Monday, 2 September 2002

An unexpected light

Listening to:

Verdi, Otello. A recent purchase and part of my ongoing attempt to find opera as good as Mozart's. It's not so bad, and I'm sure I'll come to like it.

Just read:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

This is a very good travel book about the author's travels in Afghanistan. Most of the book covers what was Elliot's third trip to Afghanistan, at a time in the late 90s when the Taleban were slowly taking over the country. Elliot journeys to Taleban controlled Herat, but otherwise avoids their bits of the country. He was based in Kabul at a time when the city was again not far from the front line, and he talks of frequent rocket and artillery attacks.

Elliot's first trip to Afghanistan was during the war against the Soviets, and he has a chapter devoted to the experience of hiding in the countryside with a band of mujahideen. Most of the time seems to have been spent trying to avoid being killed by the Russians, but with occasional forays when his group went onto the offensive. During those expeditions that Elliot went on, he says he was handed a gun that he had no intention of using.

Evidence of the Russian presence was plentiful during the later trip, and Elliot is eloquent in describing the shells of Russian vehicles that still litter the country-side he's passing through. He's not a political polemicist, but he's forthright in pointing out the easy stereotyping that went into Western perceptions of the Afghani resistance. They weren't fanatical religious warriors, they were people resisting an enemy invasion. Attempting to put a religious slant on it makes as much sense as describing the French Resistance during WW2 as Christian. While not a Moslem himself, Elliot is a clearly sympathetic and understanding observer. One of the funniest and most cringe-inducing parts of the book is his description of staying with at a fairly hard-core Christian mission, where the American staff ask him if they can pray for him.

It's hard to avoid some discussion of politics when talking about Afghanistan, but Elliot spends most of the book describing the stunning geography of the country he's travelling through, the hair-raising journeys on clapped out trucks and buses that he used to get places, the history of the places he visits (Silk Road sites with ruins from the time of Alexander the Great's campaigns through the area), and most memorably the people he meets there. Elliot's book provides a vivid picture of a country, and can't help but make the reader hope that things improve in Afghanistan, allowing the people who live there to lead normal lives after two decades of war.

Now reading:

Sylvia Nasar, A beautiful mind. I see from Amazon's page for this that Faber and Faber are now publishing this with a still from the film on the cover. Blech. Are you following? John Nash ... is ... not ... Russell Crowe.

Wednesday, 4 September 2002

Outta here

Listening to:

ABBA: the definitive collection, a best-of album, full of hits from my childhood.

We went to a travel agent yesterday, and I said

Hello, we'd like a one-way ticket outta this place.

And then I handed over a plastic card that magically indexes a particular bank account, and the index number was typed into a computer, and the computer smiled, and lo, we had made a deposit on tickets to take us to Australia and not come back.

Ironically, my new British passport arrived in the mail this morning, so I was able to sing “I'm a Brit. I'm a Brit. I'm a Brit, Brit, Brit!” (in an arrangement of my own devising, but hats off to Rossini too) as we walked into work.

Friday, 6 September 2002

More long-term wagers and online scholarship

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just days after I announce my own long-term wager book, I discover that some other outfit has done something very similar, and done it in very slick fashion too. They also insist that their bets be supported by at least $1000 wagers. They say that half of the interest on this money will go towards maintaining the web-site for the long periods required (until the universe stops expanding, say).

I've just learnt that the inventor of the game of Nomic, Peter Suber, is involved in a Free Online Scholarship campaign, something of which I entirely approve. There's an interesting interview with him about it here. Suber also has a news web-log devoted to the cause. The Budapest Open Access Initiative seems to be the founding document.

Tuesday, 10 September 2002

A beautiful mind

Listening to:

Tchaikovsky, The Voyevoda, symphonic ballad, op. 78.

Just read:

Sylvia Nasar, A beautiful mind.

This is a very good book. It is a biography of John Nash, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. (His official autobiography for the Prize is available on the Web here.) After a strong start to his mathematical career, Nash succumbed to periods of paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 30 (in early 1959), almost completely destroying normal life for him, his wife, and his baby son. Incredibly though, after 30 years or so, he gradually pulled out of his delusional condition and was in fit state to be awarded the Nobel.

These are the barest facts of Nash's life. The strength of Nasar's biography is that it takes a story that sounds as if it should be interesting, and makes it thus. She does a great job of describing people and circumstances, making these seem real and persuasive. It's perhaps no surprise that I should find the biography of an academic interesting, but I think Nasar does a great job of conveying the feel of departmental life at places like Princeton and MIT. Nor does she neglect Nash's tangled personal life. She doesn't pull any punches in describing the way he was obnoxious and socially ill-at-ease, while also telling a fascinating story of developing relationships, homosexuality, and an illegitimate child.

Nasar is also very good on Nash's periods of madness. The distress and worry he caused those around him is vividly conveyed, even as he was blithely telling people that he soon expected to be made Emperor of Antarctica. I was also impressed at how his colleagues tried hard to help him, even launching an appeal for financial support at one point. All in all, I thought this a brilliant book.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, Almayer's folly.

Thursday, 12 September 2002

I am a virtual criminal

Listening to:

I was doing all right, from Oscar Peterson plays the Gershwin songbooks.

I was walking through the centre of town this morning, and went past a shop that was recently vacated (the business moved down the road). This morning I saw that, like the emergence of weeds overnight, the shop had gained red "Sale now on" posters in its windows and an interior full of tat, including cheap luggage. I have this mental picture of luggage sellers roaming the streets, looking for empty shops into which they can decamp while a proper lease-holder is found. Over a period of years, shop fronts in town must present quite a kaleidoscope.

I've been playing quite a bit of a computer game called Thief II recently. It's quite suspenseful and enjoyable, for all that it's two years old. Most of the missions I've played to date have featured quite a variety of routes to success, which makes things appealing. No-one likes being rail-roaded. It's also nice to have the choice of degrees of violence: to sneak past the guard, to knock him unconscious with a black-jack, to swipe at him with a sword, or to shoot him from a distance. Options, gotta just love 'em.

But then, computer game violence is a contentious subject. Just don't attempt to debate it on a TV talk-show.

Monday, 16 September 2002

Almayer's folly

Listening to:

Tracy Chapman, her album of the same name.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Almayer's folly and a collection of short stories that accompanied it in my edition, Tales of Unrest.

Almayer's folly is a short novel (Conrad's first), about a self-deluding Dutch trader, down on his luck in the Indonesian islands, and living in a dilapidated trading settlement on a river near a native village. Almayer has a beautiful daughter, Nina. Nina was educated in Singapore, until her half-caste origins caused her to be hounded out of polite society.

The story takes off when a handsome visiting Malay prince, Dain, appears on the scene, and Nina and he fall in love. It sounds like a fairy tale, and there are some neat twists in the plot that sees them attempt to run away together. This definitely held my attention, but the ultimate focus of the story is on Almayer, and how he just doesn't get it. His life truly is a folly. So yes, this is typical Conradian misery, but it's atmospheric and well plotted too. I liked it.

There are five stories in Tales of unrest. I probably liked the first the most. This is Karain: a memoir, and is the story of another Malay prince. This one is observed somewhat distantly, but affectionately, by some Europeans who are smuggling guns to him. They also provide a unique, slightly amusing, but very well described service for Karain at the end of the story. Next, The idiots is a story of rural misery, and much less interesting than Amy Foster, and even that I didn't like very much.

Third is An outpost of progress. This feels a bit like Conrad warming himself up for Heart of darkness, but is a good story in its own right. It's set in Africa, on a wild river, and features totally helpless Europeans losing it in the face of the implacable local environment. Fourth is The return, about marital infidelity in a respectable London home. It gets off to a great start, but there's far too much tortured conversation. The man does eventually realise how much of an idiot he's been (and the depiction of his idiocy is well, and amusingly done), but I'd given up caring by this point. Finally, The lagoon, which shares an embedded story all too similar to that in Karain, without the virtues of an interesting framing story. It's not bad, but not exactly rivetting.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The rover. His last novel, set in Napoleonic France.

Thursday, 19 September 2002

Linux security, Buddhism and the pledge of allegiance

Listening to:

Corelli, Concerti grossi, op. 6.

I'm busy writing slides for a talk to be given next week.

So, links:

Friday, 20 September 2002

Why I do what I do

Listening to:

Mozart, string quartet no. 15 in D minor, K421.

I’m still writing slides, and this will be an all-consuming activity.

In the meantime, you might like to read this neat manifesto, explaining why someone might like to mechanise mathematics. I think the computer science applications that Freek downplays are interesting too, but it’s certainly true that they are very tedious. (The art is in making them less so.)