Thursday, 2 August 2001

Entry #201

Listening to:
Dvorak, string quartet in E flat major, op. 51.
Just read:
Joseph Conrad, Victory. I enjoyed this novel, but then, I am something of a Conrad fan. It's set in south-east Asia, and is basically the story of how a recluse rescues a young woman from a difficult situation, and takes her away to live with him on his "own" private island. But then, a trio of bad guys turn up under the impression that the recluse is sitting on a pot of gold.

In common with the other Conrad I have read, the novel is full of beautiful description and is also well-plotted; really being quite exciting. The narration starts out in the hands of a completely anonymous individual who just happens to know most of the main characters, and then shifts closer to the action. It's definitely effective.

The characters are also quite compelling. The evil trio is particularly malevolent and really keeps one's attention. They would do fantastically well in a film, and there have been quite a few films made of the novel. (See this IMDB page for an extensive Conrad filmography.) The only thing that bothered me was the relationship between the recluse and the woman. They have a series of conversations that read extremely badly, and they never manage to say anything that connects either with the reader or the other person. I decided after finishing the book that this was deliberate; part of the point of the novel is that Heyst, the recluse, is unable to really connect (shades of Forster) with others, let alone a woman.

I suppose it's also worth saying that the novel espouses its fair share of racist and sexist attitudes, typical of the era when it was written (pre-WWI).

To read next:
Joseph Conrad, The secret agent. I know in advance that this novel is set in London.
Some links today:
  • This page is all about Kiwi "ingenuity": it tells the (quite amusing) story of a guy building a jet engine to provide cooling for beers in a shed. (In fact, that's not really why it was done if you read some of the links at the bottom of the page.) The page was Slash-dotted, meaning that by virtue of the attention garnered from being one of the Slashdot stories, the site was deluged by attention.
  • This allows me to segue gracefully into my next link. (I've never thought that segue was a word that implied grace in any shape or form; to my mind, the sound of it suggests you're more likely to segue slitheringly, or sleazily.) The programming language shootout page is a neat experiment that seeks to compare the efficiency and expressivity of a variety of language in performing simple tasks. There are roughly two dozen language implementations compared, and there are about 30 tests. Interestingly, though the best performance is usually gained by C, the functional languages ML (with the MLton compiler) and Ocaml perform extremely well in comparison, and usually much better than languages such as Perl, Python or Java. The source code for each solution is also available, and the author of the page is happy to have programmers submit improved versions of the code.

    But where's my segue? Well, the shoot-out page was also "slash-dotted"; and here's the author's interesting take on it all.

  • Finally, Bush, the environmentalist; he just wants to rid America's clean, green national parks of all that nasty oil stuff.

Friday, 3 August 2001

Shrek and the forgotten web

Listening to:

Bach, The well-tempered clavier, book 2.

A recent movie:

Shrek. A computer-animated movie, nominally targetting children, but really quite amusing and entertaining for adults as well. Toy Story 2 is also very good in this respect. Shrek wins by not having a nauseating song in the middle about growing up; Toy Story 2 has a better ensemble cast.

Old forms of the web

I came to what I thought was an interesting realisation the other day: the Web is almost of necessity backwards compatible. By this I mean that producers of pages can be sure of getting their message across by sticking to basic HTML because browsers can’t afford to throw away that functionality. As an extreme example of this, just look at the way you can still access GopherSpace. Follow this link (possible in Netscape, Internet Explorer and Lynx, at the very least) and you’re no longer in the world of HTML. You’re navigating through a strange, isolated world with lots of dead links, but still the browsers let you do it.

Introducing backwards incompatibilities in a program that you want other people to use is a generally a bad thing. With something like a compiler or a word processor, the incompatibilities can mean that the user has to alter their files. This can be enough of a pain to give the developer pause. But if their new browser is backwards incompatible in such a way that it fails to display pages that it used to display, and these pages are (naturally) beyond the power of the user to change, then that browser is hardly going to win itself many converts.

While support for the gopher protocol may disappear because fewer and fewer people are using Gopher servers, HTML seems to have become seriously entrenched. (So much so that I remember reading an interesting article a while back about the fact that so much of the information in URLs is coming to be seen as redundant; how many company advertisements bother with Most just go for; everyone knows to add the other stuff, or their browser does it for them.) This entrenchment means there is a great inertia protecting all those plain HTML pages. ASCII is assuredly safer, but HTML is getting there too.

Monday, 6 August 2001

Nielsen, Conrad and Tornquist

Listening to:

Nielsen, clarinet concerto. This is the most modern work for clarinet that I have in my collection, yet it was only composed in 1928. Nielsen wrote it after making the acquaintance of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. He wrote a quintet for them in 1922, and then planned to write each member a concerto. Unfortunately, he only managed two before died in 1931. The other concerto was a Flute Concerto in 1926, which I haven’t heard.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The secret agent. Rather to my surprise, this novel has turned into rather a detective story at the moment. All may yet change as I’m only about half-way through. (I only managed one reading session over the weekend.)

Amusing quotes are us

An amusing interview with the lead producer of the adventure game The Longest Journey, featuring this line:

Every Friday night, after the dwarf tossing competition, the banjo playing championships, and the kilt-knitting class. We do tend to wear protective codpieces, however, so it’s not Olympic-class goat hoarding, unfortunately.

Wednesday, 8 August 2001

Entry #204

Listening to:
Pietro Castrucci, concerto grossi in D, Op. 3/12. Castrucci is a Baroque Italian composer (dates 1679-1752).
I suppose it's pretty obvious by now that I spend a fair bit of time in this log on my book reviews. It's quite a fun activity, and I like having my reactions to what I've read available in text. Even if no-one else ever reads them, I know I will refer to them in the future. Book reviewing is also popular elsewhere on the web. Here are some book review links that I think are worthwhile.
  • First, a cautionary tale about the Yahoo directory of book review sites.
  • Traditional media: the New York Review of Books; has a good search engine. Often interesting political articles, as well as reviews of art exhibitions.
  • Danny Yee's reviews: over 500 reviews of a whole slew of books. Tends to have a slightly scientific bias, but there's nothing wrong with that. Occasionally reviews very technical books (in history and science) that it's hard to imagine ever wanting to read.
  • By way of contrast the GoodReports has precious little science, but nice reviews generally.

Friday, 10 August 2001

Book reviews on Amazon (esp. SICP)

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata no. 2, op. 61.

One place I didn’t mention as a source of book reviews on Wednesday was Amazon. Here you can get reviews of very many books, by a whole slew of people (those readers interested enough to write reviews). Initially, it can be a bit off-putting to have some many different opinions to contend with all at once. A very dichotomised example is the case of Structure and interpretation of computer programs, by Abelson et al. Most reviewers give this book either one or five stars. One reviewer seems to hit the nail on the head when they say

The phrase ‘two cultures’ is usually used to describe the gap of understanding between the arts and sciences but reading the previous reviews it seems we have two cultures in the programming community.

It’s certainly something of an indictment of computer science education that someone could write this

Well, considering that I’m a computer science major, i figure that I know a great deal about programming and the such. However, I found this book to be simply incomprehensible. I’ve never wasted more time than I did trying to read this book. Worse than its failed attempts at instruction are its failed attempts at humor to “liven up” its instruction. After taking my class, i burnt this book.

It’s harder to know how to judge fiction reviews. Things like Pride and Prejudice are given five stars by almost everyone, and I’m quite ready to believe that this really is a classic (I knew that already, but hey). On the other hand, reviews are not often very nuanced; probably because of the self-selection involved in the reviewers. Most reviews I’ve sampled tend to be enthusiastic (maybe I just read good books), with occasional unhelpful one-liners like “This book was really boring; I hated it”.

Finally, you’d better be aware that the author of the book might be submitting some of the reviews! (Though this is not such a danger with P&P.)

Tuesday, 14 August 2001

The secret agent and open-source computer games

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The secret agent.

I enjoyed this a great deal. It’s a dark novel, but one populated by brilliantly drawn characters. Viewed from afar, the plot is extremely simple; only three or four things of real significance happen. However, this is not how you see the novel as a reader. Instead, you are taken into the minds of the various characters, and shown a picture of the world that is incredibly vivid. I think Conrad excels himself both in the description of the characters’ mental states, and also in his descriptions of the physical world they’re in. Even Dickens in Bleak House doesn’t describe as miserable, nor as muddy a London as Conrad does here.

The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Verloc (arguably the central characters, despite the detective story interlude) is very well done, much better than Heyst and Lena in Victory. Finally, the novel’s ending, both its climax and denouement, is very effective.

Thursday, 16 August 2001

Leaving the building

Listening to:

Bach, English suite #3 (BWV 808) in G minor.

Technical update

A while back I talked about having difficulties with getting the source of a web-page using the lynx web browser. It seems that I should have just used

lynx -source <URL>

to get the source of the given page sent to standard out.

The move progresses

The lab’s move to its new building is well under-way. My stuff is going on Tuesday, but today I’m going to start putting it all in boxes. The various buildings of the old lab are gradually emptying, of both people and equipment. It’s the disappearance of the superficial trappings that you really notice though. For example, one of the office doors I regularly pass was bedecked with cartoons (Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes etc). Then, last week the cartoons disappeared, replaced by a single strip of paper with the words “This space intentionally left blank” typed upon it. Nearby, the photo board of staff and students has now been dramatically picked clean of all those who are making the shift. The Computing Service, hitherto considered part of the lab, are staying put, so there are still some photos on the board, just many fewer of them.

There are brightly coloured plastic crates piled up in the tea-room. In the space that remains to us there, a small group of still resident staff congregates at the given times. I can’t help but feel as if we are all alone in a great empty expanse, like Arctic explorers around a camp-fire. (The over-enthusiastic air-conditioning in the tea-room probably helps with that particular mental image!)


Finally, proof that governments can occasionally see what the Internet might be good for.

Thursday, 23 August 2001

Why read the classics? and a Granta

Listening to:

Bach, Art of the fugue.

Just read:

Italo Calvino, Why read the classics?

This was a birthday present two years ago, and the fact that I’ve only just finished it now is testimony to the length of my back-log list. I’ve been very good since though, and seriously curtailed my book buying. Next year I expect to be reading books that are less than a year old, and getting very close to finished.

Anyway, Why read the classics? is a collection of essays about classic literature. Each essay deals with a particular author, and usually a particular work by that author. The essays are ordered by the dates of the author, so the first four are classical authors (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid and Pliny), and the last few are 20th century (Conrad and Hemingway, for example). The essays weren’t written in this order, but it seems a sensible arrangement. Italo Calvino is (was) Italian, so there are a number of Italian authors discussed, but there are also authors in there who wrote in French, English, Spanish and Russian.

Some of the essays were written for popular newspapers and/or magazines, others were written to be prefaces to the work discussed, and others were written for academic consumption. This means that the level of the essays varies quite a bit. Some are really quite difficult to follow. Others are very good. Even when about things I haven’t read and authors I’ve never even heard of, the good essays make me think, “Hmm, I really think I should try and get around to reading that...” (Then I remember my list.)

Granta 67: Women and children first.

This was an excellent Granta, with lots of neat stuff in it. The title essay is about the Titanic, and was prompted by the film of the same name. The author investigates the story of the band playing a hymn as the ship went down. Other non-fiction included an account of being trapped with some UN soldiers in a Rwandan refugee camp, and an essay about the Antarctic and Scott’s expedition there.

There was also fiction. There was an amusing excerpt from Zadie Smith’s White teeth (which appears on my list, making this an aperitif for a main meal that I know I will be able to enjoy), and an elegant extract from a recent novel by Edmund White.

To read next:

Todd McEwen, Arithmetic.


I’m now installed in my office in the new Computer Lab building. Moving explains the delay in web-log entries.

Wednesday, 29 August 2001


Listening to:

Oscar Peterson, Sometimes I’m happy.

Just read:

Todd McEwen, Arithmetic.

(Incidentally, if you can’t remember how to spell the word “arithmetic”, you might find the following mnemonic helpful: “a Red Indian thought he might eat turnips in church”. I was told this before I was ten, and it has stuck with me until the age of thirty. Sadly, I’ve never had any trouble spelling the word; it seems to me to be written pretty much as it sounds.)

Anyway, this book is not a guide to adding up. It is a novel about a period of a small boy’s life in California in 1960 (I can date it this precisely because there’s reference to Kennedy’s presidential election campaign). Not a lot happens really. The boy, Joe Lake, has trouble with arithmetic at school, and has to do remedial homework with a horrible book called Arithmetic town. This explains the title, but this facet of the story isn’t really that important. Instead, it’s just one part of the general slice of life.

In this, the presentation of a seven or eight year old’s slice of life, the book is quite convincing. On the other hand, I’ve decided that I don’t believe anything purporting to be the inner life of a child. I remember precious little of what it was like to be that age, and what I do remember has been retrospectively munged by the action of recollection. Joe Lake isn’t Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes (who is definitely not realistic), but there are similarities, and he is occasionally too articulate. I think I will have to have a child of my own, before I will commit to believing that a fictional portrait is accurate or not.

Arithmetic presents a few vignettes of life (dealing with school friends and enemies) that are accurately drawn and quite amusing with it. However, it’s quite a short novel, and nothing happens. There is no plot development. The last chapter is a lyrical reflection on the idealised world of cartoons (Joe earlier complains that his southern Californian suburb has no trees to climb, and that it has none of the neat features that real places should), and is really an unsatisfying way to finish things.

To read next:

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray.

And as for the move to the new building

Things are still not quite set up properly in the new Computer Lab building. Web-log patchiness will probably continue for a little while.

Friday, 31 August 2001


Listening to:

Camille Saint-Saëns, piano concerto no. 1 in D major, op. 17.