The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
It would really be great to be starting 2018 feeling good about the work I do. Useful work that impacts important things would go a long way toward achieving this. I’ve put some thought into considering what might constitute work having these properties. This has two parts, what work would be useful and impactful in general, and what would be important to contribute to. As a necessary subtext to this conversation is a conclusion that most of the work we are doing in scientific computing today is neither useful, nor impactful and nothing important is at stake. This alone is a rather bold assertion. Simply put, as a Nation and society we are not doing anything aspirational, nothing big. This shows up in the lack of substance in the work we are paid to pursue. More deeply, I believe that if we did something big and aspirational, the utility and impact of our work would simply sort itself out as part of a natural order.
The march of science is the 20th Century was deeply impacted by international events, several World Wars and a Cold (non) War that spurred National interests in supporting science and technology. The twin projects of the atom bomb and the nuclear arms race along with space exploration drove the creation of much of the science and technology today. These conflicts steeled resolve, purpose and granted resources needed for success. They were important enough that efforts were earnest. Risks were taken because risk is necessary for achievement. Today we don’t take risks because nothing important is a stake. We can basically fake results and market progress where little or none exists. Since nothing is really that essential bullshit reigns supreme.
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
― Paulo Coelho
One of the keys to these conflicts was the presence of a worthy adversary to steel ourselves for the push forward. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were worthy enemies whose competence meant putting our best foot forward. In reality and rhetorically we lack such an adversary today to push us. We needed to fully commit and faithfully execute our endeavors to achieve victory against these enemies. These opponents had the clear capacity to destroy the United States and the West if the resistance was not real. Ironically the Soviets were ultimately defeated by bullshit. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars bankrupted the Soviets. It was complete bullshit and never had a chance to succeed. This was a brutal harbinger of today’s World where reality is optional, and marketing is the coin of the realm. Today American power seems unassailable. This is partially true and partially over-confidence. We are not on our game at all, and far to much of our power is based on bullshit. As a result, we can basically just pretend to try, and actually not execute anything with substance and competence. This is where we are today; we are doing nothing important, and wasting lots of time and money in the process.
How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.
― Salman Rushdie
Again, I freely admit that this is a bold assertion. In scientific computing, we have a National exascale program that underpins National security and economic interests. It contributes to all of these things in massive ways, at least rhetorically. This support for these National goals is pure marketing, or less generously absolute bullshit. This is simply trotting out a bunch of tired sales pitches for scientific computing that lack any soul and increasingly lack substance. The Nation has no large objectives to support, the entire system is drifting along on auto-pilot. It is brimming with over-confidence and a feeling of superiority that only needs a worthy opponent to expose our largess. We have no enemies that are remotely worthy. We have created some chicken-shit paper tigers like Iran, North Korea and the amorphous and largely toothless Islamic fundamentalism. None of these enemies is even the remotest threat to the United States, or the West in general. If they were a worthy threat then we are in awful shape and far worse than we actually are. Terrorism is only as much of a threat as we make it. We have stoked fear and let ourselves we terrorized because it is useful for the defense-intelligence Industrial complex. It has put trillions of dollars into their coffers, and done little or nothing to build a future. We could simply defeat these enemies by refusing to be terrorized. Some courage and resilience as a Nation would be sufficient to render these pathetic enemies utterly impotent. The greatest damage and threat from these enemies is our response to it, not the actual carnage. Our “leaders” are using them to spread fear among the populace to further their own agendas.
The result of the current model is a research establishment that only goes through the motions and does little or nothing. We make lots of noise and produce little substance. Our nation deeply needs a purpose that is greater. There are plenty of worthier National goals. If war-making is needed, Russia and China are still worthy adversaries. For some reason, we have chosen to capitulate to Putin’s Russia simply because they are an ally against the non-viable threat of Islamic fundamentalism. This is a completely insane choice that is only rhetorically useful. If we want peaceful goals, there are challenges aplenty. Climate change and weather are worthy problems to tackle requiring both scientific understanding and societal transformation to conquer. Creating clean and renewable energy that does not create horrible environmental side-effects remains unsolved. Solving the international needs for food and prosperity for mankind is always there. Scientific exploration and particularly space remain unconquered frontiers. Medicine and genetics offer new vistas for scientific exploration. All of these areas could transform the Nation in broad ways socially and economically. All of these could meet broad societal needs. More to the point of my post, all need scientific computing in one form or another to fully succeed. Computing always works best as a useful tool employed to help achieve objectives in the real World. The real-World problems provide constraints and objectives that spur innovation and keep the enterprise honest.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
― Philip K. Dick
Instead our scientific computing is being applied as a shallow marketing ploy to shore up a vacuous program. Nothing really important or impactful is at stake. The applications for computing are mostly make believe and amount to nothing of significance. The marketing will tell you otherwise, but the lack of gravity for the work is clear and poisons the work. The result of this lack of gravity are phony goals and objectives that have the look and feel of impact, but contribute nothing toward an objective reality. This lack of contribution comes from the deeper malaise of purpose as a Nation, and science’s role as an engine of progress. With little or nothing at stake the tools used for success suffer, scientific computing is no different. The standards of success simply are not real, and lack teeth. Even stockpile stewardship is drifting into the realm of bullshit. It started as a worthy program, but over time it has been allowed to lose its substance. Political and financial goals have replaced science and fact, the goals of the program losing connection to objective reality.
Scientific computing came to maturity being an important supporting player for large enterprises. Originally born in the Cold War as a key tool for science and engineering supporting defense science. Scientific computing spread from this base toward more general science, and more recently into broad use by business and the society as a whole. The kernel from which computing sprang was an interwoven set of large National objectives providing the technical foundation that powers our economy today. Computing was a key contributing player in these endeavors. These endeavors also supported a broad phalanx of other technologies and scientific explorations that formed the broad basis of modernizing the world. Such over-arching goals are breathtakingly missing today. We are lacking a World with any vision of a better future and limitless progress.
If we could marshal our efforts into some worthy efforts, what would we work on?
We would still be chasing faster computers, but the faster computers would not be the primary focus. We would focus on using computing to solve problems that were important. We would focus on making computers that were useful first and foremost. We would want computers that were faster as long as they enabled progress on problem solving. As a result, efforts would be streamlined toward utility. We would not throw vast amounts of effort into making computers faster, just to make them faster (this is what is happening today there is no rhyme or reason to exascale other than, faster is like better, Duh!). Utility means that we would honestly look at what is limiting problem solving and putting our efforts into removing those limits. The effects of this dose of reality on our current efforts would be stunning; we would see a wholesale change in our emphasis and focus away from hardware. Computing hardware would take its proper role as an important tool for scientific computing and no longer be the driving force. The fact that hardware is a driving force for scientific computing is one of clearest indicators of how unhealthy the field is today.
Thinking something does not make it true. Wanting something does not make it real.
― Michelle Hodkin
If scientific computing was taking its role in a healthy National enterprise, the focus would be entirely different. Invariably we would see a very strong emphasis on modeling. In almost every serious endeavor using computing to get real design and analysis results, the physical modeling is the greatest limiting factor. A faster computer is always welcome, but a faster computer never fixes a faulty model. This maxim seems to be utterly and completely ignored in the current scientific computing narrative. The most effective way to improve modeling is also different than current emphasis. Better numerical methods and algorithms provide faster and more accurate solutions to models than computing hardware. This is another area where progress is completely stalled.
Current computing focus is only porting old codes to new computers, a process that keeps old models, methods and algorithms in place. This is one of the most corrosive elements in the current mix. The porting of old codes is the utter abdication of intellectual ownership. These old codes are scientific dinosaurs and act to freeze antiquated models, methods and algorithms in place while acting to squash progress. Worse yet, the skillsets necessary for improving the most valuable and important parts of modeling and simulation are allowed to languish. This is worse than simply choosing a less efficient road, this is going backwards. When we need to turn our attention to serious real work, our scientists will not be ready. These choices are dooming an entire generation that could have been making breakthroughs to simply become caretakers. To be proper stewards of our science we need to write new codes containing new models using new methods and algorithms. Porting codes turns our scientists into mindless monks simply transcribing sacred texts without any depth of understanding. It is a recipe for transforming our science into magic. It is the recipe for defeat and the passage away from the greatness we once had.
Without Your Opponent, You are no Victor.
― Anajo Black