Tuesday, 3 June 2003

The eternal frontier

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in B flat, D.960.

Just read:

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

This popular science book is a very interesting read. It describes the ecological history of North America from the time of the meteor impact that is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the modern day. Before the arrival of humanity, about 13000 years ago, millions of years are summarised in about three chapters. Flannery’s title makes sense because North America has been a frontier for many different waves of invaders. Almost all of these came from Asia, but Flannery also describes how a number of new species came to North America when it joined up with South America.

Though it’s reasonably interesting to read about weird and wonderful ancient species and their movements (the world's crows and ravens apparently all come from Australia, for example), things do get more interesting when humanity makes its appearance. Until reading this book, I thought it was generally accepted that the mass extinctions of America’s ‘mega-fauna’ were caused by the newly arrived immigrants from Asia. But Flannery spends quite some time contrasting this theory with one which contends that the extinctions were caused by climatic change. It seems a pretty clear case to me. Just as lots of big species died off just as humans arrived in North America, so too did they in Australia. Within New Zealand, the Maoris killed off all the moa species within a few hundred years of their arrival. Even within the North American area, Flannery cites the case of Cuba where the mega-fauna only becomes extinct when the people arrive, some 6500 years ago.

Flannery then discusses pre-1492 North American history, and describes the varying ecological adaptations made in different parts of the continent. For example, it was really only in Mexico that intensive agriculture developed. In the Great Plains area, American Indians survived through hunting buffalo, which caused the buffalo themselves to evolve different behaviour patterns (grouping themselves into huge herds), which in turn had quite an ecological effect.

Finally, the Europeans arrive, and they do their bit to do as much ecological damage as possible. The buffalo only just survive, but the passenger pigeon, which used to fly in flocks so huge that they darkened the sky, get killed off by the end of the 19th century. Flannery also documents the apalling way that the latest batch of invaders treat the existing American Indian populations. He finishes with an interesting concluding chapter. He says that North America is particularly vulnerable to climatic change: its wedge shape funnels Arctic air southwards, a progress that is not interrupted by any east-west mountain ranges. So, North America had the world’s biggest ice sheets when the glaciers last rolled through, and has bigger responses to temperature changes than the rest of the world. Flannery also criticises a number of generally unsustainable practices and claims that North America’s treatment of its fresh-water resources is particularly bad.

This is the general thrust of the book, but one of its real strengths is that it’s beautifully illustrated by examples, ranging across a wide range of species, from horses to squirrels to snakes to deciduous forests. A fascinating book and definitely recommended.

To read next:

Ian Stewart, Flatterland: like Flatland only more so.

Thursday, 5 June 2003

Hot Gingerbread and Dynamite

Listening to:

Schubert, string quintet in C, D 956. I seem to be timing my entries to coincide with Schubert listening quite a bit these days.

Formal Methods—useful?

I was away in Sydney at the end of last week for a NICTA workshop on Formal Methods. The venue was the Scientia building on the UNSW campus. I had a pleasant three days, gave a talk that prompted some interested sounding questions, and heard lots of interesting talks by others.

As is often the case at these sorts of gatherings, there was a bit of soul-searching about the utility of what we’re doing. Carroll Morgan put it nicely when he said that we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves, and that FM suffers a little from the same problems as AI, the perception that

If it’s not boring, it can’t be Formal Methods.

The problem is that academic theory takes a long time to filter out into industrial practice (and not all theory is going to make it either, of course; some of it’s no use to man nor beast). Someone working on theory now may well have to wait an awfully long time in order to see their work gain a broader acceptance. And given the failure rate, how can they be sure of its real worth?

Finally, my last word on The matrix:

  • The Republican Matrix.

  • This article analyses the film from a religious and/or philosophical point of view, and finds all sorts of interesting stuff in it. This is all very well though I can’t help suspect that you’d find all sorts of interesting stuff in just about anything if you looked hard enough, and if you knew what you were going to find in advance. My problem with The matrix is more that it’s poor science-fiction, and any amount of religious imagery doesn’t alter that.

  • On the other hand, it is an entertaining film.

Tuesday, 10 June 2003

Flatterland & Artemis Fowl

Listening to:

Blossom Dearie, ’Deed I do.

Just read:

Ian Stewart, Flatterland: like Flatland, only more so.

This is a popular mathematics book, written by a well-known mathematician. I’ve read another book of his, called Nature’s numbers, which I thought was pretty good. Flatterland is very different. It’s an enjoyable and informative read, I hasten to add, but it’s written in a very jokey way that is quite surprising. In many ways, it feels a bit like Alice in Wonderland. It’s full of puns and word-play. Most of these elicit smiles, but it’s not exactly Wodehouse. For example, the Alice character, called Victoria Line, meets the Space Girls, as well as a formidable character called the Hawk King.

This badinage is all very well, but what of the real content? Just as the 19th century Flatland was designed to introduce the ideas of the possibility of fourth spatial dimensions, this book introduces some modern maths relating to the nature of ‘worlds’ of different dimensions. Thus, projective planes (projective plains, dominated by parallel lions, which do meet at the horizon), shapes with fractional dimension, hyperbolic geometry, error correction with Hamming codes, and relevant bits of modern cosmology: special and general relativity, and bits and bobs about superstring theory.

That’s quite a lot really, but Stewart marshals it well enough so that it flies past in a reasonably engaging way. I did feel that I'd been given an impression of a whole slew of interesting sounding maths. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated by the book, in a way that didn't happen with The eternal frontier. The problem is that I didn’t finish feeling that I really understood the material. I appreciate that modern quantum physics requires a lot of high-powered maths that would take a long time to acquire, but I do think that I might cope with the real definitions underlying topology or the hyperbolic plane. The closest we get to an equation is in the description of how the Mandelbrot set is defined.

Something of a mixed verdict then.

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl.

This is an enjoyable children’s book. It features a 12-year old anti-hero, called Artemis Fowl, and a fairy member of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance squad, Holly Short. (She's a LEPrecon member, geddit?) Artemis Fowl is a juvenile criminal master-mind, and his plot is to steal some fairy gold. The problem is that the fairies are armed, and dangerous. The book is the story of the their encounter, and how it is resolved. It features lots of clichés among the characters, but slightly twisted to amusing effect, high-excitement encounters (including a particularly cool infiltration by an explosively farting dwarf), and some very amusing scenes and dialogue. It's also neat to be reading something from Ireland.

You can read extracts of this, and its sequels, here.

To read next:

Patrick O’Brian, The reverse of the medal.

It was the Queen’s Birthday holiday yesterday, so we all got a welcome three day weekend. And you wouldn’t expect me to ’blog in such circumstances I hope!

Wednesday, 11 June 2003

Cataloguing and cynical Brits

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in G minor, K516.

We arranged contents insurance yesterday. It turns out that if Something Bad were to happen to our books or CDs, we'd need to be able to itemise our losses. A tedious job perhaps, but it will mean the production of a catalogue, something I've wanted to have for quite some time. What's more, the Insurers To Be suggested that we also take photos of the shelves so as to provide some evidence that we really do possess these treasures. Aha, I thought, digital camera!.

The Register has always been fairy cynical about web-logging, and it's good to have pretensions pricked from time to time. This recent story of theirs adds more fuel to their fire. It appears that most loggers are teenage girls, clearly proving that it's a narcissistic waste of time.

I enjoyed this story from The Guardian. It's typically British in tone, and rather like The Register piece above: cynical and mildly amusing as well.

Friday, 13 June 2003


Listening to:

Bach, Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 1091, an organ prelude from the Choräle der Neumeister-Sammlung.

Time to talk about games again. Here’s a simple one: a computerised version of Twenty Questions. It claims to update itself and learn from what people tell it. I reckon it’s a third year AI programming problem, but a good one.

At home, I have been playing quite a bit of Age of Mythology. After reckoning it not much chop a while back, I have since definitely come 'round to it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the computer opponent was good enough to keep me coming back for a while, and then I tried online games against human opposition. This is particularly good because of the rating system that the online service (ESO) uses. This means that I play against people who are roughly my level, and keeps things interesting.

The rating system used at ESO is the Elo system, used extensively in the chess world. It’s zero-sum. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not. Researching the issue on the Web, I found a description of the more recent Glicko system, which isn’t zero-sum. There are lots of hairy formulas lower down, but the initial prose explains the motivation well.

Tuesday, 17 June 2003

The reverse of the medal and The hobbit

Listening to:

Handel, organ concerto op. 7 no. 3 in B flat major.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The reverse of the medal.

The 11th book in O’Brian’s series, and a good one. There is not one casualty through naval combat in the whole book, and most of the action happens on land in England, so it’s something of a departure from the rest of the series. Nonetheless, the characters are familiar, and are evolving very slowly, so reading another instalment in the saga does feel a bit like catching up with old friends. O’Brian’s plotting is strong, so you don’t mind where he takes his cast. His characters are sympathetic; you want to continue reading about them come what may.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The hobbit.

This is my first officially mandated re-read book (though earlier books have been re-reads too). I’m pleased to report that it’s very good, right up to the end anyway. Tolkien throws varied chunks of action at long-suffering Bilbo, and each feels fresh. The comic trolls, followed by the goblins of the Misty Mountains and riddles with Gollum. Then perching in trees trying to escape from wargs and goblins. Rescued by eagles, they have to win over suspicious, shape-changing Beorn, before they can enter oppressive Mirkwood. Then there are spiders to fight before the wood-elves take the dwarves prisoner. Bilbo comes up with an inventive escape plan, and the final chapter at the Lonely Mountain can begin.

Bilbo steals a cup from the sleeping dragon’s hoard, and later engages Smaug in witty repartee. This is all great stuff. Suddenly though, we are thrown by a new device: the author cuts to a scene that doesn’t feature any of our heroes, and one which is chronologically earlier than where we’d left them. Smaug in action over Laketown is pretty cool, and Bilbo’s contribution to his death is explained, through Bard and his last arrow, but it’s still not quite what one might expect. And it gets worse. Tolkien then decides to explore the geo-politics of north-eastern Middle-Earth and treats us to some inter-species bickering, before finally springing the Battle of the Five Armies. Just as Pullman switched climaxes in The amber spyglass, Tolkien is suddenly veering off on a new path here.

It seems as if Tolkien suddenly decided that he needed to tell us all about the evil effects of greed, and to do it with a tone that is quite incompatible with the earlier parts of the story. This inter-species arguing is done well enough at the council in Rivendell in The fellowship of the ring, but that book has already moved a great distance from The hobbit and is much darker in tone. As for the Battle of the Five Armies and the miraculous appearance of the Eagles (and then Beorn, though only described after the event): feh. This feels like a device to allow Thorin a suitably heroic death and little more. Feh once more.

But enough carping; it’s a great, enthralling read for 90+% of its length. It’s also interesting to read it as a prelude to The lord of the rings. Gandalf purportedly thinks he will die taking on a bunch of wargs and goblins in The hobbit, but kills the Balrog in FotR. When trekking to Rivendell, there’s a comment made about people of the area not having heard of, or paying due respect to the king. But the official LotR history makes it clear that at this stage there hasn’t been a king for hundreds of years, not in the North, or even in Gondor. The elves of Rivendell are also rather silly in The hobbit, a tone that sits poorly with the elegaic feel of LotR where they’re all about to head west and leave the mortal world.

Kudos to Tolkien for letting us keep the early, children’s book (including the joke about the invention of golf!) that later had to be shoe-horned into a much more serious universe.

Now reading:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

Apologies while I experiment with weird colour schemes and other devices for setting off my entries’ preliminary sections. I recently looked at my pages in Internet Explorer 5 & 6 and did not much like what I saw.

Thursday, 19 June 2003

A national tragedy (yes, the rugby)

Listening to:

Tchaikovsky, piano concerto no. 2 in G major, op. 44.

I watched the second half of the game on Saturday between the All Blacks and England. I knew beforehand that the game was being played in Wellington, but I might have figured it out anyway from the roaring noise that occasionally rushed across the microphones. They played in a stadium that didn’t exist when I last lived in Wellington, though I’ve seen it from afar on subsequent trips back.

And the All Blacks lost! Against England what’s more. For the second time in a row, even. Curiouser still, my attitude to this has completely flipped since leaving New Zealand. I always used to hope that the All Blacks would lose. Not only did they go into most matches as favourites, but they were so hyped by the domestic media that I couldn’t resist being contrary. I watched the games avidly, and hoped that some stupendous upset might come about. Sadly it never did. (One early memory I have is of Hugo Porta kicking 21 points against NZ and salvaging a draw for Argentina, and that felt quite a triumph.)

But then I moved to England, and the media there are even worse about their own rugby team. Being away from home, I could allow myself to get all patriotic about the All Blacks. I went to our local pub to see them lose to France in the semi-finals of the last World Cup. I was almost the only NZ supporter there I think. So much for the traditional English dislike of France, and the lack of a common European identity.

I don’t mind the English cricket team so much. The media coverage they get in England is quite different in tone to that of the rugby team. Perhaps this is because English rugby gets annual occasions to beat up the Celtic countries (which they almost never lose to), while the cricketers lose to almost everyone.

So, I think I’ll support Australia against England in the rugby test on Saturday, but the strength of being both such definite underdogs and non-local will probably make me support England against Australia in the next Ashes series.

More than you ever wanted to know about my sporting hang-ups.

Monday, 23 June 2003

Fingersmith & Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow

Listening to:

Debussy, Six épigraphes antiques.

Just read:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

This is a very good romantic thriller. It’s set in 19th century England, and feels quite Dickensian in its setting, and in its mix of high and low. It doesn't have any real humour to it, as something by Dickens would, but equally there aren't any of those Dickensian characters who, though memorable, are really so extreme as to be unbelievable. More importantly, Waters is not confined by 19th century standards of taste and discretion. This gives her a broader palette to work with. This means sex scenes, and it means internal monologues and thoughts that seem more realistic to a modern reader. Waters writes this all very well, in a direct and appealing style.

I will say that there’s a happy ending (and I was very relieved and happy to get there!), but won’t say anything else about the plot because it features some great twists and turns. It’s very well put together and held my attention for its entire duration. Almost all of the characters are sympathetic, even those who turn out to be worse than we think, and this really does keep things engaging.

So, I know I’ve been vague, but that’s because you should get out there and read it for yourself, and I don't want to spoil it.

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow.

Another thriller with a female lead, but the plot in this novel really only features one protagonist, Miss Smilla. The story is about Smilla's investigation of the death of a child who lived in the same building as her. Høeg writes well, and manages to include lots of fascinating background information about life in modern Greenland without the digressions sounding forced. He is occasionally oblique, which is fine (keeps you paying attention), but sometimes flat-out refuses to provide information to the reader even though characters have made a discovery themselves. This makes it a thriller rather than a mystery novel (you’re along for the ride and can’t expect to figure it all out for yourself), but it’s definitely gripping. Høeg is occasionally borderline pretentious but you usually forgive him this and just keep going.

The novel’s big weakness is that the ending is so weak. The chief baddy's motives remain totally obscure, and the big secret is really quite bogus. It’s all beautifully set up though, with the elaborateness of it reminding me of a well designed Call of Cthulhu scenario. The tension also ratchets up beautifully towards the end with a wonderfully narrated sea journey into the Arctic. It’s occasionally a bit graphically violent, but I’d still rate it a pretty good example of the thriller genre.

Now reading:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee.

Wednesday, 25 June 2003

Heavy HP5; NZ's PM + cruise missiles; book theft

Listening to:

Telemann, concerto for trumpet and violin in D major.

The latest Harry Potter book came out on Saturday morning here. I expect it will find its way onto my list eventually. Pity the poor posties in Scotland who had to deliver it though.

A story from New Zealand which massages a cultural stereotype: home handyman builds cruise missiles in his garage. More seriously, an interview with NZ's prime minister, Helen Clark from The Economist. From my somewhat detached perspective in Australia, she seems to come across very well.

Finally, just in case my readership is not a subset of Jamie's, his links to a cool story about book theft and secret passages.

Friday, 27 June 2003

Online games and common sense

Listening to:

Bach, Orgelbüchlein.

Some links about online games and their development:

In the less virtual world, common sense makes a comeback: the US Supreme Court strikes a blow for human rights by overturning laws making sodomy illegal, and the EU plans to reduce farm subsidies.