Grace and the Garage

[ introducing the world of problem solvers and creatives to the world of theologians and contemplatives and vice versa — and then, Simone Weil — cross-posted from Zenpundit ]


I believe this is an important post in its own way, though a short one: because it links two areas that I believe are joined at the hip in “reality” but seldom linked together in thinking about either one.

I mean, creativity, as in the guys working away in the garage on something that when it emerges will be the new Apple, and grace, the mysterious and mercurial manner in which inspiration touches down on us…


In the first part of this post, then, I would simply like to suggest that those entrepreneurial folk who follow their dreams — typically into garages or caves — and beg borrow and steal from relatives, friends and passing acquaintances the funds they need to continue their pursuit of some goal or grail under the rubric “do what you love and the money will follow” are, in fact, following a variant of a far earlier rubric, “seek ye first the kingdom of God … and all these things shall be added unto you” – and that creative insight or aha! is in fact a stepped down and secular version of what theology has long termed epiphany – the shining through of the eternal into our mortal lives.

But this will get preachy if I belabor the point: what I am hoping to do is to open the literatures of the world’s contemplative traditions to the interest of “creatives” and the literatures of creativity, problem solving, and autopioesis to the interest of theologians and contemplatives…


And Simone Weil.

Simone Weil, a philosopher I very much admire, wrote a book of superb beauty and wisdom titled Gravity and Grace. I must suppose that her title was somewhere in the back room of my mind, working quietly away behind the scenes, when the title for this post popped up.

Weil is, shall we say, hard liquor for the mind and spirit — highly distilled, potent, to be sipped, no more than two paragraphs or pages at a time…

A Jew who loved the Mass yet refused baptism, an ally of communists and a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a factory worker, mystic, philosopher. The poster at the top of this post is for a film of her life: I doubt it will be a comfortable film, but the discomfort will likely be of the inspirational kind.

14 thoughts on “Grace and the Garage”

  1. An entrepreneur who retreated to caves and bomb shelters to work, and who is largely forgotten today (except by engineers) was Seymour Cray one of the genuine geniuses of computer design. Jobs was a genius of marketing but probably could not have built an Apple computer. The Woz was the hardware guy.

  2. I remember what a go-go stock Control Data was in the 60s – largely because of Cray. If I am not mistaken like the stereotypical boat builder didn’t he had trouble getting a computer out of the basement?

    Regardless today Cray is – as you say – almost forgotten but his influence on supercomputers can’t be under estimated. I think the CIA and NSA and Los Alamos all depended on Cray computers.

  3. Thanks!

    I remember the name Cray attached to the word “supercomputer” from quite a while back — I suppose we probably have equivalents on our desktop by now, eh?

    — ah — I see Bill B beat me to the punch.

  4. It seems that Cray (the company) is still around, having gone through multiple name and ownership changes. It is currently a public company, trading as CRAY.

    Intel recently announced that it is buying certain technology assets from Cray for $140MM.

  5. The most unique aspect of the Seymour Cray’s first design for Control data was the dedicated processor approach. The Central Processor(s) (CPs) were for math operations, while multiple Peripheral Processors (PPs) took care of data transfer and interaction. One of the PPs would also manage the overall behavior of the system.

    Other unique aspects were liquid cooling and physically reducing the distance between system elements. It seems strange to people used to today’s PCs, but forty years ago computers took up entire large rooms. Reducing the physical distance by ten feet meant reducing the transfer time by 10 nanoseconds – a big deal at the time.

    The last element was in the software. I started off maintaining and developing high fidelity simulations in FORTRAN on CDC 6400 and 7600. The compiler and operating system had features, especially for memory management, that went unmatched for a very long time.

    CRAY is very definitely still around, and pushing very hard at the boundaries of supercomputing. The latest project is a system capable of 50 petaflops. For reference, that’s roughly 50 million times the processing power of a high end gaming desktop.

  6. John – a question that someone posed here – mentioning microprocessors and how they rival the huge mainframes of 30-40 years ago – how would you compare them? Certainly there is more to throughput than a Mhz value – the operating system, the way it handles I/O – how would we compare the 2? Take your massive IBM 370 from the 1980s – one handling, say, 1000s of ATM machines around the state – can you imagine a single microprocessor running Linux doing that?

    Well even that question isn’t quite accurate since I suspect even mainframes today are 1 or more microprocessors working in parallel. In fact, isn’t that what the “supercomputer” is today? 100s – or 1000s of microprocessors all working together?

    if I am not mistaken the CRAY worked primarily in FORTRAN – and – unix?

    Say what you will about relative power then and now – there was something very impressive about going into a “computer room” with raised white flooring, hearing the hum of dozens of fans from various massive boxes – disk drives, tape drives, CPUs…

    The CRAY computers even looked different as I recall – not the “boxy” look but rounded sculptures –

    Well, better get back to work…

  7. Bill,

    The CDC 7600 could get as high as 36 MFLOPS (Million Floating Point OPerations per Second) running matrix manipulation problems in highly optimized FORTRAN, and taking full advantage of all the features of the SCOPE operating system. There was, maybe, the equivalent of 2 MB of memory. The best hard drives available were from CDC, removable, about 18″ in diameter, and held 300 MB on 6(?) platters.

    By comparison, a Samsung Nexus S smart phone (Android) has been tested to an average of 86 MFLOPS. It has memory measured in GB.

    My current PC, a Dell Studio with an i7 4-core processor, has an Nvidia GPU with 1 GB RAM, 1 TB internal plus 1 TB external storage, and 16 GB of RAM. I suspect that it would yield around 3 GFLOPS.

    Comparing the supercomputers I started out with to today’s PCs is like comparing walking barefoot on wet sand to driving a Ferrari on the Autobahn.

  8. Bill,

    Almost forgot the rest of your questions.

    Today’s transaction processing is performed on blade servers – more or less PCs optimized for transaction processing. One could easily handle the load an IBM 370 would have handled. Linux is a popular operating system for that application because anything unnecessary can be stripped out. I’d be more concerned about the band width of the data pipe than the server capacity.

    You’re correct about today’s supercomputers – they are arrays of smaller processors. The Cray I referred to in my first post is the XK6 system, which can go up to 500,000 scaler and vector processors. The original Cray’s used FORTRAN and a Cray operating system (COS?). Todays would use any of a variety of languages, and probably some variant of Unix.

  9. John – thanks for your explanations – amazing at how far we have gone in about 50 years. I read something equally surprising about the miniaturization of computing power (in re: The Android phone vs the CDC mainframe) – the computing power available on the Apollo lunar capsule and lander vs your run-of-the-mill consumer appliance today.

  10. The applications that drove the development of supercomputing included nuclear weapons design, cryptography, and missile/aircraft aerodynamics. It is sobering, in view of rogue states like Iran and N Korea, to consider that military calculations once needing a room-filling mainframe or an export-controlled supercomputer can now be done with easily-available off-the-shelf technology.

    Bill mentioned the Apollo Guidance Computer. An earlier and even more limited system was the original guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, which system has been referred to as “the first portable computer.” The *only* memory this computer had was a rotating magnetic disk, with a total capacity of about 9 kilobytes. Every 3 spins of the disk, ie about 30 times a second, the system updated the navigation and control equations and issued commands to the various actuators accordingly.

    This very limited device was sufficient to guide Minuteman 5000 miles to its target with a Circular Error Probable which has apparently never been disclosed but has been estimated at less than a mile, possibly as low as half a mile.

  11. Have the comments for another post been attached to “Grace and the Garage?” Where is the original post on Cray and where are the replies about Weil?

    IIRC, there were more than one Cray companies, the original one is gone; the current one is the second or third computer company Cray founded. I’m sure Wikipedia knows.

  12. Hi ErisGuy:

    I think it was the “garage” entrepreneur idea that folks here picked up on, and Cray was the turn that conversation took. Simone Weil is a subtler matter — she’s not an easy read by any means, she’s probably more accessible to those with a sacramental worldview than those without, and she’s definitely of the left although — despite her refusing baptism into the Catholic Church — each of the popes from John XXIII has spoken of her, as the blogger at Sanity and Social Justice observes:

    Angelo Roncalli, the future Blessed John XXIII, when posted in Paris from 1944, was so moved by Weil’s writing that he wrote a letter to her mother Selma Weil and told Weil’s friend and contemporary Maurice Schumann that “he loved her soul.” Paul VI named Weil, along with Pascal and Bernanos, as a critical intellectual influence. Blessed John Paul II cited Weil as “a daughter of Israel who fell under the spell of Christ” in a statement to the Franciscans, while Benedict XVI quoted her in an address to artists.

    A phenomenal individual!

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