3.567 supercomputing the humanities, cont. (73)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Wed, 11 Oct 89 18:23:44 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 567. Wednesday, 11 Oct 1989.

(1) Date: Wed, 11 Oct 89 11:11:08 CDT (15 lines)
From: "Michael S. Hart" <HART@UIUCVME>
Subject: Re: 3.562 supercomputing the humanities, cont. (142)

(2) Date: 11 October 1989 (39 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: supercomputing unrest

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Wed, 11 Oct 89 11:11:08 CDT
From: "Michael S. Hart" <HART@UIUCVME>
Subject: Re: 3.562 supercomputing the humanities, cont. (142)

I have been watching the remarks on humanistic supercomputing go by . . .
and find it difficult to understand why no Humanist has brought up issues
such as "The simplest human language is far more complex than the maximal
physics or electronic questions we have yet to ask." The problem is not,
in one sense, that Humanists do not have a subject worthy of supercompute
or that they will never learn how to ask the questions worthy of such and
such effort to compute, but that they have not yet learned to ask queries
in such a manner as to be applicable to supercomputing.

P.S. When they do, another issue will arise, similar to that raised in a
series of monolithic scenes in 2001.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 11 October 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: supercomputing unrest

Someone (I forget whom) wanted to know why so many Humanists expressed
fear or at least unease at the idea of supercomputing, because after all
a supercomputer is just a larger and more expensive version of what most
of us are now using to read our mail, and so forth. I think there may be
two answers to this question. The first is that supercomputers, because
of their powers and increased physical inaccessibility, have that old
spooky quality that we used to attribute to mainframes, once we started
using that term. The second is that the purchase of a supercomputer
means a huge subsidy to particular kinds of research that in fact are
conducted by a relatively tiny percentage of the academic population. In
times like these, when many departments are forcing their shrinking
membership to pay for stationery, telephone calls, and so forth, and
when libraries are being forced to cut serials subscriptions radically,
it may strike the observer as strange for tens of millions of dollars to
be sunk into a supercomputer. It may seem especially strange if, as
witnessed here, the question seems to be, "How can we use this
computer?" and not "What sort of computer do we need?"

The anxiety that may swirl around the purchase of one of these devices
may indeed get translated into security systems and other such things
that inspire less confidence in the hearts of humanists. We are getting
familiar with the fact, once made so much fun of in computing centres,
that microcomputers, being small, affordable, and on our desks, can be
made to have a human face. The supercomputer, however, is impossible to
touch (unless you're important) and not particularly easy to reach in
any other way. The impression of the humanist is likely to be that he or
she has been put into a time-warp and is back in the bad old days.

Is it also not true that supercomputers are designed to be super-fast
only for particular kinds of operations, and that these are numerical?

Willard McCarty