Friday, 1 June 2001

A one and a two

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 3.

A recent movie:

A one and a two. This is a Taiwanese movie that is almost three hours long. You’d want to be confident that you were going to a good film before you submitted yourself to such an experience, but I was inspired by this review in the Financial Times, which called it the best film of the year, and probably the best film of the decade.

The reviewer was not far wrong. It is a very elegant movie, very beautiful and with a good mix of realistic humour and tragedy. It’s neither slapstick nor nuclear holocaust. It probably is too long, and I found myself slightly resenting the little boy who is really very cute and very affecting in a “from the mouths of babes” kind-of-way, but is also completely unrealistic.

The Internet is going to hell in a handbasket (I’ve never understood that saying; am I misquoting it?), and here's the proof: a fascinating account of tracking down hackers by a beleaguered innocent. In Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo's Egg, the evil-doers were working for the KGB (or a near equivalent); in the 21st century, they are clueless 13 year olds.

So, if it's all getting too much, I recommend this last link.

Tuesday, 5 June 2001

Ex Libris and The third man

Listening to:

Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli.

Just read:

Anne Fadiman, Ex libris.

This is a slim volume of essays about book ownership, book reading and book buying. It’s nicely written and quite amusing. For example, there is the story of how the author merged her library with her husband’s. They had been married some number of years, and having made all of the other commitments to joint life had just this last hurdle.

Fadiman is more of a fan of marginalia than I am, and is also quite scathing about people who strive too hard to keep their books virginally clean and undamaged. She admits that her like-minded friends have a number of books that aren’t much longer for this world, so she’s not too one-eyed. In general, this is a very pleasant read.

Graham Greene, The third man.

This is the fifth volume of the six volume set. It’s actually a collection of three short stories: The third man, The fallen idol and Loser takes all. The first two were also made into films. (In fact, Greene wrote The third man knowing that it was for a film project, so it’s functionally a very dressed up screen-play. As he describes in the little preface to this, some details were changed in the making of the film, but apparently nothing very substantial.) I’ve not seen the film of The third man, but I know it features Orson Welles and is supposed to be a real classic. The story is certainly good enough to be the basis for a great film.

The fallen idol is the shortest of the three stories, and is a psychological drama about a little boy caught up in a domestic drama involving the butler of his house and the butler’s wife. It’s a very well-crafted short story with a definite bite to it.

Loser takes all is much more conventional than the other two stories. It’s cute enough, but features someone devising a system to beat the casino at Monaco, which irritated me, and has rather an anodyne happy ending. The twists and turns of the plot are well done.

To read next:

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Another book that’s been made into a film. Apparently this adaptation is a real dud though (the FT’s review; from the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian). It’s on at the moment in Cambridge, but I have no plans to go and see it.

Thursday, 7 June 2001

Entry #182

Listening to:
Haydn, piano sonata no 46 in E major, Hob. XVI: 31. I have no idea what the "Hob. XVI:31" means. Clearly cataloguing Haydn's works is a fairly major undertaking, with a need for hierarchical identifiers.
A recent movie:
The talented Mr. Ripley. I wanted to go and see this in the cinema in February last year, but never did manage it. Instead we watched it on DVD. It's a very good film, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. It's decidedly creepy. The central character turns into a psychotic mess before your eyes, and it's really quite horrifying. It's all about identity theft, which is quite apt for this day and age, and very well-plotted; there aren't any glaring plot-holes to distract you. In fact, it all seems quite plausible, which just makes it all the more disturbing. There's no real gore; the nastiness is mainly implicit and off-screen, and this makes it at least as effective. (The official web-site.)
Oh, I should have said. It's the UK general election today. I've done my bit and cast a vote (Commonwealth citizens can vote in UK elections; isn't that neat?) We don't have a TV, but it looks as if the online coverage, courtesy of the BCC, will be pretty good.

Monday, 11 June 2001

Entry #183

Listening to:
Berlioz, Requiem. I have this on loan from a lab colleague who has been recommending it to me for ages. I'm onto my second complete listening. I think it's a pretty good recording, featuring the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and Charles Dutoit. It seems pretty good, but it will take more exposure before I rank it up there with the Mozart or the Brahms, or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (which isn't a requiem, but which I consider the best analogue).
Now reading:
Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli's mandolin. This is the first time in a while that I haven't finished a book over the weekend in which I started it. But this novel is a deal longer than most of the things I've been reading recently.
A few weeks back, I started something on Sunday afternoon precisely so that I would be able to report having read something for my web-log. Is that sad or what? If I hadn't at least started the book, I would have had to invent a new caption, something like ``Still to read next:'' perhaps. Having started whatever it was, I could at least use my standard ``Now reading:'' tag. Just as sad though is the implicit habit of not generally reading on Sunday afternoon.

Work today is going to involve an analysis of a formalisation of UDP (one of the Internet Protocols). Thought you might like to know that.

Perhaps you're more impressed by the fact that mathematicians calculating pi to lots of decimal places are almost certainly breaking innumerable laws, all at once. Check this Risks Digest extract for the gory details. Personally, I steer well clear of those irrational numbers.

Wednesday, 13 June 2001

Coursework and heels

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 1 in D major, op. 25 (“Classical”).

I’m just back from the last lecture in the Lab’s series of mini-courses. There were four courses, two of two lectures, and two of four lectures each. All were on quite theoretical topics. Why should this be? I can’t believe that there’s nothing to be said in non-theoretical areas. It probably just boils down to the fact that the Cambridge lab has always had quite a theoretical focus. There are also quite a few theorists at the local outpost of Microsoft Research.

HTPE#4: In March this year, I complained about an aching heel. The intermittent aching hasn’t entirely gone away, so I have turned to the power of the Web to see what might be wrong with me. Simply trying the words heel ache at Google brings up quite a range of useful looking pages. It seems that I may have what I think is a fairly mild case of what is termed “plantar fasciitis” and/or “heel spurs”, as described here, for example. The remedy at this stage would seem to be calf stretches, and being gentle on my feet.

Friday, 15 June 2001

Hayfever and child protection

Listening to:

Saint-Saëns, piano concerto no. 3 in E flat major, op. 29.

I woke up at an unreasonable hour this morning and immediately found myself sniffling and sneezing because of hay fever. It’s a miserable condition, and I can’t recommend it. Luckily, I only seem to suffer during June, and the anti-histamine pills I can get from the chemist seem to do a reasonable job. I would have made this comment an HTPE “tip”, but I see that it doesn’t actually contain any useful advice. Grin and bear it seems to be about the only verdict.

Here’s an interesting story from Salon about America's dreadful puritanism with respect to censorship and “protecting children”. The same puritanism is evident in the hounding of George Bush's daughter because of her under-age drinking exploits.

Tuesday, 19 June 2001

Captain Corelli’s mandolin and Our man in Havana

Listening to:

Shostakovich, concerto no. 1 for violin and orchestra in A minor, Op. 99.

Just read:

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s mandolin.

I finished this on Saturday. It's probably not a modern classic, but it's not bad either. It's not an entirely pleasant read: the characters are caught up in WW2, and the author is explicit about how nasty this could be. Unfortunately, some of the nastiness is called in to serve as part of a general campaign slurring the behaviour of the communist partisans, or andartes, during the war. This has attracted a lot of controversy, and caused quite a storm of protest in Greece itself. (Here's an article about this from the Guardian.)

The book itself is basically a historical romance, embodying a theme I'd call "optimistic fatalism". In other words, terrible things are bound to happen, people do change for the worse and die, but there's always a chance that something positive will be around the next corner. The main characters are well-drawn, sympathetic and memorable, and the plot surges along in response to historical events (Italy's invasion of Greece, Germany's invasion of Greece, their joint occupation of the island of Cephallonia and so on).

The ending is contrived. The whole denouement is a very rushed narrative covering a period of almost 50 years, and seems set up just to rub our noses in the author's view that shit always has to happen before people can be redeemed.

Graham Greene, Our man in Havana.

This is an enjoyable, light read. It doesn't take itself too seriously until the very end, where there's a dramatic finale to contend with. (It does involve playing draughts (checkers) with whiskey and brandy miniatures though.) Another genre, and fairly unbelievable, romance is also added to the brew. Up to that point, the story is just the amusing tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited to act as a spy for the generally incompetent British Secret Service, and who fills his new role by making up his reports. This has all sorts of worrying repercussions for the salesman, particularly when the bad guys also start to think he's really a spy.

This novel was a clear inspiration for John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, which has recently been made into a film (Mike D’Angelo’s review). There was also a film of Our man in Havana made in 1960. (The IMDB page.)

To read next:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

Thursday, 21 June 2001

Nielsen, and various links

Listening to:

Carl Nielsen, symphony no. 5, FS97. I’m listening to the first movement of this piece, which features a rather sinister side-drum. It’s a use of percussion that reminds me of Shostakovich. At one point in this movement, the player of the side-drum is instructed to improvise as if at all costs to stop the progress of the orchestra.


I've been looking at Open Source licences recently. This is because we are thinking about moving the development of the HOL theorem-proving system to SourceForge, and they insist that all projects have an approved Open Source licence.

After talking about expensive air-bag controllers, David Chess is very interesting here on libertarianism and whether or not people really should be allowed to discriminate.

Finally, an interesting tale (from Salon) of corporate culture, and how it changes in the face of succees and money. It would be easy to just say that the arrival of success and money caused an inevitable decline and deterioration in what had hitherto been an idyllic paradise. In my reading of the piece though, the situation before was problematic too. So, I have to be value-neutral, and simply say that change occurred, and that many people were upset.

Change often upsets people, particularly if they have minimal influence over the nature of the change. So far, I’m coping fairly well with the move to our new building, for example, but who knows what psychosis may yet be in store?

Monday, 25 June 2001

Music, books and movies

Listening to:

Arthur Sullivan, Macbeth overture. As well as being the composer partner to Gilbert, Sullivan wrote music for a variety of other occasions. He didn’t want to just be a composer of music for musicals. This overture is the first piece on a CD from the BBC music magazine . Next up is a reconstructed cello concerto, and the CD finishes with a Te Deum. It’s very listenable music, probably perfect for writing web-log entries to, but perhaps not so memorable.

Now reading:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22. This is another novel mainly set on a Mediterranean island during World War II. Its tone is completely different from Captain Corelli’s mandolin though. More when I’m finished.

A recent movie:

State & Main. This is a very amusing story about a film production that comes to a small town in New England. There are all sorts of satiric digs at the nature of the film business, and a gently done romance. The hero (the screen-writer) is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also had a relatively minor part in The talented Mr. Ripley, playing a completely different sort of role.

Wednesday, 27 June 2001

Higher Order Matching I

Listening to:

Mozart, piano quartet in G minor, K478. (The CD traversal continues.)

I want to explain higher order matching. But before I can even get onto this, I should first discuss first order matching. Here goes: if I have the term f(X,a), is there any way of instantiating the variable X so as to make the term the same as f(b,a)? Obviously there is; just set X to be b. Similarly, it should be easy to see that there is a match between the pattern term f(X,g(Y)) (where the variables we are allowed to instantiate are X and Y; the convention is that the upper-case letters are variables that can be matched, and that the lower-case letters can’t be instantiated) and the term f(h(a),g(c)). Equally, there is clearly no way to match the pattern f(X) to g(a). There are more interesting ways to fail too. Consider trying to match the pattern f(X,g(X)) against f(a,g(b)). This can’t succeed because we would have to simultaneously instantiate X to a and b.

There’s a pretty easy algorithm for determining whether or not a match exists between a pattern and a term. Basically, the two terms need to be traversed in parallel with an environment being maintained along-side to record what instantiations you’ve made so far. When you come to a variable in the pattern term, you first check to see if that variable has already been instantiated. If so, check if its instantiation is the same as the thing you’re matching against; if not, fail. If the variable hasn’t been instantiated so far, record it as being instantiated with the concrete term you're matching against.

The thing that makes this first order matching is the fact that variables in the pattern term mustn’t take arguments. In other words, f(X(a),Y) is an illegal pattern because of the use of X as a function (taking argument a). Next time I will explain how the shift to the higher order problem is done.

Friday, 29 June 2001

Köchel Numbering

Listening to:

Mozart, sonata for violin and piano in A major, K305 (293d). This music classification business is more complicated than you might think. Why do you suppose there are two Köchel numbers for this piece? And why does one of them have a d suffix? I believe the original numbering scheme was revised as more works were discovered, and also as it was realised that some works thought to be by Mozart weren’t actually by him at all. Now this doesn’t in itself require a renumbering; you could just have a scheme with gaps that occasionally acquired new, later numbers.

No, the real problem, and the source of the revisions, is that the numbers are supposed to increase with date of composition, and the relevant scholars have changed their minds about when some of the works were written. Further, certain works have such famous numbers by now that they can’t be shifted around. It’s a problem. The new edition of the complete Mozart catalogue is discussed here. There’s also a cute discussion of other “letter” catalogues on this page.


Don’t expect that singles badminton will be just fractionally harder and more exhausting than doubles.

Feeble excuses

Zounds! Is that the time? Higher-order matching part II will have to wait until next week.