Saturday, March 29, 2008

Not so famous ...

I brought a new purchase with me to Dubai: Paul Dirac, the man and his work. I took it into the office to show to a colleague who had done postgrad work in Physics and it was lying on my desk.

A succession of people wandered up and asked me "Who's Paul Dirac?"

"Oh, just some guy who was born in Bristol, my home town."

Later on, I had this conversation with a colleague of mine, a data network designer. I explained that my wife was a big fan of Jane Austen and I had asked her to imagine the following conversation.

"Jane, in our day the biggest company in the world is Microsoft."

You see, Jane would know what a big monopoly company was. In her day it was the East India Company.

Jane would say, "That's interesting. What do they make?"

And I would reply, "Absolutely nothing. There's nothing which Microsoft makes which you could pick up in your hands and say 'that's what they make'."

My designer colleague said, "Who's Jane Austen?"

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The greatest achievement of humanity?

Professor Zee, in his book "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell", suggested that Quantum Field Theory is humanity's greatest achievement.

As I sit in a Dubai hotel room, listening to J. S. Bach's English Suites (BWV 806-811) there is a conceptual part of me which fervently wants to agree with him ... and then there's Bach.

Assuming humans could communicate with life out there, what on earth are we going to talk about? Dr. Lewis Thomas offered the answer: send music. ''I would vote for Bach, all of Bach,'' he wrote. ''We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance.''

I really think that we should adopt the view of the evolutionary psychologists (and Protagoras). Man is the measure of all things. We create our cultural matrix and look for the best. I'm not sure QFT, JSB, Mr Shakespeare and all the rest are so commensurable.


My disapproving Freudian superego notes that although I read Zee's book (in some sense of the word 'read') I didn't actually understand it.

I loftily respond that I am far from seeking QFT bragging rights. The reason I don't understand it is that it is the culmination of a progression through successive paradigms of mathematical abstraction to a perspective which is exceedingly remote from any commonsense way of thinking about reality. Getting there takes years of study. And yet it works better than any other scientific theory in terms of agreement with experience (i.e. experiment)*.

I live in this universe, and I am aspirational to understand it as best I can before I depart it.

And while we are talking about things of value which are remote from common sensibilities, I recall that on Classic FM's list of 100 best classical pieces as voted by listeners, there was not a single composition from Bach.

* In the sublime there is always bathos. QFT does not explain why things fall if you drop them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Consultant stories

Today I have some consultant stories.

Once upon a time there was a small company in the mid-west which ran into trouble with a chip it was designing. This chip had to be super-fast, and its design seemed flawless, but it refused to perform.

In desperation, they called in a consultant, who thought long and hard about the problem. Finally he came up with a design which would clearly work and which achieved around 90% of the speed of the problem-device. He presented his results to the client.

“But your design doesn’t achieve the 100% performance target which my design does!” complained the company’s lead designer.

The consultant exploded in exasperation.

“But your design doesn’t work!

“If we’re allowed to consider designs which don’t have to work, then trust me, I can get you a design which is a whole lot faster than yours!

"But of course, it won't actually work.”

The good news was that on the airplane home, the consultant had a bright idea which successfully delivered a design which did in fact meet his client’s target.


Yesterday I was swapping aphorisms with a colleague. Here was my candidate:

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.“

Friedrich von Schiller, German dramatist & poet (1759 - 1805).

Familiar but still good.

My colleague swiftly came back with:

There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.

Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband (act II).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sartorial and hotel life

The weather here is too hot for regular business shoes, so I went down to the Mall of the Emirates this morning to buy some fashionable Italianate shoes with a kind of summery mesh-weave. Passing rapidly by the hyper-expensive designer shops, I ended up in Clarks where I bought executive sandals (pictured, along with the mandatory Carrefour green tea).

I know it's a style atrocity to wear sandals with a suit, but if one is geek enough to do it, then these are probably the best ones.

I have to say that tipping policy here is a nightmare. The Indian staff appear receptive to tips, while the Asians refuse with a kind of quiet, insistent dignity which actually makes you feel you insulted them by offering (as just happened when my tuna sandwiches arrived lunchtime).

I felt quite bad as I munched through the meal, but compensated by spreading ketchup liberally all over my fries.

Note 1: Despite yesterday's warnings, the water was never in fact turned off.

Note 2: Excellent physics reference site by Gerard 't Hooft here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Back in Dubai

After a few days in the UK, now returned to the Golden Tulip hotel and its surrounding building site in Al Barsha.

As today is Friday, the first day of the weekend here, I am working from the hotel. As I left for breakfast, I saw a note under the door.

"Dear Guest,

We would like to bring to your kind attention that there will be a water supply interruption in the rooms starting from 10.00 am until 18.00 on Friday and Saturday. This interruption is due to our monthly preventive maintenance for your safety."

So no water for the weekend then.

I have filled my kettle in preparation.

Friday, March 07, 2008


She was barely awake, yet desperate. The night-receptionist handed back her card saying “it’s blocked”.

“It can’t be blocked,” she replied, “It’s corporate, it’s unlimited.”

It was 5.15 a.m. at my hotel in Dubai and we were both checking out. My car to the airport was booked for 5.30 a.m. but I had budgeted plenty of time – no worries. Not yet.

The young woman, she was welsh by her accent, fruitlessly cycled through her cards. The desk man tried each in his machine. Every time the same answer – “blocked”.

She tried a different tack. “Look, my colleague Reg Henshaw, he’s staying in the hotel. He’ll be able to cover it.” She looked at her watch but the clerk was unbending. “I’m going to try these cards once more only.”

She looked at me, then back to the hotel man. “I’m sure your machine’s broken. My card has no charge limit. It’s impossible for it to be blocked. Why don’t you try this gentleman’s card?”

Well, I had prudently paid the balance of my bill the previous day, anticipating just such a last-minute emergency. My card had worked for £4,000 pounds, surely it would be good for the couple of hundred covering my last night.

The clerk agreed to try. My details were retrieved and I entered my pin number: card blocked; socket failure. He went and borrowed another machine from the restaurant with the same unhappy result.

I had often wondered what hotels do when they can’t process a credit card transaction. I now discovered the answer. He gave each of us a copy of our bill as a receipt, then he had someone photocopy both our credit cards and we had to sign underneath. Finally we were free, and made our separate ways to our cars to the airport.


Although I am now back in the UK, it’s only for the briefest period. The project has been rescoped and we have an urgent deliverable this month so I will be back in Dubai working with the client early next week. My contract now extends to the end of April.


Reading Stanislaw Lem’s super-impressive “His Master’s Voice” again. Just reminds me how brilliant Lem was. It’s a shame that cerebral novels of ideas are so totally out of fashion – people just have no patience. Get it.