Too much is not enough

The Economist leads its print edition this week with the headline The fog of war wherein they talk about how the war’s actual course is being obscured by all the scattershot realtime imagery. Who would have thought that too much information would give us the same kind of confusion in the 21st century that a severe lack of information gave von Clausewitz in the 19th century? But it appears to be so.

Inasmuch as the news imagery has the power to motivate strong emotion (as opposed to illustrating the strategic balance sheet), al-Jazeera seems to be taking the lead. If your primary intent is to show that war is cruel and messy, focusing a high-quality camera on the gaping wounds of civilians is hard to beat.
On the Reason website this week, Tim Cavanaugh writes a good piece on how the hard-hitting al-Jazeera network is thrashing the limp rah-rah coverage on CNN. As he points out in his conclusion, he’s not making any claims about the actual war, but as far as the battle of images is concerned, “there hasn’t even been a stalemate. So far, it’s been a stunning victory for the Arabs.”

In another part of the Economist this week, they also single out the Arab news network for its recent surge in popularity: Al-Jazeera comes of age. If you want to be seen by 45 million Arabs quickly, it’s the only way to go. By the way, in the small print below the article, there is a link to an interesting al-Jazeera page on the Cursor web site.

Ned the Blogger

I can’t resist linking to this fellow blogger: Ned Batchelder is, like me, a blogger, a resident of greater Boston, a software developer, named Ned, and the father of an autistic son. Whether or not he was born in North Carolina I cannot say, but his blog is full of useful information. Only yesterday he posted the answer to that perennial riddle “why is a tomato a fruit?” His answer:

Grains are seeds, fruit is anything that carries seeds, and vegetables are everything else.

So tomato is a fruit. Corn is a grain. Eggplant is a fruit (who knew?). As are the noble pomegranate and humble kumquat. But does that make a seedless grape a vegetable?

Floating (Flying) Exchange Rate

I’m back from my France mini-vacation, and as far as I could tell, there was no overt Yankee-bashing going on. I saw one anti-Bush message scrawled on a subway wall but that’s about it. Their news magazines looked like our news magazines, with interested stories and simple headlines like “The War in Iraq” (as opposed to, say, “That Stupid War Those Arrogant Americans Foisted on the World”).

My flight back was uneventful, but I did learn something interesting about the euro-dollar exchange rate. According to the European Central Bank, at today’s exchange rate you could buy $1.07 with one euro. But in an Air Canada jet flying over the north Atlantic from Paris to Montreal, you can buy the same beer with either four dollars or three euros. I sense an arbitrage opportunity here.

Postcard from Paris

I’m spending a long weekend near Paris, and I can officially say that so far nobody here has given me a hard time about the nasty things the U.S. is doing to Iraq. Not that I’ve been going out of my to get into political conversations… The trip over was very uneventful. I didn’t notice any more or less security along the way, and except for the nonstop CNN at the airport very little seemed different.

See Saddam’s house

DigitalGlobe is a company that will sell you extremely detailed satellite images (they claim 60 cm resolution) of anywhere in the world. To prove they’ve got the goods, they have a nifty gallery on their website that features, among the various famous touristic locations, some photos of North Korea and Iraq. Here is a shot of downtown Baghdad from last year (use this map to get your bearings). No doubt it will soon look very different. This is Saddam’s Baghdad palace (there are pictures of at least nine other palaces) and if you look closely you can see him swimming laps in his pool. Well, okay, I bet you could if he were swimming laps.

One of the most arresting images I came across was this one of Mecca during the Hajj. Right at the center of the image you can see thousands of pilgrims performing their seven counterclockwise turns around the Kabah. It’s a fascinating peek into another world. I can’t decide if images like this make these places seem more real or more exotic. Now, instead of saying “I wonder what Baghdad is like?” I am more likely to say “I wonder what it’s like right there where that bridge over the Tigris river enters Baghdad university?” Either way I wonder.

Off the shelf and into the desert

Hooray for modern US technology and its ability to knock out bad guys science-fiction style. I sleep better knowing that all that tasty tech gear is on our side. Recently, though, I read a New York Times article that simultaneously pleased and disturbed me: Military Now Often Enlists Commercial Technology. The gist of it is that, whereas in the old days (say, ten or more years ago) secret military research led to our gee-whiz weaponry, these days the military buys a lot of it high tech gear straight off the hardware store shelf. Think about the implications… This is good news from the defense budget’s point of view: a product that competes in the open market is bound to cost less than one developed solely for the Pentagon. On the other hand, if we’re buying it, then anybody can, right?

To be fair, the commercial products the military is buying are computers and communications gadgets, not missiles and guns, but the point is still valid: spending is the name of the game. If it’s on the menu, anybody with enough cash can buy it. We may be ahead of the bad guys, but they’re happy to walk in our footsteps, picking up goodies. They don’t have fancy R&D laboratories, but they don’t need them. Humans have been involved in a continuous arms race since the first well-aimed rock, but high technology makes it spiral faster and faster. It used to be a race with the Russians, but now it looks like we’re in for an ever faster race with our own shadow.

So this guy walks into a bar…

I noticed recently that somebody got to this site because of a Google search on the phrase “best joke ever.” The reason the search found me is that I had blogged a story about some humor research in the U.K. (sorry, humour research) and I used that phrase. Still, I was pleased Google came to me about such a common phrase. But I wasn’t the first. Naturally, I was curious who was in first place. And when I clicked, I had to concede that if it wasn’t the funniest joke ever, it was at least the best one I’d heard in a fortnight. I’ve been sick all week and needed the laugh.

So here it is, as rated by Google and seen on (ahem), the best…joke…ever (reprise). Be sure to scroll down to the third comment and read about the Henway.

Getting Knotty

There is a distinguished history of abstruse higher mathematics becoming suddenly practical without warning, the protestations of pure mathematicians like G.H. Hardy notwithstanding. Factoring large prime numbers, for example, is critically important to secure encryption, while multidimensional sphere-packing generates crucial insights into data compression. Now knot theory is popping up in an unlikely place: creating a practical quantum computer. Read about it here in Science News: Knotty Calculations: Science News Online, Feb. 22, 2003. The prose in this article has an uncanny resemblance to science fiction claptrap.

Depicted in space-time, these paths can intertwine to form what mathematicians describe as a braid. If the particles are so-called anyons, it’s possible to recapture information about a braid by measuring physical properties of the anyons after the motion ceases. This process may open the door to a completely new type of computer that calculates by using braids.

Um… sure, but then again I believed in cold fusion for a while, too. Anyway, the key insight here is in the push-pull of mathematical association with a real-world phenomenon. If the physical world can “solve a problem” that would take a million years to solve on a computer, then why not work backwards? Set up a physical counterpart to a math problem, watch what happens, and save a million years by interpreting the results mathematically. My physicist friend Dan, who spent years working on complicated integrals working out the interaction between particle beams at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, said one day: “After a while you start to think of an accelerator as a way to solve really hard integrals.”

It calls to mind one of my favorite quotes from the (applied) mathematician Stan Ulam: “It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.”

Herring Goes Belly Up

The Red Herring is no longer. As one of the hot Silicon Valley magazines that covered the New Economy and rode the wave of prosperity, it is joining Upside and The Industry Standard in the dead pool. Read about it here on SFGate: Red Herring sinks / Business magazine unable to secure enough ads.

It’s easy to make fun of the boom times now, but I sure enjoyed flipping through these magazines. I was disappointed, but not too surprised when The Industry Standard vanished, but the Herring has been around for ten years and I assumed their pedigree was distinguished enough to weather the storm. Any bets on how much longer Business 2.0 or Fast Company can last?

Not to worry, though. There’ll be a new crop of tech business magazines when the money comes back. They’re like mosquitoes. They all go hide somewhere, but come the first warm day: WHAMMO! they’re buzzing around in your face again. It’s amazing how fast they can breed. In the meantime, consider this Ghost of the Ad Revenues of Christmas Past from Marketplace for August 17, 2001

At the height of the high-tech boom, an issue of The Industry Standard magazine was almost as thick as the “M” encyclopedia, 380 pages, mostly advertisements for cutting edge companies. But as the tech bubble burst, so did that section of the ad market and the Industry Standard’s last issue was just 70 pages long.

Even in a recession, though, wedding magazines remain thick enough to prop open doors. Modern Bride is a brick of nearly 500 pages (“25 things you must have in your kitchen” is on page 434 of the May issue). Makes you wonder if a merger could have saved the day for the Herring. Still, Red Herring Bridal seems unlikely to appeal.