Wednesday, 1 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Nielsen, symphony no. 3 Sinfonia espansiva.
- A not so recent movie:
- Being John Malkovich. I mentioned that I wanted to
go and see this on 16 February,
but never provided a follow-up review when I did actually get
around to seeing it. Basically, I thought it was brilliant.
This film is very funny, thought-provoking and ultimately quite
powerful. The last scene, superficially just a family scene,
with a girl swimming about in a public pool on a sunny day, is
really quite amazing.
I always knew Wellington was a wonderful city (not that I'm a
parochial native of course), but now the LA
says so too.
Friday, 3 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Brahms, sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat, op. 120 no. 2.
This is beautiful music for the clarinet. Swafford reckoned
that (the sound of) the clarinet was Brahms's last great love.
Up until that point he was in the habit of swooning over
beautiful singers, but upon being exposed to the playing of one
Richard Mühlfield, Brahms waxed lyrical about this
instead. In the recording I'm listening to, the clarinettist,
Keith Puddy, is playing one of Mühlfield's surviving
David Chess is treading on my turf in his web-log
. He has
linked to this
about the way Quake was used to provide a virtual reality
environment for people to look around our
new building. But I forgive
In important news about a game I haven't played in years, Kasparov has
lost a/the World Chess
Championship to Vladimir Kramnik. My indecision over pronoun in
the previous sentence is due to the uncertainties in the chess scene.
Kasparov is undeniably the strongest ever player in the history of the
game, but he refuses to have anything to do with the "official"
international chess body, FIDE.
Monday, 6 November 2000
Plan and purpose in nature and Granta 63
Haydn, symphony in E flat, no. 99. The traversal
- George C. Williams,
Plan and purpose in nature.
I liked this book. It read well, and was generally
informative. It’s not bulky and covers a lot of ground fairly
quickly, so it’s not a dense read. It contains fairly
standard descriptions of the theory of evolution and its
consequences. Despite being quite light, it covered some
stuff that was new to me, including a more detailed look at
the genetics of the social insects (the
Hymenoptera), and an explanation of how it is
that the small sperm-large egg dichotomy may have emerged.
- Granta 63: beasts.
This was quite a good selection of prose pieces. The first
was a chapter from a book called Timbuktu (by
Paul Auster), and featured an intelligent dog as companion to
a down-and-out poet. This was the sort of thing that made you
want to read the rest of the novel. Another neat thing, by
Sam Toperoff, also on the Beasts theme, was
written from the point of view of a wise-cracking tarantula.
Finally, a short story about a crow and two boys growing up in
the south-west US was good, though ultimately a bit bleak.
As is often the way, the themed material didn’t fill the
issue, and there was some other stuff there too, including a
short story by Martin Amis that was so-so, a depressing
account of a trip to a prison by Joyce Carol Oates and the
usual photo essay.
To read next:
Granta 17: while waiting for war.
This is a back issue I picked up a while ago.
Wednesday, 8 November 2000
US electoral system
Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60
Leningrad. I’m listening to the recording I
discussion of the symphony.
Well, it looks as if George W. Bush has won the US Presidential
election. The US has a funny system for electing its President.
documentation is available on the Federal Election Commission's
pages.) Rather than have the whole population just vote for the
candidates directly, they have to vote to elect candidates in an
electoral college on a state-by-state basis. The members of this
college then choose the President.
Each state of the union is responsible for the election of its
Electors and in a couple (Maine and Nebraska) the procedure is
different from the rest. Thus, the system does not require
the states to use the “winner-take-all” model whereby the slate with
the most votes in a state gets all of that state's Electors.
Nonetheless, this is what happens in 48 states, and this strongly
encourages a two-party system, which you may or may not think is a
There hasn't been an election since 1888 when the most popular
candidate didn't actually become President. Contrast this with what
happens in parliamentary elections, where governmental majorities are
quite easy to form even though the number of people voting for the
opposing party may be greater.
Finally, I do think that the careful separation of concerns achieved
in the Federal system, whereby the Executive has no necessary
connection with the Legislature is a nice design.
Friday, 10 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Martinu, Cello sonata no. 3, H340.
- A recent movie:
- The icicle thief (originally Ladri di
Recent in that I watched it last night, not that it's recently
been produced. Even ignoring the fact that it was in Italian
and had subtitles, this was a clearly "arty" film; one of us
that went to see it said, "You'd never catch Hollywood making a
film like that." It's ultimately an amusing and fairly
lightweight piece about nothing much in particular.
Its one idea is about mixing and blurring levels in narration.
The basic premise is that a black and white film is being shown
on modern Italian TV, and that first there is a strange mixing
between the world of the film and that of the commercials that
interrupt it. Later, the film's director, upset at the way in
which his creation has been contaminated by all these
commercials, jumps into the film as well. The level-mixing is
amusing, but that's really all there is to it. (IMDB page.)
It now seems I was bit premature in giving the Presidential election
to Bush. Nonetheless, my gut instincts still reckon that is the way
it will end up. I don't think I'd want to bet on it though!
Monday, 13 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Schubert, symphony no. 9 in C, D.944 "Great". I
don't know where the "Great" comes from, but it's an accurate
moniker in my opinion.
- Just read:
- Granta 17: while waiting for war. The title piece
(the eponymous title piece even; hem) is by Graham
Greene, and is excerpts from his diary just before WW2. It made
for interesting reading, but better still was Heinrich
Böll's letter to his sons about how he survived the last
year of the war in Germany. It's amazing that the Nazi
leadership fought on so hard and for so long; surely it must
have been apparent that their country was collapsing around
them. I guess they knew that their personal survival was at
It seemed vaguely appropriate to be reading all this
"war stuff" on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.
The armistice ending WW1 was signed on 11 November,
1918 at 11:00. Now, 82 years on, Britain has a
memorial service on the nearest Sunday to that date.
tells me that the US has just had a Veterans' Day
public holiday as well, so perhaps this is
connected to the same date in a similar way.
I also enjoyed a short story by Alice Monro, a chapter of
"An artist of the floating world" by Kazuo Ishiguro, and an
account by Patrick Marnham about attempting to interview Idi
Amin in Uganda.
- To read next:
- London: portrait of a city, compiled by
Roger Hudson. This is a very pretty, "coffee-table"
sort of book from the Folio Society, which I got as a freebie
for staying on as a member. It has lots of full colour
plates, and I'm hoping that the text accompanying them
will be as illuminating.
Wednesday, 15 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Haydn, quartet no. 61 in D minor, Op. 76 no. 2
I still reckon Bush is going to win, but the whole situation clearly
has legs on it like you wouldn't believe. It's quite exciting
following it day by day, because every day seems to bring on new
developments. It's an adventure with real twists and turns.
I went to the opening of an art exhibition yesterday at Lucy Cavendish College.
(There's currently a link to an annoucement of the exhibition, called
Crème de la Crème, on the college web-page,
but I don't suppose it will last.) Anyway, I enjoyed the exhibition,
which featured new works by nine young artists.
I particularly liked the piece by Ingrid Weiss, called "Leap of
faith (an innate releasing mechanism)". This was a slightly
creepy, but engrossing installation on a desk, set-up to look like a
studious bird-watcher's work-bench. As well as photographs of birds,
and a log of observations, there was a surgical tray covered in
mysterious steel instruments, and most compelling of all, a sewing
basket filled with birds' heads made from wool, as well as a bird's
skull. This latter was made to appear as if it was still slightly
fleshed out and decaying away by the addition of woolen "viscera": an
eye, some patchy feathers, some sort of spinal cord and patches of
brown wool that suggested rotting flesh.
Friday, 17 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Oscar Peterson, "Tricrotism" from The sound of the
trio. Classic jazz, recorded live at a restaurant, London
House in Chicago. As this track starts, you can hear the clink
of cutlery, which is pretty neat. The way that Peterson sort of
sings to himself as he plays live is something I'm still getting
used to. It occurs on the live tracks on Oscar Peterson's
finest hour too.
Glenn Gould is famous for doing the same on some of his
recordings. Some people like it, and some loathe it.
From the random($foo)
George Bush said he didn't reveal the drunk
driving charge because of what his daughters might think of him. He
had preferred that they think of him as a man with numerous failed
business ventures who now executes people.
Monday, 20 November 2000
Alkan. Preludes, impromptus, études and other piano
works. Alkan is a French composer (1813–1888) who wrote for
the piano, and was a bit of a recluse. He died when a bookshelf
fell on him. (Owning books is a dangerous business: first you
get behind in reading them, and then they gang up on you for not
paying them enough attention, and then, pfft!) Alkan’s music is
very elegant in a Chopin-esque kind of way.
London: portrait of a city. The author credit for
this book is
compiled by Roger Hudson. The bulk of the text
is extracts from various first person accounts and pieces of
fiction and poetry about London. It’s a bitty read, but quite
an enjoyable one. I’ve just got out of the 17th century, the
era of diarist Samuel Pepys. One of his entries says:
I went out to Charing Cross, to see
Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was
done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that
condition — 13 October 1660
Harrison was executed for his involvement in the killing of
Charles I during the English Civil War, which execution Pepys
had also seen.
Calvin, Hobbes and Encryption
and Hobbes page has recently changed its look, including the URL
you use to get the latest strip. Web-sites change their look a lot
more frequently than newspapers, and to about as much overall effect,
I’d say. Just give me the content as fast as possible. Of course, it
would almost certainly be illegal to try and figure out the URL for
the image file of the strip alone, and link to that inside a page of
one’s own devising, but it’s sorely tempting at times.
article describing the recent competition to select AES, the
son-of-DES, a new standard encryption algorithm in the US. (And of
course, if the new algorithm becomes widely deployed in the US,
there’s a strong chance it will in the rest of the world too.) One of
the final five contenders was partly developed by Ross Anderson, a
member of staff at the Computer Lab. It didn’t win though; instead a
system developed by two Belgian academics did. The
system is called Rijndael, so let’s just hope it continues
to be known as that rather than just AES, which is pretty
Wednesday, 22 November 2000
- Listening to:
- Bartok, string quartet no. 6.
The supreme court in Florida has decided that the recounts still going
on in four counties there must continue, and that they have to be
incorporated into the final tally. Maybe my prediction will be wrong,
and Gore will now win. However, let's pretend consistency is a virtue
and continue to predict victory for Bush. If Gore doesn't get enough
votes after the recounts are included, then he will surely give up,
even though the ballot in Palm Beach County was so badly put
I think the whole problem would be solved by reforming the way in
which states selected their electors, and this is something I believe
the states could do off their own bat. Instead of the current
all-or-nothing approach, a state's electors should be appointed in
proportion to the vote received in that state. This would have two
advantages. One, results would be less likely to hinge on tiny numbers
of votes (clearly Florida would give close to half of its electors to
each of Bush and Gore and that would be the end of it). Two, a
greater proportion of the votes cast would have an effect on the
overall result. Consider the situation in California, which has some
inordinate number of electoral college votes because it has such a big
population. Gore won California, which means that all of the votes
cast by Republicans in California are going to have absolutely no
effect on the result of the election. California is perhaps not a
"safe" state for either party, but in states where one or other party
has safe majorities, voters for the minority party are effectively
It would be interesting to know what the situation would look like if
this system had been used in the current election. There might even
be third party electors in the electoral college.
(Note that the system in Maine and Nebraska is probably better than
all-or-nothing, but it still voids non-victorious votes in the
To turn away from politics: a couple of articles on the
business of software engineering. As I wrote to my brother recently,
the best book on all this is still probably Fred Brooks's "The
mythical man-month", but these are also interesting.
is by Philip Greenspun, and has attracted a lot of flak for appearing to
suggest that successful programmers should work 70 hour weeks. In
fact, most of the article is about how companies should make
work-places as pleasant as possible for their (presumably
highly-strung, primadonna-ish) programmers.
is an older piece about how programmers contracted to NASA work in a
completely different way and turn out very high quality code.
Finally, I will be updating the log very irregularly, if at all, over
the next 6 weeks.