Sunday, July 30, 2006

An unsung hero

Tommy Flowers

The main man behind the invention of Colossus, the world's first electronic computer, whose very existence was kept secret until the 70s, roughly round about the time when personal computers were starting to appear as hobbyist kits. The UK's obsessive secrecy, lasting long after both Colossus and the Lorenz machines (whose transmissions it deciphered) were obsolete, meant losing a big lead in the development of computing and consigning Tommy to obscurity. Dr. Alan Turing's often credited with Colossus, but according to Flowers had nothing to do with it.

Perhaps he should've changed his name, Tommy Flowers is the sort of name you associate with a bloke down the pub or a minor county cricketer, rather than one of the greatest techies ever.

Revenge of Gaia

Final thoughts on Lovelock's book (so's I can take it back to the library).

Overall I think he's stretching the Gaia metaphor a bit too far, with the now-elderly goddess getting mightily displeased with us over our nastiness to her and seeking revenge. I think a better one would be a mechanical one, a device driven by a thermostat that we've gone and f**ked up by running it too hot. A device for which we're only just starting to write the user's manual, way too late. Moreover a device which benefits humanity unequally, where those reaping the lion's share of the rewards refuse to believe either that the device exists, or in our abuse of it.

I'm unsure of his conclusions; he's far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, but these are areas in which there are probably as many opinions as there are experts. For example, he reckons wind farms are next to useless, driven (business-wise) purely by the profits obtainable by the government's skewing of the market. Try to check on the generation figures and you'll find a huge variance with the pros- and the antis- accusing each other of misinterpretation. I myself reckon nimbyism is more at the heart of the anti-wind movement and I'm willing to do them a deal; I live near the M6 - you can have no wind farms if I can dig that sodding nuisance up. :)
Lovelock's been an advocate of fission power for some while. Again, I feel very sceptical towards it. While it appears to be rather less dangerous than previously thought (Chernobyl has only killed 58 people other than those in the station itself or involved in making it safe(ish) iirc), there are other considerations which he didn't touch on. Firstly, you have to have other forms of generation as a backup as if you stop generating you need an external power source for the cooling systems. An example of this was with the USA's big blackout a couple of years ago where as the grid experienced failure it was exacerbated by having to shut down the nuke plants. Secondly, because of security issues, much of the information on the industry's hidden. How much technetium's pumped into the Irish Sea? How many accidents have there been this year? The 1952 Windscale accident remained covered up for years. Thirdly, if the market for wind energy's skewed, it's nothing compared to nuclear; heavily subsidised, a precept added to electricity bills, and probably the new generation even more so.
Very nice if fusion power can be made to work, but again, it's at best a couple of decades away and there are no guarantees; remember Tony Benn's claim of "electricity too cheap to meter" for fission?

Is the environment already broken? Don't know but a report I saw elsewhere reckons we're now suffering the results of the carbon pumped out in the 60s and we're doing far more now. So if it ain't broken, it's much more likely it will be in 40 years time.

The calamity he envisages is a very much reduced human population clinging on in a warlord society; a new Dark Ages and one that'll take much longer to go away. The environment does take carbon dioxide out the atmosphere but at a very, very slow rate. He hopes for something similar to monastic communities who'll preserve our current knowledge until we regain a suitable environment to flourish, though it gives rise to the vexed question of how best to preserve it - if we're talking books, there'll need to be a hell of a lot of them, and as good a medium as it is, paper doesn't last forever. Chisel them into stone tablets? :)

To be sure, a depressing scenario, but I find our current lack of belief or will to tackle global warming even more so. The US is only now, grudgingly, coming to admit the problem exists and while a few cities are beginning to do a little about it, nationally it's way off doing anything. Meantime, China and India seem determined to emulate the west's mistakes. Can anything be more foolish than the Chinese government's denigration of people cycling and urging them to get cars?
It's one area at least where the UK is ahead of the game, but if a party offered to remove taxation from petrol they'd win by a landslide. The message just isn't getting over.

Scary graph for those who claim the climatologists don't know what they're talking about:
climate change graph

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Things I don't understand

  • How can planes be cheaper than trains? Aircraft are much more expensive to buy, use loads of expensive aviation fuel (paraffin), require loads of highly trained staff, loads of maintenance and have to pay hefty parking fees at airports. Trains are by contrast the most energy-efficient mode of mass transport. Trains in the UK are by far the most expensive in Europe, while having massive subsidies.
  • Car programmes. If you want to look at cars why not just go out in the street?
  • De-caffeinated coffee. Silly American health fad. They get paranoid over caffeine and MSG, yet have no problems being guinea pigs for GM agribusiness. Caffeine's a mild stimulant, which is nice. :) Perhaps one of the food manufacturers could make a high-caf coffe with all the leftovers.
  • Books listing websites. With the best will in the world they're already out of date by the time they're printed.
  • The fashion industry. All those insane clothes being modelled on the catwalks will never be seen in the high street, so what's the point? Conversely, the stuff which the industry actually sells to the public, is never on show at the shows.


A little more from James Lovelock's "Revenge of Gaia" - why do we urinate?
The need to rid oneself of waste products like excess salt, urea, creatinine and numerous other scraps of metabolism is obvious but only part of the answer....
For us, the excretion of urea represents a signicant waste of energy and water.

Urea is a simple chemical, a combination of ammonia and carbon dioxide, or as an organic chemist would say, the di-amide of carbonic acid. Why did we and other mammals evolve to excrete our nitrogen in this form? Why not break down the urea into carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen gas?Much easier to excrete the nitrogen by breathing it out, and it would save the water needed for excreting urea; oxidizing the urea would even add a little water, to sy nothing of providing more energy.

Let us look at the figures. 1000 grams of urea is metabolically worth 90 kilocalories. But if intead of being consumed it is passed in urine, more than 4 litres of water are needed to excrete the 100 grams of urea at a non-toxic dilution. Normally we excrete about 40 grams of urea daily in about 1.5 litres of water....
So you see, urea is waste for us and wasting it loses valuable water and energy. But if we and other animals did not pee and breathed out nitrogen instead, ther might be fewer plants and later we would be hungry.
The nitrogen in urea can be used by the bacteria that symbiotically coexist with the roots of plants and passed through to the plants themselves. Fertilizer, in other words. (Next time someone catches you pissing their flower bed on your way back home from the pub, you can quote this blog to them).

Urination, to an individual, is as such not a great way of doing things. Birds excrete solid(ish) uric acid instead, as to use water in this way would increase their weight greatly, making it more difficult to fly. It's also used to remove temporary imbalances of useful substances (which is how come some people reckon drinking their own piss is good for them); obviously it'd be better if they could be stored and re-used somehow.

The big problem here is that with the reductionist view of evolution, animals that could break down urea as suggested above would be superior and flourish over the urinators, but when you move away from viewing the fauna as individuals and look at the system as a whole, one with urinators will produce more and healthier plants which in turn will support more animals.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


BBC story

Could be one of the greatest inventions ever. It's gonna be a long while until it reaches the stage where it can replace disc drives, but are there any ways to use some MRAM? Hard to see unless OS's are modified to specificallly use it, e.g. a dual level of page store such that on booting up the system largely or wholly remembers where it was at closedown. In the days of DOS you could see it happening, but given the complexity of Windows XP or OS/X, would their manufacturers be prepared to swallow the cost? We can only hope so.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Soya, miracle or nightmare?


Seems like that miracle health-food of the 60s and staple of factory-fed animals contains such chemicals as omega-6 fatty acids (thought to be dangerous when out of proportion to omega-3), isoflavones (debatable as to whether a carcinogen or an anti-carcinogen), phytates and enzyme inhibitors. Perhaps the isoflavones (plant oestrogens) may have something to do with the increase in male infertility and testicular cancer in western Europe. Not mentioned in the article, upsurges in allergies have been found near ports where soya grain is unloaded in quantities.

In countries such as China and India, where it's been used for centuries, it's always fermented, as in soy sauce or miso, before use, which removes the nasties. Livestock won't touch the stuff; the feed, along with the extracts used in processed food, is the result of some heavyweight chemical engineering.

My opinion, at the moment case not proven either way, but I sincerely hope there's some research being done though. Urgently.

Huge swathes of the amazon rain forest have been cleared to grow it. Great, we suffer global warming, not to achieve any great goal, but so that the suburban housewife can drive her SUV down to the supermarket to pick up foodstuffs that may turn out to be greatly harmful?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Disproportionate force

With the attack on Lebanon, everyone seems to have forgotten the collective punishment of Gaza. Only a couple of weeks ago they were in the throes of a major humanitarian crisis after a major power station had been bombed leaving many without electricty or water supplies. I dread to think what they're going through now. The Israeli air force has similarly attacked infrastructure in Lebanon.
More surprisingly they've hit quite a few civilian targets. No doubt unintentional, but they're using modern Western armaments; compare that to how little collatteral damage (horrific phrase) Nato or USUK claims to inflict in its wars. Hizbullah's rockets, of course, are totally indiscriminate, though apart from that awful hit on Haifa, they don't seem to have hit much at all.

The Palestinian Authority is already a cripple state, I believe Lebanon, which had emerged pretty healthily from the devastation of civil war and the last invasion, will go the same way. It seems to be the way our new semi-multipolar (can't think of a better word) world is going that you have a few powerful states and then devastated, warlord run hellholes. Occasionally these messes get a 'strong' government, e.g. the Taliban in Afghanistan or from an earlier era, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Is that what Israelis want? Apart from a few hardline crazies, I doubt it. Trouble is the hardline crazies on all sides seem to be calling the shots here. In the Palestinian Authority, the PLO was continually undermined by Israel (they helped it along by their own appalling record of corruption and nepotism) until Hamas, an extreme Islamic group got democratically elected. Lebanon, while throwing off Syrian influence was still a very weak state, and many saw Hizbullah as their only outlet.
The US's neo-cons seem quite happy with that, knowing the superior firepower they've supplied will get them the right outcome. Their only interest, it seems, is to use it as an excuse for a dig at Syria, and their ultimate bete noir, Iran.
The UK government, as usual, merely kow-tows to the neo-cons.
Pro-US Arab governments blame Hizbullah while their populations seeth with anger. Egypyt's Mubarak must be getting very nervous indeed.

Ultimately, the protagonists are only mere bit part players; the whole horrific story of the modern Middle East comes down to the West's demand for oil. Things can only intensify as the oil runs down and China and India try to secure their supply. Perhaps when at long last we manage to switch to alternative energy sources a real peace can start to be negotiated. By then though all the Arabic countries may well be run by warlords or fundamentalists.

Meantime, an awful lot of people are getting killed, maimed or displaced. One thing seems remarkable from every time I see a picture of a victim being pulled out of a pile of rubble, they look remarkably similar whether Arab or Israeli.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

UK crime figures

BBC story
Tends to back up what was said in the 'Crime, insanity and a nice pair of trainers' entry. While crime is falling overal there's an increase related to muggings for mp3 players and mobile phones.

Personally, I haven't got an mp3 player and if someone stole my mobe they'd probably give it me back along with some cash to get an upgrade.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

George Bush's successor found

"An internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday; I just got it yesterday... because it got tangled up," Senator Ted Stevens told a hearing.

The chair of the committee on commerce, science and transportation said the internet was "not a truck" but "a series of tubes"


You couldn't make it up.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The governor

Currently reading James Lovelock's "The Revenge of Gaia" and came across something that struck me as rather odd. Lovelock mentions how he was fascinated as a child by the steam engine in the Science Museum in Kensington and by its ingenious control mechanism, the governor. A shaft driven by the circular motion that the engine produces has 2 metal balls on levers, that as they accelerate are driven outwards by centrifugal force. They're connected to a lever that controls the flow of steam such that the faster the engine goes, the more the valve is shut down, so that the engine can achieve a fairly constant speed. It's an early example of cybernetics (a thermostat's another such).
What really got me was this quote from James Clerk Maxwell, a few days after seeing it:
"It's a fine invention, but try as I may, it's analysis defies me"
This from the guy who made one of the greatest breakthroughs in science ever, with his work on the maths of electrical and magnetic fields, although he did go on to study the governor, persumably related to his work on thermodynamics.
Lovelock includes it in his book to show the gap between the traditional reductionist approach and systems thinking, which has a role in the inability of our society to combat global warming.
Lovelock's Gaia theory comes in for a lot of stick from supposedly "hard-headed" scientists who seem unable to comprehend a metaphor.
Not very interesting fact: the words 'governor' and 'cybernetics' have the same Greek root.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sad day

Horrific explosions on trains in Mumbai. A city where I've stayed a few times and possibly one of the worst cities where it could happen, it's built on a peninsula made of 7 (iirc) islands and seriously densely populated. Have the world's terrorists got some sort of numbers fetish? - 9/11, 7/7 and now 11/7.

And while it doesn't in any way compare, it's been announced Syd Barrett's died. Pink Floyd as I prefer to remember them.

And to round it all off, a visit from Blackpool Police to take statements from my parents about poor, young Charlene Downes (see the Tabloids: Britain's Poison Press post). As her body's never been found, they needed to get statements that no one's since seen her.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

The 'skills shortage'

Guardian mini-article.
It comes as a big shock to me when I find Jack Schofield coming out with something I can agree with, but this:
This creates the impression that the IT industry is mainly short of overeducated young people who will work for not much money.

hits the nail on the head. No wonder programming is being seen as uncool - a low-paid job that leaves you on the scrap-heap at 40? And these days requires a relevant degree (relevant in this case having the additional meaning of 'f**k all use in any other industry'). Overall, salaries don't seem to be going up, a lot of the jobs advertised these days offer less than I was earning in the late 1980s.

Yet British industry doen't seem to have much problem paying out good money to nebulously-defined marketing people or even mega-money to 'world-class executives' (translation: someone who's presided over the f**king up of a major corporate :)).

How come the law of supply and demand doesn't operate here?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Manchester Big Brother

Who'll be the next one out of the Manchester Big Brother house?
  • Cristiano looks favourite. The young, good-looking, Portuguese guy has never been too popular (except amongst some of the gay community, apparently) but his recent spat with Wayne may have made the difference. Moreover he allegedly says he wants to go.
  • Ruud, the Dutchman, was previous favourite. While at one time his scoring rate was legendary his prowess semms to have dropped considerably.
  • Scouser playground scrapper, Wayne, has caused more than a few upsets in his time, but nothing like the rumpus with Cristiano, which has led to accusations of him being even mentally unstable. While he remains the nation's favourite, it's pretty certain he and Cristiano can't live under the same roof much longer.
  • Elderly Scotsman Alex, sometimes referred to as 'the Boss' or 'Purple Face', has been known to give any he feels are letting the side down 'the hairdryer treatment'. Will he be able to put them in their place or will he rather be out on his ear?
  • Local lad Gary. Quiet, sensible and amiable, he seems to be the only one could calm things down. Why would he want to stay though?
  • Rio's a bit of a lad. Somehow he even managed to forget to turn up to a drugs test, though that now seems a long time ago. Rumoured to be doing very well financially, so he'll be trying to hang on for some time to come.
  • Ryan, the handsome, dark Welshman, once the ladies' favourite, he hasn't been seen in a while.
  • Brash American Malcolm. Everyone would love to get him out, but no-one knows how.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


England out :(
I think the reality is Sven's 4-1-4-1 formation never worked. Even before getting sent off, Rooney was hopelessly isolated. As the game ground on I was hoping he'd put Crouch on in the centre-forward position and give Rooney a floating job just behind him, but the red card put paid to any chance of a more positive line-up.
Wonder what Alex Ferguson will do now? Can't see Rooney and Ronaldo kissing and making up. ;)

Meantime a new star is born, or rather an old one regenerated - Zinedine Zidane. Ironic that the sort of football that everyone watches Brazil for came from one of their opponents. Allez les bleus!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

How are the mighty fallen

Argentina, from furnishing the best football of the World Cup so far, reduced to bad losers. Tense 1-1 draw with Germany settled by a penalty shoot-out, during which they allegedly swore at the German penalty-takers to try to put them off. When that failed, cue a mass brawl.

Terrible example of gamesmanship in a tournament in which it's been far too high up the agenda.