Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The world is complicated

Several things recently have prompted me to write this post; I'm not quite sure where its going, but lets start.

In BBC's excellent series 'Secrets of a Living Planet' with Chris Packham, it showed how complex webs of living organisms can create a sort of super organism, with lots of symbiosis and feedback going on.

For example, underground fungi networks connect  up lots of trees and other plants in a kind of living network. The fungi derive sugar from the tree roots, but the trees also benefit by getting various nutrients from the fungi. The fungi get the nutrients from other plants and decaying matter, some of which (in this case) are from decaying salmon which had been left by bears.

Amazingly it is possible to analyze the bear diet (from a single hair) and know that about 80% of their protein comes from the salmon, despite it being a short season when the salmon run. Even more amazing is analysis of the tree cores which shows that they too owe most of their structure to the salmon. Trees made from fish.

Of course it has long been known that complex relations exist between species, but this series really brought home how interdependent all living things are. It begins to make sense to think of the whole earth as a complex genome - Gaia if you like. It is a simple truism to say that no species could exist all by itself, so it is always necessary to consider evolution of a collection of species rather than just one.

Another hot topic at the moment is 'proteomics', or the extended genome. We now know that the human body carries 10 time as much DNA (by base numbers, not weight) in bacteria and fungi, than it does in its own  DNA. We know that there are hundreds (thousands?) of species of bacteria on and in each human individual, that these vary in different parts of the body, and vary between individuals. We know some of what they do, but we don't know the half of it. There is now an ongoing project to find out about all this stuff, which is as big as the human genome project - probably bigger, but thankfully won't take as long because of the huge advances in gene sequencing.

What amazed me though was to learn that some of these bacteria produce messengers that affect the way in which our genes are expressed in the human immune system. So they aren't just hitching a ride, or helping the digestion. They are a part of our genome almost as much as our own DNA is. Our evolution is a kind of co-evolution with our bacterial and fungal partners.

This is similar in a way to the living network idea above. The point is that we have to think about extended genomes, not just the genome in a specific individual or species. Richard Dawkins wrote a book called 'The extended Phenotype' some years back to discuss how we should consider things like artifacts and society as part of the 'phenotype' of a gene - the way it affects the individual's development. Looks like now is the time for one on the 'extended genome'.

On Science Friday I also heard of things called giant viruses. Apparently these have only been found fairly recently. They are as big as bacteria and operate differently from normal viruses - they set up a kind of internal virus factory. And they are  big enough to have their own viruses attacking them - virophages.
Now that we know they exist, all kinds of different ones are being found all over the place, including in arctic ice and underground.

Now The large hadron collider may (or may not) have found the higgs boson - though it seems it is not quite as simple as that. Apparently there are (or maybe) several different flavours of the possible higgs, and it may (or may not) involve some other new particles, in different flavours naturally.

What with the ever elusive dark matter and dark energy, it seems to me that, just as we begin to think that we are beginning to really understand everything, it all gets a lot more complex, and we realize that we don't actually understand it.

Thats why I wrote this post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012



There is an ongoing and vigorous debate about the whole issue of intellectual property, copying and protection that I want to discuss.

There are many issues here, and I want to go back to the whole purpose of having protection mechanisms.

The idea behind patents and copyright is to encourage invention and original work by ensuring that other people cannot benefit others by copying who have not put in the effort to create the work (and who maybe do not have the talent or ability).

Or rather, it is to ensure that the originator can benefit, and hence can continue to produce other works and derive financial benefit from them.

And here perhaps we come immediately to the nub of the whole issue. Does it matter if other people benefit parasitically from my original work, providing that I can benefit from it myself?

It would be reasonable to suggest that it does not matter, providing that I can benefit in an amount that is appropriate to the work.

Now some might say that I should be able to benefit to the maximum amount possible, because that would enhance the incentive to produce further work, and ensure that I would not suffer if I was unable to continue to be creative.

At first sight this might seem reasonable, but there are a couple of points relating to this view. Firstly, it is (as much in life), ultimately about proportionality. If I produce a creative work that requires a great deal of effort and talent, it is fair that I should receive a commensurably large reward. A work that requires a small effort and little talent would seem not to deserve a large reward.

The difficulty comes with the other cases: work that requires little effort, but large talent, and that which requires large effort but little talent. How should these be rewarded?

The free market approach would suggest that great talent will be given great reward (if there is also great demand), but that great effort will not be so rewarded because it is easily provided by others.

And here we come up against a moral conundrum also at the heart of the issue.
Why should Paul McCartney be paid a million pounds for writing a song that takes him a few hours, when a teacher or nurse has to labour for a lifetime to earn less?

It is easy to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is”, and in a sense, that is so. But remember that the songwriter can only earn huge amounts because of two things. There exists a large market of willing consumers, and the cost of distributing copies to them is small.

Before recording was possible, musicians did not earn huge amounts. The great few did quite well, because of support from the rich, but there was not the same opportunity to tap mass markets at low cost.

We are left with the question, what is an appropriate reward for these works? The standard reply is that is impossible for people to agree on the amount, so it must be left to market forces to decide.

Now when it is possible, as it now is, to copy digital works at almost zero cost, and in large numbers, the issue becomes confused. It is possible to argue that the ‘free market’ has become exactly that – copies available free, because the cost is also free. The only obstacle to this happening is the protection of intellectual property rights.

The problem is, though, that the solution is rather one sided. Prices (the financial reward) are effectively controlled by the rights, and there is a gulf between the protected price and the free market price. Which is why rampant copying exists in the internet, and by DVD copying in some parts of the world.

The world is changing rapidly, and existing business models are often past their sell by date. Price structures for digital media are still based on the pre digital age. Adjustment can be painful, but one conclusion that is impossible to avoid is that end user prices for digital media have been kept too high.

The industry has been slow to adapt, and has sought to fight rather than embrace the digital revolution. The more enlightened have realised that a certain amount of free distribution by copying is in itself a form of marketing, and can actually increase physical media sales rather than undermine them.

I now want to move on to the issue of patents. These exist for much the same reason as copyright, to protect those responsible for innovative methods of creating new products.

Again, there needs to be appropriate protection without providing a guarantee of excessive rewards available through digital copying and the mass world market.

The time period is a key issue in all these right protections. Some of them have increased, at a time when the world is moving faster, product lead times are reducing, and market windows are narrowing. This seems illogical, to say the least.

I really see no reason why the grandchildren of an author should be able to benefit from works he wrote before they were born (I write as the son of an author - I don't feel I have the right to his work long after his death).

The whole idea of software patents seems to be dubious to me. I worked in the software industry for many years. Most, maybe all, software is based on the ideas of previous work. Much is based on algorithms that have their roots in history. Nobody has suggested (so far) that you should be able to patent a mathematical theorem, but there can be a thin line between that and a software program. There is very little in the software world that is truly of ground breaking originality. If there is, it is likely to have come from some research department rather than a commercial software company.

It is sometimes suggested that, if you could not patent software, that it would make new software development unprofitable. That is nonsense. Somehow I do not see Apple ceasing to bring out new versions of software even if they could not patent any – same goes for Microsoft.

It is argued that small innovative companies that produce new software products would no longer do so without patent protection. Again, I simply do not believe it. A new innovative internet company can be born, thrive, and sell itself to Google for a million dollars in a very short space of time. Patent protection, in any case, will often not protect these small companies, because the legal department of the giants can tie them up until it ceases to be valuable.

In fact, I strongly believe that software patents do more harm than good, and simply should not be allowed.

The whole issue of I.P. rights should be greatly simplified and reduced. Rights should provide appropriate reward, but not guarantee excessive rewards provided by technology and mass markets. The time period for any such rights should be severely restricted
to reflect the realities of today’s world – say one year (but I’ll take a second opinion).

Technology is rapidly driving down the cost of products, and any rights provided have to reflect that. Rights for artistic works, too, have to be limited. I have nothing against J.K. Rowling, but see no reason why she should have an absolute right to be rewarded with hundreds of millions, however talented she may be (she does, thankfully, recycle some of those rewards through charities).

A short protection period, together with sensible pricing, should lead to a reduction in free copying, and an ability to reap reasonable reward. I do not believe that artists will cease to exist if they cannot hope to achieve massive financial success – most are not going to anyway. Art is driven by emotional need more that finance.

A combination of sensible pricing by media companies, and a reduction of the rights business, should ensure a sensible approach to the whole issue in times to come.

Dream on.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Light Bulbs

When I was a lad, there were two kinds of light bulbs in our house – 100 Watt, and 60 Watt. They were all the same size, and all bayonet fitting, which were very easy to replace (I am speaking about the UK here). Now you might have found a few 40 W bulbs, and there was a choice of clear or frosted, but mostly it was just the two kinds. For really exotic people, you could find coloured bulbs, but that was pretty exceptional. I’m not talking about Christmas trees here.

As time passed, other bulbs came along, like fluorescent tubes, which were mainly used in kitchens (though of course also in offices etc.), so the number of choices crept up to 5 or 10 say, but still pretty limited.

Nowadays, things have improved – haven’t they? For a start, we no longer use those nasty incandescent bulbs, but low energy replacements, which come in lots of power and shape options, 8W, 11W, 15W, 20W and more. Double turn, triple turn sticks, golf balls, globals, spirals and more. And since many are made in China for global markets, many are no longer bayonet fitting, but screw fittings, which naturally come in two different sizes.

Then there are candle bulbs, in again, different power ratings, clear/frosted, bayonet, screw (2 types).

Oh, and of course halogen bulbs – they are great aren’t they? Some in cases, some just dinky little two pin bulbs that you are supposed to push into very small holes without touching the glass cover – this can be great fun, and take about ten minutes. Oh and there are high voltage and low voltage options, which naturally need transformers so that they can actually be used. But don’t they look nice? Sad they are not low energy though. My kitchen makeover replaced two 60W strip lights and a 100 W bulb with 10 50W downlighters – oh dear, that’s 500 Watts instead of a max 220 – whoops, there goes global warming. And because they get hot, they have to have little dinky fire blankets for health and safety. And they are quite expensive. But don’t they look nice?

But never mind, I found some low energy replacements, very expensive though, up to £10 per bulb for the good ones. And then they are much bigger, and don’t always fit in the same spaces. And they don’t actually give the same light, so not so much downlighters as sideways spreaders, and not so bright either. Of course you could try LED versions, but hey they give a sort of cool blue light that isn’t very friendly.

And I haven’t even started on mini strips, micro strips, spots, compacts, double ended. There is a web site offering light bulbs that proudly tells us that it has over 300, 000 products. That’s an awful lot more than the two I started with. (OK, I’m cheating here – a lot of these are specialist bulbs, but still).

My point is (there is a point, honest), that the plethora of choice now available is actually not an improvement. At some point along the way, things started getting worse rather than better. Households now have to stock an alarming number of different bulbs, and even then may not cover some cases. Some light fittings have bulbs that are virtually unique to that fitting, making replacements hard to find, and expensive (and not low energy). Standardisation does not exist. It almost makes you yearn for a totalitarian government which only allows for two kinds of bulbs (like the two kinds of Russian yogurt – yesterday’s yogurt, and the day before yesterday’s).

Modern production lines and computer stock control can allow this kind of massive variation, rather like the pre Cambrian explosion (in evolution). Doesn’t make it easy for the customer though.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snags with the iPad

I've had my iPad for over a year now, and although I like it a lot, there are quite a few things about it that I definitely do not like.

For starters, there is no File Manager. Now, I understand why Steve Jobs was keen to keep things very simple - good idea, and remove complications from the user - also desirable. But you can take things too far, especially when you are a perfectionist like Jobs.

Lets take a simple example. I used the Times app (when it was free), and it was super - a great way of browsing the paper. But - it kept all previous issues on the iPad. I looked for the files, so I could delete some. Not possible. Eventually I found that in 'Settings' there was one for the Times app, where you could set 'clear cache' - OK, but that deletes all previous issues. There is simply no way of deleting some, and keeping others. On a Windows laptop, this is trivial.

This kind of problem repeats all over - any transfer of files between one app and another is cumbersome at best, and impossible quite often.

Now for the browser. Well, its great to start with, very easy to use, and the zoom in/out is excellent, though the screen does rapidly get smeared, and have to be cleaned often. But then I find that a finger flick to scroll down or up can easily be mistaken for a click on a link, and then the browser dives off somewhere that I do not want it to go, and I have to go 'back' again. This happens too often, and I find it a real nuisance. And then, if you want to use more than one window, it is clumsy - simple, yes, but clumsy. It is far better to use a tabbed browser on a Windows machine, where moving between windows is a simple rapid mouse click, rather than having to watch the fancy zooming out and in of the limited number of windows in the iPad browser. And when you swap between windows, it always seems to reload the page, which is a real pain .

To be fair, I haven't bought the 'office' apps for the iPad - but I can't see using it to do things like cutting and pasting between browser windows and documents. I find the text selection, cut and paste to be again, clumsy. It looks cool, but its not actually that easy to use.

I know that some people are using the iPad, with a separate keyboard, instead of a laptop or notebook as a 'creation' device, rather than just a consumption one. Personally, I think this is being perverse. Its like trying to use a motorbike instead of a car; you might be able to do it, but its hard.

Keep the iPad for simple browsing, checking emails, listening to iPod, looking at photos and videos. Its good at that. But for more complex tasks, use a Windows machine or Mac. It makes sense.

I'm just adding another grumble - the photo app doesnt have nested directories. If you have lots of photos of one country say, like Australia - I have photos of each main city in separate directories on my laptop. iPad just dumps them all into one overlarge section. Not good. For goodness sake, multi level directories have been with small computers since Unix first appeared. Even I was young then.

Come on, feel the noise

            COME ON, FEEL THE NOISE                      MAR 2011

I want to talk today about Noise and Bootstraps.

When I started work in 1965, no member of the public would have known what a bootstrap was (apart from real boots of course). Now, most people know what it means to ‘boot’ your PC, or your phone.

I have even had to reboot a car once. I had just arrived at the Grand Canyon in a hire car when the aircon started playing up; it was behaving strangely, and not cooling properly. I though for a moment, then turned the ignition off, waited, and restarted. It recovered perfectly – I had rebooted the car.

The reason why this process is known as ‘booting’ is that a raw computer, or other smart device, is a bit like a new born baby. It has potential, but not many well formed actions. The bootstrapping process gradually builds up levels of capability, with each level being needed to bring in the next one. Because the process starts almost from nothing, it is like pulling yourself up by your own bootlaces.

There are a lot of things that work a bit like this, and some (all?) are systems with feedback. I’ve tried to write a book about feedback, so I won’t be going into that in any detail. Sufficient to say that feedback involves feeding back some signal from a system output into an input of the same system.  I use the word ‘system’ to refer to any complex thing or organisation, like a living organism, or part of one, or a company, or a country, or a computer, or other electronics.

The thing about systems with feedback is that they have to start somewhere. If I feed back part of the output to the input, where does the first input come from? It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg. In real life it all gets rather complicated, because systems can have many inputs and outputs, and many feedback mechanisms that overlap.

But some feedback systems are fairly simple, like the well known ‘howl’ you can get from an amplifier and a microphone. This is cause by ‘positive’ feedback between the loudspeaker, the mike, and the amplifier. But it all has to start with some signal that gets amplified and re-amplified. Even in a totally quiet room the process can start. How? Well, it’s called Noise.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an audible sound – though it could be. Any electronic system always has a certain amount of internal electronic ‘noise’ – a very small electronic signal. This is caused by the random energetic motion of electrons in the system. There is always some energy present unless the whole system is at absolute zero – that’s very cold. And even then it gets complicated by quantum theory, but we definitely won’t be going into that here.

There are other electronic systems that rely on feedback; one is called an oscillator – you will have one in your watch or clock. It produces a regular signal that can be used to indicate time, and it also has to be started with a bit of noise somewhere.

The funny thing about all this is that ‘noise’ is generally regarded as a nuisance in electronics – it causes things like hiss in sound systems. But it is also a vital element in making things work. It’s a bit like friction, which causes lots of problems, but is also necessary so that we can do things like walking.

It gets even more interesting when you consider evolution. Evolution is, amongst other things, a kind of feedback system. It uses feedback from the interaction between a system and its environment to adapt the system. But it all had to start somewhere. Nobody knows exactly how, as yet anyway. But in some sense what it needed was a bit of noise – some random juggling of atoms and molecules, driven by energy from the sun, until the system started to bootstrap its way into life (literally).

There are techniques in computing called optimisation which have to solve difficult problems of finding the ‘best’ solution. These methods use various techniques which ‘explore’ the solution space or ‘geography’. Some of them are actually called ‘hill climbing’, because they resemble the problem of trying to find the highest point in a hilly area. The trouble is that you can find the highest ‘local’ point, but can’t be sure that there isn’t a higher one nearby. One of the methods used in trying to avoid this problem is to introduce a kind of ‘noise’ by randomly shifting the solution point, so that it less likely to get ‘stuck’ in a false optimum.

If the process of adding noise is repeated several times, it is referred to as ‘simulated annealing’, because it is similar to the process of repeatedly heating and cooling metal. This process itself uses a kind of noise – heat energy, which jiggles the atoms and molecules around until they find a ‘better’ solution – harder metal.

So, just as friction is something that can cause things to ‘get stuck’, so noise is something that can get things moving again. In a very real sense, noise is a fundamental part of the universe.

Science has not yet quite come up with the answer to how the universe started. This is a big subject; it isn’t even clear how many universes there are, whether they are finite, or infinite in time or space. Even framing these questions is tricky. Defining the word universe is tricky. Anyway, the point I am getting to is that starting a universe is a bootstrap process. You start with nothing, and end up with something. Maybe. And what do we need to start this up? Yup, noise.

Quantum theory (incomplete though it maybe) tells us that empty space is not, well, empty. It is actually a thriving zoo of ‘virtual’ particles popping into a quasi existence before popping off again. Sort of. Maybe. And it may be that some sort of quantum noise was the trigger that booted the whole business. As someone (can’t remember who) said: ‘Nothing’ is unstable. It wants to be something. Like Marlon Brando (on the Waterfront). And its all down to noise.

Micro Payments


A while back there was a lot of talk about micro payments, but nothing much has come of them. The best web payment systems we have are Paypal and Amazon 1-click.

But it seems to be that micro payments are very important. There has been much talk about how to monetise the media on the internet. Maybe Murdoch will be successful with his Daily, but only to a limited audience, and that is still something of an old world approach.

But suppose you had a really easy to use micro payment facility – then people could charge per article, or per section, rather than per issue. Of course Murdoch doesn’t want to do that. He wants to lock in subscribers to generate steady and large cash flow. And, to be fair, he is appealing to people who want to commit to a particular brand of writing and editing, rather than web grazers.

But consider if you only charged pennies or cents for an article, with a one click payment decision. Most people (well, most internet users) would not need to hesitate to make that decision. One million readers at 10 cents a time is $100,000 – not peanuts. And 100 million at 1 cent a time is $1,000,000 – even better. And who is going to think twice about spending 1 cent? – not even me, and I’m pretty mean. That could even be a zero click decision (perhaps I should patent that).

Of course this assumes that the transaction cost is small compared with the cash transfer, so 1 cent might be difficult, but surely 10 cents is possible. Each transaction would not have to be converted to a banking transfer. Your PC or phone or iPad could be pre loaded with a limited cash value in the same way that various payment card schemes are now using. Each micro payment would then come from this cash pot until it needed topping up.

There are security issues, but no more it would seem than with Paypal et al. The limited amount of cash stored in the device would be an upside loss limiter, and maybe one day we will have simple biometric security built in to smart devices.

So why haven’t we seen this already? Many reasons I guess, the big players are fairly happy with the status quo, and you need a big player. Market penetration has already been taken by Paypal, Worldpay, Amazon. Media companies are running scared. Despite the fact that music can now be bought per track, rather than per album, their payment model is still predicated around the vinyl era.

What we need is a Branson to come to the rescue. Here’s hoping.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The iThing

THE iTHING             Feb 2009

I have been thinking about getting an iPhone, or something similar. But I have put it off for the moment, partly because of cost, but also because I want to figure out the whole business of portable devices.

While I think of it, the business of cost is also relevant. Now you can get an iPhone for free – isn’t that great? Of course you have to commit to paying (in the UK) £40 per month for the next two years. That’s about £1000. So not quite free, then is it? To be fair, this gives you phone calls and data access included, which then raises the whole issue of mobile versus land line, and mobile broadband and Wimax and…. But I don’t want to get into all that, at least not yet. I just want to think about mobile devices.

I currently have about four small mobile electronic devices:

a mobile phone (old and basic)
an iPod
an old HP IPAQ pocket pc (aka PDA)
a Minolta digital camera

And that is not counting my video camera (because it is bulky), or my satnav (because that goes in my car).

I also have chargers for each of these devices, because of course they all have batteries that are incompatible. This is something I may return to later.

I actually still use my old PDA quite a lot, which might amuse up to the minute gadget geeks. It is quite powerful as it can play MP3s, display photos, record sound, display PDF files, hold a multi language dictionary, use a shopping list program, and let me read books, and edit and view Word and Excel files. I even have some (very crude) street maps on it which have been extracted from MS Autoroute, and contain details of POIs (points of interest).If it had WiFi (I couldn’t afford it at the time), I could also access emails. But the battery life is pretty bad, and the screen isn’t really good enough in any amount of sunlight.

I find using the stylus and on screen keyboard is quite easy and quick, it seems to me to be to be preferable to iPhone type touch screen key entry, especially if you have chunky fingers. A stylus is a pretty good device which seems to have vanished in the frenzy of multi-touch screens now enveloping the mobile phone world. I have even managed to read a book on the PDA (mainly indoors); it is surprising how little problem is caused by a small screen. After all, you can only actually read a few words in a few seconds, though your eye does hop a round a bit while reading. If you have a paragraph (which is about what you get on my PDA screen), it seems quite enough. I expect some people would not like it, and screens are better now anyway, but it shows how you can use new devices in ways that would not appear to be viable at first sight.

Now let us list all the things I might want to do with a pocket mobile device:

            Play music or podcasts
            Make or receive a phone call (with option for video link)
            Show photographs
            Send or receive a text message (could be TXT or email)
            Access web sites
            See where I am on a map, and navigate to locations
            Take photos or small videos
            Record sound scenes or notes
            Make and view text notes, or longer documents (incl. PDF)
            Do simple calculations, or simple spread sheets
            Keep todo list(s)
            Look at a calendar and record appointments
            Read a book, or listen to one (human or synthesised)
            Listen to radio (broadcast or net stream)
            Watch TV or a movie (broadcast, net stream, or stored)

And naturally, I expect to be able to synch this device with a laptop, network, or cloud web site, if for no other reason than backup security. Though I suppose this could be done using a flash drive or similar.

Now you can just about do all of these things with a modern smart phone like the iPhone, with some caveats.

Firstly, the screen is still rather small for watching videos or reading a book, or even for web browsing. They do a good job with what there is, but it is a limiting factor. It is also not as good as a book reader, unlike Amazon’s Kindle with e-ink.

Of course, it is hard to make one device that is suitable for book reading, watching videos and making phone calls. Or at least, it is if you want to hold it to your ear and mouth. Something like the Kindle is great for reading books, but a bit on the large size for putting in your pocket, unless you have big pockets.

Secondly, battery life is still not good enough on small devices to let you do all the above for any extended length of time.

Thirdly, although smart phones are getting better cameras (at least in pixel count), they still are not as good for taking photos as dedicated digital cameras. Its hard to fit a zoom lens into a smart phone in any sensible way, tho digital zoom with 12 megapixels may be getting close.

Fourthly, entering text on smart phones is still somewhat problematical, at least for a document of any length. Even those with slide out keyboards are only really intended for short text messages. The most successful is possibly the Blackberry, though even that is definitely targeted at just emails.

Fifthly, memory on iPhones is still a bit small for a full size music collection, photos, some videos and documents. Still, this should be overcome fairly soon with 32GB or 64GB memory options.

So, where does that leave us.

Well, if you just want one pocket mobile device, then an iPhone, or similar is the best bet, but it would make sense to wait a bit until 32GB+ is available for a reasonable price. I know you can always say ‘wait’, but at present, the iPhone is just not a good replacement for my 30GB iPod. And if I have to keep my iPod, then an iPhone is overkill, and expensive.

Kindles and the Sony ebook reader are still in their infancy, and don’t do a lot except let you read books (and download them).

So if you want something big enough to read books comfortably, and do other things, then the best bet is a netbook, though it has to have a really good screen. This would, at present, have to be supplemented by a smart phone with GPS etc.

Now the ideal solution could be along these lines. A netbook with a good colour screen, plenty of memory and built in GPS, WiFi, G3. It would of course have the ability to play audio and video and have simple apps for word processing, spreadsheet, calendar, to do lists, email and web browsing. Built in radio and TV tuners could be nice, but arguably the ability to stream over the web could make these redundant.

Now comes the tricky bit. Making phone calls could be handled by a wireless (Bluetooth probably) headset, though the ability to use the basic device as a speaker phone would be nice.

But what about taking photos or video? Recording sound would be OK, but twirling a netbook around to take photos just doesn’t sound reasonable.

And a netbook is not really a pocket device, though readily portable.

So we are left with the fact that seemingly one device just can’t do it all – as yet. Maybe it could be possible with flexible, roll up screens, and virtual keyboards, or near perfect speech recognition, but these are some way off.

So, final conclusions (for today):

1. Wait for iPhone or other smart phone (Nokia, Palm?, HTC Android..) to be reasonable cost with 32GB or better. If it had stylus text entry, so much the better for me. And I really want WiFi so I can access the web (admittedly from limited locations) without paying an expensive monthly contract.

2. Possibly add a netbook for better word processing and email handling, but again it could be better to wait until someone produces a netbook/ebook reader combo.

3. An ebook reader at present is an expensive luxury with not enough functionality.

Oh, and hang on to the digital camera.


Update March 2011

Well, things have changed a bit, but perhaps not all that much.

I now have a Nokia 5800 – not too expensive, no monthly contract, and GPS with free world wide maps and turn by turn sat nav. It has a decent camera (2 actually), plays MP3s and videos, shows photos, and can browse the web – but not very well. It’s really too small for book reading, and I need extra software to be able to handle Word and Excel files – but its probably not worth it for me.

And yes I also have an iPad (Wifi) – just because it does some things so very well, but I don’t see it as an alternative to my other devices. And why anyone should want to actually take a photo with an iPad is beyond me. I guess the front facing camera makes sense for video calling, but I would tend to use Skype for that on my netbook.

And my wife now has a Kindle – but only because the price came down to a no brain decision.

So the conclusion is roughly the same – I need several devices to cover all the requirements, though I have almost stopped using my digital camera.

DC Power

            DC POWER                                        APRIL 2010

There has recently been a revival of interest in DC (direct current) power as a way of distributing electricity to the home. Current systems all use AC or alternating power, though some of the early experiments in electric power systems did actually use DC.

Briefly, AC is used because it allows voltage to be transformed (fairly) easily from very high voltages down to household voltage levels. High voltage is used because the amount of power lost in transmission is less with high voltage than with low.

Now that the U.S. in particular is considering major extensions to its electric supply grid, there are suggestions that DC power could be more efficient. I don’t really want to get into the details of why, partly because I don’t know; and anyway that is not what I want to talk about here.

What I want to look at is the possibility of having DC power in the household. At present, all our wall power sockets deliver AC. This isn’t too bad for white goods like cookers, heaters and so on, because they use quite a lot of power, and can utilise the 220/110 volt supply quite well.

But of course nowadays the vast majority of devices that we plug in to our power sockets are electronic. In our house in the UK, we have 5 TVs, 4 DVD players, 2 old VHS ones, 1 old HiFi system, 1 digital radio, 1 desktop PC, 2 printers, 1 photo printer, 2 laptops, 1 netbook, 1 ADSL router, 1 burglar alarm, 3 cordless phones, 3 phones, 1 fax/phone,  and 3 clock radios.

Then of course, there are the chargers for 3 mobile (cell) phones, 1 satnav, 1 ipod, 1 PDA, 3 digital cameras, 1 camcorder, 2 rechargeable torches, 1 battery charger, 1 cordless drill, and 3 cordless shavers. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things. Oh yes, 1 digital heating controller.

That makes a total of 50 electronic devices – far more than the white goods that really benefit from AC power. Because nearly all this electronics actually needs low voltage DC power. The crazy thing is that every single one of these devices separately converts the high(ish) voltage AC power down to low voltage DC power before it can use it.

Lighting still uses AC power, although trends to halogen downlighters and mini spotlights is changing that quite a bit. Many of these run on 12V power which again has to be transformed down.

Because there are so many chargers made these days, they are fairly cheap. But still, it does seem a backwards way of doing things. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just plug these things into a DC power socket that was suitable for them. Just think, no more searching for the right charger for that phone, MP3  player, camera…

Now there are a few snags. All these things don’t use the same voltage; some use around 3V, some 5, some up to 12. But this is partly because they all have to convert their own AC to DC. If there was a standard for supplying DC to the home, most devices could use it directly. Or maybe there could be a 2 value supply. Wiring low voltage low power around is much easier than existing house supplies; the wire can be thinner, and there is no safety issue.

Some devices, like large screen TVs, take quite a bit of power, and to supply these would need heavier duty wiring; or maybe it would be best to leave these as AC powered devices.

So DC power would not replace the existing AC power in the home, but it could quite easily be added to the AC power cabling when a house is built. Already houses are being fitted out with cabling for TV, phone and PC networking. It would not be too difficult to add one or two wires carrying DC power from a central power supply.

Of course this would mean a big change in the way some electronic devices are made and sold, with a DC power input socket. Still, as mentioned already, many small devices like phones have these already. Even the ability to plug these into a wall socket instead of a charger would be an advantage. And it would force some standardisation into the market; it seems crazy that there are so many different chargers all doing very much the same thing.

It might even make companies think about standardising lithium ion batteries in rechargeable devices – wouldn’t that be great? We used to have standards for batteries – AA, AAA, C etc. Now every rechargeable device has a slightly different one inside – great for the manufacturers of course because they can charge a high premium for the battery. Not good for the consumer, or in the long run for everyone.

Using all the data

USING ALL THE DATA            FEB 2009

The other day I was reading about how the Google search engine works (the original research paper). The key thing that Page and Brin did was to rank each page found by seeing how many other pages on the net have links to it. It’s a lot more complex than that, but the basic idea is simple. The thinking behind the ranking is rather like ranking research papers by how many future papers refer back to the paper concerned.

For some reason this set me thinking about how we are now using data in a different way than in the past. In a simple world, we only have access to fairly immediate data. Without any recording or transmitting devices, we can access our sense data and our memory, and use those inputs to make our choices and decisions. Of course, other people also act as recording and transmitting sources, because they can see things and remember stuff and tell us about it. In fact, that’s one of the ways we learn, along with reading books, which are another source of recorded information, and which came on the scene quite a while ago.

Then along came radio and TV to extend our sources of information, because they allowed long distance access to other people and recordings, as did the telephone. So now our ‘information network’ has grown enormously. We can see and hear things from around the world, both in the present and the recorded past. We can contact a network of friends and colleagues instantly, and amalgamate data from all these sources.

The Internet, email, instant messaging, social networking and cell phones have made these networks easier to set up and manage, so that we can now investigate the world from multiple viewpoints instead of just one.

But its not just that we have access to all this data, its also that the hugely increased processing power and storage capacity now available make it possible to look at data in new ways. The Google method is an example of how we can utilise large data sets by traversing them very rapidly in order to extract more detailed and in depth information than we can ‘at first sight’.

This kind of thing has been going on for a while. Consider holographs. Whereas a standard photograph uses only the magnitude of the light waves (OK, photons) arriving at the camera, a holograph uses both magnitude and phase. It extracts more information from the data source by deeper processing and recording.

Now consider WiFi. The latest generation devices use multiple signal paths to extract better signal quality and speed from a communication link than by just using a single signal path. All radio communications gets scattered along multiple paths. This can be a nuisance because it causes confusion at the receiving end (so it can cause ‘ghosting’ on TV pictures). Now it is being utilised by throwing vast amounts of processing power to resolve multiple signal paths into one ‘composite’ signal. The point is that you can squeeze more information out of the signal by these tricks, just as Google squeezed more information about web pages by looking at multiple link paths across the net.

(Added in Jan 2010). It has just been announced that scientists in France have reconstructed an image transmitted through an opaque object by changing the shape of the laser beam transmitted and extracting data from each shaped waveform. Same kind of trick, only using sequential transmissions to increase the amount of data. This sort of idea was utilised when I first started work in ‘sampling scopes’ – a kind of oscilloscope that looked at repeated waveforms over an interval of time to build up a picture (made of dots) of the waveform.

These tricks have been used for a while in cell phones, and in the allied area of phased array radars. All of them use the fact that you can get a better ‘picture’ of what is going on by looking at multiple data paths rather than just one.

Come to think of it, this is also kind of like what a journalist does (or should do) when he checks his sources. He is getting a better picture by using a variety of sources. We also practice something like this when we network among our friends and contacts. We don’t rely on just one opinion, we squeeze out more about what we want to know by asking different people. And I guess this has been going on for millennia – gossiping is a similar kind of activity, though perhaps somewhat less reliable.

In Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, and in Philip Balls’ Critical Mass there are details of the ‘six steps’ idea; how anyone can be connected to anyone else by five or six intermediate people. There is also description of the ‘Kevin Bacon’ index –how many co-actors link a given actor to a film with our Kevin in it. People with large amounts of time on their hands have extended this to produce a large database of indexes of all (film) actors. Again, this has only been made possible by scanning and processing large online data network sets. New ideas have been brought out by processing these data networks in ways that previously had not been considered.

Satnav and route finding systems also work by scanning large data networks; as indeed do my old friends, circuit board routing systems – see my essay on ‘Backtracking’. In fact, ‘rip up’ routers use an idea bearing some similarity to Google’s page ranking, only here a route can be ranked ‘down’ by the number of other routes that would violate it. The point is that both methods build up information about how entities inter relate by deep scanning.

This is beginning to sound like some ideas in basic physics – multi body gravity problems for example, or even Feynman diagrams. In order to analyse what is going on, you have to examine relationships between each element with all other elements. Which is kind of what Google is doing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

'Feedback' book

Some years back I decided to try and write a book about feedback - as in positive and negative. Turns out that these processes are everywhere. In fact, you could say that the whole world is just a big feedback mechanism.

I eventually sort of finished it - though it really needs a lot more work - but couldn't interest anyone in publishing it. So now I'm going to put it out on the web. First I'm just going to put it into another blog called Feedback. Problem is, I have a number of drawings in Word doc format, and I can't import them into a blog here. So I'll have to try and sort that out later, sometime, maybe.

I guess I'd have to convert them into a JPG or GIF somehow, which probably means drawing them all again, bah humbug. It might be easier to convert the lot into a PDF and publish it somewhere else. Oh well, c'est la vie.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Aguilas Carnival

On Saturday I went to the carnival, or carnavale, in Aguilas, about 30 miles north of my casa in Spain. Aguilas is a typical Spanish coastal town  - at least in this area, and is not very big, but the carnival is the third largest in Spain. The procession started at 6 PM, and went on until midnight. I have never seen anything to compare. Lots of very loud music (from amps and loudspeakers), and hundreds of costumed participants - mostly women and girls, but quite a few men and boys.

Here are just a few photos from the 200 I took.

Some of the costumes are more like wearable floats that have to be pushed along on wheels, like these 'clocks'. There were ten of these one after another in a great long line, each with a collection of whirling toothed 'gear' wheels.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Future of Work and Jobs

I am going to try and summarise very briefly a subject that has become a hot trending topic on the net and elsewhere. It is very important – one of the most important topics that impose themselves on us as we enter the turbulent times of the 2020’s.

This isn’t exactly new – Jeremy Rifkin wrote ‘The End of Work’ in 1995, and it has been apparent for many years that increasing technology would lead to an era where much or most work could be automated, but that this would lead to difficulties in earning wages for much of the population. A newer book that summarises the problems and discusses solutions is ‘The Lights in the Tunnel’ by Martin Ford

Recently the Economist dedicated a whole section to the topic (The Future of Jobs), which indicates that it is now mainstream. And futurist Thomas Frey recently gave a talk on TED predicting that 2 billion jobs would go by the year 2030 (technology drivers - alternative power sources, autonomous cars, free web based education, 3d printers, robotics)

Here I will try and summarise the key points about the whole issue:

  1. There is a growing divide within most countries between specialised high paid jobs and low skill low paid.
  2. The middle ground is becoming scarce, leading to a permanent systemic increase in unemployment, and in temporary employment.
  3. Globalisation and outsourcing are major contributory factors.
  4. Education is no longer providing enough people with the skills needed to find employment.
  5. The technology driven changes are happening faster that the political and educational system can respond.
  6. Service based jobs cannot increase fast enough to absorb the gap.
  7. Current models of employment, pay, tax and welfare are creaking under the strain.
  8. Society needs to find new ways of distributing wealth and dividing labour.
  9. Such issues are of course difficult, and not helped by highly dubious trends like the Zeitgeist movement and the Venus Project.

A brief summary of necessary changes from the Economist report:
  •  Changing education so that people enter the workforce equipped with the right skills.
  • Adjusting the tax system
  • Modernizing the welfare safety net
  • Creating a climate conducive to entrepreneurship and innovation.
So that should be easy, then :)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jeremy Atiyah

My nephew Jeremy Atiyah, who died far too young in 2006, was a travel writer. For several years he was travel editor of the Independent newspaper. At his funeral Simon Calder (the current travel editor) gave an oration, and there was some talk about trying to get Jeremy's writings published in some way.

Nothing came of this, and so recently I decided to do something about it. I have downloaded all the articles I can find on the net - most are actually available on the Independent web site, but are not that easy to dig out. I did try and contact the Independent by email, but have had no reply.

So I am going to create another blog - called simply 'Jeremy Atiyah', and post the articles on it. If anyone complains, I may have to remove them, but I hope that is unlikely. All I am trying to do here is to make these articles easily available to Jeremy's family and friends - and anyone else interested.

I will try and post the articles dated as per when they were written. Hopefully it should not be too difficult - at least there are no photos to upload.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Don't talk Spanish

I am currently in our house in Spain, near Mojacar, Almeria.

The weather is unusually cold (only 10C yesterday), but totally sunny. I managed to sit out on the patio for an hour or two yesterday, reading  'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham. I read it many years ago, but its well written and very perceptive. Beware BTW the recent remake for TV - its complete rubbish, with no comparison to the original book.

Google has insisted on talking in Spanish to me, and it has taken quite a while for me to find out how to tell it to use English. Hope I have fixed it now.

I have started this blogging stuff to give me something to do, and find out how to use it. It is easy enough just to post a blog like this, but it is not that easy to sort out the templates, which come a variety of  variants for each type, which can then be modified with gadgets, or even tweaked with HTML. I will try and learn a bit more about that later.

I decided to start a different blog for travels. I have several trip reports on my web site, which took me quite a while to create. Importing and placing photos seems to be always tiresome, and the same thing applies here. I tried importing my report of the US National Parks yesterday, and I still havent got all the pictures sorted. I have found out a couple of things.

Firstly, I have spent effort in the past getting rid of the gargbage that MS Word puts into HTML if you are foolish enough to use it to edit web pages (I didnt know better when I started my web site). I now think Ive found an easy way to do this - open the HTML in Wordpad, and save it. HTML all gone, just left with text. Think this works OK.

Secondly, I think it is best to import all the photos in one go, then use the Dynamic template so you can see the photos in different ways. Not sure about this yet, but I will experiment (and Google some advice). It is simply too much work to import and place the photos individuall, or even in threes that I was trying. Placement doesnt want to put them where I want - probably template dependant.

Anyway, thats enough for today, I must get out and walk along the playa.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

First Thoughts

Well, here goes.

I have been posting thoughts on the net for quite a few years, firstly on Compuserve, and then on my web site ( . Now I thought that its time I tried a Blog. Bear with me, I am a newbie to this land. I would like to format this a bit better later, but the options seem a bit limited unless I dig deeper.

For today, I would like to talk about speed cameras, Google cars and the future of transport. Wow.

Along with most of the drivers in the UK, I have been 'caught' once by a speed camera and fined. I was driving at 38 mph in a zone that had recently been reduced from 40 to 30. It was quiet, little traffic, no pedestrians. This is a pretty common event - I personally know several people who were caught by the same camera. I'm not a perfect driver, but I have been driving for about 50 years, in many countries, with no accidents. My gripe with using these devices in a shotgun approach is that they are, literally, stupid. Speed cameras know nothing about what is going on, by today's standards they are really dumb.

All drivers know (but not necessarily comply) that the appropriate speed at a given time and place depends on many factors:

Driver - condition, experience, ability (tired, angry, distracted, drunk, slow, quick...)
Car - condition, capability (brakes, acceleration, road holding, tyres, headlights...)
Local geography - straight, curve, hilly..
Local surroundings - houses, schools, factories, countryside, hedges
Traffic - vehicles, pedestrians, cars, bicycles, 14 wheelers, busy, quiet
Road surface - wide, narrow, smooth, rough, camber, greasy, wet, icy, dry..
Weather - clear, rain, fog, snow...
Lighting - daylight, night, moon, street lighting

These come to mind easily, I'm sure there are more. The point is that speed limits and cameras are based on only a couple of the above (local issues). They are inevitably a rough compromise at a level somewhere in the appropriate speed range. They know nothing about traffic or weather, they don't even know if its day or night. If a suitable speed at a location could be between say 20 and 45 mph, then the speed limit will be set at 30, probably, or maybe 40. It depends. Partly it depends on experience (number of accidents), but its also political. The location where I was caught had been reduced after a campaign by residents (though recently it appears this may be reversed). Other similar locations have different limits. Enough of that, I want to emphasise that speed is a complex issue, and should not have to be simplified by traditional approaches.

We have now entered the age of the automatic driverless car, thanks to Google and other pioneers.
It will take a while, largely because of people's attitudes (they don't trust them yet), and legislation, but it is coming for sure. It would be a great shame if speed control of these cars is simply rubber stamped by existing speed limits. They would be capable of controlling their speed much more intelligently than that. In fact, existing speed limits should gradually wither and die as smart cars become the norm ( I'm looking a bit into the future here, don't expect this next year). Eventually they should be seen rather like the man with the red flag who had to walk in front of automobiles. (Oh well, maybe they have to stay for motor bikes).

I wanted to say a bit about the future of transport, but this is getting a bit long, so I'll just keep it brief for now - maybe more in a later post. I haven't got the hang of this blogging yet.

Note that Google cars don't have to be owned by the users - just get on the net and ask for a car journey, and one turns up at your door, takes you where you want (maybe picks up someone on the way if thats OK with you), and then goes off for another task, or parks somewhere cheap. You can be unqualified, tired, or even drunk if you want - no problem.

There are many developments as well as the Google car - the use of carbon fibre to create light bodied cars which could have smaller batteries and hence be cheaper and more feasible than electric cars are at present - see for instance BMW carbon fibre cars (though being BMW, these are not cheap). Also there are new approaches to the whole business of designing and building cars, from using new computer control methods to combine many companies (see Rocky Mountain Institute) and slash development times, to using small units to build simple designs cheaply (don't have ref to hand, but Science Friday covered this a while back talking to a guy from the U.K. - hurray). And then there is Tesla. Of course, GM isn't going to go away any time soon - the US government won't allow it - yet  - because of the effect on employment apart from anything else. But things they are a-changing.