The surgeon’s mate and a holiday report
Ella Fitzgerald singing I love Paris,
by Cole Porter. My CD
traversal is up to P, and this CD is filed
under P for Porter, because it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing the
Cole Porter songbook. A CD featuring Ella Fitzgerald singing
songs by a variety of composers would be filed under
F, of course.
- Patrick O'Brian, The
This is the seventh in the O’Brian
Aubrey-Maturin series, and is very good. It starts with the
heroes in Nova Scotia, having just escaped from the clutches of
the nefarious Americans. Eventually they get back to Britain,
are assigned to a mission in the Baltic, and things get better
from there on in. (I’m being vague to avoid giving the
interesting plot away.) I like this novel particularly because
it has a great mix of naval action and espionage activities,
ranging across a wide variety of settings.
I was away in the south of France last week. I stayed in a
gîte near the city of Montpellier.
I didn’t actually get to see a lot of the city, but what I did see
looked very nice. We were a way out of town, near the village of
St. Martin-de-Londres. The landscape in this neck of the woods is
really pretty spectacular, featuring the impressive Pic
St. Loup and big blue skies. This area is also an up and coming
wine region (search for Pic
St. Loup on Google and you get a lot more about the wines than the
mountain), and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t sample any of
the local produce.
I decided not to try to take Ulysses away with me as
holiday reading. Instead I took a couple of other books, more
suitable for easy consumption. I'll provide reviews of these in the
Finally, a site with a neat
premise, free disposable e-mail addresses. Why would you want
such a thing? So you can hand out addresses to potentially dodgy
web-sites, get a few messages from the site, and then have the rest of
the messages get automatically dropped. Check its FAQ.
Software runaways and more
Puccini, La Bohème.
- Robert L. Glass,
I read this in Australia
because it was in a friend’s book-case, not because I took it
with me. It’s a repackaged collection of articles, including a
big chunk of someone else’s masters thesis, about software
projects that went disastrously wrong, usually costing the
earth, and/or taking much longer than expected to finish, or not
finishing at all.
As a collection, it doesn’t hold together particularly well.
The introduction is OK in terms of introducing Glass’s
theories about project failure, but the rest of the book makes
pretty dull reading. Many of the failures were due to political
squabbles (rather than bad technical decisions), but there’s
nothing much in the way of human interest in the presentation of
these stories. Further, the technical problems are not
described in anything like enough detail to allow anyone to take
away any sort of technical lessons.
link du jour is (part of) the sad story of how more and more free
“content” on the web is disappearing. The New York Times
hasn’t given free access to its standard archive for a while, but as a
result of the Tasini case explained above, it has now
removed lots of pre-1995 book reviews from its site that were
apparently available before. The New York Review of
Books is doing something similar, and Salon has
moved most of its politics coverage to subscriber-only access.
However, Salon does have this
neat article/review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s latest
Earthsea books available for all. (OK, I admit it, I
call it “neat” because I find myself in almost complete agreement with
the reviewer about everything she says.) I just hope it continues to
remain accessible indefinitely.
- Listening to:
- Queen, greatest hits. Bohemian rhapsody,
Another one bites the dust, all that stuff.
- Now reading:
- James Joyce, Ulysses. I read perhaps 10% of this
over the weekend. This means it could be a good long while
before I have anything to say about it.
- Holiday reading:
- Bill Bryson, A walk in the
woods. This is another book I read in Australia,
almost a year ago. It's the story of Bryson's attempt to do the
Appalachian Trail, a famous long-distance trail that goes from
Georgia to Maine, over a distance of some 2100 miles. I enjoyed
it, finding it both amusing and quite informative.
Occasionally, Bryson sounds a bit preachy as he bemoans the
various environmental disasters about to happen or already
happened in the areas he walks through, but most of the time
he's just interesting, on both where he is, and the pyschology
and habits of the long-distance walker.
I was particularly amazed to learn that Bryson couldn't get any
good maps of the trail. In the UK, the Ordnance Survey
provides maps at scales down to 1:25000 of the whole country,
and these are readily available at bookshops. You'd need a lot
of them to cover all of 2100 miles, but hey, Bryson is a rich
author now. (The OS also has some
very nice screen wall-paper images available free every
Finally, a "search engine"
does a whole bunch of searches using other engines around the web, and
then collates them into what it hopes will be useful categories. Looks neat!
- Listening to:
- Rachmaninoff, Vespers (All-night vigil).
Computer game cheese: what is it, and what can be done about it?
These are the important questions that I will attempt to address
The term cheesy is used to describe tactics, strategy or,
most generally, behaviour in a computer game that is somehow both
underhand, and not what one might expect to see. So, for example,
I've read that Panzer General II suffers because the
optimal strategy is to build one's army up to include nothing but
tanks and reconnaissance units. Games that purport to be historical
simulations or recreations are most vulnerable to this problem,
because people already have a firm idea of what is appropriate for the
period being recreated. Thus, in this
preview for the Empire Earth game, cheese is confidently
This prediction for Empire Earth is based on the fact that it
is going to feature a large number of units, making the game
designers' task very difficult. If they are not careful, they will
have to assess a number of interactions that is quadratic in the
number of unit types. Games of this type are very complicated, and
it's interesting that players manage to figure out the unexpected, but
optimal, strategies quite quickly. My theory is that the search-space
is a nice, continuous surface, so natural selection (particularly in
very competitive, online human vs. human settings) can quickly home in
on good strategies. Secondly, cheesy strategies are easy to
postulate; they usually involve behaviours that are in some sense
extreme. It's very easy to first suppose that an army consisting
entirely of tanks will do well, and to then test this idea. It's much
harder to come up with a complicated balancing act strategy, and to
then implement this.
If people get concerned enough about this, and are playing against
other people, they can still use the underlying computer game's basic
implementation. They just need to agree to abide by additional rules,
forbidding dodgy tricks. An example of such a set of rules are these,
rules for governing player behaviour when playing John Tiller's Napoleonic
If the game setting is not historical, can cheese still exist? Do
people have expectations (that can be disappointed) if they are
playing a game with a fantasy or science-fiction setting? In many
situations, they can, and their reaction will typically be to complain
that what they're seeing is not realistic. Excessively
literal-minded people then tend to say, ``Hey, what's realistic about
magical spells, anyway?''
Skotos.net has a nice
introductory discussion of realism, a ``dirty word in gaming'', here,
discussing this objection and others.
- Listening to:
- Beethoven, string quartet Op. 130 in B flat.
A couple of good game-y links today:
Omega Test busy-ness.
Bach, Art of the fugue.
James Joyce, Ulysses. Read “The lotus-eaters”
and “Hades” over the weekend.
Very brief entry today because I’m far too busy making sense of the Omega
- Listening to:
- Brahms, piano concerto #2 in B flat major, op. 83.
Engaged in a random bout of phone-commerce last night, I was asked to
provide a password, and the very quickly spoken (I guess she was being
paid by the number of calls made) woman said, ``Can you tell me where
you were born, you know something what is unique to you for
security purposes?'' Oh yes, I was born
in a one-baby town.
And then there is the frequently heard claim, when put on
hold, that ``Your custom is very important to us; we've
put you into a priority queue.'' A classic case of
technical terms being adopted willy-nilly in an attempt to
sound impressive. In fact, a priority queue is one that
is constantly sorted so that the first item out is the
member with the highest priority, where priority is assessed
to be something other than ``has been waiting longest''.
Something I'd love to see in an on hold system, but haven't yet, is counts of numbers of people ahead of you in the queue, repeated every 20 or 30 seconds. That would make
waiting much easier because it would give you a chance to
assess the speed of service.
example of geographic illiteracy. Recently Ariel Sharon likened
Israel's position to that of Czechoslovakia before WW2. It now looks as if
Israel's too late; Switzerland has beaten them to it.
Calculating π and the war on terror
Shostakovich, symphony no. 8 in C minor, op. 65.
James Joyce, Ulysses. I read three sections
over the weekend: Aeolus (in a newspaper office),
The Lestrygonians (Bloom looks for lunch), and
Scylla and Charybdis (Stephen Dedalus argues about
Hamlet and Shakespeare’s life in the library).
I’ve now read nine of the eighteen sections.
Did you know that you can get good estimates for the value of PI
by just looking at your own files? It’s all down to number theory and
the ratio of relatively prime pairs of numbers to non-prime pairs. (A
number x is relatively prime with respect to y if
x and y have no common factors. For example, 10 and
21 are relatively prime, even though neither of them is prime.) See
neat page for more details, and Real Code. (The same guy’s site
includes a very good
description of his PhD research; I’d like to write something
similar about mine.)
Some “war on terrorism” links:
- The Onion is generally a
pretty good source of satire. This
issue is from 26 September, and is very good, including
headlines like US vows to defeat whoever it is we’re at
war with and God angrily clarifies “Don’t
kill” rule. More recently, this
piece makes the civil liberties argument very well (though
perhaps laying it on a bit thick).
Boston Globe finds evidence that private
security firms, the airlines and the FAA were all getting a bit
cosy about security responsibilities at Logan Airport before 11
September. For example, on the possible forms of security
“We didn’t want everyone testing us without knowing what to look for
exactly,” Bibbey, the Logan manager for Globe Aviation Services, said
in an interview. “We don’t need people improvising test pieces to
purposely make people fail.”
LA Times on the Arab TV channel Al
Jazeera, and how it is providing a valuable service.
- Finally, a
discussion from the Washington Post about
civilian casualties as a result of bombing Afghanistan.
Merci pour le chocolat
Shostakovich, symphony no. 14, op. 135.
A recent movie:
Merci pour le chocolat. I saw this a while ago
really, but much of it remains quite fresh in my mind. It’s a
creepy little story, about a young woman who discovers that she
has a tenuous connection to a famous pianist (she and the
pianist’s son were briefly switched at birth before the mistake
was detected). The young woman wants to be a professional
pianist, and approaches the famous pianist. He takes a shine to
her and offers her some piano coaching.
The pianist lives with his wife and son. His son is not the
child of his wife, but from an earlier marriage, that ended when
the son’s mother was involved in a traffic accident. The
character of the wife is mesmerising: she’s clearly up to no
good, but it’s next to impossible to figure out exactly what it
is she’s up to. The cold blankness of this character is very
well portrayed by Isabelle Huppert.
Sadly, none of it really makes any sense, and the piano lesson
scenes are tedious, particularly as it is really obvious that
the actors are not playing the pianos. The acting by the women
in the film is pretty good, but the men, particularly the young
son, are much less convincing. So, not recommended.
Neilsen, symphony no. 3 Symphony espansiva.
It’s raining and grey today. The sky is gradually rolling past my
window, and the trees are waving in the wind. In addition to the
trees, I can see a tall metal post on top of which sits a CCTV camera.
I don’t know if the camera can swivel to look in my window; whenever I
look at it it’s pointing in the same direction, parallel to the wall
in which my window is. Of course, when I’m not looking at it, who
knows where it might be looking. Even the pole the camera on is
occasionally swaying a little, making very slight juddery motions, in
the wind. With luck the wind will blow me back into town on my bike.
A couple of links that I found reading David Chess:
Tolkien sarcasm, clearly put together by people who really do
love the books, and all the more effective for it.
- David himself: very interesting on
the Loebner prize, a competition embodying a Turing Test
like idea. The standard of the competition is still very low.
Ulysses continues and Phlebas considered
Bach, violin sonata in A, BWV 1015.
James Joyce, Ulysses. I read another three
sections this weekend: The Wandering Rocks (lots of
little vignettes of life in and around Dublin), The
Sirens (Bloom in a bar, listening to music and admiring
the barmaids) and The Cyclops (Polyphemus) (Bloom
in a different bar, awkwardly chatting with some vaguely racist
and one-eyed (geddit?) acquaintances).
I have six more sections to go, and it’s clear that writing a
final summary of the whole novel for a “Just
read:” review will be pretty difficult.
- Iain M. Banks, Consider
I read this while away in France in
September, and thought it pretty good. It was the first science
fiction that I’d read in ages, and I enjoyed it. It’s quite
space-opera-ish in terms of its basic construction, but there are also
lots of neat ideas in it. The Culture is a particularly powerful
extended article about bits of it by Banks), and I was also impressed by the Changer species. I didn’t
see so much of the deep meaning in it that Philip Banks discerns, but I haven’t
read it twenty times either.
The only real
thing I’d hold against the novel is the frequency of the fight
scenes. These aren’t particularly gory so I don't object to the
blood and guts on offer. Rather I think that the fights come up
sufficiently often that you begin to think that physical combat
between small numbers of individuals is the only way that things
ever get resolved in this futuristic universe. (I much prefer
the ship-vs-ship level of the “fights” in the O’Brian books.)
It also seems a bit of a cop-out that the vast majority of the
alien species are conveniently humanoid. Perhaps some future
novel in the series (there are quite a few) will explain how
this comes to be. It’s not because humans from Earth colonised
the universe, and subsequent variation emerged by evolution; an
epilogue makes it clear that the events described occurred at
about 1200 AD “our time”.