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The River in the Sky - Regular Voltaire

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November 20th, 2010


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01:01 am - The River in the Sky
In a recent press conference, Obama mentioned something about China having recently grabbed the top spot among the world's fastest supercomputers in the Top 500 High Performance Computing list. Given that this is something that does not seem to have much traction within the beltway community, I am guessing that it is something that he is personally interested in, and not something pushed on to his brief by his staff. It reminded me of a point that he made in a debate with John McCain about China's space program, which McCain did not respond to. Obama, in other words, is a serious China watcher, and his interest is personal.

I find it hard to imagine that the new Republican leadership can be all that interested in stuff like this either. They have a laser focus on their own talking points, and none of their points involve building up tech and science for the future. If they are interested at all, it is because there are opportunities to cut big science down to patch the budget deficit. I think they will be little concerned about the consequences of whatever cuts they may choose to impose upon the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, or whatever agency of the U.S. government that might be involved in research of any kind. They'd only be interested in the $$$ that could be recovered from cutting the spending.

In a way, you can't expect much more than that from self-proclaimed simple minds proud of their simple aims. Why would someone care about the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge if they can hardly comprehend how e-mail works? Can you imagine Sarah Palin taking a genuine interest in the big bang, string theory or even modern weather prognostication? "How's that sciency techy stuff working out for you?" I'd imagine her response to be, if asked her opinion of such matters. Hitler, after all, did not fund nuclear weapons research.

You cannot put yourself in the shoes of the scientist if you do not have 'sciency' thinking. The republican would instinctively seize on a scientific discipline he deems potentially redundant or wasteful, like say, volcanology, and then attempt to mock it in a way that gets everyone to nod their heads. When you go about your business with such a negative attitude you will naturally end up aiming to slash and burn whatever sciency waste you can get your hands on.

The right wing says that they would preserve defense spending. Question: what is defense spending? The Jaguar is apparently funded by the NSF, and funding for this body is said to be a target for the budget axe. Would the huge computers at the National Laboratories have to fall silent in order to satisfy the political hunger of the re-ascendant party of 'fiscal responsibility'? Guess what: supercomputers are the ultimate dual-use technology. The Tianhe-1A is not a secret machine. It is operated by a university at a non-military location, and it is available for the use of various civilian bodies, including meteorological bodies and petroleum companies. It is even being offered to foreign users who might have useful applications to unleash its raw computing power. Is this a military threat, economic threat or just a harmless source of bragging rights?

Well, just imagine that down the road, not too far away but not right next door, sits a hidden twin to the Tianhe. Let's say that this twin is not revealed to the public, and is not benchmarked along with the other computers in the beauty pageant that is the Top 500. This twin makes use of exactly the same technology, has exactly the same computing power and was built and operated by the same team that worked on the Tianhe. But this twin spends its nights and days picking and unwrapping every bit of data that passes across the internet and the phone networks, and every radio message sent on military networks within hearing range of Chinese listening posts. This server runs cryptanalysis software powerful enough to unpick every known and yet to be known encryption lock. When there is spare capacity, this server models the globe in the form of its entire electric grid, down to local power switches, every refinery and every waterworks, and simulates an attack upon every nation's infrastructure, refining the model as more data is discovered and flaws in the plan of attack are observed with every simulation.

Now, if this hypothetical 'evil twin' of the Tianhe were to exist, who do you trust (if you are American) to lead the way to develop effective counter measures. Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. Or Mike Huckabee? The guy who administers the Top 500 list has said himself that the Chinese government is committed to developing this field and is willing to pour in the resources to build them big and strong. You've seen the Olympics, you know the gold medal count. China hates to lose and does the necessary to win. And they want to win this tournament too. The Chinese are willing to develop proprietary technology (the interconnect switches between the CPUs) to make their system go faster; the Jaguar guys can only dream about that level of state support. The Republicans will probably expect to be even more scrooge-like, the consequences be damned.

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