Saturday, April 30, 2011

Benoit Mandelbrot an obituary

Benoît Mandelbrot, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 85, enjoyed the rare distinction of having his name applied to a feature of mathematics that has become part of everyday life – the Mandelbrot set.

Both a French and an American citizen, though born in Poland, he had a visionary, maverick approach, harnessing computer power to develop a geometry that mirrors the complexity of the natural world, with applications in many practical fields.

At the start of his groundbreaking work, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, he asks: "Why is geometry often described as cold and dry?

One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline or a tree."

The fractal geometry that he developed helps us to describe nature as we actually see it, and so expand our way of thinking.

The world we live in is not naturally smooth-edged and regularly shaped like the familiar cones, circles, spheres and straight lines of Euclid's geometry: it is rough-edged, wrinkled, crinkled and irregular.

"Fractals" was the name he applied to irregular mathematical shapes similar to those in nature, with structures that are self-similar over many scales, the same pattern being repeated over and over.

Fractal geometry offers a systematic way of approaching phenomena that look more elaborate the more they are magnified, and the images it generates are themselves a source of great fascination.

Mandelbrot always had a highly developed visual sense: as a boy, he saw chess games in geometrical rather than logical terms, and shared his father's passion for maps.

Mandelbrot first visualised the set on 1 March 1980 at IBM's Thomas J Watson Research Centre at Yorktown Heights, upstate New York.

However, the seeds of this discovery were sown in Paris in 1925, when the mathematicians Gaston Julia, a student of Henri Poincaré, and Pierre Fatou published a paper exploring the world of complex numbers – combinations of the usual real numbers, 1, -1 and so on, with imaginary numbers such as the square root of -1, which Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had labelled "that amphibian between being and not being".

The results of their endeavours eventually became known as Julia sets, though Julia himself never saw them represented graphically.

It was Mandelbrot's uncle Szolem who initially directed him to the work of Julia and Fatou on what are termed self-similarity and iterated functions.

For me the first step with any difficult mathematical problem was to programme it, and see what it looked like.

We started programming Julia sets of all kinds.

It was extraordinarily great fun!

And in particular, at one point, we became interested in the Julia set of the simplest possible transformation: Z goes to Z squared plus C where C is a constant number.

So Z times Z plus C, and then the outcome of that becomes a new Z while C stays the same, to give new Z times new Z plus C, and so on.

I made many pictures of it.

The first ones were very rough.

But the very rough pictures were not the answer.

Each rough picture asked a question.

So I made another picture, another picture.

And after a few weeks we had this very strong, overwhelming impression that this was a kind of big bear we had encountered.

In his view, the most important implication of this work was that very simple formulas could yield very complicated results:

What is science?

We have all this mess around us.

Things are totally incomprehensible.

And then eventually we find simple laws, simple formulas.

In a way, a very simple formula, Newton's Law, which is just also a few symbols, can by hard work explain the motion of the planets around the sun and many, many other things to the 50th decimal.

It's marvellous: a very simple formula explains all these very complicated things."

Mandelbrot, born into a Lithuanian-Jewish family living in Warsaw, showed an early love for geometry and excelled at chess: he later admitted that he did not think the game through logically, but geometrically.

Maps were another inspiration.

His father was crazy about them, and the house was full of them.

In 1936, the rise of nazism in Germany persuaded his family to leave for Paris, and eventually Lyon, in the south of France.

A year of studying mathematics there after he left high school brought home to Mandelbrot his extraordinary visual ability.

At the end of the second world war he returned to Paris for college entrance examinations, which he passed with distinction, winning a place at the École Normale and then moving on to the École Polytechnique.

From there he went on to the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, to study turbulence and gain a master's in aeronautics.

After obtaining a doctorate in mathematics (1952) in Paris, he returned to the US, this time to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, New Jersey.

There he came across the idea of the Hausdorff-Besicovitch dimension – the revelation that there were phenomena that existed outside one-dimensional space, but in somewhat less than two dimensions.

Mandelbrot took up the concept on the spot: it provided an all-purpose tool and was a special example of his eventual notion of fractal dimension.

Fractals have structures that are self-similar over many scales, the same pattern being repeated over and over.

His interest in computers was immediate, and his use of the new resource grew rapidly.

He returned to France, married Aliette Kagan and became a professor at the University of Lille and then at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

His academic future looked assured.

But he felt uncomfortable in that environment, and in 1958 he spent the summer at IBM as a faculty visitor.

The company asked him to work on eliminating the apparently random noise in signal transmissions between computer terminals.

The errors were not in fact completely random – they tended to come in bunches.

Mandelbrot observed that the degree of bunching remained constant whether he plotted them by the month, the week or by the day.

This was another step towards his fractal revelation.

During the 1960s Mandelbrot's quest led him to study galaxy clusters, applying his ideas on scaling to the structure of the universe itself.

He scoured through forgotten and obscure journals.

He found the clue he was looking for in the work of the mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson: he took a photocopy, and when he returned to consult the volume further, found it had gone to be pulped.

Nonetheless, he knew he had struck a rich seam.

Richardson loved asking questions others considered worthless, and one of his papers, Does the Wind Possess a Velocity? anticipated later work by Edward Lorenz and other founders of Chaos Theory.

One of Richardson's great insights was a model of turbulence as a collection of ever-smaller eddies.

Mandelbrot was struck too by Richardson's 1961 observations on the lengths of coastlines, and published a paper called How Long is the Coast of Britain?

This apparently simple question of geography reveals, on close inspection, some of the essential features of fractal geometry.

At IBM in 1973 Mandelbrot developed an algorithm using a very basic, makeshift computer, a typewriter with a minute memory, to generate pictures that imitated natural landforms.

While the ideas behind fractals, iteration and self-similarity are ancient, it took the coining of the term "fractal geometry" in 1975 and the publication of The Fractal Geometry of Nature in French in the same year to give the quest an identity.

As Mandelbrot put it, "to have a name is to be" — and the field exploded.

He had bolstered his own presence by adding a middle initial that stood for no particular name, and Benoît B Mandelbrot became a fixture at IBM, with visiting professorships at Harvard and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He started teaching at Yale in 1987, becoming a full professor there in 1999.

His many awards included the Wolf prize for physics in 1993.

Fractal geometry is now being used in work with marine organisms, vegetative ecosystems, earthquake data, the behaviour of density-dependent populations, percolation and aggregation in oil research, and in the formation of lightning.

Lightning resembles the diffusion patterns left by water as it permeates soft rock such as sandstone: computer simulations of this effect look exactly like the real thing.

Fractals hold a promise for building better roads, for video compression and even for designing ships that are less likely to capsize.

The geometry is already being successfully applied in medical imaging, and the forms generated by the discipline are a source of pleasure in their own right, adding to our aesthetic awareness as we observe fractals everywhere in nature.

Their beauty and power are displayed in the just-published book

The Colours of Infinity, updating the account given in the film.

In the course of making that and a further film with Mandelbrot – Clouds Are Not Spheres (2000, now a DVD) – I became aware of his great kindness and generosity.

At the end of Clouds Are Not Spheres he reflects: "My search has brought me to many of the most fundamental issues of science.

Some I improved upon, but certainly left very wide open and mysterious.

This had been my hope as a young man and has filled my whole life.

I feel extremely fortunate."

He is survived by Aliette and his two sons, Laurent and Didier.

Benoît Mandelbrot, mathematician, born 20 November 1924; died 14 October 2010

Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon - Guardian

Friday, April 29, 2011


Only fifteen or so years ago people could distinguish 300,000 sounds; 
Today many children can't go beyond 100,000 sounds 
And the average is 180,000. 
Twenty years ago the average subject could detect 350 shades of a particular color. 
Today the number is 130 shades.
We have named everything
Abstracted everything
Thereby reducing everything into a virtual representation
This in turn reduces the beauty and power of the real object, sound or colour
To do this we used language
And  language today is the basis and the model for the standardization of industry 
A generalization, and abstraction that underlie present-day science and industry.
Everything is one step removed
The computer you are using to read this offers you colours
Pretty to be sure with numerous pixels HD even, but no smell or touch
And the colours themselves while powerful are again one step removed from the real thing
For ease of use everything on your computer is standardised
In the real world too everything is becoming standardised from Peru to New Zealand
Coke, Starbucks, Nike, Nestle and the rest
Standardised tastes too
Not far to go and not only is everything standardised but monetized too
You might say it makes life  easier
I would riposte that it a takes away life by offering pixels instead
The price we pay is a loss of the original richness 
The original touch and feel
Still standardised everything maybe goes better with our standardised lives!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Porn highjack

Porn has hijacked sexuality and is destroying men

Porn addicition is a serious issue, with a generation of men accustomed to graphic images.

A generation raised on hard core has trouble with the real thing.

In a recent radio interview the host suggested that since I didn't like porn, the solution was to not look at it.

If only it was that easy to avoid.

Many women I know don't look at porn, but this doesn't mean that they are not affected by it every day.

The men they date, have sex with and marry are increasingly being brought up on a steady diet of porn, and the more they watch, the less capable they are of forming connected, intimate relationships.

The porn these men consume looks nothing like your father's Playboy.

In place of soft core, soft focus images of naked women smiling coyly at the camera, consumers are catapulted into a world of cruel and brutal sex acts designed to dehumanise women.

In the vast majority of porn today, sex is not about making love, as the feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act - connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection

These are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate - fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt.

As she is being roughly penetrated by any number of men, she is being called vile names such as whore, slut, and worse.

We often hear that porn is all about fun and fantasy, so it has no real effect.

My interviews with university-age men tell a very different story.

When I talk to men about their experiences with porn, it is clear that not all are affected in the same way, but affected they are.

Remember, this is the generation that grew up with internet porn, and some studies put the first age of viewing porn at 11 years.

Unlike previous generations, these boys and men have unlimited access to hard-core images 24 hours a day.

Many of the men I talk to believe that porn sex is what women want, and they become upset and angry when their sex partner, perhaps their wife, girlfriend, or a one night hook-up, refuses to look or behave like their favourite porn star.

The women often refuse to perform the sex acts the men have routinely enjoyed watching, and next to the screaming orgasms and sexual gymnastics of porn sex, real sex with real women starts to feel boring and bland.

These men have become so accustomed to porn sex that some are disappointed by their own sexual performance.

When they compare themselves with the male porn actors, who can sustain Viagra-fortified erections for long periods, the guys I talk to often admit to feeling like sexual losers, and worry something is wrong with them.

What troubles many of these men most is that they need to pull up the porn images in their head in order to have an orgasm with their partner.

They replay porn scenes in their minds, or think about having sex with their favourite porn star when they are with their partners.

What is new over the past five years or so is university-aged men admitting their addiction to pornography.

I had been somewhat sceptical of the addiction model, thinking that it was a way for men to avoid taking responsibility for their porn use.

However, I am not the only one to hear about addiction.

Sex and relationship therapists Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz discuss in their book The Porn Trap how therapists are seeing a rising wave of porn addicts looking for help.

They found both in their practice and from interviewing other therapists that ''what used to be a small problem for relatively few people had grown to a societal issue that was spilling over and causing problems in the lives of countless everyday people''.

The men at university I speak to who are addicted do indeed end up in serious trouble.

They neglect their studies, spend huge amounts of money they don't have, become isolated from others and often suffer depression.

They know that something is wrong, feel out of control and don't know how to stop.

While men may share their favourite porn stories, they don't tend to talk to each other about their addictive behaviour, which further adds to their isolation.

If we are really going to tackle porn, however, we have to move beyond individual responses.

We are going to need to build a long-term, multi-pronged movement that involves building coalitions, grassroots education programs, and media strategies that eventually lead to cultural change.

But a movement against porn can't only be about what's wrong with the world, it also needs to offer an enticing, positive vision of sexuality based on equality and respect.

And this sexual equality is closely linked to economic equality, because the whole sex industry rests on women with few choices.

As long as we have porn, women will never be seen as full human beings deserving of all the rights that men have.

This is why we need to build a vibrant movement that fights for a world in which women have power in and over their lives because there is no room for porn in a just society.

Gail Dines

Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston.

Her studies and point of view offer us another snapshot of modern man that causes concern

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Going, going, gone

Another modern illusion is photography

See how often we snap away with our mobile phones......... so easy

Notice though how often we do not bother now

Funny because in years gone by many of us wished we could have caught that moment

Have had an easy to use device

To have caught that scene

We did'nt then and now we do

In those earlier times there was the developing and printing to be done by a shop

Waiting days to get our photos back again

In those seemingly long distant times photos had a power, a magic

Are we joking it was only a decade ago, if that

Today when we can all take photos of everything everywhere

Photos seem to have lost their power, their magic

Shame really

It also seems most of us never have time to file or edit them either

Nor do we ever seem to have an interest in looking at them afterwards

Maybe once or twice and that's it

So what happened?

A few things

Photography gave us the illusion of making things somehow permanent

Fixing them in our history

That illusion takes away the urgency of life its intensity

This hunger for 'real experience' is met by television, movies, spectator sports, reality TV

Endless media advertising the must not miss soap, football match, motor race just on and on panting breathless hype towards the next must not miss event

And we get caught up in it going to that movie and then feeling pi***ed off because it was just more Hollywood crap

An endless recycling for the most part

How many soaps can you watch for how many years?

And our photos just a fleeting glimpse of things gone by, not very important any longer in the restless rush of modern life

Never enough time

Never seem to get around to looking at them

Never mind there is a new episode of some soap on TV tonight

Sort the photos?

Another time maybe

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Men and women

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mahatma Gandi quotations

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.
Be the change that you want to see in the world.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.
You must not lose faith in humanity.
Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.
A man is but the product of his thoughts what he thinks, he becomes.
A principle is the expression of perfection, and as imperfect beings like us cannot practise perfection, we devise every moment limits of its compromise in practice.
A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.
A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
A weak man is just by accident.
A strong but non-violent man is unjust by accident
Action expresses priorities.
Action is no less necessary than thought to the instinctive tendencies of the human frame.
All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals.
Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender.
For it is all give and no take.
All the religions of the world, while they may differ in other respects, unitedly proclaim that nothing lives in this world but Truth.
Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed.
Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.
Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.
An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.
An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Europe's virus victims revealed

Security firms have seen an increasing number of viruses targeting mobile devices
Almost one third of internet users in the European Union caught a PC virus despite the majority having security software installed, statistics show.
Viruses were most prevalent in Bulgaria and Hungary, the survey of 30 countries reveals.
The 2010 figures, released by the EU's statistics office to mark Internet Safety Day, show the safest countries were Austria and Ireland.
The figures also detail financial losses online.
They show that 3% of net users in the 27 EU states lost money due to phishing attacks or fraudulent payments.
EU countries with highest virus infections
Bulgaria (58%)
Slovakia (47%)
Hungary (46%)
Italy (45%)
Estonia (43%)
Source: Eurostat
Phishing involves using fake websites to lure people into revealing details such as bank accounts or login names.
Latvia recorded the highest rate of this kind of fraud with 8% of its internet users affected, followed by the United Kingdom (7%), Malta and Austria (both 5%).
The survey covered more than 200,000 computer users across the 27 countries in the European Union and was conducted during the second quarter of 2010.
The EU statistics office said the survey results were probably lower than actual infection rates as the numbers only included users who realised they had an infection.
Although the EU figures focus on viruses that infect PCs, security firms have warned that other devices now face similar threats.
EU countries with lowest virus infections
Austria (14%)
Ireland (15%)
Finland (20%)
Germany (22%)
Netherlands (23%)
Source: Eurostat
In its fourth-quarter threat report for 2010, security firm Mcafee said that it has seen a 46% increase in malware that targets smartphones, compared to the same period in 2009.
Numbers suggest that smartphones are becoming more widespread than PCs, meaning they are becoming an increasingly lucrative target for scammers and hi-tech thieves.
Manufacturers shipped 100.9 million smartphones globally in the fourth quarter, compared to 92 million PCs, according to research firm IDC.
Much of the malware targeting smartphones was spread via PDFs and Flash software, Mcafee said.
However, the number of infections targeting mobile devices is still relatively small, with just 967 threats recorded by Mcafee in the fourth quarter of 2010.
In early January, according to some estimates, the number of viruses targeting PCs hit 50 million.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Water you pay for

In the last 40 years the bottled water industry has gone from a business prospect that few took seriously, to a global industry worth billions of pounds.

The commodity itself remains simple.

The way we think about it has changed fundamentally.

Water is natural, pure and sourced at minimal cost.

Its real value lies in its marketing and branding.

"I think bottled water is the most revealing substance for showing us how the global capitalist market works today," says Richard Wilk, professor of anthropology at Indiana University.

In a sense we're buying choice, we're buying freedom.

That's the only thing that can explain why you would pay money for a bottle of something that you can otherwise get for free.

Glass being filled with water from the tap

Consumers used to prefer free tap water to expensive bottled water

Through a confection of advertising and marketing, bottled water has become one of the biggest success stories in the modern food and beverage industry.

The demand for bottle water has grown exponentially in the last few decades, says Dr Peter Gleick, author of Bottled and Sold.

It's doubled, it's doubled again and it's doubled again.

And the bottle water companies see enormous markets not just in the rich countries but also in the poorer countries."

'No actual variety'

Given that water is such a fundamental resource and a matter of life and death, and given that it is such an abundant commodity to many and so scarce to others.

It has become emblematic of capitalism and trade in a way that other parts of the food and beverage industry have not.

Some people think that bottled water is the high point of global capitalism, particularly the people in the bottled water business, says Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst.

I think bottled water actually represents a kind of caricature of… the global economy.

It provides people in the developed world with 20 or 30 varieties of something for which there is no actual variety."

Perrier being poured into a glass

Perrier used slick advertising to make bottled water fashionable

At the beginning there really was no variety and the bottled water phenomenon began with one brand.

Perrier was a triumph of advertising, creating a brand that was to define a generation.

At the heart of the campaign to make the brand popular was Richard Wheatley, of the Leo Burnett advertising agency between 1979 and 1994.

Perrier popularised bottled water.

It made it acceptable, more than acceptable, it made it… desirable.

But it was not an instant success.

When Perrier UK was looking to increase its sales in the early 1970's, it faced a sceptical public.

Many questioned why anyone would buy water when you could get it free from the tap.

Faced with such obstacles, Perrier turned to advertising with a campaign that was to change our consumer landscape for ever.

"The water comes from France, of course, but the English and the French aren't that good friends," recalls Wenche Marshall Foster, former chief executive of Perrier UK.

So we thought rather than saying this is from France we sold this much more vague feeling of oh it's French, Frenchness, Frenchness is good, it's chic, it's everything that we English maybe would like to be.

Trendy drink The Eau campaign was a marketing coup and sales went through the roof from 12 million bottles in 1980 to 152 million by the end of the decade.

A little girl drinks water from a tap at a refugee camp 20 kilometres south of the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq

Getting enough water is a struggle for more than a billion people in the world

Perrier was no longer just a bottle of water.

The marketing and advertising teams had established a crucial emotional link between the product and the consumers.

Perrier became a badge, says Michael Bellas, chairman of the Beverage Marketing Corporation

When you held a Perrier bottle up, it said something about yourself, it said you were sophisticated, you… understood what was happening in the world.

It was a perfect beverage for the young up and coming business executives, the trend-setters.

Where Perrier went the rest of the industry jumped in and product ranges and brand proliferation followed.

Before long, the market in still water became extremely important.

In an age of instant gratification, still water in portable bottles provided what people needed, exactly when they needed it.

People in general are more and more time pressed, says Mr Fishman.

We don't cook our own meals any more, we eat prepared foods of all kinds.

And there's nothing more appealing than a bottle of cold water at a moment when you're really thirsty.

But I think bottled water is one of those products that on many occasions when people buy it, what they're buying isn't the water so much as the bottle.

That is the package and the convenience at that moment.

Man drinking bottled water

Consumers buy convenience rather than just water

Strong, shatterproof and a highly valued form of polyester, PET is a by-product of the oil industry.

It is now utilised in the packaging of everything from pharmaceuticals and soap, to ready meals.

When people bought this convenience, what they were really buying was Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET, the single most important innovation in the industry's history.
In years to come, the environmental impact of PET would haunt the industry and raise questions about its very survival, but in the 1990s this was a revolution.

According to Mr Bellas it was behind the subsequent incredible growth of the industry.

Starting with the introduction of the small premium PET waters, the category started to explode, says Mr Bellas.

The bottled water industry before PET on the list of all beverage categories was number seven.

With the advent of PET, water jumped… to the number two spot… behind carbonated soft drinks.

Health and wellness In the late 1980s, the French brand Evian recognised the growing, wider health and fitness trend and exploited it to the full by marketing their bottled water the ultimate health and wellness product.

Evian was sold as a beautiful person's drink.

The early Evian ads featured absolutely gorgeous people working out or just after working out in their sweaty and skin tight clothes.

It was a way of saying if you want to be fit, if you want to be healthy, if you want to be attractive, drink Evian - and by drinking Evian you will be those things.

The link between bottled water and the health and wellness movement was a recipe for success.

Between 1990 and the turn of the century, global sales of Evian doubled from 50 billion to more than 100 billion litres a year.

For some, the choice and freedom is worth the price asked.

For others, it represents the excess and inequality of the modern world; a world where nearly a billion people have no access to clean water at all.

We cannot lose sight of the ultimate absurdity of the bottle water industry, says Mr Wilk.

Here we have a world where people are dying of thirst, where people lack… the clean water to feed their children and we're spending billions of dollars and huge amounts of energy moving water from… people who already have it to other people who already have it.

As our consumer attitudes have changed, criticism of the industry has only intensified.

At the heart of the matter is what bottled water is actually made of, oil and water; the world's two most precious resources, in one neat package.

The industry really wants to address these environmental concerns head on and it is doing everything it can to help resolve them, says analyst Richard Hall from Zenith International.

It can only play a part in the wider picture, but it's certainly doing a lot to help deal with the problem. The environment matters to this industry because it's their future."

By branding and marketing water, it has been transformed from something that many of us took for granted into a product that now makes billions for global multinational companies.

But like all products, its success is driven by consumer demand.

Some people… want to consider the bottled water industry as a marketing trick foisted upon consumers," says Kim Jeffery, chief executive of Nestle Waters in North America.

I wish I was that good or had that much money.

That is not a marketing feed, that's consumers voting with their purchases and their pocket books.

Consumers make that decision that day

Another product central to society which did not exist in this form thirty years ago