Class War / Entropy

July 22, 2010

My Carbon Manifestation has been a tad occupied of late – work, visitors, domestic stuff – and hence my Silicon Being has been sadly neglected. A shame, because there has been plenty of astro-pol related stuff to blog about – the future of X-ray astronomy, panics about private Universities, speeches by Willetts with tantalising clues about what may happen to  science funding priorities, Martin Rees being attacked in the Guardian. I am even on Strudel’s amusing new Astronomer HR diagram .

That austerity stuff is starting to bite. Here in the Athens of the North, we got a letter from the Principal announcing that this year’s Professorial Pay Review is cancelled. The Universities all got letters from the Government saying “We’d like you to think hard about senior pay. Looks bad to pay top chaps too much when we are asking a lot of The Nation. Purely your choice of course. But we do know where you live.” I had assumed that this “top people pay” thingy was all about Jonathan Ross and his six million, or maybe fat cat Vice Chancellors etc. But no. Seems to mean all profs – anybody earning £53,918 and up, whose salaries are determined year by year based on performance review. But this year it seems we needn’t bother publishing any high impact papers or leading international projects cos it won’t make any difference.

Profs are in an interesting place in the coming class war. We ain’t exactly poor, and we ain’t exactly rich.  Class War did you say ? Well, I feel that Osborne’s cover is being blown by an increasing number of right wing commentators who are turning up on Radio Four etc with comments along the lines of how rolling back the state is overdue, and people are too reliant on handouts, etc. At the same time, Union reps are starting to roll up their sleeves, and left wing commentators are saying err, excuse me, seems we have been screwed by greedy bankers, and now the poor have to pay ?? Found myself thinking of that very rude song. I shan’t remind you of the rude bits, just the chorus that goes “Its the rich what gets the pleasure, its the poor what gets the blame. Its the same the whole world over, ain’t it all a fucking shame”.

This could get nasty. Did they really think 25% cuts to the state would go down quietly ?

Meanwhile Cameron is over in the USA. He is getting beaten up over BP and Megrahi and all that, but austerity-vs-stimulus is left as an “agree to differ” kind of thing. The word “stimulus” doesn’t quite catch the issue I think.  There are really three things the State can do. One is State Activity – the police, the army, the NHS etc. We all know that stuff tends to slowly bloat and become inefficient, so good luck to the Government there. Two is stoking the economic fire – play with interest rates, pump money in to the economy to get things going etc. This is what folks usually mean by stimulus. We build pyramids. We know its pointless really, but it gives people jobs, then they spend their dollars in MacDonalds, etc. Or we cut public spending and taxes so people have more dollars in their wallets. And then spend them in MacDonalds etc.

The third thing is investment in infrastructure.  Sometimes this is what people mean by stimulus but its really very different. When the Government builds roads and railways and information superhighways etc new economic activity becomes possible. The effect of building infrastructure is not a bubble or illusion or about accelerating the circulation of money. There must be something quantifiable here. I think its entropy. What distinguishes a rich society from a poor one ? Partly its energy. The more oil or coal etc you burn, the more real wealth you have. But there is more than this. Society is an intricate machine – gas pipes, power generation, railway connections, delivery of food to the shops. The other day I needed insurance. A few web clicks and I was done. Then I needed a sink plunger. A walk down the road and there was one waiting for me in a hardware store. Somebody had already made one because they knew I’d want it. We live in a very high information content, low entropy world, and are steadily moving further in this direction. Some of this happens naturally, because humans are entropy changing machines. But we are still fighting the laws of thermodynamics, so the market doesn’t always work. Conscious restructuring effort by the state can have a huge effect.

Anyway. Some reader can I am sure tell me whether this entropy stuff is all standard economic theory, but it may be crucial to the argument for funding science and technology by the state. The only snag is the transparency of science. When you build a road, it decreases entropy right here in the Yookay. When you build knowledge, you’ve done it for the world…

Mesrop Mashtots in star naming rip-off

August 22, 2007

Day Three at the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting here in Yerevan, Armenia. This afternoon there was only the business meeting of the European Astronomical Society. I thought this …… sounded just a tad … well … zzzzzzzzz …….snnnrrrgggghhh ….zzzzzzz….snnrrrgghhhh … zzzz.. snnrgg-uh ! wuh ? Oh, sorry, where was I ? Anyway, so I decided to goof off and do some tourism.

Amongst other things I visited the Madenetaran, a museum housing thousands of ancient books and manuscripts. As well as lots of beautiful illuminated manuscripts, I was stunned to find, proudly displayed in a glass case, a certificate announcing that a new star had been registered with the “International Star Registry”, in honour of Masrop Mashtots, the fifth century bishop who invented the Armenian alphabet. That’s so depressing .. a museum actually fell for this “name a star” scam …. I wonder what they paid ?

The certificate is a masterpiece of deception, implying its all very official. It says that the star is in one of the 88 constellations officially recognised by the IAU (err.. there is one that isn’t ?), and that the name and “telescopic co-ordinates” of the new star are being placed in “Your Place in the Cosmos, Volume V”, and that this volume has been placed in the Library of Congress and the British Museum. Err.. yes… along with every other book ever published.

Then you see the star will also be registered with the “International Star Registry Vault” in Zurich. Wuh ? This lovely certificate is signed by the Richard L Ney, the president of the International Star Registry, 146 Deer Creek Road, Fredonia, Texas.

Oh and people who have also registered a star also include the Queen of ENngland, Bill Clinton, and Boris Yeltsin. Wow.

Francoise Genova will also be pleased, as the certificate clearly states that all new stars are catalogued in Strasbourg.

Google starts charging

February 25, 2007

Recently I wrote a post about how economic logic must be pushing us towards renting applications rather than buying them. Google don’t charge the user for Gmail, calendar etc.. but it seems they have just released enhanced versions for businesses for which they do charge – see this BBC news item.

Interesting move. Of course there is a long tradition for companies like SAP and Oracle to suck money out of corporations for “services” in an unending stream. Google’s charges are pretty modest by comparison. They are aiming at small businesses, as the Beeb says. So probably this won’t change the logic of the consumer market – applications free at the point of use, once you have paid your monthly fee to the ISP. Maybe rather than ads being the main income stream, Google aims to extract tribute from the ISPs.

Another treat for geeks – Cringely’s latest post is about replacing the internet. Some are gripped and others reckon Cringely has finally jumped the shark.

The Virtual Observatory, big computers, and the rental economy

February 17, 2007

The problem is, software is too reliable. Pause for spluttering. Start digression, intending to explain later .. I just found my trusty ole 1987 MacPlus in a dusty cupboard. The 1987 Mac Plus It works. The entire hard disc has 20MB. My word processing package, WriteNow, made great documents and took up just 128K. The MacPlus did everything I wanted just fine. How did we get to PCs with a GB of RAM, and vast application bloatware ?

In my mind at least, this connects up with the logic of the Virtual Observatory as I have been pushing in talks for years. The number one problem is not the number of bits in astronomical databases; its the number of databases, and their heterogeneity. Slogan number one is therefore Standards, Standards, Standards. The number two problem is the I/O and last-mile bandwidth bottlenecks; these grow slower than Moore’s law. Slogan number two is Shift the Results not the Data. You can’t download the database and hack your own analysis programme. The data centre has to provide professional tools for manipulating the data at source. So we need to move a service architecture.

When we first started this game, many people said this couldn’t be right, as the whole modern trend was away from old fashioned big computers at special centres, and towards more power on people’s desktops; and that this was spirit of the internet too, and peer-to-peer file sharing and all that trendy stuff. But where are we now ? The world is dominated by a few gargantuan computer systems – they are run by Google, Amazon, eBay etc. In the spirit of the Web, this stuff just feels like its “inside your PC”, but the truth behind this illusion is enormous corporate enterprise servers.

So why do we keep buying bigger and faster PCs ? I think we might stop …Expansion in storage has made sense, as we wanted pictures, songs and movies. But this need could stop; people trust Flickr to store their pictures. Expansion in CPU speed has been driven by gaming; but dedicated hardware like the Playstation is much better and more reliable, so who cares ? What about the expansion in application and operating system size ? To some extent this has been driven by the desire for using a computer to be easier, faster, and with more bells and whistles. But most people feel that things are way past the point of good-enough-thank-you. But those poor old software companies – how can they make any money if we don’t keep buying new stuff ? They have to work harder and harder to convince us the new stuff is really better and we want it. Who is going to buy Vista ? Not me. Can’t see the point. This just has to crack ..

So what is the sustainable solution? Obvious. The customer needs to rent a service, not buy a product. They have to make us pay for every use. We are getting used to this idea already … You don’t own that music, only the right to play it. Most video use is not download; you leave it where it is and play it again. Now we can all run our calendars and spreadsheets on Google, and never need to buy an application. Pretty soon the whole idea of owning an application will seem quaint… Java Web Start seems pointed in this direction too – click here and get the latest version, thats another 50p thank you. As an individual customer you don’t pay per use on Google, as their business model relies on the ads. But you can only get to Google by paying your ISP a monthly fee. Obviously a service-based OS must be up next. Who needs any more than a very thin client ?

So for the VO, the service architecture is driven by need. For the commercial world, its driven by economics. But we are playing the same game.

What’s really taking off now of course is internet TV. This is how Google will finally take over the Internet, as explained by Bob Cringely. I will do my own take on that in a wee while. Meanwhile, astronomy also is moving towards movies – astronomy in the time domain. I shall definitely have a go at that soon.. No coincidence maybe that Google have joined the LSST partnership