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.