Your tax dollars at work

Ok, so I was kind of upset when President Bush announced in his 2004 State of the Union address that NASA should plan a manned mission to Mars. Not that they’re getting any additional funding for a Mars shot. No, they’ll just have to gut their successful planetary science program, unmanned rovers and the Hubble telescope in order to work on a pointless publicity exercise. (Hey, anything to distract us from the quagmire in Iraq.)

Fair enough. So what do we the taxpayers get for our investment?
NASA is building its very own Bouncy Castle!

Inflato Moon dome

NASA tests moon building

That’s right. Imagine all the fun those astronauts will have in this big inflatable dome! Personally, I think NASA should have spent the extra bucks for the inflatable slide too.

OK, so maybe it makes sense to build light if you’re paying like $1000 a pound for overweight luggage. But wait. Something else seems out of proportion here. Let’s take a closer look.

NASA moon building air lock - CNET

Just look at the size of that airlock door! Is that really reinforced steel?

They’re using bulkhead door from Das Boot and attaching it to a nylon tent? If anyone slams the door too hard, the whole castle will flip over! Or that door will just rip right off and end up embedded in the dirt outside. I hope someone remembered the patch kit.

A life archived

In this month’s Scientific American article A Digital Life, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell describe their Microsoft MyLifeBits project. It’s an experiment in which Bell wears an automatic digital camera (a “SenseCam”) around his neck, and records every minute of his day digitally.

This is a logical progression of Vannevar Bush’s Memex (Memory Extender) proposal from 1945. The idea being that human memory is fallible, so we can use technology to record every aspect of our life. You even see it today among journal bloggers who record their lives in exquisite detail – and share it with the rest of us.

Of course, there’s a lot of potential problems with this effort. People’s privacy concerns are the most obvious ones. Most people, when told they’re being recorded, will ask that the cameras be turned off. But the project is dealing with some big technical difficulties as well. Bell generates about 1GB of video, photos, audio and document data every month. The MyLifeBits project struggles to archive, index and search through it all.

The idea of Lifeblogging holds a lot of appeal to me, since I don’t think I have a very good memory. I fear that I may forget some of the best experiences of my life, or some hard won lessons. But would capturing email and web logs and taking minute by minute photos help me retain it? Years from now, will wading through gigabytes of data really help me remember how I felt at the time?

When I moved recently, I uncovered boxes of old photographs. Some of them brought up instant associations. But I found myself gazing at other photos and wondering where and when they were taken. What was I doing there? What was I thinking? I’m afraid those memories are gone for good.

A Digital Life, Scientific American, March 2007.
Lifeblogging: Is a virtual brain good for the real one? Ars technica, 2/7/2007
On the Record, All the Time, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/4/2007
Digital Diary, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/28/2007
The Persistence of Memory, NPR Radio “On the Media” show, 1/5/2007

Old and new

Back in 1989, I bought a Bianchi Volpe to use as a touring bicycle. It was a sturdy steel bike with a mix of road and mountain bike components. (Including an ultra-low gear ratio). It served me well for many years. I rode it fully loaded on a couple of long bike tours. In the last couple of years, we climbed most of the hills in the Bay Area, and completed 3 century rides.

Unfortunately, Bianchi originally equipped the bike with mid-range Suntour components. After SunTour ceased production in 1995, it became very difficult to find replacement parts. Last season, my freewheel finally gave in. On a tough hill climb, I ripped the teeth off one of the cogs. I tried finding replacement parts on eBay, but without much luck. I was faced with the prospect of replacing the entire drive-train on an 18 year old frame. Oh, and probably the wheels too.

It was time to shop for a new bike.

I visited all the local shops. I was amazed both by the new technology and the sticker prices. After test riding several bikes I narrowed it down to a couple of Trek models. I finally settled on the 2006 Trek Madone 5.2. It felt good climbing hills, quick and responsive, but still pretty comfortable for long rides. Buying last year’s model saved me a couple of hundred bucks. I bought the bike on President’s Day. The folks at Chain Reaction Bicycles spent a couple of hours fitting it for me. They must have swapped out 4 different stems. (They say I have an odd-shaped body. Tell me something I don’t know.)

This weekend I went riding in Palo Alto and Woodside. It felt really good. I didn’t tackle any tough hills, but the bike was fast and responsive on the flats. Maybe I’ll miss my old granny gear – especially climbing Hicks Road. But I’m really happy with the Madone. I hope we can log a couple of thousand miles together this year. Who knows, maybe I’ll get 20 years out of this one too.

Trek Madone 5_2 (carbon)

He who dies with the most toys – is still dead

The Skeptic column of Scientific American this month talks about the paradox of happiness. (Scientific American: Can’t Get No Satisfaction). Namely, nobody can be happy with what they have, if their neighbor seems to have more. In the words of H. L. Mencken: “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Richard Lay­ard in Happiness […] shows that we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950 and “we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health.” Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness. Why? One, our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy or unhappy, and two, our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.

Furthermore, people aren’t very good about predicting what will make them happy, according to Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness. Lots of variety (in snacks for instance), quickly loses its appeal. People given lots of variety are no happier than those who just eat their favorite snacks.

Even variety in sexual partners is greatly over-rated. According to Social Organization of Sexuality, “married people have more sex than singles–and more orgasms”.

The science of flaming

The New York Times has a fascinating article on why people flame online:
Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior

Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.

But there’s more. Apparently neuroscientists now think that flaming also arises from our inability to communicate properly without the visual and auditory cues of normal conversation.

In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.

Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

Of course, since I went to school with a lot of people who were socially artless,  I’m used to filtering those messages anyway. After all, engineering students aren’t graded on their empathy.

Playing games with wave functions

On Tuesday, a Canadian company chose an unusual setting to announce a new computer system – the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (Home to thousands of unsuccessful machines made by now defunct companies). There D-Wave Systems demonstrated their 16 qubit quantum computing device, remotely located in Burnaby, BC. You can’t do much with 16 qubits, other than solving Sudoku puzzles. But D-Wave claims they can scale up their device to 1000 qubits or more.

In most prototype quantum computing systems, researchers hit atoms with lasers or use other means to excite particles into fuzzy quantum states. But in a technique called adiabatic quantum computing, researchers cool metal circuits into a superconducting state in which electrons flow freely, resulting in qubits. They then slowly vary a magnetic field, which lets the qubits gradually adjust to each other, sort of like people huddling in the cold. In 2005 German researchers built a three-qubit adiabatic quantum computer.

D-Wave announced that it has constructed a 16-bit version crafted from the superconducting element niobium. “What we’ve built is really a systems-level proof of concept,” says Geordie Rose, D-Wave’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We want to get people’s imagination stimulated.”

Well, that and raise a bunch of venture funding too, of course.

D-Wave quantum computer - Scientific American

Apparently, D-Wave is specifically targeting NP-complete problems. My buddy Steve Leibson has some more technical details:

Briefly, D-Wave’s Orion solves such problems by holding all possible solutions in a superposed state in a 16-qubit register, arranged in a ring on the 5×5 mm chip. A qubit is a quantum storage element that can hold a 0 or 1 (like a digital bit) and an infinite number of intermediate states, all in simultaneous superposition. The qubit’s operation depends on the physics of quantum mechanics and, consequently, Orion operates at 4 mK (that’s 4 thousandths of a Kelvin above absolute zero).

Orion accepts queries phrased in the common and familiar SQL (structured query language). […] D-Wave’s Orion determines the answer to such problems by creating “graphs” of problem solutions, superimposing all such graphs onto Orion’s 16-qubit storage register, and then searching all answers in parallel to find the solution with the lowest energy, which is the right answer based on the graph constructions.

It’s an impressive technical achievement, and I wish them good luck scaling up their machine. But to me this just seems like an expensive version of the old Spaghetti Computer.

Streaming video

Our friends at Stream Processors just announced their new DSP architecture at ISSCC this week. Good luck to them. (SPI was started by my old boss, Stanford Professor Bill Dally).

They claim their processor can perform an order of magnitude better than conventional DSPs.  According to SPI, one of their chips can encode H.264 video at 1080p in real-time.

SPI has been sampling the initial Storm-1 product family members since late 2006, and executives say the startup has been engaged with a customer for nearly a year. The devices target such high-performance signal-processing applications as video and image processing. They are the eight-lane SP8-G80, which can execute 80 giga-operations per second, and the 16-lane SP16-G160, which can execute 160 Gops, SPI said. The devices are said to deliver a more than tenfold cost/performance advantage over conventional DSPs.

The executives said the SPI architecture does not include hardware caches, which can dominate the silicon area of traditional DSPs. Instead, an SPI device relies on lane register files to store I/O streams for each of its multiple lanes. Maintaining data locality enables the architecture to maximize both efficiency and bandwidth.

SPI SP16-G160

Intel Teraflop chip

Intel Prototype May Herald a New Age of Processing

The Teraflop chip, which consumes just 62 watts at teraflop speeds and which is air-cooled, contains an internal data packet router in each processor tile. It is able to move data among tiles in as little as 1.25 nanoseconds, making it possible to transfer 80 billion bytes a second among the internal cores.

Intel’s teraflops chip uses mesh architecture to emulate mainframe

Intel fabricated its 80-core Teraflop Research Chip in its Ireland manufacturing facility, using a state-of-the-art 65-nanometer process. Each core houses two single-cycle floating-point units, which were first described in another ISSCC paper presented two years ago. The 80 cores are arranged in a 10 x 8 two-dimensional mesh network, with each core housing a router with five I/Os–four of its paths going to adjacent processors and one going out vertically to an SRAM chip stacked 3-D style above them.

“Each of our cores measured 3 mm2, including its two independent 32-bit floating-point processors with single-cycle instruction execution,” said Jerry Bautista, director in Intel’s Tera-Scale research program. “A separate 2 Mbytes of SRAM for each core will be mounted on a second chip vertically above the Teraflop Research Chip, with one of the ports in the five-port router communicating with it vertically.”

Geography matters

The New York Times has another article on why it’s so hard to duplicate Silicon Valley:

When It Comes to Innovation, Geography Is Destiny

“Face-to-face is still very important for exchange of ideas, and nowhere is this exchange more valuable than in Silicon Valley,” says Paul M. Romer, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford who is known for studying the economics of ideas.

In short, “geography matters,” Professor Romer said. Give birth to an information-technology idea in Silicon Valley and the chances of success seem vastly higher than when it is done in another ZIP code.

About one-quarter of all venture investment in the United States goes to Silicon Valley enterprises.

Betty Robertson (1923 – 2007)

Peacefully at the Glebe Centre on Saturday February 3, 2007 in her 84th year. Predeceased by her husband James Ogilvy Robertson, of Toronto. Survived by her family; Mel (Ruby), Gwen Salisbury, Bob (Lois), and Joseph (Pam). She will be dearly missed by her 12 nieces and nephews and by several great-nieces and great-nephews. Betty will be forever remembered for her independent spirit and acerbic wit. Visitation will be held at the Garden Chapel of Tubman Funeral Homes, on Wednesday February 7th from 7-9 p.m. Funeral service on Thursday in the chapel at 10:30 a.m. Special thanks to the Glebe Centre staff and friends. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations to the Glebe Centre, would be very much appreciated.