most significant bits
newsletter of uw computer science & engineering
volume 19, number 2, winter 2010
university of washington
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Distinguished Lecturer Series   Simonyi in Space   Myhrvold in the Kitchen   More Familiar Terrain Chair's message New Faculty Additions   Su-In Lee   Anup Rao   Luke Zettlemoyer News   Girl Geek Dinner   Datagrams   CSE Alum in NYTimes Kindle DX Pilot Program Awards   TR35 Winners   CRA Undergrads
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About MSB

MSB is a twice yearly publication of UW CSE supported by the Industrial Affiliates Program.

Editor: Kay Beck-Benton
Contributors: Ed Lazowska, Hank Levy, Sandy Marvinney
Photo credits: Bruce Hemingway, Rod Prieto

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UW CSE Distinguished Lecturer Series, Fall 2009

CSE’s 2009 Distinguished Lecturer Series drew packed audiences and covered an eclectic array of topics that stretched from high-earth orbiting and high-tech cooking to wireless technologies and futuristic interfaces.

Charles Simonyi in Space

Charles Simonyi discusses his second trip
photo by Bruce Hemingway
Charles Simonyi discusses his second trip
to the International Space Station

The series blasted off on October 1 with Charles Simonyi recounting his March 2009 trip to the International Space Station, two years after his first space adventure.

His photos and videos offered a rare look inside the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which has surprisingly rudimentary systems, including a 386 computer running the instrument panel. The Russians have developed ingenious, low-tech solutions for many functions. Simonyi amused the audience with a video demonstration (filmed in space) of the clever toilet mechanism, in which a suction device directs liquid waste into a funnel and down into a container, with nary a drop left to float around the Soyuz capsule.

During his stay on the International Space Station, the software icon assisted with research projects and talked to classrooms of schoolchildren all over the globe, answering their questions via ham radio. His favorite aspects of space life include the wonderful sleep possible in a weightless environment, spectacular views of sunrises, clouds, and lightning, and spotting earth landmarks, including SeaTac airport. With terrific photos and an engaging presentation style, Simonyi welcomed the audience into his experiences.

In response to a question about balancing risk with adventure, Simony said he felt safe during the entire trip and that “a lot of things must go very wrong before your heart needs to go pitter-patter.” His first-ever videos taken during the Soyuz’s parachute dependent, 25-mph jolting return to earth might turn others’ knuckles white, though.

Simonyi questions the wisdom and risks of sending humans to the Moon and beyond, advocating instead for robotic explorations to expand knowledge in the astronomical and planetary sciences. He says advances in artificial intelligence will be extremely important in pushing far into the universe, but acknowledges that people “want to go into space because Star Trek went there” and that space tourism in earth orbit has a bright future.

And yes, space flight is more wonderful the second time around! With the basics mastered, an experienced voyager can accomplish more and enjoy it to the full, he noted.

Nathan Myhrvold in the Kitchen

Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young discuss the science behind cooking
Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young
discuss the science behind cooking

Who knew that computer science, mathematics, and physics could take gourmet cooking to a new plane of perfection? Renaissance man Nathan Myhrvold, founder of Microsoft Research and now CEO of Intellectual Ventures, astrophysicist and paleontology buff, gastronome and a world barbeque champ, is doing exactly that. He is an explorer on the frontiers of molecular gastronomy, a term originating in Europe about two decades ago to describe the scientific examination of the physical and chemical processes involved in cooking and its artistic and technical components.

Myhrvold has dived so passionately into the subject that he and a staff of 15 have written a 1500-page illustrated cookbook to be published next year. Their test kitchen boasts equipment you could find in many UW labs — centrifuges (great for making a clear but intensely flavored tomato juice), microscopes, infrared cameras, and a $250,000 freeze drier bought for a song at a bankruptcy auction.

With amazing photos and video, Myhrvold and colleague Chris Young (a UW chemistry alum and professional chef) enthralled and educated the audience with more energy, enthusiasm, and charisma than most Food Network stars. They have cut heavy pots in half (in their own machine shop) to photograph the cooking process with an infrared camera, and they take HD video at 6200 frames per second. (A video of a kernel of corn exploding to the popped stage was a stunner.)

They rue that most chefs don’t know anything about the general heat equation, and have developed a technique to cook duck so the skin stays crispy and the meat moist. It requires a dog brush and dry ice. They offered high-tech techniques for steaming vegetables and caramelizing food, and punched holes in “food safety myths” — asserting there’s no need to overcook any meat except bear.

Young demonstrated how to use liquid nitrogen (“every kitchen should have a supply”) to make almond ice cream, with tastings for the audience. Yum!

Their key take-home message called attention to a “cooking revolution” — at least at rarified levels of gastronomy. Myhrvold and Young, however, hope to inspire all adventurous cooks to try unusual new techniques and to understand the science behind the exceptional results. Keep a lookout for their book, and don’t be surprised to see them on TV someday. (And in the New York Times on November 17, 2009:

Back on More Familiar Terrain

Irwin Jacobs provides an overview of the progression and innovation of wireless technology
Irwin Jacobs provides
an overview of the progression
and innovation of wireless technology

The next three lectures featured computer science luminaries in industry and academia. Wireless “wizard” Irwin Jacobs, co-founder and former CEO of Qualcomm, directed commercialization of CDMA (code division multiple access), the most advanced and fastest-growing technology for voice and data wireless communications. His various ventures and their offshoots spawned more than 35 telecommunications companies in the San Diego area.

Jacob’s talk “From Cell Phones to Smart Phones to Smart Books” touched on how he launched Qualcomm with no business plan and no product, just a mission focused on innovation to significantly improve wireless technology. He covered the progression of technologies to include voice, then cable and GPS, and soon 3D graphics. The future includes adding laptop capability to phones, with advanced chips that pull everything into a single package.

Craig Mundie gives a glimpse of future computer systems
Craig Mundie gives a glimpse
of future computer systems

Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie drew a crowd of students, faculty, and alumni to Kane Hall for his talk on “Rethinking Computing” — a look at how emerging technologies can help solve critical societal problems in areas such as energy, the environment, and climate change. Mundie demonstrated a global climate-modeling system that unites massive databases with new analytical methods to show how CO2 emissions and deforestation can affect climate patterns in widely dispersed locations. He spoke about how more powerful computers united with more sophisticated software tools will allow scientists to work across disciplines on huge, complex problems.

Mundie emphasized that computing is still in its infancy, and gave the audience a glimpse of future interfaces with touch-screen and motion-sensor technologies that will become more proactive, also noting that new search engines and interfaces “should be able to predict intent.” Also in the future he sees an expanding relationship between Microsoft and the UW community.

Pat Hanrahan talks about advances in computer graphics
Pat Hanrahan talks about
advances in computer graphics

The final lecture on December 3 featured Stanford University professor and computer graphics architecture expert Pat Hanrahan, addressing the question: “Why are Graphics Systems so Fast?” Hanrahan believes that most programmers have only a limited understanding of GPUs, which are parallel computers that combine many cores, threads, and wide vector processing units. He described their architecture and covered the programming models used to achieve high performance, asserting that GPU speed derives from the innovative combination of processor design and programming model. Earlier in his career, Hanrahan was the chief architect for Pixar’s Renderman Interface, for which he shared an Academy Award for Science and Technology.

On a Screen Near You!

All UW CSE colloquia, including our Distinguished Lecturer Series, are webcast live, web-archived, and broadcast on UWTV and ResearchChannel. Complete information is available here:

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