Monday, November 17, 2008

Elegance

Tracy Kidder wrote a great book about tech where "artists" will do almost anything to create something of significance.

"West invented the term, not the practice — was "signing up." By signing up for the project you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success. You agreed to forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends — if you had any of these left (and you might not if you had signed up too many times before). From a manager's point of view, the practical virtues of the ritual were manifold. Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered. When you signed up you in effect declared, "I want to do this."

I refer to "Soul" because of a recent NY Times piece titled A Computing Pioneer Has a New Idea, an article describing the introduction of a new kind of super computer created by Steven Wallach, a hardware geek of genius who was one of the players in Kidder's book.

"One of the venture capitalists grew frustrated with Mr. Wallach’s repeated criticisms (of startups who just did not understand the programmin issues of SC) and said to him, “All right Mr. Bigshot, what would you?”

Two weeks later, Mr. Wallach had a new idea. He had long been fascinated with a chip technology called Field Programmable Gate Arrays. These chips are widely used to make prototype computer systems because they can be easily reprogrammed and yet offer the pure speed of computer hardware. There have been a number of start-ups and large supercomputer companies that have already tried to design systems based on the chips, but Mr. Wallach thought that he could do a better job.

The right way to use them, he decided, was to couple them so tightly to the microprocessor chip that it would appear they were simply a small set of additional instructions to give a programmer an easy way to turbocharge a program. Everything had to look exactly like the standard programming environment. In contrast, many supercomputers today require programmers to be “heroic.” “The past 40 years has taught us that ultimately the system that is easiest to program will always win,” he said."

This kind of elegance (& perseverance) comes through with Carver Mead's work as well...

"Finally, Foveon has combined the best of what both film and digital have to offer. This is accomplished by the innovative design of the three layer Foveon X3 direct image sensor. Similar to the layers of chemical emulsion used in color film, Foveon X3 image sensors have three layers of pixels. The layers of pixels are embedded in silicon to take advantage of the fact that red, green, and blue light penetrate silicon to different depths – forming the first and only image sensor that captures full color at every point in the captured image."

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. " - Albert Einstein
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