Ice cold beer

It’s 10 below here in Banff, but when we ordered beers last night at the bar, they arrived North American style, ice cold. For good measure, the barmaid brought us each a glass of ice water too.

Having lived in America and Britain, I have experience of beer at all temperatures. The Americans are right: on a hot American summer’s day, cold beer is better. And the British are right: on a chilly English evening, warm beer is better.

Last night here in frozen Banff, cold beer felt pretty much insane.

But this is how cultures work. Nobody is going to serve beer Yankee-style on hot days and Brit-style on cold days. A culture makes its choice and sticks to it. This is another illustration of the “Who wears shorts in the Andrew Wiles Building?” principle.

[12 January 2015]

Our local video shop and the Copernican Principle

At the end of Little Clarendon Street one used to find the nicest video rental shop in Oxford, called “Movies”. But times change, and nobody rents videos any more. The shop closed. What would replace it?

Today I walked by and learned the answer: it is now a bookstore. But this is crazy! Books are much, much older than videos! If videos are out of date, then surely…?

Ah, no, for different processes unfold on different time scales. Videos were never older than decades; one could never have trusted them to last longer than decades. Books have been around for centuries and will be with us for centuries more.

[9 January 2015]

Elsevier throws a party

For three years I’ve been part of the “Cost of Knowledge” boycott, declining all requests to referee manuscripts for Elsevier journals. Their extortionate sales tactics extracted 826 million pounds profit last year, 39% of their gross income. Of course, Elsevier defends itself, producing statistics to show they are a public-spirited company whose only aim is (I quote their web site) to “enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals”.

Well, here is perhaps a hint of how much faith we can put in Elsevier’s statistics. I received an invitation recently, in fact two invitations, to a party at the Joint Mathematics Meetings:

“As a valued Referee for our journals in Mathematics and Statistics, we would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your efforts…. We are organizing a Referee Reception at the forthcoming Joint Mathematics Meeting,… where you will have the opportunity to meet and share ideas with fellow referees….”

So I am a “valued Referee”! — in fact, very likely, two of them. And I’m not alone. Tim Gowers, initiator of the boycott, also got an invitation.

[22 January 2015]

The Julia paradox

Julia is a programming language widely loved because it is fast — maybe ten times faster than MATLAB and Python. No surprise that people are excited, eh?

Well, yes, it is a surprise, in fact a paradox, an oddity of our times. Computers have been speeding up exponentially for a long time, and according to the Top500 list, each 15 years brings another factor of 10000. Today’s top machines are rated at 1016 floating-point operations per second, whereas fifteen years ago it was 1012 and thirty years ago 108. So Julia’s speed is equivalent to just three or four years of progress up the Moore’s Law curve. Why is this exciting?

I think the explanation is that these supercomputer benchmarks have lost contact with the machines most of us actually use. My machine runs at around ten gigaflops, a million times slower than the Top500 champion, like a high-end computer of THIRTY YEARS AGO. To get much faster, I’d have to learn a new way of computing. The top machines have millions of processors—“cores”—and it takes special methods to exploit them. Most scientists don’t bother.

The politically correct view is that in the end we will all learn these special methods, but I don’t believe it. I think the machines will do more of the adapting than we do: that ways will be found to let us program in the old ways and still benefit, even if imperfectly, from massive parallelism. The human brain isn’t optimal either, but it manages to use a billion processors.

[9 February 2015]

Who owns English?

Last night before the conference banquet here in Seoul we were shown a film advertising Hanyang University. I wrote down three examples of curious English.

(1) The University’s goal: “Developing leaders with global characteristics”
(2) Its attitude to the future: “Fearless of change!”
(3) Its highest aim: “Practicing love”.

None of these phrases would have appeared if the script had been written by an Oxford professor. But this is Asia’s century. Let’s look more closely.

#1, I think, is just a random offbeat choice of words, good for a chuckle.

#2 requires more analysis. I’d have chosen a less martial expression like “embracing change” or “embracing the future”. But that would have been limper than “fearless of change!” with its somehow Asian accent, and who am I to say they’ve made the wrong choice? To the billion who’ve learned English as a second language, “fearless of change!” may speak better than anything I’d have cooked up.

And what about #3, “Practicing love”? In my ears this comes across as just plain kooky. But who am I to say how it may sound to others less finely Anglotrained, whether it may communicate, in Global English, something genuine?

[10 August 2014]

The unnecessary long underwear fallacy

We started the Thames Path this weekend, right up at the source near Cirencester, and the weather reports warned us that temperatures would be freezing.  So I wore long underwear.  We were pretty comfortable, though, not too cold.  I forgot I was wearing it.

So you naturally start thinking to yourself, maybe the long underwear was unnecessary?

Well, there’s an obvious fallacy here.  Very likely I was comfortable precisely because I had put on extra clothes; and this suggests a general principle.  When something is quietly going well in your life, some of the credit may be due to you. Not putting on too much weight?  Congratulations — you may have pretty good eating habits!  Getting along ok with friends and family?  Bravo — you may be a rather agreeable person!

[4 February 2015]