Review of “The Fear Index”

Robert Harris in Cologne on November 19th 2009
Image via Wikipedia

I am not going to pretend The Fear Index is high literature, or anything like it.

It’s trashy thriller that I bought because I was going on a long journey, wanted something to read and generally thought Robert Harris‘s books fitted the bill of entertainment.

It is also a book about computing, or at least one that uses computing as an important part of the plot in a story about how things go disastrously wrong for a Geneva hedge fund.

So, what did I think? Well, it was enjoyable enough and an easy read – disposed of in little more than 24 hours. At times it even shows promise as a moral fable about the financial services industry and the culture of the City of London and the morality of moving to Geneva in search of lower taxes while complaining about public services.

It is also quite good, in part, in describing poorly socialised male scientists and mathematicians, though spoils that by actually having the main character, a thoroughly unlovable physicist/mathematician/computer scientist get the girl.

In the end the book is failure – not just because the characters are paper thin, I had no right to expect anything else from the genre – because the final twist is not really any sort of twist at all, but a below par re-run of a very familiar story. I won’t spoil it by giving it away, but will say that once, in the final 50 pages or so, it became clear just what the terrible secret of the plot is I lost a lot of interest.


Even for the Liberal Democrats this one takes the biscuit

Lynne Featherstone
a moron as spotted on wikipedia

I seem to keep saying “I don’t do politics here” and then writing about politics … so here I go again.

The local Liberal Democrats (for US readers think ‘liberal republicans’) have just leafleted the street urging people to protest about (Labour-led) Haringey council‘s “wrong priorities” in spending £3.3 million on 4,500 computers.

Apparently this budgeting of  £733 a computer constitutes “splashing out” and is money that should be spent on “frontline services”.

Do these morons think there are any “frontline services” that do not rely on computers? Do they think out public servants should be using pen and paper to communicate? (Actually, many of them do – I attended a meeting with my local Lib Dem MP, Lynne Featherstone at her party’s conference where speaker after speaker argued just that.)

Of course the real cheek is that the Lib Dems attack Labour for cuts at all – the Lib Dems are in government and support a 20% cut in the real level of public financial support for local authorities.


OK, rant over – but this sort of cretinism ranks with anti-science in my book.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy, an American computer scientist.
Image via Wikipedia

October 2011 has not proved to be a good month for computer pioneers, and the death of John McCarthy, so soon after that of Dennis Ritchie means we have lost two of the most significant and influential of all.

McCarthy was the designer of LISP which, with FORTRAN, holds the record of the oldest living high level computer language. LISP is the grandparent of today’s functional computer languages and still has many fanatical supporters in its own right.

(Scheme is the LISP dialect used in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs – a book I am currently re-reading.)

Like Ritchie, though, it would be wrong to single out McCarthy for only one achievement: because it neglects the rest, such as his pioneering work on artificial intelligence (his own term) and his formulation of the concept we now know as cloud computing.

Thanks to @PootBlog but I still don’t get it

Magnets have many uses in toys. M-tic uses mag...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been on holiday with the family in a not exactly sunny, but still perfectly pleasant Bilbao, and so have not replied to this as soon as I probably should have.

But thanks to Damian Counsell (@PootBlog) who responded to my annoying twittering by explaining one of the magnetism issues I had:!/PootBlog/status/127842530271313920!/PootBlog/status/127842800975880192

I have to say, though, I am less than convinced. Say I create a new permanent magnet. How do other magnets know about it? In other words how does this “field” propagate? As it carries information it must surely propagate at the speed of light – but how? Is it a property of space-time itself?

A second thing I don’t understand about magnetism

Image via Wikipedia

Magnets attract (or repel) one another. But how?

How does the electromagnetic force get turned into kinetic energy? Do all the electrons inside a magnet ‘rush’ to one end of the magnet – if so why don’t we see an imbalance of charge (or maybe we do – after all magnets can be used to generate current).

Fear these questions may lead some of you to doubt I have any sort of physics qualification at all – but I do not recall being taught any of this, at ‘O’ level, ‘A’ level or as an undergraduate.

Things I don’t understand: magnetism

A stack of ferrite magnets
Image via Wikipedia

OK, I have a (astro)physics degree, so maybe I should understand this, but I don’t. Been meaning to ask my brother (PhD in high temperature super conductivity) – but never yet gotten around to it – so here goes.

For magnets to attract (or repel) one another, they must emit some sort of radiation: magnets cannot just “know” they are close by. So, what is this radiation? Presumably it is electromagnetic which presumes magnets are emiting radiation constantly.

Now, I am sure magnets (as in toy magnets of the sort pictured here) decline in strength over time, but they also seem to last many years with no easily noticeable sign of decline. So how can they emit electromagnetic radiation for years in this way?

Should we all be worried by Windows 8?

Graph of typical Operating System placement on...
Image via Wikipedia

It is not so long ago that I wrote here that Microsoft were no longer the enemies of free software. News I have read today makes me wonder if I was worse than premature in that judgement.

Allegedly, Microsoft are proposing to make it more or less impossible to boot your computer with any software other than that which they supply or subsequently authorise, by tightly linking a computer’s BIOS to booting software.

This sort of proposal was first kicked around by MS when they launched their “secure computing initiative” about a decade or so ago – at the time when the number of virus and trojan attacks against their operating systems (which tended to be run by users with root/admin privileges) was big news internationally (I remember one afternoon the whole of the Welsh Assembly’s computer network being taken down by the ‘love bomb’ email virus).

There was a big hoo hah about the proposal then and it went away – but now it is back and is set to be a core part of the forthcoming Windows 8. The signs, so far, are that Microsoft are not taking legitimate concerns about the proposal seriously.

Ubuntu annoyances and some fixes

Ubuntu Login
Image via Wikipedia

OK, after a week of 11.10 I thought I’d list some of the problems and what to do about them. It’s not happy reading – I think it is fair to say Canonical have dropped the ball on this one.

  • Unity – this is the joke Ubuntu think we should be using as a desktop interface. It’s rubbish, just use Gnome:sudo aptitude install gnome-panel and then select Gnome when you login (click on that wheel thing beside your name on the login dialog).
  • Evolution – this is nearly as bad as the Unity decision, but Ubuntu have banjaxed Evolution and I can see no obvious fix – I am using Thunderbird instead, but it is also broken (a bug is in the Ubuntu bugzilla but no fix is apparent) and complains about the Ubuntu One address book. You just have to ignore the errors and hope somebody gets around to fixing it. Better yet, gets round to fixing the distro so that Evolution works on it.
  • Skype – this too is broken by 11.10. But it can be fixed. sudo apt-get install libxss1:i386 && sudo apt-get install libqt4-core:i386 && sudo apt-get install libqt4-gui:i386 && sudo apt-get install libdbus-1-3:i386 (NB: use apt-get as aptitude seems to have some issues with this.) Be careful, though, as installing these libraries might cause you some other issues – have not for me, but they seem to drive a lot of other consequential changes.

Is all other science “unpopular” then?

The great British distaste for science goes on.

In a central London bookshop today I noticed that the only science books on sale were the ones badged as “popular science”: bad luck if you wanted something more in depth.