Wednesday, 2 May 2001

Bread and roses; computer science

Listening to:

Fauré, piano quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15.

A recent movie:

Bread and roses. This film is directed by Ken Loach, quite a famous British director. I’d never seen anything by him before seeing this film though. I read a review of the film before going to see it that suggested it was a bit of a polemic, and this verdict is accurate I think. The story is all about a young Mexican woman who illegally crosses the border into California, and gets a job as a janitor. Her job is with a exploitative non-union company, and the crux of the movie is her (and her workmates’) struggle for better conditions.

The acting, particularly of the three main characters: the woman, her older sister, and the union rep, is good and the plot has some good twists and turns. However, the film is also blatant, one-sided propaganda. It’s not the content of the propaganda I have a problem with, but the simple fact that it is propaganda. None of the obvious arguments against the film’s thesis are even mentioned, let alone replied to. If you can get over the irritation of being preached to, then you may well find this film quite enjoyable.

The predicted May-day riots in London didn't really eventuate yesterday. The police were better organised than the anarchists (but then, you might expect that; anarchists representing the antithesis of organisation, right?), and contained the various potential problems. So much so in fact, that you couldn’t help but think that the non-violent protesters got a raw deal. Perhaps they should have asked the police permission for a march. Getting official permission might not be that easy, and doing deals with the state might be anathema for your typical anarchist. Try this page for a (brief) humorous slant on it all.

A little “maths” problem that was discussed at tea recently:

Is it always possible to write a bitstring of length 2 to the n, such that all the possible bitstrings of length n are present (including wrap-around)?

For example, 0011 is the only possible solution (modulo rotations) for n = 2. The string 10 is present because of the wrap-around, and the other three possibilities are all obviously there. A solution for n = 3 is 00010111.

Finally, a little something from Usenet:

Good code in perl is fine, but there's something about bad code in perl thats worse than bad code in other languages, something very HP- Lovecraft-mad-servants-of-the-elder-gods-chattering-in-the-extra- dimensional-insect-language kind of bad that makes my head hurt when I have to read it. ["Jish Karoshi" <> in c.l.ruby]

Friday, 4 May 2001

A problem solved

Listening to:

Schubert, Adagio in E flat, D. 897 «Notturno». I bought some headphones yesterday, so that I could listen to music at work and get better sound. Until yesterday, I'd been using some very cheap in-ear pieces. The difference is definitely significant.

A proof that there is always a solution to Wednesday's problem:

If trying to find a string of length 2n, for n > 0, draw a graph with nodes consisting of all the bit strings of length n-1 (there will be 2n-1 of these). Then draw arcs between these nodes such that there is an arc between s and t labelled with s<x> if the last n - 1 bits of s<x> are equal to t. (<x> is a single bit, either a one or zero.) There will be 2n arcs. Each node will have two incoming and two outgoing arcs. By Euler's theorem, there is a path through the graph that goes over each arc once. That will easily give the bitstring required.

Proof due to clever friends, or possibly clever friends of friends.

An interesting piece by Eric Raymond about Microsoft and Open Source.

Tuesday, 8 May 2001

Three short books

Listening to:

Schütz, Motet 8 from Quid commisisti.

Just read:

NYRB selections.

This book is a slim selection articles from the first two issues of the magazine The New York Review of Books. It was issued in 1988 to commemorate the NYRB's 25th anniversary. It has some interesting bits in it, including a review of Burroughs's Naked Lunch that compares the author to Swift. There's also quite an interesting review by W. H. Auden of a poet I've never heard of, and about whom Auden concludes that no-one is ever likely to want to put in the effort to understand him.

Graham Greene, A gun for sale.

Another exciting and engrossing thriller. This one is rather darker than Stamboul train, possibly because it was written four years later, in 1936. It features an assassin called Raven, another appealing poor actress journeying to a distant location by train, and all sorts of neat twists and turns.

Anne Pimlott Baker, Beethoven.

I'm achieving a great reading speed by reading very short books. This biography of the great composer was only just over 100 pages long, and in a generously spaced layout. It was good, in a bare-bones kind of way. It contains the basic facts of Beethoven's life, talks about when he was composing what, discusses his deafness and his personal relationships with others.

On the other hand, there is no real discussion of the music, neither its characteristics nor its impact on the people around Beethoven. Beethoven also comes across as an eccentric misanthrope in a rather unqualified way. Perhaps this is accurate, but there just isn't space in the book to provide more nuance.

It's made me very keen to hear the piece Wellington's Victory. This was a patriotic pot-boiler written to commemorate a victory of the Duke of Wellington in Spain against the French, and is apparently never performed today. Statements like that definitely make me want to hear something.

To read next:

Graham Greene, The confidential agent. The Graham Greene kick is caused by the fact that I bought a boxed set of six of his lighter novels, and I'm now working my way through them, alternating with the other things on the list.

Tuesday, 15 May 2001

The confidential agent and Tübingen

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet #4 in D major, op. 83.

Just read:

Graham Greene, The confidential agent.

This novel tells the story of a man only ever named as D. He journeys to Britain in order to negotiate a secret agreement with a coal company to have the company supply his government with desperately needed coal. D’s country is undergoing a civil war, and the coal is necessary for the war effort. It’s not clear who will win the war, nor if anyone is really who they claim to be.

This novel differs from the two previous Greene novels I read because it is entirely told from just one perspective. The other novels use multiple characters to allow for scene-shifting and different views of the same situation. Like the other novels though, this one is very well plotted, and very much a page-turner. The character of D is well developed, and this means that the monopoly he has on our attention is not a problem. However, the main heroine (and love interest) is not very believable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Greene felt he had to have a love interest just to conform to the expectations of the genre. Nonetheless, the heroine plays an important part in the development of the plot on multiple occasions.

The confidential agent was written in 1939, and though D’s country is never identified, it’s clearly based on Spain, which went through a nasty civil war in the 30s. Greene conveys an atmosphere of depressing bleakness very well. It really does suggest that the 1930s were totally miserable.

To read next:

Granta 66: Truth and lies.

I didn’t write on Thursday last week because I was away on a very nice (though brief) trip to Tübingen. It really is a beautiful town, and the weather was great. There's a short photo tour on the University's web-site. I didn't see very much of the town because I was only there for two nights, and all of the one full day I had was taken up with a project review meeting. The meeting was held in the computer science department, which is on the edge of town. Our room looked out over beautiful countryside: hills, trees and idyllic quietness.

The contrast with the window I'm looking out of at the moment is complete. My working view is of the tan coloured bricks of the Lion Yard car-park, a real eye-sore, next to the back-side of the Crowne Plaza hotel, a modern monstrosity of zero character. As for quiet, we have to keep our windows closed all the time because the road below us is where the cars queue for the parking building. It's possible that our new building will be better, but nowhere in Cambridgeshire looks quite like what I saw in Tübingen.

The reason I didn't write yesterday is that I was too busy catching up with things that happened while I was away.

Wednesday, 16 May 2001

Anglesey Abbey

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 9 in D minor, op. 125 “Choral”.

On Saturday, we had a family get-together, and spent most of the day at Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property near Cambridge. The name is misleading, because there is now no real indication that the property ever had anything to do with a religious institution. Instead, the real attraction is the gardens (there is a house too, but I find it less interesting). These were laid out by a Lord Fairhaven starting in the 1920s. The weather was amazing on Saturday, and we had a nice lunch followed by a very nice wander around the gardens. The gardens cover 98 acres, and even on a sunny Saturday, there was no suggestion of crowding. For much of the time, it was easy to imagine that we had the gardens to ourselves.

Monday, 21 May 2001

Truth and Lies

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem:

For all flesh is as grass
and all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth,
and the flower thereof falleth away.
Be patient therefore, brethren,
Unto the coming of the Lord.

Just read:

Granta 66: Truth and lies.

The main piece in this issue was a story about a man called Bruno Dossekker from Switzerland who wrote a book called Fragments, in which he claimed that his name was really Binjamin Wilkomirski, that he was a Jew, born in Riga in 1939 and that he had survived Auschwitz. He claimed that when he was adopted in Switzerland, he was given another (Swiss) child’s identity.

Initially, his account was well received, seen as a genuine view into the fragmentary memory of a very young child who went through horrible experiences. However, various doubts were expressed about the veracity of the account. This piece is one such expression of doubt, and makes a compelling case: ultimately one can only conclude that Fragments is fiction. The fascinating thing about the whole case is that Bruno Dossekker continues to at least half-believe his own story. (That he doesn’t entirely believe it is indicated by his refusal to take a DNA test that might unambiguously link him to a Swiss uncle.) After a little surfing on the web, I found this very interesting piece about both Dossekker’s case and another wannabe victim.

The rest of the issue is also good, including an appealing extract from Claire Messud’s novel The last life.

To read next:

Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear.

Tuesday, 22 May 2001

Entry #176

Listening to:

Marin Marais, Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont de Paris. French Baroque music is quite distinctive. It took me a while to get used to it, being much more familiar with German music of the same period (by Bach, for example).

A recent movie:

The dish. This is an Australian movie starring Sam Neill, and tells the story of the radio telescope in the small Australian town of Parkes that helped relay television pictures from the moon landing in 1969 to the rest of the world. It’s quite lightweight really, and handles its comic moments a little better than its dramatic ones.

The real strength of the film is in its portrayal of the excitement and tension of being involved in such an important project. The film also makes sure that the Australian scientists conform to the typical Antipodean stereotype of unassuming, witty competence.

For genuine details on what really went on, you can refer to the Parkes Observatory home-page.

Game Progress

I’m pleased to report that I have made progress with AoE2. In particular, I have got through scenario Joan VI. It seems that you need to use your big initial army to knock out all of the Burgundians (two bases) and the Shrewsbury army before you attempt to establish your own base. Doing this behind Shrewsbury's old walls worked well for me.

Thursday, 24 May 2001

Entry #177

Listening to:
Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, The Mooche.
Last weekend, I cycled from King's Lynn to Hunstanton and back, mainly using National Cycle Route #1. These cycle routes seem a great institution. They are established and maintained by Sustrans, a charitable organisation devoted to the ideal of "sustainable transport". Much of the money funding the project came from the Millenium Commission. Far better fund nice cycle routes 'round the country than throw money at a white elephant Dome.

I was cycling with a group of friends who were much better cyclists than me (and also on better bikes), so I was definitely the laggard of the group. They were very nice about my general incompetence and the fact that I was slowing them down. Though I was completely exhausted by the end of the ride, I was pleased that I had actually managed it. I don't think I'll ever try to do that sort of distance as quickly again.

Tuesday, 29 May 2001

Ministry of Fear

Listening to:

Benny Goodman, Poor butterfly, from Verve CD Jazz masters 33.

Just read:

Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear.

This is the fourth “entertainment” I've read by Greene, and probably also the least successful in my opinion. I didn't dislike it, but it wasn't as gripping as its predecessors. The basic premise seemed pretty good as the story got going: a man wins a cake at a fête, but finds that mysterious and sinister forces want this seemingly innocent cake, and will stop at nothing to get it. Inevitably, he is drawn into a web of intrigue and mystery. Lots of potential, but somehow I wasn't seduced by it as effectively as with the previous three books.

To read next:

Ex libris by Anne Fadiman.

Wednesday, 30 May 2001

A Trio of Games

Listening to:
Mozart, violin concerto #5 in A major, K219. This concerto has the moniker "Turkish" because of a very rhythmically exciting episode in the final movement. It's not really Turkish at all, but it sounds quite exotic. It's certainly very appealing.
A couple of links today. The first is to a description of a game called Mafia. It sounds like a neat game, one that requires little more than people in a room (i.e., no fancy equipment). The many possible variations one can make to the rules also make it appealing. Of course, it can be very hard to judge these things from the rules alone. You really need to try playing games like these to see how they fare in practice. I'd also like to get an opportunity to try it with a bunch of people I knew reasonably well so that I'd be in a position to judge whether people were lying or not.

My second link is to another social game, invented by a quartet of researchers in game theory (including the famous John Nash), called So long Sucker. This isn't as obviously interesting, but it might work quite well. Being perfect information (unlike Mafia) makes it more like that other classic, Diplomacy. (Oops! That was a third link. Well hey, Diplomacy deserves one.)