The Elevator Pitch

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

From the book Gamestorming

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ONE of the most elusive goals in modern physics has turned out to be the creation of a grand unified theory combining general relativity and quantum mechanics, the two pillars of 20th-century physics.  General relativity deals with gravity and time and space; quantum mechanics with the microscopic workings of matter.  Both are incredibly successful in their own domains, but they are inconsistent with one another.  For decades physicists have tried to put the two together.  At the heart of the quest lies the question, of what is the universe made?  Is it atoms of matter, as most people learned in school?  Or some sort of energy? String theory, currently a popular idea, holds that the universe is made up of tiny vibrating strings.  Other equally esoteric candidates abound.  Indeed, cynics claim that there are as many grand unified theories as there are theoretical physicists attempting unification.  Now Vlatko Vedral, an Oxford physicist, examines the claim that bits of information are the universe’s basic units, and the universe as a whole is a giant quantum computer.  He argues that all of reality can be explained if readers accept that information is at the root of everything.  So what is information?  Mr Vedral’s notion of information is not the somewhat fuzzy concept most people have of it, but a precise mathematical definition that owes itself to Claude Shannon, an American mathematician considered to be the father of “information theory”.  Shannon worked at Bell Labs, at the time the research arm of AT&T, a telephone giant, and in the 1940s became interested in how much information could be sent over a noisy telephone connection.  This led him to calculate that the information content of any event was proportional to the logarithm of its inverse probability of occurrence.  (Unlike many popular-science books that eschew equations, Mr Vedral includes a couple and tries his best to explain them to the reader.)  What does the equation mean?  As Mr Vedral points out, it says that an unexpected, infrequent event contains much more information than a more regular happening.

Once he has defined information, Mr Vedral proceeds to show how information theory can be applied to biology, physics, economics, sociology and philosophy.  These are the most interesting parts of the book.  Of particular note is the chapter on placing bets.  Mr Vedral gives a good description of how Shannon’s information theory can be applied to winning at blackjack or in buying shares (Shannon and his friends made fortunes in Las Vegas as well as on the stockmarket).  And his exposition of climate change and how to outwit the CIA make entertaining reading.  One quibble: Mr Vedral often digresses from the point at hand, so the overall effect tends to be a bit meandering.  Mr Vedral’s professional interests lie in quantum computing and quantum information science, which use the laws of quantum mechanics respectively to build powerful computers and render codes unbreakable.  There is a lot of discussion of both, which is very welcome because there are not many popular science books that cover these relatively young fields.  Quantum computers, as Mr Vedral points out, “are not a distant dream”.  Though still rudimentary, “they can solve some important problems for us that conventional computers cannot.”  Unusually for a physicist, Mr Vedral spends a fair bit of time talking about religious views, such as how God created the universe.  He asks whether something can come out of nothing.  Throughout the ages philosophers and theologians have debated this question with respect to Judeo-Christian faiths, in which dogma holds that the world was created from the void, creation ex nihilo.  Others side with King Lear who tells Cordelia that “Nothing can come of nothing.”  Mr Vedral makes a persuasive argument for a third option: information can be created out of nothing.

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Protected: From Lolita To Lalita

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

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FT : The Grand Old Dame Speaks

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Her novels cover the great themes of human existence – love, betrayal, race, slavery.  Margaret Atwood calls her one of the pre-eminent American novelists of all time; Chinua Achebe praises her courage for asking the most haunting questions in black history.  She is studied in schools and universities across the US and is that rare thing in the literary world: both critically acclaimed and read by millions.  Today, though, Toni Morrison wants to talk about her hip: “I’ve been walking like the hunchback of Notre Dame,” says the 77-year-old in her soft, deep voice. “Thing is, I’m a total shoe freak, I buy them everywhere.”…..Many writers of Morrison’s generation are tackling the subject of ageing – Philip Roth (75), Gabriel García Márquez (81) and David Lodge (73) are recent examples.  Given her hip trouble, is she tempted?  “I’m not.  Even my editor said, ‘But Toni, we die.’  Not being around doesn’t bother me – except that I’d miss my grandsons.”  We are lunching in Princeton, where Morrison is Robert F Goheen professor in the humanities…..Even in casual conversation Morrison measures the weight of her words and images – her assistant’s car is “blood red”; winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 introduced “that other gaze” to her writing; as she tells stories she recreates her interactions with people and repeatedly uses her own name.  In her prose, she says she feels the music so strongly that when she heard actors emphasise the “wrong” words in audio versions of her books, she decided to record them herself.  “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up,” she explains.  We are here to discuss A Mercy, Morrison’s first book for five years, which introduces Florens, a young girl with “the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady”, sold to a passing trader to pay off a debt.  Set in 1680s America, in the early years of slavery, the novel follows a small community – black and white, indentured and free – driven apart by religion, prejudice and brutality, though not race…..

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Though Morrison’s novels all grapple with oppression, she says she never wanted to be the voice of the African-American community: “I thought I was writing about what I was interested in.  No one comments when a white person writes about a white person.”  Attempts to marginalise her have failed; Morrison’s novels have a mass appeal that is perhaps surprising, given that her books are anything but easy reading.  The narrative seeps through the prose and can be hard to follow; you often have to read pages, even whole sections, again; the writing has a beautiful, slow rhythm but this also makes it hard to break out of to read faster.  Morrison smiles: “Readers say, ‘Your books are so hard’; I say, ‘I have no words in there you don’t understand.’”…..The world has changed since she started writing, she says.  For the young today race is a battle already won: “Young people are not interested in that racism stuff.  They fall asleep as soon as you start talking.”  So how does that make her feel? “Good, good,” she laughs and slaps the table.  “That is what they are supposed to do.  They don’t want to hear about that and they don’t care.”  She enjoys the punchline so much she repeats it…..In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect whose name adorns her books.  They divorced six years later and she never remarried.  Previously unflappable, Morrison gesticulates as she talks.  “People say, ‘Do you live alone?’ Or, ‘You raised your children alone.’  And I say, ‘I was never alone.’”  Only recently has she become the sole occupant of her house: “I had a family, I’ve got sisters and brothers, my mother was alive and this, that and the other.”  Nevertheless, the theme of desertion and solitude is evident throughout her fiction.  This is a reflection of American history as a whole, she says, which is defined by the immigrant experience, the lack of a motherland.  “There is a sense of loneliness, deep loneliness in so much American fiction and life, like something has been taken away.”…..

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Cool graphic.


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