Monday, 2 April 2001

The Earth Dwellers

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano concerto no. 1 in C, Op. 15.

Just read:

Erich Hoyt, The Earth dwellers: adventures in the land of ants.

Very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by ants, and this book is full of all sorts of information, presented in an engaging way. Most attention is focussed on a species of leaf-cutter ants, and I learnt a lot about them. For example, the leaves that these ants cut are not themselves eaten by the ants. Instead, the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus, kept in underground gardens, that is used as a universal food. Further, when virgin queens leave the colony to mate, they take a little sample of the fungus with them so that the new colony they establish will be able to grow the fungus too. (They store their sample in their mouths under their tongues.)

In addition the book spends quite a bit of time on the swarm-raiding army ants, and explains how they breed by having colonies split in two. In this species, only the males fly around looking for mates. There is a very brief discussion of how it is that ants are haplo-diploid, and how this goes some way to explaining the way an ant colony acts as one individual. (The other great social insect species, termites, are not haplo-diploid though, so it’s clearly not a necessary condition for elaborate social structure. Perhaps termites are more like humans and their social structures are less monolithic. I’m clearly going to have to try to read up about termites too!)

The author places his narratives about the ants he describes quite specifically in a Costa Rican rain-forest. He also describes the ant-scientists that work there, particularly the famous Edward O. Wilson. Hoyt is clearly quite impressed by Wilson, and even gives over a whole chapter to talking about the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s. This is sympathetic in terms of Wilson’s personal behaviour, but makes no attempt to explain the issues, and so feels like a bit of a waste of time.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an introduction to a fascinating field of natural history.

Now reading:

Leo Marks, Between silk and cyanide. A great big book that I read a great chunk of yesterday. Very exciting.

Wednesday, 4 April 2001

Not really an entry at all

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 1, op. 7 (Sz 40).

A little rhyme

I’m a busy, busy bee
I’m so busy, look at me

In short, lots of work and not enough time.

Friday, 6 April 2001

HOL training

Listening to:

Mendelssohn, symphony no. 3 in A minor, op. 56 “Scottish”. Felix did actually go to Scotland at one point, so it seems reasonable that he should have been inspired by what he found there. I’m currently up to the sprightly second movement (Vivace non troppo), which opens with a gorgeous theme on the woodwind.

Foo and more

A reader suggests this variation on the bee poem:

I'm as busy as a bee with a bum full of honey

but we agreed that mine is better.

Ever wondered about this foo word that computer-geeks seems so fond of? Now, there’s an RFC explaining all. It's an April Fools RFC, but this doesn’t make it any less informative.

The work that has been keeping me so busy recently (running 'round like a blue-arsed fly even) involved the production of many, many slides to be used as training materials for the teaching of the HOL system. I’m just about done now, and happy to say that if you want to see my handiwork, you can do so here. The slides were all produced with the Prosper style for LaTeX.

Another part of the project involved the creation of a "case-study" proving confluence for combinatory logic. Combinatory logic is what underlies the neat obfuscated programming language Unlambda (it even has a Comprehensive Archive Network, like TeX, and Perl).

Wednesday, 11 April 2001

Entry #162

Listening to:
Mozart, Mass in C minor, K427. This is sometimes known as Mozart's Great Mass. It's incomplete, but not as much as the Requiem. It's full of beautiful choral music, and I imagine it must be amazing to sing. (Or perhaps it's difficult; I really don't know.)
Just read:
Leo Marks, Between silk and cyanide. I really liked this. It's a memoir of the author's time as code specialist for the Special Operations Executive during World War II. This is thus a different "scene" from the famous activities carried out at Bletchley Park (where Alan Turing worked). Inasmuch as anyone is allowed to know about what went on there, Bletchley Park was concerned with cracking the enemy's codes (famously, Enigma). On the other hand, Marks's job was to design codes for use by the special agents that were dropped into occupied Europe to carry out the war against Germany by less conventional means.

The book relates how Marks got his job and found that SOE were using a code with very poor security. Over the course of his years there, he gradually managed to improve the codes that agents used, and also instituted training to better allow the staff in London to try and decrypt messages that had become scrambled somehow.

There's lots of drama in this story. Needless to say, much of this comes from the fact that there's a war on, and the Germans are capturing agents, turning them and all the rest. But in addition to all this, there are all sorts of institutional struggles to contend with. For example, the SOE was not part of what is now known as MI6 (referred to here simply as C). In Marks's telling, C was often out to discredit SOE's activities, and the SOE had to "fight its corner" just to continue to receive resources. Even within SOE, Marks's has to deal with lots of superiors who don't see things quite as he does.

A substantial number of the reviewers at, thought that Marks's writing style was very offputting. I wasn't bothered by it. He's a little precious at times, but this is a minor aspect of the book that didn't stop me from enjoying it a great deal.

Now reading:
David Berlinski, A tour of the calculus. The author's style is really putting me off this one though.
I was afflicted with Disappearing Tuesday syndrome yesterday.

Thursday, 12 April 2001

Mahler, Mission Impossible and new games

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9. Mahler was apparently a little affected by a superstitious worry to the effect that nine symphonies is as many as a great composer is allowed. Bruckner didn’t even manage to comlete his ninth, and Beethoven’s ninth was his last. As it turned out, Mahler’s ninth was indeed his last completed symphony. (There is a “performing version” of his drafts for a tenth symphony.)

Thirty-five years later, it seems quite likely that Shostakovich deliberately thumbed his nose at this tradition of great ninth symphonies (and thereby thumbed his nose at the Soviet government, who expected something great of him), by producing a ninth symphony that was short, not overtly dramatic, and which seemed very slight.

Anyway, Mahler’s ninth is quite a mysterious work. Its opening and closing movements are both slow movements (an Andante and an Adagio), while its two internal movements are quite raucous and full of strange eruptions of sound. However, it’s definitely coherent and melodic at the same time.

A recent movie:

Mission Impossible 2. We got this out on DVD. It’s slickly done, but it suffers from a number of faults. It has a serious case of Bond-envy; its plot is ridiculous; Tom Cruise smirks far too much; the other good guys are far too marginalised (the best part of the first MI movie was the initial segment when you saw a team of operatives working together; Cruise as lone operative dominating the plot destroys that interesting, and distinctive, flavour), and those bloody masks are used far too much.

Plot holes range from the typical ridiculous science (why didn’t the operatives that stole the magic medicine pick up the disease from the scientist carrying both the medicine and the disease on the plane?) to the implausible assumptions. Why, for example, on knowing where the bad guys were (great location, Sydney Harbour), did the good guys not get in several truck loads of police to arrest them? The Australian authorities would be more than willing to arrest people that special US agencies fingered as terrorists.

Computer game options

I’m thinking of buying a new computer game; maybe Baldur’s Gate II or Age of Empires II. It’s interesting that they’re both sequels. Both are apparently significant improvements on their predecessors, which does at least suggest that their developers have paid attention to what users have said, and thought about how to improve what they’ve done.

I’ve recently been playing Panzer General II a bit. (Another sequel! And then there’s Railroad Tycoon II...) I like PG2 as a relatively mindless, but entertaining way of consuming 30-60 minutes.

Monday, 16 April 2001

Entry #164

Listening to:
Oscar Peterson: the song is you.
Just read:
David Berlinski, A tour of the calculus.
An exposition of the fundamental ideas in calculus, written in a style presumably intended to be accessible, and not dry in the way that many maths texts are. Professional mathematicians prize a compact terseness that forces the reader to pay a great deal of attention. Berlinski has written something that is exactly the opposite; he writes great wads of kerfuffle in a very "posey" way. I found it terribly off-putting. Berlinski clearly has a few chips on his shoulders about the humanities as well, because he includes at least a couple of mean-spirited digs at humanities academics that seem completely out of place.

If it wasn't for the fact that the coverage of the material is actually pretty reasonable, I would have found this book very difficult to finish. As it is, his coverage of the material is good, and I particularly liked his discussion of continuity.

Berlinski concludes briefly to the effect that all of the world's "hot science' is happening in biology (contentious, for a start), and because biologists don't need maths (definitely contentious, for a second), calculus's heyday is over. Of course, he is muddling calculus and maths grossly, but I don't believe it whichever he meant.

Granta 65: London.
This issue of Granta is quite a fat one, and just about all of its pieces have some connection with London. Further, they're almost all pretty good. I particularly liked the extracts from John Lanchester's Mr. Phillips, Ian Buruma's Voltaire's coconuts, and a piece by a Ugandan about his experience claiming political asylum at Gatwick airport.
Now reading:
Colonel Frederick Bailey, Mission to Tashkent. Another memoir by someone in the secret agent business. This one is set in the period 1918 to about 1920 though.
I haven't come in today (Easter Monday holiday) solely to update this web-log I assure you. I have work to do too! (I bought Age of Empires II, by the way. It's pretty good, with high addiction potential, but calling the genre "real-time strategy" is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. Europa Universalis is about strategy, AoE2 is about something else entirely.)

Wednesday, 18 April 2001

Entry #165

Listening to:
A CD my office-mate just lent me, consisting of excerpted tracks from an album called Hommage à Nasrat Fateh Ali Khan. Seems pretty good so far.
There is to be an election in Britain soon. On my way into work this morning, I cycled past a billboard for the Conservative Party. It was a picture of a slightly anxious looking middle-aged woman standing by some sort of canal. In big red letters, at the top of the poster: You paid the tax; slightly lower down, Where are the police? About as subtle as a sledgehammer to the forehead then. More interesting was the URL in a smaller font: I thought it interesting that they didn't want a URL with a .uk suffix. Of course, the way the Conservatives go about their fund-raising, the .com suffix is probably quite appropriate. Or maybe they just wanted people to be able to type "conservatives" into their browser and be taken to the right place. (My brower is now smart enough not to take me to if I type in "whitehouse" though.)

I read a very interesting piece about British agriculture in the London Review of Books the other day. It's extracted on their web-site here (I don't know why it's only an extract; the LRB should really get its act together and put more stuff online). It's hard not to feel that your guiding principle should be: "Don't buy from British farmers; it only encourages them."

Friday, 20 April 2001


Listening to:

Couperin, Nouveaux concerts.

Looking yourself up on a search engine

Today I return to the notion of ego-surfing, but from a slightly different point of view. If I type my name into Google, the top ten results all relate to me. In fact, it took quite a while to find some references that weren't. Here (in search result #68) I win something (maybe a free holiday); and here (result #152) I am an Australian Rules football player.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about my situation. Like many computer scientists I've been on the web for a long time because academic computer science departments were early adopters of the technology. But just imagine the poor soul whose name is Dennis Ritchie or Robin Milner. They indulge in a little bit of ego-surfing and any genuine references to them are swamped by the zillions of pages out there about computer scientists that they've never even heard of (in all likelihood). Sure, if your name is Bill Clinton, your situation is worse, but at least you know what to expect when you search for your name on the web.

Clearly we all need to adopt e-mail addresses as names in a desperate attempt to get unique identifiers, and, oh happy day, here's a story from the BBC about something almost as good.

Tuesday, 24 April 2001

Entry #167

Listening to:
Pergolesi, Salve Regina in F minor. This piece is something of a filler in a CD that features Pergolesi's really famous piece, the Stabat Mater. This CD features the counter-tenor Andreas Scholl and is quite good. In the Stabat Mater he sings with Barbara Bonney, and having two such different voices works well. I don't know, though, if his part needed to be transcribed at all for his range.
Just read:
Colonel Frederick Bailey, Mission to Tashkent. This is another memoir from the world of spies and secret agents. Bailey was sent to the Tashkent area in early 1918 to find out what was happening there, and to try and convince the Communist authorities that they shouldn't allow their German and Austrian POWs to cause trouble for the UK in Europe or the Indian sub-continent. He quickly found life difficult because the British were simultaneously backing various White Russian campaigns in the Russian Civil War. Eventually, he has to go underground, and the memoir then describes how he evades capture and eventually manages to escape to friendly Persia.

Mission to Tashkent is not quite as enthralling as Between silk and cyanide. I think this boils down to a few factors. One is that Bailey wrote his memoir just after WW2, and Marks wrote his in the 1990s. The styles of the respective periods are inevitably a bit different. Bailey's story also suffers because he spends most of his time in varying degrees of ignorance about what's happening in the world. He has precious little contact with anyone he can trust and so there is very little in the way of conversation described. Marks, by way of contrast, worked in London, surrounded by people he could and had to interact with, and in a position where he naturally got something of an overview picture of the whole war in Europe.

Bailey's story does make the time and place come to life. Reading it, you gain an appreciation of how brutal and chaotic the revolution was, and how it was felt in a corner of the Soviet Union-to-be that it is all to easy to ignore.

To read next:
Graham Greene, Stamboul Train.

Thursday, 26 April 2001

Computer games

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, Rocks in my bed, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. This is from a CD titled Ella Fitzgerald day dream: best of the Duke Ellington songbook.

Games I’m playing

I have been playing a bit of Age of Empires II recently. Over the last two nights, I have found myself completely stuck on the sixth scenario of the Joan of Arc “campaign”. Earlier in the week, I had another go at my previous gaming bête noire, the Novgorod scenario in Panzer General II. I did better than in my previous attempts, but I still failed. Sigh. Really, this phenomenon is a good one; games shouldn’t be push-overs, but it's doing no good for my image of myself as an armchair general extraordinaire.

I am unwilling to admit that these games require practice to acquire the necessary skills. I want to be an instant expert just from doing a little bit of thinking “on the spot”, and figuring out what the right thing to do is. I don’t think that I should be able to play Chess like this, and it took me a good while to get to the level of skill I have at Go (about 5 kyu), so why are my expectations different with computer games? Perhaps it’s because they present such a seductive interface, one that gives you a gratifying illusion of control over vast armies. It’s hard to reconcile this superficial picture with the need to actually do some learning.

Heck, I even get given a good run for my money by the standard Windows game of Hearts every time I play it. I can only console myself with the fact that my Go skill makes me stronger than any extant computer program. See this page from the American Go Association, and this nice article from the New York Times (extracted somewhere else so probably a copyright violation, but not thereby subject to their new restrictions on access to old content).

Finally, something nice from David Chess’s log. I can attest to Canadians’ hardiness with respect to swimming outdoors. As for writing about real people, my intention is always paranoid; nobody else is identified here. Perhaps this makes things a bit anonymous, but hey, I plough my own furrow.

Monday, 30 April 2001

Stamboul Train and the perils of sponsorship

Listening to:

Mozart, Così fan tutte. This is an EMI “great recordings of the century” recording, with Karl Böhm conducting, and the cast including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christia Ludwig, Alfredo Kraus and Giuseppe Taddei. (I've only heard of Schwarzkopf before.) The recording was made in 1963. It features some divine singing, but I’m disappointed that the choruses are very recessed; it sounds as if the chorus (along with their own separate accompanying orchestra) are singing in a different room.

Just read:

Graham Greene, Stamboul train.

I think this is the first fiction of Greene’s that I’ve ever read, and I am very impressed. I know that he classed it as an “entertainment”, and that it is not as serious as novels like Brighton Rock, The power and the glory and The quiet American; but that doesn’t stop it from being a very exciting “thriller”. It’s dramatic, full of interesting characters and also very sad. I hadn’t expected a romance to play such a pivotal rôle in the story, but it works very well.

To read next:

An anthology of pieces from The New York Review of Books. I think I got this as some sort of freebie when I renewed my subscription or something like that.

Hunger Site tackiness

The Hunger Site, which I still visit every day, has a couple of major sponsors in addition to the other companies that buy advertising space. Currently, one is Amazon, and the other is a dieting company called eDiets. I can’t help but think that having a diet company as a sponsor for a web-page that has the headline banner 24,000 die daily. Please click every day is just a bit off.