Field Research: Il Calcolo Tecnico-Scientifico in Italia

By Addison Snell

July 31, 2008

When I saw the front-page article on HPCwire dealing with “cultural analytics” and a debate that originated in the Renaissance, I knew I had to learn more. Being a dedicated analyst, I flew immediately to Italy to check it out. Or maybe I was already in Italy on vacation and decided to check out the HPC scene while I was here.

Whether through dogged tenacity or pure serendipity, here I am in Rome, reading about cultural analytics in between visits to the Colosseum and the Vatican Museum. And my family is sick of me talking about potential HPC applications.

As I view the ruins of the Forum, I can’t help but wish I had a pair of “augmented reality” glasses, a potential technology discussed by Jaron Lanier of UC Berkeley at the inaugural HPC Horizons conference. I would love to walk through the ruins with the ability to superimpose a rendering of what they once looked like, from my current point of view, with hyperlinks to additional information that would spare me the three guidebooks I’ve been carrying around. I’d like to fly, virtually, to the heights of St. Peter’s Cathedral or the Sistine Chapel to experience these masterpieces from viewpoints unavailable to my fatigued, earthbound self.

Combining business with tourism, I also stopped in to visit a few of Italy’s predominant HPC sites – CILEA, CASPUR, and a commercial site that will not wish to be named. We talked about what constitutes productivity, what trends they are seeing in the industry, and what areas most need to be improved. On the last point, they were unanimous and emphatic: application software. They were also consistent in describing application areas that push HPC into new, non-traditional areas of research, especially as regarding real-time event processing.

But is any of this new stuff art? In studying cultural analytics, Professor Lev Manovich asked whether there is an overlap between HPC and the humanities. As I bounced between the two on my trip, I came up with a related question while viewing yet another masterpiece. Why don’t we create stuff like this anymore?

Certainly, the past century hasn’t been without its incredible creations. Sending men to the moon and bringing them safely home again is a feat that may have astonished Michelangelo (although da Vinci might attempt to take credit for the whole idea). PCs and the internet are also marvelous new things. [Insert Al Gore joke here. Here’s one for you if you don’t have one of your own: “If only Al Gore had stopped with the invention of the internet, instead of going on to invent global warming.”]

In analyzing the HPC industry, I see rapid change, and with complex event processing, the drive to extract tenths of seconds of benefit in competitive advantage. We have to compute faster to act faster than ever before.

Conversely, in my vacation from analyzing the HPC industry, I viewed art and artifacts that were hundreds to thousands of years old. Do you think in the year 4000, people will look back the same way at the achievements of today?

The summary sounds best in Latin. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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