NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“You Built WHAT?”

It’s not the *job* I hate, wrote Rob. Sure, committee meetings were a literal pain in the butt, budget reviews were disheartening, and student seminars were an exercise in patience. No, it was the… OK, yes, it’s the *job* I hate.
‘The duties and responsibilities of Department Chair include the bidirectional representation of faculty concerns with the Administration, and the enforcement of Institutional Policies and Procedures with the faculty and staff of the Department’ – Institutional Policy and Procedures Manual, 214th Edition.
Yeah, that’s the one. Riding herd on the faculty. Have you ever known a worse collection of screw-ups, screw-offs and primadona’s, Russ? I suppose you have, you worked here once too. Things were *so* much easier when we were grad students. I suppose I should explain. But first, are there any openings up there, Russ? I know the Federal Budget is tight. Heaven knows I know that, just from looking at the NIH budgets, but I’ve got to get out of here!

It started because of the request for the supercomputing center…
“Hey Boss, didja see this?” Professor Leon Barrons didn’t even bother knocking on the door to his department chairman’s office, just barged in, as he’d done ever since they’d shared an office as Assistant Professors. “Comp center wants models to test the new hypernodal cluster. I should give them the ENURON model.”

“Leon, *why* haven’t you changed that name? It was just a typo by a summer student.”

“Hey, he was a writer; it was funny. Besides, he came up with a decent acronym: Electronic Neural Unit Recursive Omnigenic Node. I *told* you that, Rob.”

“You made that up after the fact. ‘Omnigenic’ isn’t even a real word in Neuroscience.” Prof Barrons’ teaching reviews were filled with juicy tidbits such as ‘Entertaining lecturer’, ‘engaging speaker’, and the inevitable ‘Does he just make this stuff up?’ Leon was the most popular teacher in the introductory class for non-majors, and the least popular teacher in the graduate program. His haphazard style just did not impress students who had to pay meticulous attention to detail for the five to seven years until their dissertations were complete.

“Sure it is, ‘omni’ for ‘universal’ and ‘genic’ for ‘source’. The ‘omnigenic’ model uses the universal source code of each brain cell to write information.” Leon stated with a smug look on his face. Rob just sighed. He’d caught himself doing that a lot lately.

“Very well. You can use one Research Assistant for ten hours a week. That’s all the departmental budget will allow, we only have three second year students on assistantships this semester, and the Stroke Center Training Grant states that they need to spend at least twenty hours per week on the Stroke and Brain Injury Project.


The problem with neural models was complexity. Each square micrometer of membrane of a brain cell controlled the diffusion of at least 5 different ions – those small chemical molecules that had positive or negative charge. Five ions, and channels that allowed them in or out, was ten channels. Then there were calculations for inside and outside the cell – that made twenty calculations. Multiply that by approximately 100,000 square microns of membrane per neuron meant over two million calculations per neuron, and that didn’t even include the inputs and outputs! A complete neural model of more than one neuron at a time required more computation than a single computer could deliver. The new computing center advertised 1000 main processors, with a new annex consisting of over 1000 general purpose processing units. Barrons estimated that he and his students could easily model up to 10 million neurons at a time.


“What’s this?” Barrons had been waiting for Rob when he returned to his office, and handed him a single sheet of paper.

“It’s the result from the latest run from the ENURON model” replied Barrons, pointing to the two words on the paper.

“’Cheese, please?’ Don’t waste my time, Leon, I just came from the Dean’s Office and he said we have to cut nonresearch salary support of any professor not pulling their own weight in teaching.”

“No, really. We modeled ten million neurons. That’s the size of a mouse brain. Once the calculations started, it printed this, and the core calculations started jumping around the nodes just like a rat running a maze. “



“’Woof’?” Rob sighed. “You hired that Hoyt kid back and he’s working on this project isn’t he, Leon?”

“Honest, Rob. This is what we got when we modeled 100 million neurons. It was a bit slow on the computer until they added another node of 1000 GPPUs. It’s really strange to see those network cables wagging.”


“’Ook?’ What’s this smudge?”

“Waste ink. It collects on the bottom of the printer. I think it’s the computer equivalent to throwing excrement.”

Sigh. “How many neurons, Leon?”

“Anywhere from a quarter to half a billion. The size of a small primate. The tie-in with the cluster at State is incredible.”


“This is serious. I need to know what has the Dean so upset and why the computer center says we aren’t allowed to connect to the National Universities net? Do you realize they want to take the damages out of *our* budget, Leon?”

“Two billion neurons, Rob. It was incredible. With the entire net at our disposal, plus the idle time on every student laptop, we modeled enough neurons to build a human brain.”


Leon didn’t speak. But simply handed over the printer page.  

Contract requirements: 200 sq ft office, 1000 sq ft lab, tenure…
“Oh God, Leon. How could you? Another *faculty* member?”

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