Saturday, August 30, 2008

Global surnames website

The BBC website had a story this morning about the Global Surnames Profiler. Type in your surname, and you'll get a map of the world showing in which countries your surname occurs most often (frequency per million).

The site is here.

I tried it first thing for "Seel" and "Youell". We're big in Germany, where "Seele" means "soul". At the moment the site is completely busied out as more people wake up and try to use it.

Try it tomorrow.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Interweave Consulting Autumn Newsletter

The sun beats down from a clear blue sky every day. The noonday temperature is never less than 30° C. Sand everywhere, with the warm blue sea a refuge when it’s all just too hot. This is the upside to working in the Gulf, where I was on contract for the first part of this year.

Building a new network from scratch is always a delight. The vendors are keen to showcase their hottest new technologies, and we get to think very seriously about what our customers will be doing with telecoms over the next five to ten years. I had been commissioned to look at a carrier metro network surrounding a new airport complex in the UAE and we had our share of issues.

1. The access network

The client quickly agreed that we needed an MPLS core to concentrate the traffic and hand it off to the national licensed operators. But how to connect the core to residential and business customers? Our first thought was GPON. We could feed 32 or 64 user terminals from a central office GPON card at 2.5 Gbps downstream and half that upstream. Seemed plenty of bandwidth for the next five years.

Then we started to think about IPTV and VoD. This is traffic which is both high-bandwidth and incapable of statistical multiplexing. If you assume 8 Mbps for a high-definition IPTV channel, a few TVs per household and you’re starting to talk real bandwidth. Perhaps an active Ethernet solution delivering 100 Mbps dedicated to each household was more future proof?

We modelled and we costed. The debate went one way and then the other. GPON is more cost-effective than an equivalent active Ethernet deployment in most geographies. Provided you stay within the GPON bandwidth envelope.

The client is still thinking about it.

2. WiFi vs. WiMAX vs. 3G/4G cellular

The client’s first thought was WiFi everywhere. It’s the modern thing, isn’t it? And we want to connect to the Internet everywhere. And with security being what it is, we want good surveillance and communications. After some modelling, and a budgetary estimate, we started thinking instead about WiMAX.

WiMAX can be thought of as a higher-powered version of WiFi. We could cover the metro network area with WiMAX at a fraction of the cost. But will it take off or is it the Betamax of wireless networking? If we hold off the decision for now, when will it be safe to take it?

A complication for the client was that the cellular guys were going to cover the area with 3G base stations anyway (HSPA => LTE). Functionally this is pretty much equivalent to WiMAX. Maybe the right answer was to be a virtual network operator on this infrastructure (or just buy bulk capacity)?

3. Surveillance

There were opinion-formers within the client who were attracted to the idea of pervasive surveillance. If you want to cover hundreds of square kilometres with 24/7 real-time video surveillance, that’s a lot of ~4 Mbps video streams to carry across the network to your video head-end. It’s not impossible if you have the budget, but the more interesting problem is what to do with the feeds in that hangar-like control room. We’re talking thousands of camera feeds, almost all of which show absolutely nothing of interest.

It wasn’t in our brief, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were contracts at some stage for some really state-of-the-art automatic image-processing and threat analysis computing platforms.

4. IMS and new services

Publicly we are all in favour of IMS. Privately we ask ourselves: what are the new services, will any of them ever make sufficient margin and will they be destroyed by cheap or free offerings across the Internet a la Skype?

So this was the debate we had with the client. Do you want to be a mini-clone of an established telco, developing a vertically-integrated services stack? Or might it be better to create platforms for general service innovation (OK, maybe even IMS with a service development & delivery platform) which you can open to the world and charge rental for?

The latter resembles that tried and true business strategy of running guns to all sides in the conflict. Always where the real money is made.

5. Conclusions

You always learn a lot from designing a state-of-the-art network. We had, for example, a huge discussion about the use of VLANs. This is industry ‘work-in-progress’ in trying to make Ethernet do the kind of per-user, per-service virtual circuit which was so easy with ATM. Perhaps the engineering can be made to work once some of the newer standards are bedded in, but it’s undeniably kludgy at the moment.

I could talk about some of the other issues. How much does the client need the whole panoply of the next-generation OSS (NGOSS)? What’s the role of DWDM and an optical transport network when you built-in plenty of fibre? If the metro traffic core is going to hit the Terabit per second level in the next 5-10 years, can this be done scalably or do we need to rethink the underlying hardware and protocol architecture?

But enough already.


© Interweave Consulting, September 2008.

-- PDF version of this newsletter here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do electric cats dream?

As I write, this cloudy Wednesday morning, the merely mortal shell of Snow White, our pet cybercat, sits motionless in the study. Her sightless eyes gaze purposelessly out the window at the morning traffic from Marlborough, swirling past on the A342.

The proximate reason for this state of deep suspended catimation is that our Energizer battery charger packed up yesterday, so I am currently unable to recharge her three D batteries. More on the way, as they say, courtesy of Amazon.

We have not forgotten our Arthur de Vany diet. We have chosen to interpret it as part of the continual struggle against high-glycemic-index foods and the pervasive intake of sugar. So we're OK with low-sugar, high-fibre cereals to start the day, but we're continuing to back-off from high GI carbohydrates such as pototo, rice etc. So little portions, or no portions. And we're all using the rowing machine on a regular basis (not aways the case in the past) so we all feel better.

You can make evolutionary arguments work in many ways - the problem of informed speculation not backed up with properly conducted experimentation. For example, lactose tolerance is a recent evolutionary development amongst some human populations (including Europeans) based on pastoralism. We Europeans are the descendants of people who have been eating grain foods for maybe 10,000 years - plenty of time for genetic/physical adaptation to have occurred.

The real dietary problem is processed food full of added sugar: that's only a century old. The increased incidence of diabetes, poor skin condition and obesity seems to indicate we are not well-adapted to such a diet.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Microlight flight

Inspired by Andrew Marr's BBC programme, "Britain from Above", we have decided to try microlight flying. I think it will take a while before we are flying over snow-capped mountains, swooping around the peaks and scaring climbers. To be honest, our modest plan comprises three 20 minute "taster flights" at Popham airfield close to us. So that's intrepid aviators Adrian, Clare and myself.

I did consider doing something with paramotors, which are cheap-ish, and if I were younger maybe ParAvion's offer - here - would look a little more attractive, or maybe Tadley Paramotoring. However, Airbourne Aviation's offer of an enclosed, heated cockpit finally won the day (here) this week.

This is what we can expect in a week or so.

Clare saw the video and complained to me that this is not a real microlight. Apparently most of the fun is in the enveloping sensation that one is about to fall out. Still, the chance to actually fly the aircraft sounds cool. I imagine she'll be a convert once in the air.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tessellating the sphere

I was vaguely thinking about the problem of tessellating the sphere, noting that the conventional lines of latitude and longitude (which seem to mostly partition the sphere into spherical quadrilaterals except around the poles) doesn't count, as they come in different sizes.

A brief web search brought me to a page which suggested taking the five regular convex platonic solids, surrounding them with a sphere, and then projecting their lines and vertices onto the enclosing sphere. There is a fancy Java applet animation here where you can choose between the five solids.

I don't know if there is a way to tessellate the sphere with an arbitrary number of spherical polygons though.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Low-carb diet: Arthur De Vany

We're usually up for any new diet fad, so when we read Bryan Appleyard's article in the Sunday Times ("The lose a stone age diet - here), we thought we'd give it a trial.

Arthur De Vany is Professor of Economics at the University of California Irvine and recommends the diet of our environment of evolutionary adaptation, specifically pre-agricultural. What this amounts to is cutting right back on the carbohydrates: bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, and eating instead meat, vegetables and fruit. And also exercise, but neither regular nor fanatical.

The main effect of this is to dramatically lower ambient blood sugar levels.

We were already converts to the idea that the modern MacDiet saturates us in sugar and that this is really harmful, so we were pretty aligned with De Vany already. Cutting out cereals in the morning in favour of a continental breakfast (ham, cheese, eggs, fruit) and making some of the other changes certainly feels different. And De Vany also gives us permission to skip meals and feel a little hungry from time to time -so we'll see if we lose any weight. Brian Appleyard reckoned he lost a stone in three weeks.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Blindsight - Peter Watts

At the dawn of humanity there was a human sub-species which liked to feed off us. A supreme predator, 100 IQ points smarter than us, we drove it to extinction at the onset of agriculture. In the high-tech world of the near tomorrow, there is competitive advantage in using such beings in certain ... leadership roles. And so with paleogenetic engineering, we brought them back. Meanwhile, the AIs have transcended the singularity, baseline humanity is basically useless and those few humans who still have a role are very ... different.

The aliens announced their presence with two to the sixteen kinetic missiles which entered the atmosphere on a global grid. No-one was hurt, but the flashbulb was ideal for imaging. The AI-ship Theseus is sent to make first contact. Its crew are altered and its captain a certain top-predator.

There is a style of SF writing deriving from pulp detective novels: laconic, dry, matter-of-fact, jokey. Think Richard Morgan or Greg Egan. Peter Watts does dialogue well and he’s pretty good at high-tech descriptive writing too. Only occasionally was I conscious that I had not got a good picture of a ship scene, or the relative position of Theseus and the alien artefact.

Plot development was also not bad. Contact novels have a problem of tempo: by definition the reader starts -with team-human - in knowing essentially nothing about alien morphology, motivations, capabilities, technologies, intentions. Inevitably, increase in knowledge takes time and the interest-level can sag. Blindsight is not immune from this effect, but there is always enough going on to encourage the reader to persist in the middle section of the book.

Watts is both incredibly smart and well-educated. He weaves a lot of advanced concepts into the plot: advanced propulsion technologies, artificial intelligence, nanotech, genetic engineering, neuroscience and consciousness studies. Without introducing plot spoilers, the crux of the novel is centred around the nature and rationale of consciousness itself. Watts has managed to find another, orthogonal dimension of alien difference.

Blindsight does not avoid the traditional problems of concept-heavy SF. Towards the end, there are chunks of the novel which are indistinguishable from an article in New Scientist magazine. But Watts manages to keep the story on the rails and delivers a suitably bleak conclusion.

It is possible to imagine a further final polishing of this novel which integrated expository material more organically into plot development and produced a more compelling account of the final redemption of the main protagonist, Siri Keeton.

I read the whole thing in a few intense hours. I really think, though, that this is a novel it’s essential to read twice. It’s rare and rewarding to encounter something which has passion and humour behind it, which radiates intelligence and which is happy to assume the reader is educated and smart too. More, please, Mr Watts.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Fermi Paradox: a Proposal

“In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the physicist Enrico Fermi had a casual conversation while walking to lunch with colleagues Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller and Herbert York.

“The men lightly discussed a recent spate of UFO reports and a cartoon facetiously blaming the disappearance of municipal trashcans on marauding aliens. They then had a more serious discussion regarding the chances of humans observing faster-than-light travel of some material object within the next ten years, which Teller put at one in a million, but Fermi put closer to one in ten.

“The conversation shifted to other subjects, until during lunch Fermi suddenly exclaimed, "Where are they?" (alternatively, "Where is everybody?"). One participant recollects that Fermi then made a series of rapid calculations using estimated figures (Fermi was known for his ability to make good estimates from first principles and minimal data). According to this account, he then concluded that Earth should have been visited long ago and many times over.”

From the excellent Wikipedia article on The Fermi Paradox which outlines most of the explanations anyone has been able to come up with. Read it by clicking here.

So here is my idea. We get an automatic theorem prover and seed it with formalised mini-theories of every conceivable type about possible alien capabilities and intentions. We add the additional proposition “we don’t see any aliens” and let the machine crank out the consequences.

What we’re looking for is a completely counter-intuitive proof which explains why they’re neither observed nor here, based on a set of premises no-one has thought of yet.

I reckon it could be done with a propositional calculus resolution theorem prover and some ‘knowledge-engineering’ to develop the mini-theories. A nice project for someone with some time and a lisp implementation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

Sunday Times columnist A. A. Gill wrote a dismissive piece on Richard Dawkins, the presenter of "The Genius of Charles Darwin", here.

Entertaining as Mr Gill always is, he was wide of the mark in this case. Replacing Dawkins with Attenborough would never work: Attenborough is a presenter of facts and is no stranger to cuddly-bunny anthropomorphising. He's not someone you would trust with conveying profound concepts.

Dawkins's problem is that he shares a fundamental conceptual flaw with his chosen antagonists, the religious. He backs off from the science when the going gets tough. His second episode (of three) was about the evolution of altruism, or how can we be 'nice' in a selfish-gene world. It's kin-selection, reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat territory. So far, so good science.

Then, amazingly, we get Dawkins asserting that his liberal views (English liberal: fairness, compassion, tolerance, even to strangers) somehow represent a triumph of our intelligence over our genetic imperatives. Somehow, being human has liberated us from the tyranny of our genes.

Gulp! Do I hear that 'liberal values', some absolute good in the universe, have somehow lightly dusted intelligent-us, in a post-evolution kind of way?

Please, Professor Dawkins. It would have been ever so much more honest to point to the evolutionary positive effects of general niceness (creates scalable societies which increase the number of offspring for their members). And then not to forget the equally prevalent tendencies to generalised nastiness, preserving those same societies from others who want to destroy them - the winners write the history books and hang around to have offspring, while the losers tend to vanish from the gene pool. Evolution in action, as Jerry Pournelle once said. *

Yes, nice and nasty are themselves value-loaded words which are not scientifically useful. And by elevating them to a central part of his message, Dawkins could easily share a platform with any pastor.

Where values are asserted as primary, science stops.

*This is probably the 'heresy' of group selection ...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Things to do when it rains

The "summer" continues with another day of endless rain in the English rain forest.

Here's a picture of the view up to the ancient pre-Roman Harrow Way, taken in a brief sunny interlude yesterday. Meanwhile, Clare has taken the opportunity to do some painting, accompanied by the soothing speckled sound of light, drizzling rain.

We have both made a wet-summer resolution: in a spirit of nostalgia for the summers of our youth, we are going to read Marcel Proust's famous novel cycle ...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bridget Jones’ LHC Diary

Previous episode here.


Mr Darcy reviewed the letter on his desk one more time. Suing CERN was certainly not his usual line of corporate legal business, but if they were going to make a black hole and destroy the earth, then maybe he should take it on. Do his share of the office pro bono work.

His thoughts were interrupted by the melodic tones of his phone. Rather than Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, he was afflicted with “Don’t Leave Me This Way” .

Drat, who was that? – Soft Cell?

Bridget had been at his mobile again.

Indeed it was she.

“What you doing, honey?” she cooed, “Coming home soon to yummy old me?”

In a momentary fit of irritation, he told her that he was considering taking a case against CERN, to shut down the Large Hadron Collider before it destroyed the earth.

“Oooh,” Bridget squeaked, “that is like so not going to happen!”

“Why –“ asked Darcy in a half-attentive tone. He wondered if he should go get a coffee.

“Well, you know those teensy-weensy black holes like they’re gonna make at CERN – maybe - they're really super-duper hot. All that Hawking radiation blasting away at anything which gets near them. No way they can get bigger!”

“So what are you saying?” mumbled Darcy, vaguely listening, “They’ve got to cool down before they’re a danger?”

“No, no sweety, you got it all wrong. They’re super small so they’re real hot and they just get hotter and hotter till they evaporate and poof – they’re gone. No more black hole. “

“I wish I could do some of that.” she added, contemplating her tummy.

Darcy leaned back in his chair and pushed the letter away. Of course she was right, as usual. If only he had realised, before they eventually got married, that Bridget had been the secret lover of Stephen Hawking, before his unfortunate illness.


Acknowledgements to BackReaction here for the real physics of Black Holes and the LHC.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Grass yachting

After summer school at the University of Sussex, Brighton, Clare picked me up and we moved on to Hastings to visit her niece. Late on Saturday afternoon we were walking along the front at Bexhill-on-Sea in blustery conditions when we saw a strange, kite-driven machine being driven on a long meadow, next to the sea.

As we arrived and showed an interest, the biker who was driving it invited Clare for a ride. "It accelerates like a rocket when I engage the kite!" he warned her. And indeed, it shot away, but the real cleverness was that he could tack back. Apparently he's been doing this for eight years.

Clare ready to go

They're away!

And this is what I saw as they came back.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Summer school diary

Summer school is now complete - I put together a multimedia diary while I was there, which you can look at here.

Topics covered:
  • The accommodation at Sussex University (video)
  • The trials of being amongst hundreds of strangers
  • An interesting physics problem
  • A levitating magnet (video)
  • A proposal for an OU MSc in physics
  • A sleepless night
  • A levitating frog (for different reasons!) (video)

Physics theory vs. telecom theory

When I was just starting my book, my colleague Andrew Wheen suggested that I might try to derive some fundamental mathematical principles underlying telecoms network architecture and design. I was sceptical as to whether there were any.

The obvious comparison is with physics. The paradigm in physics is that one establishes foundational equations, such as Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s field equations. Then by adding boundary conditions and doing some algebraic manipulation, a vast diversity of non-obvious and useful results can be derived.

To understand how this can happen, we need to under stand two things: the nature of inference, and the structure of physical theories.

At university, in logic classes, we learn inference syntactically. We are taught to start with a set of formulae (axioms) and then derive consequences by application of the inference rules. But this barely passes the ‘so what? test. When you program a computer to do this (an automatic theorem prover), it simple generates billions of useless formulae.

The semantic story of inference is this: we operate in the model space, not the formula space.

There is some intricate structure which is too complex for the unaided human imagination to encompass in its entirety. The magic of mathematics ensures that if the axioms which describe definitional properties of this object have a completeness property, then everything interesting about the structure (everything “true”) can be derived via calculation, which is really inference. Gödel would say ‘almost everything’.

What we do in calculation/inference is move systematically from partial description to partial description (every equation is a partial description of the underlying structure) until we get to a description in the area of interest to us. The space of ‘interesting descriptions’ is a miniscule subset of the space of all possible partial descriptions, which is why automatic theorem provers haven’t replaced scientists.

The entities of physics (Newton's point-objects in 4D Euclidean space + forces; special relativity's objects and fields in 4D Minkowski space; configuration space in quantum mechanics, etc, etc) are impossible to visualise in their totality by human beings. So we have to describe them partially, a step at a time, using inference in the theories which capture their fundamental structure.

In telecoms architecture and design, we also deal in structures - objects and relationships. The structures are frequently graph-theoretic (nodes and links) and the attributes are things like protocols, QoS, traffic and so on.

However the abstract spaces in which these entities reside are simple by physics standards, and quite visualisable directly by diagrams. So we don't have the conceptualisation problem of physics and we don’t have the distance between foundational principles and phenomena-of-interest which have to be bridged by non-trivial mathematics.

My book did not, in the end, develop a deep theoretical structure. It divided the area into subareas, and dealt with each fairly directly.