This is an old tidbit, but nevertheless a good one that has (somehow) never made it to my blog. I’ve mentioned before the private equity consulting world’s penchant for silly project names, but while code names are not rare in the corporate world, more often than not, the names tend to be unimaginative. NVIDIA’s code names, however, are pure marketing glory.
There’s no denying it. Comic books and science fiction have more than their fair share of “only for geeks.” While I would be hard pressed to deny whoI am, I will say that my love for science fiction goes far beyond just pure escapism.
Now, I could talk about how I think comic books represent a reassuring world where the good guys triumph and where the human spirit and concepts of justice and loyalty are all that is necessary to be a hero, and how I believe that science fiction represents an optimism about the future and the importance of human emotions and morals. But instead of “taking my word for it”, why not hear Reading Rainbow host and the actor behind Star Trek’s Geordi LaForge LeVar Burton take on the subject (yes, the quotes were an intentional Reading Rainbow reference):
I’m one of those people that believes that there was some kid back in the 1960s watching Star Trek, and he kept seeing Captain Kirk pull out this communicator and flip it open – and that kid grew up and became an engineer, a designer of products, and we now have a device that is more common than the toaster. How many flip phones do you see on a daily basis? That which we imagine is what we tend to manifest in third dimension – that’s what human beings do, we are manifesting machines. The metaphor of a man who has an external electronic device, something man-made that serves him and somehow serves humanity, and that he becomes so aligned with that device, with the power of that device, that at one point he can discard it – I think that’s a real metaphor for the human journey. One day we won’t need a transporter device to get from one place to another. And it begins with the wheel and then migrates through airplanes to some future technology that we can’t produce yet but we can imagine. Imagination is really the key part of the human journey, it’s the key to the process of manifesting what our heart’s desire is.
When I was a kid, it was comic books that pointed me in that direction and from comic books I went to science fiction literature, which is still one of my most favorite genres of literature to read. Don’t underestimate the power of comics and what they represent for us and how they inform us on the journey of being human – because it’s powerful. It’s very powerful. They give us permission to contemplate what’s possible. And in this world, in this universe, there’s nothing that is not possible. If you can dream it, you can do it.
To many African-Americans, like Burton and fellow Star Trek actor/fan Whoopi Golderg, Star Trek holds a very special role in their minds:
When I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction books and it was rare for me to see heroes of color in the pages of those novels. Gene Roddenberry had a vision of the future, and Star Trek was one that said to me, as a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, “When the future comes, there’s a place for you.” I’ve said this many times, and Whoopi (Goldberg) feels the same way – seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise meant that we are a part of the future. So I was a huge fan of the original series and to have grown up and become of that mythos, a part of that family, and to represent people dealing with physical challenges, much like what Nichelle Nichols represented for people like Whoopi and myself, I can’t even begin to share with you what that means to me.
While I was fortunate enough to be born in an era where nobody questions the role of Asian-Americans in industry and science, I can also see why many Asian-Americans would have been similarly inspired by George Takei’s role as Sulu in the original Star Trek series.
This post is almost a week overdue thanks to a hectic work week. In any event, I spent last Monday and Tuesday immersed in the high performance chip world at the 2009 HotChips conference.
Now, full disclosure: I am not electrical engineer, nor was I even formally trained in computer science. At best, I can “understand” a technical presentation in a manner akin to how my high school biology teacher explained his “understanding” of the Chinese language: “I know enough to get in trouble.”
But despite all of that, I was given a rare look at a world that few non-engineers ever get to see, and yet it is one which has a dramatic impact on the technology sector given the importance of these cutting-edge chip technologies in computers, mobile phones, and consumer electronics.
And, here’s my business strategy/non-expert enthusiast view of six of the big highlights I took away from the conference and which best inform technology strategy:
We are 5-10 years behind on the software development technology needed to truly get performance power out of our new chips. Over the last decade, computer chip companies discovered that simply ramping up clock speeds (the Megahertz/Gigahertz number that everyone talks about when describing how fast a chip is) was not going to cut it as a way of improving computer performance (because of power consumption and heat issues). As a result, instead of making the cores (the processing engines) on a chip faster, chip companies like Intel resorted to adding more cores to each chip. The problem with this approach is that performance becomes highly dependent on software developers being able to create software which can figure out how to separate tasks across multiple cores and share resources effectively between them – something which is “one of the hardest if not the hardest systems challenge that we as an industry have ever face” (courtesy of UC Berkeley professor Dave Patterson). The result? Chip designers like Intel may innovate to the moon, but unless software techniques catch up, we won’t get to see any of that. Is it no wonder, then, that Intel bought multi-core software technology company RapidMind or that other chip designers like IBM and Sun are so heavily committed to creating software products to help developers make use of their chips? (Note: the image to the right is an Apple ad of an Intel bunny suit smoked by the PowerPC chip technology that they used to use)
Computer performance may become more dependent on chip accelerator technologies. The traditional performance “engine” of a computer was the CPU, a product which has made the likes of Intel and IBM fabulously wealthy. But, the CPU is a general-purpose “engine” – a jack of all trades, but a master of none. In response to this, companies like NVIDIA, led by HotChips keynote speaker Jen-Hsun Huang, have begun pushing graphics chips (GPUs), traditionally used for gaming or editing movies, as specialized engines for computing power. I’ve discussed this a number of times over at the Bench Press blog, but the basic idea is that instead of using the jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none CPU, a system should use specialized chips to address specialized needs. Because a lot of computing power is burnt doing work that is heavy on the mathematical tasks that a GPU is suited to do, or the signal processing work that a digital signal processor might be better at, or the cryptography work that a cryptography accelerator is better suited for, this opens the doorway to the use of other chip technologies in our computers. NVIDIA’s GPU solution is one of the most mature, as they’ve spent a number of years developing a solution they call CUDA, but there was definitely a clear message: as the performance that we care about becomes more and more specialized (like graphics or number crunching or security), special chip accelerators will become more and more important.
Designing high-speed chips is now less and less about “chip speed” and more and more about memory and input/output. An interesting blog post by Gustavo Duarte highlighted something very fascinating to me: your CPU spends most of its time waiting for things to do. So much time, in fact, that the best way to speed up your chip is not to speed up your processing engine, but to speed up getting tasks into your chip’s processing cores. The biological analogy to this is something called a perfect enzyme – an enzyme that works so fast that its speed is limited by how quickly it can get ahold of things to work on. As a result, every chip presentation spent ~2/3 of the time talking about managing memory (where the chip stores the instructions it will work on) and managing how quickly instructions from the outside (like from your keyboard) get to the chip’s processing cores. In fact, one of the IBM POWER7 presentations spent almost the entire time discussing the POWER7’s use and management of embedded DRAM technology to speed up how quickly tasks can get to the processing cores.
Moore’s Law may no longer be as generous as it used to be. I mentioned before that one of the big “facts of life” in the technology space is the ability of the next product to be cheaper, faster, and better than the last – something I attributed to Moore’s Law (an observation that chip technology doubles in capability every ~2 years). At HotChips, there was a fascinating panel discussing the future of Moore’s Law, mainly asking the question of (a) will Moore’s Law continue to deliver benefits and (b) what happens if it stops? The answers were not very uplifting. While there was a wide range of opinions on how much we’d be able to squeeze out of Moore’s Law going forward, there was broad consensus that the days of just letting Moore’s Law lower your costs, reduce your energy bill, and increase your performance simultaneously were over. The amount of money it costs to design next-generation chips has grown exponentially (one panelist cited a cost of $60 million just to start a new custom project), and the amount of money it costs to operate a semiconductor factory have skyrocketed into the billions. And, as one panelist put it, constantly riding the Moore’s Law technology wave has forced the industry to rely on “tricks” which reduced the delivery of all the benefits that Moore’s Law was typically able to bring about. The panelists warned that future chip innovations were going to be driven more and more by design and software rather than blindly following Moore’s Law and that unless new ways to develop chips emerged, the chip industry itself could find itself slowing its progress.
Power management is top of mind. The second keynote speaker, EA Chief Creative Officer Richard Hilleman noted something which gave me significant pause. He said that in 2009, China will probably produce more electric cars in one year than have ever been produced in all of history. The impact to the electronics industry? It will soon be very hard to find and very expensive to buy batteries. This, coupled with the desires of consumers everywhere to have longer battery lives for their computers, phones, and devices means that managing power consumption is critical for chip designers. In each presentation I watched, I saw the designers roll out a number of power management techniques – the most amusing of which was employed by IBM’s new POWER7 uber-chip. The POWER7 could implement four different low-power modes (so that the system could tune its power consumption), which were humorously named: doze, nap, sleep, and “Rip van Winkle”.
Chip designers can no longer just build “the latest and greatest”. There used to be one playbook in the Silicon Valley – build what you did a year ago, but make it faster. That playbook is fast becoming irrelevant. No longer can Silicon Valley just count on people to buy bigger and faster computers to run the latest and greatest applications. Instead, people are choosing to buy cheaper computers to run Facebook and Gmail, which, while interesting and useful, no longer need the CPU or monitor with the greatest “digital horsepower.” EA’s Richard Hilleman noted that this trend was especially important in the gaming industry. Where before, the gaming industry focused on hardcore gamers who spent hours and hours building their systems and playing immersive games, today, the industry is keen on building games with clever mechanics (e.g. a Guitar Hero or a game for the Nintendo Wii) for people with short attention spans who aren’t willing to spend hours holed up in front of their televisions. Instead of focusing on pure graphical horsepower, gaming companies today want to build games which can be social experiences (like World of Warcraft) or which can be played across many devices (like smartphones or over social networks). With stores like Gamestop on the rise, gaming companies can no longer count on just selling games, they need to think up how to sell “virtual goods” (like upgrades to your character/weapons) or in-game advertising (a Coke billboard in your game?) or encourage users to subscribe. What this all means is that, to stay relevant, technology companies can no longer just gamble on their ability to make yesterday’s product faster, they have to make them better too.
There was a lot more that happened at HotChips than I can describe here (and I skipped over a lot of the more techy details), but those were six of the most interesting messages that I left the conference with, and I am wondering if I can get my firm to pay for another trip next year!
The Top 20:
1. Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)
2. Sauron, The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
3. Mrs. Coulter, His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
4. Lex Luthor, Superman (DC Comics)
5. The Joker, Batman (DC Comics)
6. Count Olaf, A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket)
7. The Other Mother, Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
8. The White Witch, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
9. Dracula, Dracula (Bram Stoker)
10. Artemis Fowl, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
11. Magneto, X-Men (Marvel Comics)
12. Prof. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
13. Zaphod Beeblebrox, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
14. Capt. Hook, Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)
15. Napoleon the Pig, Animal Farm (George Orwell)
16. Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
17. Miss Trunchbull, Matilda (Roald Dahl)
18. Cruella de Vil, 101 Dalmations (Dodie Smith)
19. The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
20. The Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss)
In honor of my having watched and enjoyed Superman Returns in IMAX Saturday night (thank you Eric’s parents!), some comic book recommendations — b/c we all know that sequels to comic book movies will generally be less good than their predecessors:From Marvel:
Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon & John Cassaday) – From the creator of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity, comes the core X-Men book. Whedon (who has grown greatly since his Buffy and Angel years) knows these characters well and is just in the middle of his third story arc where he has completely ripped the team apart from the inside. This is one of the best books Marvel has right now, and the only downside is that until September, Whedon was only able to get one issue out every two months — that sadistic bastard. One other tidbit, Whedon’s favorite character is Kitty Pryde (the girl who walks through walls) and his inspiration for Buffy and a good many of the female characters that he writes is her.
Daredevil (Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark/Stefano Gaudiano) – For those out of comics, Brubaker’s name probably doesn’t sound very famous, but he started as an indy-comic writer — and a good one at that. Brubaker crafts excellent noir-ish stories. For that reason, I’m not as big a fan of his X-Men work, but I loved his work on Gotham Central (see below) and now he’s doing Daredevil justice. Not Ben Affleck-injustice, but Daredevil as he’s meant to be — bad ass, kicking ninja ass, surrounded by hot, scantily clad femme fatales. In terms of the story, I recommend you pick up the few issues just leading into the current story arc written by Brian Bendis (see below) which introduces you to more or less everything you need to know about the current one.
New Avengers (Brian Bendis) – I have mixed feelings about Bendis. On the one hand, he can do very good work. His run on Daredevil was long and also very good, but mainly, I think, because Daredevil is not a talking-type of guy. Bendis tends to write very long, awkwardly long dialogue. But, he crafts very interesting plots. And New Avengers is currently Marvel’s flagship work. It starts the most popular Marvel heroes – Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, Luke Cage, Spiderwoman (no relation to Spiderman), and the Sentry. I think the work is a good you-don’t-need-to-know-crap introduction to the Marvel world, easy to read, and for the most part is pretty solid.
Checkmate (Greg Rucka) – Greg Rucka is, in my humble opinion, hands down the BEST comic book writer who’s working in the mainstream today. He does real justice to his characters, to his plotlines — and he even writes Wonder Woman well, which is actually quite hard to do if you think about it. He crafted this one to help show off the new DC universe to be a bit more realistic. Sure, there have been plenty of spyfics before, and stories about corrupt governments — but really, what would the world be like in a world where Superman and Green Lantern fly the skies? Enter Checkmate, an international spy organization that was created by the United Nations to deal with these issues. But, as we all know, the UN sucks — and the very interesting combination of heroes and villains which lead Checkmate (the individuals are named after Chess pieces, with the Black King and Queen and White King and Queen as the ruling members) have to deal with each other, with diplomatic niceties, and with a super-powered world. Ok, I’ve been rambling on enough, but I do think this book is solid and I encourage anyone who wants to give comics a try to read it.
Fables (Bill Willngham & Mark Buckingham & James Jean on covers) – The only reason I mention James Jean is that his covers are absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Its one of the first reasons I picked it up. Fables isn’t DC per se, its under the Vertigo imprint, which some of you will recognize as the publisher of V for Vendetta and The Sandman and Watchmen. These are non-mainstream stories and typically deal with more adult themes/ideas (ohhh nooo.. its SEX!!! DRUGS! AHHHHHH). The premise behind Fables is that an evil empire run by the villainous Adversary has taken over the magical lands where our favorite fables (ie Jack and Jill, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, King Cole, Prince Charming, etc) lived. They are then forced to immigrate to our world — the “Mundy world” where they have lived for hundreds of years. Now, it sounds cheesy, but these aren’t your old bedtime story fables — Prince Charming is an adulterous, scheming man. The Big Bad Wolf, is Bigby the Wolf, a very talented detective, and Snow White is an administrative woman who absolutely detests Prince Charming, her ex-husband, and Goldilocks is an animal fable rights extremist. Throw in gratuitous amounts of sex, violence, politicking, and magic, and you have one of my favorite books ever. The art is nice, and the same team has been on the book since Issue 1 — which I encourage everyone to take a look at. If you’re not into superheroes, but want to read something good, I’d recommend starting with the first story arc and going from there.
52 (Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison) – I’ve written a little too much about the books above, mainly because I feel the main comic lines that people are familiar with (the mainstream ones, ie Superman or Batman) are difficult to follow and have decayed in quality at least for now. One of the reasons, is because their best talent are busy at work on this book, 52, which comes out ONCE A WEEK. The four authors listed are some of the best talent in the business and are collaborating on a story which is supposed to redefine the universe that DC’s comics operate in. These are written well, they come out every week (so it gives you a reason to go into the comic store weekly), and are easy to understand. ’nuff said
Those were the currently ongoing series that I’d recommend. Here’s 3 more books that I’d recommend from a comic store’s “backfiles” — old issues or trade paperbacks (collections of comics w/o the ads) that are great:
Identity Crisis (Brad Meltzer & Rags Morales & covers by Michael Turner) – Again I mention the coverist, because Turner is draws very nice covers (although his women look somewhat anorexic). Anyways, this story got national press attention for the way it took the biggest heroes from DC (the Justice League) and completely undermined how everyone saw them. It was a murder mystery. A love story. It had intense fight scenes. Brought in major players. And… on top of that, it is fairly approachable and its fairly important to understanding the DC Universe today.
1602 (Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert) – This is a Marvel Neil Gaiman work which is a re-imagining of the Marvel universe if it took place in the 1600s. The reader gets to see very “period” art (including covers that look like they were etched in wood) and a crash course through the Marvel universe.
Sandman (Neil Gaiman) – Gaiman’s very famous and very acclaimed series. He was originally asked to make stories from a Golden Age character named the Sandman — clearly, Gaiman did not do what he was asked. Instead, he crafted a very intricate set of stories involving Dream of the Endless. While I don’t like the interior art so much, Gaiman’s writing and the beautiful covers grealty make up for it.
There are of course other books that I would recommend, but I think these 9 make a good start for anyone who’s interested :-).