Tuesday, 8 April 2003

A cook’s tour

Listening to:

Bach, suite no. 3 in C major for cello, but played on the guitar by John Williams. This works quite well.

Just read:

Anthony Bourdain, A cook’s tour.

This is a fun book, describing the author’s journey around the world in search of the “perfect meal”. He deliberately sets out with the intention of going to various “cool” places, and so he goes to a mafia bar in Russia, into the Moroccan desert to eat whole sheep, and to Cambodia. He includes some more obvious culinary destinations too, such as France, Spain, Japan and Vietnam. (In fact, he so likes Vietnam that it gets three chapters to itself.)

As he did in Kitchen confidential, Bourdain writes well, in a style that is usually only half-serious, but which can change to allow effective emotion as well. His book is interesting about exotic places and practices, and a very enjoyable read.

Now reading:

Charles Dickens, Our mutual friend.

I recently bought HTML & XHTML: the definitive guide by Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy (published by O’Reilly). Inspired, I have converted this web-page to use Cascading Style Sheets. This means that my little validation button on the right will now tell you that this page is HTML4.01 Strict. And we all like strictness, don’t we? (I would put in the little button telling you that my CSS was valid too, but things would start to look gaudy, I think.)

The little text input box is supposed to mail me your input, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. This may just be my local setup, so I encourage experimentation!

Thursday, 10 April 2003

XHTML & code maintenance

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano sonata #2, op 61.

I couldn’t resist the temptation; I’ve made my page XHTML. Again, work done just so that the page looks exactly the same as it used to. But it’s better, honest! It’s fully standards compliant, and easily upgradable, and flexible and it might even be easily viewable on mobile phones! (Oh yes, I know that I have legions of devoted fans reading this on their phones.)

It’s funny the way maintaining code works. If there’s enough of it, you can be sure that there will be all sorts of bugs in it, or that bugs will appear in response to various incremental changes. Fixing a slew of problems in HOL recently, I decided that what I was doing was analogous to carefully examining a patch of soil in a garden, walking slowly in a stooped posture, and looking for weeds or noxious insects. You’re forced to turn over every stone, and scrutinise everything at length. Of course, if we had extensive regression test suites, some of this work could be done automatically...

Some links:

Monday, 14 April 2003

Computer games: Freecell et al.

Listening to:

Brahms, piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, op. 5.

Still reading:

Dickens, Our mutual friend. Just finished book 1 of 4 on Sunday.

Games, games, games. I haven’t said much about the computer games that I’ve been playing recently in the log, so here’s more than you ever wanted to know. First up, Freecell, that ubiquitous computer game, installed on all Windows operating systems since Windows 95, and available elsewhere too. The documentation that comes with the Windows version says that it is believed that every game has a solution. This is a great marketing ploy, and it is the case that a very high percentage of games can be solved (high being on the order of over 99%). Nonetheless, this interesting solitaire site claims that even the authors of the implementation knew their strong claim was likely false when they made it. I was also interested to read that there was an Internet project to play through all of the 32000 possible games in the original implementation (based on a 16-bit seed for a random number generator). Now that really is something useful to come out of the Internet.

Freecell is the sort of game that will be with us forever. But I’ve also played games that are of more transient interest. (Strange but true, most computer games get stale. Why is this?) I recently completed No One Lives Forever II. This was a very entertaining game, and one that convinced me that a First-Person Shooter could be a reasonable game to play. (Positive reviews from, for example, GameSpot and AVault are accurate.)

Just this weekend, I bought a copy of Age of Mythology. I haven’t been able to give this a whole lot of time yet, but so far, I am distinctly underwhelmed. It has positive reviews just about everywhere, but I am finding it very samey in comparison to its predecessor, Age of Empires, and think that the new divine/mythological aspect to things is just indictive of glitzy featurism. I’ll give the main campaign a bit longer to see what playing with the Norse and Egyptians is like, because the reviews do indicate that the Greeks are most conventional.

Over the weekend, I played some Go, which was great, as it has been a long time since I’ve found time for regular face-to-face Go, and I’ve also got myself into an Play-By-e-Mail game of Diplomacy. You can see the current situation on the floc site. (I’m Italy.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2003

Internet Diplomacy's usual problem

Listening to:

Eric Clapton, Crossroads, from a compilation album, The Cream of Clapton.

The Diplomacy game that I’m involved in has fallen prey to what I think is a common problem; one of the players has abandoned his position, meaning that the game is on hold until someone else volunteers to take over the abandoned power. Needless to say, the abandoned position is not a very attractive one, so we may be waiting for a while. The Internet hobby maintains an openings page, so the vacant position is being advertised. Maybe someone will want to sign up a two-centre Russia, but I’m not holding my breath. When I’ve played enough and demonstrated that I’m not in the habit of dropping out of games myself, I will qualify to join the Vermont Group, a bunch of players who like playing games to completion without abandonments. Or so they say.

The Mozilla project has released a new roadmap. Much of the plan is just about plumping for one technology over another, but it also includes this objective:

Continue the move away from an ownership model involving a large cloud of hackers with unlimited CVS access, to a model, more common in the open source world, of vigorously defended modules with strong leadership and clear delegation, a la NSPR, JavaScript, Gecko in recent major milestones, and Phoenix.

Anarchy as a model for software development just isn’t viable.

One famous open source project, Linux, has a penguin as its mascot. And this gives me a seamless segue to my final link of the day, a story from a couple of months ago about penguins behaving strangely in San Francisco Zoo.

Thursday, 17 April 2003

US behaving badly; NICTA CEO

Listening to:

Abba, The definitive collection.

I’d normally aim to write on Friday, but I will be on an Easter holiday tomorrow, so I am writing early.

An honourable soul has stepped in to get my Diplomacy game going again. I wouldn’t have disbanded the army in Ukraine myself, but you can’t have it all.

A couple of depressing stories about the powers taken up by the state in the US:

  • In Portland, OR, the police are happy to look through your garbage, but figures of authority were less happy when these journalists did the same to them.
  • Again in Oregon, Mike Hawash, a US citizen, is being held in prison without being charged for any crime, and has been there since 20 March. Oh yeah, he’s also an Arab-American. Luckily for him, he also has some well-connected friends, so that his story is getting some publicity.

I (along with a room full of others), met the new NICTA CEO this morning. He is Mel Slater, recently of Motorola.

Tuesday, 22 April 2003

Our mutual friend

Listening to:

Bach, Christmas Oratorio.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Our mutual friend. This is Dickens’s last complete novel, and it's a great big 800 page wodge of a book. It’s also great fun to read and very engrossing. I would definitely rank it up there with my other favourite, Bleak House. In a story of this scale, Dickens has plenty of time to weave together a great many threads, and the plotting is very good. There are two principal story arcs, but these combine with a number of other story-lines to great effect. Lots happens, and it happens to lots of different characters. Even the two heroines are interesting and not just virtuous saps.

I’d admit that you can see models for both heroines in the two wives of David Copperfield (flighty beautiful idiot & quiet saint), but they both get to do interesting things on their own behalf, and at least one of them develops in a significant way. Both are the subject of much sentimentality in the later stages of the novel, and I learnt that I can handle saintly sentimentality a lot better than I can deal with cutesy endearingness.

Just as happened in Bleak House (where the main characters are pretty unmemorable), the various minor characters really make this novel. The Boffins, Silas Wegg, Mr. Venus, and Jenny Wren are all larger-than-life, often funny and definitely memorable. They may be unrealistic grotesques, but that doesn't make them any less compelling. When Jenny Wren repeatedly calls “Come and be dead”, a superficially prosaic scene becomes quite spooky. Dickens also has great fun with a story strand featuring Society and its affectations, including a Pecksniff like character (from Martin Chuzzlewit) tellingly called Podsnap. This strand seems to mainly give Dickens a chance to be satirical, but does also provide one ultimately important character, and a number of plot twists and turns.

The plot is good and has one particular twist that caught me completely by surprise. It did feel as if it was slightly cheating on Dickens’s part (a little like the way in which David Copperfield’s first wife conveniently died), but it did allow that nice cheerful, wrapping-up-all-the-loose-ends ending, and it even made me smile because it's written up so well. There are villains and heroes, and their conflict holds your attention. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that that villains are interesting in their own rights. Sure, Fascination Fledgeby (what a name!) is a bit one-dimensional, but he fills his minor role brilliantly. So, I can only say that I definitely recommend this classic novel.

To read next:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.

Thursday, 24 April 2003

SARS spam and news

Listening to:

Clérambeault, Le triomphe d'Iris, 18th century French music.

I received my first SARS spam this morning. It's an advertisement for surgical face masks from a company in Hong Kong. Appropriately, the radio news this morning said that “authorities” were concerned about unscrupulous merchants moving into the face mask business within Australia.

And the radio news provides evidence that the war in Iraq really is over. For the last few days, Iraq has not been the first headline story. Instead, we had a brief brouhaha about refugee boats heading in Australia's direction from Vietnam. One came via Indonesia, but wasn't allowed to land there for fear of SARS, and was instead re-supplied and sent on its way. Today, the main story is about the leadership battle in the Australian Labor Party.

Finally, some cool web games, from a philosophy site. I am currently stuck on the science game, which is the same as the game Eleusis (author's page; nice page with examples). I can't figure out the rule from the data I have so far, and have eliminated a number of long-lived hypotheses. Neat!

Monday, 28 April 2003

Finished the List!

Listening to:

Mozart, mass in C major, K. 167 “In Honorem SS:mae Trinitatis”.

Just read:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.

This is an interesting popular science work about the evolution of humanity's linguistic skills. I enjoyed reading it, and think it's probably pretty accurate. On the other hand, I was a little disconcerted by Lieberman's readiness to be very critical of opposing theories. He conscientiously identifies the proponents of these theories too, which makes his tone sound even more personal. He particularly targets three groups: those that claim that homo sapiens arose separately in different regions around the world, those that claim that Neanderthals were able to speak as well as homo sapiens, and Noam Chomsky and his followers (among whom he identifies Steven Pinker and Jerry Fodor).

The second argument is argued best. Neanderthal skulls make it clear that Neanderthal vocal tracts can't have been anything like human ones, and that they wouldn't have been able to produce the same important vowel sounds as humans (core vowel sounds that occur in every human language). Humans are unique in the arrangement of their larynxes, giving homo sapiens unique levels of control over vocalisations. This same unique factor makes humans the only species liable to choke on their food, suggesting there was significant selection pressure for the evolution of language skills regardless.

Lieberman is also clear that it's reasonable to suppose that other ancestral species would have had some level of language skills, just as they probably had tool-making skills. He cites the modern experiments with chimpanzees and other apes in support of this. Chimpanzees can be imparted with the language skills of human two year olds, which is a lot more than most people wanting to believe in human uniqueness might like to hear, but which is still very limited. (How many meaningful conversations have you ever had with a two year old?) Chimpanzees aren't an ancestral species of course, but our common ancestor probably did have common capabilities.

It's a reflection of this book's occasionally bitty nature, that it also fits in discussion of brain structure and the effects of brain damage on language ability, including that wrought by Parkinson's disease. This is also very interesting, though not as new to me as the material on Neanderthals.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies.

This is an impressive collection of nine beautifully written short stories (it apparently won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000). Lahiri grew up in America, but is the child of immigrant Indian parents, and her stories all have an Indian “aspect” to them. Some stories are set in India, others feature Indian emigrants to the US. I think the first story in the collection is relatively weak because it finishes with what I thought was a stereotypical “short story twist”. The twist wasn't unbelievable, and it made for a very effective denouement, but I still felt tricked.

Most of the stories have fairly downbeat endings, but their elegant narratives present moving vignettes of life. I particularly liked the two stories featuring child narrators, the story about the (non-Indian) woman having an affair with a married Indian man, the last story about a young, newly married man emigrating to Boston, the story about the stair-sweeper, and the story about the Hindi couple who keep discovering naff Christian “stuff” (posters, statuettes, knick-knacks) in their new home, left there by previous owners. That's six out of nine, and none of the other three (despite what I wrote about #1 above) is bad. So, definitely a strong recommendation.

To read next:

Well, good question, because I'm pleased to announce that I have now finished the List! Is that amazing or what? I can now freely buy books again. But, never one to miss an opportunity to devise silly regulations for the conduct of my life, I have devised two new rules:

  1. Never allow a back-log of greater than five books.
  2. For every every five books that I read, I have to add a book that I have already read to the list of things to be read.

The reason for the second rule is that it's foolish to buy books if you only ever read them once, which is pretty likely if you're buying books too quickly.