Thursday, 19 January 2012

Cloud computing or HPC? Finding trends.

Enable innovation and efficiency in product design and manufacture by using more powerful simulations. Apply more complex models to better understand and predict the behaviour of the world around us. Process datasets faster and with more advance analyses to extract more reliable and previously hidden insights and opportunities.

All ambitions that will probably resonate with those seeking scientific advances, commercial innovation, industrial growth and more cost-effective research. Underpinning all of the above is the use of more powerful computing methods and technologies. Faster and more capable computers - but equally important - more advanced and better performing algorithms and software implementations.

It's a pretty convincing story for those who take the time to listen - whether business leaders, governments, or research funders. Even in these challenging economic times, it has led to investments from industry and governments for this reason - the potential return is well documented and significant. It is even enticing enough to interest the media and the public - especially when we use emotive descriptions like "world's fastest supercomputer", "international competitiveness in digital economy", "personal supercomputing", and so on.

And it is this last thought that cause me to diverge from the grand theme to explore names and attention. I will come back to the main theme later (a future blog), as it is both important and timely. But on to my side topic.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Winston Churchill once said "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." (for you confirmed pedants, it may have been L.P. Jacks)

My custom is to use the time away from work at the end of the year to think about what I want to do differently in the year ahead. Among the topics that came up was e-mail, the bane of my life and perhaps yours as well. I get hundreds every day (and that doesn't include the SPAM).

Being a lifelong optimist I've decided to make e-mail less of a pain in my life, both work and personal. Being an occasional realist, I recognize that I have a limited number of options and they must focus on what I can do.

So, here's my plan for 2012 (with acknowledgement to Scott Belsky and Stever Robbins who supplied some of the ideas and got me thinking). See Disrupt Your Inbox and What you should never say in an e-mail
  • Experiment with three-sentence emails when I need an answer from someone. (improve the likelihood that someone will actually read and answer).
  • Start e-mails with action I want, Don't leave the reader guessing until the end.
  • Use subject lines that intrigue the reader and actually invite them to open and read the e-mail.
  • Take disagreements offline. There are volumes that could be written on this.
  • Don't "reply all" unless everyone needs to be involved. How do you feel when you are one of 92 people copied on an e-mail that doesn't interest or pertain to you? Resist the urge, it's probably illegal.
  • If you need to make several points and expect a response, use numbers for reference to reduce length, opportunity for confusion.
What's your plan?

More on managing e-mail in a future installment.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Question one: Where's my phone?

The end of the year at NAG is always celebrated with a rather splendid Christmas lunch, which is generously paid for by the company as an acknowledgement of the hard work its employees have put in over the previous twelve months. Accordingly, it provides an occasion for some much-needed relaxation and refreshment before the Christmas break. It's also the time for the NAG Christmas Quiz which, whilst not necessarily contributing to the participants' relaxation, usually provides some entertainment or diversion for those who care about such arcane matters as the number of hearts an octopus has or Paul McCartney's middle name. One of those tortured souls is the present author, who cleverly realized some time ago that the only way to be sure of knowing all the answers to the questions was to set them.

Setting quiz questions in the connected age - particularly for a technical-savvy band such as the employees of NAG - can present a few challenges, however. For example, anyone with internet access (via, say, a smartphone's web browser) would be able to find the answers to the questions indicated above in a matter of moments. More direct questions, such as

  • Who wrote "A Child's Christmas In Wales"?
  • What kind of logs did Good King Wenceslas ask for?
  • When was "Merry Xmas Everybody" number 1 in the UK?

are even easier to answer, though some skill and judgement may still be required in the selection of the correct response to an ambiguous or ill-posed question such as the first one on this list (does it refer to Dylan Thomas's prose piece or John Cale's song?). Whilst this is clearly a valid and imaginative use of technology, I wondered whether it would provide an unfair advantage over those participants who wouldn't be using their phones in this fashion (or texting more knowledgeable friends for answers) and started wondering about ways to obviate their effectiveness.