Journal

It was a curiously melancholic week leaving much to reflect on. The passing of Professor Stephen Hawking attracted the kind of attention that such a full life deserved but one which will only be seen in it’s true perspective with the passage of time, and how appropriate is that. When I heard the news I resolved to write a blog post about him which would have been wholly inappropriate coming from someone who barely scraped a ‘C’ pass in physics O-Level and who hardly understood anything in A Brief History of Time except the punctuation. I was anyway only going to highlight three points. That Professor Hawking proved to us all that even the most catastrophic physical disability need be no reason to  dim the lights on the human spirit and soul, that he opened the door to science for many, many school students across the world bringing vision and excitement to the most complex of theories and of course, that it is rare for any generation to live with one of the ‘Greats,’ among us. Fortunately for my readers, my friend Ilyas Khan, who is chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, gave an appropriately eloquent and loving tribute to the man in a BBC television interview. It is well worth watching.

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

On Thursday I learned that a very old friend and mentor from my days as a young soldier and junior NCO in the RHF was moving from hospital to a hospice. We haven’t seen each other for half a lifetime but an exchange of texts, (he was unable to talk), brought many happy memories back. Happy, incidentally, is a relative term. In this case we’re talking about a shared brew in a downpour, which only served to wash away some of the week long oil and mud encrusted grime on the North German plain, a quick joke at the gates before a patrol in Armagh or our epic double act at the Battalion Christmas Concert in Hemer in 1979. It should have won a BAFTA but the judges didn’t much get round the lively regimental cabaret scene that was BAOR.

Andrew White

Andrew White

Friday and a drive down to Cirencester to attend a memorial service for another Army chum who sadly died last month after fighting a bastard brain tumour over the past two years. He saw it off for much longer than was expected but that rather summed up his go-forward never-look-back approach to life. Tenacious, bordering on obstinate, he was never going to detune his approach to the world because of some irritable health issue. The memorial service was genuinely thoughtful and therefore memorable. There were a few tears, many more light hearted moments with some moments of quiet reflection on the passing of a strong personality. His three children spoke wonderfully well. They were warm, engaging and witty. As I listened I thought, ‘Andrew, that’s your legacy right there.’ Afterward, as we chatted over drinks, I heard voices and saw faces together I haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years. At one point I closed my eyes and thought, ‘this could so easily be then not now.’ Overall, I think I rather prefer memorial services to funerals when the grief is simply too raw to engage with the family on any level. I would prefer of course, not to go to any, as would we all. I have already lost more of my Army contemporaries than is fair or reasonable. 

twickenham.jpg

Saturday saw a really rather chilly and wintry trip to Twickenham, the best part of which was the apres’ in the car park before the match. A memorial service for English rugby might be an appropriate next step but as a friend said, ‘it’s a good thing it’s only a game.’ Having deluded ourselves over the past twelve months that the dark days of 2015 were far behind us this Six Nations has been an absolute shocker. While the rest have swiftly caught up with England our team have gone into reverse. Whatever the coaches and players say our boys simply looked knackered. They lacked a yard of pace, any fizz or imagination. It is an uncomfortable truth for the RFU that in pursuit of greater revenue they, and Premiership rugby, are driving English players into the ground. Players need some down-time. What made the game more unpalatable was the £130 that my ticket cost. Thats £1.62 per minute of play and on the basis of what I watched on Saturday has no justification. Obviously, I got to sit just a few seats away from the noisiest and most animated Irishman in the ground but I can live with that. They earned their moment. I was left pondering on the way home though the wisdom of taking Mrs Flashbang to Twickenham in the snow for a birthday treat. For the same money we could have enjoyed the 8 course tasting menu with wine at our local Michelin starred restaurant. Life is all about choices.

Quantum Computing; Gamechanger

What in the devil are the boffins cooking up now?

Quantum Computing is a pretty mainstream subject in both the academic and research communities, (which I guess are really the same thing), but has yet to ping popular imagination. It will. 

Anyone laughing will be thrown out of the class

I described it to the kids thus, “Believe me kids; this thing is going to be a game changer. The way you look at me blankly when I say my first computer had 128k of memory……… had no mobiles, no internet, no switch cards, (there was something infinitely more elegant about paying a restaurant bill with a cheque), no digital photography, had to go to the television to change channels, no satellite television, no GPS … blah blah – well, your kids will do the same because they’ll be from the Quantum Age, not the old fashioned Digital Age.”

My understanding of Quantum Computing is close to that of a babbling 9 month old baby but I’m tracking it and working my way up toward being a fully functioning and coherent 24 month old toddler in computing terms. If you're the same, the introductory video above presents a starter for ten.

There are lots of resources available on the web for those who care to look but this piece by Ilyas Khan, CEO of Cambridge Quantum Computing serves as a pretty good orientation piece for us non scientists and sets the scene perfectly,

2015 - the year of Quantum Computing

Richard Feynman, the great American physicist, famously popularised the notion of Quantum Computing in 1982. In the 3 decades since that time, the prospect of a computer that captures, manipulates and controls sub-atomic particles in a manner such that data can be encoded and retrieved in ways that expand beyond ready comprehension the complexity of computational problems, and deliver results in time frames that seem more akin to science fiction than fact, has remained largely elusive. Research and development has been the domain of university labs and occasional multi-agency projects, with an obvious and understandable concentration of energy around matters of national security given the fact that quantum communications will render obsolete existing methods and devices.

That things were starting to change only gradually became apparent in the past 24 to 36 months. A startling series of engineering advances and the slow realisation that large corporations have been allocating serious resources to this sector has meant that a quantum computer is no longer seen as belonging on the pages of a science fiction novel.

The pace of change (or at least the pace at which new advances have received a public audience) has shifted rather dramatically. Time chose to adorn a cover page with a quantum computer just about a year ago and within the last quarter of 2014 Microsoft, Google, IBM and Toshiba all announced, commented on or unveiled aspects of there Quantum Computing projects.

When quantum computers emerge into common usage (and it is now only a question of when, not if), the machines will benefit from developments in quantum mechanics that span the post second world war period. From the monumental shift of understanding represented by quantum tunnelling (Brian Josephson won a Nobel prize for his work in this area and this link to an article in Physics World is very accessible ), to IBM's Bennett who is credited with the reversible gate  , or the advances represented by Shor's algorithm  and Kitaev's work on toplogical quantum computing, the past two years in particular have seen a convergence of academic work with early commercialisation.

Despite this, the vast majority of us are blissfully unaware of these developments that have been described as having an influence on human kind that will ultimately rival that of the industrial revolution. Perhaps Arkwright's machine and Stephenson's engine were equally remote from people's everyday lives when they were first unveiled.

There is no way in which the hugely diverse (and hugely competitive) work that is being done by corporate organisations and governments who are in a race, can be hidden for much longer. They are in a race not only to be first, but a race not to be left behind.

The Chinese factor looms large in this context. China has officially stated that there is simply no budget (note, not that there is no limit to a budget, but that there is simply no budget and whatever is required to be spent will be spent) and the longest and most advanced quantum communications link has been completed in China through a "pipe" that links Beijing with Shanghai. The Chinese project on Quantum Computing is not only large and well funded, but also covers much more than national security. Watch out for a great deal more news emerging from Chinese groups.

The early front runner in making actual machines is a North American effort that is funded by the private sector (Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs and VC firm Draper Fisher amongst others) and In-Q-Tel the investment arm of the CIA. After three years during which the company has endured the brickbats of academia for not being able to adequately and consistently display quantum speedup, D-Wave in late 2014 promised a new version of their quantum computer with a 1024 bit CPU that they claim will radically alter the landscape. Regardless however of D-Wave, the stakes are now considerably higher. Microsoft, through their effort named "Station Q" have already built an initial operating system that they have named LiquI> (pronounced liquit with the notation fashioned after the symbol for the Ket Vector). Google have gone public with their ambitious effort led by John Martinis described by Technology Review as "changing computing forever and perhaps in financial terms, the most obviously significant efforts were announced by IBM in a US$3bn effort.

Companies as diverse as Intel, Qualcomm, CISCO and Toshiba have their very futures at stake and whilst its not obvious how they are reacting, the one thing that is very clear is that they have stopped simply "observing". And finally, in perhaps the truest sign that quantum computing is no longer an academic exercise, a clutch of start ups have come into existence with more almost certainly to emerge.

2015 will be the year that Quantum Computing comes into the mainstream, and we all need to know what is happening.

Ilyas Khan (Cambridge Quantum Computing)  

 

The Club That Wouldn't Die

 

 

The City in general and "bankers," in particular are enjoying an uncommonly bad press these days. Much of it is deserved but the blanket industry wide contempt displayed by it's critics is demonstrative only of their ignorance of the facts relating to the history of who the culprits are, and the political and regulatory culpability for the economic stresses that have resulted. Moreover, a failure to acknowledge the economic primacy of the City makes them fully paid up members of the Stupid Club for without it, like it or not, the British economy will lose it's engine room and the State will have far less money to squander than it presently enjoys.

I've been in the City long enough to have a good idea of the charitable giving that is a historic part of City life. It's not a new thing, it's not giving derived from guilt, it's simply always been an accepted, and expected, part of working in any one of the various strands of the City.

(Indeed, our own holidays4heroes is generously part funded by friends and clients in the Square Mile and one of the Livery Companies).

One such generous soul is my friend Ilyas Khan. In a tale that will resonate with any lover of football traditions, Ilyas has worked hard and donated generously over the years, (over £2m), to keep the football club of his home town out of administration. Step forward one of the 12 founding football league clubs, Accrington Stanley. 

The club is now debt free and Ilyas is working hard with his board to fund a new stadium for the club. To that end, the club is offering shares to supporters in affordable parcels to enfranchise and secure the fan base and in doing so, secure long term stability for the club. Other funding will come from sponsors and Ilyas himself. You can read more about the project, and Ilyas, here.

The real point about what is going on in Accrington is that over the past couple of generations the old mill and mining towns of Lancashire have come under real social and economic pressure. As they have lost the traditional industries which created the glue that held the fabric of the communities together, there hasn't been an awful lot to maintain the old cohesion that perhaps is exemplified when we remember the men of the Accrington Pals and their like. Actually, towns like Accrington have been hammered.

Rather than talking about it, Ilyas is doing something about it for nothing more than affection and respect for his home town. I take my hat off to him.

Plucky and hopeless cause or noble and romantic undertaking? Time will tell.

If you're an inveterate supporter of the game, a Lancashire boy with too much pocket money or indeed, someone who actually lives in Accrington and supports the game you might consider buying a £100 worth of shares. You can do so here. I have and I don't even like football and I've never been to Accrington so I'll put myself in the "romantic supporters of plucky and hopeful causes," category. After all, it worked for Kevin............