Friday, 2 May 2003

Moving to artefact?

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 3, Sz 85.

I would have written an entry on Wednesday this week, but I found that I couldn't connect to the Cambridge computers that host the pages. Thwarted in this way, I felt that my brother’s offer to host my log on the machine where he has his own log, Archæology, was particularly timely. Jamie also said that I could have my own one-word name for my log, and thus be located at Cool! With his domain called, I discerned a definite trend in his naming scheme and briefly considered artifice (as well as artichoke). I think I’ve settled on corollary however. I may even go so far as to capitalise it.

I’ll need to convert all of my old log entries to the format expected by the code that Jamie runs, so I don’t know when exactly it will happen, but I hope to get it done pretty soon. I will have to make sure that I can write appropriately standards-conforming HTML. It will be nice to have slick feedback mechanisms available (either mailto forms just don’t work for anyone, or I have particularly unadventurous readers; go on, type something into the box!)

In the meantime, all (or at least some) of the links fit to print:

  • A cute story about English ex-patriates bringing up small children in Paris.
  • Last week, you may recall that I had Friday off. This is because it was ANZAC day, the equivalent of Veterans' Day in the US, and Remembrance Sunday in the UK. This was the first ANZAC day I'd had in 9 years. One thing I didn't know is that the traditional Australian gambling game Two Up becomes generally legal (as opposed to only allowed in casinos) on ANZAC Day here. How odd. The Sydney Morning Herald explains all; a general explanation of how to play.

Thursday, 8 May 2003


Listening to:

Corelli, concerti grossi, op. 6 no. 1.

Now reading:

Paul Samuelson, Economics. We found this while clearing out a shed at our flat on Corrie Road, Cambridge. It’s a pretty old edition (11th), from 1981, which means that it talks about (or at least refers to) communism a bit more than I imagine a modern text would. This is the first time I have put a text-book on the List. I’m not entirely convinced it's a good idea.

I am pleased to report that the log has followed me to the Southern Hemisphere, and is now residing (in a closet) in my beautiful home-town, Wellington, New Zealand. Many thanks to Jamie for helping me set it up.

Monday, 12 May 2003

Physical woes and toes

Listening to:

Couperin, Nouveaux concerts.

Still reading:

Samuelson's Economics.

I kicked the bed-leg this morning, and my toe came out worse. In fact, the bed-leg wasn't even scratched. I even dropped my original plan of walking to work, and cycled instead. So, here I am, feeling a little sorry for myself, but at least I didn't have to saw my own arm off.

Wednesday, 14 May 2003

Irritated by Paul Graham (w/fruit juice on the side)

Listening to:

Schubert, Overture “in the Italian style”, D590.

My toe is rather an ugly purple colour on top, but my gait is less of a hobble than it was on Monday, so I think things are on the mend.

Here's a marker of cultural difference between the UK and Australia (other than: one can play cricket, and the other can't): in the UK you can buy orange and grapefruit juice blends in cartons. This is typically known as ‘breakfast juice’. In Australia, you can't (I have seen ‘breakfast juices’, but these are typically orange with mango and/or pineapple). But Australia distinguishes itself by providing apple and blackcurrant juice, which I don't remember seeing on the shelves at Sainsbury's. Australia's better because you can mimic the UK by buying the orange and grapefruit juices separately, and mixing them yourself, but you can't buy blackcurrant juice separately in either country. Isn't that fascinating?

There's a guy out there called Paul Graham who is definitely something of a guru. I earlier linked to a piece of his about using Bayesian analyses to detect spams (given samples of non-spam and spam messages). For whatever reason, his proposal hit a nerve, and lots of people rushed to implement this (good) idea. I am using Xavier Leroy's SpamOracle implementation of this idea, and it works wonderfully.

On the other hand, Graham's latest piece is all about hacking and how it's really just like painting, and it gets up my nose in all sorts of ways. Perhaps this is inevitable. He says

I've never liked the term "computer science." The main reason I don't like it is that there's no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia.

and I just don't buy this. Yes, there's a spectrum of interests in a Computer Science department, but this is true of any discipline too. Graham's also got a real hang-up about what he calls static typing, and he proffers Lisp's dynamic typing as a real win over languages where you have to declare the type of every variable (from another essay of his). SML and Haskell are both statically typed languages, and neither requires you to declare the types of variables.

Of course, both of these languages are academic languages (i.e., the product of academic research), and academia is generally getting a bum rap here so perhaps it's not surprising that I should feel so antsy. It's all symptomatic of a typical mentality that says that hacking is cool, and where the real work is done, while stuff done in ivory towers is obviously not useful, or applicable to the practice of real programming. In order to demonstrate that they absolutely don't suffer from maths envy, people of this view find it too easy to lurch to the opposite extreme and dismiss academic stuff out of hand.

Seethe, seethe.

Friday, 16 May 2003

On specialisation

Listening to:

Mozart, Divertimento in F, K. 247 (for 2 horns, 2 violins, viola and bass).

Jamie recently bemoaned the demise of the generalist, saying that

The world seems to have moved on from this era when it was possible for an individual to have great knowledge in many disciplines. Specialisation is now the accepted approach, ostensibly because there is so much to know that only through singleminded devotion to a single area of knowledge may any advance be made. I am not convinced that this is true.

It boils down to what you think qualifies as an advance. If you want to push back the frontiers of human knowledge, then you have to get to the frontiers first, and there really is too much distance to cover between blissful ignorance and the frontier to be able to do much more than travel quite a narrow path. What humanity knows is increasing in leaps and bounds all the time, and as more and more people come to work in research too, this problem is going to get worse. It is a problem, something we can regret, because, though I love my ‘specialist subject’, I would like to also know lots of stuff in other areas. Not for nothing did I do a BA in history as an undergraduate as well as my BSc in computer science. And now the route to great knowledge in many disciplines is to devote my life to a great deal of reading.

On the other hand, if making an advance means advancing human society some other way, perhaps through applying all of this knowledge that researchers are busy creating, then Jamie's right; specialisation is not the only route to being useful. A generalist might be just the right person to draw several strands of specialist knowledge together and see how to apply them. (To be provocative, people like this tend to be given titles such as ‘manager’ and ‘venture capitalist’.)

Finally, it's worth noting the related area of specialist skills. When my toilet breaks, do I ring a generalist builder or a plumber to fix it? When I have go to hospital for a heart-bypass, do I get my GP to perform the operation? To end with a homily, everyone has their place, and specialists are important too. Awww.

Tuesday, 20 May 2003

Proving corollaries, and good stuff at Public Address

Listening to:

Michael Praetorius, Pueri nostri concinite.

Still reading:

Samuelson, Economics. Over the weekend I learnt about how central banks work (how they control money supply and thus interest rates), and then in a section about microeconomics, how marginal costs determine selling prices in a situation of perfect competition, and how the intersection of marginal cost and marginal revenue will determine prices otherwise. Interesting stuff.

On Friday, I lived up to my web-log title by actually proving a corollary: number 11.4.8 from Barendregt's The lambda calculus, which states that M has a head normal form iff M's head reduction path terminates. Ironically, I reckon this result isn't a corollary of the standardisation theorem at all, as Barendregt claims: my proof only needed lemmas 11.4.3 (i) and (ii), and lemma 11.4.6. Therein lies the dubious virtue of replaying all this stuff in the mechanical theorem-prover.

In other news, I have recently been impressed by a series of web-log entries at Public Address, a site that hosts six web-loggers, including Russell Brown, who writes cynical political analysis that I almost always agree with. These links are all by others though:

  • Damian Christie on the NZ government's awful decision to throw money at the America's Cup campaign.
  • Jolisa Gracewood on finding somewhere nice to live in America that isn't New York city.
  • Chad Taylor on X-Men 2, being entertained without thinking that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. (I'm off to see the Matrix sequel this evening; it's hard to know which is more off-putting, this negative review, or this off-puttingly gushing one from Salon.)
  • Debra Daley on her top tip for dealing with teenage children.

Thursday, 22 May 2003

The Matrix Regurgitated

Listening to:

Mozart, violin sonata in C major, K. 303.

A recent movie:

I went to see Matrix Reloaded on Tuesday night. It wasn’t bad, and had some pretty spectacular moments. Those graphics programmers are getting better all the time. (Maybe I should say, the computers that those graphics programmers use are getting faster all the time.) On the other hand, it was hardly perfect. Moreover, I think it warrants criticism a lot more than X-Men 2 because it took itself that much more seriously.

First, there were at least a couple of structural flaws. The initial scenes in Zion (Neo/Trinity sex scene, general rave) are tedious. They don't need to go on anything like as long as they do. Neo and Trinity should perhaps be allowed to declare their undying love for one another, and Morpheus should be able to make another of his portentous speeches. Neo's conversation with the Councillor needs to be there. But endless shots of rave? Feh. Then there are two tedious fight scenes that go on too long as well. Neo vs. multiple instances of Agent Smith, and Neo in the lobby of the Merovingian's base. Both of these get boring fast. On the other hand, the extended sequence on the free-way kept my attention because the situations varied in an interesting way.

Apart from these problems of form, I was also irritated by the film's refusal to make any sense in a number of ways. Some of these matters are clearly hooks to get us to come back and see the next film. So, Neo's paranormal powers outside the Matrix (prophetic dreams, ability to knock out Sentinels) are clearly being set up for an explanation next time. I also fervently hope that the waffle that the Architect feeds Neo at the end gets revealed as deliberate nonsense. Why, for example, does Neo get a choice of doors at all?

Why are the Sentinels engaged in a tedious drilling operation to get to Zion, when there must be a open route that Zion's ships use themselves? And another thing that one suspects is there for the purposes of drama rather than sense, why can't a combination of right-coloured pill and physical disconnection from the Matrix serve as an escape route for virtual adventurers? It works for people when they are first disconnected. (This is a problem with the first film too, of course.)

My hope is that both the Matrix and the ‘real’ world will be revealed to be computer simulations. The machines are actually looking after humanity's best interests and realise that geeky malcontents need to think that they’re special and engaged in a special mission to save the world. The human minds that actually have any intelligence, the ones that won't buy the spiel about humans breaking the law of conservation of energy and producing energy for mechanical consumption, those minds get to be programmers.

Some chance!

Monday, 26 May 2003


Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 7 in A, Op. 92. I first heard (or first consciously heard) this symphony while I was an exchange student in Japan in 1988. I was absolutely blown away by the amazing second movement, and was not surprised to later learn that the audience at the symphony’s premiere demanded that this movement be encore-d.

Just read:

Paul Samuelson, Economics.

This is an interesting and effective introduction to the subject of economics. I had no solid knowledge of the area prior to reading this text, so I can't judge it in comparison to other expositions. Nonetheless, in terms of simply teaching me stuff I didn't know before, Samuelson does a very good job. I'd say that the weakest chapter is the one where Samuelson himself admits that there are still definite controversies, on the nature of capital. He explains the problem of re-switching well, but doesn't really nail down just what capital really is. Do factory inventories count as capital or not? Sometimes he suggests that they do, and at other times what he says suggests that they don't.

Elsewhere, I really liked the sections on micro-economics, macro-economics, and international trade. In all cases, I felt I learnt things, and I now feel that much more informed about an important aspect of the modern world.

I'm also now quite curious about how this text may have been updated since this edition was published. Has economics figured out a cure for stagflation, and what is now the consensus on pure floating exchange rates (which were relatively new to the world in 1981 after the collapse of the Bretton Woods managed rates scheme)?

To read next:

Tim Flannery, The eternal frontier: an ecological history of North America and its peoples.

Wednesday, 28 May 2003

We’ll always have Paris

Listening to:

Schubert, Impromptus D899.

A recent movie:

We went to see Casablanca on Monday night, and both enjoyed it a great deal. I was a little worried that I might find it as unaffecting as Citizen Kane, which I saw a while ago on TV, and which left me cold. (Maybe seeing CK on the big screen would have improved my reaction to it. It probably also didn't help that I'd seen The Simpsons spoof version of it beforehand.)

Casablanca is full of great lines, from Round up the usual suspects and Here's looking at you, kid to This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. It even almost manages Play it again, Sam. But these great lines had the impact that they did because they occur in a context of a good plot, great, sympathetic, acting, and generally witty dialogue.

It's a shame I knew how the film would end in advance (it's difficult to remain a complete Casablanca-virgin), but I still found it dramatically satisfying, and compelling. All told, a movie that definitely deserves its status as one of the all-time greats.