Data Architect, Ph.D, Information Technologist, Gamer
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The visual power of pure form

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An exercise I've been doing for the last week, once per day, is to take a piece of background art from the classic LucasArts adventure game Full Throttle and to analyze it in some detail to try and figure out why it looks good. It's the game with my most favourite aesthetic, and the process of attempting to decode the visual language used in it has proven both very satisfactory, and very revelatory. I plan to compile them into a PDF once I've completed the exercise, and I'll post it here for your perusal.

For now, though, I want to focus on a single revelation it has provided me. In preparation for examining one of my favourite scenes, I took a quick look at the background before I started work for the day, just to give myself some time to think about it before I started trying to decipher it in further detail. What I noticed is that the silhouette of the structures in the image was incredibly complex and interesting, considering that what they represented was a fairly simple building, in terms of function. That brief study affected me so much that I spent the entire workday looking forward to tracing that silhouette in the evening, but even so, I wasn't prepared for how incredibly detailed and ornate the result would be. Here's what I ended up with:

It's a wonderfully coherent, yet intensely intricate series of shapes that combine to present a unique and memorable silhouette. As I sat studying the result, a thought emerged: "I'd probably recognize the game and scene that this building was from just by looking at the pure, flat silhouette." The building is, in a word, memorable.

Small thoughts led to another small thought: What other scenes in other adventure games are like this? From this thought developed a hypothesis: It is possible that one of the biggest factors in making a scene or location memorable is the pure form of the shapes within it, and the uniqueness, boldness, and distinctiveness of the silhouette they present, regardless of how they're coloured, textured and lit.

A tough hypothesis to prove, but a simple enough one to examine. I'll look at some scenes from other old games in an attempt to begin exploring the idea.

An easy starting point is the stone monkey head idol from The Secret of Monkey island. It's quite possible that much of the memorable nature of this scene lies in the expression, the rivulets of blood, and the fact that the colour scheme is very dark in an otherwise colourful section of the game. I think, though, that the main factor here is that we're presented with such a recognizable shape.

In terms of complexity, it doesn't compare to the previous scene, however it's probably even more striking because it represents something very easy for us to recognize. The fact that it's so easily identifiable, even without any details, makes this a much easier to remember structure than most of the other locations in the game.

In terms of presenting a single, identifiable silhouette this is probably a step in the other direction. There's no one standout shape here to make the scene easy to call to mind, however the combination of the various structures in this scene is so unique - from the ledge we start the game on, and that imposing structure across the gap, to the twisted, smoking stacks in the distance - that it still feels representative of the power of pure forms.

I feel that some of the power of this scene may stem from the angle of the camera, too, but I'd also suggest that the angle of the camera is a method of dictating how the forms we're represented are translated to the viewer, making this a deciding aspect in the end appearance. If the angle from our Full Throttle scene had been changed to one point perspective, we'd be looking at a very different combination of shapes.

To step into a different genre entirely, here's a look at a screenshot from Blade Warrior. The intensity of detail in these pure silhouettes is breathtakingly powerful - trying to suggest this much detail while also having them lit and coloured would result it a much messier image, with many of the finer details being less noticeable. Because of the high contrast of the pure black over the bright sky, we are able to discern every intricate part of the form.

Because of this, the game is strikingly memorable in appearance. Our mind is very willing to jump in and fill the gaps that a lack of texture and colour leave, telling us very quickly what it is we're looking at.

When it comes to iconic shapes, this tree from the beginning of Loom is a great example. This shape could be drawn in any colour, detailed with any texture and lit in any way and I'm quite positive people would recognize where it's from.

To me, this is one of the most powerful examples of the evocative power of a single, unique design - mention Loom to anybody, and it's a safe bet to suggest they'll think back to this scene and this tree.

Similarly, mention Another World (or Out of This World) to anybody who is familiar with it, and it's highly likely that their mind will think back to this scene. Though the forms aren't quite as distinct as in the previous example, they're still iconic enough to be instantly emblematic of the game.

This is a special case, too, because here we see an example in which the form of a creature is almost as memorable as the location. That shadowy beast, watching ominously from atop a rock, doesn't need any details to be an intimidating presence - its power and its menace are communicated wonderfully via a flat silhouette. The stance speaks volumes about the creature's nature, and its intent, and is another great example of a powerful, memorable shape.

The incredibly simple image shown here in Mindfighter is another great example of effective silhouettes in both scenery and figure. We don't need any colours or textures to see that this is a ruined city, to feel the crumbling walls and ruined homes. A few quite simple, thoughtfully arranged shapes convey all the detail we need to form the full picture in our minds.

The figure atop his mound also conveys a story to us. His stance suggests his character, his frame of mind. We need little more than these few tiny pixels, arranged in this very specific way, to begin forming opinions on his character. Further detail is not really necessary.

It should remain important to remember, though, that details don't discount the strength of a silhouette. This wrecked alien ship from The Dig may be rendered in much more detail, but that doesn't change the fact that it's the pure silhouette of the form that conveys the most interest. The texture and lighting here is mostly just slight enhancement.

What makes this scene truly memorable and recognizable are the unique forms, those elevated structures jutting up on columns above a fairly ordinary spaceship hull. They suggest advanced technology, bring to mind classic works of science fiction, and make us wonder about the sort of people that would construct such a vehicle, just by presenting us with a distinctive form.

It's not just alien shapes that can be made evocative, though, as this shot from Gateway suggests. Here we see a very ordinary group of aquatic plants, but combined in a way that makes them interesting and memorable. Sometimes it's more about how ordinary structures are arranged and placed together that makes a silhouette recognizable and interesting, rather than the structures themselves being particularly unique.

Here, too, we see the angle of the camera playing a large part in how the shapes read, much like the earlier shot from Beneath a Steel Sky. Taken from above the surface, the forms we see here would be much more everyday, less unique, but taken from this angle, we have a wonderfully unforgettable set of forms.

A decent example of how unique form can stand out is this scene from King's Quest V - here we see many trees, but our eyes go instantly to that gnarled, twisted tree that's central to the scene. With this interesting, dynamic shape in the shot, the other trees become little more than window dressing - their absence would be felt, but their presence is hardly noticeable.

By juxtaposing fairly standard shapes with a very unique one, the artist leads our eye to where they want us to look. Some of this is also due to placement, framing, and lighting, but the strongest element here is still that odd, interesting silhouette.

But even when it's not a central placement, interesting forms have their place. The great combination of rocks and odd plant here are great, and quite memorable, even with the most interesting part of the plant being cut off. We don't need to see it all to understand the form of the rest of it, there's just enough of the shape left in the shot that we can understand what makes it interesting.

Combining the various small structures of rocks in such an interesting, curving composition creates a superstructure greater than the sum of its parts, that catches and interests our eye. It's not necessarily the presence of a unique structure that does it, but the combination of smaller structures in an interesting way.

And that brings me back to our Full Throttle scene. There's no one shape in here that's particularly unique or distinctive, it's more the combination of various assorted structures into a single superstructure that - with the camera placed just so, and the elements arranged just like this - is bold, memorable and dynamic.

The colours and textures here certainly help to make the scene evocative and memorable, suggesting various small details such as a wall patched up with spare scrap and a hole in the roof where the light hits a water tank, but for me the real star of the show here is the form, the overall shape. And it makes sense, we're use to dealing with symbols and icons, simplified representations that convey important information to us. Recognizing things just from their shape alone is important to us in daily life.

I think there's a lot of power in these shapes. After thinking about this one building, I've been working harder to ensure the silhouettes present in my own artistic work are more interesting, more dynamic, and the results already have me confident that paying attention to these will improve my work. It's easy to focus heavily on lighting, on textures, on trying to balance colours, but we shouldn't lose sight of the foundation upon which all of these things sit: the pure forms we're working from. That's an incredibly important step, and one that will help take an image to the next level.
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Red-green complementary palettes in scenery

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When I'm not sure what colour scheme to paint a scene in one of the nicest palettes to try is a "complementary" palette. This is what artists use to describe a colour scheme where the two main hues are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel:

Red green is one of the palettes I enjoy playing around with when I want to show a dramatic, fantastical scene. Both red and green are quite eerie to use as bold highlights, but both can also be used to show more natural things. Nature has plenty of examples of colours in this configuration that catch our eye - think of red flowers on a green bush.

These exceptional levels of contrast afforded by using directly opposite hues can be very powerful, but it can also be more subtle as well. Not all of the scenes I'll be looking at here are pure red or pure green - some of the greens verge into bluish, some reds are purplish or orangeish. Mainly, I wanted to look at a wide range of examples, to see how different uses of this idea vary in atmosphere, power and contrast.

One of the first examples that sprang into my mind was this section in Kyrandia 2. Red and green aren't the only hues present here, but they work extremely well at highlighting two different features simultaneously. The deep reds and orange highlights of the stream of lava mixed with the vivid green of the crystal features really gives an impression of having stumbled upon some forgotten place. It's a great moment in Zanthia's journey through this magical world, and stands out quite distinctly from the more naturally coloured parts of the game that came before.

Here's an example of a similar situation with a very different approach. Instead of the deep reds of the lava we saw before, here they're a blazing, fiery orange, with scorching yellow and white highlights, and the greenish bridge over it is a much more muted, desaturated grey-green, which stands out perfectly, but not as a feature. In the last scene, our green bridge was the highlight, here it's the lava that's the star of the piece.

Desaturating both colours gives an oppressive, musty feeling like this shot from Beneath a Steel Sky. The red gurney looks uninviting, and the drab green surrounds feel cold and creepy. Everything here looks old and dirty. It's repulsive, even before we get to the figures in the lockers.

The same game uses red and green to indicate new things, too. Here both highlight colours glow, the reds with rich saturation and the greens with harsh white highlights. The reds of the floor and greens of the walls are much more muted, and jump out much less at us than the highlight colours.

Similar glowing green highlights can be seen in this scene from Monkey Island 2, a powerful, harsh green that lights the trees and central structure in a very eerie way, helping to establish the feel of a mystic's dwelling. The reddish-brown building jumps out wonderfully from this green and grabs our attention, not only with hue, but being much deeper in value and saturation than the pale green. It's a great way of developing focus and leading the eye. A few small reddish brown features separate from the main structure in the form of torches on the left side of the image help to balance out the main focal point, too.

This scene from Gabriel Knight shows the roles reversed - here the red is the surrounding colour, feeling rich and aged, and also giving a great impression of somewhere dark and mystical. The green is the highlight feature, drawing our eyes to the crystal ball and firmly establishing what kind of area we're in. Similar to the torches in the last scene, a separate, less important green feature on the right side of the image helps to balance this strong green sitting in a sea of red. It's fascinating that two very similar locations can be given similar treatments with the colours completely reversed for quite similar effect.

Yet another scene with a similar treatment in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Here the table takes a back seat, and the crystal ball itself is given a direct green treatment that catches the eye instantly, again with a green lamp off to the right that helps to balance such a strong hue in a sea of opposite hues. The reds here are quite purple in the shadowy areas, giving a rich, luxurious feel. This combination of red and green is excellent for establishing the feeling of a mystic's abode.

Another great example of a mysterious feel with just a few greenish highlights is this shot from Waxworks. Here the highlight colours are a rich teal, with greenish shadows that make them richer, and the reds vary between deep browns and oranges to pure red curtains that frame the shot. The use of the greenish blue highlights here really draw our attention to the points of interest. It's a great way of directing the player's eye to important elements very quickly, establishing a clear narrative in a very short space of time.

More greenish blues can be seen in this scene from Conquests of the Longbow - here the teal takes a back seat while the read becomes a rich highlight. Again we see red curtains, but here the teal is much less saturated next to the super-saturated reds. They help give the feeling of rich decoration, and the focus is mostly directed to the bed and the book with the use of value, rather than hue. It's a wonderfully rich scene.

Finally, this shot from Discworld shows red and blue together in a much more natural setting. The greens here are much more yellow than in our previous two examples, giving the impression of a warm, sunny day. The reds, despite being incredibly saturated, are quite low in value, helping them not feel like too much of a feature, while still highlighting what would, otherwise, be a rather drab, brown door.

I love these colour combinations, and I love seeing how different artists use complementary red-green palettes in different ways, and how it affects their work. It's fascinating to make direct comparisons like this and realize that even with a very specific colour idea, the results can be incredibly different. Complementary palettes are wonderfully bold in their contrast, and this is just one example of the results that can be achieved by using two opposite hues to render a scene.

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The presidential communications equipment under Barack Obama

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(Updated: January 17, 2017)

Over the past five years, a range of articles on this weblog covered the secure and non-secure phones used by president Barack Obama, whether in the White House, at his Summer residence or aboard Air Force One.

With Donald Trump taking over the US presidency in a few days, it's a good moment to look back and provide a comprehensive overview of the communications equipment during Obama's time in office.

Additional context for this was provided by a background story from the New York Times from April last year, as well as by several other sources, which show an almost complete overhaul of the communication systems of the Obama White House.

Preparations under George W. Bush

For the communications systems used by the president of the United States it was more important to be reliable, than to be up-to-date, and so the equipment often served decades, almost until the moment that there are few officials left who know how to maintain it.

Modernization started under the presidency of George W. Bush, not directly to keep up with the rapid rise of internet communications, but because the existing system failed during the attacks on September 11, 2001. As the 9/11 Commission report says:
"The President told us he was frustrated with the poor communications that morning. He could not reach key officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, for a period of time. The line to the White House shelter conference room and the Vice President kept cutting off."

Conference room of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). September 11, 2001
In the drawer there's a small version of the Integrated Services Telephone (IST)
(White House photo - click to enlarge)

These failures led to an overhaul of communications systems and the installment of new equipment. Bush' deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin ordered for example the upgrade of the Intel 486 computers, replacement of the slow and cumbersome Lotus Notes e-mail system, and White House staff members started using the first BlackBerries.

From August 2006 to May 2007 the famous Situation Room in the West Wing basement underwent the biggest renovation since this facility was created under the Kennedy administration. It was transformed from one simple conference room with a small office space into a multi-room facility with high tech communications equipment, much like we got used to from fictional movies and tv-series:

Video about the White House Situation Room. December 2009.
(White House video - click to play)

Simultaneously, a new and highly secure telephone system was established that should prevent failures like on 9/11: the Executive Voice over Secure IP-network, which connects the president with all major decision makers, like the secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence.

For this network, common Cisco 7975 unified IP phones are used, but instead of the faceplate being standard silver, it's bright yellow, which is the color code for the highest classification level: Top Secret/SCI. The phones themselves have no encryption capability, there are separate network encryptors, probably from General Dynamics' TACLANE familiy.

Obama calls the French president Hollande using the Cisco IP phone with
yellow faceplate for secure communications. Key Largo, Florida, March 8, 2014
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

Before this new IP-network was installed, the president's secure phone calls went through the Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN), which is the secure telephone network for the entire US military. In 2001, the DRSN was still circuit-switched, but its special multilevel precedence and preemption (MLPP) functionality couldn't prevent the glitches during the September 11 attacks.

The DRSN uses custom-made telephone devices, the latest model being the Integrated Services Telephone 2 (IST-2), which can be used for both secure and non-secure phone calls. Probably because of this combined functionality, president George W. Bush got an IST-2 in the Oval Office and so this was also the phone that Obama found on his desk when he took over the Presidency in January 2009:

A single IST-2 telephone on Obama's desk, March 29, 2009
(White House photo by Pete Souza)

Although it was useful to have just one phone for secure and non-secure calls, the IST-2 was probably a bit too military-looking, and also a special cover plate had to be made to cover the 50 direct line buttons, to prevent visitors from seeing who Obama's primary phone contacts were:

In March or early April 2011, the single IST-2 on the president's desk was replaced by two more common phone sets:

- A black Avaya/Lucent 8520T, which is for the internal White House telephone network that was installed in 1996 and can be used for all non-secure phone calls.

- A dark gray Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone with expansion module 7916, which is for the highly secure Executive Voice over Secure IP-network, but instead of the yellow faceplate, the phone in the Oval Office has the standard silver one, probably to make it not stand out too much. Although this phone came on the president's desk under Obama, the system itself was already operational since 2007.

The Cisco 7975, Lucent 8520 and iPad 2 on Obama's desk, July 31, 2011
(White House photo by Pete Souza)

In the Oval Office, this configuration would stay in use until the Summer of 2015. The same telephone sets could be found in the office of the president's personal assistent, which is right next to the Oval Office, as well as in the West Wing offices of other White House staff members who may need secure voice communications:

Obama in the office of his personal assistent, with a black Avaya/Lucent 8520T
for non-secure and the gray IST-2 for secure phone calls, May 24, 2010.
Left of the television there's a smaller Avaya/Lucent 8410D.
(White House photo by Pete Souze)

President Obama bids farewell to his personal secretary Katie Johnson. June 10, 2011.
(Cisco 7975 IP phone for secure and the Avaya/Lucent 8520T for non-secure calls)
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

The office of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications,
with a black Avaya/Lucent 8520 and the Cisco IP phone with yellow faceplate.
Also note the white file cabinet with KABA MAS high security lock.
(photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times - click to enlarge)

In March 2011, president Obama received an iPad 2 directly from Apple founder Steve Jobs ahead of the commercial release. As of January 31, 2012, this device was used to provide Obanma with portions of the President's Daily Brief (PDB), a summary of the most important intelligence assessments. This electronic way of delivery allows analysts to add video and audio clips and interactive graphics. For security reasons, the wireless connections of the president's iPad are disabled.

New equipment under Barack Obama

Immediately after becoming the 44th president of the United States in January 2009, a problem arose with the BlackBerry that Barack Obama was almost addicted to before he was elected. The president using a BlackBerry was considered a big security risk, as foreign intelligence agencies could easily track the president's movements and intercept his communications.

Secured BlackBerry

Obama definitely wanted to keep his BlackBerry, so the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) came up with a solution: in cooperation with engineers from BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) they secured a set of regular BlackBerries with the SecurVoice application.

Somewhere in May or June 2009, this highly secured BlackBerry was delivered to president Obama as well as to a group of up to twenty people with whom he liked to stay in close contact with. This because it's only possible to have secure communications if both ends are using the same encryption method or device.

President Obama using his secured BlackBerry 8900 in the limousine while
traveling to the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia. November 10, 2010.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

As of 2009, the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) started upgrading its Washington Area System network, modernizing six network switches in Washington, transiting secure telephone units to IP-based phones, purchasing 24 secure deployable voice switches, upgrading narrow and wideband satellite systems, and conversing the radio network used for presidential travels to an IP-based system.

As part of the Senior Leadership Communication System (which supports the president, vice president, Congress, secretary of Defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, etc.) the WHCA established a nationwide network that would survive a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) from a nuclear blast. This network would consist of fiber-optic rings with redundant connections with HEMP and non-HEMP networks.

For all this, the WHCA asked an extra $ 24.7 million for its 2009 procurement budget, which also included upgrading the Head of State network to IP communications. This network is used by the president to communicate with foreign leaders, but unfortunately we have no additional information about it, so it's not clear which other heads of state are connected to it and whether and how it is secured.

A small room within the White House Situation Room where the president
"can make a head-of-state phonecall from the Situation Room itself"
(screenshot from a White House video)

Cool phones?

Even though Obama inherited a fully modernized Situation Room and a sophisticated IST-2 phone on his desk, and was also provided with a uniquely secured BlackBerry, he still expressed his disappointment of the communications equipment he found in the White House. During a meeting with fundraisers in April 2011, he said:

"I always thought I was gonna have like really cool phones and stuff," and: "We can't get our phones to work." Acting out his exasperation: "Come on, guys. I'm the president of the United States! Where's the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn't happen."

Although this wasn't really the case for the president's own equipment, it did apply to other White House employees. The New York Times reported that West Wing aides were stuck "in a sad and stunning state of technological inferiority: desktop computers from the last decade, black-and-white printers that could not do double-sided copies, aging BlackBerries (no iPhones), weak wireless Internet" and desktop phones from the mid-1990s.

Part of this problem was that responsibility for White House technology has long been divided between four agencies, each with their own chief information officer:
- the National Security Council (NSC)
- the Executive Office of the President (EOP)
- the US Secret Service (USSS)
- the White House Communications Agency (WHCA)
That led to a series of Band-Aid solutions over the years, as one agency or another has attempted piecemeal upgrades to White House gear.

"Composite of several images of the President and his national security team during meetings
in the Situation Room discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden" - May 2011.
On the table we see the Cisco with yellow faceplate and an STE secure phone.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

Even in March 2016, when a full IT modernization had already started (see below), Obama said that the pop-culture depiction of presidential-grade technology and the real world are far apart: movies and TV shows "make it appear as if I’m in the [Situation] room and moving things. [We] have half a finger print and a half an hour later I’m tracking a guy on streets of Istanbul. Doesn’t work that way, no. Sometimes I’m just trying to get a connection."

After all the system upgrades, trying to get a connection should not be a problem anymore. Real-time monitoring of military of intelligence operations may be different, but the White House was eager to show that at least they were capable of doing so during the moments when US marines killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011:

President Obama in one of the small conference rooms of the Situation Room,
following the operation against Osama Bin Laden. May 1, 2011.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

In the air

With quite some improvements of the ground-based communications systems, the equipment aboard Air Force One was still lagging behind. For their modernization, an $ 81 million contract was awarded to L-3 Communications in 2009. This included replacing outdated analog systems, providing fixed bandwidth switching and integrated secure/non-secure video teleconferencing.

By August 2012, all the old phone sets from the 1980s had been replaced by the Airborne Executive Phone (AEP), which is able to make both secure and non-secure calls from a single handset. It also provides Multiple Independent Levels of Security (MILS) for digital voice and internet data access.

President Obama talks on the phone aboard Air Force One. April 10, 2014.
The Airborne Executive Phone has the red light on, which means it's a secure call.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to see the full version)

After the upgrade of the phone system, administration officials still had to sent e-mails over an air-to-ground internet connection that was often no better than dial-up modems from the mid-1990s.

Current White House deputy chief of staff for operations Anita Decker Breckenridge told The New York Times that this wasn't acceptable anymore and that she has since worked with the Air Force to upgrade the president’s plane to broadband speeds: "This is the Oval Office in the sky. Talk about a network that didn’t work."

On the road

The Airborne Executive Phone was also installed in the presidential limousine: in the next picture we can recognize a dark gray version of the device between the seats, underneath the presidential seal. President Obama seems to be using a Motorola RAZR flip-phone, for which there's a cradle right next to the side-window.

Previously, an earlier Motorola clamshell phone was used inside the limousine, which means that there must also be a picocell inside, as the heavily armored vehicle will act as a Faraday cage that blocks wireless signals. In the picture, Obama also has two BlackBerries and his iPad in a cover:

President Obama talks on the phone with Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan during the
motorcade ride to Palm Beach International Airport. July 20, 2012.
(White House Photo - Click to enlarge)

On vacation

"Presidents don't get vacations, they just get a change of scenery" - so when president Obama was on Summer vacation at the Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark on the island of Martha's Vineyard, the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) would install all the necessary equipment, especially for secure communications.

In the following picture we see Obama during his vacation in August 2011, with on the table two common white Panasonic KX-TS108W office phones, which the WHCA provides for non-secure calls. For highly secure calls, two Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phones with yellow faceplate were installed:

> Read more: Obama on vacation

President Obama monitoring Hurricane Irene with his assistant John Brennan and
some other officials. Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, August 26, 2011
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

The New York Times reported about a situation during Obama's Summer vacation in 2014: when White House aides accompanying the president struggled with their laptops as they tried to revise a presidential statement, they could not get on-the-road tech support from the WHCA because the agency’s staff members were not authorized to log in to computers issued by the Executive Office of the President.

IT modernization

After this incident in Martha's Vineyard, White House deputy chief of staff for operations Anita Breckenridge was determined to finally fix the mess of the presidential communications systems.

By March 2015 she had hired David Recordon, who designed and maintained the office technology for Mark Zuckerberg and the other employees at Facebook, to modernize the White House IT systems. Just 28 years old, he was appointed as the first Director of White House Information Technology. "It was an interesting challenge and world for me" according to Recordon.

For this overhaul, the White House didn't need to request additional money - it was paid out of the existing technology budgets for the various agencies involved. In some cases, money was saved by eliminating duplications: the four agencies involved no longer negotiate their own contracts with cellphone companies and no longer buy duplicate copies of software licenses.

President Obama in his private study in the Treaty Room of the White House. We see two
black Avaya/Lucent 8410 phones, a computer screen and an HP laser printer. March 2009.
(Callie Shell/Aurora Photos - click to enlarge)

New IP phones

After almost 20 years, the old internal White House telephone network with the black Avaya/Lucent telephones was replaced by a new IP-based system with the latest Cisco IP phones from the 8800-series.

These phones have full-color (video)screens, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity (although likely disabled for security reasons), and speed-dial buttons that can be configured online - for the old desktop phones only few staff members knew how to program them. Many White House aides now carry the most recent iPhones, but Obama still carries his own specially modified BlackBerry.

The new IP phone system seems to have been first rolled out in the White House staff offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) right across the street, where the new phones were first seen in this picture from November 2015:

White House staffers in the social media office of the White House
in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. November 2015
(photo: Stephen Crowley/New York Times - click to enlarge)

Later, the new phones also made their way to the office of Obama's personal secretary, right next to the Oval Office, where they replaced the old Avaya/Lucent Lucent 8520T and now sit next to the older Cisco IP phone for the highly secure Executive Voice over Secure IP-network (here also with the standard silver instead of the yellow faceplate):

Obama presents a birthday cake to his personal secretary Ferial Govashiri,
in her office just outside the Oval Office. August 30, 2016
(White House photo/Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

Strangely enough, this new Cisco IP phone was not yet installed on the president's desk in the Oval Office. There, a much simpler telephone from a different manufacturer had replaced the old big black Lucent 8520 by May 2015. The new Avaya 9608 IP phone is a very common office phone with just an average monochrome display and only a few direct line buttons:

President Obama talks on his phone for secure calls with Secretary of State
John Kerry. In front of it there's the new Avaya 9608, July 13, 2015.
(White House photo by Pete Souza - Click to enlarge)

This Avaya IP phone was also placed underneath the side-table in the seating area of the Oval Office, as can be seen in the following picture. In the seating area there's always the same set of telephones as on the president's desk, but when the president makes a phone call, he usually uses the ones on his desk. The phones in the seating area can then be used by his aides or advisers to listen in to the call.

President Obama and FBI Director James Comey speak to members of
the media in the Oval Office of the White House, June 13, 2016.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais - click to enlarge)

However, in November 2016, the Avaya phone underneath the side table had been replaced by the more futuristic looking Cisco IP phone from the 8800-series, but on the president's desk there still seems to be the simpler Avaya device.

Jann Wenner visits president Obama in the Oval Office, the day
after the 2016 presidential election, November 9, 2016.
(White House photo/Pete Souza - click to enlarge)

Update: A close look at the high-resolution version of a photo from December 24, 2016, shows that also on the president's desk, the Avaya phone has been replaced by what looks like the new Cisco from the 8800-series, with some kind of module on the back.

New computers

Besides the new telephone system, director of White House Information Technology David Recordon also installed a new computer network. The New York Times reported that first he tried to map the miles of Ethernet cables and phone wires inside the walls of the White House. His team of technicians eventually discovered and removed 13,000 pounds of abandoned cables that no longer served any purpose.

"They had been installed over the decades by different organizations using different standards, different techniques, from different eras" Recordon said. "They were finding these pipes that just had bundles of cable that had been cut off over the years, no longer used. So we just started pulling it out."

With the wiring fixed, Recordon started replacing the old computers by new ones with fast, solid-state drives and fast processors, as well as installing color printers. The WiFi is now made strong enough to live-stream for example an event on Facebook from the Roosevelt Room. And finally, the White House has started requiring users to log on to their computers with two-factor authentication using a smartcard and a pincode.

An Avocent KVM-switch and a smartcard-reader with a smart ID card
inserted, as seen in Ben Rhodes' White House office
(photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Links and sources
- The New York Times: Obama Boosted White House Technology; Trump Sees Risk (Dec. 2016)
- The White House: How the Presidential Transition Works in the Social Media Age (Oct. 2016)
- The New York Times: Technology Upgrades Get White House Out of the 20th Century (Apr. 2016)
- Many more pictures at Cryptome: Obama Phones (Jan. 2012)
- NBC News documentary: Inside the Obama White House (2009)
- See also: The White House Museum

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1 Comment and 7 Shares
Further out to the right, it works correctly, but the reason it works still involves the word 'firmware.'
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4 days ago
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4 days ago
I have a friend who is in the rightward category..
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm

After day one, AI is crushing humanity at poker

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The first day of the Brains vs. AI poker tournament is in the books, and the Libratus bot from Carnegie Mellon University emerged as the clear winner, collecting $81,716 to the humans $7,228. Both the players and Libratus’ creators cautioned that it was still too early to make a judgement call about who might win the 20-day tournament. But it’s clear that this year’s AI has made some major improvements on the 2015 system, Claudico, which ended up losing to humanity.

“I felt like Libratus is playing a lot better than Claudico did in the previous challenge,” wrote Jason Les, one of the four poker pros, in an email to The Verge. “Preflop, it is using a widely mixed strategy,” of small bets, calls, and very large wagers. “This is something...

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