Thursday, July 2, 2009
The hero they call hamming (with a lowercase h) never leaves the same plain room at the end of a long hallway, but he helps save sol diers from lethal accidents before they happen. He has no eyes, but can conjure the slippery condition of distant polar ice caps – and faraway urban battlescapes – with gasp-quality clarity. He has the outward personality of a brick wall, but enough internal charisma to inspire uncommon cooperation.
In short, they don’t make many heroes like hamming. The super computer named after Naval Postgraduate School computer science visionary Richard Hamming went online at Monterey’s NPS campus just this year, but already has completed terabytes of tasks that have the stomachs of the Naval scientists doing butterfly flutters.
NPS staffers can request an account with Director of Research Computing Jeff Haferman and then work with Haferman, who does double duty as a Monterey City Councilman, and with higher computing lead architect Eric Adint to perfect how their application can capitalize on a system capable of 10.7 trillion floating operations every second.
“Hamming has proven to have a humanity in a way,” Adint says. “It brings together all these different people who have different needs to meet and play. Here, that’s rare.
“This is the biggest and best toy I’ve worked with,” Adint adds. “This is my sandbox.”
NPS’s Modeling of Virtual Environmental Simulation (MOVES) Institute – using software acquired from the magicians at Pixar – renders any environment the Department of Defense can anticipate, from sea-faring scenarios to gritty city streets, allowing soldiers a mass of experience with none of the danger. One professor is tracking tiny tremors of sounds to develop an acoustic sensor that can predict when a helicopter part will fail a week before it happens; still another is using hamming to model a device affordable enough to help Third World countries ravaged by minefields to deploy a net over treacherous areas and detonate unexploded ordnance.
“The most horrible part of war is what’s left over,” Adint says. “We’re saving lives.”
Wieslaw Maslowski – whose team was referenced by Al Gore as he accepted the Nobel Prize – deploys its superpowers to execute simulations revealing what dramatic changes await as the Arctic melts. Simson Garfinkel collects abandoned or resold memory cards and uses hamming to analyze how much potentially dangerous information people casually discard. A colleague sends hamming searching millions of PDFs for evidence of Al Qaeda cells. Hamming even dabbles in engineering jet propulsion systems and predicting global weather patterns.
It’s all a lot for one hero to handle. And though hamming handles it all with a rather vigorous hum, he never whines.