Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lords of Finance

I'm reading Lords of Finance by Liquat Ahamed. A beautifully written book about the fascinating times and events of 1929 onwards and the four fascinating men at the centre of them. It is also a profoundly disturbing book for the times, events and actions of the men are eerily reminiscent of those of 2007 onwards.

The first chapter is available online.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mind the gap

"Sometimes there is a gap between theory and practice. The gap between theory and practice in theory is not as large as the gap between theory and practice in practice."
--Anonymous (via Jeff Case, author of SNMP)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Royal 350

The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific body, celebrates its 350th aniversary this year. This interactive timeline shows some of the seminal papers published in the Society's journals over the last 350 years, together with brief commentaries from relevant experts.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Do all the good you can

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

--Attributed to John Wesley (Although there is apparently no evidence that he ever said it. However, he did use the first phrase, "Do all the good you can", in several of his writings.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hereditary conditioning

On page 35 of How to Win Over Worry (2009, Harvest House Publishers) by John Edmund Haggai:

A Democrat from the South asked a man living in Vermont, "Why are you a Republican?"

The Vermonter answered, "My father was a Republican, my grandfather was a Republican, and therefore, I am a Republican."

The Southerner said, "Suppose your father had been a fool and your grandfather had been a fool. Then what would you be?"

"Oh," the man replied, "in that case, I'd be a Democrat."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Phish and chips

Ross Anderson and his colleagues have successfully, if that be the right word, broken the EMV (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) security protocol, popularly known as "Chip and PIN". This technology is widely used in Europe and other parts of the world, including South Africa, to secure bank cards. For more see:

Anderson's book is still the best available general text on the engineering issues around information and network security.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

His unconquerable soul

Twenty years ago this month, a 71 year old man walked out of the gates of a prison in Cape Town, South Africa. He had been incarcerated for over 27 years. He walked slowly, much as you'd expect any man of his age to walk, let alone one who had just emerged from a lengthy jail term, a good deal of which included hard labour. His left hand clasped the right hand of his wife of 32 years. His right hand was clenched and held aloft in the famous African National Congress amandla ("power") salute. In some ways, the man who left the South African prison system that day was undeniably different from the man who had entered it: his advanced physical age being the most obvious way perhaps. But in one way he was unmistakably the same: unconquered, unbowed, unafraid.

These are the qualities extolled in Invictus (Latin for "unconquerable" or "invincible"), a poem by William Ernest Henley that provided much inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates during their imprisonment as Mandela confirms in this 2007 interview in Reader's Digest. Mandela has drunk deeply at the fountain of the world's great literature.

South Africa has been reflecting this month on the meaning and significance of Mandela's and the country's long walk to freedom. In Mandela's own assessment, recorded in the final words of his autobiography, that long walk was not the end, only the beginning; not an achievement, only an opportunity:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Arch Helix

An interesting paper was published in Nature this week presenting the first complete genome sequences of Khoisan and Bantu individuals. The four Khoisan individuals are !Gubi, G/aq’o, D#kgao and !Aı (the unusual spellings are due to the click sounds found in the Khoisan languages); the Bantu individual was one Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, or The Arch as he's affectionately called in South Africa. Incidentally, his middle name Mpilo means "life" in Sesotho. Appropriate, wouldn't you say? This has got to be the most unusual cover story ever involving The Arch.


Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa, Nature, 463, 943-947 (18 February 2010)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From Z to A

Bharti Airtel has entered in exclusive negotiations with Zain to acquire Zain's African unit (previously known as Celtel). This is Bharti Airtel's third attempt to enter the African market, after two previous unsuccessful attempts to acquire MTN. The sale price is in the region of US$ 10.7 billion. MTC of Kuwait (the precursor of Zain) acquired Celtel for US$ 3.4 billion in 2005.

The lesson here is about works in Africa. Free markets work. Free hands work. Free minds work.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Guild of Whores

Just in case you've ever wondered why Einstein described academia as the guild of whores (see p. 153 of Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson or this post), read these two pieces by Pallab Ghosh, a BBC science correspondent:

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Importance of Being Honest: A Serious Triviality for Comedic People

"To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
--Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People

Another day, another scandal involving the IPCC's scientific claims.