A Supercomputing Future

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A Supercomputing Future”
by Kai Staats
December 2011

(This, my final column for the Northern Colorado Business Report was not published and is therefore provided here in full.)

Today, November 18, was the closing day of SuperComputing 2011, the conference and trade show for high performance computing research, labs, and industry. For this week the Seattle Washington Convention Center hosted representation of the latest, greatest, and fastest computers in the world, an overwhelming array of blinking lights, whirring fans, and massive LCD, plasma, and projection screens demonstrating human brain power applied to the human quest to learn how all things work.

It was my first time attending since 2008, my ninth or tenth show in total, but as I have been away for three years, I experienced a jump in the otherwise, relatively steady evolution of compute power and associated research results.

As in the movie “Minority Report” there are now fully interactive touch screens the size of a wall. Up to four people may interact, moving, panning, zooming, and annotating documents, photos, and film. I was able to not only resize a movie while it played, but with one hand rotate it 360 degrees, the motion never even hesitating. The immersive 3D worlds are faster, smoother, and of course, much higher resolution. Still a bit awkward for data visualization, but the flight simulators are amazing!

The challenge of building supercomputing clusters has in many respects remained the same, the balance between data storage, bandwidth, calculations per second, and visualization an ongoing battle.

As CPUs get faster, they need to be fed data at a higher rate. The interconnect fabric (network) advances, from 10/100 ethernet to gigabit, from Infiniband to 10g-e and beyond. But then the memory bus is saturated and can’t keep up, so the speed and quantity of RAM and cache must increase too.

As CPU frequencies have for the most part stalled, Moore’s law is maintained by adding more cores, two, four, and eight on a single socket. But even this has its limitation as we reach the boundary of how small we are able to manufacture a transistor and how effectively we may move heat without building quantum machines.

We add more processors in the form of GP/GPUs, advanced accelerators which grew out of the graphics card industry. Nvidia is leading the charge. Ah! A new challenge is presented, for now we have 500 cores in a PCI slot and four slots to fill. But with 2000 cores, a million or more across an entire cluster, we find that our programming models no longer hold up for the message passing interface which moves fragments of a computational problem takes more processing power, diminishing returns due to fabric latency, OS jitters, and kernel interrupts not easily be solved.

IBM builds a rack-mount node which takes four people to carry (let alone install). HP and Dell design higher density blades which require water cooling. Cray reinvents the wheel (it’s a very nice wheel). TI brings to market new digital signal processors while the ARM processor makes enters this industry with a many-core architecture, but the OS platform remains infantile, lacking industry support for compilers and management tools.

Tired yet? I have only just begun. Super computing is super confusing and yet somehow it works. The competition is fierce, new companies claiming fastest and best their second year in the industry. Big guys buy up small guys as the small guys continue to innovate, racing to support the most advanced research in the world: bioinformatics, nuclear physics, brain mapping, three dimensional imaging of the earth beneath our feet, climate modeling, quantum interactions at the event horizon of a black hole.

We now understand more of the universe inside, immediately around, and far beyond ourselves than ever before. Our knowledge of how things work is growing at an exponential rate. We now compare the DNA of a newly discovered species with another, from wet lab to sequencing in a matter of hours, and we know how many millions of years separate the two in their evolutionary tree. We model with incredible accuracy the proteins that make up various parts of our body and the function of individual cells in the human brain. We better predict the movement of hurricanes up coast lines while the mathematical prediction of fluctuations on Wall Street continues uninterrupted.

I watched a 3D model of a protein-ligand interaction, the colors ranging from white to blue to red to represent the heat-energy in various parts of the system. It jumped, danced, and moved in apparently intelligent ways, an “arm” of the protein connecting to itself only to break again where the synthetic drug attempted to bond. The model from start to finish was over a minute in length, and yet it happens millions of times a second throughout our bodies. For a moment I felt alive in a way that is difficult to explain, picturing in my mind these molecular interactions inside of me at a scale I cannot fully comprehend.

I want to know how all of this works, all of it! –but even in ten lifetimes it is impossible to gain this understanding for the people who bring these discoveries to life are experts in increasingly narrow fields.

Next year I want to attend the show again, and as I have promised myself too many times before, read the posters, interview the grad students and professors who have traveled across the globe to present their latest findings, for their knowledge is our future, a future modeled in supercomputers.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:42+00:00 December 10th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Taking out the Trash

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Taking out the Trash”
By Kai Staats
4 November 2011

“What I experienced then, and what I believe holds true today, is that the most important of all factors in an age of information overload is forming good habits of data organization and of equal importance, taking out the trash. “

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:42:24+00:00 November 9th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Specialization in Userland

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Living with Specialization in Userland”
By Kai Staats
7 October 2011

“Certainly, there are individuals in each generation willing to explore, to push their boundaries and dive into the depths of what an operating system or applications can do. But how many people have this comfort? I spent three full days upgrading my friends’ digital life, but how many working professionals have this kind of time? What’s more, If you do not know what you are missing, why would you ask for more?”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:42:58+00:00 October 8th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Looking Up

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Astronomy keeps amateurs, pros looking up”
By Kai Staats
9 September 2011

(This column is currently missing from the Northern Colorado Business Report database.)

When I was in my final year of high school and first two years of college I presided over the Phoenix Astronomical Society. In those years I was privileged to meet Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, co-discoverers of the Shoemaker-Levy comet which later plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Now more than twenty years later, Gene has passed away, his ashes scattered on the surface of the moon while David and I had long ago lost contact. This summer, I dove headfirst into a documentary film project about astronomers and astrophysicists, my desire to capture their motivation to ask where did we come from, and why? A passion for knowledge expressed through looking up.

The second day of August I joined David, his wife Wendee, and three dozen amateur astronomers at the annual Adirondack Astronomy Retreat, hosted by SUNY in the mountains of upstate New York. It was a long overdue reunion with David and a wonderful learning experience for me, having been away from amateur astronomy for far too long.

In the process of working on my film and my return to astronomy, I came to appreciate two aspects which are both compelling and complimentary to each other. Astronomy, more than any other science, offers an accessible, functional bridge between amateurs and professionals, a gateway for the next generation to be compelled to learn.

Amateur astronomy enables anyone with some experience, patience, and a little luck to happen upon an event in the night sky which aids the professional community. While professional astronomers have at their disposal more advanced telescopes, the amount of time they have with them is limited by a long cue of researchers around the world. Furthermore, professional astronomers and professors often visit local astronomy club meetings to share their latest findings, young astronomers, as I once was, are inspired by direct interaction with professional scientists.

The sheer number of amateur astronomers world-wide is astounding, literally thousands of scopes peering into the sky every night. This makes for a world-wide network of data collection devices, some manually operated, some automated through computer driven tracking systems. What’s more, the opportunity for a budding astronomer to capture his or her first photograph of a colorful nebulae or the bands and moons of Jupiter is literally at their fingertips.

For the years I have been away from astronomy the industry has changed. Certainly, motor drives and tracking systems were in use, but we found our way around the night sky using hand held maps, large, many-page star charts printed in black and white. Now, micro-computers, stepper motors, and laptops attached by USB cables enable anyone with curiosity to engage in the oldest science of humankind.

As with the discussion around GPS versus topographical maps, one can argue that to know only how to use GPS units in the wilderness is a tremendous risk, for the batteries may die, or the lost in a creek. With aviation too, pilots are trained in the original, non-electronic means of navigation before working with on-board GPS and radar guidance.

There is part of me that says the same should be true with astronomy, learn it the hard way so that it becomes ingrained and a part of you. But when I consider the excitement of a child viewing the rings of Saturn for the first time, their mouth and eyes open wide, “Wow! Did you see that? Come look!” There is no right or wrong way to open the door to a lifelong passion for learning.

If in our instant gratification world a child can be turned on to the sciences, then by any means possible, point, click, and be thrilled. If they stick with it long enough, they will eventually know their way around the night sky and be able to tell their friends, “Right there, see that fuzzy thing? It’s a galaxy that if we could see it with our naked eye would be six times larger than the moon!”

While I am now just a bit over forty, I was a kid again for those three nights, staying awake ’till 4:30 AM, barely making it to breakfast hours after dawn. I was the recipient of patient assistance for astronomers are a generous lot, each generation offering something to the next. I spent an entire night taking my first photographs of Jupiter and M27, the Dumbbell nebulae, my new Canon 60D DSLR attached directly to a 13” Meade scope. Ah! The clarity, the color—it was amazing!

Even without assistance, someone new to astronomy can attach a USB cable to a relatively inexpensive telescope, train it on the North Star, and see on-screen a map of what lies overhead while the scope automagically moves to any object chosen by the mouse. Photographs can be logged, archived, and correlated to the map, an interactive show-n-tell.

With astronomy, every night is an adventure, an exploration of some one hundred billion stars, nebulae, and gaseous birthing chambers for the next generation of solar engines, pulsars, super novae, and black holes. The mind has no choice but to open when one looks through a telescope, to look up and ask, “Why?”

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:42+00:00 September 10th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Solar Powered Hot Tub

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Solar Powered Hot Tub”
By Kai Staats
12 August 2011

“At 8,000 feet the ranch is surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks, undulating hilltops, and ravines that harbor horses, deer, coyotes, bear and buffalo. Any sense of guilt at having enjoyed such a job site is completely washed away when I consider that the power required to heat the hot tub is more than offset by the new solar PV array.”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:45:47+00:00 August 12th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 4

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 4”
By Kai Staats
30 June 2011

“Since beginning this series in April, my questioning my own consumer behavior has been further shaped by my travels and encounters that gave me opportunity to be unplugged … During these times I was more at ease as my mind stopped juggling the potential of a phone call, text message, or email. Instead, I was present with whomever was the focus of my attention.”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:47:06+00:00 July 4th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 3

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 3”
By Kai Staats
3 June 2011

“We engaged until the embers of the fire were too low to keep us warm, until the tea in our cups ran dry, and until the conversations were simply … done. It is in my experience that a lack of technology enables this kind of human interaction, when face-to-face encounters unfold.”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:48:08+00:00 June 3rd, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 2

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 2”
By Kai Staats
6 May 2011

“You may not believe you have a relationship with your microwave oven, but when it warms a cup of coffee or fills the kitchen with the aroma of a hot bowl of soup, chances are you have a smile on your face when the door opens. But if the buttons on your oven are temperamental, or the insides nasty due to lack of cleaning, then perhaps you cringe at the very thought of the noontime meal … What concerns me most is not the speed at which we purchase goods, but how we are affected by using these products. These 10 questions can get the gears turning …”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:43+00:00 May 11th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide to Adoption of Technology

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology”
By Kai Staats
8 April 2011

“For as much as I am an advocate of advances in technology when and where they assist us in finding greater personal health and satisfaction, understanding the world around us, and moving ourselves and our things from place to place, I am increasingly wary of technology that diminishes our individual creativity, self-awareness, ability to make decisions for ourselves, and functional, real-world intelligence.

I will for the next several columns engage you in a conversation around appropriate technology, both software and hardware products, and how they affect us as consumers.”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:43+00:00 April 9th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

The Last Will & Testament of the Book

Northern Colorado Business Report
“The Last Will & Testament of the Book”
By Kai Staats
11 March 2011

“In my experience, when someone has spent a lifetime collecting books, the act of giving is made real by the effort required to move them, to care for them each passing year. Each generation adds their story to the one originally told. Electronic books, however, can tell only one story, for there is no medium by which they may record another. Without scribbled notes in the margins of fading, folded pages, the eBook is but a perfect copy missing the imperfection of time.”

To read the rest of this column, visit the Northern Colorado Business Report.

By | 2012-01-25T22:49:54+00:00 March 13th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments