Thursday, December 04, 2003


This is not meant to be read as allegory. It’s not a metaphor for anything. And, above all, this is not magical realism.

She posted an announcement on his web page. She did it after reading about the electronics engineer in Germany who confessed to having seduced and eaten his “friend.” The friend was a new acquaintance who had responded to an internet dating post: WANT TO MEET PERSON FOR DISSECTION AND CONSUMPTION.

Ick. That was her first response. Later, she became curious. Who would respond to such an ad? Apparently, there were many. He had to field more than 400 responses. At least that’s what he said. Why would be so many people volunteer to be killed and eaten? That’s where the allegory attempts to insert itself.

She knew that she would not be interested in the process of having to wade through so many “contestants.” However, what if she tried the same experiment, but with a twist? In the U.S.? That sounded like a nice variation on the theme, the cantus having already established itself as being German -- although cyberspace strips a place of its geographical specificity.

Here is what she inserted on her website:

Metaphorically, it’s what happened every day of her life. But, she was not interested in the polite metaphor of exploitation. She was willing to experiment with the real.

Never mind that it was Kafka-esque.

She was, as you might imagine, inundated with responses, mainly male (or at least pretending to be). People who wanted to give it a whirl. She tried to make it perfectly clear that there was nothing figurative about her language. She was interested in proposed methods of dissection, instruments, and whether or not it first occurred to them to dissect her while still alive, or while conveniently not alive. If alive, would they want to anaesthetize her? And how would they propose to do that?

By day three, she was exhausted by the experiment, and dogged by a vague sense of nausea.

The nausea was not metaphorical, nor was it an indication of an existential stance, nor was it a philosophy.

History and literature abound with cannibal lore. She knew she was indirectly, if not directly contributing to it. It was a shame that her new "hunger artist" approach would not leave much room for her to chronicle the experience.

Sunday, August 31, 2003


Why reading John Milton intimidated me is something I don't quite understand. It just seemed like so much WORK. But, wasn't reading The Faerie Queene equally daunting? Many of my favorite works and authors are seventeenth-century -- John Donne's poems, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Katherine Phillips' poems, Ephelia's Female Poems (1683), and the poetry of the brilliant Mexican nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The English poets mentioned earlier are for the most part, cavalier and metaphysical writers.

John Milton seemed to me to be very militant and political -- perhaps that was part of the aversion I felt. I don't like "revolutionary" or "religious" poetry as a rule -- and especially not poetry that obsesses on the theme of crime and punishment (with an emphasis on the punishment).

The rage, the pain, the drama -- acck!! no thanks!!

In contrast, when I first discovered John Donne, who wrote earlier in the same century, I was fascinated by the intensity of the longing for unity -- the promise that striving for unity -- to long to enter into a state of unity would lead to perfection -- an almost out-of-body experience. It's transcendental and holds with it a kind of philosophy of enlightenment. Yes, that really speaks to me.

Being tormented and castigated for disobeying - for daring to question ... well, that never quite resonated with my own experience. As a teen-ager, I tended to be a people pleaser -- not a rebel without a cause, or an angry young grrrl (or angry young man). I also tended to fantasize about transformation, change, and "breaking through to the other side" through art, self-expression, or literature. I like the idea of human nature in all its radiance.

In revisiting Milton's Paradise Lost, I am finding (to my surprise), that many of the elements that so fascinated me in Donne and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz:

1. It is through paradox and the juxtaposition of opposites that we know a thing

2. Transcendental Longing is possible only in a hierarchical universe

3. Unity is a mental state -- it leads to illumination and profound insights into the nature of the human condition

4. The body is a vast dungeon of suffering and limitation -- it must be transcended

5. Abandonment and separation are primary existential conditions

6. Paradise Lost is the quintessential saga of the "angry young man"

7. John Donne appeals to individuals who are hyperaware of their essential helplessness with respect to passion, love, natural forces

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Susan Smith Nash

The serpent is hungry tonight. The boards creak in the wooden casita I’m sleeping in tonight, the lamp suspended from a chain sways gently. The air is damp and cool, lightning flashes so far in the distance the thunder never arrives in sounds detectible by me, a woman exhausted by the sadness of a life of monotonous loss punctuated by Dionysian abandon. I look at my flesh. It is damp and chilly to the touch, and I wonder if the serpent’s scales are similarly cool.

The damp, cool night is dangerous. Incapable of generating my own heat, my metabolism slows in response to my environment. I cannot move, even when my mind tells me to run, run, run. Instead, cool tears clatter like ice down my cheeks. I miss you. I miss your warmth. You are the sun hiding behind the cloud of ash from Pacaya. You are heat and light and purity. You have been obscured for thirty years. This is why I shiver. I will breathe deeply of these ash-laden breezes, even though I know that they contain acicular crystals like asbestos, mixed with cremains. We call it “ash” because we know that to tell the world that Pacaya has turned itself into a giant crematorium, pushed to overcapacity by the last thirty years, will sound like a political statement, and thus will be ignored.

The wind rustles the eucalyptus near my window. Deep and dark the night is cooler than blood, thinner than memory. I am entranced by the slow, warm sway of the light over my bed. I will not move. I will pray, if the proper words come to my lips -- lips still swollen by solitude.

Sew my lips together. Sew my eyes shut. Little do I expect the swelling to obscure my self-imposed stigmata; my crown of thorns is reduced to the embodiment of futility. It was all just a dream anyway.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves. It twists. It burrows itself deep into the earth, following the fault zone, preferring strike-slip because the twisting motion seems somehow more in concert with what occurs on the surface.

Did you know scorched earth had a smell? Did you know screams had color? Did you know my blindness carried the scent of red bananas and the drink made of boiled rice and sugar?

Yesterday I bought green mango from a young woman outside the Catedral of La Antigua. “Con sal y chile rojo, por favor” I ask politely. When I put the sweet-sour-spicy fruit in my mouth, my eyes water, my lips swell, my tongue spontaneously shapes the sounds of centuries past. The bones of Bernal Diaz del Castillo crawl into my wrists, my ribs, my heart. I am eighteen again. I am reading The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico in a spare classroom in the middle of a hot, Grapes-of-Wrath-tinged prairie, 5,000 miles north of the desaparecido-tainted land I will visit mere weeks later. The bones rattle, snap, vaporize. Pacaya breathes, holds its breath, slowly exhales. The cremains this time are not of a conquistador named Diaz del Castillo. They are of small Mayans who have just sacrificed chickens and burned candles to placate the demons of the forest. History repeats. Genocide has happened at least three times here in this millennium. The serpent is hungry tonight.

The world’s most beautiful places are its most tragic.

Unable to move, I lie on my bed and watch the slow sway of the hanging lamp gain momentum. The bed rolls under my back in slow, erotic waves I am helpless to control. I am alone, and more aware than ever of my solitude. It is existential.

Yesterday, a civil engineer specializing in earthquakes and landslides told me that it is widely believed in the Guatemalan highlands that earthquakes are the result of the movement of a giant subterranean serpent that moves when its normal diet of flowers and honey has been cut off or replaced by material it does not like.

And what is that? I ask. A long pause before the answer. The only food the campesinos have been able to set out for the serpent has been not to its liking.

And what might that be? I ask.

Bone, blood.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves, it burrows, it hunts. The earth moves, Pacayo erupts and dusts us all with a coat of ash smelling vaguely of my grandmother’s perfume, Maja, and pungent mango.

Tomorrow I will go downtown with the engineer. We will go to the central market, where I will regatear but without enthusiasm because I want, in my heart of hearts, to overpay. I want to be overcharged, ripped off, made ridiculous. Don’t I think I deserve it? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, I sip hot, sweet chocolate prepared from cubes of cocoa Mi Abuela and respond to the polite inquiries of two neatly dressed women from Chichicastenango, one of whom gently squeezes my forearm as she wishes me well. She leaves with her friend. My arm glows where she has touched me, my eyes fill with tears. Why must the serpent always be hungry? Can no one manage its, our needs – needs for delicate flower petals, honey, and a sky delicate and gray-blue around the corners, like my eyes, like my tears gently overlaying my own colorless irises.

The night thickens. My shoulders finally relax. I will not resist. The serpent is hungry tonight. To still its stomach will still these standing waves, that rolling, bending, contorting longing for sweetness and light. The longing is constant, albeit sticky and in the form of honey, or even the earth-black tar of molasses. I feign sweetness and light, as do all willing sacrifices.

Nevertheless and despite my best intentions, I am not accepted as the chivo expiatorio, at least not in the form I anticipated. The scent of carnations, tiny roses, and flowering jacaranda envelopes me. “No, not now,” is written in vapor in the air above my bed. Sweetness and light. Some day it will probably get to the point that it isn’t even an act any more.

The serpent is hungry tonight. Or, at least was. Now I see that it is I, citizen of the world, who must accept that it is I who is hungry.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Susan Smith Nash

“And then I was subjected to…” crumpled face, stifled sobs, long silence, then words choked out. “The Probe!!!” The audience gasped in response. It was the climactic moment they had been waiting for. Another daytime talk show. Another alien abduction testimonial. You would have thought those things would have died out a couple of years ago after psychiatrists started pointing out that many of the “recovered memories” from troubled individuals under hypnosis were not long-repressed memories at all. They were responses to suggestions made by the hypnotist.

I went to a therapist for a couple of years, but he never suggested hypnosis. He didn’t suggest much at all, as far as I could tell, and so I eventually left. He was later drummed out of psychiatry for having requested nude photographs from his female patients. I don’t remember that he ever asked me for such photographs, and I certainly never produced any for him. But, maybe I’m just not remembering it. Perhaps he really did have me under hypnotic suggestion.

Despite some ongoing skepticism on the part of non-believers, abduction / UFO sighting stories are more popular than ever. Peru leads the way, with hundreds of supposed UFO sightings every year. People in non-light-polluted countries report that UFOs, comets, and deviant stellar behavior are harbingers of doom, warnings to take heed, change one’s wicked ways before it’s too late.

Americans’ experiences with the aliens are very personal. They can even involve the possibility of encountering one’s soulmate. According to my favorite tabloid, at least two former First Ladies have had recurring love trysts with space aliens, variety Great Gray (the mild-mannered, harmless ones), who visit them from their spacecrafts.

Doesn’t this set up some spousal jealousy in the White House? After all, there are more than a few individuals who believe that the world leaders are, in actuality, reptilian aliens disguised as humans. As opposed to the fairly passive yet intellectually curious Great Grays, the Reptilians are aggressive. They deliberately provoke strife between nations. Their goal is total global nuclear holocaust, which would leave behind lots of flesh ready to eat, and nice, warm radioactive sands for incubating Reptilian Alien eggs.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that. I do wonder, though. There are persistent rumors that the super-secret all-male Bohemian Society is comprised of Reptilian Aliens, who inhabit the bodies we know as world leaders. The Bohemian Society, which meets each summer in Sonoma County, California in a grove of Sequoiahs along the Russian River, is said to kick off its two weeks of male bonding with a bonfire ceremony to the Great Owl, Moloch, in which members burn effigies and don red KKK-type outfits. These are our world leaders? Marvelous.

That probe business is what catches my eye. It’s the common thread that unites all the narratives. There are other ways aliens can invade and violate people. Why the probe? Why not the earwigs of Dune and Star Trek? Those little critters are scary. Dropped into the ear, they crawl into the ear canal, and promptly chew their way to the brain. I guess the problem with that is that you rarely live to tell the tale (!)

An alternative horror is the human botfly. I was considering a trip to Costa Rica until I remembered having read about the human Botfly in the Dangerous Insects book I bought for my son at the local natural history museum gift shop when he was 7 or 8. The botfly looks like a mosquito, except it’s a fly. Its favorite place to bite appears to be the male scrotum. The mother botfly lays her eggs in the scrotal area of an unsuspecting tourist, and then flies off happy with the knowledge that her eggs have been laid in the most jealously guarded region of all of human anatomy. There the little eggs thrive. Human blood nourishes the larvae, which incubates for several weeks, growing to the size of a small chicken egg. This, according to all reports, causes “discomfort” in the unwilling “host.” Finally, when it is time to give birth, the now inch-long worm-like creature, with a double-row of spines down its back, starts wriggling toward its birth canal, except there is no birth canal, just scrotum. According to all reports, this causes even more “discomfort.” Birth in such circumstances is always by caesarian, accompanied by shrieks of horror, nausea, and shouts of “I’m not touching THAT!” and “Quick! I heard these things can jump up to 6 feet!”

Thankfully, human botfly experiences are rare, especially in comparison to alien abductions.

In attempt to make light of a situation that alarmed me, I joked with my son that he and his pet beagle, Sammy, must have been abducted by aliens at precisely the same time. I was saying this because my son had just described having had his core body temperature measured by a metal rectal thermal probe. He was severely dehydrated and had fallen unconscious from heat stroke during a training exercise with the Marines on a lava plain in Hawaii. As luck would have it, at precisely the same moment, 4,000 miles away in sunny central Oklahoma, a metal cylinder was being inserted up Sammy’s rectum. No one thought Sammy was suffering from heat stroke. Instead, the veterinarian’s assistant was collecting a stool sample to analyze for parasites. Thankfully, Michael and Sammy are both fine now. Sammy was parasite-free, but decidedly ungrateful for the knowledge. He runs and hides when he sees me holding anything even vaguely resembling a metal cylinder. After his ordeal, I felt sorry for the chubby little dog, so I fed him a full package of Bacon Beggin Strips. Ironically, Michael suggested I mail him a care package with his favorite snack items.

“Don’t they have potato chips and cookies at the exchange on base?” I asked.

“It’s not the same,” he said. “I’ll be back from the field next Thursday. Do you think it can be there by then?”

I looked up to the TV where another weeping man was describing his alien abduction experience. After a commercial break, the show ended with the announcer describing the gifts the guests would receive. One was a generous box of gourmet chocolates, fruits, and coffees.

Well, there’s the pay-off. A hefty care package heals a lot of wounds, especially those inflicted in the name of scientific investigation or “health.” I wonder if I’ll be getting a box of chocolates for my birthday from my old therapist.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Susan Smith Nash

I discovered today that customs officials don’t like “humor” -- I had just checked the announcement board for flights to Oklahoma City and had discovered, to my delight, that I might have just enough time to catch the flight that left at 7:43 am, rather than waiting until 10:07 am for the one I was ticketed for. At that point it was 7:05 a.m.

I trotted up to the customs agent who read my customs form. His face was a mask. He then asked if I had been on any farms or if I were bringing in any food or agricultural products.

“No. I ate it all,” I said. I guess he wasn’t as amused as I was. Actually, I was mildly disgusted with myself for eating at least a half pound of Turkish delight and honey-pistachio confection before I left the hotel in Santiago.

“Line 1, please,” he said. He gestured to the AG line. The beagle brigade was sleeping in, I supposed. All I saw was one lone, rather distracted customs agent with sandy hair, glasses, and a hand full of forms.

"But I don't have any agricultural products," I said. He circled the red AG-1 he had written on the top of the form.

"Line 1, ma'am," he repeated.

I remembered to lift with my quadriceps and not with my back as I hoisted my 50-lb carry-on onto the aluminum table. The thing wasn't going to be easy to close up again.

“How often do you travel out of the country? How many trips have you made in the last year?” He had already unzipped my carryon and was carefully picking his way through the books, pantyhose, blouses, shoes, wine glasses and assorted trinkets. He opened a bag with the by-prescription-only tube of Metrogel I had bought at the Cruz Roja Farmacia in Santiago where, instead of paying $75 for the anti-inflammatory cream, together with a $150 dermatologist’s office visit fee, I had forked over 8000 Chilean pesos, or roughly $14. I also wondered how I would explain the 60 tablets of tetracycline or two weeks worth of Cipro. The tetracycline was an anti-malarial prophylaxis just in case I really did go to Mozambique in a few months. It was good. Instead of paying more than $100 to keep myself free of that scourge, I paid around $10. Instead of $60 for Cipro, I paid $15. July 1 my workplace changed health insurance carriers, and instead of a $200 annual deductible, $10 office copay, and 80% coverage on prescription medication, we now had to pay a $2500 deductible, with no subsidies on office visits. Someone said that medications were barely covered at all. The forthcoming savings in doctor’s visits and medications practically paid for the entire trip to Santiago. I wish I had thought to get heartworm prevention medicine for my dog. I was glad I had not attempted to sneak in the souvenir corkscrew from Veramonte winery that even had its own lead-cutting knife.

“Ah. Five times? Maybe four?” He looked at me. I guess he wanted an answer. The effects of the 10-hour flight were beginning to percolate into my brain. I felt a bit of vertigo when I looked down at my luggage.

“Five. Yes. I think it was five trips.” As hard as I was trying to count them, all my recent trips were blurring together – emotional trips to San Diego to visit my son, tedious trips to various and sundry conference locales – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Orlando, Florida. Both places with used to have annual outbreaks of malaria. Even Oklahoma had malaria back in the good old days before dams were built and the Washita River used to flood and leave nasty oxbows filled with stagnant water, and the city did not fog the low-lying forested areas with DTD or whatever they use these days.

The customs agent replaced the clothes and started to zip the carryon after assuring himself that I really did not have any agricultural or food products on my person. According to the clock, I still had thirty minutes before scheduled take-off. It was a ten-minute walk. With any luck at all, they wouldn’t be booked full.

“Thank you,” I said as I wrestled with my luggage. I wondered if the pills would rattle in their little bubblepacks. The customs agent did not look up from the forms he was filling out.

As I made my way to the gate, I thought of the summer before when I had spend three weeks in Kenya. I had taken two months worth of prophylactic-level medicine. At the same time, four soldiers who had recently returned from Afghanistan had murdered their wives, girlfriends, themselves. They were blaming it on the anti-malarial drug they had to take while in Afghanistan. It was a new one – malorone, or something like it. Supposedly, it caused anxiety, even psychosis. I had chosen the antibiotic route, which made my face extremely photosensitive, but kept me from fits of aggression or rampaging hallucinations. I just got a bit testy at times. I don’t think I could really blame that on the medicine, though. There were many other factors – one being the approximately 500 small carved animals I had dragged back with me from Kenya, with the idea of setting up an e-business with my son, when I realized that the market was already fairly glutted and that to really sell the things, I would have to drag them to work with me and hustle them as Noah’s Ark items for the office workers' grandkids.

Luck was with me. There was a seat available on the 80-passenger Embraer commuter jet. The weather was clearing up, and although the gust-front of a line of strong thunderstorms was, at that very moment, snapping trees, downing electric lines, pushing trees into telephone lines, and wreaking havoc a mere 250 miles to the north on all of Norman and south Oklahoma City. Oblivious and mildly sleepy, I was stretching my legs and letting myself drift off into thoughts of Chile, German and French-influenced architecture, Africa, rain, summer, mosquitoes. It was good to travel. It was good to think on my feet. It was good to score cheap antibiotics, even if, somewhere along the way I realized that it was doxycycline and not tetracycline I had taken last year in Kenya.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

3D Visualization Centers: On the verge of a breakthrough
Susan Smith Nash

Oil and gas presentations using maps, cross-sections, and traditional approaches will soon be obsolete. This is the consensus of experts in the geosciences, who include Tiffany Tyler, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation's technology strategist, who obtained her doctorate through the University of Manchester's PREST program.

When one thinks of 3D visualization centers, one usually thinks of the multi-million dollar centers found in the military, petroleum industry, major hospitals and research centers, engineering, and architectural firms. They take a lot of money, time and resources. Unfortunately, they scream instant obsolescence. Many universities, conference halls, and municipal centers have early versions of these big rooms, loaded with projection equipment, screens, and dated hardware. They were great at the time. Now they are incompatible with everything. The entities who made the huge investments are finding that they are quickly losing their clients and markets to new 3D visualization centers.

However, that may be about to change, due to
-1- Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) using edge computing, such as Akamai
-2- Thin-client software which would allow one to log in and run the application from remote servers
-3- 64-bit workstations
-4- Lower-cost projection technology, which can also be mobile

In the near future, forward-thinking universities and conference centers will be able to offer the 3D visualization services for training, review, and presentation purposes. The muscle behind the presentation will be housed on a remote application server, and the content housed on the "edge." The interface between server and user will be thin-client software.

This represents a huge business opportunity for those who are willing to understand how this can work for them, then manage the project in a cost-effective way so that the deliverables -- the presentation space -- are 100% reliable and secure.

Environment Construction
Fakespace is one of the most trusted and respected names in 3D visualization. The military uses them for everything from logistics, vehicle design and training, to architecture redesigns for housing, offices, and mobile units.
Fakespace pioneered the "cave" concept, which is now the standard viewing experience. It's gaming and the sim environment on steroids. Here's what Fakespace says about the CAVE:
The CAVE environment is an enclosed room that can hold up to six people. It’s typically configured with rear-projected screens on three walls and the floor. Additional screens can be added on the ceiling and rear wall if desired. The RAVE system has configurable screens, each measuring 8 feet by 10 feet. Hinges let the screens fold to form a cave, be set up side by side to make a very large wall, or be put together in any other configuration desired. Fakespace recently announced a planned merger with its biggest competitor, Mechdyne Corp.—making the joined companies the largest suppliers of integrated hardware solutions for immersive visualization. "Integrated" means solutions from computer connectors (and even computers, if desired) through the software interface. This includes software for stereo viewing, and active stereo shutter eyeglasses.

Quite a few companies have installed their own CAVEs. British Petroleum has their own CAVEs, dubbed HIVEs, sprinkled around the world, from Baku, Azerbaijan to Calgary, Canada. They use them for displaying 3D seismic, engineering, and geological data for decision-making in construction, production, drilling, and pipeline construction.

SGI Reality Center
The SGI Reality Center bills itself as "the ultimate in group collaboration" -- no one could possibly disagree. They are amazing. One has to wonder about what it takes to generate the data needed to create and project the images. They are great at replayable "displays" -- for example, museums who want to give patrons a "gee whiz" experience of exploring, for example, a catacomb or an Egyptian pyramid. However, as people begin to understand how to use enhanced spectral processing of regular data, and how to train neural networks on various patterns and relationships of data, this will absolutely change. The museum patrons can experience what it would be like to go more deeply into the place, with multiple scenarios. It's perfect for training for urban warfare, SWAT teams, etc. It also has applications in energy, museums, manufacturing, military and defense.

In the near future, the SGI Reality Center could utilize lower-cost modular equipment, that can be brought to a meeting or conference, then thin-client down to individuals' palms or laptops for distance collaborations, imagine the possibilities.

Basic hardware
Hewlett-Packard Visualization Workstations
Wonderful, but scary. The Instant Obsolescence Beast is truly lurking here, like Duessa straight out of Spenser's The Faerie Queene's. HP drives many of the CAVE environments, and they are a premier provider. I would be afraid -- very afraid -- to invest in the workstations as they are now. I would wait for the new 64-bit ones, to liberate one from the need for super-computing.

SGI Onyx Visualization Stations
SGI has state-of-the-art medical visualization capabilities. This is one of the breakthroughs that helps us make such amazing advances. Eventually, they will become more mobile and information can be sent out to remote locations. No longer will such systems be the exclusive purview of the rich, HMO-owned hospital chains. Even the small clinic will have access. If you have lots and lots of insurance, you too, will be able to see your own heart, imaged out on a wall. I can't help but think of multi-tasking and multiple uses. See your own heart pulled out by an Aztec high priest who explains to you that your blood pouring down the steps helps keep the world in balance -- then time-travel and see a doctor transplant in Houston transplant your still-beating heart into another person -- then zip forward a couple of decades and see that same heart be ripped out again as you, the oil executive, have just recommended drilling a series of wells (based on 3D visualization results) that turned out to be non-productive. Then your significant other rips it out again as you are dumped yet again for being such a loser... Okay. That's going too far. A good game, right? No! It's too much like life!

Ah. Let's get serious again.

Display Products and Services
Christie Mirage DLP Stero Projection Systems

Christie's was the company that helped develop the world's first mobile command briefing center, which has been used in Washington, DC, in response to security issues. I suspect it was not a solution that the average university on a shoestring budget could afford. However, the prototype has been built, and it works. Using the same philosophies and procedures, it could be possible to build smaller, even more mobile ones, again using thin-client technology and edge computing.

Fakespace recently used display products and services to test armored vehicles. Pretty amazing. According to their development team, the collaborative approach they used will change the way we do work.
"The use of immersive visualization in the design and manufacturing process is as revolutionary as the assembly-line was in the first decade of the 20th century," said Dr. Bochenek. "Eventually, collaborative work with virtual prototypes will become an essential element to all vehicle and complex equipment design."

On another note, I think they could use this experience as a serious recruiting tool for the military. It looked like fun.

According to their press release, and reports by charged-up, highly enthusiastic geophysicists, Panoram debuted the brightest, sharpest, curved screen, 3D visualization display ever at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) conference in Salt Lake City in 2002. Panoram's VisCenter is stunning. Right now, if you're in the mood to upgrade from your existing VisCenter system, you can save more than $60,000 on software upgrades, including the "Extreme Bandwidth Scaler." That price tag, along with the stated need for an "extreme bandwidth scaler" is enough to send cold chills down the spine of the average IT implementer. Whoever can bridge the technology gap between the have's and the have-not's by using the oft-mentioned technologies of thin-clienting and edge-computing will become a very rich lad or lad-ess indeed.

Total Display Solutions are leading-edge in the areas of flight and driving simulations for civilian and military purposes. These UK-based services are not quite as flashy as their US counterparts, but are extremely robust. Clearly, they get the job done. SEOS's Trimension Systems has an intriguing online demo and information page here: Trimension Systems Demo

The products, services, and new directions I've described briefly here should give you an idea of where we are and where we may be going. For me, I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to get to work and figure out how to make these technologies and approaches available to the smaller users. Once that happens, we'll start to see extreme breakthroughs in education, training, and everyday life.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Bandwidth Future Shock and Akamai
Susan Smith Nash

I recently had an opportunity to attend a presentation by Akamai at a major university which is grudgingly facing the twin beasts of Bandwidth Hogs and Budget Cut Ghouls.

You may not be familiar with Akamai directly, but there is no doubt that you use Akamai's services. Akamai (means "cool" in Hawaiian) was started in 1999 as an project to place web content on servers throughout the world. The result is peak-shaving & load-sharing to manage traffic. The algorithms and basic philosophy remind me of the peak-shaving programs used by electricity providers to deal with high high demand periods. Although Akamai seems to be all about storage, it's not. It's all about traffic management, band-width-smoothing, and positioning content close to patterns of end-users so data goes through fewer intermediaries. I first found out about Akamai when I was watching on-demand news clips provided by

Akamai houses content on its servers. In the early phases, the content tended to be streaming media, and thus the news websites were early adopters. Later, Akamai was able to host applications servers.

Most recently, Akamai has been working with universities as the face new challenges with their computing systems.

The university in question, like probably every university in existence at this point in time, outgrew its Internet and intranet capacity about three years ago. This is not a popular reality. When the question comes up, the countering question invariably comes up -- "But didn't we raise our technology fees three years ago? Isn't that ENOUGH???"

Of course it's not. The demand for bandwidth-hogging giant applications has risen, and it's not just due to the old Napster-specter of file-sharing programs such as Kazaa, or music & video-on-demand programs such as and netflix.

At the same time, endowment fund portfolio values have collapsed with the stock market, and state and federal grants, allocations, and matching funds are drying up. Faculty and staff positions are not being filled, employees are faced with furloughs and pay cuts, while institution-financed health and retirement plans careen into the red. There is not enough money to service the existing needs, much less invest in adding additional services or infrastructure.

As everyone knows, server space is cheap, and it's not a big deal to house archived content on someone else's server. The issue is one of traffic, and bandwidth hogs.

Nevertheless, the need for the bandwidth-hogging services is expanding. Providing these services is not an option. It is a necessity.

What makes an application a bandwidth hog?

-a- Pages loaded with simultaneous applications that quantum-leap traffic. For example, student portal pages that pull in customized content -- "my weather," "my headlines," "my interest rates," "my commodities futures prices," "my celebrity scandal" content are amazing. They can send out 10 commands simultaneously, every time the page is "pinged."

-b- Parasite programs. These are the bane of the internet! Imagine a lurker program that is almost impossible to uninstall, that generates pop-ups and send commands to link to other sites, whenever a web-surfer hits a site that triggers the commands.

-c- E-mail programs with highly variable user trends (semester-based, enrollment based) -- with lots of attachments and embedded html and xml

-d- Encrypted, packetized data sent in "bursts" (often associated with SSL (secure) servers)

Big Bandwidth Hogs:

Online registration

Student portal programs

Integrated applications -- registrar, courseware, bursar

Interactive catalogues and curriculum / advisor checkers


Web content

So, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not, the university has morphed into a vast patchwork quilt of outsourced components. It's not just content that's outsourced on other servers, it's also the various applications that tie into the main flows of information.

This makes an Akamai solution very difficult because it requires a certain amount of integration of applications. The pieces of the patchwork quilt must be stitched together by the same entity, and they must lie on the same bed for one to see any appreciable improvement in performance. Thus, Akamai would need to work with all the application providers. This could be time-consuming and costly.

We're now returning to the Budget Cut Ghouls. I think we need to stop looking at them as monsters, and see them as opportunities. For what? you ask. To have my still-beating heart ripped from my chest cavity? Well, if that's what you want ... (!) It's not necessary, though.

Akamai and other Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are business opportunities in the making. All you have to do is to find your product.

Unfortunately, Akamai does not take this route when making their presentations. Instead, they take the traditional sales approach, which is to focus on the product, the benefits, the cost. In the meeting I attended, no one dared articulate the big, unspoken question: "How can we buy this solution when we don't have the money?"

I kept hoping that Akamai would point out that every university is potentially an e-business tycoon. Every university possesses content and/or services that people are hungry to sign up for, if the price is right and the delivery is smooth. Akamai should show every university how to set up a business center that will cover its costs and serve as a cash cow for the money-losers.

Potential University Cash Cow E-business Facilitated by Akamai-type CDNs

These could ALL be fee-for-service products, paid via paypal or billpoint -- all online.

-1- Football games, clips, sports shows, coach interviews, recruiting tapes, etc. Market to alums and booster clubs. Create competition for ESPN.

-2- University pharmacy club. Online pharmaceutical sales for registered members (alums, etc.) Save on the high cost of prescription medicines with this co-op approach.

-3- University weight loss clinic. Weigh, get diet plans, measure fat, develop a yoga, pilates, weight and exercise program in the privacy of your own home. Download advanced yoga-pilates hybrid moves and stretches. Download customized chill-out tunes for yoga and meditation.

-4- University Job Placement. Why not ramp up this highly popular service and let it join the generation? In a down economy, this will boom.

-5- Sorority calendars. Virtual sorority carwashes. Imagine the potential. Profit-share with the sororities. Not quite "girls gone wild" -- make sure the women wash and wax only the coolest possible cars.

-6- Reservations and bookings online. Dorms? University hotels? University apartments? Let students tour online, make reservations, and order value-added service and items.

Okay. That's just a start. I think that the mood of the meeting I attended would have been a bit more upbeat if Akamai had shown us the way to create a cash cow to feed the hogs and the ghouls.