Wednesday, 10 January 2001

Entry #130

Listening to:
Holst, The planets. The next traversal CD. This is Holst's most famous piece of work, being a musical depiction of the seven non-Earth planets known in his day. Of course, planets don't really have characters, so Holst made them up, with some reference to Graeco-Roman mythology. For example, the first planet "described" is Mars, the Bringer of War. This music is often used as a backdrop to militaristic scenes in movies and TV programmes. It's a very successful evocation of menacing military fervour. When I was younger, I could consistently send shivers down my spine just by listening to Mars with my full attention, and imagining some great army marching to death and destruction. The last planet is Neptune, the Mystic, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with Neptune/Poseidon, the god of the sea, but does summon up images of distant quiet and solitude very well.
Just read:
Well, where do I start? I'm just back from a 6 week holiday and I read quite a bit while away. I think I'll have to take a few days to describe the books read. First up then, is the Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels by Patrick O'Brian.
  • Master and Commander. This introduces the series, and is quite compelling. I think you'd have to be reasonably keen on the idea of following the adventures of a naval captain to stick with it, as this novel is the most sea-bound of the seven I read. There's lots of naval terminology to come to either ignore or come to grips with, and I suspect that having a knowledge of what tacking and going about is would help. If you read and enjoyed the Swallows and Amazons books (by Arthur Ransome) as a kid, there's got to be a reasonable chance that you will like this.

    About my only criticism of this book is the cop-out way in which the situation with Lieutenant Dillon is resolved.

I have decided that I wasted too much time in the morning reading online comics in 2000, so I'm giving them up entirely. To mark their passing, I'll briefly describe (again over a number of entries) what I'm forgoing.

I've mentioned Sluggy Freelance before in these pages. In February last year, I described it as "pretty funny .... [but] a bit juvenile at times". This would still be my verdict now. I think that its success is based on the author's willingness to be wacky. Examples of this include the ongoing feud between the pet rabbit and Santa Claus, the commando-like secret information organisation built up by disaffected ex-elves from Santa's factory, and the hapless demons from the Dimension of Pain who never quite manage to abduct the main character, Torg.

Friday, 12 January 2001

Post captain

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony #4 in A minor, Op. 63.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O’Brian, Post captain.

This is the second in the series, and is probably the biggest book of the seven I’ve read so far. The way in which the size of the books toned down after the first two suggests to me that it was only at this point that O’Brian realised he was onto a long-lived series. (There are 20 books in the Aubrey-Maturin series all told.) For example, the blurb on the back of the paperback edition I bought talked about a set of events that sounded as if they could fill a reasonable sized book. Aubrey and Maturin are in France during the Peace of Amiens, but when war is declared once again, Napoleon tries to have all British citizens arrested, and the two heroes have to escape. You might think that this would be a substantial part of the book, but in fact, this is a relatively unimportant prelude to the main action.

It is in this novel that the reader is properly introduced to Stephen Maturin's activities as a secret agent for the British Admiralty. The blurb for the edition of Master and commander that I read, clearly written well after the series was well underway, describes Maturin as a secret agent, but nothing is made of this in the first novel.

Post captain is engrossing because it describes all sorts of aspects of life at the turn of the 19th century, not just naval battles. Its depiction of society doesn’t have Jane Austen’s light finesse and wit, but it does an appealing job of conveying the feel of life 200 years ago. I certainly don’t think that you could dismiss these books as simple war stories. A better characterisation might be historical novels about naval characters.

There is a bit of naval action in this novel, and it’s exciting to read (particularly the missions in the experimental ship Polychrest), but events on land, romance and pecuniary affairs, are probably most important.

A lost comic:

The famous User Friendly. This comic even got its own O’Reilly book, which is surely a pretty good indication of the strip’s reputation. It’s all about a team working at a small ISP/Internet company. It does a pretty good line in skewering the idiocies of the world on the web. Points against would be: terrible art (the character’s faces are consistent and recognisable, but limbs and other parts of the depicted world look amateurish), yet another pointless cute animal sidekick, and the occasionally dreary soap storyline.

Tuesday, 16 January 2001

Entry #132

Listening to:
Saint-Saëns, symphony no. 3 (Organ). This symphony gets its moniker from the very impressive inclusion of an organ, which introduces the last movement. The organ doesn't usually feature in symphonic works, but it works very well in this one.
Holiday reading:
Patrick O'Brian, H.M.S. Surprise. This is the third in the series and sees Aubrey and Maturin journey in the eponymous (hee!) ship around the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean, to India and then onto the East Indies. Maturin gets plenty of opportunity to look at weird and exotic fauna, and there are battles with big French fleets. The principal characters' romantic lives are also advanced.

One thing I found slightly frustrating with this installment in the series was that it was not at all obvious when it was set. I think in retrospect that it was after the Battle of Trafalgar, but this is not very clear. I definitely enjoyed it though, and appreciated the way in which more and more of the historic world was revealed. Here we got to see the East India Company, India and the tropics.

A lost comic:
Waiting for Bob. An intelligent, comic soap. No talking animals, and elegant line drawings.
Just read:
Now that I'm back from the holiday, I am back onto the reading list. I finished London: portrait of a city on Sunday. It has great art, mainly nice prints of paintings, and some of the excerpts were pretty good too. For example, it was interesting to read of the Carlyle family moving into Chelsea in the late 18th/early 19th century and finding it nice and rural, while still being conveniently close to the bustling metropolis. I think it's fair to say that Chelsea is now central London by most metrics. Other excerpts by people like Dickens, Kipling and Virginia Woolf were also good.
To read next:
Boethius, The consolation of philosophy. This was apparently written while the author was imprisoned by a Roman emperor. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, reckoned it the most appealing Christian philosophy of the period, preferring it to that of people like Augustine and Jerome.
In the interests of getting work done, I've decided to reduce my 'log frequency somewhat. Over two weeks, I'll do logs on Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Tuesday-Thursday.

To close: the moral of this story is that not even academics can mess with the entertainment industry in America. I wouldn't mind industry moguls throwing their weight around if it wasn't for the fact that the governments of this world seem to bend over backwards to make things as cosy as possible for them. Protect (legislate in favour of) the consumer, not the business.

Thursday, 18 January 2001

Negative reviews and hunting

Listening to:

Shostakovich, violin concerto no. 1 in A minor, op 99. This is dramatic and exciting music, with a great part for the soloist.

A lost comic:

General Protection Fault. Good title (it’s the phrase that comes up when it all goes horribly wrong on Windows machines), and reasonably drawn. Fairly interesting characters, and the mandatory talking animal (a slime mold actually) doesn’t often feature. Set in a computer company, and sporadically amusing. Far too interested in telling long, soap-like stories than keeping the reader consistently amused. Takes its supernatural elements (demonic secretary, and strange jester figure) far too seriously.

A recent movie:

East is east. We saw this on DVD last year, and were very disappointed. What the hype would have had us believe was a touching, humourous but gritty look at life growing up in a Muslim family of Pakistani origin (with an English mother) in the north-east of England, was in fact poorly written, full of unpleasant stereotypes, toilet humour and generally quite unfunny. Not recommended. (IMDB page.)

Yesterday the House of Commons in the UK voted (by over a 2-1 margin) to ban hunting with dogs in England and Wales. There’s a good chance that the bill will fail to make it into law because the House of Lords will stall it until the next election, which is expected in May. The main opponents to the abolition of hunting call themselves the Countryside Alliance, and have a website. Interestingly, there is another Countryside alliance website out there. It has a .com domain-name, and the material is American. Most interesting of course, is the fact that it’s an animal rights site; see for example their FAQs on hunting and fishing.

Monday, 22 January 2001

Sinfest and CVS

Listening to:

Rachmaninoff, Vespers (All-night vigil).

A lost comic:

Sinfest. Comics drawn in a cute, yet stylish, anime style. Some are rather coarse; others feature God and/or the Devil in a variety of clever and slapstick confrontations. I’ve created three pages of links to some I particularly liked.

Now reading:

Boethius, The consolation of philosophy. More on this when I finish it, probably next weekend.

Holiday reading:

Karl Fogel, Open source development with CVS.

Lest you think that I read nothing but Patrick O’Brian while away, I also read this while staying with friends in Brisbane. This was a slightly odd combination of manual for the CVS tool (which is a great and useful tool indeed, I have to say), and a discussion of the issues involved in running an Open Source project. For example, among the latter he discusses when and how to fork a project. (This is what happened to create the two current major emacs implementations, GNU Emacs and XEmacs.) This latter material is perhaps a little touchy-feely, but it's an enjoyable read.

The material explaining CVS is very clear, and though I thought I knew the system reasonably well, I have now have a much better understanding of how the -j flag to cvs update works. Further, all of the CVS material from this book is available for free (under the GPL even) from the book’s site.

Wednesday, 24 January 2001

Music, literature, comics, and hagiography

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in E flat major, op. 127. This is one of Beethoven’s “late quartets”, and thus tarred with the brush of perhaps being rather difficult. Really though, it’s not so bad. The really difficult piece is the Grosse Fugue, a very long self-contained work that was the original last movement to one of the other late quartets. I still haven’t got my head around it.

A lost comic:

Calvin and Hobbes. The first of the commercial comics I was in the habit of reading. The author, Bill Watterson, stopped drawing this comic in 1995, and the United Comics site is gradually putting all of them online, revealing them one at a time, 11 years after the fact.

C&H is very well drawn, and features some very funny strips. My only criticism is that it occasionally gets a little preachy, particularly on environmental themes. It’s also sometimes gives Calvin a perception of his blissful childhood state that is both unrealistic (“youth is wasted on the young”) and a little irritating. All that notwithstanding, still a classic.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The Mauritius Command.

This is the fourth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s very enjoyable. Instead of the relatively straightforward solo naval actions of the first three books, Jack Aubrey is given responsibility (as a commodore) for a group action in and around Mauritius. To make things even more interesting, he has to coordinate with the army. All this brings a new dimension to the storyline, and I really liked it.

Ever heard of Stephen Wolfram? He’s given a hagiographic write-up in this piece from Forbes magazine. I read this and got increasingly annoyed with it. It’s painfully short of detail, so that you aren’t told just what Rule 30 really is, and there’s no real attempt to actually discuss the issues. It all boils down to “Geez, that Wolfram guy is really smart”.

Friday, 26 January 2001

Garfinkel on Java

Listening to:

Count Basie, April in Paris. This is a neat album, but the publishers have padded the original LP with material that is “previously unissued”. In this case all of the padding is different recordings of the same material that makes up the original. I’d much rather hear stuff that really was new. They could combine two LPs into one CD for example.

A lost comic:

Doonesbury. This is unashamedly a “topical” strip, which means that it features politics and scary stuff like that. The politicians are mocked, which is all they deserve, and there are also stories about things like starting up a .com company, and then crashing and burning. On the web, every strip is now in colour. One somewhat unusual feature of the strip is that every so often (maybe while the author has a holiday), the strips repeat some much earlier sequence for a short while (maybe just a week). For example, the genesis of sequence, which happened last year, happened again this month.

More annoying science writing. This piece is by Simson Garfinkel, whose stuff I usually enjoy reading. He’s writing all about Java, and decrying it as a bad language. He first attacks it by claiming that it is a language that is ugly, hard to read and that requires an inordinate amount of typing because of a variety of pedagogical restrictions imposed by Java’s creators. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but note the additional swipe at it by associating it with (obviously useless) pedagogy. (See this technical report on how Java is in fact ill-suited for teaching.) Nor is it clear exactly what he means. I don’t think Java programs are particularly verbose compared to its most obvious rival, C++. But his writing makes it impossible to really assess his criticism because he's being so vague.

Next he talks about Java’s “first Big Lie” (that it can run as fast as C or C++). He says it’s clear that a well-written program in Java could never run as fast as a well-written program in C or C++. Of course, this ignores the important issue of which of Java or C/C++ helps programmers to produce their well-written programs faster, but let’s just assess his reasons for his claim. He says it’s because Java bytecode is interpreted, not compiled. This totally ignores two important developments since Java first appeared, and confuses a language’s implementation with its specification. Most JVMs these days use a technique called “Just-in-time” compilation that, shock, horror, produces compiled code when the bytecode is to be run. So, even if you stick with the JVM, you can achieve compiled-code speeds. Secondly, people are not required to compile Java to bytecode. In fact, they can compile directly to machine instructions. There's such a compiler available for free as part of the GCC project.

Garfinkel reckons that Java’s second Big Lie is that it isn’t really as portable as it claims, and that portability isn’t really that important, because, all the world’s a PC running Windows. (Check out the 10th C Programmer’s commandment.) Java is a lot more portable than C.

Finally, let me say that I am not a Java zealot. I dislike it for a variety of reasons, am not particularly impressed by object-orientation, and think that the C++ language (not just the implementation) is better in some ways (the presence of const and template, for example).

Tuesday, 30 January 2001

The consolation of philosophy

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 1, op. 7. Apparently the code number for this piece is Sz40. Mozart and Scarlatti have K numbers (Koechel and Kirkpatrick respectively), Bach has BWV numbers (it's a German phrase meaning something like Bach Complete Works, or Bach Works catalogue or something like that), and it seems that Bartok has Sz numbers. I've no idea what or who that commemorates.

The last lost comic:

Dilbert. Not brilliantly drawn, but more accomplished than User Friendly. Similar to UF too in its office setting. However, Dilbert is more corporate: the characters are clearly working in a big organisation, not with a small ISP. Dilbert’s characters are more vivid than UF's, but it too has talking animal syndrome.

Dilbert was the last comic in the series of things I looked at each morning. Now I’ve given that up, and now I’ve described them all.

Just read:

Boethius, The consolation of philosophy.

This is a famous piece of ancient philosophy, and a pretty engaging read, given the genre. It’s written as a dialogue between Boethius (writing in the first person), who is in prison (as happened historically to him), and a visiting angel called Philosophy. The angel consoles Boethius by explaining the true nature of happiness, good, evil and all that sort of thing.

The work is divided into 5 Books, each about 25-30 pages long. The first is a general introduction, where Boethius explains his plight (falsely accused and in prison). In the second book, Philosophy explains how Boethius should forget his good fortune, as Fortune is a fickle mistress, whose very nature is change. This is very effective. For example:

What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning? You have seen something unwonted, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong. These are ever her ways: this is her very nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good fortune. You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess.

In Book 3, things get a little more abstract. Philosophy “proves” to Boethius that the highest good must in fact be God, and that the individual aspects of happiness that one can seek in normal life (fame, power, riches, etc) must all be conjoined in their ultimate expression in God. Thus, anyone desiring happiness must ultimately search for it through God. (This God is not necessarily Christian incidentally, though Boethius was Christian; the God being discussed here is quite an abstract entity.)

In Book 4, Philosophy discusses the nature of good and evil, and how it can come to pass that the evil can appear to prosper, while the good can suffer. Philosophy answers these problems by arguing that the wicked are in fact always unhappy because they never succeed in achieving true happiness. Further, when bad fortune assails the good, this is actually good because it’s 1) all part of God's higher plan, so that's OK, and 2) all fortune which seems difficult, either exercises virtue, or corrects or punishes vice.

Finally, in Book 5, Philosophy deals with the issue of free will when we suppose that God/Fate/Providence has perfect omniscience, thus seeming to lead to a contradiction. The contradiction arises because whatever events God has foreknowledge of must necessarily come to pass. This is true because for it to be otherwise would imply less than perfect foreknowledge. But if everything God has foreknowledge of is necessarily going to happen, then there's no scope for humans to have free will. Philosophy’s answer to this is a fairly slick one, arguing that God in fact knows everything from a vantage point outside of time, so that everything in the past, present and future appears to God as one moment, where it’s quite plausible for something to have free will and yet have God know all about it. The error in the contradiction argument is to bind God into the flow of time and suppose that God is somehow stuck at the start of time, looking forward and making necessarily true predictions.

An electronic text of an English translation is available from the University of Virgina, and is the source of my two quotes above.

Now reading:

Granta 64. Russia: the wild east. More on this when I finish it.