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Computenik? Japan, You're Kidding Right?

"In some sense we have a Computenik on our hands," said Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist, in The New York Times. The intrepid Times interviewer undoubtedly responded, "Excuse me?" Blank stares ensued.

And Dr. Dongarra, what "sense" is that, exactly? Back in 1957, Sputnik made its way around the earth, singing its shrill song of beeps and informing the world that nuclear armageddon was more than just the stuff of sci-fi novels. Sputnik forced the U.S. to rethink international policy, military strategy and domestic expenditures. And Sputnik was a threat, of terrible proportions, clear and simple.

In contrast, this yet-unnamed Japanese supercomputer (let's call it "Son of Godzilla") is made to "analyze climate change, including global warming, as well as weather and earthquake patterns." The only people who will be forced to rethink anything are local news meteorologists, whose primary concerns include thinking up 15 different ways of saying "it's gonna rain." Let's be honest -- Son of Godzilla is no Sputnik.

In fact, Son of Godzilla isn't much of a threat at all -- it will study the weather, which is a fairly harmless pursuit, the last time I checked. So why the panic? "These guys are blowing us out of the water, and we need to sit up and take notice," exclaims Thomas Sterling, a supercomputer designer and dispenser of hyperbole from sunny California. Calm yourself, Dr. Sterling.

The fear potentially stems from the fact that American supercomputers are primarily used for military research and simulating weapons. A New York Times article ominously comments, "For now, (Son of Godzilla) will be used only for climate research," leaving the door open in the reader's mind for wild speculation as to the eventual purpose of Son of Godzilla -- the hallmark of any good piece of sensationalist journalism.

Truth be told, for all this hype, there are those who don't expect Son of Godzilla to make much of an impact at all. "It's potentially quite significant for climate studies," said Dr. Tim Kalleen, director of the American climate research center. What! Obviously, the Japanese aren't hiring the right kind of PR guys because Dr. Kalleen is apparently under the erroneous impression that Son of Godzilla is in fact a rusty weather vane sitting on a unused barn somewhere in South Dakota.

People of Japan: if you're going to spend millions of dollars building a supercomputer specifically for the purpose of studying the weather, then it had better be damn, cold-cockin' perfect for the job! And if it isn't, then you'd better convince people that it is! Maybe Dr. Kalleen is just trying to be funny.

The apparent confusion with Son of Godzilla doesn't end there. The Japanese government spent "$350 million to $400 million" developing the system. Meanwhile, Japanese taxpayers are scratching their heads, wondering why their government refuses to employ somebody who can count. Does the government really not know how much it spent?

One of my friends kindly pointed out that the government might have been unwilling to disclose the exact figure to the public. While this is possible, the only reason for non-disclosure I could think of was that the government is too embarrassed about the millions of dollars on only a "potentially quite significant" machine. You know, it's kind of like buying a used car and finding out in your driveway that you only got three wheels and half an engine. How embarrassing!

Whether or not Son of Godzilla is an embarrassment or not, many feel that the Japanese are to be envied for the accomplishment, "The Japanese clearly have a level of will that (Americans) haven't achieved," proclaims Dr. Sterling. One of our nation's brightest is most likely mistaking Son of Godzilla for the end of poverty, war and disease.

While scientific research is important in its own regard, let's not lose perspective here. As Son of Godzilla begins its tenure as the smartest weatherman alive, the U.S. government is dishing out millions of tax dollars to American researchers designing even faster computers. On one hand, there is science for science's sake, but I doubt the 34 million tax-paying Americans -- including one million North Carolinians -- living below the poverty line would agree. In fact, I'm sure they wouldn't. And neither should you.

Eugene's last CHiPs show is 8 pm Saturday in 100 Hamilton Hall. Bring this column for $1 off. Eugene's request: Bring a makeshift birthday card to the show for my 27th birthday and get $1 off. E-mail me at chinook@email.unc.edu.

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