Sunday, December 26, 2010

21: Christmas comes but once a year ...

It's the last week before Christmas so time for me to put pen to paper (In a manner of speaking) once again ...

As I sit here year after year whittling the still-warm core of another year's experience, I create personal punctuation marks in this billion year, day-follows-night-follows-day odyssey that we share. This semi-colon draws my attention to the recurrence of the counter-intuitive 'unseasonable cold' effects of global warming, as it settles deep, crisp and evenly oer the castles of England. Yet in this idyllic picture-postcard, deep white, snow white; double glazed, insulated and efficiently lit scene, something ugly stirs ... 'Tis the ire of Christmas Past, which lashes hot and fast on those who blaspheme by their casual observations of this ... "Weather is not climate!". It seems that even a secular society still needs its Gods. But as another freedom falls quietly by the wayside, another fairy dies ... Especially cruel when it's the freedom of the English to talk about the weather.

Outside there is a snow-clad winter wonderland. Bedecked trees bow under their burden, shrieking children slide precariously down glistening hillsides and the population of villages and towns double as the snowmen hiding in the shadows since last winter, creep out under the cover of darkness to stand in any open space, arms akimbo in silent homage to the cold and frosty morn. With the combined snick of a million butterfly sneezes, billions of transistors convinced of their own importance since their recent creation from the very sand of time; are assigned to holding in perpetuity the value of a pixel never ever to be noticed. A transistor is not aware, it is just a dumb collection of materials! ... But what then of a virus? The smallest transistors today are the same size as the smallest virus, and they are clearly demonstrating their individual identity and independence; no longer are they the well behaved transistors of the past, these nano-revolutionaries are the bellwethers of the future. Indeed it may be that they become so unruly that the only way to progress Moore's law is to use viruses in their stead. So it may not be long till we have to consider the self-actualisation of our circuits ... Viruses have rights too you know!

So it seems likely that we will have a white Christmas this year ... or does it. There's more to statistics than chance. You know that if enough people wish for something, then perversity steps in and it doesn't happen. So somewhere out there, a butterfly with a wicked streak is adjusting the weather so that a warm-front (a relative term in the UK) arrives to assures we have cold-rain for Christmas and the bookies rest easy on their profits. Of course Christmas is not really about gambling, or indeed any of the commercial motivations that strive to part us from our financial present and future. It is an opportunity to remember that we are people living amongst people in a most improbable situation of beauty in a majestic and awesome; but predominantly empty and hostile universe. And more; to value the relationships and feelings we share with others. A good time to thank whatever you attribute for giving you the opportunity to do so ... But then go out and spend something because the Chancellor needs you to help pay-off his gambling debts.

Of course it wouldn't be right for me to get so far and not mention anything about my 2010. Well I suppose my experiments with time-travel are proceeding quite well. These days I can manage a stately progress forward in time, though backward or even minor variation from the day/day proves intractable. Perhaps more disappointing is the realisation that increasingly more of you didn't start as early as I did, so are generally further from the finishing line ... but such is life. So that I am still here to launch this missive into the ethereal odyssey is the greatest fortune (to me); doubled by the fact that you clearly still have an ISP! From this sound beginning, I'm expecting around 400 or so of our fellow time-travellers to further swell this coffer of happiness.

... As you know there were a lot of seconds in 2010, so I did a lot of things. I and my wife (Frances) are well, we walked and talked, and did and saw; and we travelled the globe and saw children and grandchildren who are well and delightful (of course). My work is great, and through it I have met you, new and old like-minded friends who find satisfaction in the challenge of mastering and utilising the interaction of just a few of the 115 elements ... we have such a long way to go. What else ... Well Fame and Fortune still prove elusive, and Beauty Sleep just isn't working. Late Great (as in the late great Ian Phillips!) is coming along nicely, though late seems to be the easiest part. But overall I would say it has been a good year ... Which throws serious doubt on my old adage, that life is AC-Coupled.

Time to finish now; the central-heating boiler is making a funny noise so I'd better go and laugh at it, lest it sulks over Christmas. So time to hang up the penknife and sweep up the discarded shards ... Just Christmas then we're off again, full-tilt into a brand new year.

" ... and when it comes it brings great cheer!" ... So have a very merry Christmas, and I (we) wish you the best of fortune for 2011.

Cheers.i@n(And Frances)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

20: Heresy in the 21C

I'm just about to fly to Australia, a journey 10,000 miles horizontally but just 6 miles vertically?! To prove my SI credentials, I could build a 10km square structure, but a cubic one would be impossible?! With such a huge energy differential between the two horizontal dimensions and the single vertical one how can we really doubt that we live in a 2D world! I could settle for two-and-a-bit dimensions; but no-way three!

Scientists tell us that the world is a sphere, and it does conveniently explains some of those nasty day-to-day visual effects like ships sailing over a horizon ... but we swallowed it; hook, line and sinker ... despite the fact that it doesn't really explain what holds the world 'up' or where space 'is'. In fact to suggest it might be as we see it, would be 21C heresy!

... Now 'up' there is Space, it is a different story. There, I can believe every direction is equally 'easy'; There I could build my 10km cube no-problemo. So are we really experiencing the interface between a 2D Earth and a 3D Space? Are living on a pile of detritus that has landed on our 2D domain over the aeons, elevating us a little into the third dimension. Enough that we are aware of it and can even manipulate it in small quantities? (Time is another dimension we are aware of, though in that case we have not learned to manipulate it in any significant way).

"But wait, if you carried on when you get to Australia you would end up back where you started ... surely that means the world must be round? And as you could do it in any direction, it must be a sphere!" Ok, but another explanation is that we live in a finite 2D space, such that any dimension beyond the horizontal limits of that finite space has no meaning (!), so attempts to travel beyond it brings you back to the start. Like an "Infinity Mirror" ... or The Universe. Those same scientists tell us the universe is actually "curved" back on itself (Explaining the uniformity of the background microwave radiation from the big-bang), and there is nothing outside it because outside it has no meaning. Hmm ... so why should this only happen at the macro scale? It suggest that gravity isn't a force, just the requirement for extra energy necessary to move an object from the 2D plane toward a 3D space ... Which might explain the difficulty detecting gravity waves, and also hints at the energy required to time-travel!

Actually a more famous frizzy haired guy said that planets do not travel on curved paths around the Sun, but along a straight paths. The presence of the large mass of the sun distorts space such that the straight path returned to an earlier point on itself ... ie behaves as if it was circular ... sound familiar? Of course 3D space is bound to be distorted in the presence of 2D space ... keil surprise; and you would expect big 2D spaces distort space more than small ones! So that puts planets as 2D surfaces progressing along 1D trajectories above other 2D surfaces; mostly unable to deviate from their 1D paths because to do so would require an increase of energy ... we see it as orbits!

"Now wait a minute ... Look at the Moon, you can see that that is a sphere!" No you don't, you see a flat surface ... The moon and the stars are on a flat plane ... or at least the inside of a large dome! And we see the effects of the 2D to 3D interface at the edges as the light travelling to us along a curved trajectory whilst travelling its straight path ... The same mechanism incidentally, which makes boats disappear 'over' a horizon. So it is actually quite reasonable that a 2D space which has no 3rd dimension (ie it has no "back") would appear spherical when located in and observed from a 3D space ... it is 2 dimensional from every perspective. As it is reasonable that a 3D space would appear 2D when observed from a 2D space.

1, 2, 3 and 4D spaces all occupying the same universe with nothing (whatsoever) outside it ... Inside we have Dimensions and Time alternate forms of energy in a vast emptiness. Periodically standing waves form in this energy and particles of matter spontaneously appear ... most promptly disappear, but some cluster together to produce us. Net energy ... no-change! The big bang just produced Dimensions and Time, stuff appeared in it because of ripples ... and because it had nowhere else to appear. And because all dimensions and time are its domain, then the stuff appeared in it wherever and whenever it felt like it.

... What noise does a Dimension/Time big-bang make? Because it is still happening today!

'They' say that truth is stranger than fiction; they also say to trust your own eyes. Science is littered with heretics who turned out to be heroes. Heretics see the same world that everybody else sees, but question the standard interpretation.

So even in these enlightened times, it takes courage to be a good scientist ... to stand in front of your peers and propose an orthogonal approach ... to risk ridicule or rejection as you do it. It still takes courage to tell the Emperor he is naked. But time and again scientific (and business) heroes emerge from re-statements of the blindingly obvious!


Sunday, August 8, 2010

19: Present at the Birth of an Adage

I bought my 5yr old granddaughter a children's encyclopaedia; I was in Australia at the time so I was able to experience her first exploration of it. I've always loved Encyclopaedias, they are my favourite books (closely followed by Dictionaries). There is something very wonderful about holding a single book that contains knowledgeable answers to most questions. It's sad I know, but for many years I contrived to buy an Encyclopaedia Britannica who's 20 odd volumes I knew would contain all the answers worth having ... alas that knowledge was to remain beyond my finances.

Meanwhile in Australia, my Granddaughter sits beside me ... Cars; "I know about those". Elephants; " I know about those". Fish; "know about those". Mountains; "know about those" ... Zebras; "know about those". Book closes! So I opened the book on one of the things and read something about it that she didn't know. It was a wonderful to be at the dawn when she realised that though she knew, she knew about lots of things; she realised she didn't know everything about any of them! The rest of the day followed the format ..."Granddad. Tell me something I don't know about Elephants!". The pursuit of knowledge is a hard taskmaster ...

last year [1] I pondered the sufferings of Engineers who whilst striving to understand, discovers how little he/she actually knows. And thus how difficult it is for a knowledgeable person to provide an answer, whilst it is easy for one less skilled to do so. Our forefathers warned us about this in the old adage: "If you think it is easy; you don't understand the question". They also coined a word to use for those who pretended to have knowledge for their own gain; Charlatan.

So how does the unskilled person tell if an answer is from: a knowledgeable person; one pretending to be so; or one who simply has insufficient knowledge to make a judgement?

So those same wise forefathers helped us with this as well, they created the concept of the Professional; one versed in the speciality concerned and responsible enough to identify his/her own limitations. And in conjunction with his/her peers, able to confer professional recognition on others; and denounce charlatans. Professionals earn their rank, and behave accordingly. There was a time when their opinion mattered and they were trusted for that. Nowerdays, political correctness requires everybody to be equal, so everybody is an expert! As the man in the street can be poled on issues of immense depth and gravity, who needs professionals?

Alas, spray-on-knowledge; the sort gained from a quick science course, a search on the Internet, or propagated by a sensational seeking media; is not enough. This does not equip the recipient to make professional judgements, merely moves him/her into the category of those who think the answer is easy. Though they may have enough understanding of the terminology, they don't understand the depth of the question. A little knowledge, really is a dangerous thing. Too often the media are the charlatans in this. Feigning their own knowledge they empower the layman to make judgements on complex issues, by presenting limited or misleading contexts and Yes/No answers ... when in fact such simplification is not possible. (Have you stopped beating your wife?) The priorities of audience ratings, will seldom align with wider public good.

"Somebody's going to get hurt", "I wouldn't if I were you", "Never a borrower or a lender be!" Parents are so patronising! ... Let's face it, they are so unadventurous: They can never have been young; they can never have seen the world in the same vibrant colours that 'we' do ... it was all so different back then! So it is no surprise that we listen to our forefathers even less ... even when something goes wrong and the 'I told you so' rings so loudly for us; we prefer not to reflect on their other wise words. Human nature, but a very slippery slope ...

So now is the time, before the waste product and rotational air moving machine come together unnecessarily, it is wise to ponder a while on those wonderful experience based messages handed down through countless generations of caring parents to their offspring ... About the ways of the world and the behaviour of the Cro-Magnons [2] we spend our lives amongst ...

Lest the only thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history?


1: The more I learn, the less I know
2: Somewhere over the Rainbow

Friday, June 4, 2010

18: Life at the Threshold of Magic

Just Imagine living in a world where the behaviour of everything more complex than a tungsten filament light - is driven by magic!

Imagine it, because that is the world where most people ... The Estate Agents, Teachers, Hairdressers, Shop Assistants, PAs ... Financiers, Lawyers, Accountants, Spouses, Mangers, Leaders and Politicians ... actually live today! [1]

As science professionals our threshold-of-magic is relatively high; we either understand most of the technology around us, or have sufficient knowledge to know that we could; and we assume, incorrectly, that everybody around us has the same appreciation. But even 'we' are not immune to a threshold-of-magic, there are things we don't understand: Energy, Space, Matter, Time and Life for example ... Magic happens for us when we flick their switch; we don't really know how, we just accept that it does. (And Does anyone really understand the magic of Finance and Money??)

If a tungsten filament light bulb is beyond the man in the street, then what can possibly be 'his' understanding of the chemistry in an integrated circuit, mathematics of embedded computation, or the intricacies of Boolean logic and HDLs; or the internal workings of a Blackberry, iPod, Car or Aeroplane. They work when they flick the switch ... magic happens.

Yet one way or another these non-scientific humans are so frequently the targets for our presentations, our appeals for support and requests for intervention. If we fail to express ourselves in terms they can understand, the outcome is inevitable!

We see our silos well enough; Microelectronics, Design, Software, Hardware, Process, Factory, Support, etc. We know which family we belong to, and for whose wellbeing which we will fight religiously. But our paymasters just don't see it ... to them it is all shades of magic ... very colourful, but as meaningless as mythical wars between fairies, goblins, elves, trolls and wizards (& witches ;-).

Of course Executives/Politicians want to make the right decision, so will follow past strategy and listen to the key-words from other pundits, but to really influence them it has to be in their language. It shouldn't be that difficult we live amongst them and talk to them every day ... just not about the technical stuff.

So, how do you feel about "Smart Electronic Systems" [2] then? In some ways it is just another classification; yet in others it is a relatively rare bridge between cultures. It is a just three words, but its intuitive meaning is broadly aligned between the scientific and lay communities; it is a concept we can all understand :-

So which business of any hue, would not agree its future prosperity would be depended on the increased use of Smart Electronic Systems: To improve the functionality of their product; to improve production of their product; and/or to improve their business process?

And who active in the supply-side of this technology, would be so short sighted as to deny their particular role (research, design, manufacturing, support, installation, methodology, etc) was not contributory to Smart Electronic Systems?

... It is intuitively important, inclusive (multi-disciplines) and scalable (hierarchical); and to be seen to be working on them brings professional and public, acclaim and recognition. It is a banner to which all can comfortably rally.

So whatever your scientific discipline micro/nano-electronic process development and fabrication; design and manufacture of chips, boards and systems; methods and tools; IP, Hardware, Software and Services (Including IT/ICT and 'The Digital World'); Installation, Configuration and Maintenance ... all fit. It turns out (as we already knew!), that we are all equally important cogs in the Smart Electronic Systems world!

With this clearly demarcated category, its direct and indirect contribution[3] to societies needs can be quantified ... Support of Businesses, Health care, The Environment, Security, Transport, Government and Economies. We can quantify the direct business opportunity and economic contribution from their Design, Manufacture, Installation, Configuration and Maintenance.

... The links between the technologies and human care-abouts are all there!

How will this effect your next presentation/proposal/report ...

Well start by recognising that you are trying to pass a message. Recognise that your audience is not as smart as you are in your area ... though they are probably at least as smart in others. Believe they are there because they want to hear you and will try to understand what you have to say ... and will help you if they can. So explain your request in terms they can understand ... uncluttered by superfluous demonstrations of your credibility or command of acronyms.

... Like shooting fish in a barrel.


1: Arthur C Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
2: Smart Electronic Systems (SmartES). A new term (as far as I am aware).
3: Direct Value is measured by sales; actual sale of a specific product or service (in our case technical). Indirect Value emerges from enablement activities of a product. Usually through the improvement of the manufacturing or business process, as well as inclusion in that businesses own products. Indirect value may be 0x, but is frequently 100x direct value.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

17: It's all about trust.

Apparently man's first experiments with tools took place about 1.5 million years ago. Though little more than shaped rocks with sharpened edges; they had been chosen to fit the hand and most significantly, had been made in advance of need ... I learned this from a specialist[1]. To give context to this: Wise Man (Homo Sapien) didn't appear till 100,000 years ago; and Modern Man (Cro Magnon) just 30,000. Through those long dark ages, our specialisms evolved concurrently with our physiology.

The social contract was simple; you contribute your skill as a tool maker and in return someone else contributes their skill as a hunter. So it also marked the birth of trust! 1,500,000 years later the range and depth of specialisms are much greater, and the society they have enabled infinitely more complex. But whilst the social contract is still the same; trust had a problem with scaling ...

Personal-Trust worked well until societies grew to the point where everybody couldn't know everybody else (> villages), so Money had to be invented as a Unit of Transferable-Trust to allow society to grow! That Money was not literally a measure of work done (Force x Distance), but a measure of the value of a contribution made to society. And it worked as long as the Stability and Value of the currency was maintained ...

Of course over history holders of that trust have repeatedly betrayed it. Gold was a popular currency because its scarcity made it difficult to forge, but it was heavy and difficult to manage. So the gold was put safely in 'the King's' strong room and Promissory Notes issued instead. The British Pound Note is a good example of this; originally emblazoned ... 'I promise to give the bearer on demand a pound of gold' ... it was just as good as having real gold. The Notes traded hand to hand with seldom recourse to actual gold. But kings have hard times too (!), so devaluations happened and eventually the link with pounds of gold totally evaporates. The Note itself becomes the currency: The British note now reads "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of Five Pounds" [2] ... Recursion aside, did anybody see where the actual gold went!?

Of course we have recent experience of the integrity of Banks and Governments ... but before we cast the first stone, how do you and I stand in maintaining our end of that social contract? These days we are almost all specialists in something. We deliver something to society and in return get money with which to buy services from the other specialists that abound ... Providers of Food, Fuel, Clothing, Facilities, etc. So we owe it to our society to give good value for the money we receive; and in return expect (hope) everybody else will do the same [3]. For it to work we all have to behave Professionally and not make use of our own specialist knowledge or experience for unfair gain relative to our contribution! Clearly the importance of Professionalism is not restricted to "The Professions"!

Alas we do see "Professionals" behaving Unprofessionally; but we also see shining examples of Professionalism in others less qualified and lettered. Justifying my long held belief that though I have the paperwork to style myself Engineer; to be one is still an aspiration of my soul ... To be a Professional Engineer is an earned status, not one granted or maintained by paper qualifications and the membership of Professional Institutions alone.

So if we are experiencing a instability in the world's Units of Transferable-Trust, it can only lead to a more wholesome phase of growth based on underlying Societal Contribution and Inter-Personal Trust.

... But in the meantime shares in Kingfisher and Home Depot are bound to rise!

Cheers.ian (CEng, FIET, BSc.Hon.)

1: Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool, British Museum, London.
2: British £5 note (Similar on other UK Notes)
3: This line of reasoning suggests that Society should determine our wages not our employers.