Category Archives: Random thoughts

Upgrading to Vista

I just upgraded to Windows Vista – the Home Premium version. I haven’t had enough time to develop a fair view of the new OS, but I’ll be writing a comprehensive account of my thoughts on Vista sometime soon. My early impressions are that, first, the interface is quite nice and a definite improvement, and, second, the OS is an absolute slug when it comes to system performance. The OS just seems to chew up my processor and spit it out in the garbage bin.

What are your chances of dying?

As an avid mountaineer and extreme sportist, I often face barrages of criticism from people questioning my common sense. I routinely have to defend myself against people questioning my desire to live. “It’s so dangerous!” they say, “aren’t you scared of ending up like Mallory?”. Having reached the point whereby I’m on the verge of dying of boredom from repeatedly answering to this, I’ve decided to write this post to put things into perspective. Here I’ve compiled a list of various events – some obscure, others common – and their respective probabilities, which I’ve kindly sorted into ascending order. In particular, notice how winning the lottery is at the base of the list, and dying from lifestyle induced illnesses are towards the end.

Winning first division prize in Australian Powerball lottery: 0.000000015%
Contracting HIV from unprotected intercourse with a person of unknown status: 0.0001%
Dying from plutonium fallout: 0.00005%
Death by lightning bolt: 0.011%
Death during mountaineering accident in Mt. Cook National Park: 0.062% (per hut night)
Dying in a road accident as a pedestrian: 0.11%
Dying of cancer related to second-hand smoke: 0.14%
Contracting HIV from unprotected intercourse with a HIV+ partner: 0.1%
Dying in a road accident in a vehicle: 1.2%
Death from lung cancer: 6.0%
Death from cancer: 21%
Death from heart disease: 20%
Probability of developing cancer (but not necessarily dying): 45%

So, when people say “the chance of being hit by lightning is about the same as winning the lottery” they’re completely wrong, by about six order of magnitude in fact. However, having said that, I wouldn’t be too concerned about being hit by lightning, which is exceptionally unlikely. It’s just that the chance of winning lottery is even more exceptionally unlikely. In fact, to put things into perspective, you’re about 5000 times more likely to dye from plutonium fallout than winning the lottery. Are you scared of plutonium fallout? Good, then don’t buy a lottery ticket.

Peter’s wisdom for the day: Don’t drive a car. Climb mountains and walk in the rain instead. It’ll save you dying from heart disease. And whatever you do, don’t even think about buying a lottery ticket.

Note: Following a flood of people telling me how dubious my statistics are, allow me to clarify that these stats have no scientific credibility whatesoever – they were pulled from Google in 5 minutes, for entertainment purposes only. Do not quote these figures unless you also allow a 2-3 order of magnitude error bar.

The future of mobile telephony

Recently there have been huge rumblings in the area of digital voice communications with the emergence of voice-over-internet (VoIP) technologies. VoIP uses internet infrastructure to facilitate extremely cheap local and international telephony. Most notable has been the huge success of the freely available European VoIP software, Skype. In addition to tens of millions of users worldwide, this technology is beginning to make its way into wireless internet (WiFi) capable cell phones, and even traditional mobile phones with cheap adapters (see here and here).

These developments raise many questions about the viability of conventional cell phone (and also the newer 3G) infrastructure, which continues to be newly deployed by most of the major telco’s, certainly here in Australia at least. Parallel to deploying cell phone infrastructure, WiFi is also being deployed very rapidly. It seems to me that that the later, within a few years, will have made the former redundant. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that in five years time, every new cell phone will be WiFi equipped, facilitating VoIP and completely bypassing existing cell phone infrastructure. It puzzles me that the major telecommunications corporations haven’t latched on to this trend and realized that the cell phone infrastructure they are presently rolling out is unlikely to be economically viable.

Today’s wireless communications applications – including wireless internet, voice communications, GPRS (which allows data communications through the cell phone network), and 3G (third generation mobile telephony, which facilitates video conferencing and data communications) – are essentially all variations on the same technology. For this reason it is extremely inefficient and uneconomical to continue deploying these technologies in parallel, which is the present approach. Providers should agree on a single, high bandwidth, wireless technology, and share this between the various applications. Such an approach would allow for increased economies of scale, eliminate redundancy and reduce both investment and end-user costs.

Einstein’s puzzle

A friend of mine recently forwarded me the following puzzle, which I have since come across several times on the web. The puzzle was reportedly written by Albert Einstein, who allegedly claimed that it could only be solved by the top 2% of the population. While the stuff about Einstein is almost certainly rubbish (simply because some of the brands of cigarettes referred to in the problem didn’t exist at the time Einstein allegedly wrote the problem), and I’m certain that given enough time most people could solve it, it’s a fun problem nonetheless, so I post it here for your problem solving pleasure.

There are 5 houses of 5 different colours. Each house is occupied by a man of different nationality. The 5 owners each drink a different type of beverage, smoke a different brand of cigar, and keep a different pet. The question is “who owns the fish?”.

The clues are as follows:

  • The Brit lives in the red house.
  • The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
  • The Dane drinks tea.
  • The green house is on the left of the white house.
  • The green house’s owner drinks coffee.
  • The person who smokes Pall Mall rears birds.
  • The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhill.
  • The man living in the center house drinks milk.
  • The Norwegian lives in the first house.
  • The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats.
  • The man who keeps the horse lives next to the man who smokes Dunhill.
  • The owner who smokes Bluemasters drinks beer.
  • The German smokes Prince.
  • The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
  • The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.

For the answer visit the comments below.

Travel debacles

Today I have two bitter rants:

  • After spending approximately 24 hours travelling from Brisbane to Baltimore, via Auckland, Los Angeles and Chicago, and feeling somewhat tired from lack of sleep, I was naturally most delighted to find that American Airlines had lost my luggage. When I fly, there are exactly two things I expect:
    • The carrier should get me to my destination
    • The carrier should get my luggage to my destination

    I don’t care about bags of salted peanuts and hot towels, just those two things. Failing on one half of my quite reasonable expectations is, needless to say, a little irritating. Almost a day after arriving, American Airlines still apparently has no idea where my luggage is. Apart from being just plain annoying, this leaves me in a somewhat awkward situation. Tomorrow morning I am due to give my presentation at the CLEO/QELS conference here in Baltimore, and it goes without saying that I would prefer not to deliver this talk to an audience including many prestigious people and potential future employers wearing hiking boots and my crinkled Hawaiian t-shirt that I have been wearing for the last two days.

  • A word of advice for presenters: never deliver a presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint. While I typically refuse to present talks using PowerPoint, instead opting for PDF which is much more stable across platforms, on this occasion I had to submit a PowerPoint file for my talk. Being as paranoid about this prospect as I am, I made sure to go and test my presentation on their computers before delivering the talk. Oh and what a surprise it was! Who would have thought that none of the pictures would display? Surely not using PowerPoint? So, I asked to be allowed to submit a PDF instead. If any conference organizers read this, please accept this advice: phase out PowerPoint. Not only does it not operate across platforms, it does not operate between computers of the same platform, or even the same computer full-stop.

Update: Well, after 24 hours I finally have my luggage back and I once again have the luxury of wearing clean clothes.

The buzzing world

I discovered an interesting new site today called Buzztracker. The site refers to the Google world news directory and constructs a world map superimposed with differently sized red dots representing the number of stories associated with geographical locations. Differently shaded lines between dots represent the stength of relationships between stories associated with those locations.

This provides a very interesting depiction of what’s happening in the news around the world. Even more interesting is seeing how the relationships change from day to day as new world events unfold.

Buzztracker daily image

Googling it up

Many people these days use the well known Google search engine on a daily basis for finding things on the world-wide-web. In recent months, however, Google has extended their search functionality to include much more than just old-fashioned web-searches. In particular, Google has just launched Google Maps, which gives the user an interactive map of all of North America. Satellite imagery can be enabled (see picture below of lower Manhattan Island and Ground Zero), which gives an end result similar to NASA‘s WorldWind program, which I discussed in a previous post. In addition to imagery, the user can ask for directions from one place to another and be given a complete itinerary and map for the journey.

Another extremely useful search facility, tailored for academics, is Google Scholar, which allows for searching through journals, pre-print archives and many other sources.

Finally, something which I haven’t had the opportunity to try for myself, since I’m a mobile phone-less cave-dweller, is Google SMS. This allows for the user to perform searches for businesses, weather forecasts, movie times, product prices, and a multitude of other things using their mobile phones. One particularly novel use which I heard one of the Google co-founders discuss in a recent television interview was the ability to search for product prices within specified geographical constraints. For example, you could dial up the price of a product and be given a list of all the locations within half a mile where that product is sold and what the prices at the respective outlets are. Innovative uses of mobile search technology such as this could potentially have the power, in the long term, to completely revolutionize consumer behaviour and inject a whole new level of competitiveness into markets.

These new search technologies, in my opinion, are perhaps just tip of the iceberg of what is to come. There are countless potential uses for search technology, particular mobile search technology, and it will be very exciting to see what developments arise in the future.

More on Moore’s Law

Most people will have heard of Moore’s Law, that the number of transistors in microprocessors doubles every two years. For example, in 1970, Intel’s original microprocessor, the 4004, had a few thousand transistors. Today, state of the art processors have on the order of half a billion transistors. While these statistics are certainly very interesting, there are some other laws regarding the development of semiconductor technology that most people are probably not so familiar with.

The semiconductor fabrication facilities where our Pentiums, Athlons and PowerPC’s are maufactured are, as you can probably imagine, not especially cheap. In fact, the cost of fabrication plants is increasing exponentially, much like Moore’s Law for the number of transistors on a chip. In 1970 it cost about $6 million to build a state of the art fabrication plant, today it costs a few billion, and by 2010 it is estimated to be on the order of $18 billion. That’s a lot of money for just one fabrication plant. Even today, the costs are so extreme that very few companies have the capital to build such plants. I won’t try and predict what implications this will have for the future of semiconductor technology, but it’s certainly an amazing, if not alarming, trend.

Manufacturing transitors, however, is just one half of the process. The other half is actually designing the circuits that go onto chips such that all of those hundreds of millions of transistors do something useful. To do this, today’s digital systems designers employ very high-tech software which automates most of the development cycle. The capacity of these tools to design large integrated circuits is also increasing exponentially. By this I mean the number of transistors which they can design into a circuit. Despite growing exponentially, however, the capacity of software tools is growing at a smaller exponential rate than the number of transistors that fit onto a chip. In other words, software design tools are not keeping up with what the fabrication plants are capable of. What this means is that although we have an enormous capacity for squeezing transistors onto chips, we keep falling further and further behind in trying to design useful circuits that fully make use of so many transistors. Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. Instead of putting transistors to waste, systems designers are overcoming this problem by changing their design paradigms. For example, we are beginning to see the emergence of multi-core microprocessors, which means that the designer puts multiple smaller microprocessors into a ‘chip’ rather than designing a single larger one. By doing this, the designer isn’t as limited by software and can still make full use of the available transistors. Trends like this are likely to represent the future of microprocessors and it probably won’t be long before all of our PC’s have many processor cores under the hood.

Sources: Intel Corp., IC Knowledge, seminar by Prof. Jan Rabaey (2003)