduced their “plug-n-play” all transistorized television.There was a panel on the front of the set that gave the owner access to a tray of circuit boards.  If one failed, you pulled it and swapped in a new one.

This was obviously an attempt to move TV viewers who LIKED having the ability to analyze the performance of their television sets into the age of transistors; they couldn’t actually see what was wrong with their non-working television, but they still retained the ability to manipulate its performance.

Obviously, that did not last long.  Today, when the television doesn’t work, we throw it out and replace it.  Not necessarily because we want to, but because that’s pretty much the only option we have.

One of my first cars was a ’73 Camaro.  I could actually do maintenance on it myself (and I’m not a car geek by any stretch). A few years later I acquired a Z28.  One of the parts I’d personally replaced in the ’73 with nothing more than a screwdriver now required the complete dismount of the engine.  My current vehicles have “sensors” for the electronics package and it seems that the sensors fail more frequently than the mechanisms they’re sensing!  (And who knows what that is?  In order to find out what they’re doing or not doing, you need to plug your car into another black box!)

Through the 80s I had a number of ultimate black boxes – computers – (IBM & clones).  If I needed to replace a component or add capacity, all I needed to do was pull a data cable and a power cable.  Or swap out one chip set for another (aka Admiral TV).  Today…

When Science Fiction was originally conceived, it was thought of as a way to entice readers into becoming involved – directly – with the sciences they were reading about.  Early readers were known to have metal working shops, chemistry labs;  they built rockets to deliver the mail, analyzed and created new radio circuitry.

But kids can no longer take apart that TV or car and figure out how they work.

Big Data collects all manner of info about us and runs it through a black box of algorithms; our leased property resides in the biggest black box we’ve ever devised, the Cloud, and few of us know how to look inside.  Black box voting machines are now being used in national elections.

And so it goes.

One of the hallmarks of an advanced, intelligent, self-aware entity is its ability to manipulate its environment…

I could hear their voices, in the queer, cackling, un-English words.  I could read their bewildered longings. It was in a minor key, I think. It called, and called, and asked, and hunted hopelessly. And over it all the steady rumble and whine of the unknown, forgotten machines. Twilight, by John W. Campbell

Your publisher manipulating his environment (first flag capture circa 1983).


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