In psychology, there is a term to describe how one sees himself or herself with regard to the rest of the world. If they feel they are in control of their lives and themselves they are said to have an internal locus of control. If they feel they are controlled by the environment, by bosses, family, government, etc., then they are said to have an external locus of control. And yes, naturally it varies from time to time, but in general one’s locus of control is steady.
People whose lives are ruled by their phone, Blackberry, or some email or social network client are demonstrating with their behavior that their locus of control is elsewhere. An external locus of control is typical of anyone who suffers from a compulsive behavior whether it’s game playing, obsessive email or Facebook checking, smoking, compulsive drinking, eating, and gambling.
Governments can have an external locus of control too. Countries that are obsessive about the actions of another country have in effect turned over their own destiny to the leadership of the country that drives them to distraction. Such countries misappropriate resources for inappropriate ambitions, such as a poor country with limited electricity and hungry citizens building a nuclear bomb and missiles instead of power generators and farm equipment.
Those people and countries with an external locus of control want to be super. They want to be superstars recognized for having processed or sent more emails in a day than anyone else, or super nations because they have WMD. They don’t have what my grandmother used to call the gowithits—the whole package. It’s like the guy who buys a fancy car but can’t afford insurance, fuel, or a covered garage to keep it in.
So what does it mean to be super? What, for example, is a supercomputer?
Well super is a fleeting thing in many cases and isn’t easily remembered. Last year’s Olympic gold medal winner is just today’s job seeker. Last year’s Oscar winner is scrambling for parts against Brad Pitt, George Clooney and an animated fur ball. And, last year’s supercomputer is now number three or five —and they were all so super.
Japan has effectively dropped out of the super computer race. Its amazing Earth Simulator has fallen to 31st place and it looks like the country may cancel its pending new supercomputer project. One could say Japan is being adult and not building something with limited immediate payoff with taxpayer’s money in favor of solving more immediate problems. It’s a hard pill to swallow but one that has to be done.
With supercomputers following Moore’s law and surpassing it with GPUs, the title of “Super” is even more fleeting than before. Prior to GPUs, supercomputers went up in cost faster then they went up in performance, despite Moore’s law. The GPU even influenced Blue Waters Petascale Computing System that is being built by the NCSA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (slated to be completed by 2011), which is going to cost over $200 million (funded by the NSF.) The canceled Japanese Riken supercomputer was budgeted at $300 million.
Clearly, in these troubled economic times with every country in the world except China running huge deficits, supercomputers look like a questionable luxury. And yet, we can’t stop progress, or stop research. Too many people are counting on it—if not to make our lives better then to save us from our bad eating habits and global warming.
GPUs may save the supercomputer industry, if the supercomputer industry can recognize in time that the government horn of plenty is running dry and that the government leaders’ locus of control is going to have to be focused internally now and until we get out of this economic crisis. These are extremely difficult decisions. Adventures in foreign lands, mass-colliders, space exploration, and supercomputers will only aggravate the debt, not reduce it—and sadly these are the totems we love so much. They’re just so, well, so super.