Archive for August, 2008

Outlook Send-Mail Infinite Loop

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

Maybe Microsoft should move its headquarters to 1 Infinite Loop.

This morning, while trying to send out some mail in Microsoft’s Outlook 2007, I noticed that after nearly 10 minutes, the message I tried to send was still sitting in my Outbox.  When I clicked “Send/Receive,” like ya do, Outlook decided to get stuck in an infinite loop of trying to send, failing, and then trying again without any kind of warning, I racked up dozens of sendmail tasks in the “Send/Recieve Details” dialog in a few seconds.  I had to kill Outlook from the taskbar.  This was no ordinary glitch: I tried restarting Outlook, switching back and forth from Offline Mode, and sending from a different account, to no avail.

Creating a new message, readdressing, and copying and pasting my email contents into the new message seemed to work.  Although, I can’t help but wonder if several of my friends got multiple (hopefully not dozens!) of copies of the email.

Then later, it happened again!

Long story short, after some furious google searching, I found some hints of explanation.  It seems that sometimes (perhaps due to ActiveSync tomfoolery) the Address Book in Outlook gets corrupted, and some display names are orphaned, no longer associated with an email address.  When you address an email to one of these orphaned names and click send, it sets Outlook into this infinite loop.

This is a pretty huge failwhale on Microsoft’s part on several levels.

Firstly, the Address Book, “what about it?” you ask.  “Isn’t that just your Contacts folder?”  As far as I can tell, no.  The Address Book is some vestigal part of Outlook code which is what is actually invoked to translate names into email addresses, rather than just using the Contacts database directly.  No one ever opens their Address Book, so far as I can tell (although there is a shortcut for it: Ctrl+Shift+B).  Everyone manages their contacts and email addresses in the contacts folder, and behind the scenes Outlook relies on some software scorcery to keep the two in synch.  Obviously, this breaks from time-to-time.  From a humane computing perspective, this is particularly cruel—creating two places to keep email addresses when one would do. Then, allowing the synchronization break without any warning until it causes a problem like:

The Infinite Loop: Seriously, Microsoft, when a display name pulls up a null from the Address Book, the best you can think to do is just try the whole send-mail process over again?  No error message, no looking to the Contacts folder for the address, no prompting the user for how to handle this, just keep banging your head into the wall.

And not only that, but the most information I can find about it on Microsoft’s site is from a post in October 2007 to Microsoft’s forums.  This means that this bug has been burning people for nearly a year with no visible action on Microsoft.  No Knowledge Base article explaining a work around, just some forum posts to wade through to try and pick the most appropriate solution.

For those who came via google or elsewhere looking for a solution, I’ll explain what I did to (hopefully) clear it up.  Basically, we’re going to manually clean up the Address Book.  This will be fine if there are only a few entries that need cleaning; I had about 2 dozen, If there are lots that are b0rked on yours, you might want to try some ideas listed in this thread.

  1. Go to Offline mode (File -> Work Offline), and delete any offending messages from the Outbox.  Save the text first, so you can resend, by copying and pasting into Notepad or similar.
  2. Open the Address Book (note: this is not the same as the Contacts folder).  Tools -> Address Book, or Ctrl+Shift+B.
  3. You should see a list of names, display names, and email addresses.  Corrupt entries will be any that have the email field left blank.  Note that any Contacts you have which don’t have email addresses saved should not appear on this list at all, so anything with a blank email address is a corrupted entry.
  4. Find a corrupted name, and then close the Address Book, go to your Contacts and open the entry for the name you found.  You’re going to copy the email address to the clipboard (Ctrl+C), clear the email field, then save the contact without an email address.  Then reopen the contact and paste the email address back in place (Ctrl+V), and save again.  This should recreate the entry in the Address Book with the correct email address.
  5. Rinse, repeat until all corrupt entries are fixed.  (You can ignore Distribution Lists, they won’t have an email address listed.)

Shame on you, Microsoft, for wasting over an hour of my time diagnosing and repairing Outlook from a bug that should have been fixed months ago.

Who are IARPA?

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Quantum computing has had the attention of the US Government for over a decade, ever since the discovery that quantum computers could be used to break a widely used cypher.  The cypher, called RSA, forms the cryptographic backbone of secure communication on the web.  If you’ve ever typed a URL that started with https:// (the ‘s’ standing for secure), or seen that little padlock symbol in the corner of your browser, then you’ve almost certainly used this cypher.  But RSA is used for more then just securing your credit card details when you buy a DVD on Amazon; it’s used by governments, financial institutions, corporations, activists, freedom fighters, and terrorist groups.  And, for an intelligence gathering service like the NSA or CIA, it is presumably a huge thorn in their side.

Quantum computing is my area of research, and I have a little known organization in US Government to thank for the grant money that pays for my work in Oxford.  (Well, both them and my supervisors here in Oxford who won the grant and recruited me.)

Amusingly, this organization has managed to shift through three different names since our grant started 3 years ago.  It was originally called the Advanced Research Development Activity (ARDA).

Then, sometime between Oxford winning the grant and my arrival, the organization was renamed to the Disruptive Technology Office (DTO).  This was easily my favorite of the three.  By disruptive technology they presumably mean technologies which fundamentally change the way we do important things: in our case, the way people communicate on the internet.  However, when ever I heard Disruptive Technology Office, all I could imagine is a nondescript brick building in DC somewhere.  It’s nice and peaceful, unobtrusive on the outside, and there’s a pleasant receptionist in the atrium.  Then you descend down an elevator, doors slide open and there is absolute bedlam: sirens blaring, flashing spinning lights, klaxon horns, and people throwing papers in the air, running around with their arms overhead screaming, “shiiit! shiiiiiit!”

I’m sure it’s nothing like that.

There was yet another restructuring, with the DTO being folded into a new organization called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).  To my continuing amusement, they pronounce it like pirates: yarpa! The name is meant to conjure up ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, who brought you fun projects like the Internet.  ARPA today is called DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is funded by the Dept. of Defence.  IARPA is funded by, you guessed it, the Director of National Intelligence.  Wired Magazine describes IARPA as “like DARPA, but for spies.

I got a chance to go to an IARPA meeting, but sadly, “James Bond shit” (as it’s so marvelously put by Willem Dafoe in The Boondock Saints) was notably absent from the proceedings.  It was a program review of their funding efforts in quantum computing, and the most respected scientists in our field being there gave me a good idea of how influential they are in pushing the development of quantum computing technology.  But, as I said, there was no cloak and dagger—this was a meeting of scientists.  All this funding is happening in the open, with no restrictions on publishing.

There’s no doubt that the US intelligence community would love to be able to develop quantum computing technology for its code-breaking abilities.  Once it’s developed, whether or not they think they can keep it out of the hands of America’s adversaries is anyone’s guess.  Assuming the NSA doesn’t already have a quantum computer, the state of cryptography appears to be heavily favoring the cypher-makers, rather than the cypher-breakers.  Perhaps they think that quantum computers, even if we’re not the only ones to have them, might tilt the scales back in favor of intelligence gatherers.

Photosynth of Oriel First Quad

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I couldn’t help but put together a nice “synth” of Oriel College’s First Quad in Photosynth. My main camera is down at the moment, so it was the trusty iPhone to the challenge. Since they’re mostly viewed onscreen, it turns out that the iPhone does make pretty decent fodder for the “synther.” However, I did want some nicer pics, so I hopped in Flickr and dug out some Creative Commons licensed photos.

Don’t be shy about photos for this task, I took well over 100 for what amounts to little more than a big box. In contrast, I took over 150 of our experimental apparatus, which is considerably more complex, and ‘synth only managed to stitch together a quarter or so. I’ll post a link to that synth when I’m happy with it; but it will probably require considerably more photos, more planning, or both.

Once the photos are on your hard-drive, it’s actually stupidly easy to turn them into a synth like the one you see before you.  You just fire up Photosynth (a free, but Windows-only, downloadable program), select your photos, give your synth a name, and click go.  You don’t have to do any work with lining up the photos or setting up the space you’re trying to create.  Synth just munches on them for a while (a long while: 10 minutes or so at nearly full CPU utilization and 100′s of MB of memory on a Core 2 Duo system), and then uploads the results to their site to view.

It’s rare that a piece of web tech lets you put together something so impressive so quickly and easily.  Just wow.  My biggest complaint about the service so far is just the lack of support for operating systems other than WIndows.

Photosynth makes me want to take pictures again

Monday, August 25th, 2008

If you don’t have access to a Windows installation, this post is not for you (yet, Microsoft claims to be working on a Mac version), sorry!

Photosynth is really cool.  It’s a tool from Microsoft to visualize spatial environments using overlapping photos. It really is something else—way better than a static slideshow, it manages to give you an idea of space and volume by stitching together an environment from different views.

It makes me want to go out and take some photos of Oxford. If I have a chance tomorrow, maybe I’ll shoot a couple dozen views of Oriel’s quad, and then see how easy it is to put together a visualization. In the meantime, enjoy the Taj Mahal as seen by National Geographic photographers.

SpeedLaunch is like Enso Launcher, but not quasimodal

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Microsoft’s Office Labs has posted a tool for launching programs called SpeedLaunch.  Now, there are a lot of launchers out there, as the creators of SpeedLaunch point out on their blog.  What seems unique about theirs, they say, is the drag-n-drop functionality for creating shortcuts: you get a big ‘ole target in the corner of your screen, right above the taskbar.

On the whole, SpeedLaunch seems much less powerful that something like Enso, which automatically scans your startmenu for programs, instead of making you add them manually, and includes commands far, far beyond just launching programs.  SpeedLaunch’s use of a mouse-driven, modal interface will also make it considerably slower that Enso, which becomes almost second nature in a few weeks of use.

Still, if you haven’t yet tried Enso because the text-based input puts you off, (and, you’re on Windows) give SpeedLaunch a go.

Email is a noisy channel

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Photo by jek-a-go-go, CC Licensed

We’re used to computers zapping data back and forth with (mostly) perfect integrity. When you send a email, there’s no doubt that it will reach your intended recipient with all your crafty sentences completely intact.

But!, even though your computers are good at transferring the information without loosing any, your recipient probably isn’t. Humans don’t remember everything they read, if they read the entire contents of your email in the first place. Being an effective communicator over email means treating it as a noisy channel; a lossy medium. You have to assume that parts of your message won’t get through. Things that aren’t emphasized won’t get remembered; things at the end of a long message won’t get read. Some of your recipients will be so overloaded with email, or neglect it to such an extent that you will be lucky if they open it at all.

So what’s a sender to do? You can employ some strategies analogous to how computers transmit error-free messages across noisy channels.

  • Structure your messages so that they degrade gracefully—put the most critical information early in the message and emphasize it. Put the punchline in the subjectline or as the first line of the message. If you’re making more than one point in your email, make sure they are self contained: don’t leave a critical detail that changes the meaning of the message for the end.
  • Keep things as brief as you can. This will make it less likely that particularly busy recipients will put off reading your email until later, then forget about it.
  • Redundancy. Put an executive summary at the top of your email (preferred) or a punchy conclusion at the bottom. Or, as much as I hate to admit it, you can send reminder emails.

Email is a powerful medium because it’s so easy to send stuff down the pipes, but this is a double edged sword. If you want your message to be received error-free, you’ll need to put in some effort in making it well crafted. And if your message is very important, resist the urge to put “IMPORTANT” in the subject line, or add that annoying red exclamation mark of “High Priority.” Consider redundancy in channels as well—use the bulletin board, intranet, RSS feeds, Twitter, or even a good old fashioned phone tree to get the word out. If you don’t know the recipient and their email habits well, then prepare for the worst.

Photo by Jek-a-go-go, CC Licensed.

The lives and observations of quantum cats

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

Why won’t physicists leave these poor cats alone?! Is it dead? Alive? Both?

As if the ideas about where quantum mechanics melds into classical physics weren’t already confusing enough, new experimental work seems to confirm the theory that the transition from multiple possibilities to a single observed outcome is far from instantaneous and is, in some cases, reversible. In my previous post I described the old standard quantum mechanics view of the instantaneous collapse of possibilities at the moment of observation—but the modern view is that this is far from the whole story. It turns out that these observations, or measurements in physics parlance, can vary in “strength” depending on how much information they give us about the state of the system.

To illustrate this point, I’ll appeal to a famous thought experiment put forth by a skeptical Erwin Schrödinger, now known as Schrödinger’s Cat: imagine an experiment where an ordinary housecat is placed in a large steel box, along with what Schrödinger called a “diabolical” device consisting of a single atom of a radioactive substance, a detector, and a phial of poison gas. When the atom decays radioactively the detector goes off and smashes the phial, killing the cat. The box is sealed, and the experimenters/cat detractors wait until the probability that the atom has decayed is one half.

N.B. depending on the species of atom, they could be waiting anywhere from nanoseconds to several billion years.

They then ask the question, how do we describe the state of the cat? Classically, we’d say that the cat is either alive or dead, with 50% chance each. Quantum mechanics says that since we haven’t opened the box and observed the cat yet, it is in an equal “superposition” of alive and dead, which is to say, some weird quantum state of both at the same time. Since when opening the box, the state “collapses” to either alive or dead, you might ask what possible difference could it make how you describe the cat?, half the time it will be alive, half the time dead.

This is where things get tricksey. Imagine that, instead of opening the box, I put my ear to the side and listen. Cats meow occasionally, when they’re alive, and don’t when they’re dead. So if I hear a meow, then I can safely assume that the cat is alive. But, what if I hear nothing? I don’t know for sure that the cat is dead, since it might have simply chosen not to meow while I was listening. However, the fact that I didn’t hear anything still gives me some information about what’s happening in the box. In quantum mechanics, this is called a weak measurement. I now expect to be more likely to find a dead cat in the box by virtue of my measurement of hearing nothing. If I had a well characterized cat, which meows randomly at a certain average rate, then I could calculate new probabilities of the cat being alive or dead.

This is, in effect, what experimenters at UC Santa Barbara have done. Their “cat” is a loop of superconductor whose electrical properties can be in one of two different states, labeled 0 and 1 for this discussion. They prepare the loop in a superposition of 0 and 1 using a pulse of radio waves. They then perform a weak measurement of the system, where if the state is 1, they have some probability to detect it, like the cat meowing if it is alive. If the state is 0, then they will detect nothing. They then perform a full “strong” measurement, which detects either 0 or 1 (equivalent to opening the box). For the runs where they detected nothing during the weak measurement, they were more likely to get a 0 during the final measurement.

So far, so good, but this is where it gets interesting. They then added a second radio pulse to their procedure after the weak measurement. The effect of this second pulse is to swap states 0 and 1, so if the cat was dead, it would get reincarnated, but if alive, it would be killed (and here the prospects for doing this with actual cats probably end). They then performed the same weak measurement on the loop after the swap. For the runs where both weak measurements detected nothing, the final state was exactly the original, equal superposition of 0 and 1!

The weak measurements only partially collapsed the quantum state, leaving it in a state which was not an equal superposition, but which could be reversibly “uncollapsed” by performing the same weak measurement on the other state. We used to think, according to the “standard” interpretation of quantum mechanics that the measurement induced collapse was both instantaneous and irreversible, but new experiments in this realm are forcing us to reconsider!

- – - -

The original paper, published to the arXiv. Read this if you’re a physicist, or are hardcore.

Nature News article about this research. This is behind a paywall. Oxford people should read it fine if you’re on campus or the VPN. Others, ask your respective institutions/employers. Read this if you’re a scientist.

Science Daily article about this research. Read this if you’re interested, but don’t have a science background.

Quantum cards and dice

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

While Einstein is best remembered by the general public for his theory of relativity, this was largely complete by 1916. Quantum mechanics, by that time, was only just beginning to be developed into a full, general theory. Einstein made important contributions to quantum mechanics early on, in 1905 using the hypothesis that light is quantized to explain the photoelectric effect (Nobel prize!), and spent much of the later part of his career thinking and writing about quantum mechanics. He was a vocal critic of the way quantum mechanics describes the universe—notably the fact that quantum mechanics is inherently non-deterministic in the sense that it can, in general, only predict the probability that a certain outcome will happen, regardless of how much is known about the system and its initial state. This is the origin of the now famous (and often paraphrased) remark

I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.

Einstein argued that quantum mechanics must be an incomplete description of reality, and that there must be additional information, termed “hidden variables,” which determine the course of events, and which are as of yet, inaccessible to our scrutiny. It’s hard to argue with this view. How can one make the case that in calculating a quantum mechanical probability we then know all that we ever can know about the future of our system? How can we say that there isn’t just a little bit more beneath the surface which is not yet within reach of our instruments?

Steven Nickells, CC Licensed Photo

Quantum mechanics introduces an unsettling moment of truth: a nanoscale Seldon Crisis in which the system goes from having many possible outcomes to just one. This moment of actually throwing the proverbial dice occurs (according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics during Einstein’s lifetime) at the instant in which the system is observed. At that instant the system collapses from many possibilities, with one being chosen at random to be the outcome actually observed. The illusion of determinism comes from things which are more or less constantly observed. They are simply not left unperturbed long enough for the hallmarks of quantum mechanical behavior to disturb that illusion.

With this observation effect, it seems as if the results of measurements do not exist independently—they don’t come into being, they are not “real” until the results are actually observed. This is a hard thing to get one’s mind around. Quantum mechanics seems to say that there is no independent, objective reality without observation (there is a great deal of philosophical work these days to try to resolve this without invoking Einstein’s “hidden variables,” but most of it is beyond my current understanding).

This is exactly the old “if a tree falls in the forest” question, but with an actual physical theory at the center of the (ostensibly) philosophical debate. Einstein said he believed that the moon continued to exist even when he wasn’t looking at it. If quantum mechanics is God throwing dice, then hidden variables are a bit like playing cards. You don’t know what card will come up when you say, “hit me,” but you can be reasonably assured that the outcome does actually exist before the card is turned over.

Photo by Steven Nickells, CC Licensed.

The quantum line in the sand

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

On the first day of undergraduate physics at Olin College, Mark Somerville, my professor drew the following diagram on the board:

In this course, he said, we’d be dealing with “big, slow stuff.”  The dividing line between slow and fast is pretty well defined, with fast being any sizable fraction of the speed of light (what fraction depends on how much precision you require).  However, the dividing line between small and big is a little muddier.  Traditionally, quantum mechanics is thought to be important mostly for sizes on the order of a single atom (less than 1 billionth of a meter).  However, the microscopic quantum effects play a huge role in large systems, such as the sun.  Without quantum mechanics, we could not explain nuclear fusion, or the series of dark bands (called absorption lines) observed when you split sunlight very carefully with a prism.  Or, more prosaically, the orange glow given off by sodium-vapor street lamps.

Still, the large scale motion of convection currents, solar flares and sunspots can be understood using classical physics.  The same goes for pretty much everything moving on scales larger than atomic dimensions—most of the time.  The tiniest speck of dust which can be seen under a microscope still behaves according to the laws of motion set out by Newton over 300 years ago.  In practice, the dividing line between “small” and “big” was somewhere on the order of 10 to 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter).

Or so we thought.

What the above diagram doesn’t do a good job demonstrating is that the theories are not really that separate.  Even though some of its early founders were skeptical of taking the puzzling and bizzare consequences of quantum mechanics too seriously, the modern view seems to be that quantum mechanics is the theory which accurately describes the world—on all length scales!  Quantum mechanics makes the correct predictions about the flight of a bumblebee or a diesel engine, at least in principle.  But it’s easy to demonstrate that quantum mechanics reduces, with incredible accuracy, to the old classical mechanics in most situations on large scales: physical laws which are much easier to apply.

In fact, quantum mechanics isn’t really a physical theory in the same way that relativity is—it’s more like a framework for creating physical theories.  Within this framework there have been several extremely successful theories, like quantum electrodynamics (the famous QED of Richard Feynman) which describes how light and matter interact to form stable atoms, as well as solids, liquids and gasses which we know and love.  And so, while we can show how QED is simply a more general theory which reproduces the earlier classical theories, we would also like to build a quantum theory of relativity, also known as quantum gravity, which would extent quantum mechanics’ reach into the upper right quadrant of the diagram as well.  Experimentalists in this field are building things like gravity-wave dectectors, and theorists are trying to sort through the tricky mathematics of extra dimensions and sets of space transformations called symmety groups.

Thinking about the world in a quantum mechanical way is not easy—there are plenty of apparent paradoxes to try and wrap your mind around.  I’m sure you’ve heard of at least some of them: the uncertainty principle, Schrödinger’s Cat, the wave-particle duality, quantum interference, and the Multiverse or Many Worlds to name a few.  I don’t, however, imagine that getting used to the old physics was very easy when it was new either.  How do you contemplate a solar system held together without crystalline spheres or string or the grace of God?  Some unseen force moving through the cosmos to arc the planets gracefully around.  How mundane that it’s the same force that makes toast land butter-side down.

David Deutsch ended one of his excellent lectures on quantum mechanics by asking a question, which I will now paraphrase: What would it feel like to live according to the laws of quantum mechanics?  To live with fundamental uncertainty and wave-particle duality in a tiny corner of the one of an uncountable number of parallel universes exploring every possibility?

Why, the same way it feels now.  Quantum mechanics seems strange and spooky, but it’s the same physics that governs the air we breathe and the light we see by.