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Deep Impact

October, 2005:

Jerry is a science-fiction writer and senior contributing editor to BYTE.com. You can contact him at [email protected]

NASA's Project Deep Impact (http://deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov/), which provided us a first look inside a comet, was a triumph and reminiscent of the old glory days when we expected everything and got more. NASA's Project Deep Impact wasn't quite like Deep Impact, the movie, in which Robert Duvall brilliantly played a thinly disguised Pete Conrad, but it was exciting enough, and the fountain of matter spewing from the comet should tell us a lot about what comets are made of. At the moment, there's so much dust, it's a bit early to tell, but "dirty snowball" (or Hot Fudge Sundae) still seems reasonable. Whatever the answer, we have asked the question properly, and NASA and JPL deserve plenty of credit. We can also congratulate them on Pathfinder and Sojourner, which continue to operate long past their planned useful lives.

Perhaps the awful times are over. No more sending up probes with part of the team calculating in English units while others insist on Metric, and neither bothering to tell the other. Or the probe that locked its landing gear in plenty of time for landing, while another team used the "landing gear locked" as a signal to shut off the engines, thus dropping a Mars Lander from 50,000 feet (or 15,240 meters) onto the surface. I mention these embarrassments not to detract from the latest triumphs, but to remind everyone that without some adult supervision, even the smartest people can do some awfully silly things. Just like computers. Also, I confess some gratification when both scientists and science writers talked about Lucifer's Hammer, the novel I wrote with Larry Niven.

Alas, it is also clear that NASA thinks it will take a very long time and a lot of money to return to the Moon, much less to go to Mars. As one of my readers put it, every man who has walked on the Moon may well be dead before another goes there. And yet, I remember when we had never been there at all, and I was thought mad to say I would live until we got there.

The Future of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Deep Impact the Project wasn't the only science-fiction-like event in the past few weeks. In the summer, I traveled to England to take part in a conference sponsored jointly by the Defense Departments of the United States and the United Kingdom on the "Future of Weapons of Mass Destruction." The speakers included not only senior police, military, and civil- service experts involved with the problem, but also, notably, my colleagues Orson Scott Card, Wil McCarthy, Allen Steele, and Vernor Vinge. The conference took place in the Wilton Park Conference Center, which was founded by Winston Churchill who viewed it as a tool for reaching international cooperation, and conferees came from many parts of the world.

House rules forbid me to quote any of the conferees. There will be a conference report written by the Center Director, Dr. Richard Latter, and I'll let you know when it's available. The conference was as much for the education and exchange of views of the participants as anything else; while science-fiction writers don't have much responsibility for dealing with the future other than speculating about it, most of the participants do. There were senior police, diplomatic, arms control, and compliance officers responsible for being sure that the military doesn't violate international conventions, and other such officials. I think some of them were stunned by the list of potential threats my colleagues and I were able to generate, but everyone said it had been a good investment of their time.

I had been home less than a week when the bombs went off in London. Had that happened during the conference, it would probably have changed the nature of the discussions. Then perhaps not. They were pretty good without that stimulus.

Inventing the Future

I can't talk about what the others said, but I can give you a summary of part of my presentation.

Long ago, Dandridge Cole said we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it. It's a good point. The best way to get where we would like to be is to see where we are, decide where we want to be, and invest in the technologies that will get us there. This seems like a good thing to do.

We may also get places we had not intended or even dreamed of. In 1964, I was the General Editor of a classified USAF Systems Command study called "Project 75." This was conducted by the San Bernardino campus of the Aerospace Corporation and was done by the Ballistic Systems Division in conjunction with the Air Systems Divisions companion study Project Forecast directed by Col. Francis X. Kane. As to why San Bernardino, General Schriever wanted this study group as far from the Pentagon as you could get and still be in the continental U.S. To get to San Bernardino, you had to go to Los Angeles, then drive back a hundred miles into the low desert. It was also a place few wanted to go.

Project 75 was ambitious. The goal was to look at everything we knew about ballistic missiles, including what we knew about the Soviet programs, then project that to the year 1975. We would then look at what we'd need in 1975 to fulfill the USAF missions and that would help determine what technologies we should begin developing in 1965 so we would have in 1975 the future—at least, in the realm of ballistic missiles—we wanted. The study was large and highly classified, and many of those who worked on it, including me, were not authorized to see the end product (even though, in my case, I had written just about every word in it—which makes more sense than is apparent at first sight).

There were a number of conclusions and recommendations for new technology development, but one stood out—we needed better accuracies at intercontinental range. If you want to hit the other guy's weapons and minimize damage to his cities, you want to use small accurate birds rather than monster nukes. One way to get that accuracy was to develop better inertial platforms with smaller and more accurate gyros so that the missile knew where it was at all times. We were already working on that, moving inertial gyros from basketball-sized with mechanical coupling to grapefruit-sized with laser data acquisition. The next step was to make use of that better position information, and the only way to do that was by on-board guidance computers. (A moment's thought will show that you don't dare allow an ICBM to accept midcourse corrections from ground bases.)

We recommended development of on-board guidance computers. That required computers that were much smaller and lighter than any then in existence. This, in turn, required Large-Scale Integrated Circuits. Accordingly, the Department of Defense directed investments into LSIC technologies. The result was better on-board guidance, and thus, far more accurate missiles, which was the future we were trying to invent—but there were other results. The work led to the 4004 chip, then the 8080 by way of the 8008. That was good enough to power small general-purpose computers, such as the Altair, Sphere, Imsai—all now on display in the Smithsonian, right next to Ezekiel, my old friend who happened to be a computer. The personal computer was born. So was BYTE magazine and Dr. Dobb's Journal and this column. In 1980, I predicted that as a result of the small computer revolution, "by the Year 2000, everyone in Western Civilization will be able to get the answer to any question that has an answer." That happened pretty well on schedule.

But while Project 75 led, pretty directly, to the computer revolution that produced the Internet and World Wide Web and had enormous impact on the lives and occupations of most of the inhabitants of Western Civilization, that wasn't what we set out to do. All we were trying to do was make our missiles more accurate.

The conclusion is obvious: You can invent the future, but you can't predict it even as you are inventing it.

Vernor Vinge and Wil McCarthy said much the same things using different examples. McCarthy is president of a nanotechnology company, so naturally he raised the question of threats like "gray goo" in which nanobots seek to convert everything they can find into copies of themselves. That got me thinking along the lines of Fred Saberhagen's berserkers—war robots that seek to eliminate all life in the universe—and what they might do with nanobots. That led to wondering if "gray goo" could evolve once it had destroyed everything else. The resulting discussion was continued at dinner and was pretty terrifying, but was probably more interesting to the science-fiction writers than the police and military policy people.

Installing XP64: A Journey Worth Taking

We've been testing out a Tyan Tiger K8WE-based system and a Hewlett-Packard xw9300 workstation, both dual Opteron systems. Both are based on the same nVidia nForce Professional chipset, and in fact, the motherboards were developed in parallel by Tyan and HP. Until recently, these systems didn't have comprehensive 64-bit XP drivers, so all that spacious RAM (4 and 8 GB!) was going to waste. Once the 64-bit drivers were available, we decided to experiment with the Tyan system, setting it up for dual boot (32- and 64-bit Windows XP). The story has a happy ending, but like so much around Chaos Manor, it took some detours to get there.

The Tyan system (Atlas, by name) is built in an Antec Server Style tower case with a 550-watt TruePower ATX12V 2.0 power supply. The power supply was a bit of a challenge, and is necessary to run dual video cards. Atlas has an nVidia PCI-E Quadro FX 4400 and a PNY Quadro FX 540 (also nVidia-based) card, both of which require a 6-pin PCI-Express power connector. This is not the familiar +5/+12V disk-drive connector, but rather a new squarish 6-pin connector that looks just like a P4 motherboard power connector. (This connector can be seen at http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/shows/computex/2004/nv45update/ powerconnector.jpg.)

Both systems have been set up with 32-bit Windows XP for several months, and have proven to be very stable performers. They are not remarkable merely for their greater memory, faster CPU, bigger disks, or stratospheric video speed, but rather the entire combination; while the lulling incrementalism of the past few years of computing improvements seems boring, occasionally we realize that, no, this batch of machines really is more useful than those of two years back, particularly for high-performance tasks.

Still, the increase hasn't been particularly big; we've been waiting for the 64-bit revolution, which is only now making its presence felt. Alex Pournelle decided to see if he could make Atlas dual-boot; for now, keeping the 32-bit Windows install is essential, because David Em uses this machine as his secondary creative station.

Fortunately, we had the luxury of both Hitachi Serial ATA and Seagate SCSI-320 drives, connected to the motherboard. The S-ATA drives were the boot and data drives, with the SCSI drives as secondary data drives. We thought to use one of the SCSI drives as the 64-bit boot drive.

64-bit Windows XP installs identically to 32-bit; the entire first-pass procedure runs almost indistinguishably, then the system reboots and tries to start up. In this case, "tries" is the operative word. While the 32-bit partition started fine, trying the 64-bit one just crashed the machine.

A bit of sober reflection revealed the reason: Boot block limitations. With the primary boot drive being Serial ATA, the boot block couldn't properly address a drive of a different technology type (SCSI), and got confused trying.

So back to square one. We cleared off the second S-ATA drive, copying its contents to the SCSI drive instead, rebooted with the install CD again, and reinstalled to the second S-ATA drive. The first-pass install finished, reboot again. Second-pass installation proceeded for a while, but then the Windows installer suddenly couldn't find some files that were obviously on the CD. Worse, it couldn't find the CD drive at all!

Dan Spisak took over and diagnosed the problem in about five minutes—the Seagate external FireWire drive was connected to this computer, and it was confusing the Windows installer because the drives had been relettered after startup. (Remember that, during installation, there isn't a complete Windows, and the installer only has limited intelligence for such problems.)

Note also that this problem is related to the difficulty RAID 1 machines have booting up when there are USB or Firewire external drives connected. BIOS writers and Microsoft need to get together to fix this once and for all.

Moral of this story: Remove all removable drives and media during installation, and save yourself the hassle. Ignore the temptation to connect everything at once, and wait until after Windows is stable before adding anything. This applies to all "new" installations, and XP64 counts as a new installation, even if it's on a computer that already has XP on it. The "new installation" rule applies to applications, as well.

Winding Down

The computer book of the month is Robert and Barbara Thompson's Astronomy Hacks (O'Reilly & Associates, 2005). I'm not an amateur astronomer, although I've often thought I'd like to try it. For those in the same situation, this book will tell you whether it's worth your while, and if so, not only how to get started but how to be pretty good at it. If you're already deep into amateur astronomy, I'm not competent to judge whether you need this book because I don't know how much you know; but having known Thompson for a while, I'd be astonished if you didn't find out things you never knew in every chapter. I asked him to pick out a representative hack, and he chose #29 as his favorite: "Plan and Prepare for a Messier Marathon: Locate, observe, and log all 110 Messier Objects in one night." I know just enough to know what Messier Objects are, but I'm certain I have never seen all 110 of them. I probably could have when I did my turn on the board of the Lowell Observatory, but I was too busy getting Shoemaker a computer. Ah, well. As with all the books Bob Thompson does with his wife, it's both technically competent and very readable.


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