Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Uncle Tungsten and Australian madnesses

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”. This featured in Spielberg’s recent Minority report to good effect.

Just read:

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.

This is a very enjoyable book. It is a mix of about three parts science history to two parts autobiography, and Sacks does both very well. The story of his childhood is an interesting one, being set in war-time London and England, in a well-to-do household (servants), in a Jewish extended family.

It’s a mix of autobiography and science because science was a very importannt part of Sacks’s childhood. He became quite obsessed with chemistry and did all sorts of neat experiments. (Sacks mentions in passing that many of these would now be impossible for a child to do. The chemicals involved are so dangerous that no-one would sell them to children over the counter.) Sacks was encouraged in his hobby by his family, and particularly by two uncles. One of these is the Uncle Tungsten of the title, a man who part-owned a light-bulb factory, and who had lots of tungsten (used in filaments) on hand to show his nephew.

Sacks frames his scientific stories with plenty of background about the science he was investigating. So, the reader is treated to descriptions of the famous chemists of the past (Lavoisier, Priestley, Mendeleev, among others) and the work they did. This material is written engagingly and held my interest, though much of the material will inevitably be familiar to anyone sufficiently well-educated in popular science.

There is also room for quite a bit of material that is completely unrelated to chemistry, and describes episodes in Sacks’s life as he grows up. He has quite a traumatic time when sent away to the country to be safe from German bombing attacks on London, for example. There’s all sorts of family life described, and I found this all quite fascinating. People’s lives are usually pretty interesting to read about, and Sacks writes about them very well, and often very amusingly.

Definitely recommended.

To review next:

Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.

I heard on the news this morning that the Australian government had to act quickly yesterday to stop 13 Turks who landed on Melville Island in the Northern Territory from applying for refugee status. The Governor-General was called away from the Melbourne Cup stadium so that he could do his bit on the Executive Council and approve a new regulation to excise Melville Island from those bits of Australia where immigrants can apply for refugee status. I don’t know why they don’t just require wannabe refugees to present themselves to the debating chamber of the House of Representatives in Canberra.

And what about this Melbourne Cup madness? The whole country seemed obsessed by it yesterday. Lead stories in the radio news bulletins were about this, and work-places had special afternoon sessions to watch it on TV. How anyone can get in the least bit excited about horse racing is beyond me.

Friday, 7 November 2003


Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter song book.

I’ve just spent much of today writing some course material to accompany the one(!) lecture I’m giving as part of the department’s Logic Summer School. You can even get it from my new home-page. (This has been carefully set up with redirects and the like to mask my old Cambridge existence—très Orwellian).

Wednesday, 12 November 2003

Winter holiday

Listening to:

’S Marvelous: the Gershwin songbook. Classic songs.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.

This is a classic children’s book in the Swallows and Amazons series. It was the fourth published, and is definitely towards the top of my list of favourites. When re-reading it recently, I found myself grinning at it for long periods of time. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that Ransome introduces two new characters, Dick and Dot Callum, who view the Swallows and Amazons from the outside. This gives us a novel perspective on familiar characters. The setting has the same thing done to it, for it is the Lake District again, but in its winter clothes. Finally, Peggy also gets to develop more fully as a character when circumstances pull her out of Nancy’s shadow somewhat. All of these new twists show Ransome at his best, taking the reader into new territory with verve and humour.

The whole book is also beautifully plotted, with a dramatic finale in three strands, and lots of adventures leading up to this point. Dick and Dot are good as new characters, adding real variety to the six existing characters. Who could ask for anything more in a book?

To review next:

Granta 83: this overheating world.

Friday, 14 November 2003

Granta 83

Listening to:

Christmas Carols ancient and modern, sung by the BBC Singers. I wouldn’t buy a CD of carols myself you understand, but this was a freebie with an issue of the BBC Music Magazine. And Christmas isn’t that far off either; the decorations are up in the shops around town.

Just read:

Granta 83: this overheating world (contents)

I was rather worried that this issue would be full of alarmist non-science at the level of Greenpeace’s generally incoherent propaganda. Pleasantly, with the exception of one piece of rather apocalyptic fiction, which put me in mind of John Wyndham, I enjoyed most of the material.

I particularly liked Matthew Hart’s The Greenland Pump, which described Hart’s experience of joining a scientific research vessel that was taking samples from various parts of the North Atlantic. The ship was trying to gather data to determine how the flow of oceanic currents that make up the Gulf Stream may be changing. If the Gulf Stream were to weaken, Northern Europe might become dramatically colder.

Continuing with the outdoors-y theme, I liked Philip Marsden’s description of his trip to Mongolia, Wayne McLennan’s description of rowing from Seattle to Anchorage (the length of Canada’s west coast in other words), and James Hamilton-Paterson’s philosophical piece Do fish feel pain?

Finally, there were three interesting essays about the situation in Iraq. These were all good, and interesting, and told from different perspectives. Christopher de Bellaigue discusses the looting incidents that happened in Baghdad’s museums, James Meek describes being an embedded journalist with invading American troops, and Nuha Al-Radi is very interesting on the experience of trying to live a normal life for a month in Baghdad.

Now reading:

Julia Glass, Three Junes.

If you happen to be feeling a bit nostalgic about your home-town, what better cure than to check out this selection of Wellington web-cams?

Monday, 17 November 2003

Three Junes and Portuguese irregular verbs

Listening to:

Mozart, Divertimento in G, K63.

Just read:

Julia Glass, Three Junes.

This novel is a good read. It is divided into three sections, each being one of the Junes of the title. The first June is that of 1989 and describes a holiday to Greece taken by a recently widowed man. Flashbacks to his family story are interspersed with descriptions of his holiday and the people he is on tour with.

The second June is in the mid nineties, and is told from the perspective of the widower’s first son. This section is the heart of the book, and again consists of intertwined stories. One story is in “the present” and sees the son return to Scotland, where he grew up, from New York to deal with an important family matter. The other chunks of narrative are all about the earlier stages of the son’s life in New York, and his various relationships.

The third June is that of 1999, and is told from the perspective of a younger woman, who has a distant connection (via a couple of routes) to the family that is central to the whole novel. This third June is something of an epilogue to the novel, and relatively brief (though still a chapter or two in length). Here again, the story is constructed by alternating flashbacks with events in the present.

Plot-wise, Three Junes is really very conventional. It is what I’d call a “family saga”, with the story gaining its power from persuading the reader that they care about what’s happening to the central characters, who have the sorts of trials and tribulations that you might expect. I think it does a pretty good job of this. The central character of the novel, the eldest son who is the focus of the second June, is well-realised. He seems plausible, and makes comments about life and the people around him that ring true. His family and the people around him are also well-drawn, on the whole.

I didn’t think much of the third June. This was because so much had been invested in the main family up to this point. Having to back off and see them from a distance as the novel closes, and to have their story mingled with that of another character, with her own independent back-story too, was just a distraction.

Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese irregular verbs.

This slim book is a gently humorous series of vignettes about a ridiculous German professor of linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld. The charm comes from the fact that the ridiculousness of the setup is allowed to seem quite reasonable, and from the fact that everything is narrated from the professor’s point of view. He doesn’t appreciate just how much of an incompetent and bore he is, and the reader is carried a little into his own odd view of the world.

Nor are all the stories simply instances of von Igelfeld behaving stupidly or ridiculously. One story has him visit Goa and it’s strangely fascinating watching his reaction to the unfamiliar surroundings. The closing story in the book is about a trip to Venice, and is a strange miniature spoof of Death in Venice (this is also McCall Smith’s title for this chapter), featuring a beautiful young Polish boy, and a strange affliction in the city.

This book is slightly weird. It's certainly not guffaw inducing, but it's amusing, full of character, and worth reading.

To read next:

Karl Popper, The open society and its enemies.

Friday, 21 November 2003

Voting computers

Listening to:

Mozart, symphony no. 27 in G major, K. 199.

A work-related link: a story from Wired about voting computers. There’s a right way to do things (that’s the Australian way, and given the stamp of approval by ANU academics), and a wrong way (as done in the US). (If you want more than my gross simplification, read the article.) And there’s more: in recent top secret developments, I have become involved in work looking at applying the mighty power of Formal Methods to make that stamp of approval even more impressive.

PS: Australian copyright law really sucks, and music industry types think so too.

Saturday, 29 November 2003


Listening to:

The sound-track to the computer game Railroad Tycoon II. The game CD to this comes with more than a dozen tracks of folk/country instrumentals that are really very listenable. I haven't played the game itself in ages (old games don’t die, they just don’t get played anymore), though I note that there is a part III sequel out now.

A recent movie:

Spellbound. This documentary film follows eight competitors in a recent iteration of the US’s National Spelling Bee competition. The whole field consists of 249 children, drawn from all over the US, and in at most the eighth grade, making them all about 12–14 years old. The finals of the competition are held in Washington, D.C., and once the field gets down to a certain size, it’s even televised on ESPN.

And this is a competition with no second chances. Get one word wrong, and you’re out. After having been introduced to the eight different competitors (well-chosen to provide great variety), watching excerpts of their progress makes for compelling viewing. One example is the young guy with parents who have emigrated to the US from the Indian sub-continent origin. He struggles to get “Darjeeling” while his intense father (who seems to take the whole thing more seriously than anyone else involved) watches despairingly from the audience.

There are charming interviews with parents, teachers and the children themselves. You really want one of those that you see to win, and you feel quite distraught when one is eliminated. Just take some consolation from the fact that one of the eight does win it. (They presumably filmed interviews with all of the 249 competitors and then selected eight to screen after the competition had finished.)

So, if you get the opportunity, I’d highly recommend seeing this very entertaining film.

Still reading:

Popper, The open society and its enemies.