Murray Gell-Mann

Nice obit of the great (but prickly) physicist in the New York Times. Excerpt:

Much as atoms can be slotted into the rows and columns of the periodic table of the elements, Dr. Gell-Mann found a way, in 1961, to classify their smaller pieces — subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, and mesons, which were being discovered by the dozen in cosmic rays and particle accelerator blasts. Arranged according to their properties, the particles clustered in groups of eight and 10.

In a moment of whimsy, Dr. Gell-Mann, who hadn’t a mystical bone in his body, named his system the Eightfold Way after the Buddha’s eight-step path to enlightenment. He groaned ever after when people mistakenly inferred that particle physics was somehow related to Eastern philosophy.

Looking deeper, Dr. Gell-Mann realized that the patterns of the Eightfold Way could be further divided into triplets of even smaller components. He decided to call them quarks after a line from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.”

With Dr. Gell-Mann at the forefront, physics took on a Joycean feel. Before long there were up quarks and down quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, all stuck together with particles called gluons. The funny nomenclature was as much a Gell-Mann inspiration as the mathematics.

Muster Mark must’ve been delighted.

Mayday, Mayday

Enoch Powell was right. All political careers end in failure. Or, to be precise,

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Size matters. (But so does speed)

Although I’ve been a relatively early-adopter (aka sucker) of tech gadgets for much of my adult life, I’ve generally been relatively slow to upgrade my mobile phones. One factor was that I moved from being on a mobile contract to buying the phones outright and choosing the mobile data deal that suited me best. (I make very few voice calls.) I had an iPhone 4 for years, and when I eventually moved to an iPhone 6 I kept that for years too, reviving it a year ago with a new battery. (It’s the one on the right in the picture.) But in recent years it’s become sluggish and I began to find it increasingly hard on my ageing eyesight. I resisted the temptation to move to an iPhone X for various reasons: the outrageous prices, for one; and, more importantly, I don’t like Face ID and find fingerprint authentication very convenient for the few security-conscious services that I use.

So I had more or less resigned myself to soldiering on with the 6. After all, it did the jobs I needed it to do. And if I needed to read, there was always my iPad. But then I had a conversation with a friend who’d also had an iPhone 6 for years and whose circumstances had recently changed. He’s been spending a lot of time in hospital in the last six months, and didn’t want to be lugging around a laptop, or indeed even an iPad. He’d found, though, that it’s very difficult to run a busy life on such a small phone. So he bought a used iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon.

Next time we met, he extolled the virtues of the bigger format. It made it much easier to browse and to use web-forms, he reported. He found it easier to keep on top of his (formidable) email load — which he would normally have managed on a laptop. And the phone was quicker — a lot quicker — than his iPhone 6.

I followed his example and bought an iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon. My conclusion: it was good advice. The phone came with a year’s guarantee. It has a much faster processor. Web browsing is easier. The camera is a lot better. My email response rate has improved. I make fewer typing mistakes. And I’m using my iPad less. There are still things it’s useless for — blogging, for example. But overall, it’s been a revelation. It’ll do me for a few years, I think.

The significance of the WhatsApp hack

This morning’s Observer column:

When Edward Snowden broke cover in the summer of 2013 and a team of Guardian journalists met up with him in his Hong Kong hotel, he insisted not only that they switch off their mobile phones but also that they put the devices into a fridge. This precaution suggested that Snowden had some special insight into the hacking powers of the NSA, specifically that the agency had developed techniques for covertly taking over a mobile phone and using it as a tracking and recording device. To anyone familiar with the capabilities of agencies such as the NSA or GCHQ, this seemed plausible. And in fact, some years later, such capabilities were explicitly deemed necessary and permissible (as “equipment interference”) in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

When Snowden was talking to the reporters in Hong Kong, WhatsApp was a four-year-old startup with an honest business model (people paid for the app), about 200m active users and a valuation of $1.5bn. In February 2014, Facebook bought the company for $19bn and everything changed. WhatsApp grew exponentially to its present ubiquity: it has more than 1.5 billion users and has spread like a rash over the entire planet.

Among its attractions is that it offers users effortless end-to-end encryption for their communications, thereby enhancing their privacy…

Read on