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Measure for Measure

New software from the creator of Mathcad lets numbers retain their engineering properties

3 min read

My daughter is moving to Colorado, and she and her older brother recently took a four-day road trip from his house in Pennsylvania to her new apartment. They both posted their photos on Shutterfly; many of the shots are essentially the same.

The big difference between their photo albums—and it’s makes a huge difference—is that he took a few extra minutes to add captions. So from his pictures I know that the bronze statue of Abe Lincoln they both stood next to is in Vandalia, which was once the capital of Illinois; that the baseball game they went to was in Kansas City; that the giant cross by the highway is in Effingham, Illinois—which is enough information for a Google search that says that the cross is 198 feet tall and was built by the Cross Foundation.

Of course, location information, such as Vandalia, Ill., and Kansas City, Mo., can already be included in a photograph’s metadata, if the camera has GPS. In my ideal universe, all cameras would, and they’d even have little keyboards so you could add a caption right when you take a picture. Photo metadata is phenomenally useful, and, in a world of photo clouds like Shutterfly and Flickr, it’s getting ever more so.

You know what else needs metadata? Engineering numbers. That’s the premise behind Allen Razdow’s new start-up, True Engineering Technology.

Razdow was a co-founder of MathSoft, the company behind Mathcad. In a way reminiscent of Stephen Wolfram’s idea that the Mathematica universe would benefit from databases that could be queried (thus, Wolfram Alpha), Razdow decided that the software on an engineer’s desktop, like Mathcad—but also Microsoft Office—needed metadata for the numbers that move from one program to another. If I had to choose one of these ideas as a winner, it would be Razdow’s.

The idea apparently came slowly to Razdow, who wrote MathCAD back in the 1980s (for MS-DOS!), and with good reason—it requires you to think of numbers in a paradoxical way. While the common conception of computers is that they turn everything into numbers, Razdow’s insight is that the reality is just the reverse.

We take an engineering number, maybe it’s the hydrogen permeability of palladium, or the specific gravity of the railroad ties you just shipped to a customer, and put it into a report that strips it of almost all of its meaning—what reference book the number came from, or when and where it was measured and by whom, the tolerances, and so forth. We take numbers that are ripe with engineering meaning and mathematical context and turn them into flat text. Often—and paradoxically this happens particularly with those bastions of number-crunching, spreadsheets—you don’t even directly know the unit of measurement, because that’s contained in a column heading or a footnote or some other surrounding text.

Consider all the numbers that get used and reused for years, within your company and outside of it. Imagine you’ve worked out a more precise measurement of the hydrogen permeability of the particular palladium alloy to be used in an upcoming product. Or auditors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Food and Drug Administration have arrived to examine a new report that contains 70 different key engineering numbers that need to be checked, 50 of which were taken from a report that was vetted last year.

Razdow has in mind a plug-in that would encourage you to create metadata for important numbers and would let a number retain that metadata when it’s cut and pasted from one application to another, whether it’s MathCAD to a Word document, or to a PDF, or vice versa. You can hover over someone’s number and see some of that metadata, or, if they make it public, you can click on it and get all of it from a Web page devoted to that number on a public site that Razdow’s company will maintain. True Engineering Technology will make its money by selling a server appliance that will host and manage engineering numbers within an enterprise.

It’s a clever and much-needed idea. Like a lot of other Web 2.0 notions these days—think RSS, for example—it will need widespread adoption by users—in this case engineers—and the software applications that they use. Here’s hoping that happens.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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