Month: March 2019

My Life and Times in Distributed Computing Part 2. Paisley is Mathematical

My Life and Times in Distributed Computing Part 2. Paisley is Mathematical

At the same time as I was finishing up my degree, I found out that my professor, Frank Marchese, had won an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to set up a graphics lab for molecular modeling. I remember that this was the only place at Pace University that had a Sun Microsystems computer. I was intrigued by the Sun’s multiuser Unix operating system; living free and clear from the computer lab I had successfully avoided thus far.

For reasons I did not fully understand at the time,  I resolved to learn Unix, and also to learn ‘C’ , the language out of Bell Labs that came already installed on the Sun.

I volunteered, as part of my postgraduate duties, to run the lab. And for a time, the Sun was mine, all mine.

The lab was set up in a small office. The Sun computer was a half-height tower, about 35 inches tall. We controlled it via a text only terminal. The lab also had two color graphics workstations, and a couple of chairs. There was no network, and no connection to the outside world except for a modem that we could use to dial up another computer to perform a UUCP (Unix to Unix copy). Google “modem” if you must.

My colleague worked on the molecular modeling programs, and I kept the machines up and running, reading every “man” (manual) page, and glorying in every geeky aspect of administering the thing.

That Sun system became my fourth baby; I loved it beyond reason. And just like a baby, it would make messes, and fall down sometimes.  You see, Sun’s version of Unix (out of UC Berkeley) was not yet ready for prime time. And so, we were never surprised when the operating system took a dump. Seriously, not poop, but a “core dump,” the state of memory at the time the system fails.

Being a good techno mother, I would figure out what was wrong, and reboot the system so that the lab could continue its work.

You see, the Sun was the engine that drove a wondrous collection of graphical renderings. Color graphics were a rarity at that time, and so we knew we were lucky to have our 512X512 pixel resolution, and a generous color map (I don’t remember the number of bits in the colormap; I might add that in a later edit of this post.)

Molecular modeling was the centerpiece of our work; I remember beautifully lit three-dimensional renderings of complex compounds.

But my favorite graphics we made just for fun - those of the “Julia” curve, a fractal algorithm that we found in Scientific American. There were a number of interesting coordinate sets that we rendered. Each data set took over an hour to produce, with each pixel assigned a value when the algorithm “fell out of its loop.” Then the art would begin; we would apply different color maps to the set to find the one we liked the best.

The results were stunning. The OMG moment for me? Paisley is mathematical.

Graphics was fun but learning about that lonely Sun computer set the stage for the next step in my journey into the world of distributed computing.

To be continued….

Julia Curve Coordinate Samples

Javascript Julia Set Generator from https://www.marksmath.org/visualization/julia_sets/

Juliasamples