Monday, 10 June 2002

Excuses and links

Listening to:

Handel, The Alchymist. My CD liner notes (by Anthony Hicks) say that this was the first orchestral music by Handel to be heard in England. It was originally an overture for his opera Rodrigo, but it gets its name because the suite's various movements

...were used as ‘act tunes’ (i.e., music played between acts) during a revival of Ben Jonson's play The Alchymist at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket, in January 1710.

Still reading:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy. I'm up to page 905 of this edition's 1474 pages. It continues to enthrall.

My complete failure to write web-log entries last week stems from the fact that Monday and Tuesday were public holidays, and while at work on the remaining three days of the week, I was very busy with the administrivia required in releasing HOL. Though it has yet to be announced, you can download exciting theorem-proving files now from SourceForge. I offer a similar excuse for my failure to write on the previous Friday.

But in all this time, I have accumulated a few good links that I feel compelled to share.

This, for example, is a pretty cool research project from MIT that aims to find out what's hot on the web by doing frequent scans of sites that identify themselves as web-logs, and seeing what they link to. To wax poetic, it's a window on the communal web-logger's soul. More usefully, you can see what the web's current best jokes are, and what its current neuroses are as well. (Good jokes aren't necessarily guffaw-inducing either. I particularly liked the gentle humour and style of this extract from a new book by Paul Robinson.)

There's also this neat Java demonstration of the scale of the universe through over 30 orders of magnitude. Of these, I'd estimate that the human mind can easily cope with about 10 of them.

Of course, the incomprehensible is easy to find on the Internet itself. In this case, the more you look at, the wackier it seems.

Thursday, 13 June 2002

Bumps and graphics cards

Listening to:

Dvořák, Slavonic dances.

I should have written yesterday, but I was caught up in the University Bumps. I was coxing a graduate boat from St. Catharine's, the men's 4th boat. This is a “grad boat”, and I’m subbing for their regular cox, who will be coxing today and on Saturday. You can see us at position 88 on this chart. We rowed over, and it was really quite exciting.

In computer game news, I really should put in a good word for the latest craze to hit the home PC: Morrowind. This is definitely a very slick game. It induced all sorts of angst as we installed a new graphics card for our PC. (On setting it up 2 years ago, we were confident that we wouldn’t need anything in the way of 3D acceleration, because We don't play that sort of game. Heh. Things don’t need to be first-person shooters to make very impressive use of 3D acceleration.) But once the card was in place, and DirectX 8.1 correctly installed too, it all worked, and there was much rejoicing.

Reviews at:

Friday, 14 June 2002

Bumps, elections and politicians

Listening to:

An extract of Mahler’s symphony no. 6. This is on the tail end of a BBC Music Magazine CD. The main part of the CD was a couple of works by Scriabin, but the magazine now also includes a few extracts from what it thinks are the best new releases. This is what Gramophone magazine has always done, but I much prefer having a magazine that comes with a CD containing complete pieces of music. Extracts can at best be a minor aid to the text of a review.

And now the news:

  • The Catz boat bumped yesterday, so I will rejoin them in fine form I'm sure. Around us, it's curious that (looking at the chart should make this clear), Jesus VI are now in position to bump Churchill IV again, after bumping them once already (on Wednesday).
  • NZ is going to have an election soon. Helen Clark announced that it would be two months earlier than expected, on 27 July.
  • In the UK, the world's concerns seem to be almost taking a back seat to a ridiculous story about whether or not Tony Blair tried to lean on the officiating bods at the Queen Mother's lying-in-state so as to get himself a more prominent place in the public's eye. The media reported this story, and the PM's office made a complaint to the Press Complaints people, claiming it was all a horrible lie. But then, it seemed that they couldn’t prove it wasn’t, and the Press Complaints lot dismissed the complaint. For a government supposedly suffused with spin-doctors, they seem pretty good at cocking up their press relations on a regular basis.

    But then, as a junior minister called Douglas Alexander (and he sounded Scottish too) sensibly pointed out on the Today programme, there are rather more important things going on. The politicians blame the media, and the media blame the politicians, but I really do think that they, and the consumers (i.e., the public) too, have to share the blame for the supposed trivialisation of public discourse.

Thursday, 20 June 2002

A suitable boy

Listening to:

Eduard Tubin, symphony no. 3 (Heroic). This is part of a CD from the BBC Music Magazine featuring music by Estonian composers. I’d never heard of Tubin before, but I definitely like this symphony of his. There's also a piece by Arvo Pärt on the CD. He would be the Estonia’s most famous composer, I’d guess.

I’m listening to this on a new CD player that I bought this morning at Argos. The computer on my desk here has a CD drive and a phone-out socket, but it’s become so flakey that it fails to recognise a high proportion of my discs when I put them in the drive. So, I’ve given up the ability to control my music with the mouse, but I can listen to more of it.

Just read:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy.

This is the 1400+ page monster that I’ve been reading since the end of May. And the verdict is: it’s great. I found it absolutely enthralling. The characters are almost all sympathetic, and Seth takes the time to paint a beautifully detailed picture of post-Independence India (1951 and 1952, specifically). The novel’s duration is defined by the search for a husband for Lata Mehra. It starts with Lata’s sister’s marriage. With this marriage achieved, the sisters’ mother makes Lata her next project. The novel ends when Lata has finally found and chosen her suitable boy.

But Lata is just one of many characters, and there are many chapters where she does not feature at all. Instead, we get many others’ stories as well. These people are connected with Lata one way or the other, but they all have lives of their own, and their stories are quite involved. The other character who gets most attention is probably Maan Kapoor, who is Lata’s brother-in-law through her sister’s marriage and a bit of a ‘wild child’.

I could write for ages trying to describe all that the novel covers, but I don’t think I’d do it justice. Rather, I should defend it against the possible accusation of being a family-saga pot-boiler. I think it escapes from this charge because it’s not simplistic, and it doesn’t seem to trade in stereotypes. Big sections on the politics of land reform and religion aren’t just there as window-dressing either. I suppose it’s possible that someone with more experience of Indian literature in English would identify much of it as cliché. My experience is more limited, and it all comes across as a wonderful window on an exotic world.

To read next:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.

Friday, 21 June 2002

Soccer and first-person shooters as recruiting tools

Listening to:

Felix Mendelssohn, Song without words, op. 30 no. 3.

England are out of the World Cup after losing to Brazil 2-1. The US is playing Germany, and currently down 1-0. The game this morning was quite exciting, and I think this not even having seen any of the goals. I came in on it just before Brazil had their man sent off. They seemed to play quite well to keep England's chances to a minimum.

I thought this preview article was quite fascinating. The US Army is going to develop and release a free first-person shooter computer game as part of its recruitment efforts. They are going to try to be quite realistic in their depiction of military combat. This is clearly the future for recruitment everywhere: Fancy a job with us? Here, first play this game to give a virtual reality sample of what it's like. Of course, with my job, they'd just need to sit the potential recruit down in front of a screen and leave them there.

Monday, 24 June 2002

A handmaid’s tale & The vintner’s luck

Listening to:

Hildegard of Bingen, O ignis spiritus, from the CD, A feather on the breath of God. Easily the oldest music in my collection, being from the 12th century.

Just read:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.

This is an impressive piece of dystopian fiction in the tradition of 1984. It’s more grounded than Orwell’s novel because it's more explicit about its setting. In passing, it fills us in on how the modern USA (or a reasonably familiar facsimile thereof) turned into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. I didn’t think that Atwood's alternative history was particularly believable, but at least there were details to mull over.

The story is that of a young woman who has become a handmaid, a state-sanctioned concubine given to a high-ranking government official because the official’s wife is infertile. (The state refuses to acknowledge the possibility that men might be infertile.) Environmental pollution means that very few healthy children are born (shades of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids), so women are allowed no official role other than mother. They are not even allowed to read or write.

The story zips along, shows us various aspects of the imagined future, and ends with a very cute epilogue. It also includes an amusing refashioning of Freud in an off-hand one-liner: women are re-educated not to want to read or write by being told “Pen is envy”.

Elizabeth Knox, The vintner’s luck.

This novel is a curious and interesting story about a French wine-maker of the first half of the 19th century. When 18 he meets an angel in the family vineyard in the middle of the night. After conversing, the angel says that he will continue returning every year on the same day.

The novel mixes its two tones, the sublime and the mundane well. The former features dreamy conversations with angels on matters like the nature of Heaven and Hell, and arresting images such as growing a rose garden in Hell, Hell getting a copy of everything ever copied, and the angel smelling of snow. The mundane is a conventional family saga, but with reasonably interesting characters. I think the cosmogony isn't thought out carefully enough, and would have preferred more of it in place of the saga. The relationship between the vintner and the angel is interesting enough in its own right without needing to give us much more conventional stories of adulteries and various misunderstandings.

To read next:

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Enigma: the battle for the code.

Wednesday, 26 June 2002

Morrowind & Harry Potter

Listening to:

Brahms, Fantasien, op. 116. Played by Emil Gilels.

Some perceptive comments about the Harry Potter books.

Good things about Morrowind:

  • It looks very nice. Wandering the country-side at night, with stars to look at; admiring the massive pyramid-like architecture in the city of Vivec; the haze of dawn mists. The first-person perspective heightens the sense of immersion.
  • It really does seem open-ended and free-form. The thrust of the “main” story-line is far from clear, and there’s still lots of interesting stuff to do on the fringes. On a couple of occasions I have just taken my character on wanders through the back-country, testing my archery skills on wild animals, and poking my nose into various ancestral tombs that you occasionally bump into.
  • Related to this, the guild/faction structures are nicely done. Yes, they have “quests” for you to do, even in the Imperial Legion (joining the latter gets lots of comments from guards along the lines of Why aren't you at your post?, but you're not forced into barracks for months at a time); but these are all pretty well varied, and seem to admit multiple methods of solution. My character has joined the Fighters’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Imperial Cult and the Imperial Legion. I'm aware of seven others that could be joined (though some of them are mutually exclusive), making for lots of different ways to play the game.
  • The underlying game system is refreshing. Though there are player levels, these govern just health and magic-point totals. The system is primarily skill-based, and though there are sample classes provided (with their skill-sets already chosen), you can design your own. A class picks 5 major skills and 5 minor skills that start off at higher levels, while all of the game's other skills start low. But the system is that all skills improve if used successfully. If and when D&D makes it to a 6th edition, it might have evolved to a system as nice as this.
  • It continues to engross me, many hours after first starting.

Things that could be better (for the next version):

  • NPCs are static; they don't move around except within very constrained patrol routines for some guards. This breaks the illusion a little because they obviously have no lives of their own.
  • Relatedly, there is no real day/night cycle in the towns: it might be the middle of the night when you arrive in Balmora, but everyone is still up and about and will have exactly the same conversations with you. They should all be in bed!
  • There is no scope for the multiple character adventuring. When you are occasionally lumbered with an escort duty, the escorted person follows you around like a stupid pet, and you can't wait to get rid of them.
  • There are occasional graphical glitches that look peculiar but have no real effect on the game.
  • Monsters will occasionally get stuck when they should be charging at you (a pathfinding failure this), making it possible to pick them off with bow and arrow.
  • There are too few people in the towns. This really is a difficult one for any game designer to solve: how do you invent a complete village? Either you make all the people the same, which is boring and worse than not having them, or you spend an incredibly long time inventing hundreds (thousands) of lives, most of which the PC will never interact with. Morrowind actually does a fabulous job on this front, so I'm really being impossibly (?) perfectionist.

Friday, 28 June 2002

Conference eavesdropping, Tony Bennet, and LotR versus Star Wars

Listening to:

Mozart, horn concerto in E flat, KV 495.

Some links: