Thursday, 1 August 2002

Jazz, Minority Report and long-term wagers

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Just squeeze me, on the album Ella Fitzgerald day dream: best of the Duke Ellington songbook. Apparently a recent American TV series about jazz reckoned that Louis Armstrong was jazz’s Bach, and Duke Ellington was its Mozart. I can’t remember who got to be Beethoven. As the account I was reading pointed out, this is a neat metaphor, but it breaks a little when one realises that Louis Armstrong was alive for about two thirds of all of jazz’s history. Bach lived a long time, but he didn’t manage to do quite that well!

A recent movie:

I saw Minority report last night. I was quite impressed. The plotting was pretty good, and the extrapolations built on top of the sci-fi background didn’t seem too ridiculous. Some of the cinematography was quite stunning too. Philip K. Dick wrote the short story that the film is based on, and it’s his title. I haven’t read the story, but in the film, the fact that minority reports are possible isn’t actually that significant (it doesn’t happen at all that we see, though the possibility that it might have does motivate the hero).

I never used to take bets. One particular friend was always keen to brow-beat by saying things like “Bet you five bucks that X”. I’d always decline the bet, while still maintaining that I was right, and that he was wrong of course. More recently, however, I’ve amused myself by making wagers based on predictions of how the world will be in some number of years. These haven’t even had a stake decided, but I'm intrigued by the possibility of being in a position to write them down, and come back to check on them. Lots of futurology makes crap predictions that are never checked up on, so I don’t want to be all mouth and no trousers.

So, here it is, my long-term wager book. You’ll have to trust that I won’t alter it to make my predictions come out OK.

Monday, 5 August 2002

Sense and Sensibility & Granta 76

Listening to:

Beethoven, 24 Variations, WoO 65. Played by Mikhail Pletnev.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility.

This is the fifth novel by Jane Austen that I've read. The others I've read are Pride and prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Of the five, I'd probably rank SS last, but it's still a pretty good read. It's just that in comparison to the others, it seems less funny, with less appealing characters. Things aren't helped by the fact that it starts so slowly, and with Marianne Dashwood behaving in such a spoilt and unappealing way. You really wish that her older sister Elinor would tell her to get a grip.

When the focus shifts from Marianne's to Elinor's story, and the two sisters are in happenin' London, things definitely pick up. It's still not hilarious, but it's much more of a page-turner, and the plot continues to twist and turn.

Yes, it's a morality tale, but even the lowest of the low, Willoughby gets a (very atmospheric) redemption scene. If anything, John and Fanny Dashwood are worse because they never come right. Instead, they are always awful: shown up at every turn as mean, ungenerous and selfish. This sounds bad, but Austen's light touch means that you laugh at them because they behave so ridiculously.

This was Austen's first published novel, and perhaps my relative dislike of it is a reflection on her subsequent improvement as her skill developed. I think I should also admit that Austen's pitch was rather queered by the Ang Lee film. Elinor might have come across as a much more interesting person if I hadn't been seeing her as Emma Thompson the whole time. She's middle-aged enough in demeanour and style without having Thompson in my head too.

Granta 76: music (contents)

This is a big fat issue of the literary magazine, with lots of good stuff in it. Particular highlights for me were:

  • An excerpt from Janice Galloway's novel, Clara, about the life of Clara Schumann (née Wieck). I'd usually be pretty suspicious of this sort of thing, and demand a proper biography instead, but the two extracts I've read of this book (the other was in a recent issue of the BBC Music Magazine), have been appealing and well-written.

  • An account by Alan Rusbridger (editor of the Guardian) of his attempts to learn and play the piano. He writes well about wanting to be able to play things that aren't too difficult, and just occasionally have things sound good. (The extract on the web-site is a good sample.)

  • A short story by Julian Barnes about Sibelius and his long silence (a period of about 30 years when he published nothing).
  • Ian Jack's biographical essay about Kathleen Ferrier.
  • Richard Williams on Frank Sinatra and his hotel the Cal-Neva.
  • A depressing but fascinating description of the New Orleans rap scene by Nik Cohn.

To read next:

W. Stanley Moss, Ill met by moonlight.

Wednesday, 7 August 2002

A bagatelle

Listening to:

Telemann, Tafelmusik, the Solo of Production I.

I've updated one of the bets in my wager-book to better reflect the gist of what KG and I were disputing.

I found this article, about expired Internet domains, amusing.

Friday, 9 August 2002

Computer science and intellectual property

Listening to:

Beethoven, sonata no. 1 in F, op. 5 no. 1 for piano and cello.

The famous computer scientist, Edsger Dijkstra, died on Tuesday. His work, a significant part of what passed to me through the people that taught me as an under-graduate, inspired my decision to come to Cambridge to do my PhD.

Ross Anderson reckons that the University of Cambridge is about to shoot itself in the foot, by demanding rights to its academics’ intellectual property. Up ’til now, the university has spawned useful links with companies within the region. I can offer some personal evidence: our departmental pigeon-holes have just been rearranged so that the pigeon-holes companies working within the lab are all grouped together. There’s quite an impressive column of them all. Though not all of them will necessarily make it, there’s a good chance that a high proportion will make their way into the wider world and become successful companies, generating money and jobs. Nonetheless, the University claims that this success is nothing to do with its current liberal intellectual property rules.

Worse still, the proposal might prevent academics from giving their property away for free. I’m not directly a university employee (being employed by a university college, St. Catharine’s, instead), but I’d be pretty hacked off if some university bureaucrat told me that I couldn’t make my work on HOL freely available.

This piece from the Observer (also linked to from Ross’s site), is one of a number of polemical responses. I was amused to think of myself as a “hot-house plant”, only able to blossom under certain conditions.

Tuesday, 13 August 2002

Ill met by moonlight

Listening to:

Stravinsky, music from the ballet, The Firebird.

Just read:

W. Stanley Moss, Ill met by moonlight.

This is Moss's diary of his WW2 mission to occupied Crete to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, one of the top military men on the island. Stanley Moss was accompanied by another British SOE operative, and a handful of Cretan accomplices. It's a short and exciting book to read, with a narrative that whizzes along, despite the fact that the heroes spent most of their time hiding in caves and gullies. The whole mission would never have succeeded without the support of the Cretan people, both those that played a direct role in the kidnapping mission, and those that supported them in hiding and avoiding German search parties. Stanley Moss makes this clear, and writes with a definite affection for Crete and its people.

Now reading:

Karen Armstrong, The battle for God.

Thursday, 15 August 2002

US politics

Listening to:

Handel, sonata in D minor for recorder and continuo.

I have what I think is a perceptive quote from Tony Judt, reviewing Joseph S. Nye Jr.'s The paradox of American power in the New York Review of Books, vol XLIX, no. 13 of 15 August 2002:

What gives America its formidable international influence is not its unequaled capacity for war but the trust of others in its good intentions. That is why Washington's opposition to the International Criminal Court does so much damage. It suggests that the US does not trust the rest of the world to treat Americans fairly. But if America displays a lack of trust in others, the time may come when they will return the compliment.

All I'd say in addition is that the concept of noblesse oblige is pertinent. As the world's great superpower, the US has a responsibility to behave well, and be seen to do so. (Full text of Judt's essay.)

Finally, a less serious take on American politics.

Monday, 19 August 2002

The battle for God & Northern lights

Listening to:

Mozart, Così fan tutte.

Just read:

Karen Armstrong, The battle for God.

This book describes the evolution of religious fundamentalism in the world's three great monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Armstrong starts her story in the 15th century with the unification of Spain in 1492, and the triumph there of Christianity. Armstrong's basic design thereafter is to cycle through the faiths, examining each in turn within chapters that cover successive chronological periods.

Within her coverage of Christianity, Armstrong quickly moves her focus to Protestantism in the US. For Islam, Armstrong splits her coverage in two, dealing with Egypt and Iran. For Judaism, she is not wedded to anywhere in particular until the latter sections of the book, where she turns to Israel. This structure seems reasonable, and I can't think of a better, but it means that readers need to keep all of the four parallel tracks' principal actors in their heads at once. I felt overwhelmed with detail on more than one occasion.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to value in this book. I was particularly impressed with the coverage of early Judaism (exiles in Amsterdam, Messianism in Eastern Europe and the near East), and the Iranian revolution. The latter includes a brief discussion of the difference between the Christian and Islamic conceptions of Satan. According to Armstrong, the Islamic Satan is not the very embodiment of ultimate evil as in Christianity. Instead, he is an evil figure, bound to the material world and incapable of wisdom or good, but still capable of being forgiven by God at the end of time. Thus, calling the US the Great Satan is not quite the insult that Christians might imagine. Armstrong had less that was novel to me to say about modern Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, but was still informative on many levels. For example, I don't think I'd appreciated how secular Zionism was initially, nor that there is still a strong anti-Zionist strand of Jewish fundamentalism.

Philip Pullman, Northern lights.

I found this a very enjoyable fantasy. It's a definite page-turner, with an exciting, fast-moving plot, coupled with many interesting mysteries about the nature of the world that the characters live in. It's the first part of a trilogy, and the two successive parts are on the List, so I'll get to continue with the exciting story soonish. (That "soonish" is a result of the List's rapidly shrinking size, heh.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Northern Lights, but will save more considered reflection until I've finished the whole trilogy. To be going on with, here's a profile of Pullman from the Observer.

To read next:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, 21 August 2002

Imaginary friends on radio

Listening to:

Billie Holiday, Body and soul, on a Verve CD, Billie Holiday sings standards.

There was an interesting controversy about the Thought for the Day programme last week. TFTD is the two or three minute snippet that interrupts BBC Radio 4's morning news programme, Today, every day at about 7:45. The speaker changes from day to day, and is given an opportunity to reflect on the news, stories and issues of the day from a faith perspective. So, as it stands, only the religious get to compose freeform editorials on any subject that concerns them. Last week, a collection of secular people wrote the BBC a letter, demanding that secular voices get a go too.

The Today programme covered this story (nicely self-referential, I thought), and featured Richard Dawkins giving an alternative, secular thought for the day. I wasn't around to hear it happen, but having read his contribution, I think he would have made a much better case for the secular cause if he'd avoided commenting on religion entirely. Moreover, when they had someone else on to be interviewed about the subject, he argued the case extremely badly. So, it doesn't look as if anything on this front is going to change anytime soon.

To close, a story about a deity with real attitude!

Friday, 23 August 2002

Messing with the mob

Listening to:

Diana Krall, When I look in your eyes.

Recently, Britain has been consumed with the case of two 10 year old girls abducted from the small Cambridgeshire town of Soham, and murdered. There have been a couple of arrests. One man will likely be charged with the girls' murder, but is now in a mental hospital and won't appear until deemed fit to stand trial. A woman, the man's fiancée, has been charged in court with perverting the course of justice.

Her court appearance in Peterborough showed mob-mentality at its worst. (See, for example, this coverage from the BBC, and this from the Guardian.) These people clearly didn't believe in the principle of being assumed innocent before being proven guilty, and were more than willing to scream at and abuse someone who isn't even being charged as an accomplice to her partner's crimes. Perverting the course of justice is a serious enough crime to warrant up to a life sentence, but this still strikes me as excessive. Worse still, some of the mob brought along their children. This really must be unhealthy. (Matt Seaton, in the Guardian on this.)

I can't help but think that a lot of reaction has been fuelled by non-stop media coverage. On one hand, there's probably an argument to the effect that the media can help in getting the public to come forward to the police, but this doesn't seem to have happened in this case. The frenzy seems reminiscent of what happened when Diana, Princess of Wales died.

Tuesday, 27 August 2002

Bayesian spam analysis, artificial eyes, classical music business

Listening to:

Telemann, Tafelmusik.

Now reading:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

This is the first weekend in a while when I haven’t finished at least one book from the List. So my little header above is much shorter than usual for the beginning of the week.

Instead, some links:

  • A neat idea for filtering spam based on Bayesian analysis of words used in your e-mail messages.
  • A cool, but creepy article about wiring artificial eyes into people’s heads (including at least one somewhat squirm-inducing picture of an electronic cable entering someone’s head through a metal-rimmed hole). What particularly impressed me is the idea that people’s brains can learn to make sense of inputs, and see, even though the nature of the those inputs is almost certainly different in all sorts of ways from what the eye provides.
  • Finally, an interesting discussion of how the digital “revolution” in the music industry may be just what the classical music industry needs. The purveyors of pop can crash and burn miserably as far as I’m concerned: as long as orchestras can fund themselves from a combination of concerts and releasing performances themselves.

Friday, 30 August 2002

DSCH 4 @ The Proms

Listening to:

Dvorak, string quartet in E flat major, op. 51.

My phone is ringing at regular intervals this morning, but all I get when I pick it up is a beeping noise. Some misguided machine out there is trying to communicate with me and doing a very bad job of it.

According to this report from Transparency International, New Zealand is the equal-second least corrupt country in the world (behind Finland, and sharing its position with Denmark).

We went to a Prom concert on Sunday night to hear Valery Gergiev conduct Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto and Shostakovich's 4th symphony. The latter was really quite amazing. It requires a huge orchestra (four clarinets, four oboes, four flutes, bass clarinet, treble clarinet and bassoons in the woodwind, two harps, lots of exotic percussion, a piano and lots of brass as well as all the usual strings). When playing at their loudest, the music totally filled the Royal Albert Hall, and I think I could even feel the floor shake slightly at one point (and we were in cheap seats, high up and quite a distance from the orchestra really). In contrast, the ending is a very quiet fade out, and everyone was very still and quiet for an age until Gergiev relaxed and let us applaud him and his orchestra (the Kirov).

It's a shame the audience couldn't keep as quiet through the rest of the performance. There were lots of coughs and splutters. I don't think I've ever coughed during music at a concert, so I feel pretty intolerant. They should implement some sort of “one cough and you're out” policy, because the coughers are typically repeat offenders. Anyway, here's a review from the Guardian.