President’s Message

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2022)

On Some Difficult Questions for CASCA

I will centre myself often in this dialogue as identity matters, and I want to emphasize that I’m writing to encourage broader thought, these are obviously my personal views on how I believe organizations should function. I may ask some difficult questions, but they are meant to be general rather than focused, and to lead introspection.

That many of you may well find some of statements I make easier to be framed by me as a (hopefully perceived) compassionate and unthreatening white cis-gender man, also helps to position this dialogue. I’ve never considered myself an activist, but I am married to a person who is deaf, who has had to fight for so many things in their life that I can almost remember where the furrows on her brow come from. I also work with many colleagues who consider themselves activists. That simple statement about not seeing myself as an activist perhaps encapsulates my inherent whiteness, namely, to not see myself for what I am.

I wrote a President’s message in 2019 on the close proximity of CASCA to government, the high costs of the projects we are now involved in and the responsibility it places on our community. While one can argue Canada is normally a small player in major international projects, the reality is the size of those projects are becoming massive. I concluded that essay by saying “It’s one thing to say that knowledge from astronomy benefits everyone, but there’s a growing onus on astronomers to make connections that fulfil that promise.

How far have we come?

Each of you will have a different viewpoint and answer. That is the nature of community.

I’ve been asked why it was important to run the leadership panel this past November, and, other than the fact a promise was made to do that, I think it speaks to the fundamental value of dialogue. With CASCA being a (not-for-profit) corporation, ultimate authority and legal responsibility sits with the Board to determine what is appropriate. That said, I think with most of us being used to working in university collegial governance we would expect support for discussion over difficult topics, that is one of the key things universities are meant to do. However, we have a clear organizational dissonance right now, as the Letters Patent for the Society has a distinctly different flavour to a university act, which usually include statements around freedom and respect, for example. To be more explicit, we don’t have a Senate, we don’t have an Appeals Board, and multiple other structures. CASCA simply does not operate under the same principles as most universities.

What about when discussions get heated? Could we have “civility codes of conduct” to avoid offense and discomfort as distinct from equity-driven codes of conduct employed in conference environments? Obviously, this has been a major discussion on campuses for some time now. But despite our differences from a university structure, I strongly feel we should continue to follow CAUT guidelines to resist imposing any such legislation. David Robinson, CAUT Executive Director, has spoken extensively about how while a goal of civil and respectful dialogue is laudable, when policies are put in place to regulate speech and behaviour then free expression can be put at risk. These issues become most prominent during protest and dissent. CAUT usually highlights the 2014 Capilano University protest as an example where the creation of a statue was ruled as harassment of the university President, which in turn was seen as a clear violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression in a follow-on review.

To be clear: CASCA has a moral and legal obligation to ensure its operation is free from discrimination and harassment, but, at least in my view, we cannot enshrine an intrinsic right to never be offended or uncomfortable. As to the standard of this statute, that is a challenge, and one I will admit is very difficult to determine. Legally, we fall back to the reasonable and competent assessment, but from a social justice perspective that can be argued to be insufficient.

Consequently, as someone that works as a union Lead Negotiator, I am (personally) resistant to any policy which intimidates and silences by inappropriate methods of behaviour control that can be used to oppress, as the 2014 Capilano University case shows. Moreover, I wholly admit it is easy for me to say these things as someone that is implicitly a member of an empowered group and there are complicating factors, for example although many of our members have academic freedom, not all do. Arguments between individuals with academic freedom vs those without it can have an inherent imbalance. Please try to be mindful of this issue. Members of CASCA do not all have the same workplace rights.

Above all, I want to remind everyone that without questioning our values we can easily perpetuate dominant ideologies without being aware of it. There is no question that systemic white supremacy is pervasive within academia, even documents on diversity, which may have been written with good intentions, frequently centre whiteness as “normal.” Similarly, we’ve all seen the benefits of dual anonymous reviews in astronomy, we know biases are present.

This winter term I’ve been enrolled in a course “Indigenous Knowledges and Relations” co-taught by Michelle Paul and Benita Bunjun. One of the key questions we are asked as students is a moral one, namely: “Could you learn all the material in this course and still be someone that doesn’t value Indigenous Knowledges and actively works against them?” the answer is obviously that yes, you could. Why would someone? From self-interest, to systemic bias, to conscious racism we can name different possibilities. Education is but one part of a broader issue – indeed I’m currently working with Reconciliation Education to put this in place for the current and future CASCA Boards – but we have to fully process the moral and ethical questions that are implicit within that knowledge.

All of this discussion has been building to highlight one key fact about how we respond to ethical questions: it is ultimately an individual reaction. CASCA can make ethical statements about what it supports as a Society, but it is down to individual members to take those statements and incorporate them in their actions. Not everyone will come to same conclusions, we know that individuals in communities have different viewpoints. Nonetheless, I feel the single most important recommendation in the LRP is that every Canadian astronomer make a personal commitment to inclusion and reflect that in their personal ethics and values.

With that I call on everyone in the Society to be welcoming, generous and open. We are a community that is focused on education. When we argue, make it about learning, rather than mere winning.

Astronomy is important, but we don’t make the world a better place by discovering things about the universe. We make it a better place by truly sharing that discovery with all the people that make it possible, and working together with respect and true partnership.

Coalition Update

Over the past few months Coalition activities have focused strongly around the Square Kilometer Array. As many of you are aware the project continues to move ahead rapidly, please refer to the excellent updates being provided by Kristine Spekkens and the AACS. The cooperation agreement has been a great way to keep Canadian participation moving forward, but it is clear we need to signal a clear intent to the project to shift to full participation before the agreement ends in March 2023. With the agreement only having been signed last November it might seem unusual to have to be back discussing the issue with the Government so quickly, we are mindful of that issue!

I want to express a personal note of thanks to all the members of Coalition that have participated in the many meetings we’ve had in this first quarter. The community should be aware that some of our industry partners support the Coalition and participate in briefings despite not necessarily being involved in construction of a given project, in that sense the Coalition is a true partnership. That is an important and valuable interrelationship. However, I am most thankful to Kristine Spekkens for her amazing efforts in support of education around the SKA and contributions to discussions with key decision-makers.

I’m delighted to say that these meetings have gone well so far. We’ve been able to address many questions about the project and how it fits with several different Government priorities. I am hopeful that we will indeed see a commitment to the project in the time frame that the SKAO needs. It would be a tragedy if the cooperative agreement ended up becoming an off-ramp for our participation.

So long…

I will be stepping down as Interim President at the AGM as I need to lead what will likely be a very difficult negotiation for my fellow faculty members at SMU. As I write this message, I am quite literally minutes away from giving another faculty update. Juggling responsibilities since January has been a headache! Bylaw 9.1 allowed me to work in this position from last August until the next round of CASCA elections, and those will be soon upon us. We are diligently working to prepare a slate of nominations and I am happy to say we are over half-way there at this point, nominations will be presented soon.

I want to thank everyone in the Society for the conversations we’ve had over the past few months, and all the time and work you have committed to the Society, especially those serving on committees and/or the Board. I also thank our staff, Jessica and Don for all the great help they have provided, and Joanne for her continued work as Editor of Cassiopeia.

It has been an honour to serve you all.

My parting thought to each of you: Be gentle with yourself.


President’s Message

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hiver 2021)

First off, I want to thank all the members of CASCA as well as staff that devote their time to the operation of the Society. We cannot function without you, CASCA exists largely on the back of volunteer labour. The sum total of our employed staff is about 1/40th that of the AAS, because quite frankly we don’t even add up to one full time staff member. Everything that you help accomplish is quite literally above and beyond!

This report is incomplete in that I had hoped to provide a more detailed update on some internal discussions and unfortunately because one meeting got pushed so close to the holiday break and that I need get approval on a couple of things, I will have to let that go until January. My apologies.

I want to wish you good health over the holiday season. I sincerely hope you can take time to replenish reserves and rejuvenate, at least to whatever extent is possible.

On High-Performance Computing and Sustainability

Forgive me the indulgence of talking about something that is close to my heart on two accounts, high performance computing and sustainability. Following detailed analyses of emissions in Australian astronomy [1], motivated by prior discussions [e.g., 2], I’ve heard a number of people express concerns about the energy cost of high-performance computing (HPC) in astronomy. While I cannot possibly suggest a complete strategy in a short discussion, I can at least outline some of the key concerns and provide some useful background. This is an opinion piece though, rather than a detailed analysis.

I will not spend any time talking about improvements in algorithms or software. I fully accept these are absolutely fundamental areas in which energy consumption improvements are possible. Indeed, we’re already witnessing a detailed discussion about this in astronomy [3]. A wider view of the whole issue across algorithms, software and hardware is already spurring detailed thinking within hardware design circles [4].

From the outset I think we need to be clear that energy usage isn’t a discussion that happens in isolation and draws on value judgments. If it were possible to build computing centres running entirely on renewable energy, then the actual energy usage might be considered moot. Indeed, this has become a strategy for countries (e.g., Scotland) to offer data centre companies access to renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint. Of course, in practice such approaches disguise the fact that other energy usage continues to rely on traditional more polluting energy sources. After all, getting to “net-zero” means doing so across multiple sectors. Collective action is needed, and we have to play our part in that given the emissions intensive nature of our profession [2].

Global awareness of energy consumption in data centres and HPC is growing, many of you have likely heard concerns about Bitcoin’s incredible energy usage. That said, it is fair to say that there is a recognition of the potential impact of this demand, over the past 15 years there has been a steady interest in improving energy efficiency in computing. That’s been achieved through multiple approaches, but I’ll focus on just two: data centre design and chip/server design.

Starting with chip/server design, if we look at energy efficiency increases over several decades the results are quite staggering. Comparisons are normally provided going back to the earliest machines, but let’s consider a Cray-1, from the 1970s, arguably what many consider the first supercomputer. With a performance of 160 Mflops, and a power draw of 115kW, its flops per watt work out to 1400. To provide a comparison we need to consider entire systems including their multiple overheads. Fortunately, Dr Wu Feng has been pushing for these numbers for many years and is the custodian of the “Green500” alternative to the “Top500” list of supercomputers. The most efficiency systems available today achieve 39.4×109 flops per watt, albeit using hardware optimized for Linpack calculations (more on that in a moment). An improvement of 28 million in 50 years! For comparison, the peak speed of a single CPU die, and I think 48 core Fujitsu A64FX vector processor is the most apt comparison, has only increased by a factor of around 50,000 relative to the Cray-1.

This dramatic increase in hardware energy efficiency has resulted for multiple reasons. Firstly, for many years “Dennard Scaling” meant that each time circuitry was reduced in size by a factor of 0.7x, the overall power requirement would reduce by 50% (essentially power was proportional to the area of the transistor). This allowed CPU designers to increase frequencies for many years, but by around 2005 the scaling broke down due to fundamental issues with “leakage” of power through the transistor substrate. Thus, the era of increasing clocks speeds came to a halt.

Realizing that clock speeds could no longer increase, designers turned their efforts to packaging more cores on to a single die, not a trivial feat when one considers the memory design needed. Equally importantly, they also needed to begin improving the energy efficiency of individual CPU cores. Remarkably through a series of power management and packaging advances, the energy efficiency of CPUs has improved by a factor of at least 20 since 2014.

One could make a strong argument that since 2010, energy efficiency has become the key design parameter of CPUs, to a considerable extent replacing overall performance concerns. That’s definitely the case for mobile devices. Around 2011, HPC experts were widely discussing that being able to build exascale systems with a “reasonable” power draw of 20 MW would require achieving 50×109 flops per watt, the most power efficient systems are not far from this value today, but the largest machines are still a factor of three or four away.

While I’ve focused on CPUs, quietly hiding in the background is another potential revolution in efficiency, specifically the rapid development of customized hardware/accelerators. Smartphones are already moving toward more and more special accelerators with hardware designed for specific operations. We’ve all seen general purpose GPU programming take off, and optimized matrix hardware is now common – indeed it is a significant part of the improvement in flops per watt on the Linpack results for the Top500. All of these approaches improve energy efficiency by tailoring hardware to specific calculations. The rise of freely and easily available CPU instruction set architectures (RISC-V, for example) may lead to domain specific architecture becoming increasingly more common place than it is today.

The third factor that has helped improve flops per watt in HPC systems is optimized design of the cooling system and integrated system management. There are also well documented examples of waste heat being used for heating in some jurisdictions, to the point where papers have been written about which locations would be most appropriate for this approach to maximize the benefits of the exported heat. Data centres that are the “hidden” power behind the cloud use these kinds of optimizations extensively.

That 28 million improvement in energy efficiency since the 1970s also benefits our desktops. Modern processors, especially those based on mobile designs, have far lower idle power than those from even 2016. Unless you really need to do “big compute” or GPGPU on your desktop, you can buy a mini pc that idles at a handful of watts but with 8 cores has enough power to take on some pretty heavy calculations. And as always, turning things off is a good thing, although systems are getting better and better at doing that themselves.

While energy efficiency is clearly better in modern HPC systems, we do face the issue of unmet demand. Analyses can always be made more complex. Simulations can always be made bigger for better resolution. In practice, like any other facility, the amount of time is limited. For HPC, at least in Canada, we’ve also been limited by practical issues around power supply, I doubt we will ever see academic systems using much more than 5 MW here. Commercial data centres in Canada with close to ten times that power requirement already exist, although we need to put those in the context of serving large communities.

Astronomy is moving towards the increasing use of HPC as are multiple research areas. We have a duty to understand how that fits in the wider picture of sustainability (and I’m not even going to open the offset discussion). My own bias is that, among other things, we need to think carefully about:

  1. Quotas and envelopes. To a certain extent they will happen naturally with equipment maintained by the Alliance (formerly NDRIO/Compute Canada).
  2. Optimizing calculations by using the right tools – not always easy as there is inertia in individual knowledge and skills. To a limited extent review of HPC applications used to handle this, for more open access systems that may not be possible.
  3. Being aware of creating accidentally unsustainable situations. This happened with Compute Canada through the growth of the user base. The same thing could happen with interfaces that disguise overall computing use.

I have to have a somewhat optimistic view that ultimately, we will transition to largely renewable energy generation and that these concerns will become less significant. But until such time as we have a reasonable control on emissions, it’s important to remember that the energy usage of our field is fundamentally a value question.

Wishing you all a Happy Holidays and may you share many moments of joy with friends and loved ones,

[1] “The imperative to reduce carbon emissions in astronomy,” Stevens, A. R. H., et al, Nature Astronomy, 4, 843, (2020).
[2] “Astronomy in a Low-Carbon Future,” Matzner, C. D., et al., Astro-ph/1910.01272
[3] “The ecological impact of high-performance computing in astrophysics,”, Zwart, S. P., Nature Astronomy, 4, 819, (2020).
[4] “There’s plenty of room at the Top,” Leiserson, C., et al, Science, 368, 1, (2020).