A 15,000 page mathematical proof

I clearly have too much time on my hands because I end up reading some strange things. The particular thing I’m talking about here is the Classification Theorem of the Finite Simple Groups, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. I mean, who isn’t?

Okay, I jest. I haven’t the faintest idea what it’s all about, but I quite like the story of persistence behind it.

It took about 30 years to write down the proof and it runs to 10,000 - 15,000 pages. It was mainly done in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but one particular hole in the proof was only plugged in 2004, which added another 1,300 pages.

It’s hard not to ask why anyone bothered. How many people are going to read a mathematical proof that runs to 15,000 pages? I can’t imagine many people will, but I have to applaud the sheer bloody-minded persistence that got it done. I remember when human resource departments used to like classifying people (maybe they still do) and one of those classifications was a completer-finisher. The people who wrote down this mathematical proof epitomise that category of people and then some.

I like this sort of task. I don’t believe everything we do has to have a point. Some things are worth doing just because we can. Not, I hasten to add, that I want the first thing to do with the Classification Theorem of the Finite Simple Groups.

The good news is that, in the early 80s, mathematicians started trying to revise and simplify the proof. They believe they can get their revised proof down to about 4,000 pages. As of 2016 they had managed to write the first 6 volumes of this revised proof, and one particular professor thought they might have the remaining 6 volumes written in 30 years or so.

The particular professor I mention is Professor Dr Hugo de Garis and it’s his article I’ll link to in a minute. I should add that “Professor Dr” is too much pre-nominal signage in my opinion — one or the other is enough.

The professor believes this proof marks the single greatest intellectual achievement of mankind. Furthermore, he believes the proof describes the rules God used to create the universe.

So, if you’re really really bored, here’s the link to Professor Dr Hugo de Garis’s work.

If you ignore the mathematical nerdery it’s not a bad read. Possibly.

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Idlis and the Conservation of Flavour Principle

I was amused to read the BBC's article describing a Twitter spat about idlis.

For the uninitiated, idlis are battered, steamed lentil and rice cakes that are popular in Southern India. They're often eaten for breakfast and I think that was the meal during which I first encountered them in Kerala, back in the mid 2000s.

Subtracting flavour from the universe.

They did not go down well and only the special forces of food eaters amongst our group managed a whole one.

They have a strange texture that does weird things to your mouth, and I can only describe the flavour if I invent a new law of physics: The Conservation of Flavour Principle.

Imagine all flavours are rated from 0 to 100 on the flavour scale. The worst flavours — sprouts, for example — sit at the bottom, and the best flavours, like a juicy fillet steak, sit at the top. Any food adds flavour to the universe, even if you don't like the flavour. It's flavour whether it's good or bad. The net gain for the universe is more flavour, so it gets a + sign; it's positive flavour.

Idlis, though, somehow manage to subtract flavour from the universe. As you chew on one your mind is thrown into confusion. Your brain can't process an idli. It's not that they taste bad, as such, it's that their very blandness takes something away from your sensory perception.

I struggled through one of them by willpower alone, but two would probably cause a brain haemorrhage.

My theory is that the universe conserves flavour. All other foods add positive flavour to the universe and idlis alone conserve the balance by taking flavour away.

They're very odd and I'm not a fan of the things.

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Don’t trust your nadgers to the Internet of Things

I had no idea internet connected chastity devices existed until I read the article I link to. It seems they can be compromised and hackers can lock your plonker away forever.

Breaking open the chastity cage by hand would require bolt cutters or an angle grinder.

The thought of bolt cutters or an angle grinder within millimetres of my testicles had me crossing my legs.

Apparently the devices aren’t that reliable anyway. One user, who preferred to remain anonymous, said:

The app stopped working completely after three days and I am stuck.

Another said:

My partner is locked up! This is ridiculous as still no idea if being fixed as no new replies from emailing. So dangerous! And scary! Given what the app controls it needs to be reliable.

Well, quite.

The lesson is simple: if you’re going to lock your gentleman’s sausage away, don’t do it via the Internet of Things.

This isn’t the first time sex toys have been hacked. Live-streaming footage from a dildo camera has been hijacked, and hackers have taken control of a bluetooth-enabled butt-plug. I swear I’m not making this up.

All is not well in the teledildonics world.

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The operating systems they run in space

I found the article I link to quite interesting. It's about the operating systems they use in space.

We’ve got extremely demanding requirements for this mission.

Typically, rebooting the platform such as this takes roughly 40 seconds. Here, we’ve had 50 seconds total to find the issue, have it isolated, have the system operational again, and take recovery action.

It goes on to mention how their operating systems have to be deterministic. That means an app can't take 10 seconds to open one day and 15 seconds on another day. Anything the OS runs must take the same amount of time each time it's executed, down to the millisecond.

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Cambridge's crazy roundabout

I have just been reading an article about Cambridge's crazy roundabout that operates in the Dutch style. This means there are new give-way rules for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

I appreciate the council is just looking at ways to make roads safer, but I'm not sure a confusing roundabout system — one that operates contrary to every other roundabout in the UK — is the answer. Ultimately, safety is better served by the separation of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

We no longer exist in an era where Dick, Georgina and their dog Timmy can cycle the roads and solve crimes without ever meeting a car. Councils sometimes just don't seem to have realised that times have moved on and road use is significantly higher these days.

What we need are cycle paths and walkways that are physically separate from roads. I know it's hard to back-fit a system like that into our existing infrastructure, but even brand new road networks are still shoving all modes of locomotion together.

If you want an idea of how ludicrous that is, imagine if cars had to share the same infrastructure as trains. It would be a nightmare, and a dangerous one. Yet we keep throwing motorists, cyclists and pedestrians together and then we whinge when one of them has an accident.

We need to be introducing separation, which will have the beneficial side-effect of speeding up all modes of transport, reducing journey times and increasing safety. Harebrained roundabouts aren't the answer.

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BA and the Paradox of Disbelief

BA's insistence that its site cannot issue vouchers unless someone requests them, despite much evidence to the contrary, shows they have fallen into the Software Developers' Paradox of Disbelief.

I've been there many times myself: written some software, tested it to within an inch of its life, thought it was perfect and passed it on to the testing people. Within five minutes they've thrown it back at me having found 14 million errors.

The first response is always: that's impossible. Often followed by: there's no way it can do that. Sober thought soon shows that neither of those statements can possibly be true, and deeper investigation always leads to an "oh yeah" moment.

All software developers suffer from The Paradox at some point in their careers. It's genetic; we share about 80% of our DNA with sheep and that's where we get it from. Sheep live in perpetual disbelief. You can see it in their faces.

BA seems to be sticking to their guns a bit longer than most software developers do, but they'll surely recognise they've fallen for The Paradox at some point. Unless of course they already know that and are just fronting it out because they're greedy, unethical and don't fancy paying too many refunds.

Software should be thoroughly tested, but never by the people who wrote it.

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Small nuclear reactor gains approval

A small nuclear reactor made by a company called NuScale has been granted safety approval in the US. It's capable of producing 50 megawatts of electricity and should begin shipping by the mid 2020s.

Alas my hopes were soon dashed. I had visions of being able to order one from Amazon and then unplug myself from the national grid. But when they say it's a small nuclear reactor they're speaking relatively. It's 76ft tall and 15ft wide, which I'd struggle to accommodate in my flat. I was hoping for something the size of a desk lamp.

There's also no mention of price, which usually means it'll be expensive. I'm guessing it'll certainly be more than £100 outside of potential Black Friday deals.

There's nothing specific in my flat's lease to prevent me storing enriched uranium on the premises and the reactor has many in-built, automated systems for safety. The chances of me obliterating the South West of the UK would be slim.

This very much sounds like the enterprise version of the product, but I hope a home version of it is also planned.

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Facebook depressed about upcoming privacy restrictions

Facebook is getting uppity about one of the changes Apple will be implementing in iOS 14.

The change in question concerns something called the IDFA, which is the IDentifier For Advertisers. This is a random identifier that Apple assigns to its devices. This identifier can then be given to advertisers so that they can track the effectiveness of their adverts. It protects a user's privacy because, although the advertiser can see a particular, anonymous user has responded to an advert in a certain way, they don't get any personal details about that user from the IDFA. It allows them build up patterns of behaviour.

The change Apple will be implementing is that, in iOS 14, its devices will ask the user for permission to use the IDFA. Facebook (and other advertising platforms) fear that a lot of users won't give that permission and therefore advertisers won't be able to track the performance of their adverts effectively.

Facebook said:

Like all ad networks on iOS 14, advertiser ability to accurately target and measure their campaigns on Audience Network will be impacted, and as a result publishers should expect their ability to effectively monetise on Audience Network to decrease.

Ultimately, despite our best efforts, Apple’s updates may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer it on iOS 14.

I'm afraid I have no sympathy for advertisers. Facebook's comments demonstrate they were quite happy to take this identifier knowing full well that users might not like them doing so.

I appreciate that advertising is crucial to the economy of lots of websites, but any tracking of a user should only be performed with that user's informed permission. If a site is worth it, I'll let them track me. If they want to deny me access if I won't allow tracking then that's fine by me, but I want to make an informed decision either way.

It strikes me as odd that the sort of tracking we take for granted these days was ever allowed in the first place.

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At last, another supersonic jet

You have to give it to the bearded ballooning flop, he's ambitious. Branson's Virgin Galactic company have just unveiled a new supersonic jet capable of flying at three times the speed of sound.

Concorde, the last supersonic jet, died 17 years ago and that could get us from London to New York in three hours. This new Virgin Galactic jet will do it in two.

It's staggering to think we've gone 17 years without a commercial supersonic aeroplane and nobody's come up with a replacement yet. We're going backwards.

There are few greater miseries than travelling and it all needs to be speeded up. Planes, trains and automobiles should be aiming for double or triple their current cruising speeds. Yes, yes, you may wag your finger and mention things like safety or the environment, but that shouldn't stop us. We should use our brains to find ways to make fast transport that's safe and environmentally friendly too.

While they're at it, they should also be reconfiguring airports. Somehow we accept the idea that we have to be at an airport a ludicrous two or three hours before we actually fly. Why? You may wag another one of your fingers and mention logistics or security, but stop being so defeatist. Find a way to do it in half an hour, which should be considered the maximum wait for any transport these days.

Of course, this Virgin Galactic jet is still at the prototype stage, but the hope is that it will be able to transport up to 19 passengers at 60,000 feet. It will still have to make it into economical production, negotiate the various aviation rules and get past mountains of well-meaning but misguided health and safety regulations. So I'd say there's little chance of this jet ever operating commercially.

Even if it does, the only people who'll be able to afford tickets will be the ultra-rich, as was the case with Concorde. I doubt I'll see economical supersonic travel in my lifetime. We just don't have the cojones to pursue this sort of thing these days.

Other than Beardy Branson, that is. He offers the merest wisp of hope.

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Paying off hackers

The university at Aberystwyth, which lacks for a few more vowels, recently lost some data to hackers.

They weren't alone and a number of other educational establishments suffered the same fate.

The hole the hackers crawled through was left lying around by a company called Blackbaud, which provides software for these educational institutions. The attack was implemented via ransomware, which encrypts data and demands a fee for its subsequent decryption. The hackers also took a copy of some of the data.

Blackbaud paid the fee, which astonishes me. It isn't illegal to do so, which astonishes me even more, although security agencies worldwide recommend against it.

I can see how paying off hackers might look like the simplest solution for an organisation, but it's very selfish. It makes it worthwhile for the hackers to continue and it finances their exploits against other organisations. It's funding crime and I'm staggered that's not already illegal. It certainly should be.

In an act of what I can only assume is insanity, Blackbaud said, after paying off the hackers, that they've had:

… confirmation that the copy of the data they [the hackers] removed had been destroyed.

How can they possibly trust this?

There is absolutely no way you can know if a shady, criminal organisation has removed all copies of the data it stole.

If companies are only going to act in self-interest rather than the greater good, this is something that needs to be addressed at a government level.

There's something to be said for removable media. Back in my mainframe days, everything was backed up to tape and stored at a secure, off-site location. At least hackers can't access such media from behind a desk in another country. Sure, you might lose a day's data if you have to restore, but that's bearable and certainly better than losing the whole lot.

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Hurdles and horses

How is it that hurdlers can knock down a number of hurdles on the way and still be declared winners? The clue about what the participants must do is in the name: they must hurdle. If they’re going to allow that, they should rename the event to the-running-through-planks-of-wood-whilst-occasionally-hurdling-one race.

If you’re going to allow that sort of nonsense in athletics events then I could win a marathon by driving 26.1 miles and running — or at least ambling — the last 0.1 miles.

Whilst we’re on the subject of sport (I’m watching Britain’s Greatest Olympic Moments), what in the name of arse is dressage all about? Some woman just got a gold medal for sitting on a horse whilst it walked sideways a couple of times, pranced about like it had trodden in something untoward and dribbled a lot. Who, I wonder, thought that was a good idea?

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The law and banks

The law is an ass

I was reading an article on the BBC about how the government is considering increasing the maximum sentence for assault on emergency workers to two years.

I support the increase but it's still not right.

The maximum sentence for tax evasion is seven years and an unlimited fine. Both are crimes of course, but the respective punishments are the wrong way around. How is it that physically assaulting someone attracts a lesser punishment than diddling the government out of some money?

Banks stink

Another thing in what's becoming a general day of complaining, I note banks aren't allowing some people to switch to cheaper mortgages.

The problem, it seems, is that whilst they could pass credit checks for an expensive mortgage when they took it out, they can't pass credit checks for a cheaper mortgage now.

That is completely bonkers and something so ludicrous can only be explained by the banks preserving their own interests. Sure, they'll blame something else (like the credit checking rules they follow), but that's just a cop out.

I quite often get asked in surveys if I think banks have my interests at heart and this just one of the reasons why I always answer no.

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The man protecting the world from extinction

There's a chap in Wales who monitors space for potential Extinction Level Events (ELEs), which is things like an asteroid or comet heading for Earth.

An asteroid the size of a cricket pitch would take out a city and an asteroid 10 km wide would cause global mass extinction.

Such an object is certain to head our way too. They've impacted before and it was one such object that wiped out the dinosaurs. Of course we don't know when it'll happen — it might be tomorrow or it might be in a million years — but it will happen.

If we see it early enough we should be able to deflect it off course. Bruce Willis got rid of that last one.

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Lies, damn lies and 36 alien civilisations

The latest news from the ET hunters is that there are 36 extraterrestrial civilisations in the galaxy (advanced enough to communicate). Or is it 211? Or maybe it’s between 100 and 3,000. The article I link to bandies a few numbers around.

The trouble with doing a statistical analysis of this sort of thing is we only have a sample size of one: us. We’re the only intelligent civilisation we know about (and I use the term intelligent in the loosest possible sense).

Such low numbers — and even 3,000 is low amongst 250 billion stars — would explain the Fermi Paradox, which wonders why we haven’t heard from any alien civilisations so far.

The most troubling term in the so-called Drake Equation they use to calculate these things appears to be L, which estimates how long an intelligent civilisation lasts. In fact, Drake himself thought that was they key term.

It took us 4.5 billion years to evolve and we’ve only been intelligent enough to send potentially communicative radio waves out into space for about 100 years. Again, the sample size we’re using couldn’t be any smaller.

I’m quite chuffed the proper scientists’ efforts produced a number so close to one I calculated a couple of years ago myself. I was a bit more pessimistic with my completely unscientific guesswork. I estimated there are 23 civilisations in the galaxy. I chose 420 years for that L number. I based that on someone’s study of Earth civilisations that have risen and fallen to date.

I’m sticking to the idea that alien civilisations are deliberately ignoring us because they’re fed up with the dreadful reality TV we’re broadcasting out into the cosmos. If they came here at all it would be to ask us to shut up.

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The naughtiness of gravity

Gravity generally behaves itself. It keeps us anchored to the planet and when we drop things we know they'll fall down rather than up.

Alas, at its extremes — such as inside a black hole — the theory that describes gravity gets its knickers in a twist. It starts to spit out an infinite number of infinite answers that are impossible to resolve.

So something's amiss and we probably need another way to describe gravity. Gravity is described by General Relativity and the other three forces of nature are described by Quantum Theory. So the most obvious new way to describe gravity would be to lump it in with the other three forces and use quantum theory, but physicists have been trying to do this for nearly 100 years without success.

It would be useful if we could perform experiments on gravity at its extremes. The trouble is, if you built some experimental apparatus that harnessed enough energy to test gravity at its extremes, the experimental apparatus itself would turn into a black hole. That sort of thing pisses physicists off and probably breaches a number of health and safety regulations.

So where do we go from here?

In the article I link to, four physicists talk about how naughty gravity is.

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Agenda app review — the golden goose?

I'm hoping to be able to replace a number of my organisational apps with Agenda, which I review here. I should be able to roll notes, to-do lists, journals and project management all into one.

Read this post in full.