Sunday, November 13, 2011

Communications of the ACM Scores Big in Nov 2011

This month's issue of Communications of the ACM hits a home run with several notable articles that I thought I'd share.
Hexagonal grid with 480 km resolution.
Goal is 4 km.

Modeling Chaotic Storms starts things off with a look at simulations of global weather patterns up to and including the potential for 60-minute advance predictions of extreme weather. In fact, the authors write that future advances will come from simulation rather than increased scope of observation (i.e. satellites and radar). One of the challenges faced by modeling is the rather sparse set of data on which any computation is based - so-called initial conditions. Like most simulations of fluids like air or water, the nature of turbulence, the chaotic motion of a fluid, is also poorly understood. The computations required for weather modeling are far from trivial and researchers are turning to new technologies like GPUs (graphical processing units) that ran run 25 times faster than traditional hardware. The challenge here is that GPU programming requires a non-trivial up-front investment to modify the software.

Whether or not software engineering is truly engineering is addressed by Will Software Engineering Ever Be Engineering? The author makes a strong argument for the fact that it isn't now and likely never will be. The arguments for the latter are:

  1. Engineering is ultimately about physical systems.  Software is not.
  2. Software is a large profession - on the order of law or medicine - and is therefore more likely to split with engineering than join up with a profession twice its size.
  3. MIS or IT might be a better home for software as its more likely to be practiced in those areas than engineering.
In an article that's one of the most explicit treatments that I've ever read, Teaching-Oriented Faculty at Research Universities lays bare a truth that many people, including students, ignore. If you think that faculty at universities are hired and promoted for their teaching, you're wrong. They are hired for their research and their ability to bring in funded research. You'd also think that despite that they can teach.  Alas, no. "Active research is not a predictor of effective teaching." Therefore, teaching-oriented faculty (TOF) provide a valuable service, not only by the act of teaching courses (especially undergraduates) but they also undertake critical functions like curriculum development, advising, and course development. And yes, they do some research too. The fact that TOF at a university is almost seen as a novel idea is quite disturbing.  Or I'm just naive.

Other interesting articles touch on diverse topics such as the rejection of the Google Book Search settlement (centered around whether scanning books for the purpose of indexing search results was fair use or copyright infringement), a call for software liability laws (most if not all software licenses include limits on liability including "merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose"), and why high performance Fortran hasn't had any staying power.

This issue alone was well worth the cost of my annual ACM membership.

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