Monday, May 31, 2010

Scientific Horizons

In this year's Reith Lectures on the theme "Scientific Horizons", Sir Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st Century. The first of the four lectures is entitled The Scientific Citizen.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The ultimate ideal

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
--Nelson Mandela, Rivonia Trial, 1964
The University of the Witwatersrand's Rivonia Trial Collection has many of the original papers from one of the most famous trials in history. I learnt an interesting fact from "Mandela", an excellent 1996 documentary: Mandela's defence attorneys managed to convince him to insert three words into the peroration of his most famous speech: "if needs be". George Bizos, one of those attorneys, reckons that those three words just might have saved Mandela's life. And with them, one might add , the destiny of South Africa.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Creativity and psychopathology

A very interesting paper published recently in PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal, investigates the link between creativity and psychopathology (mental illness). In particular, the paper looks at how the link between these two phenomena might work in terms of the density of D2 dopamine receptors in the thalamus.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Advice to a Young Mathematician

This selection of views by eminent mathematicians in The Princeton Companion to Mathematics (edited by Timothy Gowers et al.) may be of interest to others engaged in creative work in the scientific, technological and other disciplines:

Advice to a Young Mathematician (pdf, 245 KB)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Science, but not as we know it

click to enlarge


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fragments of Poetry

As a child, I used to know quite a lot of poetry by heart. There's no better way to learn the beauty of language.

I can still remember fragments of some of these poems. And in certain cases, more than just fragments. For instance, I still know most of Jabberwocky and all of Tennyson's The Eagle from back then.

But one of these poems has always bothered me over the years. All I could remember was that it was about a man who was standing "amidst a bed of wild geranium" for some reason. The poem had a uniform rhyme, words ending in "-ium", like "geranium", and one other word that inexplicably stuck in my mind: "cranium". But that's all my memory could tell me. That, and how much I had loved that poem.

Until now: enter Google. It turns out the poem is called "Uriconium" and was written by James Reeves. (Uriconium, incidentally, was a large ancient Roman City near what is now Wroxeter in Shropshire, England.)

The poem is of the kind that's usually classified as "nonsense verse", but it the classification and not the poem that's nonsense.

This cannot be nonsense; this is sheer class:

There was a man of Uriconium
Who played a primitive harmonium,
Inventing, to relieve his tedium,
Melodies high, low, and medium,
And standing on his Roman cranium
Amidst a bed of wild geranium,
Better known as pelargonium,
Since with odium his harmonium
Was received in Uriconium.

- James Reeves

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The rights to life

Sir John Sulston enters just one of the minefields around Synthia: Intellectual Property Rights. He and Joseph Stiglitz have said more on closely related issues in the past.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Africa: The Shrine of Football

There are four major religions in Africa: Traditional African spiritual beliefs, Christianity, Islam and Football. Of these, Football is by far the most widespread and commonly practiced. It has millions of adherents spread across all 53 African countries. In many respects, Africa is the most diverse continent on the face of the earth. But a love (or more accurately, a reverence) for Football is one of the major unifying elements in this vast and diverse continent.

On the face of it, sport is all about a contest played within an agreed set of rules. In fact, it is about a lot more than that. A whole more. Sporting achievement represents something deep within the human psyche. That is why great champions of sport command respect and financial rewards seemingly out of all proportion to their prosaic sporting activities: Usain Bolt running in a straight line; Michael Jordan inserting an orange ball in a bottom-less basket; Tiger Woods striking a small white ball into a cup in the middle of a raised lawn; Pele kicking a football through a large rectangular frame; and so on. I think Bill Shankly, the legendary Scottish manager of Liverpool Football Club, put it best when he said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Sport is not just about the prosaic activities carried out by sportsmen (and women) on the field of play. It is drama, real-life drama, with moments of comedy and tragedy; with blood, sweat, tears, grit, pain, determination, despair, triumph, disaster, ecstasy, agony. And yes, even life and death at times. Sport is human life played out on the football field, the golf course, or the athletics track. It is about honour and, occasionally, villainy. It is the human condition writ small, but played large.

And in Africa Football is even more than the sum of all these things because it is the universal, though unofficial, religion, the only continent where this happens to be the case.

So it is fitting that this year, 2010, Football is finally coming to its spiritual home: Africa. It's true, Football's historical home is England, but it is only in Africa that Football has attained the status of a universal religion.

Hello World! Welcome to Africa, The Shrine of Football.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Create the pipe, Control the tune

"He who pays the piper calls the tune."


"He who creates the pipe controls the tune."

Also true. And infinitely more important.

Consider the recent spat between Apple and Adobe over the alleged unsuitability of Adobe's Flash technology for the iPhone. This is really a battle over what will become the dominant standard (or the "pipe") for video and animations for small screens (smartphones, PDAs, tablet PCs, and so forth). And who gets to create and control that "pipe".

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What happens after debt cancellation?

"Why should the devil have all the best tunes?"
--William Booth
The campaign for the complete cancellation of the sovereign debts of the poorest countries in the world has been one of the great global issues of the last two decades. Bono and Kenneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia, have been among its most famous and active supporters. And it has been largely successful--the sovereign debts of many countries, including Zambia, have been cancelled as a direct result of this campaign. The cancellation of these debts, the campaigners said, would give heavily indebted poor countries the chance to start afresh and, in effect, "move forward into [the] broad, sunlit uplands" of Churchillian rhetoric.

At least that's how the story and the song went.

How have things actually panned out? Take the case of Kaunda's own Zambia. Ng’andu Magande, Zambia's finance minister from 2003 to 2008 and a highly respected economist in his own right, gave his assessment of Zambia's current debt situation earlier this week. It was not pretty.

The lesson for those on the right side of any public policy issue, be it "climate change", or "financial reform", or what have you, is this: It is not enough to be right; you have to be effective. And to be effective, you have to be able to match your opponents: idea for idea, story for story, tune for tune.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Weapons of mass creation

In a paper published yesterday in Science (available online), J. Craig Venter and his colleagues describe how they have successfully created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell. This research has profound scientific and ethical implications. The most interesting ideas in the area of the scientific and ethical implications of synthetic life have not come from scientists, or ethicists, but rather from science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov, for instance, in his Robot series, explores many techno-ethical problems involving the interaction of humanoid robots and human beings.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

21 seconds to go

OK, so I'm out by a factor of 86,400, but 21 seconds sounds better. There are actually 21 days to go before the Big Daddy of world sporting events hits South Africa.

Predictions? I'm from the Yogi Berra School of Prognostication: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." So I'll pass, thank you very much. But I will say this: The two teams that will produce the most surprises will be South Africa and Argentina.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Without Masks

"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Samuel Johnson

He might as well have been talking about Johannesburg. So, when you've assembled the largest collection of Afro-Cuban contemporary art in history, where do you first exhibit it? Where else, but at the JAG in the heart of Johannesburg. I'm not a big fan of contemporary art, but from what I've seen and heard, this might be worth a look.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do mobile phones cause cancer?

An international team of scientists address this question in a paper published yesterday in the International Journal of Epidemiology. A press release was also, erm, released. This is the largest and longest study of its kind. However, as you will see, the results are inconclusive.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tis the season to be financy

...Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Dr. Doom, a. k. a. Nouriel Roubini, s. b. k. a. (should be known as) Dr. Realist, has just published a new book, co-authored by Stephen Mihm, entitled (wait for it) Crisis Economics. There's an excerpt on The New York Times website. The Good Doctor also hangs out on facebook and twitter.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mobile services innovation in Africa

Africa's mobile operators have network infrastructure as good as any in the world. They are also highly innovative in terms of the services offered over their networks, as demonstrated by this recent Frost & Sullivan award to Sasatel, a new Tanzanian mobile operator.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A lean and hungry look

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Black Swan Reloaded

Just out this week from Random House: the second edition of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. As I'm currently reading the first edition, it will be interesting to "compare and contrast" once I get my hands on the second edition.

The dedication (identical in the two editions) is both interesting and revealing:
To BenoƮt Mandelbrot,
A Greek among Romans

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fact and fiction

Excerpt from Master and Commander:
As it could not for the moment find any outward expression, his anger took on the form of melancholy: he thought of his shipless state, of half and whole promises made to him and broken, and of the many schemes he had built up on visionary foundations. He owed his prize-agent, his man of business, a hundred and twenty pounds; and its interest of fifteen per cent was about to fall due; and his pay was five pounds twelve shillings a month. He thought of men he knew, junior to him but with better luck or better interest, who were now lieutenants in command of brigs or cutters, or who had even been promoted master and commander: and all of them snapping up trabacaloes in the Adriatic, tartans in the Gulf of Lions, xebecs and settees along the whole of the Spanish coast. Glory, professional advancement, prize-money.
A wonderful tale, very well told (as you can see from the above). The first book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Somewhat reminiscent of C. S. Forester's Hornblower books. The movie's not too shabby either.

Excerpt from The Black Swan:
This is a book about uncertainty; to this author, the rare event equals uncertainty. This may seem like a strong statement--that we need to principally study the rare and extreme events in order to figure out common ones--but I will make myself clear as follows. There are two possible ways to approach phenomena. The first is to rule out the extraordinary and focus on the "normal." The examiner leaves aside "outliers" and studies ordinary cases. The second approach is to consider that in order to understand a phenomenon, one needs first to consider the extremes--particularly if, like the Black Swan, they carry an extraordinary cumulative effect.
Not much to say except this is an unusual book by an unusual man.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I'm suffering from an acute case of PASSD (Post Arsenal Season Stress Disorder). That's what happens to you when your supposedly high-flying football team goes five (yes, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, five!) straight seasons without winning a single trophy, not even that dubious prize, the Football League Cup.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going, Going,...


Gordon Brown resigned as British Prime Minister earlier this evening, ending 13 years of the "New Labour" experiment.

This picture shows Mr. Brown making his resignation speech in front a phalanx of camera-men (or perhaps, more correctly in these sensitive times, camera-persons). Phalanx being a macabrely appropriate word, for the scene has the look of a man in front of a firing squad. And this article by Michael White of The Guardian briefly and artfully explains the event and its significance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Smart TV

Fareed Zakaria GPS:
  • One hour.
  • Substance, not sound-bites.
  • Current, with historical perspective.
  • Ideas, policy, trends.
  • Discussion, debate, dissent.
  • Books, articles, scholarly papers.
  • Even homework ("Question of the week").
What more could anyone want?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Limited knowledge, Boundless imagination

I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Einstein said these now famous words at his Berlin home in the course of an interview with George Sylvester Viereck that was published in The Saturday Evening Post of October 26, 1929. (There's a full copy of the original article here). Here's the quote in its original context:

[Viereck:] "If we owe so little to the experience of others, how do you account for sudden leaps forward in the sphere of science? Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?"

[Einstein:] "I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, financed by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong."

[Viereck:] "Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?"

[Einstein:] "I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
The whole interview is full of similar insightful glimpses into the mind of Einstein. This, for instance, on what motivates him:

Einstein's struggles with fate have left no bitterness on his tongue. Every line of his face expresses kindliness. It also bespeaks indomitable pride. Some friends and admirers learned that he had decided to build a summer house with his hard-earned savings. They offered him a princely gift of land. But Einstein shook his head. "No," he said; "I could accept a gift from a community. I cannot accept such a gift from an individual. Every gift we accept is a tie. Sometimes," he added with Talmudic wisdom, " one pays most for the thing one gets for nothing."

Although the most-talked-about scientist of the world, Einstein absolutely refuses to capitalize his reputation. He laughed when he was asked to indorse an American cigarette. The money offered for his name would have paid the expense of his summer house. Knowing that fame has set him apart from other men, he feels that he must preserve at all cost the integrity of his soul. He escapes the interviewer by every possible device. His shyness dictates and his wife abets his seclusion. Unable to check the avalanche of offers and requests which overwhelm him, he leaves most letters, even from celebrities, unanswered. But he never ignores even the smallest note from a friend. He turned down princely offers to exploit his theories and his life in a book for popular consumption. "I refuse," he said again and again, " to make money out of my science. My laurel is not for sale like so many bales of cotton."


"I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers."
Reminds of me a contemporary man of genius who has consistently turned down prizes, fame and money, explaining in relation to one such prize: "It [is] completely irrelevant for me. Everybody [understands] that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.”

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time

One way of summarising the history of bad ideas:
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Take the euro for instance...