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Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Google Tax

Another of those coincidences which pepper the life of the world’s mentor to the great and not-so-good…

Prone on the massage table, barely awake, just as Martina is working around the assegai scar on the left glute, from the door there’s a soft respectful knock, and one of the interns pokes in a tentative head to say Sergey Brin is asking if the Professor is available for a quick word. Stretch out a questing hand from under the warmth of sheltering towel. Into it intern places telephone. Bring telephone to seasoned man-of-the-world ear. Sergey’s sorry to disturb. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the new algorithm. Got rolled out to all datacentres on Saturday. Search times dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of CTO at Bing when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks are waved away. Next, had I heard about the UK tax issue. Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Osborne?
Stretch out hand again. Telephone removed. Withdraw arm under towel.
Five minutes later, another tentative knock. The Chancellor is wondering if the Professor might be available for a quick word. Hand stretches out once more from under sheltering towel, clutches phone and brings it to careworn ear. Osborne's sorry to interrupt. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the report on interest rates. Was passed round MPC on Saturday. Deficit forecasts dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of shadow chancellor when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks waved away. Next, had I heard about the Google tax issue. Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Brin?

Stretch out hand again. Telephone removed. Withdraw arm under towel.

Five minutes later, another tentative knock. Prime Minister wonders if the Professor might be available for a quick chat. Hand stretches out once more from under sheltering towel, clutches phone and brings it to now somewhat irritated ear. Cameron sorry to interrupt. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the intervention with Merkel. Emailed EU ministers on Saturday. Opposition to border reform dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of Corbyn when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks waved away. Next, had I heard about the row  between Google and Treasury.  Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Osborne and Brin?
Those of you with the forbearance to have read this far through so much repetitive tripe will understand why my response to the last request was to utter into the telephone an old Danakil hunting oath. PM unsure what I mean. Tell him to Google it. Hurl telephone at intern's head.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The simple large hadron collider

Wednesday at 21:31 hundred hours pm O'clock finds your favourite and most esteemed bloggeur struggling to find the way back to planet normal after being exposed to 3.748 minutes of 'Science Stories', a programme broadcast on the BBC channel currently known as Radio 4. Feeling somewhat like the victim in an alien-brainwashing episode of 'The Outer Limits', I, with my unrivalled powers of vividly articulate self-expression, am currently unequal to the task of adequately conveying the bizarre characteristics of the aforementioned programme. My elegant, delicate, sensitive, and richly bejewelled fingers hover indecisively over the keys of my immaculately maintained laptop, poised to react to the overdue instructions from a bewildered mind. Ok.. let me just  spell out what happened, and you can decide for yourself...

I walked into the chicken shed to make sure that all the old cluckers were present and correct, my intended next steps being to close the 'pop-holes' and switch-off the radio which is left-on during the day to give any passing foxes the impression that real humans are about. From the radio I heard a summary of an experiment performed in the 17th century by Hooke to determine the weight of air, which he achieved by weighing a glass cylinder before and after evacuating it with a vacuum pump, the difference between the two readings being the weight of the air removed. According to the presenter of the programme- Naomi something- the possibility that air might have a weight was inconceivable to most of Hooke's contempories. Fair enough you might think. Those were unenlightened times. It might be possible that men blinded by ignorance and religion could struggle to conceive of what we now consider to be the obvious. The presenter might be stretching the point somewhat, but a degree of hyperbole is probably unavoidable if one is to spin a radio programme out of such meagre raw material. I missed what was said next because I slipped out to give a deformed egg to the dog, but upon my return I heard the presenter describe the experiments that proved the existence of the Higgs-Sushing boson as 'almost as esoteric as weighing air'.
Now, perhaps, you will appreciate my struggle. On the one hand we have an experiment that can be performed by one person with few and simple apparatus, summarised in a line or two, evaluated by subtracting one number from another, and readily understood by the uneducated masses. On the other we have the most complicated and expensive scientific machinery ever constructed, used to generate thousands of petabytes of observational data, evaluated by millions of lines of  computer code, and explained by a theoretical model that no-one professes to understand. And according to Naomi the latter is almost as esoteric as the former...
I'm off to bed. Hopefully it will all make sense in the morning.

BT OpenBreach

The blood-pressure readings hit a local high this morning, and no wonder- in the minutes directly before they were taken I listened with mounting outrage to an interview with Gavin Richardson, the chief executive of British Telecom, who was on the radio to defend the indefensible performance of the BT subsidiary known as OpenBreach.  For my millions of adoring readers overseas I should say that BT used to be the monopoly provider of telephone services in the UK, and still owns most of the network of cables that connects the long-suffering Briton to the Internet. In a misguided attempt to loosen BT’s stranglehold on the broadband market the UK government ordered the lumbering company to set-up a standalone subsidiary which would own the network and offer it on equal terms to the rest of BT and any other would-be provider of telecoms services. Quite what difference the government officials thought this would make- other than introducing extra layers of bureaucracy and a £3bn bill for decorating all the BT engineers’ vans, uniforms and equipment with a new OpenBreach logo- I cannot even begin to speculate. OpenBreach continues to be a monopoly, shielded from the revitalising pressures of competition. That it provides the same shambolic and over-priced service on an equal handed basis to the rest of BT and all the other fleeced ISPs does nothing to help the people who count, namely the customers who pay the world’s highest price per megabit per second, and who receive services as reliable and prompt as the slowest slow boats to China in a particularly breezy typhoon season.
According to Richardson- the world’s greatest champion for mediocrity- we should be congratulating BT for having connected 90% of the UK to broadband. Hah (laughs derisively). I suppose we should just be glad that Richardson’s benchmark for excellent performance is not adopted by other providers of services to the public, or 10% of us would be without television, radio, electricity, the post, access to roads, and so on.
As for his claim that the remaining 10% of the UK is ‘hard to reach’… hah (second laugh of even deeper derision). I was experimenting with phonon recoil signalling in twisted pair copper as long ago as ’83, and even then 16Mbs was considered a routine achievement in the lab’. And that was in the days of floppy disks, mind. Your OpenBreach engineer will tell you, while he stirs the cup of tea you’ve given him and pads out the duration of his visit at your expense, that the wires to your house have a floating earth, that there’s potential leakage at the insulators on the pole down the street, that birds feet have ‘pinched’ the conductors, that there are over-tight radii of curvature in the ducts entering the exchange, and that all that explains why it takes you four hours to download last night’s Coronation Street on the catch-up service. As if.
The ultimate blame lies with ‘Offcom’, the so-called ‘regulator’ of the UK telecommunications market. I met one of the non-executive members of the Offcom board at Davos last week, and what a story that told. Your man has ‘a background in retail’, an MBA, a list of other non-exec positions as long as your last phone bill, and absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about telecommunications. Glazed eyes and hunched shoulders were the unwavering responses to my observations on quantum bipole multiplexing, heuristic video compression, abelian latency reduction strategies, ‘inductive’ manhole lids and a dozen other basic ideas that should be bread and butter to a broadband man. And there, in a nutshell, you have the root cause of the problem- an industry whose effectiveness depends fundamentally on specialised technical matters is run by generalists who have not the first understanding of the factors that determine the success or failure of their mission. The more I think about it the more ridiculous it all becomes.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bowie's cutting edge

The world was saddened today by the passing of my dear old friend and former band-mate David Bowie. I first met the young Davey Jones, as he then was, at the Bexhill public swimming baths, where he kindly offered me the use of his locker after I clumsily bent the key to mine.
I returned the kindness when I found that he was desperate to learn to swim, and it was natural for me- then the coach of the US Olympic swimming team- to show him a few techniques to bolster his confidence during his first floundering forays in the shallow end. He took to it like a fish, and I soon had him familiar with each of the four main strokes in the men’s repertoire. Although his butterfly was always somewhat werchalt, he became an efficient, if weak, swimmer, and through his eventful life he never lost the joy he found in aquatic motion, the joy to which I introduced him so many years ago.  His lyric on Heroes- I wish I could swim like dolphins can swim- was word-for-word what he had uttered to me  between his gasps for breath when clutching fearfully at the bar to avoid drowning in the four foot six.
To provide a counterpoint to my other interests at the time, I had formed a band  that gigged around the western suburbs of London, playing experimental fusions of jazz, folk, R&B and soul, a band in which the guest musicians usually outnumbered the more-permanent members. It was during those exploratory sessions with Hendrix, Baker, Townshend and the rest,  that David began to see a wider opportunity for self-expression beyond his aquatic achievements at the Bexhill baths. He admitted to me that he held supressed feelings of androgyny, feelings which I encouraged him to liberate, and soon he was taking a regular singing spot in a variety of cross-dressing costumes that chimed with the avant-garde nature of our sets.
Although I promised to keep it secret during his life, I can now confess that it was I who suggested the nom-de-pop ‘Bowie’. It was while we shared a fag or two during the interval of The Alamo at the Bexhill Essoldo cinema that David had told me he wanted a name that was cutting-edge with a point to it, and Bowie naturally sprang to mind. Who would believe it now?  

Flying Scotsman

The den Sushing  press office has been overwhelmed by requests for interviews since news broke of my role as chief technical advisor to the recently-completed restoration of Flying Scotsman, the Class A3 ‘Pacific’ locomotive known and loved around the world as an icon of the ages of steam and British engineering supremacy. Each of the requests has been declined, as my memories of the restoration have been so tainted by an incident towards its completion that I have not felt inclined to speak publically about the matter. However, in the hope that it might be cathartic, I will lay the details before you, so you might decide for yourself whether my reticence is justified.

My well-known interest in steam locomotion was instilled during a childhood summer in which I accompanied my foster mother to a six-week archaeological ‘dig’ which she was to oversee at Avebury, the Wiltshire village whose vast and imposing ring of huge stones is, to my mind at least,  a far more impressive monument to the efforts of Neolithic man than its more-famous neighbour at Stonehenge. I quickly tired of my Mother’s project, which seemed to my six-year-old mind to be run at a glacial pace, and she eventually succumbed to my pestering to be allowed to visit the GWR’s famous engineering sheds at nearby Swindon.

The Swindon ‘shops were esteemed throughout the world of steam as the pinnacle of engineering excellence, and virtually every advance in locomotive design was engendered there under the  steely direction of my step-uncle, Sir Roderick Biggers, the Chief Superintendent of Locomotive and Wagon Engineering of the Great Western Railway. As the adopted nephew of their revered Chief Super’ I was understandably somewhat spoiled by the Swindon engineers, whom I impressed by my trick of multiplying six-figure numbers in my head, and my precocious mastery of the integral calculus, both of which I quickly learned to apply to questions of boiler efficiency. I was allowed unfettered access to any part of  the ‘shops that took my interest (these were the days before ‘Health and Safety’ remember), including the drawing office archives, where I un-scrolled the production drawings for one historic loco after another, virtually following the evolution of steam traction from the earliest single-cylinder ‘simples’ to the giant technical artworks in steam under-production is the sheds next door. In the six weeks I spent in the company of the Swindon engineers- men steeped in practical experience of every nuance of steam propulsion- my avid young mind absorbed all that could be known about locomotive engineering, and I developed an instinctive understanding for the workings of the giant machines of steam.

Given all that followed- from my early monograms and treatises on virtually every steam question, to my notorious spell in command of the Cоветские железные дороги in Moscow- it was only natural that my office should receive a tentative approach from the National Railway Museum, asking whether Professor den Sushing might be persuaded to offer advice in connection with the restoration of the Scotsman, or 60301 as we know her, and coyly trying to ascertain the likely scale of his fees. What, by contrast, could not be understood was the NRMs decision to supplement my judgements with those of an ‘expert panel’  of so-called celebrity engineers, whose sole function appeared to be to provide its members with opportunities to meddle in return for providing large charitable donations to the Museum. Had I known what the composition of the panel was to be I would never have accepted the role of its chairman.

It is possible that someday my memories of the panel will become sufficiently soothed by the passage of time that I will feel able to release my full records of its quarterly meetings. In the meantime I will just mention that the chief barrier to its smooth proceeding was the presence of the so-called ‘inventor’ James Dyson. [Pauses to take successive deep breaths to ward off rising blood pressure.] How a man with a handful of patents can be described as an ‘inventor’ in the same press announcement in which I am described as merely ‘Professor’  is quite beyond me. Leaving that aside, however- in case you suspect my feelings are tainted by those of professional jealousy- whatever Mr Dyson might know about plastic mouldings and Hoovers he knows ******-all about steam engines. Without reverting to my notes I honestly could not attempt to estimate the number of minutes that I and the other more-technically minded members of the panel wasted in in dealing with Dyson’s absurd suggestions. If it wasn’t cyclones to purify the feed-water it was cyclones to improve the flue vortex efficiency or cyclones to eliminate sparking, or could the driver’s seat be made of injection-moulded polyether to save weight! On Flying Scotsman! He clearly had never spent weeks as a child listening to the stories of the old express drivers as they recounted how their cast-iron seats became so hot as they built the fire up for the ‘Lickey incline’ that bacon and eggs could be fried upon them for consumption on the downhill coast into Birmingham.

It was when reading an email from Dyson that the event occurred which capped the whole sorry experience. There had been some correspondence with Riley and Sons- the engineering contractors performing the restoration under my guidance- about the exact admixture of elements which should be used to cast the white-alloy main bearings for the four huge wheels that convey Scotsman’s immense tractive force to the rails. The email from Dyson was a simple one-liner: had we thought of plastic inserts? I was taking breakfast in the study of my Bermuda office in the hills above Hamilton, and the snort of indignant contempt which followed my reading of his moronic suggestion propelled a mash of coffee and croissant all over the Bacon triptych, wiping at least ten-million off its value in a stroke. I would have been better off if I had funded the restoration of Scotsman myself.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Self sufficiency

I am often asked by those who do not know me well why it is that I do not have a Facebook page given my positions as Global Strategy Advisor to Facebook and Personal Guru-in-Chief to the Zuckerbergs. I could point out that there is a basic logical fallacy underlying the question, as there is no reason whatsoever for assuming that an individual should necessarily consume a product simply because they have played a pivotal role in its invention. You might as well ask why I do not take oestrogen given that I developed the photo-kinetic molecular distillation technique that underlies its production.

However, with the aim of writing an absorbing and educational blog I will ignore the logical deficiencies of the question, and tell my dear readers that the reason why I do not have a Facebook page is that my enlightened foster parents inculcated such a strong and abiding ethos of self-sufficiency in the boy Essay den Sushing which has survived undiminished into my old age. To give just one example, during those portions of my childhood in which we followed the ancient transhumance rituals of the Tibetans- moving to the higher Himalayan pastures with the arrival of Spring- my parents would construct a sleeping yurt large enough to accommodate themselves alone, leaving me and my adopted sister with the options of constructing our own yurts or facing the brutal thermal consequences and sleeping outside for the night.
Such fundamental lessons have stayed with me ever since, and explain why it is that I habitually provide for myself. You will never, for example, see me taking an easy ride on public transport- instead I will be driven in my own limousine, helicopter, jet or yacht. Nor will you find me taking the soft option of staying in hotels- instead I have taken the trouble of acquiring a globally diverse portfolio of residences so that I can support myself when travelling. No Googling either- I have developed my own search engine, cleverly designed to advertise only those products I have already decided I might buy. And as for Facebook- well, you might readily imagine that I, virtually the father of the concept, have my own self-developed social networking site, reserved exclusively for my personal use.