I was driving home from Seatac the other day when I realized I needed gas. I pulled off the 405 (It's not just a southern California highway; it reappears in Seattle) and stopped at a gas station-cum-convenience store.
Remember When: An Aside
Remember real gas stations, the ones where uniformed attendants checked your oil, cleaned your windshield and filled your car with gas? ("You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big bright Texaco star?") Remember when every gas station had a full-time mechanic who could do almost anything short of a transmission or engine rebuild? Remember when $2.00 bought half a tank, not just half a gallon? Remember free, fold out highway maps? Remember the "clean restrooms" signs? I really wonder, though, did anyone ever advertise dirty restrooms?
Most of all, do you remember gas wars? No, not the kind fought by countries over petroleum reserves. For you kids scoring this at home, I mean when gas stations competed to attract business by lowering gas prices, sometimes by the hour. I distinctly remember hand-printed signed in front of my small town's gas stations, with the prices repeatedly marked down, sometimes as low as $0.19/gallon. Of course, as I recall, my dad was driving a car with a 398 cubic inch V8 that drank gas like a thirsty man encountering water in the desert. We send armored personnel carriers into battle with less armor than was on that car.
Back to the Convenience Store
I'm sorry for the digression, back to my story. Imagine my surprise when I looked up from the pump and saw Elvis at the wheel of a candy red '69 Caddy Coupe DeVille convertible, parked outside the convenience store. He was lookin' mighty fine, with one arm draped over the car window and the other on the wheel, harmonizing with a gospel station on the AM dial. If that weren't strange enough, I saw D. B. Cooper inside the store, peeling bills off a carny roll to buy a couple of Big Gulps and some moonpies for Elvis and himself. As I waved, D.B. flashed me a V sign and a big smile.
Rumors and Sightings
If you believe my story about Elvis and D.B., we need to talk about your investment opportunities and the private island where I've been hoping to retire! Joking aside, I tell this story to illustrate the enduring power of rumors and their more recent incarnation via electronic social networks. Stories circle the globe in minutes via email, SMS, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Brightkite, Friendster and (lest we forget) telephone.
Like many of you, I have been both the object of rumors and part of a network that exchanges informal information about people, computing technologies, research initiatives and companies. Let me cite just a couple of examples to illustrate the power and rapidity of information exchange.
Last week, I gave the opening keynote at the TeraGird08 conference. As with all technical meetings, the conference was rife with rumors, in this case about the future of TeraGrid, upcoming NSF competitions and the identity of the new NSF OCI Director. Some of the rumors were accurate; others were wildly speculative. Such is the joy of human speculation and interaction. (By the way, I congratulate my good friend Ed Seidel on his appointment as OCI Director. Ironically, everyone at the meeting already knew about Ed's appointment, before the public announcement – that social network again.)
Oh, yes, what about my keynote? I reminded the audience of the origins of the TeraGrid and the evolving challenges associated with Grids, clouds and sustainable cyberinfrastructure. In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I was one of the TeraGrid's co-creators and the person who named it.
Blue Waters and Roadrunner
Similar rumors abounded about the hardware and configuration of the NCSA/IBM Blue Waters and LANL/IBM Roadrunner petascale systems. As someone connected to both (helping NCSA with its proposal and LANL as a project reviewer,) I was fascinated by the accuracy and inaccuracy of the stories I heard repeated. The hardware, the configurations, the performance specifications, the politics -- all were subjects of electronic hallway conversations.
This is, of course, as it should be. Such interchanges are the social grease for research. Sometimes the exchanges are accurate; other times they have the substance of the grade school game where kids whisper a phrase in successive ears. The poor kid at the end of the line has to then say publicly what he or she thinks was repeated. This is all part of the fun of research and computing.
Although Elvis has left the building, he remains true to his southern roots. As the Coupe DeVille faded from view, I think I heard him say, "Thank you, thank you very much."