Free Tools for the New Scientific Revolution

Blogs are great for supplementing real-life events, by giving space and time for specific examples and links which can’t be referenced at the time. I was invited to give a talk last week at the first-ever NASA Information Technology Summit in Washington DC, and the topic I chose was “Government and the Revolution in Scientific Computing.” That’s an area that Microsoft Research has been focusing on quite a bit lately, so below I’ll give some examples I didn’t use at my talk.

One groundrule was that invited private-sector speakers were not allowed to give anything resembling a “sales pitch” of their company’s wares. Fair enough – I’m no salesman.  The person who immediately preceded me, keynoter Vint Cerf, slightly bent the rules and talked a bit about his employer Google’s products, but gee whiz, that’s the prerogative of someone who is in large part responsible for the Internet we all use and love today.

I described in my talk the radical new class of super-powerful technologies enabling large-data research and computing on platforms of real-time and archival government data. That revolution is happening now, and I believe government could and should be playing a different and less passive role. I advocated for increased attention to the ongoing predicament of U.S. research and development funding.

Alex Howard at O’Reilly Radar covered the NASA Summit and today published a nice review of both Vint’s talk and mine.  Some excerpts: Continue reading

A Technical Computing revolution

Last week I enjoyed hosting a visit in Redmond from Chris Kemp, NASA’s new Chief Technology Officer for information technology. Our discussions were with folks from the Windows Azure cloud computing team, the high-performance computing and large-data folks, and our Extreme Computing Group. I smiled when Chris said he was a fan of the book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, written by Microsoft’s Gordon Bell and colleague Jim Gemmell. (I wrote about their research projects in an earlier post, Total Recall for Public Servants.)

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Data in the Cloud from Dallas to Mars

There’s a lot going on at this week’s Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC 09); it’s a traditional launchpad for cool new stuff. I thought I’d point out several of the government-relevant announcements and technology roll-outs.

I specifically want to spotlight something called Codename Dallas, and how NASA and others have begun using it. In the keynote this morning Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie told PDC attendees (and his streaming-video audience) that a landslide of new sensors and observational systems are changing the world by recording “unimaginable volumes of data… But this data does no good unless we turn the potential into the kenetic, unless we unlock it and innovate in the realm of applications and solutions that’s wrapped around that data.”

Here’s how we’re addressing that, with a bit of step-by-step context on the overall cloud-computing platform enabling it.  The steps are: 1. Azure, 2. Pinpoint, and 3. Dallas.

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Video of largest amateur rocket ever launched

When I was nine years old, I spent the early summer of 1969 doing two amateurish things: playing baseball with neighborhood pals on a red-clay diamond set among the tobacco fields of western North Carolina, and building a 1:100 scale three-foot-tall model of the Saturn 5 rocket topped by the Apollo capsule. I was pretty excited that I finished the model before the July Apollo XI mission took place, and I watched with a knowing eye as Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins sat atop the rocket and “lit the candle.”

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Follow NASA Innovation on Twitter

Yesterday my group hosted a meeting at Microsoft Reston with the ILO Institute on “Innovation in Large Organizations.”  The ILO Institute always brings together great clients (FedEx, Time Warner, SAIC, IBM, US Postal Service) and yesterday was no exception, with an eclectic group from NIH, DoJ, NASA, RTI, GTSI and others. The discussion about that seeming oxymoron – innovation in large organizations - was fascinating, with lively threads about distinctions between Microsoft and Apple for example, and whether the latter is actually a technology company or a fashion company.  [My opinion: its success comes from its fashion/marketing leadership, not technical advances.]

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Latest NASA Launch: Viral Marketing

Fact: Aviation Week has a piece today (“Funding Biggest ISS Obstacle“) outlining the budgetary woes of the International Space Station program, noting that the five partnering national space agencies which jointly operate the ISS “say they are eager to use the facility as a stepping stone for lunar and Martian exploration, but they first must find a way to sustain operations beyond the present partnership agreement….The main question mark about extending operations is related to funding and not technical issues. No road map or timetable for prolonging the ISS lifetime can be established until these financial issues have been resolved.”

Analysis: I’m a fan of space research and travel, and I’d like to see more funding and attention go into the American space effort, and with it more American ability to collaborate on international space ventures.

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How to Run a State-of-the-Art Technology Program – Quietly

FACT: In the new movie “Iron Man,” defense-contracting billionaire and engineering genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) designs and builds a suit capable of individual flight (highly engineered control surfaces powered by an “arc-reactor” - it is Hollywood after all). During his first test flight, zooming straight up from Malibu and stressing the system to its max, he asks his onboard computer, “What’s the altitude record for the SR-71?” His computer responds back, “85,000 feet,” whereupon he zooms past that ceiling.

ANALYSIS: Funny moment, and excellent movie.  In its honor, below I’m going to give you access to a remarkable, recently declassified document describing one of America’s boldest Cold War technical achievements.  If you’ve ever run (or wanted to run) a high-tech company or program, like Tony Stark in the movie, you’ll appreciate the startling scope of the work – and if you’ve recently worked in DoD or the Intelligence Community you’ll marvel at how they did it “in the good old days.”

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Microsoft Research Reclaims Value of Pi

pi-techFACT: Educators in the state of Alabama are chafing as the state celebrates a dubious anniversary: today marks ten years since the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159… to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.  Ramifications were felt across the state. 
Now, a team of Microsoft Research computer scientists have announced success in a groundbreaking effort to refactor the Biblical value, using modern high-performance computing hardware and machine-translation technologies on the original Old Testament texts.
  
ANALYSIS:  Looking back, an April 1998 issue of Science and Reason newsletter written by physicist Mark Boslough recounts the political and cultural battles which went behind the Alabama legislative change. The legislature of the “Yellowhammer State” justified the change by citing biblical injunction. As one supporter put it: “the Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

The use of “3.0″ as the value of pi led to problems in schools, businesses, and local scientific pursuits, including a group of frustrated engineers at the NASA research facility in Huntsville.  According to NASA/Huntsville’s director of special projects “Dr.” Jim Simon (doctorate pending), “We had strayed from using our Microsoft software and instead had been trying to figure out how to use an advanced Google search platform, which was sold to us as a powerful Cloud Computing system.”

Unfortunately, that effort proved frustrating for the “rocket scientists” any time they used calculations involving pi, based on the Alabama-standard value of 3.0, mostly because they were under the mistaken impression that they were contractually barred from using Cloud Computing on any sunny days. Given the hospitable local weather that left them unable to use their computers for an average of 290 days each year.

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Space Race 2025: Does Manned Exploration Return its Costs?

Fact: According to a Houston Chronicle editorial urging increased funding for NASA, “The NASA budget approved by Congress is just over $17.3 billion. [A]dded funding is needed to shorten a dangerous 5-year gap between the decommissioning of the three aging space shuttles in 2010 and the first scheduled flight of Orion [the next generation U.S. manned spacecraft] in 2015.”

Analysis: NASA and its long-running race with the Russians is on my mind a bit, for two nifty reasons: first, NASA’s Dr. Lisa Porter is joining the intelligence community to lead advanced R&D (see my post last week), and I serendipitously found a stunning collection of vintage Soviet and European science-fiction images, oh-so-retro, and intend to redecorate my walls with them (or would if my wife would let me).

soviet-sci-fi-art-1953.jpgDoes NASA need more money? The answer may depend on whether there actually is the potential of a new space race… and if so, toward what goal, and does the U.S. need to win that race.  This week’s shot across our bow seems to indicate some Russians are eager for a race to Mars. Lev Zelyony, director of Russia’s prestigious Space Research Institute, was quoted as saying “We lost the race to the moon,” but that reaching the red planet by 2025 would bring “scientific and political prestige” and is “technically and economically achievable.”  He added that they have “a head start” in the race, such as it is.

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IARPA’s First Director: Dr. Lisa Porter

Fact: IARPA has a new Director.

Analysis: The well-known DARPA (part of DoD) will now at last have a full-fledged intelligence-community counterpart. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity - prosaically called “IARPA” – was created last year, but has been stepping out slowly because [/opinion on] of lack of leadership [/opinion off], with only “interim” place-holder leaders.  Many of my friends who were recruited or absorbed into IARPA at the beginning, as it swallowed the old Disruptive Technologies Office for example, felt that the new org was spinning its wheels without traction, for lack of a strong and stable hand at the helm.  [Note also this recent post on IARPA.]

Today the Director of National Intelligence named Dr. Lisa Porter as IARPA’s first Director. She’s been at NASA, and before that DARPA itself.  She and I were at Stanford at around the same time, although hanging in different crowds – she working on her doctorate in Applied Physics while I was over doing the real heavy lifting in the hardest of all sciences, Political Science :-)  

I’ve never met her, unless I don’t recall from old DARPA visits, so I did a tiny bit of surfing to clip a few salient tidbits from her DARPA work.

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