Tuesday, 2 October 2001

The surgeon’s mate and a holiday report

Listening to:

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.

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The surgeon's mate.

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 near future.

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.

Thursday, 4 October 2001

Software runaways and more

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème.

Holiday reading:

Robert L. Glass, Software runaways.

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.

My 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.

Monday, 8 October 2001

Entry #219

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 month.)

Finally, a "search engine" that 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!

Wednesday, 10 October 2001

Entry #220

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 today.

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 predicted.

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 Battleground games.

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?'' has a nice introductory discussion of realism, a ``dirty word in gaming'', here, discussing this objection and others.

Friday, 12 October 2001

Entry #221

Listening to:
Beethoven, string quartet Op. 130 in B flat.
A couple of good game-y links today:

Thursday, 18 October 2001

Omega Test busy-ness.

Listening to:

Bach, Art of the fugue.

Still reading:

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 Test.

Friday, 19 October 2001

Entry #223

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.

A nice 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.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001

Calculating π and the war on terror

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 8 in C minor, op. 65.

Still reading:

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 this 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).
  • The 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 tests:

    “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.”

  • The 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.

Wednesday, 24 October 2001

Merci pour le chocolat

Listening to:

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.

Friday, 26 October 2001

Weather (Links)

Listening to:

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:

  • Amusing 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.

Tuesday, 30 October 2001

Ulysses continues and Phlebas considered

Listening to:

Bach, violin sonata in A, BWV 1015.

Still reading:

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.

Holiday reading:

Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas.

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 one (an 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”.