Melete is a small research cluster being developed at CCT to explore concepts, opportunities, and challenges associated with interactive high-performance computing. The first nodes are installed and … mostly generating heat. A series of software installs in the coming weeks should produce the first tangible results. Funding for Melete is from the National Science Foundation and CCT. The principal investigator is Brygg Ullmer.
Some things are just too big to be indoors. Take the 363 foot Saturn V rocket, which weighed in at over six and a half million pounds when ready to shoot people to the moon.* Because it weighed as much as a good sized freighter, and got mileage of around 5 inches per gallon, the rocket was designed to barely lift its own initial weight. As the weight of the fuel diminished, the acceleration would increase.
This made a Saturn V launch quite a dramatic thing to watch. The big engines would light, the tower would fall away, the big locky things at the bottom would unlock, and the rocket would … mostly just sit there. It only moved a few feet in the first several seconds.
I find that a lot of new technology development progresses this way. Enormous effort is poured into the early stages, often yielding very little visible progress, other than a lot of heat and steam. Any loss of momentum at this stage can be catastrophic, which is a shame, because slow starting projects are easy to ignore.
If development can surpass this first phase and build a little momentum, people will start to pay attention. The best reaction one can get to a technology demonstration (other than immediate additional funding) is a list of things it should do. This means people are engaged, and imagining how they would use this new thing.
It’s often only after too much effort and too time has been spent, often bringing a project to the brink of oblivion, that a new idea will seem to be going anywhere. After this, the sky’s the limit. That is, assuming things stay on course, and that the idea doesn’t burn out too soon.
* What happened to us? We used to send people to the moon. I was sure my flying car and robot servants were just around the corner. Now we can’t even keep our schools and bridges from falling down.
My position often finds me acting as facilitator between science professors and industry types, between faculty and staff at our center, or between faculty from different fields or departments. It is difficult to overstate the interpersonal impedance mismatch that often occurs between these groups. From basic expectations of timeliness and adherence to deadlines, to the relative values of knowledge and utility, academics and industry professionals share less ground than either group understands.
This communication minefield is very often made worse by the social awkwardness of science and mathematics researchers. Some of this is due to background or specific … idiosyncrasies, or real disabilities, but some is due to a personal disregard of the importance of social niceties. Programming languages often include what computer scientists term syntactic sugar, which comprise structures, tokens, and other constructs intended to make the language easier to read, program, or understand. A sizable fraction of computer scientists view syntactic sugar as wasteful or counterproductive, since it can obscure the internal workings of the language. For a number of researchers in all areas of science and mathematics, this attitude extends to personal interactions as well. They would prefer to interact in the most honest and efficient way possible, and do not understand why others insist on more indirect or subtle styles of intercourse.
In industry, valuable research scientists with this attitude are often accompanied by “handlers” when they leave the lab. These are project managers or business development people whose responsibility it is to ensure that the charge neither offends collaborators or commits to unnecessary work in the name of logical sense. Many years ago, in the minutes before a meeting at a national laboratory, I heard a young computational scientist ask his manager, “Is this one of those meetings where I’m supposed to sit quietly and not speak unless you tell me to?” She nodded her head affirmatively and took her seat.
Yesterday, while adding the app to my iPad that would allow me to manage this site and several others while sitting in meetings, I was reminded of the extent to which technology has changed our daily experience during my lifetime. Watch any interaction between people and computers in a sci-fi film or television show from the last century, and you will almost certainly see something less impressive than what I experience every day.
I am intrigued by how quickly our expectations accommodate new technology, and how easily we can be disappointed that this year’s talking handheld computer lacks a particular wireless technology that we were hoping to use. I find it helps both my attitude and creativity to stop and remember occasionally that we live in an age of magic, and anyone with the means can own their own magician.