Monday, January 30, 2006

Caltech Basketball

The Caltech men's basketball team has been in both the L.A. Times and Sports Illustrated recently. The SI article also showed up in the Daily Yomiuri here in Tokyo. Hey, we're famous!

Both articles are sort of bemused looks at a place where being on a sports team doesn't earn you much campus status. Theoretical physics majors who can't dribble, players who shoot with their eyes closed, more high school valedictorians than high school ball players, that kind of humor. But both columnists gave the team (and coach) credit for heart, effort, smart play (which is harder than it sounds), and a reasonably solid D (as in "defense", not "almost failing").

I was on the team when I was student. I'm proud of that, though the other players rolled their eyes when talking about my abilities. I was the worst player on the team, by a large margin. Since the team plays NCAA Div III, and has no depth, I like to claim I was the worst player in all of NCAA basketball. It might be true.

I made the team out of the good grace of the coaches, and because I was willing to show up for practice every day, which some of the other marginal players were not. I was junior varsity the first couple of years, but was privileged to hold down the end of the varsity bench on occasion, and kept stats and shot charts for a while. Basketball was what kept me sane; my grades were actually better during the season than not.

The team we had then had an excellent starting five. Ed Zanelli, Brett Bush, Chris Kyriakakis, Jim Helgren, and Jeff Lester could all shoot, rebound, play D, run the offense, do what it takes. Ed was a fierce competitor, quick and penetrating, seeing the floor the way a point guard should. Chris had beautiful shooting form. Brett was particularly athletic (he pitched for the baseball team, and may have been among the top 100 volleyball players in the country at one point, having been recruited to play at UCLA but choosing Caltech instead, where, yes, he majored in physics), though his six-five frame was overshadowed by many opposing centers. Jim provided muscle, and Jeff quickness on the wing. But it fell off rapidly after the starting five, bottoming out somewhere around me.

Caltech won one NCAA game in the 1970s (against Pomona, I think), then beat LaVerne when I was a student in the mid-1980s. (Rumor has it that both victories resulted in the firing of opposing coaches.) But that's it. Nothing since then. No NCAA victory in 21 years.

But this year, the team has been competitive in several games, losing one by only four points, and there is a building anticipation of victory.

Go, Beavers!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Remembrance Season

It's Remembrance Season.

Ten days ago was the eleventh anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed more than 6,400 people in and around Kobe. We were down there visiting friends last year, and saw some of the memorials; the scale of the tragedy was immense.

Friday was the sixty-first anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, ending one of the darkest events in human history.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. At the time, I was a student at Caltech. Usually, but not always, I was in the habit of watching shuttle launches and landings. (My dad took my sister and me to see the first launch in 1981, and I had organized a group of students to go see a landing at Edwards Air Force Base the year before.) This particular time, I had forgotten about the launch, but I had my alarm set to the radio, and it happened to go off a few minutes after the explosion. I rushed down to our house tv lounge, where there were already a few people gathered. We watched as long as we could, then went through the motions of the day, stunned and empty. I had a job interview that morning; I recall not a thing about it, not even the name of the company or type of business they were in.

A day or two later, the basketball team had a game; someone (Ed Zanelli, I think) made sure the team members had black bands for their uniforms in remembrance.

Of course, a significant number of Techers aspire to be astronauts, me included; a few have actually made it (Harrison Schmidt, the geologist, even walked on the moon). But the accident had a more practical impact than postponing such dreams. One company I had interviewed with did aerospace work, and immediately put its hiring plans on hold. In a less anticipated fashion, it took Feynman away. I was taking his class on computing systems, and he was co-teaching it that year with Sandy Frey; after the famous "Dr. Feynman goes to Washington", we got to see very little of him, and Sandy took over most of the teaching.

Space afficianados know that this is the season not just of Challenger but all of the major U.S. disasters:

  • January 27, 1967: Apollo 1, which took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
  • January 28, 1986: STS51-L (Challenger); Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, Sharon Christa McAuliffe.
  • February 1, 2003: STS-107 (Columbia); Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon.

May we somehow, someday, be worthy of the sacrifices they made and the risks they, and the other astronauts from all countries, took and continue to take.

Friday, January 27, 2006

English in Japanese Primary Schools

The Daily Yomiuri reports today that Prime Minister Koizumi's government has decided to allow English to be taught in primary school. That's right, allow. The national government takes a much stronger role in curriculum here than in the United States.

Up until now, if I have this right (the DY article is worded just a touch ambiguously), primary schools have been allowed to teach English provided that textbooks were not used and teachers did not grade work. In practice, this means that my daughter's first grade class has an Englishman come for forty-five minutes once every two weeks or so, and he plays a couple of games. (The net result is that the kids in the hall greet me with "Haro!" when I go to visit.)

If there are new limits on how formal the English classes can be going forward, the article didn't say, but it did say that local (city) school boards have to apply to the central government for permission to make the changes.

This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse?

There is now a Hello Kitty Stratocaster guitar by Fender. On sale in the U.S. since fall, now coming to Japan...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

HDLs for Quantum Computers

Hardware description languages (HDLs) are languages for designing electronic circuits. Udrescu et al. published a paper on the topic of HDLs for quantum computing. I haven't had time to sit down and read it in detail yet, but I'm excited by the basic idea.

Of course, existing work on quantum languages often reads like circuit design rather than conventional programming languages, so this isn't the first time someone has worked in this area, but I'm happy to see more people working explicitly on the design of the quantum hardware.

My own assembler currently supports a variety of back ends which programs can be compiled for, but doesn't yet have a description language for architectures. It's on my list of things to do...

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Visit to Pluto

New Horizons, NASA's latest planetary probe, lifted off yesterday, headed for Pluto by way of Jupiter. It will pass Jupiter in about a year, getting a gravity boost, then arrive at Pluto in July, 2015 for a short flyby followed by a tour of the Kuiper Belt.

Barring intervening changes in official terminology, Pluto will be the last of the nine planets to be visited. Should be interesting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Architectural Implications of Quantum Computing Technologies

My paper "Architectural implications of quantum computing technologies," coauthored with Mark Oskin, was accepted to ACM's Journal on Emerging Technologies in Computing Systems (JETC) (contents in the Digital Library here, though the issue which will contain my paper is not available yet).
This paper presents a taxonomy of quantum computing technologies from a computer architect's point of view, complementary to the DiVincenzo criteria.

As Dave Bacon would say, time to do the New Paper Dance!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

4.5 in Abaraki-ken @ 15:30

Yawn, more earthquake fun. This one was strong enough here in Abiko that they pulled everyone out of the pool at my daughter's swimming school, did a head count, went through the basic drill, then went on about their business.

They said that near the epicenter it reached 4 on the Japanese scale, enough to cause some light damage.

Congratulations, Dr. Abe! (and, Phosphorus in Silicon)

Eisuke Abe is now Doctor Abe. He defended his thesis, Pulsed Electron Spin Resonance in Phosphorus Doped Isotopically Controlled Silicon, yesterday.

Some of Eisuke's papers are on the arXiv or at the Itoh group home page. His thesis isn't available online yet, but the papers are of course relevant.

This work has implications for the coherence time of qubits done with phosphorus-doped silicon, as in the Kane scalable quantum computer. The Kane computer now has its own Wikipedia entry, which has a couple of things that aren't completely accurate, I think... only some isotopes of silicon, for example, have nuclear spin zero, which is in fact the point of Eisuke's thesis -- measuring the behavior with changing silicon isotopic composition.

Facial Recognition, GPS Disasters, and Nikon Cameras

Today's Daily Yomiuri reports that the Construction and Transport Ministry is studying the introduction of a facial recognition system to be installed in every train station, tied into a central database to look for terrorists (though there is no reason why they couldn't look for wanted criminals, deadbeat dads and jaywalkers with the same system).

The diagram accompanying the article shows cameras pointed at the electronic ticket gates (kaisatsuguchi), but there's no indication in the article that the cameras will be limited to there. Out in the suburbs where we live, not all of the stations have electronic ticket gates; it's possible to enter the JR system without a ticket at all.

Of course, Japan suffered an actual terrorist attack (the sarin nerve gas attack) by the cult Aum Shinri Kyo on the subways in 1995 which killed a railway worker. Japan also tends to come down more on the side of public interest than personal privacy in most of these discussions. Nevertheless, I can't say I'm wild about this system, but it may well be inevitable, both in Japan and elsewhere.

The system will be deployed first at Kasumigaseki station starting in March of this year as a test. Kasumigaseki is the station closest to the Diet (Parliament) building, and was one of the targets of the sarin attack.

Officials declined to even estimate the cost of the total system, but it must be enormous, given the large number of stations and wickets that will have to be monitored. The system is being developed by NTT Communications.

On the other side of the technology coin, Kyoto University is testing a GPS-guided mobile evacuation system. Your GPS-enabled cell phone can notify the disaster management center, which in turn can make maps available to you showing where fires have broken out and buildings have collapsed, and mark your preferred evacuation site on the map. This one, I like.

Oh, and a minor tidbit -- Nikon is suspending production of all but two of its film SLRs, concentrating on digital.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Cell Phones in New York Subways?

Today's New York Times reports that the MTA is considering a plan that would put cell phone coverage in all 277 New York subway stations. The operators complain that, since most users have so many minutes, the operators' revenue won't increase, so they can't afford to put in the coverage. They are proposing some sort of joint effort to do it.

Man, to a Tokyoite, that's just bizarre.

By the same logic, a cellular operator who starts with one cell tower can never justify putting in the second. The second one doesn't increase the amount of money the users will spend, so why build it?

In Japan, where people (including me) spend hours a day on the subway, you can't live without coverage in the stations, many of which are far underground. A carrier without coverage there would be rightly thrashed in the media for poor coverage. It's assumed. Coverage means everywhere, not just where it's convenient for the operator. Coverage in the subway tunnels themselves is still poor, though a lot of signal bleeds into the tunnel when the stations are only a few hundred meters apart.

People complaining that it means putting up with loudmouths on the train (or airplane, where coverage is also being experimented with) just don't get it. In Japan, it's very rude to talk on your phone while on the train (though okay on the platform). But people do email and short messages constantly. It's not uncommon for half the people in sight to be tapping away on their phones (I've seen people doing it while driving a car or riding a bike, but that's another story).

The U.S. carriers should be embarrassed that their phones don't work in the stations. They should be competing to make their networks work better than their competitors'. What happened to "Can you hear me now?"

Vazirani ==> ACM Fellow

Umesh Vazirani is one of the new ACM Fellows. His citation says, "For contributions to theoretical computer science and quantum computation." I'm not normally an awards groupie, so I don't know, is this the first ACM Fellow citation to explicitly mention quantum computation? A quick skim of the full list doesn't show any of the obvious Big Names...

Congrats, Umesh!

Found via The Geomblog.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Feynman and Go

While perusing the book Feynman and Computation (which I highly recommend), I ran across Feynman's own "Computing Machines in the Future", a transcript of a talk he gave here in Japan in 1985. In the Q&A session at the end, he mentions that programming a computer to play Go is a lot harder than programming one to play chess.

If I knew that Feynman was aware of go (and perhaps even played), I had forgotten it. I'm racking my brain trying to remember if he mentioned it in the class I took from him in 1985-6 ("Potentialities and Limitations of Computing Machines", the basis for the book Feynman Lectures on Computation). My friend Ross (who took the Feynman class with me) introduced me to go in about 1983, but I didn't take it up seriously until 1992. I improved pretty rapidly until our first daughter was born, and progress stopped (still a good trade, in my opinion). I'm about shodan on the Japanese scale, which is about 2kyu U.S., I think...

This lecture is full of interesting little tidbits. Feynman says he found a method for turning a 2n-step irreversible program into a 3n-step reversible one, for example. Bennett's original formulation is at least 4n in that notation; I'm not sure if a better approach is known (and I should know, too).

Energy, Tuna, Jazz, and Population: Japanese News

[Update: Saturday's paper says Tsunanmachi has 370cm of snow, whereas Friday's said 389cm (and it snowed a LOT on Friday). Not sure which is actually right, but more snow is expected through Sunday.]

A collection of random notes from newspapers the last couple of days...

Tsunanmachi, in Niigata prefecture, has accumulated 389 centimeters (153 inches) of snow. Niigata is know as "Yukiguni", or "Snow Country", and now you know why. The same storm has dumped quite a bit in the Hokuriku and Tohoku regions, stopping some shinkansen service and affecting about 9,000 passengers. And we're stuck in boring ol' Tokyo...(well, we did have a nice visit down to Hakone over New Year's, but that's another story).

The government aims to reduce energy dependence on foreign oil from the current 50 percent to 40 percent by 2030. This includes raising the percentage of nuclear power from 30 to 40. They claim Japan's economy is already very energy efficient, and if these numerical targets are met, it will be twice as efficient as during the first energy crisis in 1973.

Anybody who has lived in Japanese housing has to wonder about the efficiency claim; insulation here, at least around Tokyo, is not what it is in the northeast U.S. (Hokkaido is probably better). Double-paned windows are very rare, even in new construction. Walls are insulated with 35mm thick sheets of polystyrene foam, which is better than nothing, but I have a hard time believing that has an R-factor anywhere near what 100mm of pink fiberglas would have. I'm not sure what goes into floors or roofs.

Our place is probably typical. We have no central heat; wall-mounted heaters/air conditioners serve each major room (the bathroom and hallways aren't heated). These heaters can be gas or electric, ours are electric. We have on-demand heated water, not a large, standing water heater, and a gas range (no oven). My mother-in-law still uses a free-standing small kerosene stove, since electric heating is expensive. The current trend, at least in advertising, is to promote all-electric places, despite the price (it's certainly safer in an earthquake).

In the first fish auction of the year at Tsukiji, the highest price paid for a tuna (the whole fish) was 3.82 million yen (about $33,000) for a 191-kg fish, about $80/pound, bones and all.

There was an article about young women jazz players. I haven't heard any of them, but I may try to either find albums or catch them live, if I can. Nineteen-year-old saxophonist Saori Yano just recorded an album in New York; pianist Hiromi Uehara studied at Berklee. Trumpeter Hikari Ichihara and sax player Kaori Kobayashi are featured, as well, with shorter mentions of Akiko Grace, Saya, and Chihiro Yamanaka. Their staying power has yet to be demonstrated, of course, but given the dearth of international-quality Japanese women players to follow the groundbreaking path of Toshiko Akiyoshi half a century ago, it's a good sign. A few artists, such as pianists Junko Onishi (one of my favorites), Hiroko Kokubu, Keiko Kishino, flutist Rie Akagi and violinist Naoko Terai started appearing in the 1980s. I'm looking forward to hearing all of the ones I'm not already familiar with.

Okay, the big news from last year: the population of Japan declined in 2005, to 127,756,815 as of Oct. 1, about 19,000 fewer than a year before. The health ministry estimates about 10,000 fewer births than deaths for 2005. I'm not sure where the discrepancy lies, presumably that means that 9,000 more people emigrated than immigrated. This is two years earlier than previously predicted.

One consequence is that universities are scrambling for students. The Education, Science and Technology Ministry estimates that the number of students desiring admission will equal the number of places available in 2007. In 2005, 160 private universities, 30 percent of the nationwide total, failed to fill their entering classes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Okinotorishima Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

The Daily Yomiuri reports today that the Japanese government is considering installing an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) system on Okinotorishima. (The title of the article is "Ocean power plan mooted for island"; I have no idea what they meant by that. I suspect it's a mistranslation of some sort.) Okunotorishima is an atoll 1,740 kilometers south-southwest of Tokyo, in the general area of Iwo Jima. It's part of what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call the Diaoyutai Islands. Japan and China are still fussing over who owns them; they're just rocks, barely above high tide, but there's good fishing there, and believed to be substantial natural gas deposits.

Tokyo's right-wing governor, Shintaro Ishihara, has made development and defense of the Senkaku Islands one element of his platform. They technically fall under the administration of Tokyo-to, which Ishihara is governor of; Tokyo-to is something like the U.S. District of Columbia. (This is answer to a geography trivia question I like: "What is the geographic extent of Tokyo, north to south?" No one has ever been within a factor of five. Even just considering the inhabited Ogasawara islands, Tokyo is more than a thousand km north-south.) He convinced the Prime Minister, Koizumi, to support the project, and about two million dollars was allocated for a study in this year's budget.

Anyway, politics aside, the OTEC would use the 20 degree Celsius thermal gradient between the deep water and the surface to boil ammonia, which drives turbines, then is sent to the depths for cooling and recondensation. The technology has been proven in other demonstration projects, but I doubt it's economically viable when other power sources are available. The article doesn't say how much power would be generated, but does say the total cost would be "tens of billions of yen" (hundreds of millions of dollars). Quite a bit to power a small marine observation station, a few seasonally inhabited structures, and some ice-making equipment for the fishermen.

This website says the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab is no longer working on OTEC, but doesn't say why. This article has a map showing that Okinotorishima actually is near the edge of a large swath of ocean north of the Great Barrier Reef that has very high thermal gradients, making it appropriate for this kind of power generation.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Junk Science" 2005

Steve Milloy is Fox News and the Cato Institute's political pundit who pretends to discuss science, though in reality he's an ideologue using science to score his political points. He talks about what he calls "junk science", by which he means science that disagrees with his politics -- namely, any science that suggests that totally unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism requires any sort of check or balance. Milloy's not interested in what is important science or good science or bad science, he's interested in pushing a particular politico-economic agenda. To that extent, sometimes he finds good science that disagrees with his politics and disses it. Sometimes he finds good science that agrees with his politics and pushes that. Occasionally, he finds real bad science and rightly castigates its authors, funders, and overseers.

Milloy has published his list of "Junk Science" for 2005. I haven't had time to go through his list in detail and attempt to refute it point by point, but the line, "In a bid to blame alleged global warming for hurricanes and tsunamis...the United Nations..." alone suggests a lot. He's either misled or deliberately distorting the landscape by suggesting that any significant number of real scientists, government officials or even policy advocates would blame a tsunami on global warming.

As further evidence, I offer the list below -- the list of one working scientist/engineer (namely, me) on what could be considered the big stories of the year in ethics and science. The absence of the Hwang item from Milloy's list is proof enough by itself that the issue is not the science, it's the politics; there was no bigger story in science this year regarding ethics. It was a blockbuster breakthrough, making headlines around the world, offering both profound new fundamental science and the possibility of medical treatment for many conditions. It was also, apparently, false -- though the verdict is not final, so let's not be marching with pitchforks and torches just yet.

  • Tops of the list has to be Hwang Woo-Suk and his stem cell cloning team. He claimed to have created 11 patient-specific stem cell lines, but that now appears to be questionable, at best. Likewise, Snuppy, his cloned puppy, is now being questioned, and his team seems to be unable to provide the expected evidence of their claims.
  • The New Orleans levees demonstrated that Mother Nature is not to be messed with, not for political gain, squabbling, or general incompetence.
  • The fuss over the discovery of the Kuiper Belt object 2003 EL61, a planet-sized object orbiting far from the Sun. Mike Brown's team at Caltech, which has found many important solar system objects in the last decade, got scooped by Santos-Sanz and Ortiz on this one. Or did they? Someone using the same computers as Santos-Sanz and Ortiz in Spain accessed telescope log files showing where Brown's team had been looking just days before announcing the discovery based on two-year-old data. Hmm.
  • The Bush aministration's shift of money away from fundamental computer science research. You could throw in a whole bunch of administration moves that I disagree with, including folding PITAC into PCAST (a move which many people are trying to look on the bright side of).
  • MIT immunologist Luk Van Parijs, fired in October for fabricating data on short interfering RNA in mice. He was also a postdoc in David Baltimore's lab at Caltech, though I haven't seen any suggestion that any of his misdeeds took place during his sojourn in Pasadena.
  • The continued "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" of "scientific whaling". Note that I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong to eat whale meat, just that the current approach is not honest. These are separate questions. But what legitimate scientific purpose could be served by continuing to kill them? I'm no marine mammalogist, but I find it hard to believe that we really need to be killing tens or hundreds of whales a year to answer some obscure question.
  • Ninety Japanese apartment buildings, most in and around Tokyo, for which seismic safety data were faked. They were supposed to survive a magnitude 8 earthquake, but officials now believe a weak six could take them down -- and we have those every couple of years. Arguably, this is a consequence of shifting the building inspection responsibility from the government to the building contractors, who obviously have an incentive to hire the "friendliest" inspector they can find. Technically "junk engineering", not "junk science", but it's my list, and another example of don't try to fool Mother Nature.
  • Dover, PA and the rest of the intelligent design movement, for continuing to waste our time and money and water down or ruin science education. The "right" result was reached in both the court case and the election, but we shouldn't even be having this conversation in 2005. Science tells us what happened; religion tells us why. End of story.
  • As long as I'm talking about intelligent design, it makes me sad that both President Bush and Bill Frist have endorsed its teaching.

All that and not a single mention of global warming.
You could make an entire list out of that alone.

You'll find a couple of excellent sources on Milloy here and here, and an earlier message of mine on Milloy on the IP list here.