Tuesday, November 17, 2015


There have been a lot of comments on social media since the events in Paris, and many of them are confused and ill informed. I would like to try and address that here.
(I will use ISIS though some prefer ISIL or DAESH)

Firstly it is necessary to reflect on the horror and pain of the deaths caused by those deluded young men, who we assume, firmly believed that their actions would lead them to some imagined paradise.

Though, as someone who has read a bit of history, especially the history of violence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature)
 It is necessary to put such an event into context. It is salutary to realise that roughly 1,000,000 people die every year in road accidents. And there have been countless times in the history of civilisation where more than 10,000 people have met violent deaths in a single day.

Bu still, in the modern world, and especially in capitalist democracies, this was a shockingly violent day which left many people dead, injured and grieving.

Why did ISIS do it?
It seems clear that ISIS is suffering militarily as a result of air strikes by the U.S., Russia, France and others. They are also losing ground to forces from the Kurds and the Syrians.
This is leading them to increase soft target terrorist attacks in western countries.

It also has to be realized that there has been a tendency among some in the Middle East to blame the West, especially the UK and the US (the great Satan) for all their problems, ever since the creation of Israel, and maybe before that. At the same time there is a concurrent and conflicting acknowledgement that their tendency to drink coffee and argue rather than deal with the problem is also a factor. But it does give some young hot headed men a preference for attacking the West. And those confused by religious messages can turn themselves into suicide bombers.

What is bad about ISIS?
ISIS wants to establish a caliphate over a large swathe of the Middle East, or the whole world if it could. This area would be ruled by medieval laws which suppress women almost as non beings (no education or work, or rights), use violence and fear, create nothing of value to the rest of the world and consider life on earth to be nothing but preparation for an after-life of their choosing. They consider the Koran to contain all knowledge, and so seek no further. They believe they must eventually be victorious because Allah, of course, is on their side. They are an evolutionary dead end in the life of this planet.

Terrorism is not new. ISIS is one of a long and somewhat undistinguished line. Remember EOKA, the Mau Mau, PLO, IRA, Tamil Tigers, Baader Meinhof, Carlos the Jackal and many many others.

The sad truth is though, that in the long run, terrorism does not work. It can some have minor temporary influence, but in the perspective of history it is just a blip

What should the response be?
Negotiate? With who? ISIS is not a nation state. It has no coherent internal integrity. There is nobody you could reliably negotiate with. Would be like trying to nail a jelly to the ceiling. There is no position that ISIS would accept that would be acceptable to the rest of the world. And really they have no need to negotiate, because of course they have Allah.
Leave ISIS alone to do their worst? Could be bad, very bad.

Carry on trying to degrade their capabilities, and hope the Kurds and Syrians (and Turks?) will see them off?

Tackle them head on with an allied ground army of sufficient power to eliminate them as a military force?

Of course this has its dangers and its problems. Solving the world’s problems is not easy. That is why politics is harder than rocket science. And it is natural for people to be reluctant to engage in warfare. I seem to recall that many/most? people in the US did not want to get involved in WWI or II. Come to that, many in the UK did not see it as necessary – that Mr. Hitler wasn’t so bad really. Why not negotiate with him?

I just ask the question, I leave the answer to you. For a more detailed discussion see:

What is the moral issue?
It is worth revisiting the moral philosophy example of the bad man in your street.
You know that along your street there is a man who lives on benefits, beats up his wife, abuses his children, trashes his garden, threatens his neighbours, and contributes nothing but aggravation to the community.

What do you do?

Leave him alone, it’s not your problem?

Report him to the police / social authorities?

Admittedly, this can be a tough problem. If you live in a lawless area, and he has a loaded shotgun and an AAK47, you may realistically hesitate to act.

But I suspect most of us would agree what the ‘Right’ course of action would be.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Economics 1.0

Economics is tricky. It’s an old joke which I have used before, and I’ll use again, that if you ask 5 economists a question, you’ll get 6 different answers. There are several reasons for this, and one of the main ones is that economics depends on people, and people can be perverse, unpredictable, and just plain awkward.

But there are some fundamentals to economics that are not too difficult to understand, but many (I’m tempted to say most) simply do not. And the reason for this is that these principles are in some ways opposed to common sense.

There are myths about economics which you often hear people say, and I will try and explain here why the main one is incorrect.

Myth: “You cannot continue to have increasing economic growth in a world with finite resources.” Sounds reasonable, but it is not.

First, let’s talk a little about the magic mnemonic GDP (Gross Domestic Product). This is almost always the number that is mentioned when economic activity or growth is discussed. Roughly speaking it measures the amount of economic activity in a country. It does have one quite large snag though: it doesn’t measure the ‘black economy’ – activity that is under the radar because it is not recorded, and does not attract taxation. The black economy can be anywhere between about 5% and 50%, or more. The average is supposed to be about 13%, but this is a bit of a guestimate.

Also, GDP grows as inflation grows, so this has to be taken into account to get a realistic figure.

In fact, it is usually the rate of increase (or decrease) in GDP that is quoted – currently around 3% for the UK, 7% for China, so the absolute GDP value is arguably of less interest.
So there are 3 separate ways in which GDP grows (apart from inflation), the 3 steps to economic heaven J

1   1.    Increase in population
2   2.    Trade and Commerce
3   3.    Productivity and Technology

Let’s look at these in turn.

1.         Obviously, if there are more people in a country, there is likely to be more GDP. This is why GDP per head of population is often used to compare economies, though of course it depends on what you are trying to analyse. GDP of the US is around $16 trillion, that of China is around $8 trillion (2012), but China’s population is about four times that of the US, so GDP per head in the US is around 8 times that in China. But there is (probably) a limit on how many people can live in a country, so GDP growth by this means is limited. Note that this kind of growth does imply an increase in the use of resources – more people, more food, more energy, more goods.

2.         This is the tricky one. Economics is not a Zero Sum Game. This sounds technical, and it is a bit. It comes from something called Game Theory. When I was about 16, I got a book out of the local library called ‘The Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour’, by Von Neumann and Morgenstern. John Von Neumann was a prolific mathematician and general mover and shaker. He did seminal work in computing and quantum mechanics as well as game theory. The book was above my technical abilities and determination – it was a big book, and I soon took it back. Thankfully, there is a simpler way of putting this idea which many people are familiar with – a Win Win. The point is that an economic transaction can benefit both parties (individuals, companies, nations); so that both are better off than before. This may not be obvious, so let’s have a look at a very simple example.

Consider a small island with 2 men on it, separate from each other. The first man keeps chickens, and lives on a diet of chickens and eggs. He has all he needs, and a surplus is no use to him – he can’t keep it, and doesn’t need it. The second man grows corn. He keeps a small surplus to plant next year.

Now one day they meet, and arrange a trade of one chicken and a basket of eggs for a sack of corn. Both are now better off, they have a much improved diet, and a way of using their surplus. The essential point is that some things are worth more to some people than others.

This has spawned huge global trades – just think of the silk trade, the spice trade, the slave trade (OK, better not). It also depends on the fact that some people are better at some things than others – also see next section. From this small but powerful principle, global trade has brought continued increases in GDP, along with:

3.         One man with a horse can plough maybe an acre a day (obviously depends on many factors). With a modern tractor, he can plough about 30 acres. That is an increase in productivity, and so one man can increase his GDP by a factor of 30. The percentage of the population needed to farm has shrunk from more than 50% to less than 1%. Productivity can increase without improvements in technology, by improved learning, training, specialisation and organisation. But technology is the ultimate driving force behind productivity improvement. (Steam power, combustion engine, electricity, computing, internet).

So, that is a very brief journey through the factors behind economic growth. The main point I am making here is that growth can occur without increase in population or use of resources.

Now it may be that we cannot continue to have increases in trade and productivity indefinitely, although that is a tricky question. Read Ray Kurzweil if you want to see why technology can continue to increase as far as we can see.

It has been said that ‘Technology has its own agenda’, which is to say that it will continue to increase whether we intend it to or not. Its hard to stop. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back (or Pandora’s box if you prefer). But it is simply incorrect to assume that lack of resources will cause economic growth to cease.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The world is complicated

Several things recently have prompted me to write this post; I'm not quite sure where its going, but lets start.

In BBC's excellent series 'Secrets of a Living Planet' with Chris Packham, it showed how complex webs of living organisms can create a sort of super organism, with lots of symbiosis and feedback going on.

For example, underground fungi networks connect  up lots of trees and other plants in a kind of living network. The fungi derive sugar from the tree roots, but the trees also benefit by getting various nutrients from the fungi. The fungi get the nutrients from other plants and decaying matter, some of which (in this case) are from decaying salmon which had been left by bears.

Amazingly it is possible to analyze the bear diet (from a single hair) and know that about 80% of their protein comes from the salmon, despite it being a short season when the salmon run. Even more amazing is analysis of the tree cores which shows that they too owe most of their structure to the salmon. Trees made from fish.

Of course it has long been known that complex relations exist between species, but this series really brought home how interdependent all living things are. It begins to make sense to think of the whole earth as a complex genome - Gaia if you like. It is a simple truism to say that no species could exist all by itself, so it is always necessary to consider evolution of a collection of species rather than just one.

Another hot topic at the moment is 'proteomics', or the extended genome. We now know that the human body carries 10 time as much DNA (by base numbers, not weight) in bacteria and fungi, than it does in its own  DNA. We know that there are hundreds (thousands?) of species of bacteria on and in each human individual, that these vary in different parts of the body, and vary between individuals. We know some of what they do, but we don't know the half of it. There is now an ongoing project to find out about all this stuff, which is as big as the human genome project - probably bigger, but thankfully won't take as long because of the huge advances in gene sequencing.

What amazed me though was to learn that some of these bacteria produce messengers that affect the way in which our genes are expressed in the human immune system. So they aren't just hitching a ride, or helping the digestion. They are a part of our genome almost as much as our own DNA is. Our evolution is a kind of co-evolution with our bacterial and fungal partners.

This is similar in a way to the living network idea above. The point is that we have to think about extended genomes, not just the genome in a specific individual or species. Richard Dawkins wrote a book called 'The extended Phenotype' some years back to discuss how we should consider things like artifacts and society as part of the 'phenotype' of a gene - the way it affects the individual's development. Looks like now is the time for one on the 'extended genome'.

On Science Friday I also heard of things called giant viruses. Apparently these have only been found fairly recently. They are as big as bacteria and operate differently from normal viruses - they set up a kind of internal virus factory. And they are  big enough to have their own viruses attacking them - virophages.
Now that we know they exist, all kinds of different ones are being found all over the place, including in arctic ice and underground.

Now The large hadron collider may (or may not) have found the higgs boson - though it seems it is not quite as simple as that. Apparently there are (or maybe) several different flavours of the possible higgs, and it may (or may not) involve some other new particles, in different flavours naturally.

What with the ever elusive dark matter and dark energy, it seems to me that, just as we begin to think that we are beginning to really understand everything, it all gets a lot more complex, and we realize that we don't actually understand it.

Thats why I wrote this post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012



There is an ongoing and vigorous debate about the whole issue of intellectual property, copying and protection that I want to discuss.

There are many issues here, and I want to go back to the whole purpose of having protection mechanisms.

The idea behind patents and copyright is to encourage invention and original work by ensuring that other people cannot benefit others by copying who have not put in the effort to create the work (and who maybe do not have the talent or ability).

Or rather, it is to ensure that the originator can benefit, and hence can continue to produce other works and derive financial benefit from them.

And here perhaps we come immediately to the nub of the whole issue. Does it matter if other people benefit parasitically from my original work, providing that I can benefit from it myself?

It would be reasonable to suggest that it does not matter, providing that I can benefit in an amount that is appropriate to the work.

Now some might say that I should be able to benefit to the maximum amount possible, because that would enhance the incentive to produce further work, and ensure that I would not suffer if I was unable to continue to be creative.

At first sight this might seem reasonable, but there are a couple of points relating to this view. Firstly, it is (as much in life), ultimately about proportionality. If I produce a creative work that requires a great deal of effort and talent, it is fair that I should receive a commensurably large reward. A work that requires a small effort and little talent would seem not to deserve a large reward.

The difficulty comes with the other cases: work that requires little effort, but large talent, and that which requires large effort but little talent. How should these be rewarded?

The free market approach would suggest that great talent will be given great reward (if there is also great demand), but that great effort will not be so rewarded because it is easily provided by others.

And here we come up against a moral conundrum also at the heart of the issue.
Why should Paul McCartney be paid a million pounds for writing a song that takes him a few hours, when a teacher or nurse has to labour for a lifetime to earn less?

It is easy to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is”, and in a sense, that is so. But remember that the songwriter can only earn huge amounts because of two things. There exists a large market of willing consumers, and the cost of distributing copies to them is small.

Before recording was possible, musicians did not earn huge amounts. The great few did quite well, because of support from the rich, but there was not the same opportunity to tap mass markets at low cost.

We are left with the question, what is an appropriate reward for these works? The standard reply is that is impossible for people to agree on the amount, so it must be left to market forces to decide.

Now when it is possible, as it now is, to copy digital works at almost zero cost, and in large numbers, the issue becomes confused. It is possible to argue that the ‘free market’ has become exactly that – copies available free, because the cost is also free. The only obstacle to this happening is the protection of intellectual property rights.

The problem is, though, that the solution is rather one sided. Prices (the financial reward) are effectively controlled by the rights, and there is a gulf between the protected price and the free market price. Which is why rampant copying exists in the internet, and by DVD copying in some parts of the world.

The world is changing rapidly, and existing business models are often past their sell by date. Price structures for digital media are still based on the pre digital age. Adjustment can be painful, but one conclusion that is impossible to avoid is that end user prices for digital media have been kept too high.

The industry has been slow to adapt, and has sought to fight rather than embrace the digital revolution. The more enlightened have realised that a certain amount of free distribution by copying is in itself a form of marketing, and can actually increase physical media sales rather than undermine them.

I now want to move on to the issue of patents. These exist for much the same reason as copyright, to protect those responsible for innovative methods of creating new products.

Again, there needs to be appropriate protection without providing a guarantee of excessive rewards available through digital copying and the mass world market.

The time period is a key issue in all these right protections. Some of them have increased, at a time when the world is moving faster, product lead times are reducing, and market windows are narrowing. This seems illogical, to say the least.

I really see no reason why the grandchildren of an author should be able to benefit from works he wrote before they were born (I write as the son of an author - I don't feel I have the right to his work long after his death).

The whole idea of software patents seems to be dubious to me. I worked in the software industry for many years. Most, maybe all, software is based on the ideas of previous work. Much is based on algorithms that have their roots in history. Nobody has suggested (so far) that you should be able to patent a mathematical theorem, but there can be a thin line between that and a software program. There is very little in the software world that is truly of ground breaking originality. If there is, it is likely to have come from some research department rather than a commercial software company.

It is sometimes suggested that, if you could not patent software, that it would make new software development unprofitable. That is nonsense. Somehow I do not see Apple ceasing to bring out new versions of software even if they could not patent any – same goes for Microsoft.

It is argued that small innovative companies that produce new software products would no longer do so without patent protection. Again, I simply do not believe it. A new innovative internet company can be born, thrive, and sell itself to Google for a million dollars in a very short space of time. Patent protection, in any case, will often not protect these small companies, because the legal department of the giants can tie them up until it ceases to be valuable.

In fact, I strongly believe that software patents do more harm than good, and simply should not be allowed.

The whole issue of I.P. rights should be greatly simplified and reduced. Rights should provide appropriate reward, but not guarantee excessive rewards provided by technology and mass markets. The time period for any such rights should be severely restricted
to reflect the realities of today’s world – say one year (but I’ll take a second opinion).

Technology is rapidly driving down the cost of products, and any rights provided have to reflect that. Rights for artistic works, too, have to be limited. I have nothing against J.K. Rowling, but see no reason why she should have an absolute right to be rewarded with hundreds of millions, however talented she may be (she does, thankfully, recycle some of those rewards through charities).

A short protection period, together with sensible pricing, should lead to a reduction in free copying, and an ability to reap reasonable reward. I do not believe that artists will cease to exist if they cannot hope to achieve massive financial success – most are not going to anyway. Art is driven by emotional need more that finance.

A combination of sensible pricing by media companies, and a reduction of the rights business, should ensure a sensible approach to the whole issue in times to come.

Dream on.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Light Bulbs

When I was a lad, there were two kinds of light bulbs in our house – 100 Watt, and 60 Watt. They were all the same size, and all bayonet fitting, which were very easy to replace (I am speaking about the UK here). Now you might have found a few 40 W bulbs, and there was a choice of clear or frosted, but mostly it was just the two kinds. For really exotic people, you could find coloured bulbs, but that was pretty exceptional. I’m not talking about Christmas trees here.

As time passed, other bulbs came along, like fluorescent tubes, which were mainly used in kitchens (though of course also in offices etc.), so the number of choices crept up to 5 or 10 say, but still pretty limited.

Nowadays, things have improved – haven’t they? For a start, we no longer use those nasty incandescent bulbs, but low energy replacements, which come in lots of power and shape options, 8W, 11W, 15W, 20W and more. Double turn, triple turn sticks, golf balls, globals, spirals and more. And since many are made in China for global markets, many are no longer bayonet fitting, but screw fittings, which naturally come in two different sizes.

Then there are candle bulbs, in again, different power ratings, clear/frosted, bayonet, screw (2 types).

Oh, and of course halogen bulbs – they are great aren’t they? Some in cases, some just dinky little two pin bulbs that you are supposed to push into very small holes without touching the glass cover – this can be great fun, and take about ten minutes. Oh and there are high voltage and low voltage options, which naturally need transformers so that they can actually be used. But don’t they look nice? Sad they are not low energy though. My kitchen makeover replaced two 60W strip lights and a 100 W bulb with 10 50W downlighters – oh dear, that’s 500 Watts instead of a max 220 – whoops, there goes global warming. And because they get hot, they have to have little dinky fire blankets for health and safety. And they are quite expensive. But don’t they look nice?

But never mind, I found some low energy replacements, very expensive though, up to £10 per bulb for the good ones. And then they are much bigger, and don’t always fit in the same spaces. And they don’t actually give the same light, so not so much downlighters as sideways spreaders, and not so bright either. Of course you could try LED versions, but hey they give a sort of cool blue light that isn’t very friendly.

And I haven’t even started on mini strips, micro strips, spots, compacts, double ended. There is a web site offering light bulbs that proudly tells us that it has over 300, 000 products. That’s an awful lot more than the two I started with. (OK, I’m cheating here – a lot of these are specialist bulbs, but still).

My point is (there is a point, honest), that the plethora of choice now available is actually not an improvement. At some point along the way, things started getting worse rather than better. Households now have to stock an alarming number of different bulbs, and even then may not cover some cases. Some light fittings have bulbs that are virtually unique to that fitting, making replacements hard to find, and expensive (and not low energy). Standardisation does not exist. It almost makes you yearn for a totalitarian government which only allows for two kinds of bulbs (like the two kinds of Russian yogurt – yesterday’s yogurt, and the day before yesterday’s).

Modern production lines and computer stock control can allow this kind of massive variation, rather like the pre Cambrian explosion (in evolution). Doesn’t make it easy for the customer though.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snags with the iPad

I've had my iPad for over a year now, and although I like it a lot, there are quite a few things about it that I definitely do not like.

For starters, there is no File Manager. Now, I understand why Steve Jobs was keen to keep things very simple - good idea, and remove complications from the user - also desirable. But you can take things too far, especially when you are a perfectionist like Jobs.

Lets take a simple example. I used the Times app (when it was free), and it was super - a great way of browsing the paper. But - it kept all previous issues on the iPad. I looked for the files, so I could delete some. Not possible. Eventually I found that in 'Settings' there was one for the Times app, where you could set 'clear cache' - OK, but that deletes all previous issues. There is simply no way of deleting some, and keeping others. On a Windows laptop, this is trivial.

This kind of problem repeats all over - any transfer of files between one app and another is cumbersome at best, and impossible quite often.

Now for the browser. Well, its great to start with, very easy to use, and the zoom in/out is excellent, though the screen does rapidly get smeared, and have to be cleaned often. But then I find that a finger flick to scroll down or up can easily be mistaken for a click on a link, and then the browser dives off somewhere that I do not want it to go, and I have to go 'back' again. This happens too often, and I find it a real nuisance. And then, if you want to use more than one window, it is clumsy - simple, yes, but clumsy. It is far better to use a tabbed browser on a Windows machine, where moving between windows is a simple rapid mouse click, rather than having to watch the fancy zooming out and in of the limited number of windows in the iPad browser. And when you swap between windows, it always seems to reload the page, which is a real pain .

To be fair, I haven't bought the 'office' apps for the iPad - but I can't see using it to do things like cutting and pasting between browser windows and documents. I find the text selection, cut and paste to be again, clumsy. It looks cool, but its not actually that easy to use.

I know that some people are using the iPad, with a separate keyboard, instead of a laptop or notebook as a 'creation' device, rather than just a consumption one. Personally, I think this is being perverse. Its like trying to use a motorbike instead of a car; you might be able to do it, but its hard.

Keep the iPad for simple browsing, checking emails, listening to iPod, looking at photos and videos. Its good at that. But for more complex tasks, use a Windows machine or Mac. It makes sense.

I'm just adding another grumble - the photo app doesnt have nested directories. If you have lots of photos of one country say, like Australia - I have photos of each main city in separate directories on my laptop. iPad just dumps them all into one overlarge section. Not good. For goodness sake, multi level directories have been with small computers since Unix first appeared. Even I was young then.

Come on, feel the noise

            COME ON, FEEL THE NOISE                      MAR 2011

I want to talk today about Noise and Bootstraps.

When I started work in 1965, no member of the public would have known what a bootstrap was (apart from real boots of course). Now, most people know what it means to ‘boot’ your PC, or your phone.

I have even had to reboot a car once. I had just arrived at the Grand Canyon in a hire car when the aircon started playing up; it was behaving strangely, and not cooling properly. I though for a moment, then turned the ignition off, waited, and restarted. It recovered perfectly – I had rebooted the car.

The reason why this process is known as ‘booting’ is that a raw computer, or other smart device, is a bit like a new born baby. It has potential, but not many well formed actions. The bootstrapping process gradually builds up levels of capability, with each level being needed to bring in the next one. Because the process starts almost from nothing, it is like pulling yourself up by your own bootlaces.

There are a lot of things that work a bit like this, and some (all?) are systems with feedback. I’ve tried to write a book about feedback, so I won’t be going into that in any detail. Sufficient to say that feedback involves feeding back some signal from a system output into an input of the same system.  I use the word ‘system’ to refer to any complex thing or organisation, like a living organism, or part of one, or a company, or a country, or a computer, or other electronics.

The thing about systems with feedback is that they have to start somewhere. If I feed back part of the output to the input, where does the first input come from? It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg. In real life it all gets rather complicated, because systems can have many inputs and outputs, and many feedback mechanisms that overlap.

But some feedback systems are fairly simple, like the well known ‘howl’ you can get from an amplifier and a microphone. This is cause by ‘positive’ feedback between the loudspeaker, the mike, and the amplifier. But it all has to start with some signal that gets amplified and re-amplified. Even in a totally quiet room the process can start. How? Well, it’s called Noise.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an audible sound – though it could be. Any electronic system always has a certain amount of internal electronic ‘noise’ – a very small electronic signal. This is caused by the random energetic motion of electrons in the system. There is always some energy present unless the whole system is at absolute zero – that’s very cold. And even then it gets complicated by quantum theory, but we definitely won’t be going into that here.

There are other electronic systems that rely on feedback; one is called an oscillator – you will have one in your watch or clock. It produces a regular signal that can be used to indicate time, and it also has to be started with a bit of noise somewhere.

The funny thing about all this is that ‘noise’ is generally regarded as a nuisance in electronics – it causes things like hiss in sound systems. But it is also a vital element in making things work. It’s a bit like friction, which causes lots of problems, but is also necessary so that we can do things like walking.

It gets even more interesting when you consider evolution. Evolution is, amongst other things, a kind of feedback system. It uses feedback from the interaction between a system and its environment to adapt the system. But it all had to start somewhere. Nobody knows exactly how, as yet anyway. But in some sense what it needed was a bit of noise – some random juggling of atoms and molecules, driven by energy from the sun, until the system started to bootstrap its way into life (literally).

There are techniques in computing called optimisation which have to solve difficult problems of finding the ‘best’ solution. These methods use various techniques which ‘explore’ the solution space or ‘geography’. Some of them are actually called ‘hill climbing’, because they resemble the problem of trying to find the highest point in a hilly area. The trouble is that you can find the highest ‘local’ point, but can’t be sure that there isn’t a higher one nearby. One of the methods used in trying to avoid this problem is to introduce a kind of ‘noise’ by randomly shifting the solution point, so that it less likely to get ‘stuck’ in a false optimum.

If the process of adding noise is repeated several times, it is referred to as ‘simulated annealing’, because it is similar to the process of repeatedly heating and cooling metal. This process itself uses a kind of noise – heat energy, which jiggles the atoms and molecules around until they find a ‘better’ solution – harder metal.

So, just as friction is something that can cause things to ‘get stuck’, so noise is something that can get things moving again. In a very real sense, noise is a fundamental part of the universe.

Science has not yet quite come up with the answer to how the universe started. This is a big subject; it isn’t even clear how many universes there are, whether they are finite, or infinite in time or space. Even framing these questions is tricky. Defining the word universe is tricky. Anyway, the point I am getting to is that starting a universe is a bootstrap process. You start with nothing, and end up with something. Maybe. And what do we need to start this up? Yup, noise.

Quantum theory (incomplete though it maybe) tells us that empty space is not, well, empty. It is actually a thriving zoo of ‘virtual’ particles popping into a quasi existence before popping off again. Sort of. Maybe. And it may be that some sort of quantum noise was the trigger that booted the whole business. As someone (can’t remember who) said: ‘Nothing’ is unstable. It wants to be something. Like Marlon Brando (on the Waterfront). And its all down to noise.