Monday, June 30, 2008

UnWanted

Our second visit to the new Andover cinema last night to see "Wanted", a Matrix-derivative waste of time which had us leaving after an hour. The New York Times Review here exactly explains our early exit. What a waste of the actors' time as well.

Resolution to self. We'll only go to intelligent movies in future.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A wedding picture

From the archives, that February day back in 1978 when Clare and myself got married. The happy couple pictured below at the reception.


I'm the one with the long hair and beard, apparently working a laptop. Clare looks on, wondering if it's running Windows 78.

Nope, they weren't invented back then (it's a box containing wedding presents).

On Missing a Party

So she called a few months back and I said ‘Sure, if I’m around’. And today was the day, and I thought do I really want to go into a house full of the kids she teaches, and their parents and grandparents, and maybe I’ll have five minutes chat with her, but she is the hostess, so what will I do then?

And everyone will be asked to do their little turns on the piano and she’ll ask me, and I haven’t touched the wretched thing for six months and have forgotten everything, so then there’ll be an argument. And I reckon I’ll have to stay at least two hours and I have absolutely no desire to make small talk with these strangers.

And it’s not as if I have any plans to start the lessons again, I mean I have been incredibly busy the last six months and I expect that to continue, and even the small amount of non-working time I have is totally tied up with getting my science course work done and that’s going to continue for ages.

So really this event is more for her continuing pupils and their families and surely she would understand that, so I really have no grounds for feeling guilty, do I?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Greg Egan's 'Incandescence'

Just read Greg Egan's new book "Incandescence". Sadly, a disappointment which I share with the reviewer here.

A summary of the plot from Amazon.

"A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the vast, cooperative meta-civilisation known as the Amalgam, and the silent occupiers of the galactic core known as the Aloof. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but have occasionally permitted travellers to take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy's central bulge.

When Rakesh encounters a traveller, Lahl, who claims she was woken by the Aloof on such a journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to try to find the uncharted world deep in the Aloof's territory from which the meteor originated.

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. Living on the margins of a rigidly organised society, they seek to decipher the subtle clues that might reveal the true nature of the Splinter.

In fact, the Splinter is orbiting a black hole, which is about to capture a neighbouring star, wreaking havoc. As the signs of danger grow, Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

Meanwhile, Rakesh is gradually uncovering their remote history, and his search for the lost DNA world ultimately leads him to a civilisation trapped in cultural stagnation, and startling revelations about the true nature and motives of the Aloof. "

Most of the book is a Greg Egan tutorial on general relativity as applied to orbits close to a black hole. However, he explains things more clearly on his website here.

As a story with plot and characters, I have to say that it's essentially without interest. The writing is not so bad that it's unreadable - I kept chugging on until the end. Rather, it's thin gruel indeed and one reaches the end with a sense of suffering finally over, rather than having had an experience to be savoured.

Egan does better with human protagonists in near future stuff like Quarantine and Permutation City IMHO. Having said that, his recent book of short stories, Dark Integers (which I also read recently) is far better than Incandescence. Inventive, engaging, more plot-driven with recognisable - if not deeply-drawn - characters.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What I did today

As you may have gathered, the Dubai work has hit a pause and while waiting for events, I have been catching up with other stuff.

1. I spent the morning working through superconductivity in my OU course SMT359 Electromagnetism (penultimate chapter of book 2). The final chapter covers the treatment of Maxwell's equations in special relativity, then I get to do the third course assignment (cut-off date July 25th).

2. Having re-installed Windows XP on my old Toshiba laptop (which I have now 'given' to Clare), I spent time this afternoon helping to move the OS from its 2003 reincarnation to current. This involved repeated invocations of Microsoft Update + restarts via XP Service Packs 2 and 3.

3. I spent a couple of hours this afternoon getting the Interweave Consulting books up to date. In particular breaking my expenses out from multiple invoices into the categories required by the Inland Revenue.

4. I read the latest Scientific American, which has a really interesting article called "Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime". This describes causal dynamical triangulation - Wikipedia summary here. I guess you could probably run their spacetime simulations on your laptop, assuming it was faster than Clare's Toshiba.

5. Tomorrow it's back to superconductivity again.

Five Factor personality test

Interesting personality test here.

More about personality tests and the five-factor model here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dream Cat (Yume Neko )

Note to Hasbro (re: Fur Real Cat )

Hi Guys,

Nice product, Sega call it the Dream Cat (Yume Neko). We thought you might like some user feedback.

Snow White, as my wife has taken to calling her, is pretty realistic.

Snow White

She spooks the next door cat through the window and appears responsive to attention (that would be the light sensor, I guess). So here are my top three suggestions for the product R&D team.

1. Make kitty more responsive. I know that returning the adoring human’s gaze is difficult (mini-cameras and expensive image processing). I think stereo-microphones would work just as well, tracking the direction of people’s voices and inclining kitty's head just so.

2. Limited mobility ... I know, expensive extra motors and more smart processing. Still, I have a vision of a docking station, where a rechargeable kitty could plug-in. It also contains a low-powered radio beacon, which Kitty locks onto so as to avoid straying too far. Trust me, the punters would love it.

3. Enough with the three ‘C’ batteries. Make kitty rechargeable.

All that other cute stuff – webcams, WiFi, intruder detection and prevention (love those titanium claws!). It’s all good stuff, but really, it can come later.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Happening

We visited the new cinema in Andover this evening (Reel Cinema it's called, part of a chain - a ghastly pun you can't walk away from). It's a modern building over the new supermarket, but as we parked near the entrance, we noticed that someone had broken two of the new trees planted at the edge of the car park. Nice one, guys!

What can I say about The Happening by the director of The Sixth Sense M. Night Shyamalan? The plants consider humankind to be an enemy of the planet, (who can blame them after their Andover experience?) and secrete toxins which drive folks to suicide. Our heroes head for the hills. Like a red algae bloom (but the metaphor is wrong), after a while the effect terminates (for now).

So there is no plot, no resolution and we don't care much about the characters. The New York Times is marginally kinder to the film in their review here.

I thought the hero physics teacher's wife 'Alma' (Zooey Deschanel) was rather cute, with her enormous eyes. Her truculence was less convincing.

While I was yawning, Clare told me afterwards she had quite enjoyed the film. Turns out she had rather ignored the multiple suicides and had interpreted the film instead as some kind of middle-american travelogue. Well, the scenery was rather nice.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lavinia

Just read Ursula LeGuin's recent novel, Lavinia (Amazon reviews here).

The novel extends The Aeneid, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. Virgil was writing a founding myth of Rome, where the Trojan hero Aeneas, after many adventures in Cathage, Sicily and the underworld, arrives in Latium, near the eventual site of Rome. There he engages in warfare with the indigent clans and victorious, marries the local princess Lavinia to found the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

LeGuin's Aeneas is a Taoist ideal, the artisan attuned to the Way in its Augustan form as pietas, honour and duty. He contends with those overmastered by passions: King Turnus, who he kills (murders?) at the end of the Aeneid, and his own flawed son, Ascanius. Lavinia, a cipher in Virgil's poem, becomes a person in LeGuin's hands, but also an archetype: the owl of Minerva.

The reviews on the Amazon website properly convey what a fine piece of writing this is. It works as history, a vivid picture of bronze-age life, and as a retelling of the last six books of the Aeneid. Lavinia lives her life, from small girl to her eventual destiny, in the immanent presence of magic, myth and fate. LeGuin ensures that the reader does too.

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Note: it reminded me a little of "The Way of Wyrd" by Professor Brian Bates, which recreates the celtic 'life in magic' in dark ages Britain

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cool

Having been busy/away for the last three weeks, as usual I am way behind with my physics course. With summer school at Sussex University coming up at the end of July, I have an additional set of questions to answer (a CMA, in the jargon) by July 3rd.

Summer school is experimental physics, so we will be measuring the Hall effect at different temperatures, looking at superconductivity, measuring the doppler efffect with microwaves and running a bunch of computer-based field simulations.

Since this is based on physical reality, not theory, there is going to be a lot of messing around with liquid nitrogen, conveyor belts (for the doppler reflector) and high voltages.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hello Kitty!

You know how we always wanted a cat, but being away from time to time on business trips it was rather impractical? Well, let Clare introduce you to Snow White ...

video

More about Snow White here. She also has 'autonomous behaviour' as shown below.

video

There is something very Release 1.0 about kitty here. But trust me, this stuff is going to be big.

Telco 2015

I was in Venice for a reason, to give a talk about the future of telecom companies. Here are the main points of my presentation.

Future Business Model

1. There is a trend in telecoms for new kinds of service to be developed and introduced first by enterprises or consumer-goods companies. If they succeed, the carriers then abstract the ‘middleware’ essentials and productise the result, exploiting their networking and platform operations expertise and economies of scale. We saw this with private networks leading to VPNs, and with PBXs leading to Centrex. Latterly we are seeing it with mobile services opening the door to IMS, and web-based applications leading to web-services middleware platforms.

2. Productisation of these enabling platforms will the main future revenue streams of telcos. They are sufficiently complex to set up and operate that barriers to entry for anyone else are high, and as all kinds of business migrate to virtuality, these platforms will emerge as major revenue streams.

3. An alternative carrier ‘strategy’ is to focus at the fibre and IP/MPLS transport level and extort economic rents from successful service providers such as Google, Yahoo by leveraging the operator’s monopoly of broadband access. This is anticompetitive, short-sighted, threatens to kill off Internet-based innovation and is basically unethical. The regulator will see it that way too.

Transition Strategies

1. Operators get pretty energised by the Next-Generation Network (NGN). A plethora of target architectures and target networks. They are less definitive about the next-generation organisation, based on state-of-the-art IT systems, few, highly-qualified staff and much outsourcing. Ditto for their future business models and value chain insertion.

2. The NGN transition is a business revolution not an evolution. Any carrier which tries to simply grow the NGN within its existing framework of people, processes and systems is going to spend a lot of money creating an even bigger internal mess.

3. The only way to get the benefits of the NGN, and therefore continue to be a player going forwards, is to start a new organisation which is designed from the start on the target organisational architecture, with optimised processes and flow-through automation. Migration of customers from the legacy, cash-cow telco to the new organisation will be difficult, but at least there will be something to migrate to.

An Open Ecosystem value chain

1. Many high-tech companies such as Cisco don’t do much research internally. They know that the Internet, which equates to global availability of ubiquitous high bandwidth connectivity, has created a vast uncharted market-space of new product, service and device opportunities.

2. No one company has the resources to explore this space. Venture capital allows hundreds or thousands of companies to take a new idea to market. Most fail, or succeed only modestly. A few hit the big-time, and Cisco buys them.

3. In a situation of platform-driven market-innovation (where the platforms include: IP/MPLS transport, IMS, web-services infrastructure), the next-generation telco will create an ecosystem of start-ups and entrepreneurs, making the carrier service development and service delivery platforms cost-effective for all to use. When a service begins to take-off big-time, the carrier will productise it themselves, exploiting their customer base, sales and marketing strengths and economies of scale for second-mover advantage to dominate the mass market.

This is the successful business model for the next-generation telco.

Thoughts of Venice

Prior to our arrival, and knowing nothing particular about Venice except rumour, I was prepared for mosquitoes, overcharging traders and muddy paths leading to bridges over the canals. None of this turned out to be true.

On the main island where we were, Venice has no cars, buses, taxis or bikes. People walk, dragging their luggage over the steps of the bridges, or they take a water bus or water taxi.

Venice is also clean and safe. We saw rubbish bags being put out in the evening: by next morning they were gone. The mechanism remained elusive.

Walkways are cheap, canals are much more expensive and bridges over them more so again. This creates a connectivity structure where there are many walkways at all scales from broad thoroughfares through to alleys so narrow that only one person can walk down them. Because bridges are so expensive, most walkways meander into dead ends, or stop at the edge of a canal, or slowly drift in orientation until one is walking imperceptibly in the opposite direction. It is easy to get lost, especially as the maps freely donated by hotels and the web bear little relationship to on-the-ground reality.

Restaurants normally charged us what it said on the menu and we saw few signs of tourist-specific mark-up. There were few mosquitoes or flies of any description, and we were not bitten.

At one of the art galleries we saw a huge painting of St Mark’s Square, created in the 15th century. It looked exactly like it does today. I had had little idea of the extreme antiquity of Venice before this.

I should add that the birds are extremely tame and aggressive. We frequently had sparrows hopping onto our restaurant tables looking for scraps of bread and dolces. We had our hair brushed by transient pigeon wings more than once.

The author in Venice

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Venice

Just back from a business trip to Venice where we managed a couple of days tourism. Here's the obligatory scene-setting picture.


This evening we had our final meal in a square near our hotel. Clare had ordered a grilled sea bass and I was trying a perfectly-cooked archer fish when the circling thunderstorm finally scored a direct hit.

As a fire hose was turned on our square, the waiters frantically cleared tables. We continued eating until the weight of water on the canopy above burst through and cascades of water erupted all around us. We joined everyone else in cramming into the restaurant proper. After a few minutes, I popped out to review the sterling work of the restaurant staff, as can be seen in the following short video.

video

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bee Movie

Clare is pretty much the guest blogger for this post, or at least prime motivator.

We came back from Dubai to find our garden had bloomed in our absence. The hedge was a riot of red, which attracted most of the bees in the neighbourhood. I was therefore instructed to capture the moment.

video

As we are now part of the bee value chain, I am struggling to see how we can extract some rent from the honey production process.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back in the UK (again)

After 14 hours travelling, we arrived back this afternoon from Dubai.

Something I heard on Dubai radio a while ago.

She: "If I died, would you marry again?"

He: "Maybe."

She: "And would she live in this house?"

He: "I suppose so."

She: (coyly): "And would she sleep in our bed?"

He: (reluctantly): "Hmm - I guess so."

She: "And would she use my golf clubs?"

He: "No, she's left handed ..."

I believe this was an advert for, in fact, golf clubs.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Our apartment in The Greens

After an overnight flight back to Dubai, we arrived back in The Greens at 4 a.m. this morning and checked into a new apartment with a view as shown.

The view from our apartment window

Our apartment is quite spacious. There is a little person visible in the picture listening to Test Match Special (Radio 5 Live by Internet radio).

Our apartment in The Greens

Last weekend our son Alex came to visit. We went down to Southampton airport to meet his flight, and Clare insisted on watching it land from the top of the car-park. She was irritated that I insisted on taking a picture of her, but in best 'Spooks' tradition, it was all a cover. I was really wondering what the guy behind (circled) was doing taking all those photos with his high-class camera.

Just plane-spotting

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Another Dubai contract extension

After a couple of weeks "off" during which I fixed my OU assignment and then took the brief holiday in Dartmoor mentioned below, my next contract extension duly came through. It's been a week so far and a further week to do in this round.

I got a call today from the strategy director of a European carrier. They are organising a 'vision' event a couple of weeks time for their senior executives and, having read my book, decided to invite me along to do some futurology.

I'll post some more stuff after the event, if it goes ahead. Tell you what 'narrative' I eventually decided to put together.

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I read an interesting New York Times article (here) with the intriguing title "Dark, Perhaps Forever". It is reported therein that Ed Witten is finally, reluctantly, a convert to the anthropic landscape of string theory.

I have never truly believed that the universe is necessarily so. That is, that there is a "final theory" which has, model-theoretically-speaking, a unique model.

However, the universe is put together so neatly that one feels that most of the structure ought in fact to be necessary, with only a few fairly natural parameters to be set (non-anthropically).

A kind of benign multiverse.

If it turns out that there really are 10^500 universes - all different - which are compatible with our best fundamental theories ... well, we're not explaining very much, are we?