Thursday, 6 July 2000

Plums of P. G. Wodehouse

Listening to:

Brahms, string quartet in C minor, op. 51, no. 1

Just read:

Plums of P. G. Wodehouse.

This was a very enjoyable collection of bits and pieces by P. G. Wodehouse. He was a brilliant writer, and this was a good sampling of some short stories. The three I liked the best were probably Uncle Fred as parrot doctor, Jeeves and Wooster betting on vicars’ sermons, and one in which a hard-boiled detective story writer finds himself succumbing to the insidious charms of a cottage out of “romantic slush land”.

To read next:

Granta 10: travel writing. This is a back issue that I ordered a while back. There are four issues a year, and the current issue is number 70, so this one is fifteen years old.

An excuse

I am in entry deficit once more because I got married on Saturday.

Friday, 7 July 2000

Usenet and its death penalty

Listening to:

Couperin, Nouveaux concerts.

I found an interesting FAQ about Usenet yesterday. It explains the Usenet Death Penalty. Usenet is a wonderful anarchic experiment. I imagine anarchists and libertarians both think it's the bee's knees. I suspect it does so well because there isn’t a huge amount riding on its continued success or failure.

For all that, I use it regularly, and one forum comp.std.c was very useful for my PhD thesis.

Monday, 10 July 2000

Sibelius, and two old Grantas

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #2 in D major, op. 43. This is Sibelius’ most famous symphony. It’s dramatic and beautiful without being overblown. There’s quite a contrast between Sibelius and Mahler, despite the fact that they were contemporaries. Part of this may have been geographic: Sibelius was all the way away in Finland, whereas Mahler was in Vienna, the heart of the Austro-Germanic tradition. In any case, this symphony of Sibelius’ is lyrical, and shimmering. Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection, which I also love, is completely different. It’s strong, forceful and heart-pounding. It has a message, and it makes very sure that you can’t possibly ignore it.

Just read:

Granta 10: travel writing.

This was a very good read. There was all sorts in it, and I enjoyed it all. For example, there was someone retracing the steps of Robert Louis Stephenson on a trip in France, visiting a Trappist monastery and getting footsore on lonely roads. Bruce Chatwin, now dead of AIDS, wrote of getting caught up in a “coup” in Benin, and Martha Gellhorn (who I read about in a previous Granta) wrote about having a miserable time in Haiti. Richard O’Hanlon provided an excerpt from his (then forthcoming) book, Into the heart of Borneo.

Granta 16: science.

This was much more disappointing than the travel writing. Really, it was a good demonstration of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, because much of the supposed writing about science was nothing of the sort. It further seemed rather significant that they couldn’t fill the issue with their so-called science writing and resorted to other stuff later on. Further, there were three pieces in a row after the science section on nuclear war. Perhaps that was all the editor felt science was good for.

Still, Stephen Jay Gould was good in his piece Adam's Navel, I liked the two pieces by Oliver Sachs from his book The man who mistook his wife for a hat (which I’d already read, but hey), and Primo Levi’s account of chemical detective work in Chromium was very good.

To read next:

Granta 48: Africa.

Tomorrow, a hard-hitting analysis of how awful Cambridge weather really is...

Tuesday, 11 July 2000

Entry #71

Listening to:
Bach, English suite #6.
Well, I saw a story this morning in the Times about how awful the weather has been in the UK generally. Apparently temperatures are 5-6 degrees (degrees Celsius too; they're bigger than those Fahrenheit thingies) lower than normal for this time of year. Unfortunately, the corresponding story in the online edition of the newspaper is not the same. (You can read the site without JavaScript, but it looks a bit of a mess.) It doesn't mention the fact that the weather has been cooler, but does at least say that it's been raining lots and that there has been less sunshine.

The graphs for June and July 2000 available from AT&T Research say it all really.

Wednesday, 12 July 2000

Classical vs. Romantic

Listening to:

Shostakovich, cello concerto #2, op. 126. Even over the hum of computer fans, this is relentless stuff. It grabs the attention, interrupting attempts to write web-logs.

Weather, and a Musical Distinction

It was sunny and nice this morning as we walked into work, and I thought, “Wow, clearly the way to improve poor weather is to complain about it publicly on the World Wide Web.” Even thinking that thought was enough to counteract any magical properties my previous entry had though, and the sky is grey and cloudy outside my window now, just 80 minutes later.

A bunch of friends and I are trying to decide what Proms concerts to go and see. Any suggestions?

Talking of music, a reader of my music pages has asked how to distinguish classical from romantic music. The easy answer is to say that classical is Mozart, Haydn, J. C. Bach, and early Beethoven, and that romantic is later Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. I think I’ve listened to enough music to be able to pick an era when I hear something, but I fear that I don’t know enough to be able to express the difference in words. I don’t have the musicological vocabulary or training to nail down what I can hear, though I know there are differences.

Friday, 14 July 2000

Entry #73

Listening to:
Chopin, 24 Preludes, op. 28.
Two examples of American cultural imperialism in the news recently. Yesterday came the story of a US wine company which is about to set up in fairly large scale fashion in Languedoc, actually buying vineyards. There's some background to this here. The whole thing seemed to be being exaggerated on the radio; they got some French locals to decry this "invasion", but there doesn't really seem to be anything in it to me. If the Americans (and Australians as well) want to come to France to invest in the country to take advantage of French expertise and conditions, then it seems to me that this is a compliment being paid to the French.

The other story was this morning, about the film The Patriot. It gets quite a glowing review at Salon, but there are rather different reactions here in Britain. For example, the Guardian calls it a "yawn", and "genuinely rotten" at the core. In The Independent's review it is "tiresome and unbecoming", featuring lines like "It's a free country - or at least it will be", a line "so poor one can hardly summon the energy to groan at it".

Wednesday, 19 July 2000

Harry Potter and Erdös

Listening to:

Bach, The art of fugue.

Just read:

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the goblet of fire.

This was not on the list of prescribed books, but I had the weekend away in Glasgow (hence I’m in entry deficit once more), and wanted something to read on the train. The train took about 6 hours, and almost all of this I spent reading. It’s a very good read. The characters aren’t wonderfully drawn but the plot is really very good; a positive page-turner even.

However, I hope the next book doesn’t follow its predecessors in structuring the plot around the revelation of the mystery baddie at the end. There must be other ways of putting a story together; surely you don’t have to keep all the interesting details hidden until the end.

Paul Hoffman, The man who loved only numbers: the story of Paul Erdös and the search for mathematical truth.

I read this while in Glasgow (the copy I read belongs to the friend we were staying with). I thought it very interesting. Erdös was clearly a very strange man, but this biography makes sure that this strangeness is never too offputting. It’s well-padded with descriptions of various other mathematicians and scientists, such as Hardy and Einstein, but definitely an engaging read.

Thursday, 20 July 2000

Entry #75

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony #4 in C minor, op. 43.

A miscellany

A friend is cycling around Wales. Her daily journal of the experience is here.

Incidentally, it’s really bad web-style to link to things by underling the word here. But sometimes it feels as if there’s no alternative, and I spent yesterday carefully reading prose and fixing it to read better, so I really can’t be bothered doing the same thing again today.

Aphorism of the day: sometimes it’s too easy to be seduced by difficulty.

Friday, 21 July 2000

Sharing Opinions on the Internet

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet in C major, op. 50, no. 2.

Sharing Opinions on the Internet

I stumbled across the Epinions site this morning. It’s quite a clever name, though I can’t help but think of birds of prey (maybe electronic ones) every second time I look at it. Maybe Edops instead? But then some smart-arse would alter it to Edopes and where would you be then?

Liking the idea of a communal forum for the sharing of opinions on a variety of products (what a consumerist society we live in; there didn’t seem to be any space for opinions about the social problems of the 21st century), I had a brief trawl and found a section on computer games. Inspired to write a review of Imperialism II for the delectation of gamers everywhere, I got going and wrote a fair screed (thinking all the while, "How many brownie points is this going to win me, huh? Is this, with its incisive analysis, not going to blow all those other opinions out the water? Yadda yadda...") I was brought up with a shock when I saw that they wanted exclusive online rights to my material if I had it posted on their site. "Hah!" thought I.

The (uncompleted) review is now freely available elsewhere. (Elsewhere is much better than merely here; so there!)

Monday, 24 July 2000

Entry #77

Listening to:
Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli.
Just read:
Granta 48: Africa. I thought this a good collection. The first thing in it was fiction (by William Boyd) with only a tenuous link to Africa, and though it was very amusing, it was much more about Hollywood than Africa. I was a bit nervous about what I was getting myself in for when I read that, but the rest of the issue was much more what I was expecting.

That means there was mainly non-fiction reportage about a variety of African countries, including Rwanda, Liberia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Angola. The long piece on Liberia was very interesting. The narrator was the wife of a senior diplomat at the US embassay. As things deteriorate, she is eventually (reluctantly) evacuated, and chooses to go to Sierra Leone. She contrasts the chaos at Monrovia (people, not all of them as well connected as she, desperate to leave) with the calm at Freetown.

This is pretty ironic of course; Liberia is pretty stable nowadays with Charles Taylor (one of the rebels described in the Granta piece) in control and supporting rebels in Sierra Leone. In any case, this piece's description of the disintegration of a country and its capital is both depressing and compelling.

Overheard on the street this morning:
"Doesn't she have one, then?"
"No, but she sometimes ties one to part of her fence."

Wednesday, 26 July 2000

Entry #78

Listening to:
Bach, Cello suite no. 4 in E flat, BWV 1010.
To read next:
Our village by Mary Mitford. This is another volume courtesy of the Folio Society. It's a collection of pieces that were written in the early 19th century for regular publication in a magazine. The pieces are generally humorous accounts of life in the author's village.

(Custom would have this annoucement occur after announcing the completion of my last book read, but I forgot on Monday, and decided that I didn't want to retrospectively change the entry.)

Stephen King (yes, the horror author) has written a balanced, and interesting, review of the latest Harry Potter book.

Being from roughly that neck of the woods myself, I was interested to read Bill Bryson on Sydney (excerpted from the National Geographic paper edition). Looking out my window at yet another grey and miserable sky, the thought of Sydney is really quite appealing.

Friday, 28 July 2000

Wargaming articles

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème. This is the only opera of Puccini’s that I know. I have listened to it a few times, but haven’t followed the libretto yet, so I really have no idea as to what is happening.

OK, this is absolutely the last time I do a Harry Potter link: check out this hilarious article from The Onion.

While searching for reviews of possible PC games to buy, I recently found a good discussion of what realism means in the context of war-games. From another article by the same author:

Usually, what you get is a bunch of hardcore wargamers complaining about the historical faults in a game and a bunch of even harder-core wargamers saying, Hey, that’s nothing compared to the fact that the Salerno-Syracusa railway could only handle thirty supply trains a day, so there is no way the First Armored Division could ever wind up with so many doughnuts.

These articles are from a good while ago, so it’s particularly heart-warming that I can still discover them and read them through. To be a really useful resource, the Web needs to become much less transient.

Monday, 31 July 2000

The Ode to Joy and Churchillian wit

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony #9 “Choral”, in D minor, op. 125. The world’s most famous symphony? Beethoven’s fifth, with its famous “da-da-da dah” opening, would probably be the only contender. The last movement of this symphony earns it the “Choral” nickname. As far as I’m aware, this was the first time a choir and solo singers were used in a symphony. Unless the first performance had the singers file on seconds before their (musical) entrance, I guess the audience won’t have been too surprised.

In any case, it’s just beautiful music; the Ode to joy tune is simple enough to whistle yourself, but Beethoven uses all the tricks (orchestration, digressions, distortions) to make sure that there’s something to keep the attention as the piece progresses. Just now, there’s been a big climax, followed by light, spiky, slightly militaristic flute and piccolo playing. Then in comes one of the male voices (the tenor, I think), and suddenly things accelerate. So much so that now the voices have dropped out and the strings are going nineteen to the dozen. I can’t do it justice in words, and I’m not sure anyone can.

Still reading:

Mary Mitford’s Our village. Being a big collection of bits and pieces originally published for a magazine, it’s a bit difficult to read this in solid sessions. Yesterday morning, I alternated with a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, including this interesting review of a book about the Langhorne sisters of Virginia. One of these sisters married Waldorf Astor and became Nancy Astor, one of Britain’s earlier woman parliamentarians, and the woman who said to Winston Churchill, “If I was your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” His retort was “And if I was your husband, I’d drink it.”