David Anderson, A Brief History of (CPU) Time

Comp scientist at UC Berkley, building platform for citizen science. Looking for commonalities, software support that addresses community’s needs to make it easier for scientists to use volunteer power. Tech is only one piece of the solution.

Build platforms for:

  • Volunteer computing
  • Distributed thinking
  • Education

Computational science:

Simulations are now so vastly complex that they can only be done on computer. Simulations at various scales,  e.g. proteins, ecosystems, Earth, galaxy, universe. . Need lots of computing power because need to fit models to observed data. To predict what’s going to happen you need to run thousands or millions of simulations.

Generation of new instruments, e.g. LHC, LIGO, SKA, gene sequencers, produce data at unprecedented rates, right at limit of computers to handle. Beyond limit of computers owned by unis or institutions. Science limited by computing power and storage capacity. What we need is not a faster computer, but higher throughput, i.e. a lot of computers.

Consumer digital appliances, e.g. computers, handhelds, set-top boxes, are all converging on similar hardware. Networks that connect them all: consuemr digital infrastructure. 1.5 billion PCs. Graphics processing improved through desire to watch HD TV and play realistic games, and GPU oft 100x CPU speed. Put there for games, but good for science.

Storage on consumer devices approaching the terabyte scale, network approaching 1 Gbps.

All this is ideal for science computing!

Compare consumer digital infrastructure with institutional counterpart, it’s way bigger and way cheaper than institutional computing. Supercomputers moving towards an ExaFLOPs in 5 years, but consumers already have 1000 ExaFLOPS today. Consumer spend $1 trillion per year!

BOINC, free open source software, anyone can create a project.

Utopian ideal, to have a lot of these projects, getting computing power by advertising research to the public, educating public on their project, so public supplies resources to science where they want to put it.

Boinc projects

  • ~30 projects
  • 300k vols
  • 530k computers
  • 3 PetaFLOPS

Volunteers can do more than run software. they can provide tech support, can optimise programme, translate website, recruit new users. Initially used message boards, realised that they weren’t working well for non-tech systems, so now have a system based on Skype, so people needing help can find someone who is willing to give that help via Skype.

Volunteers have a spectrum of confidence, and some users are malicious, e.g. they have had people trying to scam others users and trying to get their PayPal IDs.

Motivations study. People interested in doing science, want to show the world they have the fastest computer, people who want to be a part of a team.

Distributed thinking. Stardust@Home, interstellar dust photos, looking for grains of dust. People can do this better than computers. Interesting thing was needing to quantify accuracy of results. Created samples where they new the answers, i.e. either contained noise or had a particle. Every 5th image was a callibration images and so could keep track of false positives and negatives.

Also used replication, many people look at it, and then if there is consensus can look at calibration results and that shows if consensus is correct. Project found all the dust particles it could.

Created platform called Bossa. Middleware for distributed thinking, provides scheduling mechanisms, e.g. calibration jobs, replication. Open system with respect to assessment, scheduling policies.

Being used to find fossils.

Also extending Bossa to Bossa Nova, looking at more complex systems for asking people to do things involving creativity, problems for which there is no unique answer. E.g. complex problem solving, use volunteers to decompose problem into sub-problems, propose solutions, evaluate them, evaluate how a group of solutions might work together. Involves different skills. At software level, it uses people optimally, uses them for tasks to which they can contribute most.

Education and citizen science. If we can train people to do more complex staves we can achieve more. This is very important – if people learn more they may stick with a project longer, recruit more people to help, and you get more computing power.

Challenge of training or educating 100,000s people is a challenging problem, not attacked by traditional education theory. Heterogeneity is problematic: different backgrounds, education levels, locations, language. What makes this tractable is that there is a constant stream of students arriving, dozens, 100s, 1000s new users per day, so we have lots of people arriving interested in a course, so we can do experiments. If we haev two alternative ways of teaching a concept, we can rig up the software system to randomly show one lesson or the other and then they take the same assessment.

May learn one lesson is better than another, or one lesson is better for a subset, e.g. based on demographic or other attribute, and can then make an adaptive course where as we learn more about the student we refine how we teach them. Not just individual lessons, but overall structure of course.

Bolt: system for tailored education for large streams of volunteers.

David Grier, Lessons from the Ancient History of Crowd Sourcing

I’m here at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit for the next two days. Expect quite a few notes (although probably not all session!).

Lessons in crowdsourcing.

Nothing new under the sun. Science shaped by forces that have existed a long time, and we understand them. Works on calculation and making mathematical models work. That has long history as being citizen science, going back 200 years. Take large task, divide into small exchangeable jobs, send out into the world with instructions on how to do them. Charles Babbage wrote extensively about this in the 1830s.

Babbage was thinking about this because of his computing machine, how can you split big tasks up? Activity is largely about starting something, drive is towards radical organisation that moves towards convention, where you have people who lead, follow, varying levels of skill.

Babbage’s discussion, prime example he worked off, Gaspard DeProny, French Revolution, labour was very cheap. DeProny got 100 people to do maths tables, required for surveying.

~100 years later, 1875, post American Civil War, lots of people out of work, women who were widows, organised group of computers, i.e. women, who put together the Harvard Star Catalogue. Then again in 1907 by US Naval Obs.

And again in 1938 during the Great Depression – 450 people working at tables with paper and pencils doing calculations for scientists or government. Maths Tables Project.

A few people have adding machines, they are the leaders.

A NYC computing office, Columbia Uni Stats Computing Lab, 1930, had 6 employees.

Most of the Maths tables computers hadn’t been to high school, organised by arithmetic opersations e.g. – or +.

Often drew from poor classes at that time: blacks, women, Irish, Jews.

Planners had a doctorate or masters, operated 1938 – 1948, remnants existed til 1964.

Most scientists/engineers didn’t have access to computers until mid-60s when they had timeshare. Some not until the 70s. They worked with a worksheet, that was planned, a bit like programming. Early programmers were called planners, coding was called planning. Instructions, so workers didn’t need to understand what they were doing.

Built 28 volumes of tables, e.g. powers of integers, exponential functions.

Discovered there were particular skills, and started to look for specific calculations that were good for generating revenue, e.g. OSRD calcs, microwave radar tables, explosion calcs; LORAN navigation tables (precursor of GPS); general science calcs, e.g. Hans Bethe paper on Sun. First test of linear programming.

Labour economics. As you build skills, people want to use their skills and want to be rewarded for that skills. They want to advance. WPA studied labour and skill as a way of building identity.

Building skill

  • Identity
  • Accomplishment
  • Avancement

Aspirational issues: Everyone wanted to be special.

Special Computing Group, had a room to themselves, had machines, almost all were women, and everyone wanted to move up to the special computing group. They started offering courses at lunch to develop those skills. Once they had completed that, were were opportunities outside. So lots of places they could apply those skills. Best measure of ability was the skill of the group.

They recognised that losing members of the group, breaking it up would damage the organisation. Started to have difficulty getting work, so soliciting work from scientists.

Gertrude Blanch, PhD, chief mathematician. Ran the computing group. Had to take everyone who came in the door, had to find ways to enforce discipline, e.g. people who didn’t think about carrying the ten, or who couldn’t concentration. Calculations were done 3 – 10 times each, didn’t just duplicate for sake of it.

“People doing hand calculations computing the same number the same way make the same mistakes” – Babbage

So did same calculation in different ways to ensure accuracy.

Crucial issue: How do citizen scientists relate to professionals? Professionals build walls around themselves.

National Academies of Science said they wanted to be of use to the gov’t, and help scientific work. WPA sponsored a lot of science. Internal comms of Nat Academies are ’embarassing at best’. Group realised it was in a position it didn’t want to be in, and internal memos had one set of reasoning that repeats:

“Scientists are successful people. The poor, are not successful, because they are poor. Therefore can conclude that hte poor are not scientific. Ergo, maths tables project is not scientific, ergo their work is not good.”

NAS wanted the budget for the maths tables and wanted to do it “right” and ‘well”. But they could never have replicated it with students as budget wouldn’t cover it.

Handbook of Mathematical Functions: Largest selling science book in history.

Gertrude Blanch, finished PhD in 1934, was Jewish, was never going to be employed by anyone, but doing the maths tables project lead her to be employed by the Air Force, worked on supersonic air flow, jet nozzles.

The thing that we are doing is building skill amongst the general populous can never be overlooked.

Maths group had droped form 450 people to 120 as labour costs were higher. But claimed 120 was as efficient. by 1946, group had fallen to 60 people with specific skill, but still as efficient. People have titles, skills, identifiable expertise.


  • We are creating skill, not just exploring the universe and doing science,
  • Get people who want to be identified with project, part of their identity.
  • Builds org with hierarchy, divisions of labour based on skill
  • Encourage aspiration

DeProny users Adam Smith as justification, first 2 ch of Wealth of Nation, division of labour, identifying people with skill. Forces that shape these orgs and relationships that will support science, there is also a political economy that shapes it. which builds skill but divides jobs, creates leaders and followers. Must deal with science self-defining as enclosed domain.


Participatory media: Encouraging people to ‘level up’

Derek Powazek has an interesting analysis of the quirky quiz show on US public radio (NPR) called Wait, Wait Don’t Tell me and looks at the lessons the show provides in developing participatory media projects. What I like about this post is that he’s looking at a relatively traditional media format, the radio quiz show, through a different lens, from the point of view not of radio but of social media and gaming. I like from the start how he re-defines the term “crowdsourcing”.

For my purposes, it means collaborating with the people who used to be the silent audience to make something better than you could make alone.

I’m going to focus on two of his points and let you read the rest of the post to get the full monty. I couldn’t agree more with his second point about structuring input. You have to give crowds a goal, something to aim for.

Too many crowdsourced projects create a blank canvas and have a rather utopian view that the crowd will create a masterpiece. It just doesn’t work like that. You’ll most likely get obscene graffiti rather than a Van Gogh because not a lot of people engage with something when it isn’t clear what they are engaging with. A vacuum encourages vandals. They assume that no one is looking after your particular corner of the internet and will usually start trying to sell Viagra if you’re lucky. I still hear Field of Dreams strategies at conferences, a “build it and they will come” ethos that was discredited by anyone with credibility a decade ago. (If someone espouses such a strategy and dresses up with a lot of buzzwords stressed to impress, run away. They really are just snake oil salesman.)

I think Derek makes another good point when he says “Encourage the audience to level up”. Again, this is taking a concept from gaming and applying it to participatory media. Most people still passively consume media (although many more people are sharing and recommending media). It’s often referred to as the user-generated content pyramid or the 1-9-90 rule (although this might be changing). A participatory media project or service should give “new users a clear path, limited tools, and an awareness of that those on the next level can do”, Derek says.

Too often, media create crowdsourced projects that are akin to bad dates, they are all about us. It’s focused on what we, the media, not what we, the people, get out of it. As I’ve been saying for several years now, if user-generated content plays actually provide value to users, not just media outlets, then more people will participate. Creating levels for users and clear benefits for them as they contribute more is one solid strategy for achieving greater participation and better results.

Further thoughts on the effects of air travel disruption

A couple of weeks ago I surmised that the travel disruption caused by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might force businesses to rethink how they manage their long-distance relationships. It might, I posited, force businesses to be more open to teleworking, teleconferencing and the use of social media for geographically dispersed teams.

Eyjafjallajökull is showing no signs of stopping. A reduced ash plume combined with favourable winds and a change in the aviation industry’s policy towards acceptable ash levels allowed air travel to restart, but the last couple of days have seen Ireland and Scotland forced to close airports due to renewed ash threat. The volcano became “more explosive” with a higher, denser ash column that was swept towards Ireland and Scotland by a southeasterly wind.

I think it’s reasonable to say that we may see further disruption in the UK and across Europe as this eruption continues, so it seems like a good time to remake the point: Start planning now for your business to be affected by further flight bans, especially as the holiday season creeps towards us, increasing the risk that staff may be able to get out of the country but unable to get home. Start introducing collaborative technology now. Don’t wait for disaster to strike, but get your staff up to speed with new tools whilst you still have the luxury of not being in the middle of a crisis.

Harold Jarche points out that working online is different, and it takes some getting used to:

[I]t’s not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide.

And Ethan Zuckerman makes a great point that we don’t notice how much we rely on our infrastructure until it has gone. I like Ethan’s definition of ‘infrastructure’:

Infrastructure is the stuff we ignore until it breaks. Then it’s the stuff we’re stunned to discover we’re dependent on.

He then goes on to point out how ridiculous our dependence on air travel has become, to the point where we expect to be able to fly in, do a 20 minute conference presentation and fly home again. I’ve even done that in one single day, and it’s not fun. But, Ethan says:

It’s possible that Eyjafjallajökull could change this. If a 24 hour trip to London has a significant risk of becoming a 5 day trip to London, the calculus changes. As much as frequent travellers gripe about delays and cancellations, they’re pretty infrequent, and mass delays like the ones currently being experienced are downright rare. If they become commonplace, I personally would expect to say no to travel lots more often and do a lot more appearances via Skype and videoconferencing.

From meetings to conferences to team-building events, unreliable air travel changes how we think about long-distance travel. It should also change how we think about working over long distances, and, thence, how we work with the people who sit right next to us.

And for anyone who thinks that this is all a big fuss over nothing, here are a couple of thoughts:

Firstly, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in December 1821, she did so in fits and starts, with two weeks of activity followed by nothing until June 1822 when she erupted again. Ash fell intermittently for months and activity continued into 1823. In June of 1823, Katla, her neighbour, erupts for four weeks. We are likely to see lulls in activity from Eyjafjallajökull, but we shouldn’t interpret that to mean that the threat is over.

Secondly, by implementing social media, encouraging collaboration and discouraging unnecessary travel your business will become more efficient, more effective and will waste less money on travel. Even if Eyjafjallajökull stops erupting, you’ll still be better off for having prioritised better collaboration practices.

Enterprise 2.0 Beta

Via Anthony Mayfield, I discovered this video from KS12:

Anthony pulls two ideas out of the video: How our need to assign and take the credit for ideas can mess things up; and how sometimes information should just fade from view as it gets older, rather than being always perfectly preserved.

I pulled out another: That releasing software in beta is an important statement about the underlying attitudes towards innovation and development, and sets the scene psychologically for change and progression. In the Web 2.0 community, the ‘release early, release often’ ethos is well known and frequently used. Start-ups release the most basic version of their software, gather user feedback, watch for emergent behaviour and then develop the next release accordingly. Users are primed by the word ‘beta’ to expect problems – so they are less upset when they occur – and also to expect change. The process doesn’t always go smoothly, but it is a cost-effective way of developing software and web services quickly.

Enterprise really needs to embrace the idea of beta, not just in software development but in their project planning too. The idea that everything has to be perfect at launch, that launch is an end instead of a beginning, and that addressing bugs and flaws after launch is somehow a sign of weakness is an anachronism. I can’t count the number of projects where all the effort has gone into a final deadline and the results of all our hard work withered on the vine because no one thought about what to do with the work we had produced.

This is especially true of social software and social media projects where the tools are evolving faster than even the professionals can keep up. Social media projects of whatever stripe should be be seen as an ongoing process of change as the tools, ideas and culture all slowly mature. It’s much more like cheese that ripens slowly than a souffle that flops if not consumed immediately.

Will Eyjafjallajökull force business change?

There can’t be anyone left who’s not aware of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. Activity started on 20 March with a ‘curtain of fire‘ fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls, which sits in between two glaciers, then entered a second phase on 14h April with what’s known as a phreatomagmatic eruption actually under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. A phreatomagmatic eruption is one where magma reacts explosively with a water source, be it ground water, snow or ice, resulting in a plume of ash and steam.

I’ve been following the eruption closely since 20th March, mainly because my degree was in geology and volcanoes have always fascinated me. I love a good Hawai’i style eruption! When it was just a fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls it was basically a neat little tourist attraction, but things are much more serious now. This new phreatomagmatic eruption is a different kettle of North Atlantic cod, primarily because of the airspace closures that the ash cloud is causing.


Disrupted air travel is not just affecting tourists who are stuck abroad or whose holiday has been cancelled, it’s also affecting business travel and, much more importantly, airfreight movements. Airspace closure of a day or so is one thing, but it has been six days and that is going to cause some significant problems not just for the airlines who are currently haemorrhaging cash, but for any business relying on goods transported by air, whether as part of a just-in-time supply chain or not. We may soon start to notice this as perishables like fruit and veg become restricted to locally-available and in-season produce.

It seems unlikely to me that this current eruption is going to cease any time soon. It is, of course, impossible to predict with any certainty what is going to happen, but historically Eyjafjallajökull has shown itself capable of prolonged (two year) eruptions and we need to accept that we might just be at the beginning of such a period of volcanicity.

If that’s the case, then the main factor we need to keep an eye on is the weather. At the moment, the winds are bringing the ash right towards Europe, with Norway and the UK bearing the brunt of it. If the weather changes and a southerly starts to push the ash plume up towards polar regions, for example, then hopefully that’ll clear the air and we’ll be able to start flying. However, I think we should at the very least start to prepare for a future in which air travel is unreliable and where we suffer ongoing sporadic airspace closures. Even if the weather changes enough that we can start to fly again mid-week, there’s no guarantee that we’re not going to see more bans in future.

What does this have to do with social media? Well, if I were a CIO right now, I’d be looking at making sure that everyone in the company has access to video conferencing software such as iChat or Skype, particularly those who usually travel a lot. I’d also be looking at encouraging clients, partners and customers to ensure that they too have these tools installed. I would also provide everyone in my company with IM, would install one of the better wiki platforms and start encouraging people to ramp down their business travel and use social media and video calls instead.

Now, admittedly if I was a CIO I’d be doing that anyway. When people have a choice they tend to choice the status quo over change, but necessity is the mother of invention adoption. Continued sporadic air travel bans will take choice away, so it is in business’ best interests to prepare now for what could be a long period of unreliable travel.

Business travel – such as for meetings, conferences, training – is something we’ve taken for granted. But we haven’t always done business that way and there’s no reason why we have to rely on face-to-face meetings now. Social media can step in to fill the gap, providing a better solution than conference calls alone. I wonder if Eyjafjallajökull is going to force the wider adoption of social tools as air travel once again becomes rare.

Event: Radical Real-Time

The Radical Real-Time annual virtual unconference is scheduled for June 5 this year, with the theme of “Making the Most of Collaborative Worlds: Physical, Virtual and Blended Collaboration”.

This Radical Real-time unconference will take place in different virtual platforms that offer possibilities to meet both asynchronously and synchronously. The synchronous part of our conference will be an array of meetings during four hours on June 5, 2010 starting at 2.00PM GMT. You are already participating in the asynchronous part of the conference by being on this Ning site. Right now, we are collaboratively putting together the conference program.

For more info, check out their Q&A page.

The Tyranny of the Explicit

Johnnie Moore has a great podcast episode talking with Viv McWaters and Roland Harwood on how an undue focus on metrics can get in the way of real thought and understanding. I see this frequently myself, too, when people want to focus on ‘return on investment’ or ‘success metrics’ for social media at the cost of understanding the intangible results, which are actually more important than the measurable ones. There are some great nuggets, so well worth listening to. I particularly liked Johnnie’s discussion of how learning has become codified in unrealistic ways and how that relates to best practice documents that don’t get practised.

Telecommuting: Just do it!

I’ve worked for a lot of remote clients over the years, reaching back to when I was a web designer during the Dot Com era. From the company in California for whom I designed and built a website during the late 90s, to the start-up in Montreal that I worked with last year, my professional engagements have been as often remote as on-site. I’ve been freelance one way or another for over ten years so working from home is second nature.

In the last decade, many of the problems with remote working have been solved. It is now trivial to do video conferencing: All you need is a decent internet connection and Skype. Transferring large files is easy using services like DropBox or DropSend. IRC (internet relay chat), which was once a staple communications channel, has been replaced by instant messenger and Yammer. The emailing round of documents for discussion has been replaced by wikis like Socialtext or PBWorks. If you’re willing to be inventive, working remotely isn’t technically difficult.

This certainly seems to be experience that the editorial staff of Inc.com had when they decided to all work from home whilst putting together the most recent issue. Technologically, telecommuting is pretty simple and there’s no reason why more companies couldn’t just decide to get on with it. The social aspects of distributed working are a little bit thornier: it suits some personalities more than others and you do have to think very hard about how your emotional needs get met. I’ve always been pretty happy being on my own all day and getting my social fix online, or at meetings and evening events, but some people need a bit more face-to-face interaction to be happy. But homeworking needn’t be all or nothing. There’s no reason why more people can’t do two or three days at home and the rest of the week in the office.

The benefits may well outweigh the downside too. Inc.com gathered these stats from Kate Lister from the Telework Research Network, who asked what the numbers would be if 40% of the American workforce worked from home half the time:

  • $200 billion: productivity gains by American companies
  • $190 billion: savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • 100 hours: per person not spent commuting
  • 50 million tons; of greenhouse gas emissions cut
  • 276 million barrels: of oil saved, or roughly 32 percent of oil imports from the Middle East
  • 1,500 lives: not lost in car accidents
  • $700 billion: total estimated savings to American businesses

The social enterprise isn’t just about helping people realise the benefits of social media in the workplace, but is also about the vast possibilities in flexible working that social tools offer. And from what Inc.com has experienced, it seems that there’s no reason not to dive in and give it a go.