Monday, 2 October 2000

Byng’s Rides

Listening to:

Handel, Concerti Grossi, op. 6. So my traversal continues, and I’m up to “H”.

Still reading:

John Byng, Rides round Britain. I have just one more “Tour” to read, this one being to North Wales. I read three over the weekend. Byng is very negative about Manchester: he has a bad inn, and is harsh about general rowdiness, drunken-ness and dirt. Being a bit of a conservative, he thinks that Trade is having a deleterious effect on the country. He reckons at one point that if he put 20 sons of the soil up against 20 sons of the loom (Trade = work in the cotton mills, you see), then the honest yeomen would wipe the floor with the industrial proles. He also thinks it significant that so much grain is being imported into Liverpool from North America.

The trip to Manchester is part of a long Tour to the North of England. During this, he visits Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and is very impressed. As well he might be, it’s an amazing place to visit 200 years later too. However, Byng is also a bit of a conservative in reaction to many of the houses and gardens that he visits. He rants about the then-modern trend to cut down plantations of trees in favour of big lawns and lakes. For example, he is quite negative about Wimpole Hall, which is really quite beautiful in my eyes. What he saw as modern innovation is now over 200 years old, and there’s no accounting for taste, of course.

Wednesday, 4 October 2000

Book review index

Listening to:

Bach, English suite no. 4.

Wanna do an undergraduate project in the Cambridge Computer Lab? My half-baked suggestions are now on the web.

I’ve decided to create an index to the various miniature book reviews that I’ve written in the course of writing this log. The index is just a collection of links back into the log. Needless to say, it’s still (under construction/in development/your own asinine phrase here), but available now!

Friday, 6 October 2000

Entry #109

Listening to:
Telemann, Overture in F major, Alster Overture. This features a wonderfully dissonant movement called Die concertidenden Frösche (und) Krähen, the concert of frogs and crows. This has a very effective representation of the cawing of crows and the croaking of frogs. I can hear crows loudly circling, spiralling, and making a terrible racket. It's not just 20th century music that has to be dissonant. (Telemann's dates are 1681-1767, so he was contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.)
The research fellowship employing me at St. Catharine's College in Cambridge has the theme specification. I was therefore very interested to see Joel on Software do a series of articles on this very subject this week. The first is the best; it's entitled Why bother?. The reason I like this one most is because the reasons for doing a specification that he identifies apply to all forms of specification. In the subsequent articles, Joel talks about the sort of specification he means. It comes down to
When you design a product, inside and out, the most important thing is to nail down the user experience. What are the screens, how do they work, what do they do.
To my mind, not every piece of useful software has screens, or even much of a user experience. Is the IDE the most important part of a compiler to specify? An interesting experiment in UI design in my field is Jape, "a framework for building Interactive Proof Editors". It's interesting, but I wouldn't want to use it prove anything.

Monday, 9 October 2000

Rides round Britain and About a boy

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9.

Just read:

John Byng, Rides round Britain.

I read the last of the rides on Saturday morning. Byng went to North Wales, and had ample opportunity to complain about just about every part of his experience. He also said that he would never do another tour if he had to do it on his own. By “on his own” he meant “with only a servant”. He wanted someone with him that he felt he could talk to. I guess no suitable companion took him up on this offer, because this was the last tour in the book.

Despite his frequent grumbles, I quite enjoyed reading the book, because he describes countryside from such an interesting perspective (that of the 18th century gentleman), and is occasionally pretty humorous.

Nick Hornby, About a boy.

I got this as a birthday present in 1998, and only now have I got round to it on the list. I read it on Saturday morning, and found it a very enjoyable, light and humorous read.

One of the two principal characters, Marcus (the boy of the title) is well-drawn and sympathetic, but not entirely believable. I know that I wasn’t anything like that as a 12 year old, and I can’t think of anyone I knew who was. The other principal is also very interesting; but in a “wow, what a neat idea” way. I suppose there must be people out there living off royalty payments from a parental one-hit wonder, but I haven’t met any of them, so I feel less qualified to tell you that this character is unrealistic.

Anyway, I recommend it, even if Hornby does feel compelled to portray Cambridge as some sort of unworldly hicksville.

Now reading:

Henry Petroski, Invention by design: how engineers get from thought to thing. I read the first two chapters of this on Sunday. The first was about the paper-clip, and examined some of the patents issued for designs in this area. Some were quite modern, and the point was that people really do think that designing a better paper-clip is both possible and desirable. The second was about analysing the forces that cause pencil leads to break. Interesting stuff.

Wednesday, 11 October 2000

Panzer General progress

Listening to:

Mozart, string quartet in B flat, K458 “Hunt”.

I did the Kishinev scenario in Panzer General again over the weekend. I’m now up to the Novgorod scenario. I failed miserably at this last time, but now I'm going to have another go. It’s quite an addictive game, but it’s also a bit silly in many ways. Every scenario I’ve played so far requires you to be the overall aggressor. I’d quite like to find one where you had to hold onto objectives rather than take new ones. Of course, it’d be bad game design to make you be completely passive, but I suspect the more fundamental issue is that the computer AI isn’t up to the job of planning attacks.

It’s a dull day out there folks.

Friday, 13 October 2000

Meta: Web-log Chronology

Listening to:

Handel, The Messiah. Biblical texts (King James translation of course; lots of great words like “purify”, “righteousness”, “behold” and “Emmanuel”) set to stirring, beautiful music. What more could you possibly want?

It’s a well-known convention that web-logs should proceed chronologically up the page. This means that visitors don’t have far to scroll to find where they were up to last time. That this is a convention is clear from Parenting Ahead, where this layout is explicitly rejected, because this thing (whatever it is) isn’t a web-log. Further proof that the whole web-log thing might be getting a bit stale: people (sample size of one, I know) trying to distance themselves from the terminology.

Anyway, good though this anti-chronological approach might be good for the current stuff, I’ve decided that it makes more sense to put archived material back into the order that hundreds of years of Western tradition dictates. Unfortunately, I haven’t been producing my material in a way that means this transformation will be as easy to effect as I might like. A Perl script will eventually suffice, no doubt.

Nick Maclaren on comp.std.c:

It [a conforming C compiler] can also issue the general-purpose warning upon failing to find a syntax error or constraint violation:

You have attempted to compile what you seem to think is a C program. This is your first warning; do not expect a second.

Monday, 16 October 2000

Invention by design, The last continent

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 2 Resurrection.

Just read:

Henry Petroski, Invention by design.

I finished this on Saturday morning. It’s an enjoyable read. I think I found the chapters on the bigger engineering projects more interesting than the earlier ones (the discussions of paper-clips, pencils and zips). After this mundane (though still interesting enough, in its way) start, Petroski talks about the Boeing 777, sewage systems, bridges and buildings.

These accounts of big projects are interesting because they give the reader a glimpse into a world that is normally hidden from view. The only real time that Petroski touches on software engineering (so-called) is to discuss the famous disaster of the Denver airport baggage handling system.

It’s nice to read a book by someone with a home-page.

Terry Pratchett, The last continent.

I also read this over the weekend. It was an enjoyable, light read, and the fact that it was set in Australia was a good source of jokes. This is in contrast to Pratchett's book with the pseudo-Chinese setting, Interesting times, which I just felt was offensive, with poor jokes.

The plot in The last continent is thin. It’s not entirely spelt out what is really going on with the lack of rain etc, and Pratchett’s plots all too often have people “warping the structure of time and space” as it is. His novels featuring the Ankh-Morpork Watch tend to have better plots, but even some of these have the “whole worlds are at risk” plot-lines that grow a bit wearying after a while.

Now reading:

Jan Swafford, Brahms. I started this on Sunday morning, and read a biggish chunk of it in one session. I generally like biographies, and this one isn’t going to be an exception. It’s illuminating about a man whose music I admire. More as I read more. There’s an interesting review of this book and a response to the review in the NYRB.

Wednesday, 18 October 2000

The Web contains multitudes

Listening to:

Nielsen, symphony no. 3 Sinfonia espansiva. I just recently got a pair of double CDs with all of Nielsen’s 6 symphonies. I did this not having heard anything significant of his, so it felt a bit of a gamble. I haven’t listened to symphonies 4 to 6 yet, and I’ve heard 90 seconds of the third as I write this. I like 1 and 2 though, and so far the third seems pretty good too.

Links and commentary

Internet/computer humour is pretty lame sometimes. An example that suits my case is this piece about "Microsoft chicken TV dinners". It's written in a completely stereotyped way: draw analogy with Microsoft's products and business practices in other field, induce humour. I'm no fan of Microsoft's, and poking fun at them is all well and good. However, this is a stunningly weary way of doing it.

I tried out a “modern” (means: “looks like Windows 98”) Linux desktop environment the other day. It was KDE, and I have to say that it seemed pretty flash. However, I didn’t use it for very long because it didn’t seem quite capable of reproducing exactly what I already have with my current setup. For example, I like to raise or lower windows by hitting the F1 key, and I change my key bindings for no man. However, this didn’t seem possible under KDE. I could bind F1 to raise, or to lower, but not to the combined action (raise window, unless it is at the top of the stack, in which case lower) that I'm used to. The configuration tool worked quite well, but it just didn't seem to let me do what I wanted. Hrumph.

David Chess has just published a screed I wrote to him about the BBC. I’m famous; my name is in print!

Talking of the media, if you take as pessimistic a view as Phil Agre, you’d have to conclude that the US media was in a terrible state. Certainly, his piece on the way the Republicans have mounted a character assassination campaign attacking Gore, and how the media have gone along with this, makes for pretty depressing reading.

Thursday, 19 October 2000

A random stream of consciousness

Listening to:

Nielsen, symphony no. 6 Sinfonia semplice. More Nielsen. Again, I write this just as the symphony begins so I can’t really tell you anything about it. However, I have listened to each of his first and second symphonies more than once now, and I can definitely recommend them.

I feel as if I’m collecting a set of Scandinavian composers. I just need one from Sweden now, having already got Grieg from Norway, Nielsen from Denmark, and Sibelius from Finland.

A neat stock tip scam on Steve White's weblog. I believe he's a colleague of David Chess's. Do these people at IBM ever do any work? Do the chief executives of these computer companies realise that their valuable employees are spending all this time composing prose for the benefit of legions of fans?

I found myself working despite myself the other night. After an evening meal in college when I had perhaps a trifle too much to eat and drink, I woke up at about 1:30am and couldn't get back to sleep, so I spent three hours thinking about a whole new method for proving the result I want (an extension of this result about expressions in C; beware compressed PostScript). And now I should try and turn a late night ponder into something a bit more concrete.

(I’m writing on Thursday, because I’m off to Hanover for a long weekend tomorrow.)

Tuesday, 24 October 2000

Entry #116

Listening to:
Beethoven, violin sonata no. 5 in F major, op. 24 "Spring".
Still reading:
Swafford, Brahms. Didn't make any progress with this over the weekend because I was away in Germany, being a tourist, having a good time, and not lazing around in bed reading.
While away, I stayed in Braunschweig with a friend and went to the Hannover Expo. Yesterday I was in a continuous meeting for the Prosper project. Today I had another related meeting, and taught type theory for two hours. I am not achieving anything, but tomorrow everything will be different, honest.

Wednesday, 25 October 2000

Weird Americans

Listening to:

Handel, Acis and Galatea. This is a short opera, sung in English, with a pastoral theme. It’s quite appealing, though a little lightweight, despite the fact that poor old Acis gets it in the neck (beaten up by Polyphemus the Cyclops), and has to come back as a fountain.

This morning, the Today programme on Radio 4 (now with its own website) reported an interesting story about the town of Carmel in California. Carmel is famous for being where Clint Eastwood lives, and Eastwood was once even mayor of the town. Anyway, Carmel is apparently divided by the issue of whether or not streets should be numbered to allow for home-delivery of post. Currently, residents have to collect their post from the town’s post office. The Carmel Residents Association mention the story in this issue of their newsletter.

It seems pretty weird that one might be fined $250 for putting up a mailbox of one’s own. Is this the Land of the Free or not? Are American mail-boxes really such an eye-sore? Perhaps residents should be allowed to put a number on their door, and put a mail slot in the door too. Or perhaps the Carmel residents object to the sight of agents of the state (posties) in their streets.

Friday, 27 October 2000

Computer Game Reviews

Listening to:

Haydn, piano sonata no. 46 in E major, Hob. XVI: 31. This is classical piano music. It’s quite elegant in its way, and definitely easy on the ear. I don’t think I’m experienced enough that I could tell this from Mozart. I think I could with their respective symphonies, but piano sonatas offer fewer clues because you can’t listen to things like orchestration.

I continue to be fascinated by computer games. I don’t necessarily play them that much (far too busy for all that, you see), but I make a point of regularly checking the What's new section of the Games Domain Review site. It’s perversely reassuring to see how many games get fairly negative reviews. All these games that look crap on the shelves really are crap.

Better yet, games attempting to make quick bucks out of crap TV shows really are stinkers:

But instead they released this hastily produced pile of cack which, and I’m not kidding here, has no value whatsoever - even if this cost 20p to buy instead of the £9.99 it's being flogged for, it still wouldn’t be worth buying. In fact if this wasn’t a family site, the whole review would be naught more than a string of expletives. This game is so worthless, it doesn’t even deserve to end up as mug mat.

Monday, 30 October 2000

Johannes Brahms

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson's finest hour.

Just read:

Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms.

I really enjoyed this biography. I feel I know more about the nature of the man behind the music, and more too about the nature of the times in which he lived. Brahms was certainly a very interesting character. He had many admirable qualities, and many character flaws as well. He was loyal to his family and friends, generous and could be a good-humoured companion. On the other hand, he kept himself to himself, not revealing much of what he really thought, took his foul moods out on others with a startling lack of tact, and was generally rather callous about others’ feelings.

The biography is full of discussion about the music, with accompanying excerpts from it written out. I understand a little music theory (I know what a major third is, and I know how to find out exactly what a diminished seventh is), and can read music. Unfortunately, I can’t read music and gain a sense of what the notes sound like. I should really get myself into a choir or something to remedy this. As it stands, I’d really have to get out my clarinet to play through the phrases. In any case, the sometimes quite extended discussions certainly made me want to get up and listen to my recordings of the various works.

I felt the biography was generally well-written. The penultimate chapter, containing the description of Brahms's last days was really quite affecting. However, there also seemed to be a patch where Swafford got all too fond of the word “eponymous”. It’s a good word, sure, but to refer to Christ as “the eponymous founder of the Christian religion” is ridiculous.

To read next:

George C. Williams, Plan and purpose in Nature. More non-fiction, but science this time. Of the popular science I read, I tend to enjoy the biological stuff most, so I have high hopes for this.