Monday, February 21, 2022

I am SO obsolete !!!


It was 1972 when I embarked on my career in electronics and computers.

My initial training, courtesy of the US military in exchange for 4 years of my youth, was in vacuum tube technology.

You remember that don't you?

TV's and radios that literally had to 'warm up' before they functioned, tube-tester stations in the hardware store, and the tubes themselves that had enough voltage on them to reach out and strike like lightening when you carelessly got a body-part too close to the top electrode. (Yep, did that more than once! And to this day I do not wear highly conductive rings or watches)

From there my work quickly transitioned through solid-state transistors,

bug-like integrated circuits,

and by the late 70's, firmly into the world of micro processors

and main-frame computers such as this DEC VAX 780.

I got to where I became a global resource for keeping the VAX with its thousands of parts and individual circuits running and I could also go into them at the machine-language level and quickly tweak the operating system parameters to fine-tune it for maximum performance on different kinds of compute operations.

From there I jumped into the rarefied world of supercomputers.

First the liquid Freon cooled CRAY with it's strange shape designed to shorten the length of the internal connections to make them faster because - well you know - because of practical energy input considerations electrons racing down those connecting wires have a finite speed-limit

We even built a private computer room with a wall of viewing windows and special lighting just for it.

But the romance didn't last and we were soon building a second dedicated computer room for the cubistic Thinking Machine. (More shortened interconnects to speed things up)

But in the bleeding-edge, high-tech world I lived in these lightning fast but hugely expensive and persnickety custom computers (To replace a failed component in the CRAY we had to shut it down completely and drain the environment-killing Freon into the black tanks at the bottom before opening it up) soon became Dodo's

as the age of massively-paralleled computing took over.

We began taking hundreds, then thousands, of individual computers, each one representing 10's of thousands of those original vacuum tubes in less than the space of a single one of those little glass suckers, built with relatively inexpensive mass-produced processors and linking them together with complex networks and equally complex operating systems and applications to work together as one gigantic computer.

At one point our company owned one of the world's top 5 largest supercomputers and briefly boasted the world's largest on-line data storage capacity. (Can't compute without quickly accessible data to crunch and an equally quick place to put the results!)

As I approached retirement (2012)  we were running the industry's most cost-efficient data centers and dunking our computers into tanks of chilled mineral oil to cool them so we could run them even faster.

We were so bleeding-edge we owned stock in Bandaid!

About a month ago, while trolling through my usual collection of news feeds, I came across an article published by MIT on practical work (as opposed to theoretical work) being done at an atomic level with qubits. A pairing of atoms that can exist in two different states simultaneously.

Egghead gobbledygook right?

Well check out this excerpt from the article. (My own highlights)

A qubit represents a basic unit of quantum computing. Where a classical bit in today’s computers carries out a series of logical operations starting from one of either two states, 0 or 1, a qubit can exist in a superposition of both states. While in this delicate in-between state, a qubit should be able to simultaneously communicate with many other qubits and process multiple streams of information at a time, to quickly solve problems that would take classical computers years to process.

Now work with the practical use of quibits has been going on since at least 2019 but in the few weeks following that MIT article I came across another one showing how traditional silicone and quibits have been combined onto a single unimaginably powerful hybrid chip using existing chip-manufacturing technology. And if that wasn't enough, a few days ago Caltech published a summary article of a paper titled Nuclear spin-wave quantum register for a solid state qubit (scientists are not noted for catchy, or even particularly descriptive, titles!) demonstrating the ability to reliably manipulate and store data at a quantum level within the synchronized spin of a handful of atoms and using that to build quantum networks to connect quantum computers. (Oh man! My head hurts!)

I used to be actively headhunted in the fast-moving, cut-throat field of advanced computer technology. I used to be a featured presenter at conferences. I used to sit on panels at symposiums. I used to be a master of computers!

But today I'm back here helplessly, ineffectualy,  choking on the dust of progress. Not even a footnote in history.

These days I'm so obsolete that when I break I have to go to Ebay to find discontinued spare parts!

Monday, February 7, 2022

Frozen Contemplation


It's not like it never happens around here.

In fact the metadata on the photo above shows I took it at 11:11:02 Monday morning Feb 15 2021. Almost exactly one year ago. (It's Feb 4 2022 as I'm writing this.)

But it, this kind of weather, doesn't happen often. (Our average lows and highs for early February around here are 46 and 64 respectively.)

In the past 15 years here on The Property we've had 2 or 3 significant and maybe 3 or 4 wishful-thinking snow events and about the same numbers for icing events.

Well now we have another to add to the list. Though this one is difficult to classify.

It's certainly not as extreme as last year's, but it has been a mix. Rain turning to freezing rain to sleet and even a bit of actual snow, all layered up in a treacherous, crusty skin on anything exposed.

This time around we've been below freezing for 18 consecutive hours and it will be tomorrow, about 36 hours, before we will, briefly, make it up to 35 around noon under cloudy sky's before the freeze settles in again. And, according to the forecast, we have another 5 or 6 below-freezing nights coming on the heels of that.

But I'm not trying to highlight the extremes of our weather here. I'm not trying to bitch - or brag - about the local conditions in this post.

I'm all too aware that many - many, many - places are dealing with far worse than this little bit of hardship. If you can even call it hardship.

No. This post is about confronting unsettling reminders and finding peace with them.

But first:

One of the sweet blueberry's embedded in this thick, bitter batter is the fact that I can - legit - drag out my trusty wool gloves.

The ones that do a surprisingly good job of keeping my hands warm - ish - (Let's be realistic here!) but leave me with the dexterity to do my chores, and even type on a keyboard, as I'm doing right now in the 45 degree barn, practice on my new kalimba in the chilled tin-can of The Van as the blustery wind rocks her, and troll through the 1440 daily news digest on my phone while sitting out in the open on Dad's bench. (I'm pretty sure I'm getting worse and worse about not wanting to be inside any more than I have to.)

Being wool, they keep my hands warm - ish - even when wet. And when I don't need my fingertips I can turtle them by quickly shaking the gloves down an inch for even more protection,

or even pull those delicate fingers completely out of their individual tubes and curl them into my palms for extra heat conservation.

But I digress - I know. I know - once again. (Digression seems to be my natural state.) 

So back to the point:

I wasn't alone as I hiked the property today, despite the conditions.

The deer were also

out and about.

Non- browsers, in this case skunk, possum, or armadillo had, at least until I disturbed them like an off-key Mariachi trolling the tables in a restaurant, been feeding,

and den-dwellers had been - well - dwelling.

(Unlike me, apparently the inhabitant(s) of this particular den don't get all antsy if kept under a roof too long and feel compelled to get out and wander even in less than ideal conditions!)

But as I approached the T-intersection of trails at the back of the property, all too aware that I was bundled up in a base-layer, over-shirt, jacket, neck-koozy, scull-cap, brimmed hat (Despite the sunlight in some of these photos, it was still blustery and sleeting/snowing some of the time) wool gloves, and wool socks over silk

my mind was unwillingly drug back to when I was growing up in the north when conditions like this would have been nothing more than a nice spring day and I wouldn't have given them a second thought, let alone a coat and gloves, until forced to change my pants when I came in because I'd soaked them through with my exuberant play to the point of being icy around my lower legs.

Not that memories of those days are bad or anything, but they do inadvertently serve to point out the realities of the present. Because of those memories I couldn't hide from the fact that today I'm shivering, I'm flinching at the bite of cold on my cheeks, my neck is crunched down between my shoulders, my fingers curled into my palms, fingernails biting as I cringe at the thought of having to deal with this for the next several days.

Because, unlike my youth, today the cold hurts!

What's wrong with me?!

What happened between that oblivious childhood and this aching now?

OK. Anyone over the age of 50 knows exactly what happened.

Time happened.

That inexorable sweep of the hour-hand that looks like it's going around in innocent, lazy circles but is, in fact, spiraling fast down the passage of time.

Lately there's been a lot of these sorts of unavoidable time-passage reminders.

Cuts linger for weeks instead of days. Injuries can no longer be walked off but must be coddled and nursed. Skin that I've never really paid attention to before now needs to be moisturized daily lest it flake off like frosted bits of - well - me! And the litany goes on. Each one adding, like the beat of Poe's Tell Tale Heart, additional volume to the inevitable.

But just as I was letting this litany of woe shove me down that passage of time even faster than that spiraling hour-hand, I came across this nursery-log.

In its time this oak was a towering matriarch of our little patch of woods here. Rising tall and strong. Converting sunlight to energy and absorbing carbon as it grew ever taller and more robust in the natural seasonal cycling of these things. And in turn providing shelter and food and oxygen, and procreation, to the whole community around it.

But eventually the telomeres protecting the ends of her DNA strands got more and more ragged, just like the aglets on the ends of old shoelaces, and that phase of her journey couldn't be sustained any longer. But this is still within her time and as she produced fewer and fewer leaves in her declining years she was allowing more sunlight to get down to the next generation of oaks that had been sheltering under her protection so that a select few could begin their own journey to towering and strong.

And even when this matriarch fell she converted herself into a nursery for the thousands of fungi and insects and billions of microbes that are just as crucial, as she still is, to the continuation of the natural cycle.

I'm reminded that her falling, just like my waning tolerance for cold, is something to be noted, but not to the point of eclipsing her continuing value and purpose.

Once in a while I need a simple little nudge like this to steer me back on track.The track where I accept and adjust to that which is inevitable but never lose the wonder and joy of participating in this journey. 

So as the breeze carries the distinctly wild, slightly pungent smell of a couple of my neighbors across the pond I breath in deep and give myself permission to marvel at the beauty of the morning instead of bemoaning the sharp bite of its chill in my lungs.

As one of the characters in the Telanovela I'm currently watching (Only for the practice!) often says, while sweeping his hand up across his face and flicking his fingers as if he is waving away an annoying mosquito "Fuera el dolor. Vaya a vivir." - "Out with the pain, hurt, regret, grief, sorrow. (dolor is a widely encompassing word) Go live." 

(This particular Telanovela is older than the song Fuera el Dolor by Adan, Xavi, y los Imanes so I don't think the soap-writers stole that from them. And no. I have no idea what the hell the chicken is doing there in the video!)