When will we have a quantum computer? Never, with that attitude

We are quantum drunks under the lamp post—we are only looking at stuff that we can shine photons on.

In a recently posted paper, M.I. Dyakonov outlines a simplistic argument for why quantum computing is impossible. It’s so far off the mark that it’s hard to believe that he’s even thought about math and physics before. I’ll explain why.

abstract

Find a coin. I know. Where, right? I actually had to steal one from my kid’s piggy bank. Flip it. I got heads. Flip it again. Heads. Again. Tails. Again, again, again… HHTHHTTTHHTHHTHHTTHT. Did you get the same thing? No, of course you didn’t. That feels obvious. But why?

Let’s do some math. Wait! Where are you going? Stay. It will be fun. Actually, it probably won’t. I’ll just tell you the answer then. There are about 1 million different combinations of heads and tails in a sequence of 20 coin flips. The chances that we would get the same string of H’s and T’s is 1 in a million. You might as well play the lottery if you feel that lucky. (You’re not that lucky, by the way, don’t waste your money.)

Now imagine 100 coin flips, or maybe a nice round number like 266. With just 266 coin flips, the number of possible sequences of heads and tails is just larger than the number of atoms in the entire universe. Written in plain English the number is 118 quinvigintillion 571 quattuorvigintillion 99 trevigintillion 379 duovigintillion 11 unvigintillion 784 vigintillion 113 novemdecillion 736 octodecillion 688 septendecillion 648 sexdecillion 896 quindecillion 417 quattuordecillion 641 tredecillion 748 duodecillion 464 undecillion 297 decillion 615 nonillion 937 octillion 576 septillion 404 sextillion 566 quintillion 24 quadrillion 103 trillion 44 billion 751 million 294 thousand 464. Holy fuck!

So obviously we can’t write them all down. What about if we just tried to count them one-by-one, one each second? We couldn’t do it alone, but what if all people on Earth helped us? Let’s round up and say there are 10 billion of us. That wouldn’t do it. What if each of those 10 billion people had a computer that could count 10 billion sequences per second instead? Still no. OK, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there were 10 billion other planets like Earth in the Milky Way and we got all 10 billion people on each of the 10 billion planets to count 10 billion sequences per second. What? Still no? Alright, fine. What if there were 10 billion galaxies each with these 10 billion planets? Not yet? Oh, fuck off.

Even if there were 10 billion universes, each of which had 10 billion galaxies, which in turn had 10 billion habitable planets, which happened to have 10 billion people, all of which had 10 billion computers, which count count 10 billion sequences per second, it would still take 100 times the age of all those universes to count the number of possible sequences in just 266 coin flips. Mind. Fucking. Blown.

Why I am telling you all this? The point I want to get across is that humanity’s knack for pattern finding has given us the false impression that life, nature, the universe, or whatever, is simple. It’s not. It’s really fucking complicated. But like a drunk looking for their keys under the lamp post, we only see the simple things because that’s all we can process. The simple things, however, are the exception, not the rule.

Suppose I give you a problem: simulate the outcome of 266 coin tosses. Do you think you could solve it? Maybe you are thinking, well you just told me that I couldn’t even hope to write down all the possibilities—how the hell could I hope to choose from one of them. Fair. But, then again, you have the coin and 10 minutes to spare. As you solve the problem, you might realize that you are in fact a computer. You took an input, you are performing the steps in an algorithm, and will soon produce an output. You’ve solved the problem.

A problem you definitely could not solve is to simulate 266 coin tosses if the outcome of each toss depended on the outcome of the previous tosses in an arbitrary way, as if the coin had a memory. Now you have to keep track of the possibilities, which we just decided was impossible. Well, not impossible, just really really really time consuming. But all the ways that one toss could depend on previous tosses is yet even more difficult to count—in fact, it’s uncountable. One situation where it is not difficult is the one most familiar to us—when each coin toss is completely independent of all previous and future tosses. This seems like the only obvious situation because it is the only one we are familiar with. But we are only familiar with it because it is one we know how to solve.

Life’s complicated in general, but not so if we stay on the narrow paths of simplicity. Computers, deep down in their guts, are making sequences that look like those of coin-flips. Computers work by flipping transistors on and off. But your computer will never produce every possible sequence of bits. It stays on the simple path, or crashes. There is nothing innately special about your computer which forces it to do this. We never would have built computers that couldn’t solve problems quickly. So computers only work at solving problems that can we found can be solved because we are at the steering wheel forcing them to the problems which appear effortless.

In quantum computing it is no different. It can be in general very complicated. But we look for problems that are solvable, like flipping quantum coins. We are quantum drunks under the lamp post—we are only looking at stuff that we can shine photons on. A quantum computer will not be an all-powerful device that solves all possible problems by controlling more parameters than there are particles in the universe. It will only solve the problems we design it to solve, because those are the problems that can be solved with limited resources.

We don’t have to track (and “keep under control”) all the possibilities, as Dyakonov suggests, just as your digital computer does not need to track all its possible configurations. So next time someone tells you that quantum computing is complicated because there are so many possibilities involved, remind them that all of nature is complicated—the success of science is finding the patches of simplicity. In quantum computing, we know which path to take. It’s still full of debris and we are smelling flowers and picking the strawberries along the way, so it will take some time—but we’ll get there.

 

The real magic of quantum computing

By now you have read many articles on quantum computing. Congratulations. You know nothing about quantum computing.

There is a magician on stage. It’s tense. Maybe it’s a primetime TV show and the production value is super high. The celebrity judges look nervous. There is epic build up music as the magician calls their assistant on stage. The assistant climbs into a box that is covered with a velvet blanket. Why a blanket? I mean, isn’t the box good enough? What a pretentious as… forget it, I’m ruining this for myself. OK, so the assistant is in the box with their head and legs sticking out. What the fuck? Who made this box, anyway? Damn it, I’m doing it again. Then—oh shit—is that a saw? What’s going to happen with that? Fuck! No! The assistant’s been cut in half! And then the quantum computer outputs the answer. Wait, what? Where did the quantum computer come from? I don’t know—quantum computing is magic like that.

By now you have read many articles on quantum computing. Congratulations. You know nothing about quantum computing. I know what you are thinking: Whoa, Chris, I wasn’t ready for these truth bombs. Take it easy on us. But I see a problem and I just need to fix it. Or, more likely, call the rental agent to fix it.

You probably think that a qubit can represent a 0 and a 1 at the same time. Or, that quantum computing takes advantage of the strange ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time. I can hardly fault you for that. After all, we expect Scientific American and WIRED to be fairly reputable sources. And, I’m not cherry picking here—these were the first two hits after the Wikipedia entry on a Google search of “What is quantum computing?” Nearly every popular account of quantum computing has this “0 and 1 at the same time” metaphor.

I say metaphor because it is certainly not literally true that the things involved in quantum computing—those qubits mentioned above—are 0 and 1 at the same time. Why? Well, for starters, 0 and 1 are defined to be mutually exclusive (that means it’s either one OR the other). Logically, 0 is defined as [NOT 1]. Then 0 AND 1 is equal to [NOT 1] AND 1, which is a false statement. “0 and 1 at the same time” just doesn’t make sense, and it’s false anyway. Next.

OK, so what’s the big deal? We all play fast and loose with words. Surely this little… let me stop you right there, because it gets worse. Much worse.

The Scientific American article linked above then deduces that, “This lets qubits conduct vast numbers of calculations at once, massively increasing computing speed and capacity.” That’s a pretty big logical leap, but I’d say it’s a correct one. Let’s break it down. First, if a qubit can be 0 and 1 at the same time then two qubits can be 00 and 01 and 10 and 11 at the same time. And three qubits can be 000 and 001 and 010 and 011 and 100 and 101 and 110 and 111 at the same time. And… well, you get the picture. Like mold on that organic bread you bought, exponential growth!

The number of possible ways to set some number of bits, say n of them, is 2n—a big number. If n = 300, 2300 is more than the number of atoms in the universe! Think about that. Flip a coin just 300 times and the number of possible ways they could land is unfathomable. And 300 qubits could be all of them at the same time. If you believe that, then it is easy to believe that quantum computers will just calculate every possible solution to your problem at once and pick the right answer. That would be magic. Alas, this is not how quantum computers work.

Lesson 1: don’t take a bad metaphor and draw your own simplistic conclusions from it.

Try this one out from Forbes: “A bit can be at either of the two poles of the sphere, but a qubit can exist at any point on the sphere.” Spot on. This is 100% accurate. But, wait! “So, this means that a computer using qubits can store an enormous amount of information and uses less energy doing so than a classical computer.” The fuck? No. In fact, a qubit cannot be used to store and retrieve more than 1 bit of data. Again, magic, but not how quantum computers work.

Lesson 2: don’t reduce an entire field to one idea and draw your own simplistic conclusions from it.

I can just imagine what you are thinking right now. OK hotshot, how would you explain quantum computing? I’m glad you asked. After bashing a bad analogy, I’m going to use another, better analogy. I like analogies—they are my favorite method of learning. Teaching by analogy is kind of like being in two places at the same time.

Alright, I’m going to tell you the correct analogy between quantum physics and magic. Let’s think about what a magic trick looks like abstractly. The magician, who is highly trained, spends a huge amount of time choreographing a mechanism which is then hidden from the audience. The show begins, the “magic” happens, and we are returned to reality with bafflement. If you are under 20, then you also take a selfie for the Insta #fuckyeahmagic.

Now here is what happens in a quantum computation. A quantum engineer, who is highly trained, spends a huge amount of time choreographing a mechanism which is then hidden from the audience. The show begins, quantum computation happens, and we are returned the answer to our problem. Tada! Quantum computation is magic. Selfie, Insta, #fuckyeahquantum.

Let’s dig into this a bit deeper, though. Why not uncover the quantum computer—open the box—to reveal the mechanism? Well, we can’t. If we “watch” the computation happen, we expose the quantum computer to an environment and this will break the computation. The kind of things a quantum computer needs to do requires complete isolation from the environment. Just like a magician’s trick, if we reveal the mechanism, the magic doesn’t happen.

OK, fine. The “magic” will be lost, but at least I could understand the mechanism, right? Sure, that’s right. But here’s the catch: a magician spends countless hours training and preparing for the trick. Knowing the mechanism doesn’t help you understand how to actually perform the trick. Nor does seeing that the mechanism of quantum computing is some complicated math actually help you understand how it works. And don’t over simplify it—we already know that doesn’t work.

Let’s look at the example of a sword swallowing illusionist. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s exactly how it sounds—a person puts a sword the length of their torso in their mouth down to the handle. How one figures out they have a proclivity for this talent, I don’t want to know. But what’s the explanation? Don’t worry, I already googled it for you, and it’s simple: “the illusionist positions their head up so that his throat and stomach make a straight line.” Oh, is that it? I’m suddenly unimpressed. So now that you too know how to swallow a sword are you going to go and do it? I fucking doubt it. That would be stupid—about as stupid as reading a few sentence description of some “explanation” of quantum computing and then declaring you understand it.

Lesson 3: don’t place your analogy at the level of explanation—place it at the level of the phenomenon. Let your analogy do the work of explanation for you.

If you like figures, I have prepared a lovely summary for you.

Well there you go. Quantum computing isn’t magic, but it can put on a good show. You can learn about how to do the tricks yourself and even perform a few with a little more effort. I suggest starting with the IBM Quantum Experience. Or, start where the real magicians do with Quantum Computing for Babies 😂

Journal | November 2018

Someone told me we need another child so we can cover all 7 colours of the rainbow. As they say in Australia: yeah, nah 😁

Eureka!

The big aha! moment was seeing how much school children love YouTube stars. OK, maybe I should say “stars”. And by “stars” I mean people that have at least one YouTube video with them in it.

So, I planned on going to McCallums Hill PS to read to the Stage 1 students and do some physics activities. It was a great time and we all had a lot of fun.

But, what I didn’t expect was for the teachers and students to do a little research on me before I arrived. At some point they came across this video from the Perimeter Institute.

And, that was it, they decide I was a YouTube star 😂 When I arrive they swarmed me asking, “Are you the author from YouTube?!” Then they took turns taking pictures with me. It was all very charming and amusing.

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

Doll-E 1.0 by Shanda McCloskey

Fun illustrations and story of the technology infused world of today’s children. It’ll fit great in any bedtime picture book rotation. It also works to motivate the tinkerer in young listeners.

Ada Lace is on the Case by Emily Calandrelli and Renaee Kurilla

One of the few “first chapter books” that isn’t all about problems encountered at school. Ada, the main character, has to investigate and solve a neighborhood mystery that had my kids thinking and guessing along the way. Whereas many STEM-inspired fiction in this reading category resort to science fiction, Ada Lace sticks to real science and engineering.

Amulet 2 & 3 by Kazu Kibuishi

We continued reading the Amulet graphic novel series. It only gets better! We definitely recommend this for any age. Again, reading aloud a graphic novel may seem counterintuitive, but it definitely works!

Adult Literature September Reads

This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know by John Brockman

This is such a great book to have lying around. It is so easy to dip in and out of. Each chapter is a unique description of a new scientific idea. While they are on the shallow side (think: somewhere between a tweet and a TED talk), the book makes up for it in quantity. I really enjoyed learning about so many new scientific ideas.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray

Read this book whether you have children or not. It’s not just a story about children and schooling, but one of Western society more generally. It really sharpened my observations of my own children’s experience in the school system. There is plenty of advice in here for parents.

Currently reading: Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths by Eddie Woo

Writing!

Wow! 8 Little Planets was named Best Children’s Book 2018 for ages 0-2 by Amazon!

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Next year, some books on engineering topics will be released. Here is the final version of the first cover! It’s ABCs of Engineering with my amazing co-author, engineer and lasers-in-space physicist, Dr Sarah Kaiser.

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It’s been a while in the making but the first translations of the new versions of the book are available. First up we have Italian! Available now are Ingegneria spaziale and Relatività generale. Next April, Ottica fisica and Fisica Quantistica will arrive.

Molto buona! I did an interview with the Italian publisher, which you can find here. (Google will do a great job translating it from Italian as well 😁)

Arithmetic! (academic news)

All this exciting children’s book news sure illustrates how slow academia moves! Of course, when trying to prove fundamental truths about the world, we are happy to take our time 😉

This month I’ve been dealing with reports from referees. Criticism is a necessary part of science and in many cases referees have provided crucial insight. But, you also have to develop a fairly thick skin.

This rather is rather timely since a podcast recorded last month with Sc-gasm about peer review just aired.

Events!

  • ACEMS 2018 Retreat Keynote titled “All your Bayes are Belong to Us”.

  • I spent a couple days in Perth talking about the children’s books and reading to a great crowd.

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Perth! You're awesome ♥️

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  • MathsCraft is workshop for high-schoolers which encourages them to “think like a research mathematician”. Each workshop brings together students, teachers, and mathematicians guide the students in their “play” at maths. It was a great experience and fun to watch the students explore their curiosity with maths.

Up next!

December in Australia combines the holiday season and summer. You’ll find me at the beach!

Journal | October 2018

Happy Halloween! We escaped the cold in Canada and are now back in Australia, ready for second summer 😁

Eureka!

The big aha! moment was seeing how much stories resonate with parents! Over the past year and a half, I’ve been reading from Rocket Science for Babies and doing some paper activities (paper airplanes, demonstrating lift, etc.). It’s been great and I think the children have lots of fun. But because it’s mostly an interaction between me and the children, perhaps some parents feel left out? Or, maybe they are just happy to sit back let their children take the lead.

This month, though, I started reading 8 Little Planets at events as well, and the response from the parents was amazing! Nothing like a good story to excite the imaginative child in all of us, I guess 😁

This month I also got some hilarious feedback on social media. Here are a few highlights:

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

What do you do with a problem by Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Mae Besom

Inspirational story about a young person tackling a problem head on and finding beauty in it. It’s a bit abstract, meaning it might take a while for a child to “get it”, but the illustrations are beautiful and the pace was right for a bedtime read.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco

I think adults will find this more amusing than children. My guess is that these real places are suppose to be surprisingly, well, obscure. But, to a child, these are just slightly less fantastic than what they can dream up in their own imagination. It can still keep a child’s attention and led to some interesting questions.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

I was skeptical about reading a graphic novel aloud, especially the pages with no words! But, it actually worked quite well. Even the non-readers could understand the plot. The story itself is amazing. We all can’t wait to continue the series.

Adult Literature September Reads

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West

This one is about the science of complexity and some simple rules that govern how things (from animals to suburbia) scale. There are lots of interesting tidbits in here. My favorite is an understanding, using scaling laws, for why every species of mammal has the same number of heartbeats over their lifetime, from the tiny shrew to the enormous blue whale. It can get a bit wordy and repetitive, but still worth a read.

Currently reading: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know by John Brockman

Writing!

Big news this month was the release of 8 Little Planets! It’s super-fun and has amazing illustrations by Lizzy Doyle.

Next up is Blockchain for Babies by my UTS colleague, and blockchain expert, Marco Tomamichel. Just in time for the new year and next Bitcoin boom. HODL on for this one! It’s due 1 Jan 2019.

In terms of writing, I am working on a new ABC’s book. I don’t want to give away the details yet, but here’s a hint: it’s not a STEM topic!

Arithmetic! (academic news)

Last week I attended Quantum Gates, Jumps, and Machines, which was a workshop in honor of Gerard Milburn’s 60th birthday. If you ever get a chance to go to a “birthday workshop”, do it. The talks have great science alongside hilarious anecdotes and roasts of the guest of honor. Barry Sanders documented much of it on Twitter.

University of Technology Sydney will soon offer some undergraduate credit subjects in Quantum Computing. We’ve been having some high level discussion about organizing that and getting it approved through all the bureaucratic channels. There may even be some associated online content! Keep your eyes peeled next Spring term!

After submitting their papers, the students in the group are learning hands on the joys of peer review, including what to do about “interesting” referee reports! Look out for some publications soon.

An Honors student at the University of New South Wales submitted a thesis that I co-supervised. This was my first time officially supervising an undergraduate. It was a very rewarding process as the student was from outside of the field and wrote a thesis on quantum learning applications in statistics.

Events!

  • I read and signed some books at the Vancouver Public Library to some excited preschoolers.

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Fun at the Vancouver Public Library!

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  • Byrne and Wade from Sci-gasm Podcast came by the office and we recorded a not-so-family-friendly interview. Stay tuned for that—you might even win a signed copy of Quantum Computing for Babies.
  • Where the Wild Things Are bookshop in Brisbane hosted an event where I read and did some activities with some West Enders. I always have a good time in Brissie!
  • I joined a panel at UTS about Communicating as a researcher: Strategies for building value and reputation. It was quite interesting to contrast my fake-it-before-you-make-it style with one that was more structured, and another that was goal-oriented. Perhaps there is a useful middle ground?

Up next!

In November I’ll be visiting Melbourne and Perth. Come on out and get your science on 6 Nov!

Journal | September 2018

It was a busy month of extra-curriculars, making the most of our last weeks in Canada before returning to greet the Aussie summer.

Eureka!

The big aha! moment was finally understanding the pleas to remove “for babies” from the titles of the Baby University books. On 17 September I visited two elementary schools in the suburbs of Chicago: Rollins Elementary School and May Watts Elementary.

I had a great time at both, but I knew I had to carefully navigate “for babies”. So, I did read the title and immediately asked, “are there any babies here?” “No!” was the expected and resounding answer. I think I won them over with that. But when the cover image popped up on screen I still heard a few “hey! It says for babies” from the audience. The school avoided the “for babies” problem by selling my two picture books, Goodnight Lab and Scientist, Scientist, Who do you See?.

I can sympathize with teachers and librarians when they tell me about the difficulty in reading the “for babies” books. I am also honored that my baby books want a wider audience! In the meantime, while we figure out a solution to the “for babies” problem in the classroom, I think I’ll stick to reading the picture books at schools.

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I Know Exactly What You Are by Julia Kregenow and Carmen Saldaña

Filled with rhyming facts about stars that can be sung to the cadence of the classic nursery rhyme. Easy to read and look at for all ages.

How Did I Get Here? by Philip Bunting

Adorable illustrations accompany the history of the universe from the Big Bang, through conception (yep), until now. Easy for the the kids to listen to and point at.

Adult Literature September Reads

Humility Is the New Smart by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig

I found this difficult to read because it is heavy on repeating buzzwords and technobabble. There are some great nuggets of wisdom in here which are drawn from well-laid-out examples of people and companies that have put humility ahead of arbitrary measures of merit.

How not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

This book is about math applied to real life. Some of the explanations are abstract and others follow closely with recent, and mostly quirky, stories. I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I suspect that the author demands a little too much from the casual reader.

Currently reading: Scale by Geoffrey West

Writing!

We are in the final editorial stages of ABC’s of Engineering, Robotics for Babies, and Neural Networks for Babies, all co-authored by my friend Sarah Kaiser. Look for these in January of 2019. They are going to be awesome. Conversations about them included the sentence, “I hate to have to tell you this… but we can’t rickroll babies.”

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One of the questions I get most is are you working on any books for older kids? Yes, yes I am. But at the moment it is too early to give anything away. Stay tuned!

I completed a few more early manuscripts in the Red Kangaroo Physics series. Next year, they will begin to be translated (or untranslated 😄) and available in English. If this is news to you, this is a series of picture books each of which discusses a topic in physics. The story follows a dialogue between me and a curious Red Kangaroo. The first 15 are available now in Chinese.

Arithmetic! (academic news)

Both my students recently submitted their first papers and presented them at an international conference this month. Congrats to Maria and Akram!

I finally got the advertisements up for two postdoctoral positions which are funded by a $3 million grant from the Australian government. This is a collaboration with Gerardo Paz Silva, Howard Wiseman, and Andrea Morello that I am keen to get going.

Mostly an exercise in catharsis, I am reminding myself to say no to every invitation to chair, organise, or join a committee. My future self won’t heed this warning—so here’s hoping it is another thing that gets easier and less time consuming with practice.

Events!

Lots of great opportunities this past month. I met many great people and learned a lot!

  • I gave a public lecture at the Institute for Quantum Computing on 13 September call Big Ideas for Little Minds. I won’t say too much about it as it will be posted online soon. I also gave the same talk at Google on 19 September, which will also appear on Talks at Google.

  • I finally met (in person) Cara Florance my co-author of ABC’s of Biology, Organic Chemistry for Babies, and Evolution for Babies! We did a joint event at the MIT Coop bookstore. How did it go? Well, Cara built a DIY cloud chamber and had a Geiger counter—’nuff said. I also met an MIT professor that bought a copy of Statistical Physics for Babies for every student in his class 😳!
  • I joined Nikola Tesla for some reading, banter, and science demonstrations at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. This was the first time I read 8 Little Planets and was really pleased with the response from both the children and parents! The science centre itself was awesome and I even got a private showing of musical Tesla coils!

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Just hanging out in a Faraday cage ⚡⚡⚡

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  • I got to visit Sourcebooks headquarters in Chicago. It was great to meet all the people behind the scenes that make the children’s books possible. Everyone I met was so passionate about making books, especially the amazing Dominique Raccah!
  • Check out a quick discussion about Baby University on Global TV’s The Morning Show. It’s a great opportunity to reach a large television audience. Too bad the time is so short and the questions so quick!
  • I did some reading and activities at the Oxford County Library in Ingersoll on 6 September. It was amazing to see how close members of a small community are with their library. The librarians even knew the interests of the children! Very eye opening as this has not been my experience in Sydney.

Up next!

October is going to be another busy month. We need to get settled back into Sydney and I don’t even want to think about the backlog of administration I have been ignoring at the uni. But I am also really excited for Quantum Gates, Jumps, and Machines and of course the release of 8 Little Planets!