What do certain animals, computers, drivers, drummers, surfers, skaters, railways, and runners have in common? They all have a need. The need for speed. We measure speed in hertz, flops, knots, machs, mph, rpm, and even a German unit called a benz. In mathematics, speed is expressed as distance over time. The fastest humans run about 26 mph, horses can go 55, cheetahs hit about 70, and some drummers are able to play over 1100 beats per minute. The top speed of all is represented in physics by the letter c, the speed of light. It's nearly 670 million miles per hour. I chatted with ten locals who have little in common except that they're all authorities in aerodynamics, connoisseurs of cadence, purveyors of pace, vendors of velocity, monarchs of momentum, and kings and queens of quick.
Kathy Marmack, animal-training manager at the San Diego Zoo
The fastest land animal is the cheetah. I understand that we have a cheetah at the zoo.
"The cheetah that we have is Karroo. She's six years old, and she's been at the zoo since she was three months old. Cheetahs don't become too large. Their average weight is about 75 to 135 pounds. Karroo weighs 107."
Does she ever get to run?
"Oh, yes! And it's wonderful. We take her out to the Wild Animal Park, and it's a specific activity that runs most weekends throughout the year. It's called Cheetah Run Safari. It's limited to about 50 people at a time, and they take you out to, like, a little African outback with tents, so it's like a real safari. And not only do you get to watch a cheetah run, but you get to watch a falcon fly. A peregrine falcon, which is the fastest bird, actually."
How do you set up the running of the cheetah?
"We have a track that's a little over 100 yards long, and it has soft turf on it. And we have a line that's pulled by a mechanical winch. And Karroo likes a green-and-purple giggle ball, a child's toy that makes a noise. She's loved that ball since she was very young, so it was an easy thing to teach her to pursue. We started by just putting her in an aluminum crate where we could easily open the door and throwing the ball up the hallway in front of her. And she'd run after it and capture it, and we'd give her a food reward so we could take the ball and do it again. And what was funny, she learned what we were doing so quickly, she would run back into her crate and stand there as if to say, 'I'm ready. Let's do this again.'
"So the same thing happens at the Wild Animal Park. We take her down in a crate in a little electric vehicle, and we get it all set up: we put the lure on the ground and show it to her, and then we attach it to the line. And when we're ready, she'll run on the track after the lure. And she's so fast. The female cheetahs especially are really, really fast. And the toy goes into a box at the end of the track, after it's pulled. We're trying to switch her over to a toy octopus, because it balances better when it's pulled, instead of bouncing along the turf the way the ball does. But it has to be pulled at least 75 miles per hour; otherwise she'd catch it. The lure starts pulling, and she springs out of the crate, and then she's in mad pursuit of this lure. It's phenomenal. She actually caught the lure twice last week."
How much faster than other cats are cheetahs?
"Cheetahs are much, much faster. They're made for speed. That's their claim to fame. They can go from 0 to 45 miles per hour in two seconds flat. Isn't that amazing? And it's evident when you watch them run. They're completely built for speed. They're very sleek, long-bodied, light-boned, and they have long legs. You know, everything about them says 'speed.' They're sleek, not fluffy; their fur is very short; they have a small head, small ears, so there's no wind resistance; and their mouth is small, so that they don't take down large prey. But the one thing that's really amazing is their paws. The cheetah's paws are very compact and tight; they're not big, fat, and squishy like other cats'. Their nails are blunt, too, and small, and they're not really retractable. Only the dewclaw (the thumb) is partially retractable. And the pads on the bottoms of their feet are really deeply furrowed and wrinkled for grasping the ground. Cheetahs also have a very flexible spine, which enables them to spring and catapult along the ground. They're really physical marvels."
So they must be incredible hunters in the wild.
"They're daytime hunters, for the most part, because they have to avoid the other, larger predators like lions, hyenas, and leopards. And they're not designed for fighting. So the cheetah will do a hot pursuit of their prey, and they can only keep up their tremendous speed for about a quarter of a mile. After that, they're beat. They collapse in a heap, huffing and puffing, and sometimes it takes them half an hour to calm down before they can eat. They're just incredible athletes."
drummer for the Locust
What kind of music does your band play?
"I like to call it an orchestrated car crash. But I've heard some other names for it, like 'sci-fi grindcore.' You know, superbrutal, just an all-out assault. Although now I think we're getting better at our instruments, and we can do a lot more than we used to. So it's still very aggressive at times, but maybe we're getting a little less frantic."
Your fans are really into speed. One of them described your drumming as "insanely fast." Do you care about the sheer, all-out speed of your drumming?
"When I'm playing, I know I'm playing fast, but it doesn't feel like I'm playing fast. I'll hear it later, and I'll be, like, 'Fuck, dude, that is pretty fast.' But when I'm playing, it's kind of like slow motion almost. Although when I'm done playing, I'm kind of like the cheetah. I heard they get really tired after they run down an antelope or a gazelle, right? That's how I am, because when I'm done, I just have to sit there and breathe a little bit before I can even talk or do anything."
When did you start playing drums?
"I started playing drums about 15 years ago when I was about 15. I'm 30 now. I can play the guitar and keyboards and stuff, but I'm all self-taught, so I'm not like any studied cat or anything like that."
So you've never taken lessons?
"No. When I was 15 I had one drum lesson, but that was pretty much it. So I learned the proper way to sit behind a drum set, how to hold sticks right, and how my feet should be positioned, but that was pretty much it."
How did you go from there to being a superfast professional drummer?
"I was just obsessed with it. All I did was play. All I did was practice playing drums."
How many hours a day do you play?
"Nowadays, I don't get to play as much as I'd like. But I try to get behind my drums at least once a day, and then I'll play anywhere from an hour to four hours."
So do you practice being faster? Do you practice speed techniques?
"Not really. I just do it."
Have you ever entered any of those speed-drumming contests?
"No, I've never done anything like that. I have wanted to get one of those things that joggers wear so they can determine how many steps they took when they went for a run. I want to get one of those so I can see how many times I hit my kick drum in a set. I haven't done that yet, but I want to try it out."
So it sounds as though you're more proud about how fast your feet are, not just your hands.
"Well, kind of. Because it's a lot easier to play really fast with your hands. So I try to do, like, stick exercises with my feet, just to build more independence between my feet. I'm right-handed, so my right foot is what I follow through with, mostly. So I try to do stuff so I can strengthen my left foot a bit more. Like, there's a stick technique called a paradiddle that you do with the right and left hand. It's like right left right right, and then you switch it so it goes left right left left. But I do that with my feet, and I just practice that a bunch. It's pretty hard to do that left left part with my feet. So I just do that for a long time, and the next thing you know, my left foot's pretty strong. In fact, there's a beat called a 'blast beat,' where your snare drum's going dat-dat-dat-dat-dat, really fast, and your feet are just doing pretty much the same thing, and my left hand is actually a bit faster than my right hand now, which is kind of weird. But I can do those 32nd notes really fast with my left hand now."
Do you have any idea just how fast you are?
"I have no idea. I don't even know how you'd gauge that, like, how to measure it. I just try to play as smoothly and fast as possible."
It does seem that trying to play fast would go against trying to play smoothly.
"Yes. Definitely. But I've been told that I'm really fluid. And that made sense to me. Because when I play my drums, it's, like, I don't know. You can either be kind of robotic and just nail it out, or you can be kind of fluid and move with the rhythms with your whole body. I move with the rhythms, and it makes it easier. It's almost like a dance, you know? Like, instead of just sitting there and trying to crank it out, I move with the rhythm, which makes it easier to let it out. And also, it creates a lot cleaner of a rhythm. It's not so jagged."
Isn't it essential to relax? Even though you're moving at that manic speed, you have to really calm down, don't you?
"Yeah, but it's kind of hard to. Especially when I'm playing live. That adrenaline. I get really excited, and it's kind of hard to relax. So I find myself in the middle of a song where I have to just mentally kind of go, 'All right, man, you have to calm down.' Because otherwise I'm going to burn myself out. Like, when I'm playing, sometimes I'll realize that I'm holding my breath. So now I just try to remind myself that I have to breathe. I even tried chewing gum for a while, like, to calm myself, but I would choke. And that was no fun. So I also do this other thing where I'll just stare at the wing nut on my crash cymbal, and it kind of relaxes me. Just staring at one thing that's stationary, it calms me down, and then the next thing I know, all the parts are just flowing together."
associate head coach for the UCSD men's and women's track teams
How can human beings train to run faster?/p>
"Certainly, there's a built-in talent level. You can always get faster from where you are, but the talent level for speed -- in terms of natural biomechanics -- is a huge component. You have to have narrow hips and a high ratio of fast-twitch muscle. But height and weight don't matter much. There are fast sprinters who are short, and there are some that are very tall. But speed is turnover times stride length. So it's how quick you are on the ground times how long your steps are. You have to have both."
So if I showed up at your track and wanted to run faster, what exercises would you do with me?
"The best training for sprinting is sprinting. Now, from there it all falls into the category of speed endurance. You have to not only be fast, but you have to be able to hold that speed. You have to be efficient enough to maintain a high speed for an extended period of time. That's true for every race, from 60 meters on up."
So how does one become faster for longer?
"You have to be able to continue to drive the ground but have relaxation through the rest of your body, so that all of your energy is really how much force you're putting into your ground contact. You want all of your energy to go into the downward movements of the legs and the downward movements of the arms. And then your recovery mechanics in the air have to be in a relaxed way. Getting your feet to snap up to your butt and getting your knees to come up high -- that should be a recovery, not an action. It should be a reaction, where no force is applied, not an action that uses energy."
So it's all about efficiency of form?
And what's the best form for fast sprinting?
"Let's see. You want to have a slight forward lean. You want to have a tall, strong posture: nothing loose, nothing bent over. You want the spine to be in a nice, tall position. Kind of like a pencil with an eraser on it. If the eraser on a pencil hits the ground, it'll bounce up nice and easily. But if you have an eraser on a string, then the forces are going everywhere, and there's no telling how it will bounce. So the posture's very important. You want to have dorsiflex feet -- as opposed to plantar flexion, where you point your toe like a ballerina -- but you want to have the opposite. You want your feet flexed.
"Then, during a race, when you're in the acceleration phase, which is about 20 or 30 meters, you'll have an acyclic component, more up and down, and then when you start the top-end speed phase, you want to have a cycling motion, kind of like having your feet going in a big, giant circle. And it gets progressively more cyclic as the race goes on. So out of the starting blocks, you churn like a piston, knees up and down, high on the balls of your feet or up on your toes more. And then when you get out of acceleration, you get more of a big-circle motion, knees coming through high, feet flexed, and the foot comes through high to the butt."
So you break the sprint races down into phases?
"Every coach does it a little differently, but, yes, most of us talk about the acceleration phase and the transitional phase and the speed-maintenance phase. But some coaches break it down even more than that."
What about these more subtle speed techniques we hear about, like racers shaving their legs and wearing sleek clothes?
"I think that the mental component is extremely important, and a lot of athletes are really superstitious, and that can help them or hurt them. But for running, those things make very little difference. It's not the same as a swimmer when they shave their legs. It's just not."
And what about the musculatures of sprinters? How come most of them seem to have giant chests and legs and arms?
"Sprinting requires a lot of power. The amount of force that's applied is extremely high. It's like when you lift a weight. There's two components that constitute muscle recruitment. One is speed of movement, and the other is the amount of weight that's being lifted. When you're sprinting and your legs and arms are coming down from a distance, there's a lot of force being applied into the ground. You've got the body-weight component, and you've got the maximum speed of movement. So the muscle recruitment for sprinting is tremendous. It's just about as high as you can get."
Lydia DeNecochea, executive director for RaceLegal.com
Tell me about RaceLegal.com.
"The program started in 1998, and it was started by Dr. Stephen Bender, who was a professor from SDSU, and he was concerned with the public-health issue of young San Diegans dying and being seriously injured due to illegal street racing. In 2002, it got to the point where there were 16 dead and 31 injured. When you converted that into a rate, for every thousand who participated in street racing, 49 were either killed or seriously hurt. Dr. Bender obtained those statistics through surveillance and working together with the San Diego Police Department."
So he started a legal street-racing program. When and where do you hold your races?
"We 'shoot' between 24 and 30 times a year, so it comes out to about twice a month. We race at Qualcomm Stadium. It's always on Friday nights. We race from 6:00 p.m. until midnight, and it costs $30 to race for the entire evening or $8 to watch."
How many people show up?
"We host an average of 200 racers and about 2000 spectators."
What are the rules?
"The vehicle tech inspection pretty much follows National Hot Rod Association guidelines. And it depends on how fast your car goes. The faster you go, the more safety equipment you'll need. The most common things, you know, you have to wear a helmet, closed-toed shoes, long pants, a shirt with sleeves. And then your car has to have no leaks, you need a battery tie-down, the tires have to be in good shape, you can run nitrous [nitrous oxide], but it has to be outside, and so on."
So to inspect all those cars and run the races, it sounds as though you must have a lot of people working for you.
"We're the only place that has side-by-side one-eighth-mile tracks. And we run both tracks. It takes about 60 of us to run the entire event."
And I understand the police get involved?
"Yes, a part of our program is called Code 4, and they're off-duty police officers who have their own race cars that they trick out. They're black-and-whites, usually. And they come out and race against racers, and if a racer beats them, then he or she gets a T-shirt that says they beat the police. But the big gift about that is having the opportunity for young San Diegans to meet police officers and to know that there are police officers who also like speed. So there's a communication that gets going there, and it's a really nice piece of the program."
You haven't had any legal troubles at any of the races?
"Never. The crowd is really respectful. It seems to be neutral ground. We have had colors come out, gangs will come out, different car clubs will come out, but everyone is really well behaved. They just use the racing as a way to do battle."
And the noise doesn't bother anyone?
"We have a good-neighbor policy. No car can exceed 93 decibels. We use a meter that, if the car sounds loud, then we take it aside and have it rev its engine up to 3000 rpms, and at 50 feet we measure at a certain angle and see if it's too loud. And if it's too loud, they can't race. You have to have mufflers. You can't race uncorked."
You set limits on the racers?
"Oh, yes. You cannot exceed 115 miles per hour or under six seconds for one-eighth of a mile. You can't go faster than that."
That seems low. But that's because it's only for an eighth of a mile?
"Correct. Not many cars can get that fast that quickly."
And how do cars get that fast and quick?
"Well, they all have their secrets. It's all modifications, and they're all performance things. I mean, by the time some of them get done, they have all of their engines and exhaust systems and everything reworked. So they know cause and effect very well. They know if they change one thing, then they need to change the other thing in order to support what it is that they want their car to do. You'll see drivers who pull out the back seats and passenger seats to get the cars lighter. Or some cars run slicks, which are racing tires, for better grip, because we do treat the track. Nitrous also gives some of the cars that little extra juice. But mostly this is geared toward daily drivers. What they drive during the day is the majority of what you will see at the track. There are a few that trailer in cars that are specifically designed for just racing -- that aren't registered for the street -- but that's only a handful."
Could you be more specific about how to tune a car for speed? For instance, how would you get 500 horsepower out of a 2.2-liter Honda engine?
"Well, you'd have to address fuel management, the intake manifold, exhaust, turbo piping, and the intercooler. For example, you could port and polish the cylinder head for better flow, upgrade the valve train, install forged pistons for increased strength, replace connecting rods, resleeve your block to add strength for high boost, add a turbo -- and size is important; bigger is not always better -- change cam profiles, and increase fuel-injector size. Some folks might have other ideas, but those are the basics. With the correct engine builder, such a goal would be rather easy to reach. But more important, this also costs more money."
It seems the emphasis is more on quickness, really, instead of all-out speed.
"Correct. It's more skill; it's coming off the line quick enough. A perfect reaction time is .5 seconds, so that's a goal. And then your second measuring point would be your 60-foot time. And then the elapsed time at an eighth of a mile. So your driving skill really is what's going to determine how good of a racer you are."
Well, I'm just playing devil's advocate, but come on. Driving skill? All you have to do is just push your foot down hard and hold on tight.
"That's a real simplified version, because if you press the accelerator and you have a ton of horsepower, then the front end of your car could come up or the back end could slip out from underneath you. And then how do you get out of it when you're fishtailing? You could go sideways. So there's all kinds of things during your burnout, when you warm up your tires, to when you get to the front line, to when you take off, that can all affect your elapsed time."
Have you ever had any accidents?
"We have had a couple guys lose control and hit the concrete rail but never two cars crashing into each other and certainly no one being transported to the hospital. So we've had some pretty banged-up cars, but they've all been able to drive off. I think mostly what we've had accidentwise is some pretty banged-up egos."
Tony Daniels, project director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority
You're the project director for the CHSRA. Exactly what project are you directing?
"We're proposing a network of high-speed trains, operating at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour and covering the metropolitan markets of San Francisco, Sacramento, through the Central Valley into Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire, and to San Diego."
But it doesn't exist yet.
"No. An environmental impact report/environmental impact statement has been signed off by the federal government and the state at the program level. And we are currently now beginning the implementation of the whole program. The first piece of that is to do the project-specific environmental documents and the preliminary engineering on the overall route."
So it's going to happen.
"Only if the budget is there. Now, the budget is there this year, and the budget has gone in to the governor for next year, and the rest will depend, then, on a bond issue, for roughly $10 million. And that comes out in November 2008. And if that bond passes, then, of course, we'll move into much heavier design and the start of construction."
And when will we have fast trains in San Diego?
"It depends on how it's staged. You can't build the whole 700 route miles in one go. We are estimating that if we had all the money and if everything went perfectly as planned, the whole system would be available by 2020. But there will be stages of that, and depending on what stage is built, we could be using the system before then, probably in the order of six to seven years from now."
And what's the prospective total cost?
"About $40 billion."
Wow. Okay. Now, I'm from back East, and we have trains all over the place there. How come it seems there are so few trains by comparison in California?
"I think it's just California's love of freeways and love of the automobile. But with the urban sprawl over the past 40 to 50 years, in the Bay Area and in the Los Angeles Basin and in San Diego, more and more movement has gone toward transit and commuter rail. The fact that the population of this state over the next 20 years will go up maybe 11 to 12 million people -- so you might have 50 million people in California -- and you cannot build now enough freeways or airport gates to cater for that increase in population. And that leads you to needing something like the high-speed rail system that will link, for example, downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in 2H hours. And you can't beat that by air. It's not affected by any environment. Weather won't cause any delays, for example."
But I've heard that earthquakes would affect trains.
"Earthquakes could slow it down. But it's like in Japan. There are earthquake detectors on the tracks. And either that will stop the train or slow it down."
Automatically? Without intervention from an engineer?
So it sounds safe. And where would it stop?
"Well, part of the train being fast is that it won't stop in many places. This isn't a commuter line; it's a high-speed line. The train would go from University City to downtown San Diego to Escondido to Murrieta, Riverside, Ontario, Anaheim, and into L.A. Then up to Burbank, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto, Sacramento, and then over into the Bay Area -- San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland. That's the 700 route miles."
So from San Diego to San Francisco, almost end to end, how long would it take?
"That would take 3 hours and 52 minutes."
And San Diego to L.A.?
"One hour, 14 minutes. And that's dedicated track. No chance of delays. It'll be one hour and 14 minutes every single time you make the trip."
Will this be the first high-speed train in the United States?
"There is one that runs at 150 miles an hour in the Northeast corridor, between New York and Washington, but that's the fastest."
I've been on high-speed trains in Europe, and it's just amazing. It's as though you're gliding on ice. Can you describe what it feels like to travel at high speeds on a high-speed rail?
"You don't feel the acceleration. It gets up to its highest speeds imperceptibly over several miles. And when you're traveling at 200 miles per hour, you don't feel that you are. It just feels effortless. The thing is, these trains can go much, much faster than they do. The world record for high-speed trains was just set in France at 357 miles per hour. But that train only cruises at about 220, so it's not even breaking a sweat. So if you're sitting on the second deck of one of these trains, you'll get a beautiful view, and you won't even know that you're traveling. There's almost no motion you can feel at all. Until you look down -- and then you'll see the ground blurring by, and the cars on the highways going 70 miles an hour will look like they're crawling."
And what's the technology that makes these trains so fast and safe and efficient?
"The Japanese started some 40 years ago, their bullet train. It's been operating for that length of time, and it's had over 6 billion passengers without a single fatality. The fast train in Europe just celebrated over 25 years of running, and that again hasn't had a single fatality. So how is this operated? It's electric traction. The train takes its power from overhead catenary lines, similar to the San Diego Trolley except much more sophisticated. And that gets its supply from a grid system, at 25,000 volts. The trains are from 8 to 16 cars in length, and there are electric traction motors under each car. It's called distributive power. And the pantographs on each train pick up the power from the catenary system and transmit it down electrically to the motors, which are on each car, not just on the locomotive on the front, like in traditional trains."
So in essence, each car is a locomotive.
And how many people can ride on the train at once?
"Twelve hundred people on a 16-car train with double-decker cars. And they'll be very comfortable. The chairs are much larger and more comfortable than on an airplane, but the train will only cost half the price of a plane ticket."
Joe Noris, owner of Skate San Diego and former professional ice hockey player
I understand you've been involved in some new technology for inline skates.
"Yes. We believe we're going to revolutionize inline skating."
That's a bold statement. How fast will skaters be able to go?
"In terms of flat-out speed, top speed, probably not that much faster. But from a maneuverability standpoint -- turning, cornering, transitioning from forwards to backwards -- we're talking phenomenally faster. From a quickness standpoint, meaning starting from a dead stop and the first ten feet, these skates are much, much quicker."
And what makes these skates so much quicker?
"The technology is called sprung frames. They've been developed over the course of the past ten years by a man in Los Angeles named Keith Longino. I'm his business partner. The company's called Sprung Suspension. And that's all we do -- and all we've been doing -- is building and testing prototypes of these frames. And in order to do something that's brand new, especially when you want speed and function, if you went to anybody and said, 'I have a new frame,' the first question out of their mouth would be, 'How light is it?' So in conjunction with that, when you need to build something light, you have to underbuild it and then continually correct it and fix the weak links. So over the last three years, we'd get a set of ten new prototypes, mount them on different guys' skates, find out what the weak link was, correct it, and then that went into changing the computer drawings and the molds. And it took between three to four months to move through each new prototype. And we're now to the point where the durability and the function is just unbelievable."
What's so special about these sprung frames?
"Okay. Every traditional inline frame today, whether it's for roller hockey, fitness skating, recreational skating on the boardwalks, speed skating, or aggressive skating, for the most part, is on an axle system that's solid. There's no give. We have the patented technology for independent wheel suspension. So each of the wheels moves independently. So if you can imagine, when you're taking off, your front wheel going down, and your next wheel a little bit more, and then your next wheel a little more, and your next wheel, okay? Then what you have is that same feeling as in ice hockey, where your ice blade cuts into the ice, and then you get that extra leverage. You get that extra torque on the floor longer, and then because of the suspension springs we have in there, you get sprung out. When you go to turn, you get the feeling that you're carving into turns, instead of just having a hard turn."
And that's the revolution?
"Well, when you're talking about innovation in inline skates, you're usually talking about the wheels, which are changing all the time, and you're talking about boot comfort and feel. Now, wheel technology has made some dramatic changes over the years, but they're just shaving inches now, if you know what I mean. It's like the swimmers who switch their suits to lose one one-hundredth of a second, you know what I mean? But with these frames, and the leap we're taking, it's a pretty gigantic leap. For people who are already into skating, it will change what they can do completely."
Anke Kamrath, director of the user services division at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD
The Supercomputer Center has been around since 1986. I imagine that the supercomputer you had back then was even slower than the home computer I own now.
"Totally true. It was a Cray X-MP. I think it was around 250 megaflops."
"Yes. A megaflop is a million floating-point operations per second. A flop is a 'floating-point operation,' so it's like a math operation, basically. So that old Cray could do about 250 million math operations per second."
And how fast is my computer now?
"If you have a system with a gigahertz, it can probably do four times that."
Wow. So in 1986, supercomputers were a quarter as fast as personal computers now?
"Pretty much. Yes."
And how fast is your supercomputer now?
"Well, let me add something else to that. The networks back then were much slower as well. So the biggest networks across the country were only 56 kilobytes. So that's only thousands of bits per second. So you look at those two things and compare them to the numbers today. Systems today are still measured in flops, and of our two systems here, one is a 15 teraflop and one is a 17 teraflop. And 'tera' is trillion. So we went from mega to giga to tera."
And what's next?
"Peta. A thousand trillion. And it's no joke. We've got a proposal in for a multi-petaflop system that the National Science Foundation has to approve. And just to push the envelope for you a little more, our archives here are usually one order of magnitude more than our operating systems, so we're storing petabytes of data in our archive already. And the next is exa. Exaflops. That's a quintillion. That's a one with 18 zeros after it."
How fast is that? Can you give me some perspective?
"I asked some of our researchers how our supercomputer would compare with a desktop, and they were doing some work in protein folding. And these biologists told me that a three-dimensional simulation that would take three years on a typical desktop could be done in 20 hours on our 17-teraflop system."
And how fast is San Diego's supercomputer compared to the world's fastest?
"I think we're in the top 25 right now. And it's kind of a leapfrog thing. Sometimes we're in the top 10, when we've just bought one, and then it gets a couple years old, and it'll drop back out."
All this sounds expensive. How much does it cost?
"One of our proposals is for a $30 million computer, and another one is a proposal that will be very competitive, for the largest computer in the country. The government has a call out for a $200 million computer. That one will be a multi-petaflop system."
And what do these supercomputers look like?
"They just look like a bunch of pizza boxes stacked up in these racks. Our biggest system has 6144 processors. And they do take up a lot of rack space, but you can fit them into a 10,000-square-foot machine-room floor. And there's a huge amount of cabling, miles of it, because each processor has to communicate with the others. But there are no screens or anything. It's not what you might think. You access them via the network. You can just log in from your laptop and be on the supercomputer. Scientists are using our computer from all over the country. They submit the code they want to run, check it a few hours later to see if it's done, and they take their results. We have a scheduling system, and sometimes we do full machine runs -- and we really like to do that, because we want to help the scientists push the envelope -- but we also have a lot of codes that won't scale past 64 or 128 processors, so we can run a lot of those at once. But one of the biggest challenges is getting these codes to run across hundreds or even thousands of processors, because a lot of what we do can't be done in parallel; it has to be done in sequence. So it requires a lot of expertise to be able to parallelize these applications, and this comes down to the software folks who work for me, and they work closely with the scientists to help them parallelize their code. Actually, it's funny, but the biggest challenge for us is really electricity and cooling. Electricity bills for our current supercomputers are on the order of over $1 million a year."
Gayle Van Leer, Thoroughbred racehorse bloodstock agent
You deal with fast horses?
"I've been in the business over 35 years and done a lot of different aspects of the business. Right now what I'm doing is buying and selling racehorses. So it's my business to try to find the fastest horses, and so far it's working pretty well."
How do you find a fast horse?
"Well, there's distance horses and sprinting horses and grass horses and dirt horses. So everybody's kind of looking for a little bit different horse. But you want to have the fastest one in that particular division you're looking for. Basically, you're looking for the best horse in a particular body style, the most athletic one you can possibly afford. For example, in the case of sprinters, you're looking for more of a short-coupled horse. They usually have big, huge hips on them. Instead of a long, stretchy body, they have more of a squished-up body. In a sprinter, you're looking for a Thoroughbred that looks like a quarter horse, basically. They tend to be kind of chunkier and heavier looking. Whereas distance Thoroughbreds kind of look like those old paintings that you see from the 18th Century: the long, stretchy horses."
And if two horses are standing side by side, then where do you start looking for subtle signs that one might be faster?
"The whole issue is whether or not they're going to stay sound, and that comes down to how their legs are aligned. So you start kind of picking through that, basically. But if they have two exact body types and their legs are aligned the same, then you're going to go off what their pedigree is."
Is pedigree really all that important?
"Oh, it's all about pedigree. You have these proven records that go back hundreds of years that attest to the qualities of these horses' families. And that has a lot to do with everything, including how the horses are priced. Horses can cost anywhere from zero to millions of dollars, just because of their pedigrees. I got an unraced yearling filly for close to a million dollars just because of her pedigree."
Once you find a top pedigree, and you've got a good horse, then how do you make that horse faster?
"You don't make it faster. You breed the best with the best and hope for the best. When you're buying unraced horses, you try to give them to the trainers who will do the best job possible with them preparing them for the races, who are smart enough to know how to do it the right way. What you do is you bring out the natural ability in that horse. You won't make it any faster than it can naturally go, but a good trainer will bring out the best in a horse."
How do good trainers do that?
"It's a balance between fitness, spacing of the races, being able to figure out the horse mentally... There's a lot of different things that go into it."
And how fast will a horse finally go?
"Well, for instance, these horses I'm looking at now, they're going eighths of a mile in around ten seconds. So if you work that out into miles per hour, it's about 40 to 45 miles per hour, for short bursts."
I've read that the fastest horses can run more like 55 miles per hour.
"As far as racing horses goes, the quarter horses who do quarter-mile sprints -- or less, because they're actually going different yardage distances, for the most part -- most quarter horses on those little sprints are going to be faster than Thoroughbreds. But once you get past a certain distance, then the Thoroughbreds just blow away the quarter horses. They have the stamina, whereas the quarter horses are bred to just go really fast for very short periods of time."
What's the best horse you've ever dealt with?
"I'd have to say Best Pal. He was one of my all-time favorites. I think he finished fourth on the all-time earnings list nationwide. So he was a pretty special horse. Anyone who lived in San Diego County during the time he was racing, about ten years ago, will remember him."
So this can be a pretty lucrative business?
"No, not necessarily. There's a lot of other stories about horses you paid a million for and they turned out to be duds. It's really a numbers game. Every horse is not going to be profitable. So if you buy ten, maybe two of them are great, three are duds, and the rest break even. Something like that."
engineering manager for the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel, located on Pacific Highway
Tell me about the tunnel. What does it look like?
"From the outside, it looks like just a big gray building. But when you're inside the control room, you're looking through a large, plate-glass window into a test section that's 12 feet wide by 8 feet tall, and that's where we do all of our testing. So when we test the scale-model airplane or the bicyclist or the member of the USA Luge team, they will be in that test section, and we'll be running air over them, acquiring data."
So it isn't really a tunnel.
"Well, it is a tunnel in that it's a continuous-circuit facility. Which means that you can think of it as just this big doughnut that goes around with a big, giant prop motor in the back that pushes the air around, and it continues to go around and around and around. So the back section of the tunnel is actually very large, and then it squeezes down into the test section -- and when it squeezes down, it makes the air go very fast -- and when it goes back up again, the air slows down. We can blow about 275 miles per hour in the test section."
So you could hurt somebody.
"Yes. We could kill them. But we don't do that, of course. We had Biker Sherlock in here, who's a San Diego resident -- he's a downhill skateboarder -- and we had him up to 123 miles an hour before we blew him off his skateboard. And that was on Discovery Channel. But usually, you know, for cyclists, we're testing anywhere from 25 to 30 miles an hour, and the testing we did for the USA Luge Olympic team, we were testing those guys at 80 miles an hour."
I can picture how a bicyclist could use the wind tunnel, but a luge rider? What does he do, just lie there on his sled?
"Yes, he lies there on his sled, but then what we're testing is body positions and also suit materials."
How are you measuring what the air's doing to the suit material?
"We use what's called a 'balance.' It's a load-measuring device. There's different ones depending on which application you're using. But the ones we use for bicycle testing and the luge testing are superprecise, and they measure very small differences in loads very accurately. So if you were to push on the cyclist, you'd see a drag force show up on our balance. So the wind hits the cyclist, or the wind hits the slider -- which is what the luge people are called -- and it measures the amount of force the wind is exerting.
"So we've had companies use the tunnel to test suit materials, and what they do is they'll have a cylinder of a fixed diameter, and they'll put a real tight cloth over it, and they'll measure the drag, and then they'll put a different cloth and a different cloth and figure out what material works best for that cylinder diameter at that velocity, and then they'll go to a different diameter. So it has a lot to do with how the flow stays attached or separates from the person moving through the air. So what Nike did for Lance Armstrong's time trial suit -- that suit was actually made of about four different materials, of four different roughnesses, depending on whether it was on his arms or on his legs or on his back. And that suit was customized for his body to optimize the flow around every part of his body."
What does this balance look like?
"The one we do our sports testing on is just like a large platform. So it's probably about three feet long and two feet wide, and it's a plate that has a bunch of very accurate load cells attached to it in a specific way to measure all the loads that are acting on the test subject. And the one that we use for airplane testing is actually two inches in diameter -- it looks like a little steel cylinder, and then the model of the airplane is mounted to the cylinder, and all the loads transfer through that into our data system."
That's ironic. The balance is bigger for the little person and smaller for the big airplane.
"Well, we can't put a whole plane in here. We run one-tenth-scale model airplanes. And the way aerodynamics works, you just make some corrections, and you can scale that up. The problem with the cyclist or the slider is that their weights are low and the air is moving over a larger area relative to their weight, so you're looking for a much smaller load with the tunnel at a lower speed and a lot less force, and then trying to pick out differences in that very small force number, so you have to have a larger balance that's going to be sensitive to that.
Larry Ricci, surfboard shaper for South Coast Surf Shops
Tell me about the fine art of shaping a surfboard.
"There are a lot of different steps involved in building a surfboard. You start with a core, usually a polyurethane core or a Styrofoam core, which is called a 'blank.' Blanks are roughly shaped like a surfboard, and they come out of a mold, and that's when the shapers get them, and we use various hand tools or machines to sculpt the raw form. If you've seen a surfboard, you know it has a foam core and then fiberglass and resin and cloth on the outside to encapsulate it, waterproof it, and give it strength. And then the fins are attached to give it control. And then you float on the water, the wind creates a wave, and you ride that energy."
How do you shape the surfboard to make it faster?
"There's a lot of variables. There's a kind of recipe that you use. Not to get scientific, but if you just think of it as a sculpture -- everything is curved on a surfboard, and if you have straighter, longer lines, then that's going to result in a longer, more drawn-out turn and generally give you a flatter board and more all-out speed. In today's performance arena, though, people want boards that turn fast as well as go fast in all-out straight lines. So like I say, it's a recipe. You could widen the line of the surfboard, you could flatten the bottom, you could employ a variety of concaves into the bottom contour to provide lift. And then they all have fins, and a lot depends on the size of the fins -- how many you use, and where you put them on the board -- because you have to push against something to get some forward motion against the waves, so there are different ways to reduce drag but still have control at high speeds. And flex, flex is a very important characteristic. With the foam we've been using for so many years, there are different densities that you're able to obtain from the factories, and they have a wood stringer down the center that comes in different thicknesses, and that determines the surfboard's flex. So you apply pressure to the surfboard, you're increasing its curve, the board basically quote-unquote 'loads up,' and then as you decrease the pressure, you release that energy, and it propels the board forward. So it's not only the sensation of speed, it's actually a burst of speed."
Nice. You make it sound almost as if the surf itself doesn't matter if you have the right board.
"Well, that's not really true. A lot of how you shape depends on the surfing conditions. With bigger waves there's a lot more power, so you want boards that contain that energy, and you get speed inherent from the energy of the wave itself, so you want a design that gets its speed through control. And with small surf, which is generally the average day in Southern California -- you know, the waves are chest-high, maybe, on the sets -- so you want a different shape. In general, you want to be able to go fast without having to work terribly hard to generate that speed. That's why shapers and designers want to be able to create hull shapes and surfboard shapes that are either able to harness the speed of the wave or else, by design, create speed on a smaller, slower, mushier wave. So every shaper's goal is to design a board that's easily ridden but you can get speed in different situations."
You couldn't make a board that's always fast in any situation?
"Well, no. You'd need ideally a variety of boards. For example, your average 6-foot surfboard for small waves for a 150-pound individual would be inappropriate for 20-foot surf. There just isn't enough area for the surfer to paddle into it. I could get more technical, but..."
And wax helps speed the boards, too, no?
"No. It's not like in skiing. The wax is used on the deck of the surfboard simply for traction. It isn't like a snowboard or a ski where you use it for a lubricant. It's the opposite. But it also goes on the opposite side of the board."
Where's the fastest surf in San Diego?
"Generally it depends on the storms that come in. And how powerful the storms are, and how fast the waves are rushing toward the beach. But generally you've got your sandy beach breaks like Black's, and that's probably overall the best surfing in town because of the deep-water canyon and the abruptness of the beach itself. It's not really a reef break, but because there's so much power that can come up from the deep water, the waves come into shore unimpeded, and then once they feel the bottom contour, they lift, and they can break very swiftly and very hollow."
How fast can a surfer go?
"You're running about as fast as the wave goes. You're not necessarily riding the wave itself straight into the beach; you're riding it at an angle. So you might actually be traveling a little faster than the wave is traveling toward the shore. I don't have any idea how fast that might be in terms of miles per hour."
Is speed the best part of surfing?
"It is a great rush just to ride the wave itself, and most people just love the idea of speed, whether they're riding skateboards or bicycles or automobiles. But nowadays, just being able to take off on a flat-out big wave and drive down the face and get the speed is fun, but also being able to do the maneuvers -- turning and cutting -- that's fun, too."
Is there such a thing as a perfect surfboard?
"Everyone talks about the magic board that got away, but there's no such thing. There's no such thing as a magic surfboard. But you can get pretty close."