6 Important Things That Are Done With Insanely Outdated Tech
The most unrealistic part of The Avengers isn't the Norse god or the green guy with the anger-management issues -- it's the idea that a government agency would have a high-tech flying base filled with super advanced, holographic computers. In reality, today's government workers are lucky if they get the same 1998 Compaq your grandpa uses to talk to Arby's on The Face Book.
NASA Had To Buy Spare Parts From eBay
NASA is the only U.S. government agency that has sent people to the moon and installed a selfie-taking robot on Mars, so it should come as no surprise that it sits at the "forefront" of technological innovation. Please note the sarcastic quote marks. For starters, before the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, NASA still tested the safety of its booster rockets with Intel 8086 chips -- the same chips used in the original IBM PC in 1981, back when the word "laptop" just meant your crotch.
Because if it's good enough for running over 8-bit donkeys, it's good enough to colonize Mars.
Obviously, Intel stopped making that chip long ago ... so where did the official space agency of the world's mightiest nation procure this essential equipment? In the same place where you get your vintage, lightly used ThunderCats Underoos, of course ... on eBay!
"We also won the complete Lost In Space series on LaserDisc. Ominous, yet fucking sweet."
Since the likes of RadioShack and Best Buy don't stock the 8086 anymore, NASA had to turn to auction websites to boost its ever-dwindling collection of backup parts. If you sold an old computer or some outdated medical equipment to KubrickFan69 around 2002, there's a chance your used junk has left our atmosphere at some point. And it wasn't just chips: NASA also had to plunder other arcane parts, like drives for its eight-inch floppy disks.
Presumably, the idea is to make aliens feel so sorry for us that they won't even bother to invade.
The space shuttle has since been put out of its misery, but other NASA projects are still running on pure nerd nostalgia. The Hubble Space Telescope's backup systems depend on a chip from 1989, the International Space Station's most important computer runs on a processor from the year The Breakfast Club came out, and even the Mars Curiosity rover was launched into space in 2011 with a version of a chip from 1997. Hopefully NASA gets a good deal on the interplanetary shipping when they inevitably have to order replacement parts for that one.
The Secret Service Relies On An '80s Mainframe That Works Only Half The Time
Since it's charged with keeping the president safe, of course the Secret Service would be equipped with all the best super-technology that the USA has to offer the world ... of 1987.
For those living in the present, unfortunately, the Secret Service's rig might seems a little dated. According to Sen. Joe Lieberman, as recently as 2010 the Secret Service still relied on an '80s-era mainframe, much like the one Matthew Broderick hacked into in WarGames. Something like this:
There are no photos of the Secret Service's actual setup for security reasons,
and because the film is still being developed.
And it's not like it's one of those "still does the job just fine" situations. Lieberman, who once depended on the antiquated machines for his own safety, says the Secret Service's IBM mainframe is so problem-prone that it's fully operational only 60 percent of the time. Since the government standard is around 98 percent, this means that the computers meant to keep the thickness of the president's skin from being tested in a literal way are probably less reliable than the ones giving out change at the Pentagon's cafeteria.
The last thing they want is for the blue screen of death to be a reference to their boss.
Luckily, the Secret Service is making a valiant attempt to modernize, starting with the most important area: They've recently solicited proposals to develop software that can detect sarcasm in social media posts. Oh, and they asked that this software work with Internet Explorer 8, because when the president's life is on the line, you accept nothing less.
VA Hospital Employees Still Use MS-DOS To Schedule Appointments
The VA hospital is where legitimate American heroes receive the maintenance they often need after getting run through the engines of war. That is, if they can get an appointment with a doctor at all. Over the past year there's been a controversy about VA hospitals failing to do the one thing they're here for and letting veterans die without care ... which is slightly less surprising when you find out that this what they're using to schedule appointments:
That's MS-DOS, the Batman Begins to Microsoft Windows' The Dark Knight -- a relic from the era before software developers recognized the power of colors. Last summer, the director of the VA hospital in Wichita, Kansas, informed U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts via fax (of course) that the Jurassic-era scheduling system had contributed to the creation of "secret waiting lists." These pen-and-paper lists not only allowed the staff to make vets wait longer than the federally acceptable period of 14 days for an appointment, but if they croaked while waiting, they wouldn't show up in the hospital's official records. Which raises the question: If a vet dies and there's no official record of it, are you bastards still going to Hell?
The U.S. Copyright Office Still Requires TV Studios To Ship Physical Copies Of Shows
Sending TV shows to the U.S. Copyright Office preserves those shows in the Library of Congress so that future generations can be baffled by the lack of mobile phones in Seinfeld or the inexplicable popularity of Everybody Loves Raymond. And since so much of that content is shot, consumed, and whined about in digital form, you'd think the Copyright Office would have a way to receive copies digitally too. Well, you'd be wrong. This is how Netflix has to send them Orange Is The New Black:
Strangely, the tape seems considerably more worn during Laura Prepon's lesbian sex scenes.
That's not as bad as a VHS tape -- it's called a Betacam, and it offers much higher quality. But it's still strange that, in this day and age, we have to send physical copies at all. Even though every submitted show eventually gets stored digitally in a Library of Congress data bank, someone still has to convert it from a DVD or videotape first. Not only is this a huge pain in the ass for studios and registrars, but it often means that the copy being preserved for our great-great-grandkids to binge-watch is a lower-quality one. For instance, House Of Cards can be watched online in 4K, but it still goes to the Copyright Office on DVD-R, which means the secretion status of Kevin Spacey's facial pores could be completely lost on future space archaeologists.
The reliance on vintage technology isn't so surprising when you consider that, until September 2015, the Library of Congress' top dog was 87-year-old James H. Billington, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan and is proud of the fact that he doesn't use email. Over the years, Billington consistently ignored calls to hire someone who can actually tell an iPad from a dinner plate, presumably under the impression that this whole "technology" thing will blow over and we'll go back to entertaining each other with shadow puppets in no time.
They don't even have a mission statement, because his quill ink kept drying out.
The Pentagon Uses A Payroll System From The '60s (And Soldiers Are Losing Pay Because Of It)
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which is the agency responsible for soldier payroll, uses an archaic computer system written mostly in the '60s in a language called COBOL, which is the programming equivalent of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The system is so inept that DFAS employees constantly have to write down information from one computer, carry it across the office, and type it into another one. The 7 million lines of COBOL code that comprise the prehistoric system have no reference manual, and the availability of qualified programmers is constantly shrinking. Likely because half of them died in the Civil War.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth this program-"
And when a payroll error inevitably occurs, correcting the problem becomes a soul-crushing ordeal for the service members that often lasts months. One victim just happened to be retired four-star general Peter Schoomaker, who was called back into active duty as the Army chief of staff in 2003. Schoomaker, whose job it was to sit at a table and advise the president during the second Iraq War, didn't start getting paid for months. To add insult to injury, the system automatically sent a premature consolation letter to Schoomaker's "widow." They didn't even spell his name right.
For a brief moment, Jen P. Schoomaker technically became the nation's first openly lesbian General.
U.S. Government Retiree Paperwork Is Processed By Hand In A Giant Underground Cave
The U.S. government is the nation's largest employer, which means they have a ton of paperwork on everyone who has ever worked for Uncle Sam. Unfortunately, we don't mean "paperwork" as a figure of speech -- there are over 28,000 file cabinets full of paper records that have to be processed by hand. And, in keeping with the retro theme, that processing takes place in the least technological place possible: a big-ass underground cave in Pennsylvania.
Presenting the most boring Bat-Cave your tax dollars could pay for.
To house all the paperwork, the Office of Personnel Management leases a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania from a company called Iron Mountain. U.S. government workers filing for retirement are required to print their applications and ship them there -- in 15 percent of cases, an OPM worker embarks on an epic journey to hunt down any matching records in the eight "file caverns." In the other 85 percent, documents are scanned into digital records and can be searched electronically, but current procedure dictates that those files must still be printed out and placed into manila folders, because of stupid cave politics, most likely.
After another few weeks of hassling distant government offices for missing records, still more shipping and more manila happens before pension checks can finally be mailed. The OPM's efficiency problems are so ingrained into federal bureaucracy culture that some workers actually save up to support themselves during the weeks to months when the government is taking its sweet time calculating how much they owe them.
They have top men working on it, you have Top Ramen to survive on.
The government has spent millions on failed attempts to update the facility over the last 30 years, most recently on a $106 million electronic records system rolled out in 2008 ... only to be scrapped three months later. To this day, OPM spelunkers still have to process paperwork by hand. On the upside, the cave-dwelling paper jockeys will be some of the few human beings that survive the inevitable nuclear apocalypse. And then they can start repopulating the Earth ...
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