Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Re: Southern African Trivia

An interesting bit of Southern African trivia...

In June 1972, two students in the Master of Science programme at the MIT Sloan School of Management submitted a thesis entitled International Joint Venture with a Government Partner Case Study: Copper Mining in Zambia.

The second author was R. Anthony H. Aitken (don't ask). The first author was one Kofi A. Annan; yes, that Kofi A. Annan.

If you're interested, the good folks at MIT have made it and a selection of other MIT theses publicly available.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Will Money Solve Africa's Development Problems?

Courtesy of the John Templeton Foundation, eight brief essays in response to this important question. It's interesting to note that not a single contributor gives an unqualified yes. James Shikwati of the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) and The African Executive magazine, one of two African contributors, says "No way".

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Hardy Buoys

What motivates research and innovation?

There are many highly respectable motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one's performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or money, which it brings.

-- G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology (1940) [Emphasis added]

A Mathematician's Apology is a gem, equally remarkable for its beauty and its brevity.

I would also recommend the seventh and last volume of Collected Papers of G. H. Hardy to the general reader. It comprises a wide selection of Hardy's non-technical papers and showcases his skill and elegance as a writer of English prose.

Towards the end of A Mathematician's Apology Hardy remarks, clinically, that "journalism is the only profession, outside academic life, in which I should have felt really confident of my chances". Hardy was not a man given to hyperbole, so we can safely take him at his word.

Some journalist.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Power of Ideas

Most of the ideas in John Maynard Keynes' The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) have been thoroughly discredited, both in theory and in practice. (Notice he called it THE General Theory and not A General Theory. By contrast, Claude E. Shannon called his famous theory, which underlies all modern communications systems, A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The fields of information theory and communications engineering have since come to acknowledge that the Shannon theory is in fact THE Mathematical Theory of Communication.)

But one idea is still as fresh and as relevant and as important and as true as when Keynes expressed it at the close of that seminal work, namely, the potency and longevity of ideas themselves:

Is the fulfilment of these ideas a visionary hope? Have they insufficient roots in the motives which govern the evolution of political society? Are the interests which they will thwart stronger and more obvious than those which they will serve?

I do not attempt an answer in this place. It would need a volume of a different character from this one to indicate even in outline the practical measures in which they might be gradually clothed. But if the ideas are correct — an hypothesis on which the author himself must necessarily base what he writes — it would be a mistake, I predict, to dispute their potency over a period of time. At the present moment people are unusually expectant of a more fundamental diagnosis; more particularly ready to receive it; eager to try it out, if it should be even plausible. But apart from this contemporary mood, the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

Keynes' ideas have lived on. His are the ideas behind the IMF and the World Bank, institutions which, it is becoming increasingly clear, have lost an empire and are in search of a role. And there are many governments that are pursuing Keynesian policies, particularly in Africa, that have probably never heard of Keynes. Keynes words have proved remarkably prophetic:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The price of freedom

It's not every day that you're somewhere technical and you come across something else: some humour, or knowledge, or wisdom, just something other than what you were expecting to find in that technical place. The effect is always surprising (pleasantly so) and refreshing (a welcome respite from the technical slog). Some of the finest exponents of this rare art are Andy Tanenbaum (for instance his book on Computer Networks manages to incorporate quite a bit of humour without sacrificing technical accuracy) and Donald Knuth (his technical prose is almost always exemplary in its erudition and elegance--most famously displayed in that cult computer science classic, The Art of Computer Programming, or TAOCP as it's known in the acronymophilic nerd community).

So you can imagine my shock, and delight, when I was in a technical place recently, a linuxy one as it happens, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I stumbled across wisdom:
The price of freedom is responsibility, but it's a bargain, because freedom is priceless. - Hugh Downs

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Sentiments

The beginning of October is undoubtedly an extremely anxious time of the year for certain eminent scientists, writers, peacemakers and economists. For it is in October of every year that the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Economics are announced.

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Albert Fert of France and Peter Grünberg of Germany for their discovery, in the late 1980s, of Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR), a phenomenon that has been exploited in the technological development of compact high-capacity hard disk drives (such as are used in the iPod). This development work was done by Stuart Parkin and his colleagues at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. Fert, Grünberg and Parkin have shared two major prizes for their work on GMR: the 1994 APS (American Physical Society) New Materials prize and the 1997 EPS (European Physical Society) Europhysics prize. One or two commentators are of the view that Parkin should have shared in Tuesday's Nobel prize. Others disagree; one even states that "Nobels are not given out for engineering, they are restricted to basic science".

I would offer three pieces of evidence to rebut the last point:

(1) Alfred Nobel's will states that this particular prize shall be awarded to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics." Discovery or invention. Clearly technological applications of scientific discoveries, that is to say inventions, are included. The will also says that all the prizes shall be awarded "to those who...shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Conferred the greatest benefit on mankind: that, it seems to me, emphasises the practical and the tangible. And nothing confers more practical and tangible benefits on mankind than engineering.

(2) The fact that Nobel Physics Prizes have been awarded for discoveries and their technological implementation in the past. For instance: Guglielmo Marconi and his co-laureate won in 1909 for "their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy"; the 1956 laureates (Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain) won "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect"; and the 2000 laureates won "for basic work on information and communication technology", including Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments "for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit". Wireless communications, transistors and ICs: it doesn't get more applied than that.

(3) The life and work of Alfred Nobel himself. He was the foremost engineer and technologist of his age. His fortune, the very fortune that pays for the prizes given in his name today, was built on his invention of dynamite, an engineering application if ever there was one. It seems most unlikely that he would have wished his own profession (engineering) to be excluded from the prize.

I would also note what I call the complementarity of theory and practice and the virtuous circularity of discovery and application: namely, that scientific discoveries and engineering applications frequently feed into and off each other in a virtuous circle of discoveries leading to applications which open up further discoveries which in turn spur more applications; and so forth. In fact, in the case of GMR this has already happened: GMR has opened up new areas of research and development in spintronics and TMR (Tunneling Magnetoresistance).

My conclusion is that the technological application of GMR is eligible for this prize. (For the record, I should add that I am an engineer myself and therefore would say that, wouldn't I?)

No, a far thornier problem is what David Politzer (Physics, 2004) highlighted in his intriguing Nobel lecture: The Dilemma of Attribution. Politzer and his co-laureates were awarded the prize for "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction", a ground-breaking discovery in theoretical physics. In their Nobel lectures, Politzer's co-laureates spoke about their scientific discovery. This is standard practice--virtually all laureates discuss the work for which they have won the prize. Politzer deviated from this tradition and instead discussed the process of the discovery in terms of all the different people (and there were many) that were involved, directly or indirectly, advertently or inadvertently. Modern research and development involves the contribution of numerous individuals; co-workers, collaborators and competitors among them. It is almost always a collaborative enterprise. Politzer's point is that Nobel Prize winning work, which can be only be attributed to a maximum of three individuals by the Nobel committee, frequently involves the contributions of many more individuals than that. Isaac Newton's remark in a letter he wrote to Robert Hooke about having been able to see further because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, comes to mind.Let's face it: Newton wasn't a modest man by any stretch of anyone's imagination, yet even he, towering genius that he was, acknowledged his debt to other scientists. (Note: It's been suggested that Newton was being sarcastic. This sounds plausible given what we know about Newton's personality and that Hooke was small in stature. Then again, perhaps he was genuinely referring to earlier giants like Copernicus and Galileo. But never mind: we shan't let the facts get in the way of a good quotation.)

Take the key papers in which this year's winners published their discovery of GMR: Fert's November 1988 paper had eight co-authors; Grünberg's March 1989 paper had three co-authors. Earlier on, I noted that GMR's development as a viable technology was achieved by Parkin and his colleagues at IBM Research. Evidently none of these scientists made these achievements on their own.

Another consideration is that, very often, the crucial insight or step that makes a discovery possible may come from totally different quarters altogether. Indeed, it may be down to sheer luck. Or, as it tends to be called in scientific circles, serendipity. Sir Alexander Fleming spoke of this aspect of his discovery of penicillin when he received his Nobel Prize (Physiology/Medicine, 1945). In other words, the product of scientific discovery is clear and simple enough, but in many cases the process and people involved in that discovery may not be quite so clear and simple.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that no human panel of adjudicators can possibly have all the wisdom and omniscience required to appropriately evaluate and reward all the relevant contributors and contributions. As such, the Nobels are necessarily imperfect.

But my, what imperfection! The Nobels epitomise the best and boldest aspects of human endeavour and should be celebrated as such.

Congratulations Monsieur Fert and Herr Grünberg!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Slam Dunk

IEEE Spectrum Online has an interview with Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks (that's basketball for the hoopically challenged), billionaire (x 2.3 according to Forbes' latest estimate), dot-com-boom casher-inner (a very select group), HD TV believer and investor, and general all-round maverick.

An interesting character to say the least.

He ended the interview with (what other metaphor could I possibly use?) a slam dunk:

IEEE Spectrum: How do you advise others just starting out in the business?

Cuban: Just have fun and be good at what you do. Most people don't make the effort to be the best at it, you know? They just try to make sure everybody thinks they're the best. But most people don't do the work. That's what I tell people: if you're going to do something, be the best at it. Take chances and learn from your mistakes. Put yourself out there to let people criticize you, and then learn from it. That is a never-ending process. You gotta keep on learning, always be learning. And most people don't do that.

It's like sports. If you can't shoot with your left hand, you'd better practice. Business is no different; if you want to get better you practice. You want to get better at coding, you read more code, you write more code. You let people pick at your code, and you compare your code. You argue with people. You put yourself out there. You say, “Here's where I stand.” It's one thing to put it in a bar conversation; it's a whole other thing to tell the world, “This is exactly what I think: you are a moron if you buy YouTube.” I could be proven wrong. Worst case is that I learn something.

Sound advice if you ask me: Just have fun and be good at what you do.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


A glance at the date stamp on the previous post reveals, rather embarrassingly, that this blog hasn't been updated for over four months. Shocking, I know. An acute case of blogcrastination, you might say. I have my reasons, too lengthy to go into right now. Did I hear you say "Excuses, Excuses"? Quite. Erm, let's move on to the next topic, shall we?

I was rather hoping, by way of making amends for such criminal neglect, to delight you with the world premiere of this newfangled word, this neoligism, blogcrastination. Alas, it was not to be. A Google search reveals no fewer than 174 results for "blogcrastination". Darn. Someone beat me it. Oh well, you can't win 'em all I suppose. But this post's title stays--it's too good to pass up.

It's rather like when you dream up some wonderful new domain name, only to to learn from InterNIC that some other bright spark got there before you. Naturally, you studiously avoid the commercial name registrars like GoDaddy, thinking they will probably harvest your wonderful idea and sell it to the highest bidder. All in vain of course...

I do apologise. I went off on a bit of a tangent there.

Where were we? Before this four-month bout of blogcrastination, I mean?

Why don't we leave that for the next post?