May. 9th, 2017

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Last night's change in the weather was still making itself felt this morning: the temperature had dropped dramatically overnight and there was thick mist all along the river trail. Not that it was enough to put people off: in addition to the usual cyclists and joggers, I passed a group kayaking their way downstream to Lake Washington.

Today's conference opener was a plenary session from Douglas Kothe of Oak Ridge, which managed to cover all the usual bases of a high performance computing conference. For these things have an established form: a discussion of why we need N-scale computing, where N has shifted over the years from tera- to peta- to exa- with the relentless advance of Moore's Law; a skim over a series of classic physics problems, all of which will benefit from improved computing resolution, many of which seem to involve fission and fusion reaction models, and most of which are being worked on by colleagues of the speaker; and finally a call for more money for N-scale computing and an endorsement of why Vendor X is perfectly placed to do it. Regardless of my slightly cynical take on things, Kothe was a good speaker and his talk was engaging and important for someone to stand up and really sell the benefits of faster, bigger, and better computing.

The rest of the morning was taken up by a Cray corporate update. The less said about that, the better.

The afternoon was a bit more promising with a decent technical session covering everything from remote support to Thomas' paper on using XDMoD to run accounting analytics — an interesting bit of work, even though I say so myself. I then went to a session on Spack — a package manager about which I knew precisely nothing — a good presentation on system regression testing at KAUST, and something on tracing python usage at Blue Waters to determine who was using what and how heavily.

I skipped the BoFs — choices included programming environments, burst buffers, XC system management, or a discussion with the CUG Board — in favour of walking back to the hotel to drop off my laptop and pick up my camera ahead of the evening event at the Living Computer Museum — something so awesome it deserves its own post.
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Having made it back to the Marriott with my camera, I jumped on one of the buses and found myself whisked off to Seattle. On the journey out I found myself sitting next to Arno Kolster who, until very recently had worked for a well-known payment company, working on low-latency methods of fraud detection. He was politely interested in what I had to say — I lapsed into my usual spiel mode — and when I gave him a chance to get a word in edgewise, he had interesting perpectives on how enterprise computing copes with its needs both for high availability and rapid data analysis. He's giving what sounds like it's going to be an interesting keynote tomorrow.

After half an hour or so — including a very scenic trip across Lake Washington, complete with a regatta of small to moderate sized yachts — the bus took us past the impressive sight of Safeco Field and it's enormous retractable roof — currently open — and down 1st Ave South to the Living Computer Museum in SoDo.

The ground floor — first, if you're American — contained a small, ersatz bar and a series of interesting exhibits on robotics and the history of computing. As with Sunday's event, I spent most of the first part of the evening fending off offers of meaty snacks and endless Dungeness crab cakes — a name which confused me no end until I discovered Dungeness, WA was a distinct and different place from Dungeness in Kent!

Suitably plied with drinks and snacks, we then gathered round the far end of the floor to listen to museum directory Lath Carlson talk about the place's history and to reveil some new exhibits. The first was the Cray 1 which had until recently been on display at Cray's offices in St Paul and which had now been placed on permanent exhibition at the museum:

Unfortunately the machine has had too many parts removed to allow it to be restored, but it's still an imposing and beautiful piece of equipment.

The second addition of the night was just as exciting: a complete Cray 2. Introducing the machine, Carlson said, "The machine is complete and we hope to get it up and running as a living machine. But we're going to need to upgrade the building's power supply first... Which I guess is fairly common, because I'm hearing a lot of knowing laughter out there..."

Upstairs, in the lab area, were a superb series of vintage computers. Although to my mind, as an HPC version, the Crays are the most iconic machines in the collection, the IBM S/360 looks more like the classic 1960s notion of a computer:

But the really big beast of the museum has got to be the CDC 6600 — the first true supercomputer, also partly the brainchild of Seymour Cray in his Control Data days.

The curator responsible for doing maintenance on the machine showed us a module from the 6600 and described the process of disassembling it to access and replace some of the transistors — yes, you read that right: transistors! — used by the machine. (ETA: Back in the UK, I discussed this with MI who worked for CDC in Canada and he said, "Yeah, back in those days you needed real skill to be a hardware engineer...")

As the evening wore on, we headed back downstairs for a buffet which, although meat-and-fish heavy, featured a superb range of local cheeses. A few of us got talking to one of the curators about the museum's outreach program and discussed the problem of the lack of women in STEM.

The curator pointed out that things hadn't always been quite so imbalanced: the museum had a display of early Barbies sets which showed the iconic doll working with a series of computers with, in each case, the set paired up with the actual machine Barbie was using.

They also noted that in their robotics outreach programs, although the kids' initial responses were in-line with gender stereotypes: they split into groups, with boys wanting to do something completely impossible like make the robot fly, the girls were initially more sceptical until they understood the purpose of the exercise, at which point they'd usually solve the problem — unlike they boys who'd become dejected when they couldn't achieve their unrealistic goal — and then, on the second day of the event, the gender boundaries would dissolve and the girls and boys would be more likely to work together to finish their assigned project.

At the end of the evening, after picking up a rather nice commemorative t-shirt, we got back on the buses and made the return trip to Redmond.


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