The Book of Nothing

I’ve just completed The Book of Nothing by John D. Barrow, which as you may guess is a book about nothing. The book is really divided into two parts – the first describing the history of the number zero in maths and the second looking at nothing (the vacuum) in science.

The book looks at different numeral systems and the advent of the number zero. It took a surprisingly long amount of time for zero to appear – to have a digit which represents nothing.

The first half of the book goes into a lot of detail about how number systems evolved in different cultures – roman numerals, "modern day" arabic numerals, and numbers in different base systems (e.g. Mayans and base 60).  

There’s a lot of stuff to get you thinking. I particularly liked the Zeno paradox. It goes a bit like this:

There is a man and a turtle. The man walks at 400 metres per hour. The turtle walks at 40 meters per hour.

The turtle starts the race 400 meters in front of the man.

By the time, the man has travelled 400 metres, the turtle will have travelled 40 meters so will be 40 meters ahead.

The man travels another 40 metres, but by then the turtle is 4 meters ahead.

The man travels another 4 metres, but the turtle is 0.4 meters ahead.

And so on…

The man can therefore never overtake the tortoise.

The trick of this paradox is that we’re tending towards a certain point (444.44m) in increasingly small amounts. We can iterate the above statements an infinite number of times, each time the difference in length tending towards zero.

The second part of the book focuses on zero or nothing, in science. It talks about the vacuum and the ether in history, but goes on to discuss "vacuum energy" or dark energy, and how it can answer some of the fundamental questions about our universe.

This book combines a lot – mathematical history, religious philosophy and scientific theories. Barrow goes to quite a bit of length to try and show the beauty of zero and mathematics – there are quotations and poetry dotted all over the place. 

I personally found the first half of the book much more interesting than the second; the end of the book was quite technical and the book lost me a few chapters before the end. Which half of the book you enjoy will probably depend on your own area of interest, but this is certainly a book of two halves.

An enjoyable and interesting book.

Oyster Card Privacy

If you live in London, you’ll probably know the Oyster Card fairly well. More or less everybody has one. You use it to pay for bus or tube travel – stick £20 on the card and instead of buying a paper ticket each time, just place your card on a yellow reader, and it’ll work out how much the journey cost and automatically deduct it from your card. It does save a ton of time, and quite a bit of money too (tickets are cheaper on Oyster).

If you buy a travelcard in London (e.g. annual or weekly pass) then you’ll probably have it on a Oyster card.

 

If you tap the Oyster card on machines in Tube stations, you can see a list of journeys made on that card. My usage history included not just those I made over the last few days but also tube and bus trips that I made before Christmas. This in itself I don’t find too scary apart from the fact that anyone who had my card could look at my usage history.

The scary thing is that these Oyster cards if registered to an address (e.g. anyone with an annual pass, child pass, online auto-top up, etc.), the government and Transport for London can instantly recall a list of your movements, including those you made two years ago.

From Wikipedia:

The system has been criticised as a threat to the privacy of its users. Each Oyster card is uniquely numbered, and registration is required for monthly or longer tickets, which are no longer available on paper. Usage data are stored both on the card and centrally by Transport for London; recent usage can be checked by anyone in possession of the ticket at some ticket machines. Privacy groups consider it a form of mass surveillance and are concerned with how these data will be used, especially given the introduction of the London congestion charge by Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in February 2003.

The police have used Oyster card data as an investigative tool, and this use is increasing. Between August 2004 and March 2006 TfL’s Information Access and Compliance Team received 436 requests from the police for Oyster card information. Of these, 409 requests were granted and the data was released to the police.[13]

Sources inside TfL indicate that usage data which should be removed after three months, are not.[citation needed] Databases contain usage data which account for over two years of travel for many individuals, further adding to the criticism of an invasion of privacy.

I really don’t see why this is necessary and in many ways it’s quite scary that TfL could recall your list of tube and bus journeys from over two years ago.

There’s always the argument that if your not doing anything wrong you’ve got nothing to be worried about, but I don’t think this applies. The Oyster Card will not stop terrorists. Terrorists wouldn’t use Oyster cards!

It’s not just that. I’d like to be able to say I trust the government with my privacy and personal information, but with the state of technology security these days, information gets leaked and stolen. It’s quite possible that this information could get into the wrong hands and that would be a serious blow to privacy to anyone who has an Oyster card.

But anyway I took the plunge. I hope TfL are going to look after my privacy.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Indonesia has refused to share samples of the bird flu virus in Indonesia with the World Health Organization, because the WHO was providing the samples to commercial companies in the West.

Indonesia will not share bird flu samples with the World Health Organization until the U.N. body agrees to stop providing the strains to commercial vaccine makers without its permission, the health minister said Thursday.

The country hardest hit by bird flu is worried drug companies will use its virus to make vaccines that will ultimately be unaffordable to developing nations.

In today’s world, big pharmaceutical companies will develop vaccines and other medicines and will patent the technology, hold exclusive rights and a monopoly on the product. These commercial pharmaceutical  companies make billions every year, whilst holding the exclusive rights on these vaccines – vaccines which if shared could be mass produced around the world, potentially saving millions of lives.

Because of the intellectual property rights and market economics – the vaccines are generally provided to those companies which can afford them – the rich countries in the West. So poorer countries will be priced out of the market.

So these bird flu vaccines using virus samples provided by Indonesia will go towards developing vaccines will allow big companies in the West to develop vaccines which may never even reach the Indonesian people.

Intellectual Rights and Monopolies  

Economic theory suggests that for research and development to be cost-effective, there must be barriers such as patents, intellectual rights, monopoly rights. Indeed, why would I spend £100 million on developing a vaccine just to have a rival take my work (without any R&D costs of their own) and to produce and sell it at a lower price? 

So I guess we’re left with a bit of a moral dilemma. For a vaccine to be available to everyone regardless of where they live or how much money they have, the technologies and formulas for the vaccines must be open knowledge and available for free.

However if this were the case, there would be no vaccines. There would be no incentive for anyone to invest the money in research and development. There would be no profit to be gained in selling those vaccines; and certainly not enough to pay off those huge R&D costs.

So I suppose there are several questions: 

How can vaccines and medicines be made available to as many people as possible whilst still encouraging and maintaining research and development? 

Is it ethical for us to have these technologies which could save thousands from diseases or illnesses, but not to provide them on the basis that they can’t pay us for it?

Should vaccines be developed for the public good or for the pockets of shareholders in pharmaceutical companies?

Should the development of medical products be developed by governments for the public good?

Sky Pay-DTT Service, Virgin Media

A little bit of good news and some bad news for television viewers in the UK today. We’ll start off with the bad…

Sky’s Pay DTT Service

Freeview is the UK’s free-tv Digital Terrestrial TV platform. It’s a brand name for the consortium consisting of the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and transmission company National Grid Wireless. Freeview was launched after the collapse of ITV Digital (in related news, Monkey and Al are back on our screens).

Freeview is probably the biggest digital television sector in the UK and it’s great for the people who don’t want to pay a subscription but still want to be able to watch television after the digital switchover which begins next year.

Freeview was joined by a pay-DTT service called Top Up TV in 2004. Top Up TV used to broadcast about 8 or 9 different channels for a few hours a day through a timesharing system, as they only had 4 streams. They’ve been subject to a lot of speculation to how successful it is, and many people don’t like it as it causes confusion and some people believe it hinders the growth of Freeview. Paid subscription services have no place on the limited capacity on DTT.

Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB currently contributes three channels to the line up: Sky Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News. Today Sky announced plans to remove their three channels from the lineup and to replace them with it’s own subscription service.

This is obviously another big blow to Freeview and people who simply want free television. We’ll have a second, incompatible pay-TV service sharing the bandwidth and more pay channels littering the channel lineup. It really seems to be a way for Sky to reduce competition coming from Freeview rather than Sky providing a real alternative. They already provide a pay-TV service on satellite.

Ntl and Telewest become Virgin Media

The two cable companies Ntl and Telewest have now become Virgin Media. The "merger" combines the tri-play services from the two cable companies: broadband, tv and phone with Virgin’s mobile arm. The ISP Virgin.net has also been absorbed under the brand name of Virgin Media.

To promote Virgin Media, Virgin boss Richard Branson has decided to live in a glass box for one day

The great thing about Virgin Media is that we finally have a rival to Sky. Virgin has some really attractive packages. The 3 for £30 offer gives you 2Mbps broadband, a pretty decent TV service including Sky channels and unlimited free national calls at weekends. Line rental is included in the price (line rental is usually £11 on BT so this package is effectively £19).

If you just want broadband through your BT line, you can get unlimited 8mbps broadband for just £15 a month. You also get evening and weekend calls to UK landlines for free. As a comparison, BT Broadband costs £27 a month. Switching to Virgin saves £144 a year. 

Virgin also plan to launch a hybrid interactive television channel

BT

It’s worth mentioning that BT are also expanding to compete with these new offers. BT Broadband was rebranded as BT Total Broadband with 8Mbps as standard, usage caps have been raised or removed, a VoD-service called BT Vision is being launched and a wi-fi enabled mobile service BT Fusion.

If BT tie up with FON, this could be really interesting. 

Upgrade Cycle

I’ve had my computer for almost 3 years and traditionally I’ve always set about upgrading and updating my system every 3 years. This is to ensure the computer will run all the latest software, and its a fantastic way of cleaning up the PC (I honestly cannot be bothered to reformat, etc.)

DOS 

My first PC ran DOS 6.0. It had a 5.25inch floppy reader only and didn’t do a lot but I remember programming in Microsoft QuickBasic. It was really nice and I got the hang of DOS without too many problems. It did word processing and printed out on a nice ribbon printer.

Windows 95 

Eventually we got a new PC (166MHz Pentium 2?) with Windows 95 and all kinds of nice graphical software. This was before the internet and I actually missed DOS cos you couldn’t just turn the computer off and I didn’t have my Quick Basic. But there were all kinds of cool programs you could get off the cover CDs of PC magazines to try out. We did get onto the internet from Windows 95 eventually, after spending absolutely ages trying to set up the modem.

Windows ME 

The next upgrade was the infamous Windows ME (1GHz Pentium 3). It crashed several times daily but I didn’t complain because I experienced that on Windows 95. ME got very very slow after a few years of usage, probably because of the huge amount of junk I was installing from cover CD roms and downloading from the internet.

Upgrading to Windows XP Linux… 

There really was no compelling reason to switch to XP back in those days except from stability. On ME, everything did work and I really didn’t see the benefit of XP. In fact, the only reason I upgraded my PC to the current one was because the hard drive on the old computer couldn’t be partitioned to install Linux. The main reason for upgrading my PC was to be able to use Linux.

The current PC has run all kinds of operating systems. Windows XP mainly but brief flirtations with Mandrake, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Solaris, ReactOS but nothing has ever tempted me away from XP. I do like XP – it’s relatively stable and it’s not immensely buggy or full of security holes.

Software

The software I use is still pretty old – Paint Shop Pro 7, Office 2000.

I see absolutely no good reason to upgrade to newer versions of these softwares, and open source has allowed me to upgrade or to replace some of the older programs on my system with free and superior alternatives.

It’s reached the point in the upgrade cycle where I normally upgrade my computer. It’s a logical time to upgrade, with the release of Windows Vista, and the release of new processors from Intel last year. The thing is, an upgrade isn’t compelling.

XP works fine. All an operating system needs to do is to be able to run software and to work with hardware. XP does both of these. There are no essential Vista-only programmes, and many of the technologies from Vista such as XAML work in Windows XP.

Office 

I’m certainly not shelling out a few hundred pounds for an upgrade to the Office suite either. Office 2007 has a steep learning curve for not much benefit. I know how Word 2000 works. I don’t desire any more from it. It works. I don’t want to have to relearn it all.

I’ve also found that Excel 2007 actually makes it harder for me to do many things – perhaps it’s my lack of familiarity but once again I already know how to do it in Excel 2000 and I don’t desire any of these other features. But if Excel 2007 is going to draw histograms or box plots from statistical data in frequency distribution tables then I’m all for.

OpenOffice.org isn’t an attractive upgrade path either as it will require retraining and once again does not provide any features I want. I can see myself using my copy of Office 2000 for another 5 years or so, maybe more.

Why upgrade?

So the question I put out to all of you is this: why should I upgrade my PC? How is Vista a useful upgrade when 99% of the time I spend on a computer is within a few programs, all of which work equally well on XP? What are the benefits of shelling out for an upgrade when hardware or software isn’t even guaranteed to work?

Do you recommend upgrading today or holding on?