Jun 022012

In the HPC industry, it seems that history is always doomed to repeat itself. The CPU isn’t fast enough, so we add a co-processor to handle the really serious calculations. Then process technology improves, we can fit more transistors on a chip and the co-processor is moved onto the CPU die.

For the last half-decade, we’ve been in the midst of this cycle. Researchers realized that graphics cards (GPUs) were basically huge vector processors. Why make a couple CPU cores churn away on the math when the graphics card has a couple hundred cores? Thus we have General-Purpose GPU computing (GPGPU). Some have resisted this trend, but a lot of very serious scientists and institutions are using GPUs extensively. Like many cutting-edge technologies there is constant change and it takes more effort to get everything working, but these co-processors offer significant benefits.

I wasn’t really around for the previous batch of co-processors in the 1980s, but it’s clear that this time there is more at stake. Multi-billion dollar corporations (with billion-dollar R&D budgets) are building the co-processors. Astronomers, biologists, physicists, chemists, doctors, surgeons, mathematicians, engineers, and bankers are taking advantage of the performance. The fields of data analytics and computational modelling are serious business. Some in the life-sciences fields are calling them the “computational microscope” because they offer so much potential.

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Mar 182012

Today our son’s 26-year-old uncle passed away. When he heard the news he responded, “That’s ok…I can still dream about him.”

As adults, we are expected to understand the world and have the capability to handle any situation. But on the subject of death we are all no more than children.

Jan 122012

I just ate at Così and realized I’m sitting next to Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal. The world is a small place sometimes.

Remember, even the greatest humans of all time were just people. You can be great, too, if you work. And with a little luck at the right time, you can be amazing.

Oct 212011

Fusion is the physical process in stars which generates energy. Incomprehensible amounts of pressure and heat covert hydrogen into helium. It is the engine which drives the universe, but it does create a fair bit of nasty radiation.

Cold fusion is based on the theory that energy may be created in a more controlled fashion. The goal is to generate a smaller amount of heat without all the dangerous behavior which occurs inside a star. Unfortunately, the field of study was ruined in 1989 by some irresponsible geniuses and a lot of crackpots.

Since then, a small number of respectable scientists at NASA, NRL and the DOE have studied these types of reactions. To avoid crackpots, they have termed their research as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). Although they have not discovered any magical formulas, there has been enough progress to justify continued funding.

In early 2011 an Italian physicist, Andrea Rossi, announced that he had created a functioning device. It generates a good deal of heat by converting nickel into copper. This heat may be used directly as a furnace or to generate electricity through steam turbines (the same way coal and nuclear power plants operate). There have been a number of demonstrations for technical audiences and a major trial will be run on October 28th. If Rossi’s Energy Catalyzer (e-cat) device is real, energy will become more-or-less free.

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Oct 152011

Game designers have to spend a lot of time balancing games. Building an entertaining mechanism is a good start but a game without balance quickly turns away the players – too dull, frustratingly impossible, unfair, etc. Nerfing, and other after-the-fact balancing, is often dismissed by gamers but I think among game developers nerfing is assumed to be a fact of life. You cannot predict all the ways in which players will interact with your game, so the game must be adjusted.

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Sep 212011

Rather than the more traditional QWERTY key layout, I use DVORAK. I’ve been typing with DVORAK for just over a decade, so I no longer remember my original intentions for switching. However, DVORAK has long been recommended as a replacement for QWERTY – partially for typing speed improvements, but also to reduce ergonomic strain on the typist. Studies conducted by psychologists have suggested perhaps a 5% speed improvement for DVORAK, but the ergonomics have not been thoroughly studied (estimates based on finger travel distance suggest a potential ~40% improvement). I argued for the efficiency of DVORAK by analyzing keyboard layout efficiencies for several different types of documents.

When I purchased a Kinesis contoured ergonomic keyboard in 2000, I discovered there was a learning curve before I could use the new keyboard effectively – Kinesis contoured keyboards arrange the keys in straight columns. It made sense to make the switch to DVORAK at the same time and re-train myself entirely. This lead to several weeks of frustration, but I was determined and thankful that I stuck with it (much like when I completely uninstalled Microsoft Windows from my first computer).

Photograph of Kinesis Contour Keyboard

For the majority of these last 11 years, I’ve had a DVORAK keyboard at home and QWERTY at work. Within the last two years, I’ve been able to use DVORAK for both. I now perform almost everything on a Kinesis contoured keyboard with DVORAK layout.

People often ask how I cope when I happen to sit down at a QWERTY keyboard. The truth is that there is no problem at all. When I sit at a traditional keyboard my fingers automatically know to go QWERTY. Similarly, when I sit at a Kinesis keyboard nothing makes sense but DVORAK. Although I didn’t fully consider the ramifications until recently, I have inadvertently trained my brain to be capable of both keyboard layouts. But each layout is strongly associated with a specific physical keyboard design!

I am not a psychologist, but I was curious to learn how well my skills would transfer. Am I able to use QWERTY on a Kinesis keyboard? How effectively would I work if I sat down at a traditional keyboard that had been remapped to DVORAK? My hypothesis was that I’ve so strongly associated the physical Kinesis keyboard with DVORAK that I would be unable to perform satisfactorily with any other layouts. Similarly, attempting to use DVORAK on a “standard” keyboard would fail. I found the results to be surprising…

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Apr 272011

Today I stood next to the winner of the 2010 Nobel prize winner in chemistry. I was even able to see the medal, which is made of solid gold. He says Americans know what an Olympic medal looks like, but can’t recognize the Nobel medal.

Of course, most of the students at the university walked by without realizing a thing.

It was a very interesting day!

Mar 302011

Today I was struck by just how inter-connected we all are. Events on the other side of the world have an almost immediate effect upon us, whether we realize it or not. Sure, globalization and the Internet have brought any part of the world within reach. But besides these logical/intellectual connections we also experience real, physical effects.

Due to the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, radioactive materials are being released into the environment. Today, it was announced that trace amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in rainwater in Massachusetts. Now, I’m not in the least concerned about the environmental and health aspects. Very similar effects were observed in the milk of cows in Tennessee when Chernobyl melted down. The dangerous nature of nuclear power is greatly over-hyped. Educate yourself.

However, I am fascinated by the fact that individual atoms and molecules circle the globe in a matter of days or weeks. Astronomers will tell you that we are all made of stars. A bit of the same happens here on Earth – a breath you exhale today will be inhaled by a person half the world away just days from now.

All that aside, I wish the best to everyone affected by these events. My feelings go out to you – I hope you received your phone call.

Feb 212011

Studies have shown that long periods of staring at TVs and computer screens damages your eyesight. You have to be mindful of your working conditions and take an appropriate number of breaks to give your eyes – and your body – a break. One of the easiest exercises I use is to alternate focus between near objects (a foot or two away) and far objects (the next room over or outdoors, if possible).

I’ve recently learned that there’s more at stake – your sleep. Your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) is primarily regulated by your environment. Stand outside in the sun and your body knows it’s day. Sit inside a dark room and your body believes it’s night. The quantity and type of light entering your eyes determines your body’s response.

Unfortunately, the light emitted by all your electronic devices (TV, computer, cell phone, laptop) is the wrong “temperature”. They tell your body that it is still day, even if it’s long past your bed time.

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Jan 302011

Six weeks ago, in an attempt to improve my productivity, I pledged to build a simple game. Regrettably, the deadline has passed and I have nothing to show for it. The reason is not technical but simply a failure of time management. I have two perfectly acceptable designs and I did pick up a bit of Python, but I never sat down to start development.

There are a few reasons for the failure – some avoidable and some unexpected. For several days after I resolved to build a new game, I read through the Python manual and picked over the available tool sets. Then I was distracted by some other projects and the holidays. Two weeks ago, I came down with a particularly nasty illness and was out of commission.

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