Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

Nothing lasts forever. None of the great nation-states or empires – Babylon; Rome; France, either Bourbon or Bonapartist; Britain in her Elizabethan then imperial glory – have succeeded in maintaining global ascendancy for long, since in life, politics and trade, what goes up must eventually come down. Which, if nothing else, is a paradigm for the decline of the fastest growing empires in history – the software giants. Microsoft, creaking, looks to be on the way down, a tortoise in the company of greyhounds. There’s been a torrent of hysterical reaction to Apple’s quarterly results plus feverish speculation about its future almost every time they’ve been published. When people begin to panic about a quarterly net profit of $8.2 billion (Q4 last year), planet Earth and its comforting grip on reality is a long way away.  We’ve been mesmerized for years by Apple's metamorphosis from a failing computer manufacturer into a corporate giant - there are over eighty million iPhones in the world - how much bigger can it get? On some days, it is now the most valuable company in the world, with bigger cash reserves than the annual GDP of some countries. There really is an inevitability about its downward spiral – but the question remains – how far and how long will it take?
Then there's Facebook, used by one-seventh of the planet’s population, which is likewise the focus of much hyperventilation.  Recently, the Zuckerberg empire launched its newest weapon of mass intoxication with the catchy name of Graph Search – as in "social graph". Facebook's new tool is just an algorithm that finds information from within one's network of friends and supplements the results with hits from Bill Gates’ Bing search engine, but to read some of the commentary on it you'd imagine that Zuckerberg and friends had invented either a perpetual motion engine or a transit visa for hell. In essence, Graph Search is an attempt to cluster Internet users into spaces that are more easily managed, but, the Internet is a wild animal and there’s too much interesting stuff out there to snare people into searching wherever Bing or Google think they ought to go.
As I trawl through the current overheated commentary on Apple and Facebook,  I’m reminded  more and more frequently that sic transit gloria mundi.  I have been in this game long enough to remember a time when Microsoft was dominant, innovative and scary, Apple was a geeky little mouse in a corner and Facebook was a game for Harvard undergraduates to find girls.  Now the Windows are only half open and they are being outstripped in the race to the clouds. Gates himself prophesied his own downfall to some extent after he remarked a few years ago that the cost of hardware would plummet – in consequence his expensive software costs as much as the machines it runs on.
Outcomes might well be the same but causes differ. Apple make things that people want - indeed stampede - to buy, assembled in gigantic Chinese sweatshops with huge margins hence the volume of product generated is awesomely huge and worldwide markets still expanding exponentially. People who don’t own a computer in Ethiopia can get online with a phone. Facebook don’t make anything – they just provide a service which people currently value and if such a service becomes redundant it will most probably be because the Zuckerberg moles have burrowed too intrusively into people’s lives since this is the only way of generating enough advertising revenue to keep it afloat. I think it unlikely that  despite the fact that, yes, I want an iPhone 5, the technology indispensables of today will ever be relegated to the footnotes of Internet history but a time is surely coming when they will be seen as quaintly old-fashioned. Like Proust's novels.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Boltzmann's Revenge

I find myself musing abstractedly sometimes on things I don't understand very well, like quantum mechanics and gravity. Having been told at university that it's OK not to understand or make sense of quantum mechanics, just use it, sends one's mind into a worryingly non-linear spiral, if you'll forgive the tautology of anxiety. There are ideas in abundance. When asked at a conference – along with many other specious and intractable problems 'which model of quantum mechanics they preferred' there was, predictably, considerable disagreement.
The physicist David Deutsch’s 'The Beginning of Infinity' is – according to reviews - 'resolutely and inspiringly optimistic about the potential for growth in scientific knowledge and in consequence about people's capacity to transform themselves and their environment for the better.' He further argues that 'the potential for new knowledge is limitless' and therefore the protection and enabling of science and its institutions is the bedrock from which no problem can be regarded as insoluble. This disregards the 'parochial and outdated' notion that things have to make conceptual sense. Such optimism is undoubtedly popular, but I find myself - if not believing - then certainly supposing that there is an 'end to things' - both in terms of the 'things' themselves and also our ability to comprehend them. Intelligence, like ready cash, is a finite commodity.
Physics and philosophy are a reluctant bride and groom, uneasily sharing the same untidily made bed, each distrustful of the other. I would ask a more fundamental question – what is the aim of scientific information gathering? It cannot be certainty – would that it could -  but its purpose is to weight the evidence in favour of one theory over another, which is all we can legitimately ask of a data set, flawed as its gathering might be. Schoolchildren are taught Galilean empiricism which reinforces a worldview that all is available for discovery if only the right tools were available. Karl Popper, said to be the greatest philosopher since Bacon, suggested that science advances by deductive falsification by a process of conjecture and refutation. He believed that it is imagination and creativity, not pure inductive reasoning that generates 'real' scientific theories which is why Einstein was able to study the universe with no more apparatus than a piece of chalk. Experiments test theories - they can't produce them. I like this. God playing hide-and-seek with the very best and still coming out ahead.
From the impossibly small to improbably large - nearly all physicists agree that on relatively small scales the distribution of galaxies is fractal-like: hundreds of billions of stars group together to form galaxies, galaxies clump together to form clusters, and clusters amass into superclusters. The point of contention, however, is what happens at even larger scales. According to most physicists, this Russian doll-style clustering comes to an end and the universe, on large scales, becomes homogeneous. I wonder why? Is the data set reliable enough? Some argue that the data shows the opposite: the universe continues to look fractal as far out as our telescopes can see. I have a Newtonian view – stuff carries on doing what it's doing till something happens to change it. If the stuff behaves in a statistically predictable way, it'll continue to do so. Presumably. 
Thermodynamics is another statistical black art. The graphic is, as every physicist knows, from the gravestone of statistical thermodynamicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the only scientist to have an equation on his tomb. People still argue that entropy doesn't exist but given the degree of disorder in my house after not having maintained its tidiness for some time, I'm inclined to disagree. The arrow of time seems to unfailingly generate chaos but the effort required to maintain it is more costly than leaving it alone. Much like the Universe, perhaps. God understands stochastic processes. Those with OCD tendencies can find comfort here - do look, it's probably more interesting than what's gone before. Random behaviour is no laughing matter as Ludwig so amply demonstrates.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Occam's Sin

Dignified and to the point, I think
A snippet caught my attention recently. It has been suggested that handwriting is a dying art – I can’t remember the last time I used a pen to do anything more than sign my name on a birthday card. When the Higgs boson was announced, a researcher gave a presentation using instead of the more thoughtful Trebuchet, ponderous Times New Roman or even fail-safe Arial, the laughably jolly Comic Sans, which has been described as turning up to a funeral in a Hawaiian shirt. Incidentally and for the record, if anyone at all turns up to my funeral they can wear full morning dress with pyjama bottoms and slippers if they feel like it. Despite the font's simplistic, hand-lettered appearance, a recent study has reported finding Comic Sans harder to read than almost any of the others. So a Comic Sans fan might argue that using it to announce the Higgs boson could have nudged people into paying more attention.
Cooking recipes in fonts that look like handwriting are perceived as more demanding and because it takes longer to read them, they’re more difficult to follow and the food will be more difficult to prepare. I find myself wondering how much of the backlash against Comic Sans is due to the font's name rather than its appearance. Looked at dispassionately, the font is not really "funny" – it seems to me to have no comedic currency at all. It is, on the other hand, highly legible, especially when used in low resolution. This was probably why it was chosen, sensibly, to label presentation slides. Also, using it gives one a distinct kindergarten tingle as if one's teacher is about to award a gold star in one's writing book with a suitably encouraging  (handwritten) comment.
But, it has the word "comic" in its name. This clearly means that it is not suitable for serious, grown-up endeavours. Had the same font been named "Gravitas Sans", the reaction might have been more favourable, but it wouldn't've made such a delightful anagram for the title. I hope the CERN presenters are taking notes.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Fashionably Russian

I was musing the other day that in addition to all my other worries, like which socks to choose in the mornings, what if I had additionally to concern myself with the burdensome notion of Tax. Proposed tax increases by that little grey man, François Hollande, have prompted some wealthy residents to consider abandoning la belle France for countries with more amenable fiscal policies. But I am not among them, for obvious reasons. One of the more controversial parts of the 2013 budget is a 75% tax on those earning more than €1 million which some regard as nothing more than legalised extortion. The proposal has recently been revoked – quelle surprise - but Mr. Hollande is also attempting to raise taxes on capital gains and household wealth, squeezing the rich until the pips squeak. That’ll teach them to get rid of the posturing Sarkozy in favour of a technocrat. All of which has prompted some interesting responses. Gérard Dépardieu – the self-made enfant terrible of the French media who once described himself thus: “je te dis la vérité, je suis une vraie ordure”  has first moved himself and his fortune to a small Belgian village, putting up his Left Bank townhouse for sale – then, improbably, striking up an unlikely alliance with Mr Vladimir Putin with whom he seems to have become big mates, a bloated Obélix to Putin's courageous Astérix, perhaps. The man himself is no stranger to controversy - he made headlines a while back by relieving himself in the aisle of an Air France jet when asked to return to his seat and has more recently found himself in Hollywood's spotlight with a suitably nasty role as the cannibal Cook in the visual masterpiece and allegedly unfilmable  'Life of Pi' which is on the Oscar list this year. Glorious music, incidentally.
In 2008, Naomi Campbell  moved to Moscow to live with her billionaire Russian fiancé. Will Gérard Dépardieu follow?  Perhaps when Belgium loses its lustre, which, to be honest, might not take very long and armed with a brand new Russian passport, he might decide to move to a chillier climate. Pravda ‘welcomed him with open arms’ it would seem, unlike the last time a Frenchman tried to get into Moscow in 1812.  Clutching his shiny new passport, he visited Saransk, the capital of Mordovia where he was greeted at the airport by platoons of buxom wenches, folk songs and pancakes. The head of the republic, Vladimir Volkov suggested  that Dépardieu might like to move to Saransk and be Minister of Culture. Inexplicably, he declined. 
And, he’s not the only one. Brigitte Bardot, (Lancel even created a handbag just for her) has threatened to ask for Russian nationality if the French authorities decide to put down her two sick elephants. It's becoming almost fashionable to be Russian, especially if you're badly behaved or senile. I really must think about it, or, Я должен думать об этом as they say in Mordovia.