Monday, November 28, 2005

The Constant Gardener

We went to see this movie last night in Basingstoke. Typological plot summary: ENFJ activist Tessa meets INTP diplomat Justin Quayle and marries him. They go to Africa where Justin cultivates his garden in the High Commission in an introverted alternative reality, whilst all around his slimy FCO colleagues are helping coarse and evil big Pharma work with the corrupt local Government. Africa is portrayed as the locals living in a garbage heap amidst great natural beauty.

Tessa and local help unmask big Pharma drug testing on hapless locals - Tessa's direct moral intensity embarrasses the hypocritical games of diplomacy all around her, but she makes the fatal mistake of trusting said diplomats (Justin meanwhile is unaware of all this). Tessa is killed for her pains. The remaining part of the film shows Justin coming out of his gardening-centric world and extraverting his NT skills to find out what's really going on. He, of course, gets killed too, but the real message of 'what's going on' succeeds in getting out.

A film like this - Tessa is the mouthpiece for John Le Carre's own explosive moral indignation - has more impact and 'market share' than anything the fictionalised Tessa could have hoped to achieve. After all, the audience knows that the plot is thinly disguised fact. Yet tomorrow, big Pharma will be doing exactly the same.

We know the emotional motives for justice which impell Le Carre - they are present in all of us. Institutions will continue to pursue their interests where they can, and not care too much about collateral damage. We are back to the familiar territory of the 'circle of empathy', with those inside it and those without.

Individuals with exceptional moral conviction will always be driven to action at the boundary, but only sometimes will the underlying conditions allow their actions to effect a step-change, and a widening of the circle. Mostly they will be considered totally unrealistic emotional idiots who self-indulgently create problems for everyone else. And that harsh judgement will also be correct. The film, however, is good enough to make Justin's acceptance of his wife's cause in this case not a betrayal of his own rationality.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Wrong Kind of Famous

Years back, when I was working at STL (Standard Telecommunications Laboratories) at Harlow in the UK, I recall a corridor conversation. A senior researcher, Dr Robert Milne and myself were talking to one of the managers, George and the conversation turned to career aspirations.

For George it was a matter of climbing the corporate hierarchy, but he turned to us and said "I expect that everything you do is geared towards making you famous!" It was a quip, and he said it with a smile on his face, but there followed an awkward silence, which George picked up on: "Right then ... perhaps we should talk about something else" and the stalled conversation got round to rebooting.

A few days ago, my wife Clare made a similar observation to me, suggesting that 'speaking at conferences, meeting senior clients, writing a book', it amounted to "you want to be famous."

It seems both churlish and self-deceiving to deny such a well-known motivator, but I rather think that both Robert and myself did not in fact want to be famous. 'Being famous' involves an unacceptable amount of hassle, socialising and travel! What I do think we want, like most intellectuals, is that our work should be famous, while we remain personally unaffected.

And I would add one more thing, that the work should be famous because it is good, and not merely through some accidental fad or mere momentary significance.

Other supportive anecdotes: I met a mathematician at a conference once - I sat next to him at dinner - who said the most important thing in his life was that some (highly esoteric) mathematical structure had been named after him. And then there was the scientist on the TV programme 'Seven Up' - and therefore already famous - who confided that his dearest ambition was to be better known for a scientific achievement than for appearing on that programme.

Sometimes we reflect on surveys which show that people are unable to name any existing scientist apart from Stephen Hawking ... fame is evidently a pretty selective thing!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Blogging as vanity publishing?

Busy most of today putting a client bid together.

I am also having trouble extending the book chapter on 'choosing the right people'. I thought I would do a personality-type analysis of various styles of leadership in carriers and vendors. Somehow the words aren't quite ready to come. Not exactly writer's block, more that I haven't got an angle which sufficiently excites me to motivate 3,000 or so words.

If writing this stuff is vanity publishing, then it's surely reprehensible and self-indulgent. Maybe it is. Other possible framing constructs: (i) it's a diary; (ii) it's a notebook which is harder to lose than scraps of paper + it's searchable; (iii) it's useful to your later, more senile self + any descendants who are that interested.

Perhaps the truth is that some of us have a bunch of ideas, and quite enjoy writing them down. We're allowed that, aren't we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Towards an Adequate Personality Theory

"Adequate" modifies "Theory", not "Personality" ... :-)

Consider three kinds of personality theory.

1. The standard 'Big 5' 'traits' model with the mnemonic of OCEAN (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism/emotional stability).

2. The Keirsey theory of four temperaments - [Guardian, Artisan, Idealist, Rational].

3. Jungian typological theory, in its Myers-Briggs form of 16 types.

It seems to me that there are three interesting issues.

a. To what extent are all three approaches really addressing the same underlying reality (so that a formal correspondence can be established between them)? For example, correlations are shown between the 'Big 5' traits and the four MBTI dimensions - see the bottom of the page ('Statistical Studies') here.

b. What kind of brain architecture would generate the observed diversity of personality/ temperament across individuals? For example, is there a superego-like module which encodes social norms and which inhibits 'selfish' impulses from the lower brain regions? If so, would variations in the 'strength' of this module explain Guardian-Artisan differences (SJ vs. SP) --- or conscientiousness, if you like?

c. What is the evolutionary psychology framework for understanding the evolution of personality differences? It seems likely that there is some merit in having some people who care about social norms, others who are more motivated by risk and excitement, others who can inspire and empathise, and finally people who can think a bit (aka 'intellectuals'). Can formal evolutionary models and simulations make this intuition something testable?

It's not obvious there is much research today on these topics, more's the pity.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Four Books

1. The Rule of Three - Sheth and Sisodia. Why every market will be dominated by just three (generalist) players and a bunch of specialists. Ought to be wonderful, but it's a hard read. Full of facts and examples, it's a Guardian (SJ) book. There's an interesting theory trying to get out, but it's incredibly well-hidden. Frustrating.

2. Feynman's lectures in Physics - Vol III. What a joy to read! But the thought/text ratio is so high that it's not a fast read. I guess a six month course over at Caltech.

3. The Economics of Regulation - Kahn. Another kind of worthy book full of dense but interesting ideas. But it's huge, and getting through it is such a slow process.

4. Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny. First read when I was a teen, and I had forgotten how good it is. For when I'm too tired to think.

I installed BOINC today - the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. It is not a user friendly system: there is real confusing stuff about account keys (no longer used, apparently but you still get error messages). Configuring preferences for your computer is obscure and hard to find, and there is little guidance as to what values to set, what they mean and what might be the consequences.

In the end, I rolled over, and just let BOINC do whatever it wanted with my computer. It seems restrained so far, running the Einstein@Home gravitational wave detector and the Rosetta protein folding experiment. But guys, I was persistent: you can do better than this!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Peter Drucker loves Jane Austen

On November 19th 2005 the Economist published an obituary for Peter Drucker. Amongst the extensive reviews of Drucker's thinking about Management Theory there is also this wonderful quote: "he preferred reading Jane Austen to doing multivariate analysis".

Jane Austen's cultural presence is pervasive today, yet she got off to a shaky start. Claire Tomalin's 'Jane Austen- a life' mentions in the Postscript that by the 1850s her work was appreciated only within 'a small circle of cultivated minds' (Jane Austen died, aged 41, on 18th July 1817). By the turn of the century, she was on the up, but the mass market for Austen had to wait until the mid-twentieth century.

Austen now seems to tower above other 19th century novelists. Still, many people find the old-fashioned, rather stately English a little impenetrable, while men in particular are inclined to write her work off as 'girlie'.

Taking the trouble to actually read and get into the stories is a revelation - Jane is a satirist! Her work mocks all those self-important and slow-witted individuals who populated the cultural wasteland she saw around her. There is a kind of wilful, intelligent fury which drives her work, which she mostly keeps under an iron discipline: Lady Susan being the exception.

Didn't anyone notice, you think, that she was subverting the establishment under the guise of describing it in miniature? The answer is that some did, and many did not. And Jane knows how to write, although her plotting is sometimes a bit awry, especially at the denouement - think 'Sense and Sensibility'.

We live in an age where disrespect is rampant, but where the intelligent disrespect called irony is also appreciated. Fertile ground for Jane Austen's real intent, even when all that rather well-done 'girlie' stuff has been discounted.

A memoir of Charles Kao

Charles Kao is known internationally as the 'father of fibre optics'. I knew him in the 1980s when he was already a distinguished scientist in ITT, and I was a new recruit to ITT's UK R&D Lab, STL in Harlow. At that time I was researching the upcoming field of Artificial Intelligence - Charles took a keen interest in new scientific areas and arranged a meeting at Yale with a leading AI researcher, Drew McDermott.

As we drove to the university, Charles had to stop for gas. I should explain that Charles is typically asiatic in his appearance and slight build, and additionally has an unassuming personal style ... outside intellectual debate. The gas attendant stopped by and with casual racism said dismissively 'What's it to be, Wong'? Something inside me gulped at how this guy was treating one of the smartest and most accomplished people in the world. Charles of course took it all in his stride.

My research was in models of the modal logic of intention and belief. The structure of these models is that they represent all the ways the world could be, based on what you belief and want. There is a rough analogy with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (it is no more than that, pace David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality) and I made the mistake of saying so to Charles. He looked at me quizzically, and asked me a question about non-commutative operators in Hilbert Space.

I literally stood there, without any idea how to respond: I had never taken a course in QM. Charles waited a moment, and then strolled away, leaving me feeling about one inch tall.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Buying Canada

There is an old joke that George Bush (senior) wanted a kinder, gentler America - so he bought Canada.

Canada is recognisable to Europeans as one of their own - a kind of Switzerland-ish state. America? - Well, that's something else. One explanation is that in Canada, the state reached the Pacific before the settlers did - there was never any frontier where men made their own societies. Canadians have a European attitude to the state (perhaps carried to extremes!) . The state is the consensual public authority for social welfare. (Putting Quebec to one side here!).

In the States, things seem more complex. As in the well-known inclination for 'voluntary associations' noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, American culture views the state more as an alien force than as a guarantor of the public good. The state is viewed with suspicion, and is not to be relied upon in preference to self-help.

Hence the fragmentary nature of American social life - so many distinct groupings, each with their own agendas and internal solidarity (asabiya!) but with national solidarity artificially achieved by loyalty to symbols and institutions rather than a genuine national fellow-feeling.

When a social group which is unashamedly tribalist (e.g. the Southern loyalist group around George W. Bush) gets to sit in the driving seat of the state apparatus, it is not surprising that the results are fantastically divisive.

Running America effectively is neither an exercise in expressing a pre-existing social consensus according to the European/Canadian model, nor should it be the ruthless execution of one faction's view of the world. Instead, it should be a rational interests model, which acts to increase social solidarity within the diversity which is American society and deepens the roots of all that symbology. Most reforming administrations have had that goal ... so perhaps the next one?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Learning to love IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem)

Chapter 2 of the book is about the next-generation network and IMS. I extensively revised and added to the chapter today and was struck by how we have to move the IMS debate on.

It is NOT an argument against IMS that IMS is complex. Lot's of things are complex (aircraft, GSM, legal systems) but they work and are manageable.

It is NOT an argument against IMS that carriers may use it to destroy their Internet competition. They don't need IMS, a Narus box will do perfectly well. Regulation, and to an extent market pressure, are the forces which need to be applied to anti-competitive carrier behaviour.

IMS integrates many of the functions carriers care about: authentication, authorisation, generic access to service platforms, security, access efficiency via compression, roaming, sophisticated call-control, QoS management and most importantly metering and billing.

If you want to attack IMS, whinging about its general unpleasantness is not the answer (honestly, it's quite interesting when you get into it!). Look for paradigm-breaking services which need signalling/session management functionality not found in the IMS roadmap. If the service is popular, then you will get market share and the cumbersome IMS standards process will take 3-5 years to change direction and absorb your new functionality.

No, I don't have a view as to what this new functionality is either, which kind of weakens the argument against IMS, don't you think?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Wading Through Treacle" comments page

The book "Wading through Treacle - dispatches from the next-generation network" is due to go to the publisher sometime in mid to late 2006. One of the reasons for publishing the book on my website as it is being written is to give opportunities for reader feedback, leading to improvements before the text gets frozen into hard copy.

Another reason was to advertise the book and increase sales, but you knew that already!

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts below. This is a moderated site, so I get to preview your comments before deciding if you are in or out. Like slashdot, insightful and/or funny work to your advantage - basically stuff I can use rather than amorphous praise or disdain.

Thanks for the comment!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Playing for Time

Yesterday evening we went to see Arthur Miller's play "Playing for Time" at the Salisbury Playhouse. The play is about an orchestra of predominantly Jewish women musicians who survive by playing to the German officers at Auschwitz. Originally a TV play, the production didn't seem to us to transfer particularly well to the stage - too many scene changes broke the continuity. And the ethical dilemmas of perverting art to soothing the angst of concentration camp guards seemed too telegraphed to be truly moving.

However, the scenes of brutality and ill-treatment segued into today's story of Shia government brutalisation and torture of 173 predominantly-Sunni detainees in Baghdad. Another day in Iraq, you might say.

The question never addressed: once we put aside the hypocrisy of official statements, and the hand-wringing of the human rights community, why does this occur and how could it be stopped? In a previous post I described Peter Turchin's concept of asabiya (loosely the degree of human social solidarity in a society). A high-asabiya society works together - a low-asabiya society is divided into mutually-disregarding groups which routinely abuse each other. Guess where, in the global Asabiya index, Iraq is today?

I guess the answer I was looking for was this. To minimise ill-treatment and torture, create states around the boundaries of communities which can realistically expect to evolve towards a stable high-asabiya condition. Practice politics between states and groups so that relations do not transition to that low-asabiya state known as war.

Do you think current western policy in the middle-east is aligned with this approach?

Note added a little later:

Thinking about it, if you reflect on what they're actually doing rather than what they're saying, this could well be the policy. The 'unified Iraq' model was long-ago abandoned, replaced by the hyper-federated model along ethnic-cultural-religious lines. I would guess the last piece of the puzzle is to get the Sunnis to agree to their own mini-statelet, and close down jihadist attempts to destabilise the entire region while unleashing holy war on everyone non-Wahhabi.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pain, consciousness, intent and the Dentist

Yesterday I had to visit the local dentist to have a cracked filling drilled-out and replaced. As I anticipated and imagined this event beforehand, I recalled Daniel Dennett's account of how he arranged to have dental treatment without anaesthesia in order to understand better the nature of pain and consciousness (in The Intentional Stance as I recall). Dennett reported that if you really, really concentrated on pain, then the awful sensation went away, but that pain was so boring that it was impossible to keep this level of concentration going for too long.

My other pre-visit inspiration was Lao Tzu, and the benefits of not fighting experiences but accepting them as integral to participation in the evolution of the Tao.

Modern dental practice being what it is, I was subjected to an almost unnoticed application of injected anaesthetic before I could nerve myself to refuse it, and there was consequently no pain whatsoever.

However, with the further assistance of Lao Tzu, I convinced myself that this, too, was consistant with 'the way'.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Many Worlds (1)

Still thinking about Greg Egan's Quarantine, which I re-read coming back from Brussels last Wednesday, I looked on the web for more on Everett's 'Many Worlds' interpretation of QM. Michael Clive Prices's The Everett FAQ was a more compelling account than I had seen before, and prompted me both to re-open the Feynman lectures in physics, Vol. III and to purchase Colin Bruce's Schrodinger's Rabbits: Entering The Many Worlds Of Quantum.

Although I tend to be inundated with Amazon books, I couldn't resist something which got five stars from Peter Shor, the (ex-) AT&T mathematician who developed the first algorithm for quantum computers which could factorise large numbers really fast, thus undermining public key cryptography. He also has a great limerick about this.

Today will see more work on the book, focusing on how the Skype & E+ deal in Germany violates the ethics of common carrier provisions.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Theory of History? 'War and Peace and War'

I have always believed that History is susceptible to Theory. As a teenager, I was inspired by Asimov's 'science' of psychohistory (although even then, I was properly suspicious of the Second Foundation's democratic credentials). In my twenties, marxism provided a comprehensive view of past and future modes of production across vast millenia. And then the dream died and all we were left with was people, events and narratives.

Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War (which I have reviewed on the Amazon site here) starts by acknowledging the inspirational power of Hari Seldon's concept, before introducing Turchin's own framework of cliodynamics. Extensively illustrated through the rise, development and fall of the Roman Empire, the development of Europe into the High Middle Ages, the birth of the United States and Russia, and the rise of Islam and the Caliphate, Turchin's theory has that rare quality of suddenly putting many isolated facts into a coherent framework, suddenly granting a whole new perspective. The world does not look the same after reading his book.

His formal treatment covers pre-capitalist agrarian societies, but the conceptual framework seems perfectly applicable to the contemporary workd. It would be good to know that Turchin and his co-workers are on the case.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mobile Operators' disdain for WiFi/WiMAX

Just back from a conference in Brussels on Wireless Voice over IP and the Telecoms Market. There was a time when I believed that a combination of WiMAX (802.16e) and WiFi, surrounding a cheap fibre core would create a mobile Internet platform which would seriously challenge the cosy international oligopoly of mobile operators.

Don't hold your breath! Base on the mobile operators' comfort level expressed at this conference, any danger of that has been postponed till after 2009. You can read my report at:

On the Eurostar train I reread Greg Egan's Quarantine ( I assume this truly excellent book is on every Physics undergraduate's reading list?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Bist du bei mir

Yesterday I ripped some Baroque tracks, and was struck by "Bist du bei mir" (Be thou with me), attributed to Bach in the 1720s. It was included in the Clavier-Büchlein for Anna Magdalena (his wife), catalogue number BWV 508.

A little research showed that it was actually written by a guy called Stölzel.

The piece is pleasant and moving and apparently a favourite at weddings and funerals. Only the latter is appropriate, as the words accompanying the music are as follows.

Bist du bei mir, geh' ich mit Freuden
Be thou with me, and I'll gladly go
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh'.
To death and to my repose.
Ach, wie vergnügt wär' so mein Ende,
Ah, how my end would bring contentment,
es drückten deine lieben [schönen] Hände
If, pressing with thy hands so lovely,
mir die getreuen Augen zu!
Thou wouldst my faithful eyes then close.

Another random fact: according to the Wikipedia article on famous people with Asperger's Syndrome, Glenn Gould, the famous Bach interpreter on piano apparently had an autism spectrum disorder. What is it with Bach and intellectuals?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Welcome to the Blog. I was completely in two minds about doing this - it seems so jumping on the bandwagon, so naff really. Here is how I convinced myself: I just need to know how this stuff works, so it's kind of a trial, right?

There, I feel better about it already.

Hot news - Chapter 10 of the book - at was uploaded today. I look at the main P2P file sharing programs - Napster, Gnutella, BitTorrent and Freenet and describe how each of them work.

The chapter starts with a short drama piece about the trial of the creator of a Freenet-like system, Rete Populi. It's used to hit home points about the ethics of these kind of systems, which are genuinely worrisome.