Tuesday, 1 July 2003

The third chimpanzee

Listening to:

Simon and Garfunkel, The sound of silence.

Just read:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal.

This interesting book is all about humanity’s prehistory, its origins as a primate species, some of humanity’s unique behaviours, and what these behaviours might mean for our future. The title stems from genetic analysis revealing that humans have a more recent common ancestor with chimpanzees than chimpanzees or humans do with gorillas. Given that humans share such a high proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees (98.4%), they might reasonably be seen as a third chimpanzee species, in addition to the two other species (“normal” and pygmy chimpanzees).

The first sections of the book are about human biology, and how various aspects of our biology resemble and differ from that of the other primates. Diamond is amusing on sexual behaviour, and sexual characteristics, speculating on why it is that humans are principally monogamous while still living in groups (unlike the other chimpanzees and unlike gorillas), why they have sex in private, why their genitals are different from the other species, and how mate selection happens.

These early sections of the book also explain why evolution might have produced effects that might not seem to make evolutionary sense when first looked at, including aging and menopause. Diamond also discusses some unique (and mainly positive) human traits (language, farming, art) that arguably have animal precursors, or at least explanations based on animal behaviours. This material is fascinating.

Diamond then moves on to three ‘unique’ behaviours in humans that are clearly bad: destruction of the environment, destruction of each other (genocide), and drug (ab)use. He discusses each of these three in turn. I found the section on drug use easily the least convincing. Diamond claims that it might be some sort of mating display akin to look, I’m so tough I can handle this awful drug, and still stand up straight; come and have sex with me this very instant! (by analogy with peacock tails, which are a ridiculous handicap, but which still serve to attract mates). I wouldn’t deny that this might explain some aspects of alcohol use in the modern world, but it is not very convincing.

Diamond doesn’t back up his claim that this is uniquely human. (What of catnip and cats? Have there not been experiments trying to feed chimpanzees alcohol, or other drugs?) Diamond also doesn’t give any time to the obvious argument that drugs get used simply because brain chemistry happens to produce pleasant effects when certain substances are ingested. I do remember reading about an experiment that demonstrated that some species of animal would repeatedly press the button that stimulated their brains’ pleasure reaction (they’d been wired up somehow) rather than the food button. The animals starved to death. This seems to me to be pretty analogous to drug use, suggesting that addictive behaviours are not really unique to humans at all, and that it has nothing to do with sexual selection displays.

Talking about destruction of the environment, Diamond discusses the New Zealand Maori (extinction of the moa and a variety of other bird species, including an awesome-sounding eagle species), the North American Indians, the Easter Islanders, a central American civilisation that turned its environment into a desert, the Middle East in general, and all of the modern world, with its rapacious, and probably unsustainable, appetite for resources, regardless of the long-term cost. There’s a certain overlap here with the material in Flannery’s The eternal frontier, and also with material I believe Diamond is about to turn into another book (about human-induced environmental catastrophes), but it’s all good.

On genocide, Diamond covers things in a rather bitty way. He discusses how it is that the farmer humans did so much better than the hunter-gather humans, which stuff he later expanded on in Guns, germs and steel (which I highly recommend). He talks about the humanity’s usual xenophobia, and also mentions that chimpanzee troupes fight wars too (they’re just much less efficient at it, not having weapons). He also has a cute chapter about the likelihood of being contacted by aliens: one, intelligence is not necessarily as inevitable as you might think (cue cool example about, yes, woodpeckers); two, if humanity’s anything to go by, maybe intelligent species all end up wiping themselves out in short order; so, three, don’t hold your breath waiting for the aliens to arrive. He talks about various genocides in recent history (depressing reading, and the book isn’t even recent enough to include Rwanda’s most recent genocide, nor what happened in Yugoslavia).

Diamond concludes that at least some of us realise that much of what we’re doing is horribly unsustainable, so that maybe this is grounds for some optimism. A very good read.

Now reading:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.

Thursday, 3 July 2003

Oh Brad

Listening to:

Bach, English Suite no. 2 in A minor, BWV 807.


  • What to say when accused of hating Americans.
  • From the it-must-be-a-spoof department: Customized Classics, an outfit that will print classic (out-of-copyright) books with your name replacing that of one (or more?) of the characters:

    [Romeo and Juliet] Play the part of the famous lovers with this customized version of the classic Shakespearean drama. An ideal anniversary or wedding gift. Relive the thrill of classic lines with you in them.

    Oh Brad, Brad. Wherefore art thou Brad?

    Complete with a happy ending version.

  • And a very cool web-log: Samuel Pepys' diary

Tuesday, 8 July 2003

The letter of marque

Listening to:

Dvořák, Cello concerto.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.

The 12th book in the series, and not a bad one at that. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but the characters’ story remains interesting. My beef with this installment of the saga is that the plot is rather lacking in dramatic tension, particularly given the interesting situation that holds as it begins. Jack Aubrey has been removed from the Navy, and is forced to adventure as a privateer, with a letter of marque. This only makes a difference in a number of subtle ways, and the naval action could really be out of any of the early books.

As the story progresses, everything continues to get better and better for the characters, meaning that there is no mid-story ‘hour of darkness’ to be worked through and surpassed. This again makes things a little uninvolving. There is one neat sub-splot involving Maturin and his servant Padeen though.

Now reading:

J. R. R. Tolkien, The lord of the rings. I'm now up to the early chapters of The two towers. Incidentally, Tolkien neatly deflects one of my earlier criticisms of inconsistency with The Hobbit. In his prologue on the nature of hobbits, Tolkien says that hobbits would say that a person hadn’t heard of the king to indicate the person was lawless or wild. This even though the hobbits well knew that there wasn’t a king. It’s a slightly hack-ish retrospective fix-up, but it’s there.

Wednesday, 9 July 2003

Proofs and computers

Listening to:

Francesco Silvestrino, O dio se vede chiaro. From a BBC Music Magazine CD called The Glory of Venice, featuring 16th century Venetian music.

Weapons of mass destruction; can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

A recent article from Nature on a proof whose status is unclear because a computer was used to check lots of tedious cases. The proof of the four colour theorem was also constructed with a computer's help and is viewed with similar suspicion. (But maybe a proof in a theorem-proving system would be worthy of more respect? Some people are working on this, including Gertrud Bauer and Tobias Nipkow.)

A nice article on irony, what it is and isn’t.

Friday, 11 July 2003

Whale rider

Listening to:

Dvořák, string quartet in E flat major, op. 51.

A recent movie

Whale rider. Affecting, manipulative, enjoyable. Lots of beautiful New Zealand countryside. Wonderfully appealing lead character.

I don’t think WR quite pulls off the ‘modern fairy-tale’ effect, but it tries hard and almost gets there. I think the difficulty stems from the attempt to be serious. (If you just want surreal whimsy, even very thought-provoking whimsy, try Being John Malkovich, but don’t expect BJM to produce much in the way of emotional response.)

WR’s great strength is in its depiction of the children; they behave in ways I can believe in and recognise, right up to the way the boys say stink. When I first heard this, it induced a little shock of memory: a flash of recognition that I indeed lived in a world where this was said and used. I don’t hear it around me now. Similarly, the way Paikea picks at her stick when being told off was a beautiful, genuine detail.

There’s a sensible message in the film, but its true power is in the sense of tearful happiness induced by seeing that it is possible for a child to have it ‘all come right in the end’.

Wednesday, 16 July 2003

Fantasy novels: first and latest

Listening to:

Rameau, Pièces de Clavecin (1706).

Just read:

J. R. R. Tolkien, The lord of the rings.

This was another of my officially mandated re-reads, and I came back to it after quite a long absence (at least eight years). This meant that there were quite a few details that I hadn’t remembered. Nor was having seen parts I & II on film much help because the films only served to reinforce stuff I was going to remember anyway. For example, the Fellowship is attacked by wolves after failing in their attempt on Caradhas, and again by Orcs when journeying down the Anduin. Neither of these were incidents I had the least recollection of. Re-reading also meant that I had a new chance to appreciate things I hadn’t liked or understood on previous occasions. For example, Aragorn’s march through the Paths of the Dead, and his (understated) use of Isengard's palantir were details that struck me with greater force this time than previously.

Anyway, it’s a great story, and very appealing most of the time. The wistful feeling that pervades most of the book is conveyed quite effectively, and the “fading of the light” represented by the elves’ imminent departure forms a very strong backdrop to the main plot. The plot itself holds plenty to enthrall, from the tension-packed flight from the Shire, to the exciting events in Moria (the promise that what has just been read about in the dwarves’ diary may be about to happen to the Fellowship is creepily thrilling), to the breaking of the Fellowship, and to the rousing of the Ents and Huorns.

Best of all is the relationship between Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the second half of The two towers. These three are easily the strongest characters in the whole novel and the thought that Gollum might be redeemed is a potent one. Having to get past the evil Shelob is a grand challenge, and the passage from pleasant Ithilien to Minas Morgul and the pass of Cirith Ungol is a great prelude to this.

Now’s also the time to say how much I enjoyed the little windows Tolkien gives us onto the world of the Orcs and Mordor’s internal organisation. I couldn’t help but think that this material was inspired by Tolkien’s own military experiences during WWI. The Orcs with their divisional rivalries and wild speculations about the higher-ups sound modern in a way that nothing else in the novel does. Anyway, this modernity is an effective contrast with the mythic tone of what happens to the good guys.

After a couple of battles in The return of the king, the Ring is destroyed and Tolkien reveals that he is quite happy to mess with our expectations with regards to heroes. Even doughty hobbits, well-learned in elf-lore, can be seduced by great evil. Then the story winds gradually down, and I can move on to discussing the less good bits.

Most distasteful is Tolkien’s obsession with blood and birth. Humans are everywhere categorised in terms of the closeness of their connection with some reputable aristocrat. Aragorn is a good guy because he is the heir of Isildur, and moreover he is the heir in an unbroken father-to-son line (double-plus-good). Men of high birth live longer and look better. Sauron’s underlings are swarthy scum of evil cast. The back-story of Númenor makes it clear that dilution of royal and worthy blood was part of what led to its downfall. For all that this take on the world might reflect the sagas that were Tolkien’s interest/inspiration, it’s still hard to view it with much sympathy.

The closing section of the book dealing with the liberation of the Shire from Saruman’s evil plots is also a failing. Tolkien carefully foreshadows this part of the novel throughout, and I wouldn’t claim that it comes as a surprise, but it’s still unsuccessful. For one thing, it comes as a terrible anti-climax. The good guys have thrown down the Dark Lord, vanquished great armies and destroyed the One Ring. But rather than close relatively quickly, Tolkien seems forced to remind us that evil lurks everywhere, and that you can never relax. All the more excuse to get special dispensation to run away to Elvish Heaven and not come back. I also dislike this section because it reads like Tolkien indulging in wish-fulfillment: that awful modernity (just like the Orcs, the “new” Shire sounds like the 20th century) needs to be rescued and returned to an idyllic and pastoral Never-Never Land by heroes that can blow horns and claim to be knights of the True King.

Finally, with few exceptions, I have to say that most of Tolkien’s poetry is pretty uninspiring, tending to relentless ABAB or AABB rhyme schemes and iambic de-dum-de-dum-de-dum stress patterns. All this notwithstanding, The lord of the rings is clearly the greatest fantasy novel I’ve read, with powerful themes conveyed by an exciting plot and a consistent tone that immerses the reader in a vivid world.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This is the fifth and longest book in the Harry Potter saga. It’s perhaps slightly too long (Hagrid and his giant could surely have been trimmed), but it’s a page-turner nonetheless, and quite gripping. In the previous installment, it was revealed that the evil Lord Voldemort had taken form once more, and had summoned his underlings, the Death Eaters, to him. Unfortunately for him, Harry was the only person who saw this, and HP5 reveals that the Ministry of Magic doesn’t believe the news at all. Instead it is of the opinion that Harry is just engaged in melodramatic attention seeking.

While Headmaster Dumbledore, and some others, do believe Harry they don’t seem that anxious to let Harry in on their counsels and explain what’s really going on. Harry sets off to Hogwarts feeling rather disgruntled. It turns out that the Ministry really has it in for Dumbledore, so the school is burdened with Professor Umbridge, a particularly nasty Ministry appointment. Umbridge is to take on the Defence against the Dark Arts post, but her influence is soon felt school wide.

So, Harry has to deal with a great deal of home-side malevolence as well as the certain knowledge that Voldemort is up to no good. Just what Voldemort is up to isn’t clear until the very end. In fact, the final revelations are rather underwhelming in this volume of the series, but the overall plot does advance, and there’s fun to be had on the way, particularly from Fred and George Weasley. A good read.

One final criticism though: why is it that House Slytherin is home only to known psychopaths? The only half-positive Slytherin character is Snape; none of the children are anything but awful. Hogwarts could surely save itself much grief by just getting rid of that quarter of the school. Or putting all of its members under constant surveillance; after all, one gets the impression that most of their parents are Death Eaters. If Snape can be interestingly nuanced (part of his history is revealed in what I would claim is this book’s really interesting revelation), then why can’t other members too? And if Slytherin was established for pure-bloods only, which house did Voldemort belong to, and why did the Sorting Hat say that it was thinking of putting Harry there?

Now reading:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.

Monday, 21 July 2003

Dr. Thorne and Bringing down the house

Listening to:

Dvořák, piano concerto in G minor, op. 33.

Just read:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.

This is the third of the six Barsetshire novels. I’d read the first two already (The warden, and Barchester Towers), and imagined that this might be some sort of sequel. It isn’t at all, sharing just the setting (a fictional English county), and occasionally referring to characters from the previous novels as scene-setting (for example, the bishop and his wife).

The story is pretty understated, and is superficially similar to that in Gaskell’s Wives and daughters: a middle-aged doctor is ward to a beautiful young woman who eventually marries a young heir to the local squire. There are lots of other differences though. In Trollope’s case, the squire’s family is financially embarrassed, and the woman has to first come into an unexpected fortune in order to be acceptable.

The plot is very predictable. Just a few chapters into the novel, it is very obvious where the money is going to come from, and there are no real twists and turns in the plot. Instead, you have to enjoy the straightforward journey. There are things to enjoy, particularly in the earlier parts of the story. Trollope is gently scathing about a number of his characters’ pretensions, and some of them get their come-uppance in more-or-less gentle ways.

I enjoyed it, but Wives and daughters is better.

Ben Mezrich, Bringing down the house: the inside story of six MIT students who took Vegas for millions.

This is a very readable account of the way a group of MIT students managed to make millions of dollars by card-counting blackjack in various American casinos. Because the deck isn’t constantly reshuffled between deals in blackjack, the odds of getting good or bad cards changes as the packs used are depleted. If you track what’s gone, you can know when it is to your advantage to bet high, or bet low. This isn’t cheating, but the casinos take a very dim view of it and tend to bar people they discover doing it. (Why they don’t just automatically shuffle the packs between deals I don’t know.)

Mezrich presents what is essentially a rise-and-fall story in a gushing journalistic fashion that is initially somewhat grating. I think I got used to it as the story became more engrossing. It really is an extended piece of journalism, as it is the narrative history of a small group of characters. Unfortunately, there’s an admission that names have been changed, and that real people and events have been merged in the text inside the title page, so it’s not good journalism.

It’s a good story though.

To read next:

Iain Banks, The Business.

Thursday, 24 July 2003

Online encylopædias

Listening to:

Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro.

On those irksome weapons of mass destruction:

Fleischer said that not only would the United States find chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, but that I think the burden is on those people who think he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are. (Boston Globe)

From the Cool Stuff Department: someone has rigged up a Smith-Corona type-writer so that it works as a computer keyboard.

Finally, a couple of interesting online encyclopædias:

  • The Wikipedia. This is a general encyclopædia written by contributors from around the world, where all comers are able and encouraged to update articles. It’s a very idealistic project, but not completely naïve: this FAQ answers some common questions about how it’s all supposed to work.

    I was sufficiently taken with it that I registered for a user account (not that you need to do this to contribute; you can update pages anonymously if you like), and you can see the random set of changes I’ve made here.

  • Not long after I found Wikipedia, I was looking for accessible proofs of Zorn’s Lemma (a result from set theory). I found my way to PlanetMath, which is a Wikipedia-like arrangment of lots of maths material. It too allows user contributions, but is not quite as free and easy in allowing users to update material. On this page about Zorn’s Lemma, I have posted a suggested correction, but it seems that I will have to wait for that page’s original author to get around to looking it over before anything else will happen.

    Ironically, there’s a very nice Zorn’s lemma page in the Wikipedia anyway.

Friday, 25 July 2003

Storage issues (+ sex and media tittle tattle)

Listening to:

Dvořák, The water goblin.

The Guardian newspaper is moving to the US. So says this article from New York magazine. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of optimism on the part of The Guardian’s owners I guess, but it does seem pretty unlikely to succeed.

Now that prostitution has been legalised in New Zealand, an Auckland brothel called Monica’s has been advertising for staff. This has annoyed the US Embassy in NZ, because the advert used an American style crest with crossed American flags and a bald eagle logo, and the ‘club’ is described as being downstairs at The White House. (The BBC.) It all smacks of a conspiracy to wind up Americans.

To close on a more serious note, this is an interesting article about the state of computer storage today. Disks are getting bigger at an incredible rate: densities are doubling every year, and I guess that means capacities are not far behind. But the speed at which data can be retrieved from disks has only been improving at a rate of 7 to 10 percent each year. Networks certainly can’t keep up with this increase in storage capacity either, so one of the people interviewed in this article talks about how he finds it easiest to just mail whole computers to his colleagues rather than attempting to transfer the data over the Internet.

Tuesday, 29 July 2003

The Business

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”.

Just read:

Iain Banks, The Business.

Because the author’s name is given without the middle M initial, you can tell that this book is not science fiction. Instead, it’s sans genre and set in the modern world. Nonetheless, it has rather a fantastic background: the business of the title is a private company that has been around since the time of the Roman Empire. In its almost two thousand years of existence it has amassed considerable wealth and power. (This gives Banks an opportunity to imagine the debauches of the rich and powerful in a way that sounds pretty familiar from various scenes in his Culture novels.)

The main character in the novel is a relatively high-ranking executive (a Level Three) in the Business, Kathryn Telman. She is sympathetic and gets to wander the world, meeting other more-or-less sympathetic characters, and doing so in well-described locations. It’s all quite stylish, and I liked the ending, but the plot is really rather underwhelming. There are really just two strands to it, one that is really about Telman’s personal development, and the other that provides the dramatic tension. But this second strand spends most of the novel submerged, before re-emerging to create a rather desultory finale. Then the major strand finishes in its oddly low-key way, and the novel is done.

An enjoyable, but slight, read, which doesn’t make as much use of its neat set-up idea as it might.

To read next:

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Thursday, 31 July 2003

Latest Mozilla & a power cut

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet no. 63 in B flat major, Hob. III:78 (Op. 76 No. 4) ‘Sunrise’.

A cool optical illusion.

I recently upgraded my version of the Mozilla Phoenix/Firebird browser from 0.4 to 0.6. I had thought this was going to be a major undertaking, and that I would find it difficult because I don’t have the root password on my lap-top, and I didn’t really want to be installing software as root if I could avoid it anyway.

But it all worked fine: I could install it as an ordinary user without any problem, and my bookmarks also transferred. I even successfully downloaded a Java plug-in. I haven't tried to get Flash working yet. The new version fixes some bugs, and has some very nice features. Tabbed browsing is particularly good. This allows you to open multiple web-pages within one window. You can switch between them by clicking on “tabs” that poke up above the currently displayed page like the way folders in a filing cabinet work. I can open up a folder of bookmarks (my “morning run”) in a string of tabs, and they all load in parallel. By the time I've finished looking at the first couple of pages, everything else is all loaded up, and switching from one to the next is as simple as hitting Control-W to close the current tab and move on to the next.

While writing this, the building suffered a power cut. The lights went out, a loud cry of Shit!! was heard from my neighbour, but my lap-top just kept on going. It will be interesting to see if its battery expires before the power comes back on. Because I’m running it a bit hard at the moment with some work (I think my latest change to HOL is an improvement functionality-wise, but I think it may have also made some things a bit slower), the fan is coming on pretty frequently. Apart from this, there’s no other noise. Quiet can be so delicious.

But that quiet means there's no air-flow in the building, and we've just been told over the building PA's system that an early lunch might be advisable as a result. My battery power meter says 28 minutes remaining, but even if it lasts a while longer, I won't be able to upload this until main power is restored because at least some of the network switches between here and Jamie’s cupboard are not working.