Tuesday, 2 July 2002

Enigma: the battle for the code

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in B flat major, KV174. Mozart wrote six string quintets and they are all very beautiful.

Just read:

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

This book went over pretty familiar territory for me in many ways. Alan Turing, U-boats, plug-boards, yadda yadda. But it told the story well, and also included interesting material that I hadn't seen before. For example, it devotes a lot of attention to efforts by the Allies to get hold of Enigma material by capturing U-boats and various other German naval vessels. The book's introduction gives the impression that this was going to be the principal focus of the book when it was first conceived, but there is a lot of other material too.

For example, the account is concerned to track the French spies and the Polish mathematicians that made the first steps in breaking Enigma. Their story starts in the 1930s and continues through to the war years too. Incredibly, the Polish cryptographers, who could have told the Germans all about the way in which their supposedly secure system was broken, spent much of the war in a French château. The Nazis did manage to capture one of the Poles, and also the German traitor who sold Enigma information to the French, but there are none so blind that will not see, and the secret stayed safe.

There are interesting sections devoted to the German responses. It does seem as if Dönitz, chief U-boat commander had his concerns about cipher security, but when he took these to the Naval Communications people, they kept telling him there couldn't be a problem. It's also very interesting to read that the Germans were reading some of the Allied codes. I’d really like to read more about this German cryptanalysis effort.

The book puts most of the cryptography into 6 appendices. I skimmed these, feeling that it wasn’t really important to understand all of the details. I feel there are no particularly deep principles there; rather there are complicated fiddles that are tied to the details of the Enigma implementation.

My final moral of the story: don’t put weather stations onto the same cryptographic network as your warships. Have them use a different code, that the warships are all able to read, but which they don't use themselves.

To read next:

Granta 74: confessions of a middle-aged Ecstasy eater.

Thursday, 4 July 2002

Summer weather

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet no. 15 in E flat minor, op. 144. Each of this quartet's six movements is given the description adagio (the last two are adagio molto, even).

The summer weather has been so awful that the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is considering putting a roof over Centre Court at Wimbledon.

And somehow that seems to just about sum up the week.

Monday, 8 July 2002

Granta 74 & Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s conjecture

Listening to:

Bach, toccata and fugue in D minor, BWV 565. This work is traditionally played on the organ, and is very famous in that setting. Nonetheless, there's apparently lots of evidence to suggest that it was originally written for violin, and I'm listening to a reconstructed version for violin now.

Just read:

Granta 74: confessions of a middle-aged Ecstasy eater (contents)

This issue of the magazine is a good one. I read and enjoyed almost all of it. There are definitely no stinkers here. The title piece is one of the weakest parts of the issue. It's written in an awful style, and just made me think the anonymous author was pretentious. Nonetheless, he is interesting on the effects of Ecstasy, and waxes lyrical about how it saved his and his son’s lives. Andrew Brown's real-life account of a fishing obsession in Sweden is much more readable. His descriptions of fishing, dealing with Swedish winters, and the contrasts with England are all interesting and well-written. David Feuer's description of a stint as a psychiatrist tending to a Hasidic community in New York is also very good.

Haruki Murakami’s short story, Thailand was the best of the fiction: it presented an only-slightly skewed perspective on something that was superficially entirely prosaic. Somehow, everything was embued with a distantly surreal tone.

Christophe de Baillague’s description of the political situation in Iran, at least in as much as it pertains to the situation of one journalist (now in prison), was very interesting. It will be fascinating to see how Iran evolves over the next few years. It really does appear to be a country that might go in any number of different directions. (Like South Africa, say.)

Apostolis Doxiadis, Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture.

This novel is the story of mysterious Uncle Petros, told from a nephew’s point of view. The rest of the family dismisses Petros as a failure, but refuses to explain why. Given the title, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Petros is a mathematician, one who spent his career (now over) trying to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture. The nephew attempts to find out what happened in the uncle's life, and what results is the engaging chronicle of a mathematician's career. At one point, it sounds as if the author is just name-dropping (Turing, Gödel, Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujam), but these people are all relevant, and though the standard mathematical folk-lore is recycled, the novel presents the world of research and the search for proofs very appealingly.

To read next:

John Keay, The great arc.

Wednesday, 10 July 2002

Game sites and rants in the offing

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 4.

The Computer Games Online web-site has lost its content. They've obviously decided that their online operation was a waste of money, and now there's nothing there except an advertisement for the print magazine.

The GameSpot site has also become slightly less useful, because they are now charging for access to some of their material. Most stuff seems to be available when it first appears, but it expires after seven days, only to be accessible to paying customers. Having just investigated their prices, it seems they want $20 for a year's access. This doesn't seem so expensive, but even if I were to subscribe, I'd still be unable to share it with others. Sigh.

There's all sorts of interesting political stuff in the news at the moment: drugs policy, and the Common Agricultural Policy. Both are subjects near and dear to my heart: expect a rant on Friday.

Friday, 12 July 2002


Listening to:

Bach, Cantata BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (King of Heaven, thou art welcome).

Rants as promised.

On drugs: this is a perfect subject for the generation of hysteria. On Wednesday, even the Today programme was one-sided. It had a social worker on who was walking around an estate in Brixton pointing out the down-and-outs: heroin and crack addicts. I want to know why no-one queried the belief that this had anything to do with relaxing the policy on marijuana. Nor did they have anyone on to point out that alcohol and smoking are a much bigger problem among young people than illegal drugs. Sheesh. Roll on legalisation so that the issue turns into one about health rather than crime. Here's the anncouncement of the policy change that stirred up all the fuss. (Gotta love the URL!)

As for the Common Agricultural Policy: boy! (Background article from the Guardian.) I think the fact that last year's foot and mouth outbreak inflicted bigger losses on the tourism industry than agriculture is a pretty good indication that the farmers aren't as important as they might like to think. A friend suggests that Britain's long-term aim should be the complete reforestation of the island. Sounds pretty good to me.

Of course, Europe is not the only place where this happens. The US plans to give its farmers $8 billion more than it was already planning to. How many farmers are there in the US anwyay? This page (from the US Dept. of Agriculture) suggests that there are fewer than 3 million people working in agriculture, and this one says there were just over 2 million farms in 1996. So on top of any existing support, they're all getting an average of $4000 extra each. Why doesn't every small business in the country get $4000?

Scarier still are the figures in this story from the Economist. Back in Europe, EU Commissioner, Mr. Fischler proposes to limit the subsidy payments to individual farmers at euro300,000 ($298,000) a year. They're complaining about being limited to a measly $300k per annum?! Think how much money would be saved if they were told that they could farm without any subsidies, or put on the dole. Sheesh.

Tuesday, 16 July 2002

The great arc & Mr. Phillips

Listening to:

Schütz, Sinfonia Sacrae, op. 6.

Just read:

John Keay, The great arc.

This is a good example of the historical science genre exemplified by Dava Sobel's Longitude. I don't have any objection to the fact that there has been such an obvious example of publishers jumping onto a bandwagon because the material published is often reasonably interesting. Certainly, Keay's account is a worthwhile addition.

The great arc tells the story of the 19th century project to map India using accurate trigonometric methods. In particular, it is about that part of the project which aimed to cover a big arc, from the tip of the sub-continent north to the Himalayas. This particular approach to the problem meant that useful geodesic data about the shape of the Earth's curvature could also be gathered.

This is interesting enough in itself, but it turns out that the second person in charge of this project was George Everest, the man after whom Earth's highest mountain is named. Everest never saw Mt. Everest himself, and if Keay is to believed, was never particularly interested in mountains either. He and his predecessor, Lambton were both interesting characters in their own rights, and their stories add an enjoyable element of human interest to the story.

I'm becoming more and more interested in the nature of 19th century culture, society and technology, and this book is a good window on that world.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips.

This light novel is a reasonably entertaining read, but suffers because its main character is rather uninteresting. The novel narrates a day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who gets up on Monday and leaves for a day in town, dressed as if to go to work. Sadly, he was sacked on Friday and has nowhere to go. Instead, he wanders around London having a variety of interesting encounters. It's like an easy-language version of Ulysses, but Victor Phillips is not as interesting as Leopold Bloom. Instead of Irish politics, anti-Semitism and various discussions with all and sundry, we get lots of internal monologue on sex, as well as a few manufactured observations about life that are cute and mildly arresting, but reveal nothing about Phillips. Perhaps he is supposed to be an anonymous Everyman, but it ends up feeling like a novel populated by stereotypes. It is reliably amusing at fairly frequent intervals, so it is a pleasant read.

To read next:

Alister McGrath, In the beginning.

Thursday, 18 July 2002

Wolfram and others

Listening to:

Haydn, piano sonata no 43 in E flat major, Hob. XVI: 28. (Now that's a complicated cataloguing scheme: Roman numerals, a colon and then arabic numerals.)

In January last year, I complained about an article about Stephen Wolfram and his then forthcoming new book. Now the book is out, and it's called A new kind of science. It's not getting particularly good reviews: it’s arrogant and immodest (self-published), and some of the science is wrong. (A summary page of links to lots of reviews.)

This page (go to "advanced search") allows you to find out how many people born on the same day as you have died. Morbid, huh?

Mathematical Lego Sculptures. ’Nuff said.

Finally, interesting linguistics: why, how and when people learn languages. Answers to questions like where do kids get their accents from? and others.

The last straw was when the developers’ kit for Windows 95 came out on 12 CDs, Kent remarks. The entire human genome fits on one CD. You can't tell me [software] needs to be that complicated. - SD Magazine

Monday, 22 July 2002

In the beginning & Granta 75

Listening to:

ENZSO. A recent production of a dozen songs by the '70s/early 80s New Zealand band Split Enz, with singing mainly by the Finn brothers (who led Split Enz, and then went on to the band Crowded House), and backed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Just read:

Alister McGrath, In the beginning: the story of the King James Bible.

This is a readable account of how the King James translation of the Bible came to be made. It starts with Gutenberg and his development of the modern printing process, and describes how one of his first publications was a Bible (in Latin). Then comes a chapter giving the rudiments of Martin Luther's story and how this heightened demands for Bibles in national languages.

The focus then switches almost exclusively to English language translations. There were a number of these through the 16th century, and each is described. In this period, something that now seems pretty trivial was a very significant business, being part of the transformation of religious practice in England. For example, it seems that James’s commissioning of the new translation was seen by him as an opportunity to replace the Geneva Bible. This translation was probably pretty unremarkable in its text, but came accompanied by all sorts of annotations that seemed to James to be anti-King, and drew far too many parallels between modern circumstances and the justified deposing of ancient tyrants.

McGrath explains how the translation process went ahead, and also how some of the language came to be there. For example, the use of the word “its” as a neuter possessive was only just coming into use (it occurs once in the whole thing: That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap (Lev. 25:5)), and instead they used “his” (correct usage then), as in Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour (Matt. 5:13), or avoided the issue entirely, and contorted things, as in Two cubits and a half be the length thereof. There are a number of other interesting linguistic comments made.

The book’s flaws are that it is surprisingly repetitive on occasion (even once on the same page), and rather simplistic in some of its explanation of the historical background. In particular, the description of the Renaissance sounds as if the author thinks his readers are ten year olds.

Granta 75: brief encounters (contents)

This issue of the magazine was an enjoyable read. There are some interesting literary reminiscences by Richard Murphy and Michael Mewshaw, but this issue’s strength is its fiction (particularly Paul Theroux's story, and a neat story about a gay man in a wheel-chair in Tamil Nadu, by Adam Mars-Jones), and its final non-fiction piece. This is a neuro-physiologist’s account of performing a diagnostic test on a young woman with epilepsy. It’s creepy (being able to turn off half of a person’s brain, and even, sticking a catheter in someone’s thigh to reach their heart), but fascinating as well.

To read next:

Kitchen confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.

Thursday, 25 July 2002

Fame passes me by

Listening to:

Richard Strauss, Death and transfiguration.

I passed up an opportunity to be famous on Monday:

From: _ <>
To: "''" <>
Subject: 'Weakest Link'
Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2002 16:32:04 +0100

Dear Michael,

My name is _ and i'm a researcher for the BBCs "Weakest Link". I've been to the MEBC website and noticed your position of Cox, and am hoping that it's you that might be able to help me. We have just moved into Series 4 and are currently researching a few ideas for a special. The reason i have contacted you is that i feel a Cox would fit into a show titled, "Loud for living". The idea is to have nine contestants that are all 'loud for a living' (market traders, drill sergeants, opera singers, etc.). I hope to find nine strong individuals who are proud of their loud voices, to go on the show as contestants and be able to stand up for themselves against Anne Robinson AND HER ACID TONGUE. We do ensure that all contestants coming on, understand that this is a part of the show and is 'tongue in cheek' and should be taken as such. Anne's acidic quips are usually aimed at the individual, who, if of strong character will have no problem fending her off, or setting her straight as the case may be. We are holding an audition in Cambridge on Monday 29th July 2002. If you think you fit the description, and can make the date given, then please get in contact ASAP. I look forward to hearing from you in the near future,

Weakest Link
Tel: _

I declined the invitation. I also heard that various other coxes in Cambridge had been contacted, so it wasn’t as if I was singled out for this great honour. On the other hand, the ‘spam’ was accurately personalised (mention of MEBC), so that’s gratifying.

If a subsequent series of Weakest link features people who are loud for a living, then you heard it here first.

Talk of rowing leads me to mention that I’m currently coxing in the Town Bumps (results to date). We’re recorded as having been bumped last night. At the time we thought we'd kept clear of them, and held on for an exciting finish. Looking at the chart is the first indication I’ve had that we've had a bump adjudged against us. Given that I was the closest person to the action, you’d think they'd have consulted me. Hmpf.

Friday, 26 July 2002

Bumps, Japanese radishes and Cthulhu

Listening to:

Mozart, Spaur-Messe, K258.

We were bumped yesterday, so we’re now down 3. The appealed bump from Wednesday night even made the last three paragraphs in the local newspaper's reporting of the bumps. If we get bumped again today, then we have won our ‘spoons’ (contrast with the ‘blades’ that you win if you go up four places).

Other stuff:

  • A Cthulhu/chess story
  • I went to a very interesting talk yesterday about the Daikon system for automatically guessing program invariants.

Tuesday, 30 July 2002

Kitchen confidential

Listening to:

Bach, Italian Concerto in F, BWV971. Played by Rosalyn Tureck on the piano.

Just read:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen confidential.

This amusing book is a mixture of memoir and general reflection about being a professional chef. It describes the strange world that exists behind every restaurant, and relates Bourdain's personal development, from teenage trouble-maker to slightly more responsible executive chef at Les Halles restaurant in New York.

I found the book interesting because it describes a long-established trade, with its own traditions and jargon. I've always liked reading about the sociology of what might be classed ‘guilds’, where there is both functional specialisation and differing levels of authority. (Thus, sports teams are less interesting because they have specialisation of roles but don't have any real authority hierarchy (captain is about it). Where you get extra levels of authority, as in the contest between bowler and captain at cricket, things become slightly more interesting.) To add to the general appeal, chefs do something easy to understand and describe, but do it with virtuosity out of the public eye.

Though the description of what goes on in kitchens is occasionally on the disgusting side, there are no stories about people spitting in customers' soup. Instead, the impression is of people attempting to make the best of a bad job. If you make the mistake of ordering steak well-done, or fish on a Monday, then you may find things not to your liking because, one, well-done steak can have anything done to it (zapped in a microwave to make it done in time, say) without really affecting the end-product, and two, the restaurant is very unlikely to have fresh fish on Mondays.

KC is enjoyable and amusing. The circumstances described are novel, the characters are definitely larger than life, and it's all happening just metres from where you're sitting down to eat at a candle-lit dinner.

Now reading:

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility.