Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Family matters & λs

Listening to:

Handel, organ concerti, op. 7.

Just read:

Rohinton Mistry, Family matters.

I liked this novel. It’s set in modern Bombay (also known as Mumbai, a fact that has some significance in the course of the novel), and follows the fortunes of an extended family of seven individuals: an old man, his three children, the husband of one of the daughters, and their two children. The novel covers a period of a few months (apart from an extended epilogue that takes place a number of years later), and is thus quite small and self-contained in its scope. This gives the novel time and space to give us quite detailed pictures of each of these characters (as well as a few others from outside the family).

The novel describes a period in the life of this family that is rather stressful (because of the old man’s ill health), and while characters occasionally behave regrettably, they’re all quite human and understandable in their motives. There are no monsters, and even when things look difficult, there’s room for humour and humanity. I’d definitely recommend this novel as a well-crafted character study. The setting adds further interest to the novel. In addition to being in Bombay, the central family are Parsis, Indian practitioners of Zoroastrianism. This has greatest significance in the epilogue, but gives aspects of the novel an important slant. For example, Parsis apparently have an extremely good reputation for honesty in India.

Now reading:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

It seems that my browser on this computer (Phoenix) is Unicode compatible, so that all I need to do to get lambda characters is write λ Thus: λ, and again, λ. This is as efficient as LaTeX, given that in LaTeX, you will need to follow the \lambda with a space in most circumstances (as in writing λx.x). Way hey!

Scary news stories from the US:

DALLAS — A biology professor who refuses to write letters of recommendation for his students if they don’t believe in evolution is being accused of religious discrimination, and federal officials are investigating, the school said.

Wednesday, 12 February 2003

Look to windward

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem. (I seem to have been listening to this quite a bit while writing my web-log. It’s because I have a much reduced selection of CDs to bring into work to listen to while most of our worldly possessions are being assessed by Australian Customs in Sydney.)

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Look to windward.

This novel, another of Banks’s Culture stories, is an entertaining sci-fi read. The meat of the plot is revealed through a rather clever device: one of the central characters has had his brain programmed to release more information to him as his mission progresses. Initially he can’t remember the details of his briefing at all. There is one other cool novelty: a species of massive, near immortal floating creatures living on some sort of artificial gas planet.

In addition, there’s quite a bit about Culture society and life on one of its Orbitals. I particularly liked a discussion between one of the main characters, who is a composer, and a Mind (an awesome AI, responsible in this case for general control and upkeep of the whole Orbital and its billions of inhabitants). The composer establishes that if the Mind “put its mind to it” (couldn’t resist!), it could produce music that the composer himself would think a product of his own pen. When the composer claims that this takes the point of it away, the Mind points out that people still climb mountains even though they could just as easily fly to the summit in a helicopter. Similarly, there is a cute digression into the story of a group of people who put up a big system of gondolas (wires, pylons, that sort of thing) across a big wilderness area, despite lots of objections by others. I think Banks does this stuff pretty well. The utopian future he paints seems plausible.

The general thrust of the story involves a thriller-ish secret mission, and an attempt by a non-Culture species to get one over on the Culture. All ends well in the end, though not without some rather graphic gore happening first. One epilogue-like chapter is nothing but gore, and seems pretty unnecessary.

Still reading:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

I really do seem to have fallen out of the conscientious web-log habit. I will attempt to mend my ways.

Friday, 14 February 2003

Star Trek: Nemesis & Stronghold

Listening to:

The compact Coward, a compilation CD of songs by Noel Coward, most recorded in the 1930s. Currently up to I travel alone, recorded 29 October 1934. This one is melancholy, minimalist, but appealing. Others are quite comic. The Ivor Novello character in the film Gosford Park sings similar songs.

A recent movie:

Star Trek: Nemesis. This was an entertaining film, though totally undemanding. As an attempt to scratch an S/F itch, it wasn’t much of a success, but it was enjoyable enough. From the science-fiction point of view, the most disappointing thing about the Star Trek universe is the dreadful lack of variety in the aliens. They are all too obviously people with plastic prostheses on their heads. For all that they don’t get big roles, at least Star Wars has more interesting looking creatures.

The Star Trek universe is also less imaginative in its conception of the future than, for example, Banks’s Culture novels. There clearly hasn’t been much thought put into what technology advances might achieve. If a space-ship is “intelligent” enough to automatically put a force-field over a hole in the ship’s structure, surely it should be smart enough to maintain motion detectors and person identifiers throughout the ship. In particular, a tedious on-ship battle between the ship’s deputy boss, and the enemy’s deputy in the bowels of the ship should never have happened.

Anyway, with engaging hero and anti-hero (Jean-Luc Picard vs. Shinzon), you can ignore all of these sillinesses and enjoy the bad guys, and their eventual downfall.

A while back, I waxed lyrical about the enjoyment I was getting out of Stronghold Crusader. I got about two thirds of the way through the Crusader Trail, up to a mission that starts you off between two instances of the Richard the Lionheart opponent. The problem is basically that the scenarios get harder by making the initial conditions more and more disadvantageous for the human, not by making the opponents any smarter. It eventually gets boring playing against opponents that never get any better. What I’d really like is a human opponent. In the meantime, I am playing customised skirmish games where I can control the initial conditions.

Tuesday, 18 February 2003

The Radetzky March

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 10. (This is the symphony where the DSCH theme, D-Eflat-C-B, plays an important part of the final movement.)

Just read:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

This novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with most of the events it describes happening shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It is essentially the story of the descendants (son and gradnson) of a war hero who saved the Emperor’s life at the battle of Solferino (where an Austrian army was defeated by combined French and Italian forces). Both main characters are quite flat. In the novel’s accompanying introduction, the translator of my edition describes the resulting effect as defining the characters by their clothes and uniforms. This puts it well, and is appropriate. The novel is all about the decline of institutions once thought pre-eminent, and the effects this has on the two characters. (The father is uncomprehending, almost unto the end, while the son is generally oblivious while clearly living a meaningless life.)

So, it is all just a big metaphor for the decline and fall of an empire, with main characters that aren’t particularly sympathetic. Why read it? The answer lies in the vivid picture it paints. This vividness extends both to the “scenery”, and also the characters’ interactions. There is a snap and a sparkle to both the dialogue and the descriptions of what the characters are thinking. Brief cameos by the Emperor himself are particularly entertaining. This is somehow a book that is simultaneously dry, cynical, sentimental and often quite beautiful.

To read next:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

Thursday, 20 February 2003

Clock radios of the future

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 14.

My lap-top’s screen has decided to stop working. I’m using it now through a cable that has attached it to another monitor. This afternoon I might wander into the depths of Woden to take it to a Toshiba service centre to be be fixed. Everything else seems fine, so that’s a relief.

Lying in bed one morning, before it was time to get up, but unable to get back to sleep, I was looking at the clock-radio beyond the end of the bed. It struck me that there is a real uniformity to the interfaces of these devices. The time is displayed in a 12 hour mode, and two dots to the left of this display can also be illuminated. One indicates that the time is PM if it is on, and the other indicates that the alarm is on. This display convention has held on all clock radios that I’ve ever seen. (Maybe this isn’t such a great number.) Similarly, these radios have all supported “snooze” and “sleep” functions. Who decided on this interface, and is it really that universal?

I then wondered how a much more technologically advanced society would provide this functionality. Say you’re living on a Culture Orbital, under the benevolent care of a sophisticated AI Mind. What does a clock-radio alarm look like in this setting? I think it might be much the same, unless you subsume it into a “neural lace”; a device for telepathic, private communication with the Orbital’s Mind. Otherwise you need the glowing digits discreetly placed in the room (you don’t want to have to speak to learn the time, nor would you want a spoken response because this might disturb anyone else still asleep in the same room). You also want something to wake you up at the specified time, and having this done through a news programme starting up seems pretty good. Naturally, the news programme would be personalised, but the device providing it would be functionally similar to existing clock radios.

Tuesday, 25 February 2003

The Mitford girls

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 3.

Just read:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

This is a fascinating biography, and one that I definitely recommend. It tells the story of the Mitford family, starting at around 1900 and continuing pretty much to the present day. The main focus is on the six daughters, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca (Jessica) and Debo. There was also a son Tom, but his path through life was rather more conventional, and ended prematurely when he was killed in WW2. The family were minor aristocrats, and quite well connected. Winston Churchill married a cousin of the father’s, and intervened on a few occasions to the family’s advantage.

It seems as if all of the family were blessed with great senses of humour and wit. This means that the early sections of the biography are very amusing to read. Nancy might have been a bit of a horrible tease, but it’s hard not to smile at the story of her making one of her younger sisters cry at the plight of a lonely match. At this point in the story, it feels like the biography is the story of lovable aristocratic eccentrics. But as the girls grow up, their adult careers become even more interesting, and still spiced by occasional flashes of wit.

Most amazing is Unity’s story: she became a personal confidante and friend of Hitler, and spent a great deal of time alone in his company. She didn’t see him in a political context, but had amazing access to him. When war broke out in 1939, she was in Munich, attempted to commit suicide, had her hospital bills paid by Hitler, and was put on a special train to Switzerland, from where she returned to the UK. Through her, other members of the family also had various privileges bestowed on them, such as privileged access to the 1936 Olympics.

If Unity was an obsessive nut-case (she basically stalked Hitler until he noticed her), Diana seems slightly more normal. She had an early conventional marriage, but then fell in love with Sir Oswald Mosley, had an affair with him until his wife died, divorced her husband, and married Mosley (at a private ceremony in Berlin with Hitler in attendance (!)). Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, and seems impossible to admire. Nonetheless, he and Diana had a long and happy marriage. On his behalf, Diana also spent quite a bit of time with Hitler, trying to persuade him to accept a radio broadcasting scheme that would raise revenue for Mosley’s political schemes. Not long after war broke out, both were imprisoned. Diana is still alive (or was, as recently as 22 November last year). If the biography has any failing, it is that it fails to explain how Diana could be so blind to her husband’s flaws. I can only imagine that she shares them herself.

The fifth sister, Decca was ideologically opposite. She ran away when less than 20 years old to support the Communist cause in Civil War Spain, and emigrated to the US just before WW2 began. There she became a US citizen, joined the US Communist Party (until the mid 50s), and was for a while denied a passport. She became a famous writer and journalist, following in Nancy’s footsteps who’d had great success with light novels such as Pursuit of love and Love in a cold climate.

The other sisters all have interesting stories too, particularly Nancy, as do their parents, David and Sydney. Lovell writes about them all very well and sympathetically. It’s definitely sad to read of them gradually succumbing to the inevitable cancers and other frailties of old age.

To read next:

Granta 80: groups

Thursday, 27 February 2003

A miscellany

Listening to:

Haydn, symphony no. 51 in B flat major, Hob. I:51.

There are two big sporting events on at the moment featuring NZ national teams. One is the cricket world cup. NZ are doing reasonably at this. They lost to Sri Lanka and conceded a game to Kenya by refusing to play them in Nairobi, but have beaten South Africa, the West Indies and Bangladesh. The other event is the Americas Cup. Here a NZ boat is defending the cup against a Swiss boat, but has gone down 0-3 in the nine race series. Definitely a very bad start, but this article convinced me that I didn’t particularly care if NZ won or lost.

I found this piece from Salon quite interesting (you may need to click through an ad to get to read it). It’s a report by a US reporter about the anti-war protest marches in London on 16 February. For all that Salon is a left-wing publication, its journalist doesn’t seem quite in tune with what he’s told by the sample of protestors he interviewed. Still on the war, this “rant” by Mark Rosenfelder seems a reasonable summary of arguments in both directions. Mind your head doesn’t explode.

Another optical illusion. Your head might not explode, but it seemed to be quickly inducing a headache in me.

Finally, a neat piece of counter-propaganda from the US’s National Center for Science Education, Project Steve. I particularly liked its tongue-in-cheek endorsements.