Faster Than Light Comms: Getting Ready

April 1, 2013

I’m sure that those of you reading here are acquainted with Moore’s Law, and related observations: the cost per unit of computing power has been dropping rapidly for several decades.  Just yesterday, I wrote about the retirement of the Roadrunner supercomputer system, the first system to break the petaflop performance barrier; that system has not, of course, started running slower; but its performance per unit of electricity consumed is no longer competitive.

Similar improvements are occurring in communications technology. (I have written before about the history of Ethernet technology, the nominal speed of which has increased from 10 Mbit/second in the early days to 100 Gbit/second,and up,today.)  These increases are pretty impressive in their own right; if one thinks back to  Internet access via modem dial-up, the mind boggles.

Thinking about these trends, one idea stands out: we have not, collectively, done an especially good job of anticipating them, or of making appropriate plans to adjust to these rapidly evolving technologies.  Because of this, I am happy to join in, and promote, an effort, focused on communications technology,  to be better prepared for future improvements.

The effective speed of data communications has been getting faster, not only because of increased network speeds (as I mentioned above for Ethernet), but because of  better understanding of the underlying physical principles involved.  This leads me to support a bold idea: it is time to pretpare for communication rates that exceed the speed of light.   OK, maybe it won’t be on sale in time for Christmas of this year; but we have, collectively, been late so many times that being early might be a welcome change.

The key conceptual problem with faster-than-light communications is that, because of relativistic effects on time, the message may arrive before it is sent.  (Relativity theory says that time slows down as one approaches the speed of light; it is plausible, and in accord with the equations, that time goes backwards once the speed of light is exceeded.)  I’m glad to say that the society of Internet Protocol Cognoscienti (in which your humble servant plays a very minor part) has developed a draft standard [RFC 6921] for moving forward under this faster and more exciting regime.  As stated in the abstract of the new standard:

We are approaching the time when we will be able to communicate faster than the speed of light. It is well known that as we approach the speed of light, time slows down. Logically, it is reasonable to assume that as we go faster than the speed of light, time will reverse. The major consequence of this for Internet protocols is that packets will arrive before they are sent. This will have a major impact on the way we design Internet protocols. This paper outlines some of the issues and suggests some directions for additional analysis of these issues.

It’s great to see this kind of proactive work by the standards bodies; in fact, I might suggest that you make note of the date.

Update, Tuesday, 2 April, 0:05 EDT

Please do take note of the date.

Ig®Nobel Prizes, 2012

September 23, 2012

Last Thursday evening, at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, the Annals of Improbable Research presented the 2012 Ig®Nobel Prizes,as scheduled, “for achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think“.   As I’ve noted in the past, the awards are generally given for actual research that has a humorous, quirky,  or slightly off-the-wall character.  The official awards page has citations for the relevant articles; here are a few of my favorites from this year’s awards:

  • ACOUSTICS PRIZE: Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada [JAPAN] for creating the SpeechJammer — a machine that disrupts a person’s speech, by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.   I daresay readers here will agree that there are many possibilities for the use of this device.
  • ANATOMY PRIZE: Frans de Waal [The Netherlands and USA] and Jennifer Pokorny [USA] for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.  I hope this does not become the next biometric panacea for identifying computer users.
  • FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE: Rouslan Krechetnikov [USA, RUSSIA, CANADA] and Hans Mayer [USA] for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.  Apparently both the size and shape of the container and the biomechanics of a person’s walking are significant factors.
  • LITERATURE PRIZE: The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.  An outgrowth of work commissioned by the Department of Defense, it should perhaps also be commended for illustrating the potential pitfalls of recursive procedures.

The ceremony, as usual, featured several actual Nobel laureates to present the prizes, along with talks and a blizzard of paper airplanes.

Ars Technica also has an article on this year’s awards.

IgNobel Prelude

September 20, 2012

I have always had a certain fondness for slightly off-the-wall events, and one of my favorite annual events is the Ig®Nobel Prizes, awarded by the journal Annals of Improbable Research.

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Although there are generally one or two awards that are based primarily on spectacular stupidity, most of them are given for real, published research that meets the fundamental criterion above.  I’ve also enjoyed blogging about the Prizes, since I started this blog in 2009; my posts about the awards are here: 20112010, and 2009..

This year’s Prizes are scheduled to be awarded this evening at the usual venue, Sanders Theater at Harvard University in Cambridge MA.

In the meantime, Wired has an article and photo gallery from previous years’ IgNobel awards.

Steampunk Exhibition

October 29, 2011

Wired has a photo gallery article  from an amusing exhibition, Steampunk: Form and Function: An Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry, described as “the Jules-Verne-meets-Bill-Gates school of contraption art”, being shown at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.

The Steampunk Time Machine Antique Master Bathroom Computer Workstation, designed by Bruce Rosenbaum and Walter Parker, melds a modern computer with antique plumbing components, including a ribcage shower, toilet and pipes.

I don’t think the plumbing components are intended to be functional.  There is also a computer desk built from an Eastman Kodak Century No. 1 Studio Camera.  I particularly like the Victorian “Sojourner” Keyboard, by Rich Nagy, and the Waterproof USB Drives by Derrick Culligan.

The show includes more than 30 digitally rejiggered antiques, including clocks, coffeemakers, humidifiers, workstations and grand pianos. It’s all displayed, appropriately enough, in a former textile factory built in 1814.

The exhibit runs through January 15, 2012.


Ig®Nobel Prizes, 2011

September 30, 2011

Yesterday evening, in  a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, the Journal of Improbable Research awarded the Ig® Nobel Prizes for 2011.    The prizes are awarded for research that “first makes people laugh, and then think”.   The awards are generally based on real published research that also has elements of humor or absurdity.  The complete list of winners is available at the Journal‘s site; some of my favorites are:

  • CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
  • LITERATURE PRIZE: John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.
  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Darryl Gwynne (of CANADA and AUSTRALIA and the UK and the USA) and David Rentz (of AUSTRALIA and the USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

There are two of the awards this year that deserve special mention.  The first is the Mathematics Prize, awarded jointly to a group of people who have predicted that the world would end at various times in the past.  The award citation was to:

Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of KOREA (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of UGANDA (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Finally, the Ig® Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas, who decided to discourage wealthy people with expensive cars from parking illegally: he ran over the parked cars with an armored personnel carrier, crushing them (YouTube video).

The list of winners, linked above, also has citations for the research papers.  Ars Technica also has an article on this year’s prizes.  I’ve written here previously about the Ig® Nobel awards in 2010 and 2009.

Real Causes of the Financial Crisis

February 21, 2011

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an amusing article by Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, and others) on the true causes of the financial crisis.  It’s short, but entertaining; here’s an excerpt to give you the flavor:

Government policies have emboldened ordinary Americans to borrow money they never intended to repay, just like rich people do, and cowed the financial elite into lending it to them. You can’t forget to bear-proof the garbage cans and expect the bears won’t notice.

I’ve been a fan of Lewis’s writing since I read his first book, Liar’s Poker; it was the first honest inside account of what Wall Street is like that I ever read, and still one of very few.


Ig® Nobel Prizes, 2010

October 1, 2010

Thursday evening, in Cambridge MA, the Journal of Improbable Research announced the 2010 winners of the Ig® Nobel Prize, given  “For achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK”.  I should note that most of these prizes are given for real research that nonetheless has an element of humor, or absurdity, included.  Ars Technica has an article in its “Nobel Intent” blog about the prizes; a similar article at New Scientist reports that, for the first time, this year’s awards included a cash prize.  The lucky recipients received a 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill.

You may recall that the 2009 Ig® Nobel Prize for Mathematics was awarded to Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, for allowing the country’s citizens to become comfortable with a wide range of numbers, by issuing bank notes in denominations ranging from Z$ 0.01 to Z$ 10,000,000,000,000.  In February 2009, the Reserve Bank announced a reverse split of the Zimbabwe dollar, at a rate of 1:1012; in other words, you would get Z$ 1 new (fourth series) for Z$ 1 trillion old.

Here are a couple of my favorites from this year’s awards:

  • PEACE PRIZE: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.
  • ECONOMICS PRIZE: The executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.
  • ENGINEERING PRIZE: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, UK, and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter.

The official announcement has references to the relevant articles in the literature for most of the prizes.  There is no reference available for the Economics Prize; but then one would not expect the firms involved to publish the secret of getting such phenomenal results.  Unfortunately, too, none of the firms that shared the Economics Prize sent a representative to the ceremony.  Probably they are too engrossed in figuring out new ways to work their economic magic.

I was also glad to see that a group of researchers from Japan and the UK were honored for their work in using slime molds to model transportation networks, which I wrote about back in January.  It’s reassuring to know that one is keeping up with the cutting edge of research.

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