Tuesday, 1 October 2002

Books and Bordeaux

Listening to:

Schubert, octet in F, D803. I believe this piece was written as a vehicle for a clarinettist friend of Schubert's. Certainly the clarinet has a prominent role.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The rover.

This is Conrad's last novel, and one I enjoyed a lot. It probably helped that the central character, Peyrol, was competent and basically good-natured, as opposed to the pathetic Almayer in my previous Conrad. The novel is set in Napoleonic France, and is about the last stage in the career of the rover Peyrol, an experienced sea-man who has spent most of his time in waters far from Europe. He returns to France to retire, and hooks up with a dysfunctional household in the country-side near Toulon.

Toulon is being blockaded by the English fleet, and after a little while, a naval lieutenant turns up with a plot that will require the rover's help. So, Peyrol gets drawn back into one last naval adventure. Yes, the plot is a bit stereotypical, but it's well done. It seems pretty clear that an old Conrad identified a bit with his Peyrol character, and he is drawn sympathetically. (Conrad began his seaman's career out of Marseilles.)

Philip Pullman, The subtle knife.

This is the second book in Pullman's His dark materials trilogy. It's very exciting, and reveals more tantalising details about the nature of the cosmic struggle that the main characters are becoming involved in. Again, I'll hold back on further comment until I've read the whole trilogy. Still, I think I can see why one reactionary claimed that Pullman was “the most dangerous author in the UK”.

Granta 77: what we think of America (contents).

This issue of the literary magazine is dominated by a series of 24 brief essays written to the title What we think of America, by a variety of authors from all around the world (one Australian, even, but no New Zealanders). There are five other normal length pieces in the issue, and the usual photo essay.

The 24 essays on America were inevitably a mixed bag. I liked Ian Buruma's and Michael Ignatieff's for example, and thought Harold Pinter's ridiculously over the top. In general, I thought the essays very much of their time. Now, six months later than publication, the general impression is of staleness. The story of the war on terrorism and America's place in the world has moved on, and I want to hear specifics about what's happening now. I'm not sure that a literary magazine is the right place for current affairs editorials, even if they are written by literary types.

The other pieces in this issue were all good. Francis Spufford's description of learning to read while bedridden with the mumps is very effective, even if I doubt its detail (this being my standard suspicion of child-hood memoirs). I enjoyed Blake Morrison's exhumation of his parents war-time love letters, even if it did feel a bit voyeuristic, and Ziauddin Sardar's description of getting out of Saudi Arabia is quite enthralling; easily enough to convince me that it's somewhere I don't want to go.

Now reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

Last week I was away at the tenth European SIGOPS workshop, in St. Emilion. This is a very pretty village in the Bordeaux region, and famous for its wines. A good time was had by all. On returning to the UK, I was soon struck down by a nasty cold. Thus I make my excuses for the paucity of entries recently.

Yesterday was my last day as the Heller Research Fellow at St. Catharine's College. Yesterday we also paid the full amount for our tickets to Australia. The world is a-changing.

Thursday, 3 October 2002

Classical music and its future

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 3.

Here's an interesting article from Salon about classical music and its future in the modern world. There's also a link at the bottom of the article to a much older article (in the form of a dialogue) on much the same topic. One point that neither article makes is that classical music probably will survive as long as people continue to want to play and listen to it. It's not a perfect analogy, but people still read and enjoy Shakespeare despite the fact that no-one is writing drama in that style anymore.

Rather, commentators seem to be upset because there is this notorious lack of connection between modern composers and audiences. This situation is blamed on different people depending on who is doing the blaming. Either the masses have turned into Philistines, or the composers are arrogant, and unconcerned with popular appeal in the belief that they are composing for posterity. I don't care which is true. The real question is: are there great works of musical art being created today? If the answer is no, well that's a shame, but there is still lots of classical music out there which I've never heard, and that stuff would be new to me. So, my yen for novel musical sensation should be satisfied, and classical music isn't really dead. Not only would my listening to performances of known works keep the music alive, but so too would the enjoyment that others take in performing these works.

If the answer to the question is yes, then I get all the advantages of the situation where the answer was no, along with the slightly niggling worry about how I'm expected to find the good new stuff without having to listen to too much dross. The population of the world is bigger now, so there's more music in absolute terms, but I'm an optimist so I believe the proportion of good stuff is probably roughly the same as ever it was. The only important principle is that the good new stuff is not going to necessarily come in classical forms. Given a changed society, there is no guarantee that the real artists will be well-represented in the classical arena.

Monday, 7 October 2002

Kissing Jessica Stein and new Netscapes

Listening to:

Best of Kodo, a best of album for a famous group of traditional Japanese drummers. You might not think that continuous percussion (with occasional support from a Japanese flute, and the voices of the drummers) would be listenable, but I definitely like it. It's good to have one's preconceptions about the nature of music challenged.

Still reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters. This is quite a long novel (over 600 pages in my edition), so it may be a while before I can write a final review for it.

A recent movie:

Kissing Jessica Stein. This is a light but enjoyable romantic comedy. It features all of the necessary fittings for the genre (Manhattan setting, check; jazz soundtrack, check) but adds a twist of its own by featuring straight women embarking on a lesbian romance. It's fun and witty, with some good acting.

The default web-browser installed on the lab's computers changed from Netscape 4 to 6 last week. It's probably an improvement (being able to hit Control-+ to make the text on the screen bigger is very cool), but there are also a number of things that I don't like about it, which I guess I'll just have to get used to. For example, it doesn't seem to handle opening Postscript documents consistently, and doesn't seem to remember that, yes I do want to look at them with ghostview.

Thursday, 10 October 2002

Google answers, optical illusions and celebrities

Listening to:

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht.

An interesting article about being a ‘freelance librarian’, earning money by answering questions through the Google Answers service. Consumers ask questions, putting prices on what they'll pay for a successful answer, and volunteer ‘researchers’ try to provide answers. It's an interesting idea, and the article is also good, on how the sociology of the system has developed.

A cool optical illusion, though it's rather hard to believe.

Finally, a couple of interesting articles about celebrity culture. In The Economist, a brief analysis of the way in which cheap celebrities are being produced for mass consumption in the insatiable tabloid market. In Salon, a more detailed look at just how disposable these celebrities are, as measured by the swingeing terms of the contracts they have to sign.

Monday, 14 October 2002

Oscar Wilde and Archæology

Listening to:

Debussy, string quartet, played by the Belcea Quartet.

Still reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters. Just past halfway.

A recent movie:

The importance of being Earnest. This was my first ever exposure to Oscar Wilde's play, so I quite enjoyed the film for the plot and good one-liners. On the other hand, it was clear to me that the film had been seriously over-egged. It wasn’t just Judi Dench playing another of the stereotypically fierce old lady characters that seem to be her special prerogative. There were a number of decidedly over-the-top moments: backsides being tattoo-ed, medieval fantasies brought to life, and hamming it up that bordered on the ridiculous.

And finally, a web-log by an author who really knows how to lay out a web-page.

Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Copyright law and coincidences

Listening to:

Handel, suite no. 3 in D minor, HWV 428. Beautifully played on the piano by Murray Perahia.

It turns out writing the article about working for Google Answers caused the librarian in question to lose her researcher status there.

I enjoyed this account of going to the Supreme Court in the US to hear arguments about repeated copyright extensions on the part of Congress being unconstitutional. It seems pretty unlikely that the Court will find in favour of the extensions being unconstitutional but you never know. It's certainly interesting to hear that the Court sounds convinced that the extensions are bad. Sadly, bad doesn't necessarily mean unconstitutional.

And I leave you with the truth behind global climate change: all coincidence!

Friday, 18 October 2002

Unicode will eat your brain

Listening to:

Vaughan-Williams, symphony no. 8 in D minor.

Once upon a time, deciding that this log shouldn't just be me wittering on about trivialities, interspersed with book reviews, I tried to start a discussion of something fairly technical and work related. (Others do this quite successfully. I've recently become a reader of Raph Levien's online diary, where Raph talks all about proof systems and other stuff near and dear to my heart.) Sadly, I never got beyond Part II of my discussion on higher order matching. But why? Well, now the truth can be told.

It's all the fault of standards zealots in the land of fonts. In order to discuss higher order matching, I needed to be able to write the Greek symbol lambda, and I couldn't get this working under Netscape 4 (and it doesn't work under Netscape 6 either). Yes, my maths would look OK under Internet Explorer, but I didn't (and don't) have such easy access to that browser. For all that 90% of my readers would see my lambda's OK, I wanted to see them too. But it seems that the device whereby the mathematical symbols are made available for Explorer is not standard, and Netscape doesn't support it. We should be using Unicode instead apparently. (A comprehensible explanation of the problem, a cute illustrative page.)

It seems to me that people who get involved in the worlds of computer fonts quickly lose all of their previous usefulness in other fields. Computer fonts suck them in, chew them up and they're never the same again. My attitude is one of wilful ignorance; I just don't want to have to know about three levels of abstraction, and vocabulary like glyph and charset.

Tuesday, 22 October 2002

Wives and daughters

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

This is a big fat nineteenth century novel. It’s not even finished (Gaskell died before she could finish it), and my edition was still over 600 pages long. (It was obviously pretty close to finished at this point, so I wasn't too put out by having it suddenly stop on me.) W&D is principally the story of Molly Gibson’s coming of age, starting with a couple of chapters with her at 12, and then jumping forward to her as a 17 and 18 year old. It’s a romance set in a small village, but that is not to say that the rest of the world is ignored, or that the setting feels constricted. One character even goes off on an expedition as a naturalist (emulating Darwin, who Gaskell knew), and there’s quite a bit about becoming Senior Wrangler, and a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The characters make or break a novel like this, and Gaskell does well here. The central characters are all drawn believably, and they’re all interesting individuals. Molly Gibson is fairly mild in behaviour most of the time, but possesses definite opinions, which the reader is party to. Her immediate family and the Hamley family all feel like real people too. Importantly, they're almost all portrayed sympathetically, which means that you care about what happens to them.

It would be a gross lie to claim that the plot zips along, but it keeps to a steady pace, and kept me engrossed. Some aspects of it reflect a different era, and can make appreciation a little difficult. For example, various characters are forever getting sick, and convalescence is a major activity. The importance of a young girl’s reputation is also slightly hard to believe, as is the idea of letter passing and secret tête-à-têtes being worthy of scandal. Just as in Pride and Prejudice the heroine is the last to realise the identity of her true love, but this plotting convention, and the other aspects mentioned above, are no obstacle to a very enjoyable read.

Now reading:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing, a collection of short stories.

Wednesday, 23 October 2002

Snipers; MS & open source; Mozilla

Listening to:

Verdi, Otello.

Matthew Engel on normal life in places that become the centre of media attention, with particular reference to Montgomery County, Maryland (sniper country).

An article from C|Net about Microsoft and its changing attitude towards open source.

A pretty positive review of Mozilla. (I don't know why we were given Netscape 6, when we could have Mozilla or Netscape 7 instead.) A fairly speculative article from Salon about the import of Mozilla and how it may be a significant platform for further software development.

Monday, 28 October 2002

The father-thing and The amber spyglass

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald, singing You took advantage of me, from the Rodgers and Hart Song Book:

I'm just like an apple on a bough,
and you're gonna shake me down somehow

Heh. If you do a Google search on “like an apple on a bough”, every link is to the lyrics above, but the little ads on the side of the results page are for people selling a particular brand of computer.

Just read:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing.

This is a collection of short stories, all written in the mid-50s, making them from pretty early in his career. They're not bad, but the themes can be a bit repetitive. Dick was clearly obsessed with post-apocalyptic futures, mutants, psychic powers, and the evils of monolithic states. He's a big believer in the stereotypically American virtues of self-reliance, technological savvy, and general frontier-ship.

One of the stories is pretty racist (The Turning Wheel), and only slightly redeemed by taking the mickey out of L. Ron Hubbard. Most of the remainder are quite sexist too (women are mothers or sex objects). For all that, there are some good stories in the mix too, with some nice ideas amongst them. I liked Pay for the printer (benevolent aliens induce dependency culture among humans in apocalyptic future), The golden man (mutant human with no real brain, but precognition ability), Tony and the Beetles (human child learns about being the defeated oppressor), The last of the masters (perfect, ordered, society survives in a pocket after apocalypse), Foster, you're dead (cold war hysteria commercialised), and another, whose title I can't remember, about mutant hunting, featuring a man who grows a vehicle on a plant.

Philip Pullman, The amber spyglass.

This is the final volume in Pullman’s His dark materials trilogy. I read it very quickly, over the course of much of Sunday, and that fact is testimony in itself to its success. It’s an enthralling adventure story. There’s a whole pile of neat ideas in this volume and its predecessors, and I recommend the whole trilogy.

However. There are weaknesses in this grand finale. I thought that keeping the young Adam and Eve apart in the last pages was a bit cruel and arbitrary. I don't think it's up there with the ending to Captain Corelli's mandolin, because I'm sceptical about just how attached and earth-shatteringly in love 12 year olds can be, but it still seemed an unnecessary and forced ‘tragic note’.

A more significant problem rests in the structure of the plot. It suddenly shifts in focus: the real problem with the universe is not the Authority, per se, but rather the leakage of all the universe's Dust into holes cut by the Subtle Knife. The climax of the grand struggle against the Authority, the very heaving of the angel Metatron (terrible name!) into the bottomless pit isn't explicitly described. Instead, we hear about it after the event. We cut from an unresolved struggle on the pit-side to the Eden story.

This Adam and Eve bit in the putative Garden of Eden is well described, but we never get any explanation of why Will and Lyra are filling these roles. Yes, we're let into the secret and made aware of prophecies. So, we get to know it's going to happen, but we don't know why. Is it because the prophecies knew that the Authority was about to be deposed, and history was going to get a chance to start again? Even so, why Lyra and Will? It's not like there aren't millions of other humans in the universe.

But, just in case you think I hated it, let me list the good bits: the subtle knife is cool; the treatment of death is very good; the ice bears are way cool; the angels are neat (though I was a bit perplexed at how they managed to be both ethereal and vulnerable to stinging beetles). The miniature people are perhaps an idea too far, but they are vivid, and most enthralling of all: Mrs. Coulter and her evil monkey.

To read next:

Peter Carey, The tax collector.

Wednesday, 30 October 2002

Metatron and cyber-terrorism

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky).

My brother Jamie has chastised me for my doubts about the name Metatron. I replied in the Comments section of the entry, and now consider myself rather better informed.

In The Register, Thomas Greene rants about cyber-terrorism (the recent attack on many of the Internet's root Domain Name Servers), and its contrast with the terrorism of the Washington/Maryland sniper.