Think Globally, Act Locally: or Display Links that Tap into the educational Orchard


These were Ernest Shackleton's words advertising for crew to accompany him on his adventure to the South Pole. If we substituted "men and women" for "men", we might be talking about the sometimes process of being a teacher. It resonates with my recent weeks with "the laptop" project, which I just got word from Guinness as a new record category: "Most powerful portable computer". The target is 30 min battery with an overall weight under 10 kilograms.

Intel graciously allowed me to substitute two newly released quad core Xeon chips for the customary gift of a laptop for newly minted blackbelts, allowing me to move a pet project from the back burner to center stage. For some time I wanted to repackage our LIttleFe portable cluster idea into an aluminum attache case: LittleAl.

Instead of "Intel allowed", it is far more important to say "Zander Sprague of the blackbelt program has championed" getting me needed equipment. Zander's accomplishments are going to sound something like the 12 days of Christmas: 12 sticks of memory, four motherboards, two blade cases, two more Xeon chips, and a terabyte SATA hard drive. Even more important, Zander has repeatedly traveled to the college to work with my students in assembling LittleAl. This involved noticing the theory of the motherboard and the chip being compatible is not the same as the practice of the motherboard and the chip being compatible.

After tediously, and rigorously, swapping the various combinations of chips, motherboards, various sizes and ranks of memory, blade cases, and monitors; we came to the conclusion we were stumped by the beep codes and the motherboard error lights did not reveal why we could not power-on to the BIOS. A late night conference call with Zander, myself, and Jun, a very helpful board designer from Intel Shanghai, led to the missing link; we needed to get one of the original chips for which the board was designed, from which we could power-up to BIOS, allowing us to re-flash the BIOS, coaxing the new chip to be in electronic communion with the motherboard. Sweet. Along the way, we diagnosed one out of the four motherboards was bad, which Zander also transformed into a working one, not unlike the way Harry Potter would have, aside from the fact no wand or magic was involved, it took days rather than seconds, and Zander does not have a lightning scar on his forehead (his is a ouroboros.)

I need to mention that somewhere along the way I started channeling my hero Don Quixote in tilting at windmills. I realized that if I could shoe-horn into the case: a keyboard, mouse, screen, and battery; well then, I'd have a laptop. But this enabled me to see the windmill behind it; given these changes I would clearly have the world's most powerful laptop. This revealed the grandest one of all: a Guinness Book of World's Record.

This takes us to today, the day after which I should have marched forth to write this blog. Today is the Friday before the Wednesday when I head to SIGCSE, where I planned to establish the world record. "Safe return doubtful" is certainly a valid way to see describe things. A number of difficulties have hobbled progress. But this would not be seeing things with Cervantes' eyes. What counts is not the way things appear to be, but the way things are and the way things should and will be.

And this, my friends, is a long way around to the title of this blog. Think globally, but act locally. The global world record is not the goal it is just the eye candy to lead people to what is important: the local actors acting locally. This is mainly my students, who keep appearing out of the woodwork to join the team, a new one surfaced today, but more about Stephen in a paragraph or two. It are also the local businesses who have joined us in the project: Intel, DisplayLink, Tap Plastics, and Orchard Hardware. They are choosing to invest in their community and I am grateful. More important, it is the people of these places that are part of the effort Zander, Ron, Jun, Carl the chip supplier, Jesse the server board supplier, all from Intel; Theo from DisplayLink who provided the coolest small video screen for the monitor; Sophia, Harold, Stephen, and Liam from Tap Plastics who provided mounting equipment and illusion films with minute parabolic lenses (just the thing for "The Effect"); Josh and Toni from Orchard Hardware supplying the mounting hardware.

There is a great pride these local people have in West Contra Costa County which I certainly share. People may hear about the shootings in Richmond, and that very real grief has certainly touched us at our college; but there are also a vast number of caring people building community. I must mention Matt Krupnick from the Contra Costa Times who wrote a resonant piece about our project. Thanks Matt for being another local actor and part of the team.

Stephen is a gamer working at Tap rebuilding financial reserves to go back to his computer science program at nearby UC Berkeley. He is interested in joining the Graphics and Gaming Guild for which I am club advisor. We have just decided to go with the freely available Unreal Engine. Stephen is fascinated with the prospect of devising a game that will only run on this 128 Gig memory 51 GHz (aggregate) processor. He may also take some CS classes from us along the way. Welcome Stephen.

More updates to follow from SIGCSE, when I can work with the Earlham College crew, led by Charlie Peck, to help work at outstanding LittleAl problems.

BTW, the Quixote did not think he was tilting at windmills; he was fighting the giant Briareus with his 100 hands. This LittleAl laptop will have the hostname briarius because it will have 32 hyperthreads and 100's of Gigs. More importantly, it will not represent an idle tilting at world records, it will be a giant catalyst for bringing people together.