Category Archives: OldBlog

Douche of the year?

TIME magizine chose Mark Zuckerberg as person of the year, despite a reader poll that put Zukerberg in 10th place, and Julian Assange in first, by a large margin. More importantly, Assange has done something in 2010, while Zukerberg is just riding out the natural life-cycle of a not particularly novel technological fad. In a few years, the social networking totem pole will iterate again, and we’ll be making friendster jokes about myspace, myspace jokes about facebook, and facebook jokes about the next social network service to gain precedence, even though they all provide roughly the same functionality as a web page and XMPP. I can only hope the next iteration will be open, decentralized, user controlled, and generally managed in a less repulsive manner, so I don’t find it too objectionable to participate in again.

In contrast, Assange has overseen (and taken the heat for) the release of documentation exposing large scale governmental misbehavior and deceit regarding the wars the US initiated in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now a large swatch of our International Diplomacy. The information itself isn’t even the important factor; the game changer is the way in which it propagated. The business of secrecy is going to be permanently changed by the large scale demonstration of the reality that a single point source of information can now be amplified and propagated indefinitely, outside the control of any entity. This means it no longer requires a conspiracy to reveal secrets;one individual with access to a secret making the decision to release it is adequate. This is a paradigm shift for secrecy, with ramifications years down the line as large organizations with secrets they wish to defend are forced to make a move toward least privlige systems (in a broader sense, also note from the article “In practice, true least privilege is neither definable nor possible to enforce.”), and work with the knowledge that any single individual with access to a secret can make it public, a threat which can not reasonably be secured against.

Also note that this position doesn’t make a value judgement on WikiLeaks’ actions; it isn’t necessary for their significance. This also leaves aside arguments about Assange and Zukerberg as individuals – they both seem to be rather horrible people personally, and being a decent person is in no way necessary to change the world.

I understand that it would be politically charged to select Assange, particularly with polls indicating that most Americans have chosen a “Head in the sand” approach to hearing about the shitty behavior of our government, but there were eight more interesting choices on the top 10 reader voted, and about 6.8 billion others.

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Last class at UK

I realized that yesterday I probably sat in my last normal lecture at UK, AND signed off my last lab as TA. It is kind of an odd feeling. My last class as long as I make it through my EE611 final anyway…

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SC10 Review

A quick review of my observations from SC10.

The two takeaway messages from the show floor this year:
1. “We’ve all bought these damn GPUs, now how do we make them work?”
2. “Everyone should want the shiny flash storage devices, even though their capacity, price, and especially lifespan are still kind of dubious.”

As for my experience, I had some excellent discussions with people from The Portland Group, AMD, ARM, and various universities, and the always interesting opportunity to meet many of the advisor’s former gradstudents. We also had the yearly Burton Smith update, which provided excellent food for thought, as you might expect from anyone who is in the “Microsoft Fellow, paid to do whatever they feel like as long as Microsoft gets dibs on the results” phase of life.

The of Kentucky booth was pretty successful, with the usual handmade look, with the lighted sign tower/print on demand system as last year, a new hexagonal structure with three large rear projection screens, and the MOG Maze. We were kind of worried about being next to nVidia on the show floor, but it turned out to be a good thing, in that it attracted lots of the right kind of people to be interested in our research, and allowed us to hear the 5 minutes of technical content from each of their 30-minute talks.

I should also mention that we learned that Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should anyone, ever ship with YRC, who managed to not only damage our packed booth, starting with damage to the pallet before it even left Lexington, but delivered it on a different, crappier pallet than it left on.

We were also given a hacked router set up for MIT’s RoofNet mesh system, which we ran in our booth during the show as part of an experiment Kurt Keville was running to test Roofnet under congested conditions (10,000 geeks VS Wifi Network is a special opportunity), which is pretty cool and I hope to get to play with later.

One of the most impressive displays on the floor was Hardcore Computer’s incredibly well polished liquid immersion cooling systems. A base price of $5k for a desktop system like that is not even unreasonable.

And now for the fun stuff, mostly to shout out vendors who gave me good crap:
Best Party: The Exhibitor Reception, which, among other things, had excellent duck etouffee and a great hosting venue.
Runner up party: The FusionIO afterparty, which, while not very well attended, was directly across the street from the conference center, and had free food, free booze, and pushed the limits of good taste…
(FusionIO Employee. “Mounting” a hard drive motif mechanical bull. In a skirt. Saints cheerleaders in the background.) They also had a reasonably neat shirt (top right below).
And from the swag:
Best Bag: The Conference bag. It isn’t terribly well made, but it is a neat layout.
Best Shirt: Silicon Mechanics wins again. I wear their shirt from last year all the time, its just a great design.
Best Pin: Teradactyl’s little pewter-finish pterodactyl pins. They also get points because the advisor won a pterodactyl-shaped RC plane in a drawing.
Best Toy: Penguin Computing’s standard stuffed Tux, which has now joined the rookery on the back of my printer.
Best Pun: The TeraGrid PetaFlops flip-flop sandals.
Best Office Supply: Sandia National Lab’s little tape-flag/postit selection folders.

LinuxJournal and LinuxMagizine both gave out sample issues, and I may end up subscribing to one or the other, I haven’t had a paper user-centered computing magazine since I lost interest in Macs and dropped my MacAddict subscription in 2002 or so.

A couple vendors were giving out copies of their tools on CD, the most interesting to me was copies of the Open64 toolchain from AMD, which I’ve heard about but never had the opportunity to play with.

Overall, it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring for me as last year, but I suspect that has as much to do with having seen it before as any difference in the show. There was certainly a lot of good personal networking going on both indivdually and for the research group, and there really is nothing else quite like Supercomputing, the mixture of research and industry creates an incredible intense experience, which is, as far as I know, completely unique.

Posted in Computers, Entertainment, General, OldBlog, School | 1 Comment

User Agent Blocking

I was watching some TV shows online while recuperating from Supercomputing, and ran into this:
“The video you have requested is not available on this device” in Chromium, normal play in Firefox.
Apparently, CBS is blocking video on Chrome/Chromium on Linux in a misguided attempt to block GoogleTV devices. This is why user-agent sensitive web content is bullshit. Browsers are browsers; if you feel like your business model can’t deal with the internet, you have a much, much bigger problem than malicious web design can solve.

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I seem to have a minor spambot infestation in my blog comment system. I’ve cleaned it out for now, but this most likely means the anti-spambot measures in Flatpress have been defeated.
I should probably upgrade my Flatpress install to the latest version, but I am hesitant to do so since I won’t have time to fix it for the next several weeks if something goes wrong, and I am planning to move this blog to it’s own hosting (yet undetermined) in the immediate future.
Please excuse any temporary spam incursions until I have a more permanent fix for the problem.

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My research group is headed down to the IEEE/ACM Supercomputing Conference next week in New Orleans to put on our customary research exhibit. This year’s booth features a large 6-sided figure with three 6-foot screens on the longer spans, in addition to the lighted sign tower, print on demand whitepaper system, and low tables from last year. The MOG Maze returning for its third year on the show floor, with a new faster more flexible version of the MOG environment (mostly) ready for distribution.
Last year was a blast, and SC is an experience unlike any other, a bizarre mix of trade show and technical conference which creates an environment more exciting than either on its own. The various shakeups in the HPC world of late, particularly that monstrous Intel Xeon/ Nvidia GPU/custom interconnect thing that China built, showed a few weeks ago, and have declined to share technical details about, should make this year especially exciting.

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EE281 Car: Mixed Success.

This week we did the lab the parts in my New Teaching Robots post were for, and it was very much a “mixed success” sort of situation. I put a test chassis and circuit together about a week and a half ago, and modified the sample solution from the crappy old cars to work with the new ones, and that was reasonably successful, although it did exhibit a little bit of sluggishness and jitter, which, in retrospect, I should have taken as a warning sign.

Last week we had a build party to put the chassis together, so that interested students in the class, as well as other people interested in robotics, could come play with the parts (and perform the repetitious part of assembling a small fleet of identical machines). That event was quite successful, resulted in a collection of 6 mostly complete chassis, and a lot of enthusiasm. I even had one student build a circuit to ensure that would be reasonable, and that went well.

For the lab, we told students upfront that it was an experimental new lab they were participating in the design of, rather than something routine they were simply expected to perform. This was a good call, as it immensely with investment in the activity, and to reduce frustration when things didn’t work as planned for reasons outside of their control.
There turned out to be three basic problems with my design for the lab:
– In our enthusiasm for the new cars, both the faculty instructor for the course and I forgot that the protoboard power supplies usually used in this lab don’t tolerate the >1.5A spikes from driving substantial inductive loads well. This was a major compounding factor, and the most likely cause for the sluggishness I observed in the test case. This was fixed for the last section (there are nice 4-channel 5A variable output supplies in the lab), which helped alleviate some of the flaky behavior.
– I seriously overestimated the fabrication skills of most of the students. They haven’t developed what I consider “natural” design practices as far as physical layout or EMC, so constructing physically and electronically robust circuits on the small section of breadboard attached to the backs of the chassis was out of reach for many of them. I was very hands on with each group once the problem became clear, and had the latter two sections build some parts of the circuit off-board with suggestions, but it was still an issue.

6+ feet of Cat5 cable (twisted pairs) carrying ~5V signals switching at various speeds in the 0-100kHz range are one hell of an electromagnetic echo chamber, and I didn’t adequately account for that in the design. I’m still not sure how much of the strange behavior this can be blamed for, but there were sufficient effects to require substantially different passive components depending on which end of the cable which section of the circuit was built.

The latter two problems could have been alleviated, and the first one discovered much earlier, if we had stuck with the original plan to have PCBs milled and pre-assembled for all the discrete components, with fixed cables for attaching the FPGA boards the state machines were designed on. Hopefully at some point in the not-too-distant future there will be a chance to get that done for next semester.

Despite the problems, all the students were engaged, and a lot of them stayed and played with their design even after we told them they had done enough to be counted as completing the lab. In terms of educational outcome, we lost the excitement of making something which can move around reliably on its own (except for several groups who set up simple wired feedback from the sensor to the FET while they finished their sate machines…), but in explaining the various ways in which things went wrong, gained brief, simple, practical exposure to concerns in drive systems, emc, fabrication, and at least half a dozen other topics they will be taking courses in over the next two years. Most importantly it exposed students to some of the process of engineering whole systems, which is something one rarely gets until working on one’s own projects. I do wish it had gone as smoothly as the adder lab I replaced with a comparison of different adder designs (in Verilog) last semester, to introduce size/speed performance metrics, procedural test-benches, and the RTL/Tech schematics generated by ISE, while still teaching the basic lesson in binary arithmetic, but things did go surprisingly well for the level of unforeseen technical difficulties.

I feel almost as bad about spewing the above stream of awful loaded-meaning education jargon as the shortcomings of my plan, but there is no language I’m aware of for discussing the education process that hasn’t been co-opted by idiots.

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Crispy Asian Eggplant

Playing around in the kitchen yesterday I made an interesting food:
I like eggplant parmesan type dishes, and I like Asian-style eggplant dishes, so I decided to split the difference and fry strips of eggplant in a coating like one would use for deliciously greasy crispy orange or sesame chicken, and top them with a thick spicy teriyaki-type sauce.
It came out pretty well, the eggplant slices were crisp and fluffy and delicious, but the sauce needs work; definitely more ginger, and chili oil instead of directly adding powdered hot peppers. It could also use some greens on the plate, like cooked broccoli florets, for balance instead of just gorging on edamame while I cook. Very interesting and worth playing with again, even if it isn’t quite there yet.

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New Teaching Robots

Some days, I really love my job. That is the mechanical parts for 8 little teaching robot chassis I quickly designed, which will be used for, among other things, a late-in-the-semester EE281 lab where students develop their own line-following state machine and PWM motor control. Nice little Tamiya modular platforms with infrared reflectivity sensors to replace of the horrible, flaky, ten year old toy trucks with de-soldering braid brush sensors that are currently used. I will be recruiting folks (preferably undergrads with an interest in robotics) to assemble sometime next week after the rest of the parts get in.

Posted in DIY, Objects, OldBlog, School | 1 Comment

Iraq War Logs

I was planning to get some work done tonight, but ran into a link about the release of the Iraq War Logs by Wikileaks, and got absorbed by the initial summaries and info-graphics from the news organisations with early access.
In short, the situation in Iraq is pretty fucking reprehensible, particularly because no one, except for a probable source, is likely to be punished for what has happened.

I’m also deeply unimpressed with the DOD Response, which I will paraphrase as “We don’t understand how the Internet (that we helped spawn) works. Also, we’re unrepentant about the various shitty behavior we’ve been caught covering up.”

One thing I am impressed with is the presentation by some of the media outlets, especially the interactive infographic from Der Spiegel (Link to English version), and the Google Map from the Guardian.

The important findings can be summarized in a single passage from any of the basic analysis (The Guardian’s is nice and succinct):

Although US generals have claimed their army does not carry out body counts and British ministers still say no official statistics exist, the war logs show these claims are untrue. The field reports purport to identify all civilian and insurgent casualties, as well as numbers of coalition forces wounded and killed in action. They give a total of more than 109,000 violent deaths from all causes between 2004 and the end of 2009.

This includes 66,081 civilians, 23,984 people classed as “enemy” and 15,196 members of the Iraqi security forces. Another 3,771 dead US and allied soldiers complete the body count. [src]

Which hits the three key facts: 1. “Coalition Leaders” have been blatantly lying to the public, 2. 109,000 violent deaths, 3. More dead civilians (as defined by people with a vested interest in not reporting killing civilians) than combatants by almost a factor of two.

The last round on Afghanistan actually did change my attitude toward continued American involvement over there, despite the constant talking point that they wouldn’t:
Before I saw the leaks, I was willing to accept the argument that, like a child, we (collective for United States) made a mess and have to stay until we were done cleaning it up. After seeing the leaked material, it’s clear that a more apt analogy is a child that got into paint, and the only thing we can do to help now is get the fuck out and focus on cleaning ourselves up before we make the mess even worse.

As much as the Wikileaks folks are probably not saints, anyone shining lights into dark places and exposing the vile things that live there is doing the world a service.

Can we start gutting the DoD for cash to use on things that aren’t shameful now? Maybe redirect large fractions of the military budget over the next few years to things that will actually reduce net suffering?

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