TV-PGOctober 23, 2003: Night of the Panther is nearly upon us; can your heart take the excitement? Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's Mac-based supercomputer gains three-quarters of a teraflop in mere days, and Apple prepares software called "iTunes Producer" that lets labels encode and upload their music for inclusion in the Music Store-- but was it going to be called something else?...
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From the writer/creator of AtAT, a Pandemic Dad Joke taken WAYYYYYY too far

Break Out The Party Hats (10/23/03)

This is it, people: Panther gets unleashed tomorrow, so make sure you eat your Wheaties in the morning-- you're gonna need your strength. Why, we're feeling faint with excitement already!

That raises an important point, actually: if you're so overtorqued with enthusiasm that you're short of breath and you think you might be on the brink of a myocardial infarction, we're afraid that we haven't got much in the way of bad news to back you away from the brink. But what the heck, take two of these and call us in the morning: first, AppleInsider recently reported that, contrary to every freakin' thing we've read about Panther's performance for the past two months, the retail release is "sluggish" on older supported Macs, with "poor window redraw speeds" and "multi-second delays during application switching." One user with a dual 500 MHz G4 loaded up with a gig and a half of RAM claims that Fast User Switching "requires almost a minute's wait" (it's apparently that other kind of "fast") and emptying the Trash when it's got half a gigabyte of files in it takes "nearly five minutes." Sure, it's almost certainly some weird anomaly at work and not an indication of Panther's usual behavior, but if it dampens your life-threatening eagerness, hey, go for it.

Likewise, we've also gotten a handful of unsubstantiated and suspiciously anonymous reports from alleged Panther preorderers (mostly out-of-country ones) who claim to have received notification from Apple that their orders will be delayed until next month-- because, you know, it takes that long to press another batch of CD-ROMs and toss 'em in boxes. If you're somehow able to squeeze a drop or two of belief from either of those two tidbits, though, maybe you can keep your heart from exploding with Panther fervor until the paramedics arrive. But when they show up, you should make sure they test you for terminal credulousness, too.

Meanwhile, one thing that won't help you keep your dangerously high enthusiasm levels from landing you in emergency open-heart surgery is Apple trying to push the hype even higher with a press release about Night of the Panther. (Think it sounds like a cheesy romance novel? That's because it is.) Just a friendly reminder from Cupertino, folks; every single one of Apple's 65 retail stores-- including UTC in San Diego and Legacy Village near Cleveland, both celebrating grand openings tomorrow-- will be partying down from 8 PM 'til midnight to mark Panther's arrival. We knew about the iMac giveaway at each store, but the press release also mentions "free gifts" and "great savings," as well. Details are conspicuously absent, but maybe you can snag a promotional poster or something and get 10% off when you buy a FireWire cable.

By the way, if you're a Boston-area Mac freak, maybe you'll spot an AtAT staff representative skulking in the shadows at the Apple Store Cambridgeside tomorrow night. Keep one eye peeled for this dork, say howdy, and most likely he'll grudgingly give you a free sticker. He'll probably even have a limited number of t-shirts and mock turtlenecks on hand for desperate marks with ready cash, although once the first few are gone, you may have to leave the store briefly and accompany him to the official AtAT Mobile Merchandise Unit if you want one. (Authorities have requested that we no longer bring the AMMU into the mall itself, since it's a Toyota sedan and it allegedly does bad things to the escalators and, occasionally, the shoppers who aren't nimble enough to dodge.)

Enjoy Pantherhood, everyone! And try not to get too wasted at the Genius Bar. You know an open bar always brings out the worst in you.

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No "I" In "Breakfast" (10/23/03)

The Big Mac Saga continues! To recap, Virginia Tech's cluster of 1,100 dual-processor Power Mac G5s came online for performance testing at the beginning of the month, and on the 15th, WIRED quoted a Mr. Jack Dongarra ("one of the compilers of a Top 500 list") as saying that "early benchmarks" from a test of 128 of Big Mac's 2,200 processors showed performance a whopping "80 percent of the theoretical peak" of 17.6 teraflops. If the cluster could hold that ratio when all 2,200 processors were cranking away, then Big Mac had a decent chance of being ranked as the second most powerful supercomputer on the planet, and thus qualifying for a free Funny Face breakfast at the International House of Pancakes. (Japan's top-ranked Earth Simulator gets the full-on Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity®.)

Unfortunately, just two days ago, the New York Times published a followup from Mr. Dongarra, who revealed that testing of the full cluster showed Big Mac's score as "only" 7.41 teraflops-- a mere 42% of the system's theoretical peak, and even marginally slower than a Xeon-based cluster we had expected to see stomped flat by Divine G5 Muscle. At 7.41 teraflops, Big Mac would still be one of the top ten supercomputers in the world, but it sure as shootin' wouldn't rate free breakfast treats at the blessed Eatery with Eight Syrups.

Faced with the surprisingly low score, Virginia Tech stated that it was "still finalizing results" and that Big Mac's final, official score "might be significantly higher." To be honest, we figured that was just spin-- but faithful viewer Karl Kornel informs us that Virginia Tech apparently wasn't kidding. Karl found a MacBidouille article that links to a PDF of an 80-page paper penned by-- you guessed it-- the ever-lovin' Jack Dongarra. (That little fella is everywhere.) This report is dated October 22nd, 2003-- a day after the Times article was published-- and refers to Big Mac's measured performance as being rather higher: 8.164 teraflops.

Over three-quarters of a teraflop improvement in the space of a day or two? Nifty! Unfortunately, Big Mac's latest numbers leave it squarely in fourth place; while the new score does indeed lay the smackdown on that 7.63-teraflop Xeon cluster we'd been worrying about (which has since slipped into seventh place), unfortunately, there's a new player in town. An Itanium 2-based cluster just slid into third with a measured performance of 8.633 teraflops-- and with 176 fewer processors than Big Mac, to boot. D'oh! So much for a clear victory of IBM processor technology over Chipzilla. Granted, the Itanium 2 is strictly a server and workstation chip, while the G5 is available in $1999 personal computers, but a blowout of All Things Intel would have been sweet.

There's still hope, though; while the Itanium 2 cluster has a theoretical peak performance of 11.616 teraflops, Big Mac can theoretically peg out at 16.896-- 17.6 with all 2,200 processors chugging away. (Dongarra's paper lists Big Mac as having only 2,112 active chips, so apparently 44 of those Power Macs were off watching "The Next Joe Millionaire" during the last test). What that means is that Big Mac has much more potential than the Itanium cluster, but is currently operating at just 48% capacity while that pile of Intels is ticking away at over 74%-- so all Virginia Tech needs to do is figure out how to get those Macs to start pulling their weight.

Clearly there's room to grow, and Virginia Tech just needs to boost processor morale. AtAT sources reveal that the recent .75-teraflop increase comes courtesy of a rousing visit to the Big Mac facility by the Hokie cheerleaders, and now it's time to kick things into high gear; may we suggest a motivational screensaver from Successories? Sure, it's Windows-only, so they'd have to install Virtual PC to run it, but c'mon-- the G5s in those Power Macs are apparently 52% idle anyway, so what can it hurt?

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Mystery Solved (Or Not) (10/23/03)

Here's a quickie that isn't exactly overflowing with drama all on its lonesome, but it just might provide closure on a previous plot twist that we know has been eating you up inside for over a month now. Faithful viewer Tuner Equalizer tipped us off to new iTunes Music Store developments allegedly described in Billboard Bulletin. We say "allegedly" because Billboard Bulletin isn't just some online rag; it's just some industry online rag, and as such, it costs $54.95 a month to read-- meaning, we're about as likely to check this news at its source as we are to throw away Twinkies because they're past their expiration date. So we're relying on the summary at MacMinute, which is probably safe, since those guys have, like, a commitment to accuracy or something. Weirdos.

Anyway, so one such development is that Apple has reportedly partnered with Google to get record labels cheaper rates on advertising if said labels promote iTunes-- you know, sort of how Intel subsidizes ads for computer manufacturers who stick that "Intel Inside" tag in there, only less unsavory. (How, we're not sure. It just is. Shut up.) Neat and all, but the bit that made us go "hmmmmmmm" was this: "Apple is preparing an application called iTunes Producer, which will help labels submit content for inclusion in the store." Apparently this thing will let labels encode music properly for iTMS resale, add all artist/album/track info, include cover art, and send the whole package off to Apple with a minimum of muss and just a teensy bit of fuss. A beta is due on Halloween and the software will be free.

Once more: neat, but not terribly exciting, right? But the reason why it made us go "hmmmmmmm" is because we got to thinking: could "iTunes Producer" be the mysterious product originally destined to bear the trademark "Garage Band," which Apple registered a few months back? It fits, right? If so, we're a little disappointed that Apple blandified it with a name as prosaically descriptive as "iTunes Producer" (why not call it "iTunes Music Store Song Encoder and Uploader That Has a Self-Referential and Really Uninteresting Name"?), but hey, they're the ones making $44 million a quarter while we're passing over $54.95-a-month web sites and saving Twinkies from the mesozoic era, so clearly they know what they're doing.

And anyway, maybe iTunes Producer was never meant to be Garage Band in the first place, and Garage Band, whatever it turns out to be, is still just around the corner. Fingers crossed for a classic rock supergroup with Steve Jobs on keyboard and vocals! Freebird! FREEEEEBIIIIRD!!

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