Thursday, 1 March 2001

Foot and Mouth Disease

Listening to:

Tchaikovsky, piano concerto #1 in B flat minor, op. 23.

Foot and mouth disease is ravaging the livestock herds of Great Britain. Well, actually foot and mouth doesn’t kill animals, it just makes them poorly for a bit. However, the disease is incredibly contagious. Britain had its last big epidemic in 1967. The first case was in the Isle of Wight, an offshore island. It spread to the rest of the country because the virus particles could float over the sea to the mainland and infect animals there. Scary stuff.

There’s a vaccine too, but apparently no-one in Europe uses it. I guess the calculation is that the money saved justifies the risk of having to slaughter huge proportions of the national herds every so often. In any case, farmers are compensated for animals that are killed.

The BBC has this overview site (including this story questioning whether the big slaughtering programme is wise). The Guardian's site on the story also has a lot of material.

A couple of linked articles, nominally about games programming. The first is more proselytizing for really modern languages (C++ doesn't count; Java doesn't really either). In my case, the author is preaching to the choir and I believe every word of it. The second is a humorous perspective on being a "normal" programmer and being envious of cool games programmers who get to do neat stuff with C++.

Monday, 5 March 2001

The symbolic species

Listening to:

Chopin, 24 preludes.

Just read:

Terrence Deacon, The symbolic species.

This is a very thorough, and thus rather slow-going, science book about our ability to think symbolically. A consequence of this is that we use language, while no other species does. Symbolic species looks at why and how this might be from a number of different angles.

The book is divided into three parts. The first includes a discussion of what symbolic thought is, and how it can be distinguished from iconic and indexical knowledge which seem to be as much as other species ever seem to use. In this first part, the way in which children learn languages so quickly is also discussed. Noam Chomsky’s theory is that children are imbued with some sort of Universal Grammar that they can easily specialise to the actual grammar that they are exposed to as they grow up. In this way, children make just the right guesses when it comes to language acquisition. Deacon suggests that it’s more reasonable to suppose that languages, which evolve much faster than people do, have evolved to make themselves easier to learn. This was wow moment #1, and the neat thing about this book was that there were quite a few more still to come.

The first part also includes commentary on recent experiments with chimpanzees demonstrating that it is possible to get them to learn symbolic knowledge.

Part 2 was the hardest part of the book to read, because so much of it was about brain anatomy. The pages are overflowing with pre-frontal cortexes (cortices?), cerebellums (cerebella?) and ventricles. Nonetheless it too had its share of wow moments, including a neat discussion of the way in which brain development in primates can be distinguished from development in other mammals, and then how human brain development is different again. This naturally led into a discussion of the Darwinian way in which neurons compete for connections to potential targets when they grow. Because the human pre-frontal cortex is so much bigger (proportionally, and absolutely) than in other apes, it has correspondingly more fingers in all of the brain's various pies. For example, it has control over speech organs (tongue and larynx) in a way not duplicated in other animals.

Part 2 also mentions evidence that basically demolishes the idea that a Universal Grammar might be genetically encoded in our brains. Brain imaging and brain dysfunctions (such as Broca’s aphasia) reveal that language processing of semantically similar tasks (inflecting to past tense, etc) happens in different places in the brain depending on which language is being worked on. In other words, our internal processing depends on the surface syntax of the language, not some deep, universal grammar.

In part 3, there is a great bit of speculative writing about what might have prompted our ancestors to evolve in the direction they did, acquiring symbolic thinking, language and bigger brains. I can’t do the argument justice here, but I will sum it up as “We have language so that we can marry”. Definitely a wow moment. Deacon puts his case against Universal Grammar idea once again, and then finishes by making sensible comments about the “problem” of consciousness.

An excellent, thought-provoking book, though very dense and a slow read.

To read next:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

Wednesday, 7 March 2001

Entry #150

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 4, (Sz 91)

LaTeX Slides

I’m working on some slides, and I just have to plug a neat package called Prosper. It lets me use LaTeX to write my slides (complete with all of LaTeX’s great mathematics type-setting), and produces results that look suitably PowerPoint-ish. An alternative technology is TeXPoint, which allows the embedding of TeX/LaTeX material directly into PowerPoint slides. I might use this if it weren’t for the fact that I’m redoing a whole bunch of slides that were originally pure LaTeX.

Friday, 9 March 2001

Classic jazz and a sore heel

Listening to:

Blue train by John Coltrane. Classic jazz, but I can’t tell you exactly when from because the piss-poor packaging I have for the CD only has a © 1985 on it. I know it’s not that recent, and will put my reputation as music-know-it-all on the line by hazarding that it is from the late ’50s.

My left heel hurts and I don’t know why. I guess I must have just banged it at some stage, and now it’s bruised. Perhaps that’s it. If it isn’t magically better by Monday I’m going to start cycling everywhere.

The Internet cannot be stored in the Recycle Bin - Windows 95

From David's quote page.

Tuesday, 13 March 2001

Brahms and internet coffee

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98. There’s a moving account in Swafford’s biography of Brahms of him going to see a performance of this work just weeks before he died. When the performance finished, he stood in his box to acknowledge the applause, and with tears running down his face, shocked all and sundry with how obviously ill he was. Like his other three symphonies, this is one of my favourite works; dramatic, full of feeling and lyrical.

Now reading:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit. Staying firmly in the nineteenth century. In the edition I’m reading, this is a 700 page epic, and may take me a while to finish.

Coffee cam to go

What I’ve seen described as the world’s first web-cam (I don’t know if this is accurate or not), is closing soon. Yes, the Cambridge coffee pot is going out of business because of our imminent shift to new premises. Our system administrators recently sent round an e-mail to the effect that this news has caused real problems for our web-server. Usually it’s new things that cause request spikes.

Here are the top six requested files on our server:

  #reqs: %bytes: filename
  ------ ------- --------
4227765:  0.84%: /cgi-bin/xvcoffee
2670749:  0.42%: /coffee/coffee.html
2340190:  0.99%: /coffee/icon.gif
1144792:  0.46%: /
 809399:  1.17%: /users/iwj10/linux-faq/
 610109:  1.43%: /users/mn200/music/composers.html

(I had to make it a top six in order to show my composers page’s position.)

Thursday, 15 March 2001

Entry #153

Listening to:
Mendelssohn, piano concerto no. 1 in G minor, op. 25. Another traversal CD. I haven't listened to this CD in ages, so this is a clear indication of the value of doing the traversal. It's neat music, so there's no reason for me to have avoided it. It's just too easy when picking out my five or six CDs for the day to decide on things that I've bought more recently.
A recent movie:
O Brother, where are thou? This was an amusing film. It's really pretty light-weight, but that doesn't make it any less effective. If you know to look for them, the references to the Odyssey are fun to pick up. The blue-grass soundtrack is also very appealing. Verdict: a very enjoyable film.
I think my heel is healing (ba-boom).

As I write the Australian cricket team is going through all sorts of pain in their game against India (the second test match in a series of three). They have no batsmen left, are 174/8, and look almost certain to lose their first test match in absolutely ages. They did as they said they would, and played to win, even with a big target to get on the last day, so they deserve some credit for playing positively. I hope the Australian press, which can be famously unforgiving, if not rabid, don't accuse them of playing recklessly.

Monday, 19 March 2001

Liszt, Vampires and English Passengers

Listening to:

Liszt, Bagatelle sans tonalité. This is a short little piece. In fact, it’s just finished as I write. It’s part of a CD of performances by Paul Lewis (a pianist) from the BBC Music Magazine. I wouldn’t often buy such a “collection” CD, but I really enjoy this one. It features Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Schubert.

A recent movie:

Shadow of the Vampire. I didn't really think that much of this. It was quite atmospheric, but it took itself a bit too seriously. None of the characters were particularly interesting or believable. John Malkovich was pretty good as the obsessive director, but that’s all he was, a one-dimensional obsessive director. I can’t help but think that this film was sold as a premise and never really fleshed out. (“It'll be great: a director makes a vampire film where the vampire character really is a vampire. Oh, and did I say? The director will be really obsessive, so much so that he does evil deals with the vampire just to get his film made.”)

Still reading:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit. I’m about two thirds of the way through this. It’s a great epic, and I’m really enjoying it.

Holiday reading:

Matthew Kneale, English passengers. This was a very good Christmas present. It also recently won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. It tells many stories simultaneously, with a cast of different narrators used to narrate various chapters. This device works well to demonstrate the characters’ differing perspectives on the same situations.

There are two principal stories in the novel. One is of an expedition to Tasmania, led by a daft vicar who is convinced that Tasmania is the site of the Garden of Eden, and the other is the story of Peevay, a young Tasmanian Aboriginal who grows up just as the British settlers there are wiping out all of his people. Needless to say, both stories eventually overlap.

In a ‘cast of thousands’, it is perhaps a little difficult to find only three sympathetic characters, heroes if you like, but the preponderance of brutality, racism and narrow-mindedness is probably an accurate reflection of the times. Moreover, the novel is really very exciting, and kept me enthralled throughout.

Wednesday, 21 March 2001

Films and Games

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 3 (Sz 85).

A recent movie:

Best in Show. I saw this on a plane from Hong Kong to Heathrow and thought it very good, even in those rather trying conditions. (Although I have to say, I think I find it a lot easier to get to sleep over the muted roar of jet engines than over the neighbours’ distant pop music when the latter is the only thing disturbing the night’s quiet.) Anyway, what about this film then? Very amusing. It’s what is apparently known as a mockumentary. This means that while taking on the outward form of a documentary, it is actually an extended satire.

This film succeeds because it verges just a little into the unrealistic to make its jokes. The characters seem as if they just might be real people. The film is based around a big dog show, and the principal characters are the various contestants that attend, hoping that their dog will win the grand prize. They are all a little weird and stereotypical, but very funny as they negotiate all sorts of quandaries.

The Computer Game

I’ve been playing quite a bit of a new PC game called Europa Universalis. It’s quite an addictive game in the Civilisation/Imperialism mould, but better than both, in my opinion, because of its very well-researched historical setting. Other people seem to think pretty highly of it too; for example this review at StrategyGaming is very positive. It finishes (in incomplete sentences, he’s clearly that rapt):

I can see if you don’t have much time, or don’t have an interest in history at all. But outside of that, if you don’t buy this game, you’re nuts.

Friday, 23 March 2001

Technology ills (mostly)

Listening to:

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, Back to back. Smooth, elegant and stylish jazz.

Well, quite

The Case against micro-payments: an important reminder that technology will only succeed if it pays some attention to users' gut reactions.

What's wrong with content protection: John Gilmore of the Electronic Freedom Foundation on how the entertainment industry wants to control our computers and related hardware in unwarranted ways.

Daily Builds are your friend: Joel Spolsky in fine form on the cycle of virtue instilled by daily builds. I thought I should end on a positive note :-)

Tuesday, 27 March 2001

Martin Chuzzlewit

Listening to:

Rachmaninoff, piano concerto #2 in C minor, op. 18.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

This is a big novel, telling the story of a young man trying to find his way in life, and learning in the process about the real nature of selfishness. Supported by a typical Dickensian “cast of thousands”, this novel is entertaining and full of memorable characters and incidents. There’s Mr. Pecksniff, the archetypal self-serving hypocrite, Mrs. Gamp, an alcoholic nurse who is simultaneously revolting and hilarious, Tom Pinch, a trusting soul who is much put upon by those around him, and Mark Tapley who seeks the worst situations to be in because there’s “no credit in being jolly” if life is too easy.

The plot twists and turns as well. There’s an extended and very savage portrait of early 19th century America occasioned by the eponymous (ha!) hero’s trip there, an exciting underworld plot where thieves and brutes fall out, and over it all, the question of just how the rich and obstreporous Chuzzlewit patriarch will deal out his wealth. It really does keep you turning the pages.

It’s not perfect. Ruth Pinch, Tom's sister, will make you want to gag, portrayed as a nauseating, fluttery Victorian girlish ideal. Dickens does this sort of character much better in David Copperfield, where David’s first wife is similarly fluttery but at least revealed to be hopeless in dealing with real life. Merry Pecksniff’s eventual marriage, though very important to the plot, also seems pretty unrealistic. Finally, the trip to America seems to be in the novel mainly so that Dickens can lay into America's faults.

Seven and a half out of ten.

Now reading:

Erich Hoyt, The earth-dwellers. Narrative natural history about ants. More when I finish it next week.

Thursday, 29 March 2001


Listening to:

Beethoven, sonata no. 3 in A, op 69 for piano and cello.

A recent movie:

Toy Story II. I saw this at home on DVD recently, and thought it was brilliant. It has a rather gag-inducing song in the middle about a girl growing up and abandoning her toys, but it's otherwise extremely amusing and entertaining. On DVD, we also got to see a bunch of interviews with some of the actors doing the voices, which was kinda neat.

Joel gets it wrong

I’m going to link to Joel Spolsky again today, but this time I come not to praise him, but to bury him. His latest article is about bloat-ware. This is the phenomenon that sees the 1993 installation of Microsoft Excel take up 15 MB of disk-space, and the version for 2000 take up 146 MB. He dismisses complaints about this problem by saying that the decreasing cost of hard-disk space has more than made up for the increase in size, so that in terms of its space-consumption cost, the 2000 version of Excel is actually cheaper than its predecessor. He also dismisses complaints about the fact that big programs have a memory-consumption cost too (some part of them needs to be loaded into memory); pointing out that paging and virtual memory combine to ensure that you may not often have much of the executable in memory at any one time, and the rest will be consuming more of that cheap disk-space. Further, this means that start-up times for the application will likely be pretty good.

So far, so good. This stuff is all perfectly correct. But it’s not the real reason to feel annoyed about bloatware. My objection to it is that it’s a sign of poor craftsmanship. Does Spolsky really think that it's admirable that at least some versions of Excel include a flight simulator Easter Egg?

He explains bloatware thus:

In fact there are lots of great reasons for bloatware. For one, if programmers don’t have to worry about how large their code is, they can ship it sooner. And that means you get more features, and features make your life better (when you use them) and don’t usually hurt (when you don’t). If your software vendor stops, before shipping, and spends two months squeezing the code down to make it 50% smaller, the net benefit to you is going to be imperceptible. Maybe, just maybe, if you tend to keep your hard drive full, that's one more Duran Duran MP3 you can download.

That looks like one dodgy reason to me, not lots of great ones. If shipping software quickly is the overriding concern, then the result may well be better results for the company producing the code, but what does the consumer get? Insufficiently debugged, poorly tested code that crashes more than it should. Maybe all of those features that have been pushed into the new program are interacting in subtle ways with the flight simulator. Maybe the fact that several versions of the same library code have been linked with the application is an indication that the people developing the code didn't really have any idea about what they were doing when they wrote it.

Would you buy an operating system from these people?