Thursday, November 15, 2007

And now - a physical impossibility?

It's a week for strange science. For two years I've been following a company which claims its radio system can deliver information faster than the physical limits described by the Shannon-Hartley theorem. This is stranger than D-Wave's quantum claims, since what it's claiming is a physical impossibility by existing science.

The company also has a much higher valuation: its share price puts the company's worth at more than a billion dollars. And it still hasn't shared its technology, or delivered a service. This month, phones using the technology will apparently start trials in Florida, and in advance of that, a financial company has given it a glowing assessment.

I think the comments following on from Techworld blog on the subject tell you what you need to know about this one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quantum computing - keep waiting

D-Wave, the quantum computing company I wrote about in February, is back, this time with a Google scientist in tow.

They've got Google's image-search expert, Dr Hartmut Neven, showing an algorithm on their new quantum computer, at SC07, a supercomputing show in Nevada. I've written it up for ZDnet and the Guardian.

But unfortunately, the quantum computing research establishment is even more sceptical this go round. "The interest of D-Wave for me is mainly one of psychology, business and the margins of science," professor Andrew Steane, of the centre for quantum computation at the University of Oxford, told me. "My conclusion is that I suspect they are misleading themselves."

While people like me still understand the original naive view of quantum computing (millions of computers in parallel universes), real researchers who have now spent twenty years trying to produce more qubits and keep them isolated from the world for longer have moved onto subtler considerations.

I have a suspicion that "proper" quantum computing may be impossible for somewhat similar reasons to perpetual motion. We can see a theoretical possibility that we might exclude interactions with the outside world long enough to keep the qubits coherent, but there's an eventual interaction with the outside world which, like friction in a proposed perpetual motion machine, imposes a limit which might turn out to be not as far beyond conventional computers as we had hoped.

Real quantum researchers say there is a distinction to be made between an "experiment" and a "computer". A computer takes an understood process, to work out new results. In an experiment, the results themselves don't signify anything except the extent to which they confirm or deny the theories behind the experiment.

My feeling is that quantum computing experiments may not in the end produce vastly more powerful computers, but they will push forward our understanding of the nature of reality.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A step forwards for NetEvents!

I'm at NetEvents, the network industry press gathering. It's in Malta this year, and as you'd expect, the hotel is nice.

But that's not what you want to hear about. I'm in the conference room now, hearing about the networks that support the CERN particle accelerators.

I'm telling you about something else. For the first time in my ten years of NetEvents, we have Power to the Conference Tables!

At the start 0f every NetEvents, we all scour the hall for signs of a power socket we can use.

This time I spotted cables taped to the floor.

And sure enough, we all have (UK!) power sockets under our tables.

There's an irony though, We're all using Wi-Fi laptops. on a LAN provided by Trapeze Networks.

So the wires are actually a by-product of the growth ofwireless networking.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Segway angel at the Canal Festival

I've seen a Segway with a purpose, five years after the much-hyped scooter first appeared.

This angel glided round the Islington Canal Festival - near the Angel, playing harp music and distributing blessings. I later saw him standing on top of a canal boat, lying flat to get under bridges and standing up the other side.

Very well done, and good to see the Segway still trundling along in the realms of eccentric technology.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Visual Spam at the Petrol Pump

A breathless email from a US PR offers me a depressing opportunity.

"Hi Peter, Gas stations are one of the few places remaining where consumers stand still long enough to actually see advertising - so it better be good."

Yep, he wants me to hear about TV at petrol pumps. And he's really excited.

"Novatel Wireless and the Internet Connectivity Group (ICG) have joined hands to offer gas station owners and advertisers state-of-the-art content management, distribution and display technology for maximum impact at the pump - to the right people, in the right place. Are you interested in learning more about how Novatel and IDG are maximizing advertising ROI [return on investment] for gas station owners?"

In a word, no. It's moving, visual spam.

It's already everywhere. It's on London Buses buses and makes people travel sick.

It's been in Post Offices (but I think they may have given up on this one as it just draws attention to how long the queue is).

picture found at MarketingBlurb.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Heard the one about the wooden PC?

A supposedly zero carbon PC is being developed by PC World, featuring wood casing for keyboard, screen and mouse. Use of recycled materials and low electricity needs will reduce its carbon footprint to 85 percent of a standard PC.I only mention it here because, ages ago, I heard about a wooden PC. Apparently it "wooden" work!!! Sorry. I'll go now.

read more | digg story

Qualcomm beaten to the patent wall...?

US mobile phone technology vendor Qualcomm is known for efforts to get the most out of its patents.

It's also very proud to show them all off, displayed on a wall. I saw this wall, on a recent visit to its offices in San Diego.

It's very impressive, but there's something bothering me. I'm sure I saw a similar wall, showing all IBM's patents, at an IBM briefing centre in Austin, some fifteen years ago (I was on a visit to learn about the p series - or the RS6000 as it then was).

I don't have a photo of IBM's wall, and haven't been able to find one online. From memory, even that long ago, it was bigger than Qualcomm's.

But what I'm wondering is - doesn't this mean IBM has prior art on the whole Patent Wall thing....?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beware Lambeth's Parking Trap!

Lambeth Council has knowingly left a misleading parking sign on its streets, and is gathering fines from people who have parking there in good faith.

Despite knowing the sign is wrong, the council appears to be ignoring appeals over the bogus parking fines, and has not made any effort to correct the sign, so more people will be suckeered into paying unnecessary fines.

I parked my car near a shop on Effra Road, on a Sunday morning, May 20. I was on a bit of road labelled "Bus Stop", but I was a long way from the stop itself, and right next to a sign that said parking restrictions didn't apply on Sunday, and loading was allowed during the week.

I was a bit surprised. "Bus stops aren't very restrictive," I thought. "Maybe it's OK this end of the bus stop." The sign said I could park, so I parked.

A couple of weeks later, I got a Penalty Charge Notice, based on a CCTV photo of my car in the bus stop. A traffic warden would have seen that the spot was mis-labelled, and wouldn't have issued the fine, I thought.

I went back to Effra Road, and saw that the sign was still there. I took the photos you see here, and sent in an appeal.

Yesterday, I got a letter from an un-named Parking Investigations Officer, at Lambeth Parking Services.

The letter makes no reference to my complaint. It lists seven grounds for appeal, but doesn't mention the possibility that Lambeth Parking might have got its signs wrong.

It takes a somewhat bullying tone, warning that I can still get away with a £50 fine, but if I appeal again and lose, I'll have to pay £100 - or more. "If your formal representations are rejected, we will send you an Appeals form so that you can make an appeal to the Independent Adjudicator. The Adjudicator's decision is binding and he or she can order the payment of costs against either the Local Authority or the regitered keeper if either party has been particularly unreasonable.

As far as I know the sign is still there. I think it may be an old sign that was left have been left there when the bus stop was extended.

Lambeth knows the sign is wrong. Since my appeal went in, it has been covered with black plastic, but this has now weathered away, so the sign is once more luring people to park in a place where Lambeth spy-camera operators can fine them.

I wonder if the sign is being left there deliberately?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

eBay on the philosophical edge

Rating a transacion on eBay, and I'm not sure they are right here. How can an item description be "neither inaccurate or accurate"? Is there another option? Never mind - on with the show.

How accurate was the item description?

Neither inaccurate nor accurate

Monday, May 14, 2007

Dawkins Book Accidentally Proves God's Existence*

(*I probably should point out that that is supposed to be a joke).

I ordered The God Delusion from Amazon Marketplace, where it turns out to be very cheap. Later that day, my friend said he wanted a copy, and had just been let down by someone who said he'd get one for him.

The next day, two copies arrived from the Amazon trader. How do you explain a coincidence like that? It proves there must be some kind of providence, surely!

But wait a minute, if I now get away without paying for the second copy, it proves there is no justice in the Universe and God doesn't exist.

Unless God is doing it as a double bluff (which, as we all know, ends up with him disappearing in a puff of logic).

Anyway, sent by God or not, this book is irritating. There's good stuff here, but Dawkins is, well a bit bumptious. He's so sure of himself, you begin to wonder whose God Delusion he's talking about. Which is strange. In the Blind Watchmaker and his other science books, on his home territory, you're faced with his awe and wonder. He wants to know more, and he's keen to explore.

When he steps into someone else's world, he's just not interested to know or see more than what he considers obvious.

"Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology," says Terry Eagleton in his review (I found it through Wikipedia).

Dawkins lays out the most obvious reasons we know the stories of the Virgin Birth must have been invented later. Well, yes. Father Christmas wasn't there either.

Meanwhile, in the real world of scholarship, you have John Dominic Crossan. With my limited reading, he's a very random example, but his Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography got plaudits from senior Catholics and goes much further. "How many years was Easter Sunday?" asks Crossan. How long did it take after Jesus' death for the resurrection narrative to emerge? Crossan is far too sophisticated to say the stories were made up, but he's not talking of a literal resurrection.

What Dawkins says from the outside, falls well short of things that are being said on the inside - at least of the kind of church I'd have anything to do with.

There are fundamentalists out there ignoring the facts, and they are easy targets for him. And there are way too many liberals not standing up for the facts as we can know them. Dawkins has a lot of common ground with liberals - and uses it to good effect when he joins with the former Bishop of Oxford to campaign against a school which is teaching creationism in this country.

But liberals almost irritate him more than the evangelicals. They're scarcely recognisable as Christians at all, he says.

So instead of really engaging with any of them, he steps back into his comfort zone, quoting people he likes, and who he agrees with (they are always "devastating", or "penetrating" because they agree with him), and going off on lengthy footnotes that are supposed to amuse us into liking him. And the whole thing is wrapped up with back-slapping quotes on the jacket from Derren Brown and Brian Eno who are experts on, what exactly?

Monday, April 23, 2007

My veins fail the upgrade to Club Class Blood Donation

Last week I was invited to give platelets instead of normal blood.

In the world of blood donation, this is an upgrade to Club Class. Instead of lying on a temporary couch in Brixton Town Hall, platelet donation means sitting in a high-tech chair watching TV in Tooting.

Platelets are the blood cells that handle clotting. If you've got good blood, you have plenty to spare, and if you haven't got enough, you are in danger of bleeding to death. People who aren't making enough platelets need them, including some premature babies and people having chemotherapy.

Extracting them is more complex than normal blood donation - they take the blood out of your vein, extract the platelets, and put the rest back in - a bit like the dialysis that kidney patients have.

It takes an hour and a half or so, during which time you sit tight, plugged into the machine, in the kind of Club Class airline seat people like me can only dream of. With plenty of leg room, too - with smiling people bringing you snacks.

The donation centre is a pleasant bike ride for me, across Tooting Common.

I was looking forward to this. But my veins let me down.

Club Class blood doners get slightly bigger needles stuck in them apparently (though I couldn't see the difference) - and my veins proved big but unwilling to co-operate with this sort of treatment. We got three samples out of one arm, and none out of the other.

It's a shame, really - apart from my awkward veins, the experience was very pleasant, and I'd recommend it to anyone else.

The only other drawback is that, unlike other Club Class activities, when you come down you're still in Tooting.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt is up in heaven now

One of the best stories from Kurt Vonnegut, who died today aged 84, is this, from A Man Without a Country:

"I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, "Isaac is up in heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in heaven now." That's my favorite joke."

Yes, he's up there, sharing a beer with Isaac.

I like this photo, from the Washington Post, via an Australian newspaper and blog.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Corporate Anthem for Spooks

Can you believe the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs America's spy satellites, has a <corporate anthem?

It's got everything, including corny soft rock, stirring voice overs and very unusual official pictures of secret satellites....

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Online frustrations: renting a room

After yesterday's praise for Freecycle, here's another good online community - though I have to say it's not quite working for me - EasyRoomMate.

Finding a lodger, or a room, is exactly the kind of thing that is perfect for an online site. Post your advert up, search the other adverts, and it should be pretty easy to find the going rate, and find a lodger.

The house-share sites have got sophisticated. They have tiered membership, so it's free to post an advert, but you can contact other people more easily, if you pay a small fee. EasyRoomMate makes it really clear: Basic members can only Premium members, Premium members can only contact Basic members.

They also take a lot of information (and I do trust them to take care of it!) , so it should be easy to find a match.

But it's not working well for us. We've posted an ad for the room shown here, upgraded to Permium, and contacted 160 possible housemates in the last month. We've had rejections from 16, and silence form the others.

I think we're outside their magic profile. the site is aimed at 20-30 something single professionals. The fields on the form are aimed at them, and other people don't quite fit in.

When we contact people, they can see on our profile that we are straight, they know we don't smoke, and they know we have pets. The profile doesn't tell them the single most striking factor about our house - three children - because there's nowhere on the form to mention it.

We put that up front in the advert, but it would save a lot of wastage if we could tell at a glance if someone will consider living with a family.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Elves that came from FreeCycle

I like Freecycle. It's an online community to share unwanted stuff. Clear out your junk by offering it to other people. Check the list to see if someone else is offering something you want. It's got enough of a critical mass, that there's now a chapter for the borough of Lambeth, with about 250 postings a week.

I've had a coffee table and a bed from Freecycle, and I've passed on lots of computer bits, a desk and a greenhouse. On Monday, I got four volumes of a fantasy comic that was hugely popular in the 1980s. Elfquest is in the style of Tolkien - or closer to Andre Norton - and comic fans used to rave about it.

It's coming up fresh 25 years on. It's a big hit with Kitty, who's reading through it as fast as ever she can, with excited reports on the characters' doings: "Cutter and Leeta have children!"

Monday, February 19, 2007

Quantum computing - Breakthrough AND sham??

I've been writing about quantum computing in The Guardian and Techworld. I also did a phone interview for Ireland's RTE radio.

There is one company in the world - D-Wave - that has persuaded venture capitalists to put money behind the idea that quantum computers (which to put it crudely, could perform billions of calculations in parallel universes) are one day going to be a commercial reality.
And last week D-Wave performaned a demonstration, in its labs, and transmitted it to two other sites.

Ars Technica makes the point that D-Wave, like Schrodinger's cat and the "qubits" in a quantum computer, is now in two states superposed. No-one got their hands on the device, so we still don't know if it was a breakthrough or an optimistic case of smoke and mirrors.

We do know that the 16 qubits had a limited flexibility owing to their topology (each is connected to a maximum of eight others, instead of every other qubit). We also know that D-Wave is not claiming this computer beats anything that can be done by a quite ordinary PC.

And Ars Technica suspects (as do we all) that the demonstration was aimed at shareholders they would eventually get a return for their money.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Desperados - the best thing on TV

This kids' programme, Desperados is excellent. It's got a good story line, good acting and nice dialogue. One white kid who broke his spine doesn't want to join the wheelchair basketball team, a black kid wants nothing else - but his mum wants him to do his homework. And the team coach - paralympic wheelchair basketball player, Ade Adepitan, is desperate for players because: "Rear seat belts have ruined the talent pool."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Quantum Computing at Home

I've just been looking at quantum computing for an article, and Kitty has just got two kittens.

At least she say's she's got two, but one of them's shy. Whenever I go into the room, I only see one.
Could it be that she actually has one Schrodinger kitten, she can see both wave functions, and I only see the one?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The longest ever email disclaimer ?

Nortel Wins Role in BT’s 21 Century Network
, said a press release I just had from Nortel. The release was 561 words long; the email it was attached to was 193 words long.

At the end of the release was an 1100-word disclaimer which started out "Certain statements in this press release may contain words such as “could”, “expects”, “may”, “anticipates”, “believes”, “intends”, “estimates”, ”targets”, “envisions”, “seeks” and other similar language... ". It included (unless I missed a full-stop somewhere) one incredible 870 word sentence, starting "Further, actual results or events could differ materially from those contemplated in forward-looking statements..." and ends "...or the share consolidation resulting in a lower total market capitalization or adverse effect on the liquidity of Nortel’s common shares. "

You can see the disclaimer in all its glory (in very small type) on the press release at Nortel's site.

The release came from a PR company called Pleon. I'm sure the Pleon peons are consummate professionals, sending this guff out through gritted teeth - but it's fitting that "pleon" means "more" and gives us the word pleonasm meaning "the use of more words than necessary to express an idea clearly".

As Pleon's own slogan puts it - so much more succinctly - this kind of thing is "Beyond Communications"

Friday, January 05, 2007

More IT Anthems -- RockDotRock from Symantec

How about that? Mere days after I revive IT Anthems at ZDNet, a new corporate rock legend is born.

RockDotRock is a band sponsored by Internet security company Symantec. The songs are exactly the corporate speak you'd expect - anthems to Two-Factor Authentication.

Has to be heard to be believed.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Monday, January 01, 2007

My achievements: Penguin Whist

At this time of year, one takes stock of what one has achieved in life. In my case, that's usually fairly depressing. Achievements? Well, none I can think of.

But this year. I've been reminded of a card game I invented 25 years ago. It's called Penguin Whist. My family played it a lot.

Penguin Whist is a variation of Whist - but played with the cards facing outwards.

In fact, Penguin Whist is s a variation of a kind of whist called Silly Whist. Wikipedia describes Silly Whist as a version of Oh Hell, but says the British call it Crazy Whist. In Silly Whist, we used to start with a hand of seven cards, decreasing each hand by one card. We all took turns to bid, and scored a ten point bonus if we made our bid.

Then we thought, being able to see your cards makes it too easy. Penguin Whist starts from one card each and builds up, one card at a time. But it is played with the cards facing out. You can see everyone's cards except your own.

When you have more than two cards you have to sort your neighbour's cards into suits (pick up the hand you're dealt, sort it and pass it on). After a card is led, the other players tell you which cards you can play, in order to follow suit. It's random. It's stupid. But occasionally, with a flash of brilliance, you realise what card to play.

I always lose. My daughter Hannah turns out to be nearly unbeatable.

Actually, if I'm honest, it might have been my brother who thought of it....

I may need to think of another achievement.