Miscellanea

Quote in Context

The Carbon Trust, a worthy environmental body concerned with climate change, are running a TV advert in the UK centered around a famous quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer. The advert says:

One man has been where we all are today.
When he saw what he'd done he said:
'I am become the destroyer of worlds.'
Now we all have to face up to what we've done.[…]

This particular quote has always sent shivers down my spine; however, this version is inaccurate. Here's a more complete version in context:

We knew the world could not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: "I am became Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Another, slightly different variation:

A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. There floated through my mind a line from the "Bhagavad-Gita" in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am become death: the destroyer of worlds."

The shorter misquote is catchy and makes for great television. I am also generally in favour of the work of the Trust and similar organisations. In this case, though, I can't help feeling that equating personal responsibility at the level of turning down the heating at the office with the moral burden shouldered by the people that saw nuclear weapons born into the world on that day in 1945 is insulting to them, and to us.

[If you want to dig deeper, verses 11.31 to 11.33 of this translation of the Bhagavad Gita may help. Particularly 11.33.]

Unaccustomed As I Am

I was conned into doing a formal presentation for about 80 people the other day. Normally, I'm quite happy with smaller team or client presentations to half a dozen or a dozen people; the sudden scaleup put me in a mental state where (at least to myself) I sounded like a crazed televangelist. Maybe it wasn't that bad in reality; some people even laughed a little at the flying pig jokes and no mouldy fruit was thrown.

The good news was that almost all of the technology worked perfectly. For example, the normal experience of a tiny projector that sounds like a badly maintained lawnmower was replaced by a huge bright fixed back-projection screen that everyone could see clearly. No hunting around for books to prop the projector up was required. No "where's the remote, Bob?" conversations because I brought my own (I hate just standing behind the lectern). The exception was the sound system: all the microphones seemed to be broken. I'm always a bit loud anyway, so this wasn't a problem.

One Less Techno Toy

After a quarter of a century of flawless service, my HP-41C calculator has finally stopped working.

It would be an understatement to say that these machines were well made: they were in fact superb in every category, from the programmability through the excellent documentation to the best keyboard I've ever seen to this day. They also cost a huge amount of money: perhaps £600 in present day terms, or in other words much the same as two 40GB iPods.

Like many of HP's current line and most of their calculators since 1972, the HP-41C used RPN (Reverse Polish Notation). As well as being more sensible than that silly algebraic system other calculators used, this meant you were pretty much guaranteed that no-one would borrow the machine from you for long. Maybe that's why it lasted; I certainly wouldn't expect this kind of longevity out of anything I bought today.

So farewell then, 1940A00696. Thank goodness my HP-16C is still in perfect working order.

Prominence and Influence

I have mentioned the IETF's series of Internet Drafts before as a useful source of over-the-horizon technical information. Donald Eastlake's How to Gain Prominence and Influence in Standards Organizations is a departure from this, but worth reading nevertheless if you're involved in any way with standards work. Quiet common sense, well written.

[Updated 20040921 to track changed link.]

Delay Tolerant Networks

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.
   — Douglas Adams, HHGTTG

One way to get an idea of what's in store for the internet is to peek over the technical horizon by reading the Internet Drafts put out by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF).

One interesting current research area is that for Delay Tolerant Networks (DTNs); networks where the conventional TCP/IP assumptions of continuous connectivity and "low" delay are broken. One of the things this translates into is standards for an Interplanetary Internet, but it also has relevance for sensor networks, communications with submarines and web access for reindeer herders.

[Updated 20051030 with new URLs.]

Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Clay Shirky writes about the Internet, as much as a social and cultural phenomenon as a technical one. His recent article A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy describes what happens when "social" software (Usenet, mail, instant messaging, weblogs, etc.) is used to support growing, long-lived user groups. In particular, he discusses patterns of failure in these groups and to a lesser extent what can be done to avoid group failures.

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