Wednesday, November 25 2009

“Just load the tapes, kid”

Many years ago, my college roommate had a job in the Physics department as a tape monkey. The department had a Large Grant to process data from Fermilab. Each run filled a 9-track tape, and the analysis required roughly 11 hours of uninterrupted runtime on their Vaxen. The average uptime on the server was a hair over 11 hours, and with very little slack in their schedule, someone had to be available any time day or night to make sure their delivery date didn’t slip.

My friend was a biochemistry major, and appreciated the importance of delivering high-quality analysis of experimental data, so he was a bit concerned by the fact that the programs used to perform that analysis were in a constant state of flux, a mess of Fortran hacked on by an ever-changing team of grad students. Not wanting to waste precious time, he got into the habit of running it on a small test dataset each day, to make sure it still worked before kicking off an 11-hour run.

The test output was frequently different, in ways that it shouldn’t have been. Ways that very well could have made all of their analysis completely useless to Fermilab. Ways that no one planned, expected, or kept track of. When he raised his concerns, well, their exact words are lost to time, but I remember them sounding an awful lot like, “just load the tapes, kid”.

I think of those words whenever I hear about a computer model that proves something significant that’s tied to the modeler’s funding. And I think that’s all that I need to say about the rapidly-unfolding saga of ClimateGate.