Sunday, April 4, 2010

Coincidence? I don't *THINK* so (Part 1 of 2)

Let's do an experiment. You can just do it in your head if you like, or go out and do it for real if you're feeling scientisty.
  1. On a clear, starlit night, go stand in the middle of a field, with your arms hanging loosely by your sides
  2. Looking up at the stars, start to spin around (Try not to fall!)
  3. Notice your arms going up. Notice the starscape spinning above you.
  4. Think, "Coincidence? I don't THINK so"
That's Mach's Principle. The arms raising while the starscape spins is not a coincidence. Isn't this fun! Here's another one. You probably won't want to do this for real:
  1. Go find a copy of each of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions published from 1665 to 1850
  2. Arrange them into piles, against a wall. One pile per decade, with the 1660s on the left and the 1850s on the right
  3. Take a marker, and put a dot on the wall at the top of each pile
  4. Return the journals to from wherever you stole them
  5. Join the dots with your marker
  6. Stand back, and notice the way the piles grow in size (Hint: it looks vaguely exponential)
  7. Think, "Coincidence? I don't THINK so"
That's roughly what triggered Derek de Solla Price to develop a theory of the exponential growth of science. So, the moral of the stories so far is, be careful when coincidences appear, because they're not always so.

So, now consider:

Last week I was at the SNUG conference in San Jose, CA. It's a geek-heavy environment. Lots of planet-sized brains, discussing problems in semiconductor design so obscure as to be almost meaningless to the rest of the world. But we love it! Now, I've been going to such conferences for years. SNUG, DAC, DVCon, and so on. So on the one hand, I'm like the proverbial frog in the water being heated. Year-to-year changes may pass me unnoticed. On the other hand, I'm a contrarian b*st*rd and am always looking for weird, otherwise-unnoticed things. So ... well, you tell me. Here's what I noticed last week.

During one of the keynotes -- one of the major talks, with large audiences -- I, well I admit, I got a bit bored. So, I was looking around the large hall at the upturned faces, listening, enraptured by the speaker. And as I looked, from face to face, the question arose in my mind.

Where the hell am I? Is this actually San Jose, CA, USA? Or is it Bangalore? Or maybe Beijing? Because, politically correct or not, it's staring in the face anyone willing to look. The place was filled to the brim with Indian, and Chinese engineers, "native" (as in, *new* native) Americans seemed to be few and far between.

Coincidence? I don't THINK so.

This demands an explanation. Here we are in the USA, and the majority of people at that conference appeared *not* to be (at least originally) from the USA. What's going on? Now, I have a theory to offer as to why things should be as they are but that's for Part 2. I'll end this by pre-empting any kind of attacks of the "you're a racist" kind.

First, nothing in the above makes any value judgment on the presence of all those immigrants. But if you want a value judgment, I'll give you one. All them Indian and Chinese and (whatever) boys (and girls) are fine by me.

Second, *I'm* an immigrant. I may be white (OK, pink), and speak English like a native (albeit a Scot's accented one). But I'm just like those Indians, and Chinese (and Mexican, and ...). So, if *you've* got a problem with them, you've got a problem with me. And they're waaay politer than I am. So come and have a go only if you think you're hard enough.

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