Wednesday, 1 May 2002

Treason’s harbour & The player of games

Listening to:

Beethoven, Fidelio.

Just read:

Patrick O'Brian, Treason’s harbour.

This is the ninth book of the series, and it’s a definite improvement on the eighth. I liked it. There’s not a lot of naval action to it, but there are a couple of interesting engagements. The last one is sufficiently complicated that there’s even an accompanying map, giving you the lie of the land. The bulk of the “action” turns around intrigues and espionage, which suits me fine. The book doesn’t really finish properly; it’s clearly just a chapter in the ongoing story.

Iain M. Banks, The player of games.

This is the best Culture novel of the three I’ve now read. Just about every aspect of the book is interesting and intriguing. The premise of an empire that determines who occupies positions in its hierarchies (including the position of emperor itself) on the basis of how well someone plays a particular game is a bit too cute, but it’s all worked out very well. There's a savage criticism of repressive political systems in here too: it’s slightly over the top, but done well, even if it is preaching to the choir somewhat.

Still reading:

Roald Dahl's Complete tales of the unexpected.

I was away in Paris over the weekend, which is why I interposed two light paperbacks into my reading schedule.

Friday, 3 May 2002

A key to my room at last

Listening to:

Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli.

I now have a key to my room in the William Gates Building. Just two days after it was officially opened, but some eight months since I moved in.

My body is a battle-ground; my doughty immune system is fighting off a depraved horde of viruses, and most bits of the rest of me know all about it. Jeez, can’t you keep it down in there?

Here’s an interesting essay by Neal Stephenson about operating systems, including an argument to the effect that Microsoft would do well to get out of the OS market.

Tuesday, 7 May 2002

Lotsa Dahl

Listening to:

Mozart, Don Giovanni. Probably my favourite Mozart opera. No, wait; probably my favourite opera, full-stop.

Just read:

Roald Dahl, Matilda.

This is another children’s book that I surreptitiously added to my reading schedule in flagrant defiance of the List rules. It didn’t take long to read. Sadly though, it wasn't as good as The BFG, which I also read recently. The BFG is full of humour, but I found this relatively humourless. The villain was both too normal (a primary school teacher) and unrealistic (picking up children by their hair and throwing them à la Olympic hammer). The good guys were also too good and smarmy. This book apparently won some sort of prize, but my cynical mind suggests that this was because it glorifies reading, or because the author was getting on a bit and about to die, or for both reasons.

Roald Dahl, Complete tales of the unexpected.

I believe this is a reprint of something that was originally published as Collected short stories, or something similar. Anyway, it’s basically an omnibus edition of Kiss, kiss, Over to you, Switch bitch, and Someone like you, with another eight miscellaneous stores also thrown in for good measure.

Inevitably, some of the many stories are better than others, but a fair summary would be that they’re all pretty good, and some are excellent. Most of them are stories about relatively normal situations, but with quirky premises or unexpected endings. The stories from Over to you are something of an exception to this, being short stories involving RAF pilots during WW2. Most of these are tragic, and elegaic in tone, reminding me a little of Catch-22. The other stories are a nice mix of humour and nasty twists. Good stuff.

Now reading:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

Thursday, 9 May 2002

Thought for the day awfulness

Listening to:

Beethoven, sonata no. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2, for piano and cello. Played by Richter and Rostropovich.

And today I want to have a bit of a rant. The BBC’s premier radio news programme is undoubtedly the Today Programme on Radio 4. It runs from 6 to 9 every morning, Monday to Saturday. This morning the radio alarm came on at 7am, and I got back to the bedroom after my shower in time to hear Thought for the Day, at 7:45. (If you can cope with .ram (RealAudio) files, you can hear it too.) Thought for the Day is a two and a half to three minute snippet that always happens as part of the Today Programme, and features some suitably religious person giving us something inspiring to think about. Usually it just makes me turn the radio off. But today’s “thought” was particularly obnoxious. Anne Atkins is clearly the Pope’s special envoy to British radio. She’s been awful before too; here's the transcript form an earlier “thought” of hers where she gets in a Frankenstein dig at scientists. Blech.

Wednesday, 15 May 2002


Listening to:

Weiss, Sonata (Partita Grande) in C major, Dresden no. 11.

Still reading:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

I didn’t write an entry for Monday because I was away visiting the Computer Science department at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This gives me a great opportunity to provide independent proof of my existence: this page has my name on it at the right place, and there's even an abstract of my talk too.

A couple of articles about a game that I’ve never played, but which sounds fascinating (even if you discount the fact that people can win and lose large amounts of money playing it):

  • From Harper's magazine, a long article about competing in the World Poker Championships.
  • A more recent article from Salon on playing Poker online.

Friday, 17 May 2002

English in ideograms; Gallipoli veterans

Listening to:

Music to watch girls by, an album of “easy listening classics”, featuring singers like Andy Williams, Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dean Martin and Nancy Sinatra.


Some random links:

  • Australia's last Gallipoli veteran dies. I'm pretty sure New Zealand's last one died a while ago.
  • An interesting idea for using web-logs to provide continuous contextual information about what one is writing or reading. It's an ambitious idea, but seems technically plausible.
  • A careful, but readable essay about the Chinese characters, explored by imagining what an analogous system would be like for English.

Tuesday, 21 May 2002

Shock of the new and From N to Z

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 ‘Leningrad’.

Just read:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

Like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which preceded it, this is a book based on a TV series. Where Civilisation was all about all sorts of art (principally painting, but also with nods to music and architecture) up to 1900, Shock of the new is almost exclusively about modern (after the late 1800s) painting, with a little on architecture and sculpture.

It gains a lot from this narrower focus. Hughes has an interesting story to tell, and though he admits that he is giving the reader a selective overview, you finish it feeling you understand modern art a lot better than when you started. He provides more than just a whirlwind tour of paintings and dates; instead, he tries to explain how painters were influenced by their predecessors. For example, he's good on how exiled French surrealists influenced the American scene in New York in the 30s and 40s.

Hughes also has a great chapter on architecture, dissecting the ideals of Bauhaus and le Corbusier, and discussing what actually got built. I'm quite a believer in the idea that the nature of one's built surroundings influences how one behaves, and that it's worth spending time and effort on, if not actually designing, then guiding the development of urban spaces. Hughes doesn't have any real answers himself, but discusses (and illustrates) the issues well.

The final chapter of Shock of the new is an attempt to sum up the state of modern art now. (This revised edition was written in about 1990 I think, so “now” is ten years out-of-date.) He's interesting. I think part of the problem has to be the “cult of the original”, which mocks the buying of prints and encourages people to buy originals instead. How are artists ever going to reach any sort of wide audience if the (expensive) original is the only thing accepted as genuine?

Carl V. Smith, From N to Z.

This book is a humorous book that the author kept updating after its first version just after WW2, until the early 60s. I read the 1956 edition. It's a “light-hearted” look at New Zealand, and is even occasionally funny. I found it more interesting as a window onto a country that has changed a great deal since then. For example, the only broadcast medium in that period was radio. I was also slightly surprised to learn that the Milford Track existed then; somehow I imagined it to be a recent innovation.

Inevitably, the book reflects its period, and is pretty patronising about wives, and women in general. When the Maori are noticed at all, the book is similarly condescending. Some things remain true to modern New Zealand and retain their humour: the obsession with the All Blacks, and the fact that Aucklanders are all stuck up and live in a noxious city.

To read next:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy. I've heard this described as the longest novel originally written in English. The paperback edition I have is over 1400 pages long. I think it will keep me busy for quite a while.

Thursday, 23 May 2002

Europa Universalis II

Listening to:

Bach, Pastorale in F major, BWV 590. Organ music.

I've been playing quite a bit of Europa Universalis II recently. It's quite a compelling game. I started out as the Kingdom of Castille in 1419, and I've since been renamed the Kingdom of Spain. Unfortunately, I still haven't managed to completely take over the non-Portugese bits of the Iberian peninsula. Not only does Aragon still exist, but when western Europe started to fall apart around 1600 (you should see the state of France, even fifty years later: France proper, the French Catholics in the Loire valley, the Huguenots and Brittany: all separate states), a third state appeared in Iberia: Catalunya. This has since been absorbed by France, but I can't see this lasting: the game does a pretty good job of modelling things like nationalism, so I suspect there may well be some serious rebellions against foreign overlords in that part of the world.

I'd quite like to be aggressive and encourage changes of leadership myself, but I have a "rather bad reputation" and if I try anything at all, Austria immediately declares war on me. So, I'm playing it very quiet, and attempting to repair that reputation, while cultivating a network of small state allies with which to make the lives of the other big powers difficult.

And when I play my next Grand Campaign, I want to play as the Papal States and unite Italy. Or maybe one of the Muslim states in the near East. This is definitely a game with legs!

It's a shame that the computer I'm playing it on seems to be becoming more cantankerous by the day. Its DVD/CD drive still automatically recognises and plays DVDs and audio CDs, but for quite a while now it has been refusing to automatically execute CDs with programs on them. More recently, we seem to have lost a high level of networking. It's no longer enough to double-click on IExplorer or SSH to bring up the modem dialog; instead we have to go through Dial-up Connections in the My Computer window. The operating system's internal state is evolving quite independently of our wishes.

Monday, 27 May 2002

Girlfriend arguments

Listening to:

Something stupid, sung by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. I really like this song, but I've never heard of C. Carson Parks, who wrote it. He’s got a web-page and I don’t recognise any of his other songs. I wonder how rich you get on the back of a top of the charts song from 1967.

Now reading:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy.

Have you heard? Not watching the ads is theft.

This web-page is difficult to judge. It’s a list of things the author and his girl-friend argue about, and is quite amusing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe anyone would really be so publicly critical about their other half. She might well have a really thick skin, or find it all amusing herself. I almost think that the whole character is a fictional creation. Believing that makes it easier to laugh at the comedy. The author also makes fun of himself, so it’s not totally one-sided either.

Wednesday, 29 May 2002

The twits and on the BBC...

Listening to:

Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde.

Just read:

Roald Dahl, The Twits.

Somehow I have been accumulating children’s books by Roald Dahl. This is the shortest of the ones I’ve read recently (less than a hundred pages I think), but pretty good nonetheless. It’s a very simple story about an awful couple called Mr. and Mrs. Twit. They are eventually brought to a sticky end by some talking animals. They and their awfulness are really the focus of the story, making it much more engaging than the goody-two-shoes Matilda.

The text for Anne Atkins’s Thought for the Day piece that I so disliked is now available online.

And on the radio this morning, another encouragement to go and look at the BBC’s web-site. The Today Programme has just held an online survey about Britain's most liked and disliked professions. The full results are here. Doctors, nurses and fire-men; good. Journalists and politicians; bad. Scientists and university staff don’t do so badly either, so that's nice.

A cute essay by Jeff Vogel on why side-quests in computer RPGs are a good idea.