[Beowulf] how Google warps your brain

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Fri Oct 22 08:38:38 EDT 2010


On Thu, 21 Oct 2010, Mark Hahn wrote:

> I find myself using my desktop more and more as a terminal - I hardly
> ever run anything but xterm and google chrome.  as such, I don't mind that 
> it's a terrible old recycled xeon from a 2003 project.  it would seem
> like a waste of money to buy something modern, (and for me to work locally)
> since there are basically infinite resources 1ms away as the packet flies...

Again, an ancient (well, as much as anything in computing ever is:-)
paradigm.  The interesting thing is that people have been engineering,
designing, selling lightweight/thin computing models in the personal
computer game since maybe 1983 or 1984.  I bought one of the very first
ones -- it was a straight up PC motherboard-in-a-box with a custom (and
enormously expensive) coax-based network interface that ran back to the
PC.  It leeched all of the devices and some of the software off of the
PC.  Then there were the Sun offerings -- SLC and ELC diskless machines
(or really, any Sun system you liked run diskless) on real networks,
where they still booted their OS over the network as well as the
software they ran, but were consistent with the "network is the
computer" slogan.  There was yet another burst of enthusiasm around the
time of the release of java -- java was supposed to enable a new kind of
thin appliance (and in fact did IIRC -- a few were sold but were a
commercial failure).

However, none of these models succeeded in the long run.  The only
thin/remote computing model that has persisted is the xterm/rsh/ssh
model on top of Unix (with its many enhancements and variations,
including for the most part beowulfery, which with a few exceptions
relies on e.g. ssh for remote job distribution and control).

I think that this has finally changed.  Google in particular is intent
on fundamentally changing it and >>really<< making the network (or
rather, remote computing cloud) into the computer.  Finally, I think the
conditions are right for them to succeed where everybody else has
failed.

It's interesting to think about the conditions that enable this to work
(and how they differ from those that faced people in the 80's, 90's,
even 00's).

  a) Computers are now fast enough that it is possible to create a
DOUBLE breakout to isolate software from both the hardware (which is
what operating sytems were supposed to do) and from the operating system
itself, which hasn't done so since people learned that they could make a
ton of money selling operating systems and controlling the software
market.  Up until the last decade, at least some of what people wanted
to do required "native" code, written for and compiled for a particular
operating system and often for a particular hardware environment
underneath the operating system.  That is still true for a few things
(notably high end games) but very little of the rest of what people do
isn't accessible with interpreted or emulated pseudocode.

  b) Networking is no longer much of a bottleneck.  As you say, things
are a few ms away as the packet flies.  Or, as I sit here, 16 ms ping
time away from my desktop at Duke, where I'm sitting at home inside a
network with a 7 Mbps pipe to the world.  Slashdot has Google preparing
to build a 1 Gbps broadband network for Stanford undergrads.  TWC and
other communications companies are furiously laying fiber to
neighborhoods if not homes.  It's easy to see their motivation.

  c) HTML, which was never REALLY intended for it, has morphed into a
device independent presentation layer.  Browsers, which were never at
all intended for it, have morphed into a de facto user extensible
psuedo-operating system, capable of downloading and running software
both transient and permanent (plug-in extensions as well as e.g.
straight up programs).  The software for this isn't all quite hardware
layer independent yet, but a lot of it is and there is a SEPARATION
between the hardware sensitive part and the interface that if nothing
else makes it easy to write things that will run on top of plug-ins, not
the actual operating system, in an operating system independent way.

  d) Servers were once expensive and represented a massive investment
barrier to remote computing.  Only crazed, uberhacker-skilled
individuals would set up servers at home, for example.  Those services
that were remote-offered in home environments or small offices were
trivia -- click-controlled shared printer or file access.  Only Unix
(and ssh/rsh) provided a real remote login/execution environment, and
even a Unix tyro was uberhacker compared to a Windows Joe User or an
Apple Semi-Luddite User.  Providing MORE resources to an unskilled user
desktop than the desktop itself could provide to the user by simply
spending money on local software required an enormous investment in
hardware and near-genius systems engineers -- in other words, resources
that only existed inside large corporations, universities, governments,
and of course crazed hacker households (like many of ours:-).

Google in particular engineered a truly scalable cheap superserver,
patiently building the infrastructure from the metal up so that it was
virtually infinitely extensible at linear cost.  I can't imagine what
their server-to-human ratio must be, but I'm guessing thousands to tens
of thousands -- orders of magnitude better than the best of the
supercomputing centers or corporate or government or household server
collectives.  No doubt it was expensive to get it all started, but at
this point they are reaping the benefits of infinite scalability and it
isn't clear to me that ANYONE is going to ever be able to touch them in
the foreseeable future.

Put all of these together -- oh, and let's not forget to throw in e),
the advent of phones and pads and ebooks and so on that are little more
than a browser on top of a minimal software stack and a network -- and
things truly have changed.

Who cares if you are running Linux or Windows or MacOS any more if you
are running Google Chrome and it "contains" an integrated office suite,
manages your browsing, plays your music and videos, lets you run a wide
range of games, and does it all transparently identically, for free, on
top of any operating system?  Google, and Mozilla/Firefox in direct
competition, have basically replaced the operating system with an
OPERATING system, because computers are finally fast enough to make 99%
of all users happy with a fully emulated/isolated translation layer,
because the reliance of the environment on the network is no longer
bottlenecked so that many compute-intensive tasks are executed
transparently remotely (with the user not knowing or caring what is
done where), because the environment is powerful enough to do anything
they really care about doing including playing lots of games, because
they will soon be able to do most of it on a wide range of handhelds
without altering their environment.  Indeed, even storage isn't an issue
-- Google will cheerfully provide you with as much as you are likely to
ever need more cheaply than you can provide it for yourself in exchange
for subtle and inobtrusive access to your heart and mind.

Which they already have.  An anecdote.  I am shopping for a telescope,
since I have a PDA at Duke that I have to spend down before next
semester lest it hit the 'have to give some back' threshold and I'm
teaching astronomy these days.  A good telescope -- I'm planning to
spend ballpark of $2600 for an 8" Celestron Schmidt-Casselgrain capable
of decent astrophotography, some good lenses, a cheap (starter) CCD
camera.  So I've googled/browsed several vendors looking at their
offerings.

In my igoogle page, guess what ad is insidiously placed somewhere on my
screen in one of my add ons, every day?  When I visit remote sites that
have nothing (on the surface) to do with Google but that have adds
placed on the screen, guess what ads are there?  It's really remarkable
to pay attention to this, because my own entrepreneurial activities have
often been related to predictive marketing and the paradox that however
much we dislike SPAM and direct marketing advertising in general, it is
really because it is all noise, little signal.  Google's mobile Orion
telescope ad is not noise.  It is indeed directly focused on what I'm
interested in buying.  It isn't lingerie (hmmm, buying that might be fun
too:-) or machine tools, or video cameras -- although I'll bet I could
stimulate these to appear instead with the right bit of browsing.  It is
the most expensive (highest margin) thing I'm actually looking at and
for.

I can't tell if Google is the second coming, arriving at last to kick
the butt of the Microsoft antichrist and usher in the millenium, or if
they are the antichrist who is simply preparing to eliminate all of the
lesser devils and bring about the apocalypse.  The scary thing is that
Google is a significant portion of my brain -- with its new
type-and-it-appears answering system, all that's missing is a neural
interface and the ability to back up my memories to a remote silo and I
might not even notice my own dying.  I cannot imagine living and working
without it, but it is starting to remind me of some very scary science
fiction novels as what could possibly provide a better opportunity for
mind control than an interface that is effectively part of your mind?

So what can one do?  Google is offering up Chrome-crack with the lavish
and unspoken promise -- that I have no doubt that they will keep -- that
it will be the last operating environment you ever, um, don't actually
buy, that inside a year or two we'll see Chromeputers that may well run
linux underneath -- but no one will know or care.  That through its
magic window you will be able to get to all of your music and movies and
personal or professional data (efficiently and remotely stored, backed
up and sort-of-secure).  That within it PDFs will "just display", movies
and music will "just play", email will move, news will be read,
documents will be word processed, games will be played, and if you
borrow a friend's computer for a day or use your phone or your pad,
everything will be right there with nothing more than the inconvenience
or convenience of the particular hardware interface to surmount or
exploit.

It won't end there.  Who can provide remote computing resources even for
actual computations cheaper than Google?  For them, adding a server
costs what, five FTE person minutes plus the cost of the cheapest
possible hardware itself -- assembly line server prep plus somebody
plugging it in?  Who can provide server management at their ratio of
humans to servers?  Who can fund/subsidize most of the power and
management cost for your tiny slice of this resource for the right to
insert subtle little advertising messages into your brain that are NOT
noise, they are indeed things you are likely to buy and hence pure gold
for the advertiser?  Microsoft is only now starting to realize that
Windows 7 might well be the last Windows ever released and is scrabbling
to cut a too-little, too-late deal with Yahoo and/or Adobe to try to
transform themselves into something they only dimly perceive and
understand and cannot now duplicate in time.

One thing that has often been discussed on this list is marketing the
supercomputer center.  People have proposed setting up a big
supercomputer center and renting it out to companies or universities
that need this sort of resource.  In general, the few times this has
been tried it has failed, for all sorts of good reasons.  As Bill noted,
it is difficult enough to set up a center WITHIN a closed environment
with captive users and real cash flow -- even though beowulfish clusters
are quite scalable, only rarely do they achieve the 1000 node/systems
person scaling limit (and then there is the infrastructure cost,
depreciation and maintenance and replacement and programming support
and the fact that a general purpose center achieves generality at the
expense of across-the-board price-performance compromise).

Google, OTOH, could do it.  In fact, they could do it almost as an
afterthought, as a side effect.  Inside a decade, I can see Google quite
literally owning the data Universe, dwarfing Microsoft and Apple
combined and making both of them pretty much irrelevant if not bankrupt.
And not just in the United States -- worldwide.

Few things in computing have actually scared me.  Microsoft is pretty
scary, but it is the scariness of a clown -- its monopoly was never
really stable once Linux was invented and I think it may have peaked and
at long last be on the long road do oblivion.  Apple isn't scary -- it
is genuinely innovative for which I salute them, but its innovations
provide at best a transient advantage and its vision has been too local
to take over the world.  Even Linux with its avowed goal of world
domination hasn't been scary, because ultimately linux belongs to the
world and as long as the computers being run on also belong to the
world, control remains where it belongs, with the people of the world.

Google scares me.  It has quietly ACHIEVED world domination, and is
about to transform the world in a way that will be shocking, amazing,
dangerous, liberating, captivating -- and supremely beyond the control
of anybody but the people running Google.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Happy Halloween!

    rgb

P.S. -- C'mon, haven't y'all missed my 10K essays?  Admit it...;-)

Alas, now it is off to grade papers and disappear again.

Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu


_______________________________________________
Beowulf mailing list, Beowulf at beowulf.org sponsored by Penguin Computing
To change your subscription (digest mode or unsubscribe) visit http://www.beowulf.org/mailman/listinfo/beowulf

-- 
This message has been scanned for viruses and
dangerous content by MailScanner, and is
believed to be clean.



More information about the Beowulf mailing list