Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Big Iron:

We went up onto the Table Mesa in Boulder today to visit the computing facilities at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. The National Science Foundation has funded a supercomputing center here for over forty years, beginning with a brand-new CDC 3600 machine in 1963 (32kb of memory!).

Today there are several machines running, including Bluesky, a cluster of 50 IBM p690 machines shown below that are very nearly exceeding the cooling capacity of the building. In fact, NCAR is having severe space shortage problems, not because of the computers, but because of the power and cooling infrastructure that is needed to run them.

Bluesky Posted by Picasa

In fact, simply to schedule runs on Bluesky, and handle output from the Bluesky runs they have to use more 'big iron.' Here's a shot of the SGI Origin 3800 that is used for the batch queing, data analysis and postprocessing of Bluesky's jobs:

SGI Origin 3800 Posted by Picasa

With all this horsepower around, I was greatly relieved to see some geek humour in the naming of two machines Boris, and Natasha (including appropriate cartoon stickers), as well as the following books on the bookshelf from the "XX for Dummies" series:

Bookshelf o' Confidence Posted by Picasa

 Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Irrational obstinacy:

I was at a seminar today in Boulder where a researcher was talking about her studies of public attitudes towards science and engineering, and how scientists and engineers convey their messages to the public.

She used the following slide from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website:

Socio-economic decisions and human rationality Posted by Picasa

The picture shows Cherry Creek Lake in Colorado, formed by a Corps of Engineers dam. The dam was built in the late 1940's as a flood control measure on one of the tributaries to the Platte River. As you can see, there is a housing development right below the dam.

The housing was put in after the dam, so clearly a hazard assessment was made explicitly by the developer and somewhat more implicitly by the buyers. A later review of the dam by the Corps revealed that the structure needed reinforcing to avoid a catastrophic collapse, which obviously would be somewhat hazardous to a few of the houses shown.

But no, the neighbourhood objected, and fought the planned reinforcement because it would be disruptive and detract from the views. A private consultant was hired to re-evaluate the threat, and the Corps' project was de-funded through Congressional action. The dam remains unreinforced.

The fact remains that both studies indicate there is a probability of an extraordinary rain event causing a collapse. Of course, there always will be this probability, no matter what kind of dam you build, because there is never a 100% guarantee. The private contractor came up with a lower risk assessment - this 'reinforced' arguments that the Corps was simply fishing for work, and doing it in neighbourhoods that were not organized enough to fight off such attempts. There was not much discussion by the community of the absolute level of risk indicated by the second study; most of the debate focused on the relative differences. The issue really is one of risk perception - the local community was willing to live with a level of risk higher than that originally estimated for the dam design, but judged to still be within the overall design parameters.

The real indicator of course, will be the insurance rates.

...but they too can be influenced by pressures that do not have much to do with real risk. Nearby Ft. Collins tried to revise its rainfall models using the latest data and analyses in 1997, but the expansion in the designated 100-year floodplain this would have implied caused a political uproar. The community decided to use the less accurate map because it preserved property values.

In the end, decisions are made based on emotions. Science is simply one input among many - and its refusal to use emotional leverage is perhaps a political weakness.

This picture, for one, was not used in public debate. It should have been - it tells the story pretty well, even without someone giving it the context of cold hard facts, and anecdotal recollections.

 Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Trip to Cape Canaveral, er, no, Kennedy, um well Canaveral:

While at a NASA conference in Orlando this week, a group of us got the opportunity to go to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). It certainly is a lot better now than it used to be... I remember touring the KSC Visitor's Center just after Apollo had ended, and being astonished, embarrassed even, by how shoddy, dirty, and pathetic the whole place looked. Knowing how slick the PR machine is at NASA HQ in Washington, I'm amazed that KSC let it go so long without doing something about it.

We were able to get to a few places the regular tour does not go, including a drive around Launch Pad 39A - Discovery was undergoing a tank pressure test on 39B, and so we could not get very near that.

39B wide shot Posted by Picasa

There was some construction work going on, apparently some modifications to the gantry - you can see the crane looming over the complex here, and the water tower that is used to douse the exhaust from the Main Engines and SRBs.

Lightning rod on 39A gantry Posted by Picasa

Here's a close up of the lighting rod on the top of the gantry - I learned that these gantries are still the Apollo gantries, only they have been shortened considerably. And of course the launchpad crawlers are still the originals, so we don't build everything from scratch again for each new mission series...

Swing-away gantry clean room Posted by Picasa

I knew that the new gantries include a swing-away section that encloses the shuttles' cargo bays, but I did not realize that these are able to provide a clean-room environment to work in. Impressive. You can see the general shape of the shuttle in the swing-away from this angle.

Hydrogen tank Posted by Picasa

Here's a shot of the liquid hydrogen storage tank - you can see the liquid oxygen tank on the right in the distance. For obvious reasons, these two are kept separated until the last possible hours of launch preparations. We had to empty our pockets of all matches and lighters to get onto the site.

After the 39A tour, we went to see the ISS payload processing facility. They had just reopened it after the 9/11 clamp-down, and we were one of the first groups to go through. For the general public, part of the increased security consists of having to pay an extra $50 for that part of the tour. Apparently, terrorists are so poorly financed they can't afford US$50. Well, to be fair, they put in a whole lot more plexiglass. Here's one of the logistics modules being loaded:

MPLM in SSPF Posted by Picasa

The loading arm is covered in fabric bellows to keep lubricant and dust from dropping into the module, and every move is being videotaped. Cataloging all that still and video footage must be a nightmare.

From there we went to the major change at the KSC visitor facilities: the Saturn V 'museum.' Well worth the visit, and a worthy display for this piece of historic hardware. Much more so that the rusting hulk that used to sit outside, a full Saturn V sits on its side, and a 400 foot long stroll gives you the full effect. Here's the business end of the first stage, which greets you as you enter the hall:

Five F-1 engines Posted by Picasa

Several stages later, you get to the Command and Service Modules. Continuing my engine fetish, here's the business end of the Service Module:

SM Propulsion System Posted by Picasa

Finally, we ended up at the outdoors section (the old "rocket garden"), and the astronaut memorial.

I shot a lot of pictures there, but will only post this one, even if it is slightly corrupted... argh. The larger version is better. Rather than another engine shot, I figured this was the real 'business end' of the shuttle, since it has to nose its way back into the atmosphere at several thousand miles an hour...

Shuttle schnozz Posted by Picasa

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 Tuesday, May 10, 2005

DIA Luggage Gargoyles:

Sculpture seems to be catching my eye lately.

Passing through Denver International today, I noticed that there are two gargoyles quietly watching over the luggage carousels.

Terry Allen's Notre Denver Posted by Picasa

They are part of the public art program, and are there to ensure safe delivery of luggage. I'm not sure whether they appeared before or after DIA's troubles with their automated luggage delivery system.

Here's another scrap about them.

On the apron outside was this enormous gargoyle, an Antonov-124, lurking just out of good photo range:

An-124 at DIA Posted by Picasa

This is one of Volga-Dnepr Airlines' heavy lifters - railroad cars, chemical reactors, you name it, they can probably carry it.

Antonov does have an even bigger design - the behemoth An-225 "Mriya" which carried ballots to Iraq, and water purifiers to Banda Aceh, but I have never been lucky enough to see it. It completely dwarfs the An-124!

 Thursday, May 05, 2005

Puttin' away poutine:

Yum! Or at least that's what I thought when I saw these in the store at the Montreal train station... Poutine flavoured potato chips! Poutine is a local Quebecois favourite - usually consisting of french fries drenched in gravy and cheese curds. Sounds strange, but is artery-cloggingly delicious. My verdict - stick to the original. The chips were not all that.

They were so-so Posted by Picasa

This product also caught my eye because the "poutine" topic was a recurring meme on the NewtonTalk discussion list. Sadly, I did not have my Newton with me to pose properly for the photograph.


 Monday, May 02, 2005

GIA Garuda:

This handsome fellow is crouching in the foyer of the ICAO building in Montreal, where I am this week for a conference.

Kashyap x Vinata progeny Posted by Picasa

The foyer has gifts from several countries to the ICAO, including a very creepy urn from North Korea, but this beautiful carving of Garuda from Indonesia was my favourite.

Let's hope he protects me from the snakes in this conference.

(For some reason, the photos I have uploaded lately are corrupted. I have to use a PC emulator on a Mac to deal with Blogger's "Hello" mechanism, and obviously that isn't quite working right. For this particular photo, the larger version accessed when you click on the picture here is OK. There are others where the larger version is the corrupted one. ...sigh.)