Wednesday, 1 November 2000

Entry #120

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 Times says so too.

Friday, 3 November 2000

Entry #121

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 clarinets.
David Chess is treading on my turf in his web-log. He has linked to this article about the way Quake was used to provide a virtual reality environment for people to look around our new building. But I forgive him!

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

Listening to:

Haydn, symphony in E flat, no. 99. The traversal continues.

Just read:

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

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 Leningrad. I’m listening to the recording I recommend in this 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. (Some official 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 good thing.

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

Entry #124

Listening to:
Martinu, Cello sonata no. 3, H340.
A recent movie:
The icicle thief (originally Ladri di saponette). 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

Entry #125

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 stake.

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. My diary 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

Entry #126

Listening to:
Haydn, quartet no. 61 in D minor, Op. 76 no. 2 "Fifths".
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

Entry #127

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) weblog:
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

Entry #128

Listening to:

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.

Still reading:

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

The Calvin 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.

A brief 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 character-less really.

Wednesday, 22 November 2000

Entry #129

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 together.

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 permanently disenfranchised.

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 Congressional districts.)

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.

The first 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. The second 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.