Tuesday, 3 July 2001

Catch-22 and Chocolat

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in D, K593.

Just read:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

This is a very famous book, and I can see why. It’s a black comedy about the experience of being in the military, set in the US air force during WWII. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud on occasion, but also savage enough to make one feel quite chilled and depressed by the very idea of war. This was not really induced by the depiction of combat with enemies, as happens in Captain Corelli’s mandolin, with its explicit descriptions of the Italian war against Greece, and also the later Nazi attack on the Italians in Cephallonia. The characters in Catch-22 are all in the Air Force, so their military struggles are with remote, mechanical enemies, principally anti-aircraft batteries.

Instead, the horror of the situation is conveyed by the way in which the military personnel are desperate to be home, know that they can’t escape, and gradually crack up under the strain. The ridiculous mindset and behaviour of the high level officers (at colonel level and above) is perhaps a little over-done, but one can’t help but feel that it has a deal of truth in it. Heller was a bombardier in the USAAF during WWII, and one imagines that he knows what he’s on about. It’s a book well-stocked with memorable characters. The main hero is Yossarian, who is the most desperate to escape, and who is generally quite sympathetic. Then there are Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and the cunning Orr.

Catch-22’s narrative is not presented in a straightforward, linear fashion. Instead, there are flash-backs and flash-forwards. Some important events within the story are described more than once, usually just being hinted at on a number of occasions, gradually being filled in with more detail. There are some amazing set-pieces, where the prose becomes poetic and heightened in impact. In particular, towards the end of the book, when Yossarian is stumbling through a Rome that is both ruined and depraved, the scene is painted so as to make one feel in a trance-like nightmare.

Joanne Harris, Chocolat.

This is a pleasant read. It’s “low intensity” fiction really, though I have to admit that my reaction to it was almost certainly affected by the fact that I saw the film first (a month or so ago now; see below). On finishing the book, it’s difficult to think back on it and claim that it’s about anything particularly deep. The story is that of an itinerant woman, Vianne, who arrives with her young daughter in a small, conservative French village, and has a generally positive effect on the inhabitants. Vianne is a chocolatier and she opens a chocolate shop in the central square of the village, right opposite the church. Her arrival upsets the forces of conservatism that have hitherto dominated the village, principally the priest. The story describes the way in which the hero manages to settle down, denying her roaming heritage, personified in her dead mother, and gets the village to “loosen up”.

An enjoyable read, with a solidity to the characters, particularly Vianne, that makes it all the more appealing.

To read next:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

A recent movie:

Chocolat. The film is not bad, but it’s not as good as the book. It loses out by denying the characters the solidity they had in the book, and by exaggerating the general sappiness of the story. The acting is all good; Alfred Molina as the seigneur of the village is particularly good. For reasons known only to the film-makers, the priest is no longer the bad-guy; instead he is a young guy, newly appointed, and pretty much under Molina’s control.

Thursday, 5 July 2001

Entry #192

Listening to:
Bax, symphony no. 3.
Higher order matching, part II. (Part I.) Before even discussing the algorithm, we have to decide on what it means to do matching of function symbols. Consider the pattern X(a,b) and the term f(b,a). If all we allowed was the possibility of instantiating X with f (or some other symbol), then there wouldn't be a match here. But this is dull. In fact, it's really just first order matching all over again. We could translate every term of the form f(x1,...xn) (where any of the f and the xi arguments might be variables that could be instantiated) into app(f,x1,...xn). The app would be a ``constant''; i.e., not instantiable, and the problem would be entirely first-order.

Consider again our pattern X(a,b), and the term f(b,a). Really, we'd like to be able to instantiate X to the function that takes a pair of arguments, flips them, and then passes the result onto f. In other words, let's imagine that there's a function out there called g, and that g(x,y) = f(y,x), for all possible arguments x and y. Then, instantiating X with g would do the trick.

Notice how I did two things in the previous paragraph. First, I came up with a description of what I wanted my function to do, and then I invented a name for it (g). Now, this second step is un-necessary if we use lambda calculus notation for writing down functions. So, next time, I will talk about just that.

Monday, 9 July 2001


Listening to:

Scarlatti, sonata in E major, K.206. Scarlatti’s K stands for Kirkpatrick, in case you were wondering.

Now reading:

Jack Kerouac, On the road. More when I finish it, probably this weekend.

I’m ever so busy this week, honest.

Wednesday, 11 July 2001

The Fortune of War

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet, op. 59, no. 3 (Razumovsky).

Holiday reading:

Way back in January, I started to write a series of Holiday reading book reviews to bring myself up-to-date with the books I read while away in New Zealand and Australia. I let it all lapse a bit, but let me now tell you all about The fortune of war, by Patrick O’Brian. This is the sixth in the series, and another good one. It features our heroes getting interned by the Americans because Britain is at war with the US in the War of 1812. (This is not a war many people seem to know much about, except possibly for the Canadians who know it was when the US tried to do the dirty on them and failed. There is a war-game recently out for it; I haven’t played it.)

It’s an interesting history lesson to learn that the US didn’t press-gang crews for its ships, while this was something Britain did as a matter of course. There’s quite a bit of "spy-thriller" type intrigue in this novel because the two main characters are on land for so much of the time, but there are also naval battles framing the central "internment" section. They are all based on actual battles apparently, and read very well. You can’t help but guess which way the battles are going to go, given the dramatic requirements of the story, and this is a mark against. An enjoyable read all told.

I’m writing this web-log entry at home because things were so busy at work that I just ran out of time in which to fit in the ’log. I really dislike the way in which I can’t remap the caps lock key under Windows so that it is a control key, and also how I have lost my Emcas meta key. (This latter is more a function of the SSH software I’m using to connect to the Computer Lab.) Such geeky travails.

Saturday, 14 July 2001

Blog Logistics

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67.

I’m again writing at home. Yesterday was too busy by far. I have figured out how to write my entry at home and then transfer the resulting HTML file to my Comuter Lab machines. I use Lynx to look at the page, hit \ (backslash) to get the HTML source for the page, and then p to print that onto a file, and then I’m done. It would be marginally easier if I could transfer files from the PC to the Computer Lab directly, because I could then download from the Web using Explorer and then move things from home PC to Lab. Unfortunately, SSH1 doesn't support file transfer (or so my software claims), so I have to do things the non-obvious way.

At some stage last year I waxed lyrical about a neat article I found on Games Domain about realism in war-games. The guy that wrote this is one Bruce Geryk, and it turns out he has a home-page, with links to lots of stuff he’s written elsewhere on the web. A nice resource.

Tuesday, 17 July 2001

Entry #196

Listening to:
Elgar, Falstaff - symphonic study. I haven't read or seen any of the Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff features, but I do get this sense that he's supposed to be an archetypal character that everyone in the Western world knows all about, even if only at some sort of subliminal level.
Still reading:
Jack Kerouac, On the road. This has been rather slow going, in part because the only character with any depth seems to be the narrator (and his depth is only being revealed quite slowly). The other characters just act in an apparently motive-less way, and we get no real insight into what might be making them tick.
Now nibbling:
A white-fleshed nectarine. Very nice, juicy and tasty. I just wish the flesh didn't have its pale colour. I yearn for the golden ripeness of colour that you get with a peach, or with the more typical nectarines. I don't expect my apples to be golden, so it must just be conditioning that has left me in this strange psychological state.
I went into Cambridge's new Borders bookshop yesterday. Incidentally, Borders international "store locator" page has little outline maps of three of the countries where they have overseas shops. (I'd never recognise Singapore from its outline.) The fourth country where they have a non-US shop is New Zealand, but there's no outline map! It must be a conspiracy.

Anyway, they have this neat system for their CDs (I'm still far too far behind with my reading list to even contemplate buying books in a book-shop, so I focus on the music). There are listening posts dotted around, and underneath the peg where the headphones hang, each has a little bar-code reader. You can put a CD under this reader, and the listening post can then play you that CD. Neat! Not all of the shop's CDs are accessible in this way, some CDs only have some tracks available, and there is only about 2 minutes of each track available. Surely disk-space is cheap enough these days that they could store their entire stock completely without having to pay too much. I wonder if the CD publishers stopped them from doing this out of some copyright owner control-freakery.

Thursday, 19 July 2001

Just one more X

Listening to:

Brahms, clarinet trio in A minor, op. 114.

There’s a certain class of computer games out there, sometimes characterised as 4X games (“eXplore”, “eXpand”, “eXploit” and “eXterminate” or some such), that are known for their addictive “just one more turn” qualities. The first game in this mold was probably Civilisation, where the player has to control a civilisation from its earliest beginnings all the way to the point where it is ready to send a space-ship to Alpha Centauri. (This PC game has only a very tenuous connection to the classic board-game of the same name.)

I’d just like to briefly claim that interactive theorem-proving is subject to a similar phenomenon, which I (and others) call “just one more lemma”. Say you’re trying to prove big complicated theorem X. You spend a while on this before realising that you can’t prove it, without first proving supporting lemma Y. But then it becomes clear that Y needs a theorem about lists that the developers of the system haven’t included (incredulously you think to yourself, “How on earth could anyone ever prove anything without first knowing that MEM x (FILTER P l) = MEM x l /\ P x ? I mean; come on!”)

These “to prove X, I will first need Y” links build into ever larger stacks. In fact, it can become easy to lose track of the original goal entirely. But now, I have to go and prove sub-lemma Z103.

Tuesday, 24 July 2001

On the Road

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 7 in C sharp minor, op. 131. This very accessible work (and Prokofiev’s last) won the Lenin Prize in 1957, four years after Prokofiev’s death. It was the first time that the prize had been given to a piece of music.

Just read:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

I can’t claim to think that this is a great novel, for all its fame. In particular, there is precious little in terms of plot. Instead, there is lots of disconnected and fairly unmotivated road journeying on the part of the characters. The characters are also difficult to appreciate. One’s basic impression is of people that are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They are forever doing crazy things, with little regard for those around them, and with little to suggest why they are doing these things either.

This novel’s strength is in its poetic description of travel: criss-crossing the US, even venturing into Mexico, whether in clapped out cars, or by hitching, or by sharing cars to save petrol. Poetic doesn’t necessarily mean positive; dealing with suspicious cops, picking up hitch-hikers to get an extra dollar for more petrol, and petty thieving for food all feature alongside the lyrical descriptions of mountains and deserts. On the road also includes intense and appealing descriptions of jazz performances (particularly in San Francisco), but these are less affecting because they don’t (can’t) convey what the music is like, just the nature of its impact on its listeners. I can see high desert plateaus in my mind’s eye after reading the novel, despite never having been to the South West of the US, nor to Mexico. I have no idea what the jazz was that the characters heard, despite having listened to a fair bit of jazz myself, and despite being able to make educated guesses as to what it might have been.

After finishing the novel this morning, I read the accompanying introduction (you should always read these after the book; there’s really no reason for them to precede the main text). This made it clear that the novel is very autobiographical. The characters are based on real people that Kerouac knew, and much of the incident in the novel happened to him as he toured the country with Neal Cassady (named Dean Moriarty in the book). I think this goes some way towards explaining the characters’ lack of definition: Kerouac didn’t describe them as much as he might have done because they existed as real people in his head already.

This introduction also makes it clear that drugs (including the alcohol that eventually killed him) were quite an important part of Kerouac’s life; I can’t help but think that they contributed to the shifting, and disconnected tone of the book. This may have been a deliberate decision on his part; you don’t have to be addled to write a book about being addled. The US in the 1950s almost certainly needed anti-establishment art of this form then, but it feels a bit dated now.

Kerouac and others in his crowd made up the so-called Beat Generation; there’s a short but interesting description of his life and attitudes here from the Atlantic magazine.

To read next:

Joseph Conrad, Victory. First of a couple of Conrads next up on the list.


I’m coxing in the Cambridge Town Bumps this evening. This is a weird Cambridge rowing tradition run over four nights. The basic idea is that all the boats in a division (about 18 of them) go off at once, with distances of 150m between them. The idea is to bump a boat ahead of you before the end of the course. Likewise a boat behind you will be attempting to do that same to you. If you manage this, then you swap places with them for the next night. It’s like a great big ladder competition with multiple contests happening simultaneously. Further, if boat 3 bumps boat 2, then boat 4 is still free to bump boat 1 (known as an over-bump).

It’s all very exciting. As cox you get to look in the direction of travel too, and that definitely helps. As I put it to someone recently, coxing in the Bumps is like a live action video game.

Wednesday, 25 July 2001

Entry #199

Listening to:
Prokofiev, symphony no. 5 in B flat major, op. 100.
We were bumped last night. So that was a bit sad.

Some links:

Friday, 27 July 2001

Rowing, Louis Armstrong and The Lord of the Rings

Listening to:

There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York, sung by Louis Armstrong. On a collection of various Gershwin songs, by various singers. This is from the Porgy and Bess recording that Armstrong did with Ella Fitzgerald. It will soon be the 100th anniversary of Armstrong's birth. Here’s an appreciation from The Guardian.

The good ship MEBC I has been having a torrid time of it so far in the Town Bumps. There’s a chart illustrating our descent to the top of the 2nd Division on the Rob Roy boat-club site. The same site also includes a nice explanation of how Bumps rowing works, if my previous explanation didn’t make sense. We just have to make sure that we row over at the top of the division to get to row again as the sandwich boat.

To continue last time’s theme, another LotR link (Julian Dibbel, writing in The Village Voice). It’s interesting, particularly the claim that the the book’s influence on the world’s geeks has surely been important, because those same geeks built many aspects of the the modern wired world:

But maybe you could indulge me and imagine, just for a moment, that the fact that we live in a world increasingly made by geeks actually makes their collective imagination worth understanding. Think about computers, their evolution shaped by a hacker culture that insisted some of the earliest dot-matrix printers be programmed to produce the elvish Fëanorian script. Think about the Internet, whose founding architects included the D&D fanatic who created the Adventure, the very first, very Tolkienized online role-playing game.

On the other hand, I’d take issue with this:

Tolkien’s theory of evil? Well, orcs are, our heroes aren’t, and that about sums it up.

Tolkien is obsessed with evil, and human corruption. Sauron is the archetypal fallen angel (more accurately, the henchman of a fallen angel, perhaps), and the nasty Ringwraiths are all human kings of yester-year that Sauron corrupted. Similarly, the character of Boromir, Frodo's final crisis at Mt. Doom, and the whole story of Gollum, are all about evil, redemption, and human frailties.

On the other hand, I'd certainly agree that the book is not strong on presenting psychological complexity, which is Dibbel's next point. So, it’s not the greatest book of the 20th century, but it ain’t bad either.