Saturday, 3 January 2004

Patrick O’Brian on page and screen

Listening to:

Sidney Bechet, Runnin’ wild. New Orleans, “Dixieland”-style jazz from 1949 and 1950. The true connoisseurs of the day apparently deprecated it as retro and archaic. Yes, this style of jazz had its heyday in the 1920s, but people less hung up on how things should be, simply appreciate it as stylish, exciting music-making. From the 21st century, it’s all equally old, and all the stars are equally dead.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The thirteen-gun salute.

This is an enjoyable addition to O’Brian’s series of novels. There’s not a lot of naval combat, but there’s lot of naval life, and drama. Some of the drama is life-threatening, but more is concerned with personal relationships and how these can play out when people are crammed together on a confined man-of-war. Stephen Maturin gets to play a useful rôle in diplomatic negotiations, but is also allowed a naturalist’s holiday, and enjoys the company of orangutans in and around a Buddhist temple. The perfidious French and their agents come to a sticky end, but our heroes also end the novel as ship-wrecked sailors on a remote island. Roll on the next book (The nutmeg of consolation).

A recent movie:

Master and commander: the far side of the world. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey is actually pretty good. Occasionally, I felt he was starting to sound a bit too much like James T. Kirk, but then, Kirk was modelled on James Cook, so what better model could Crowe have? I was less happy with Maturin. The actor was fine, but the adaptation to film completely ignored the diplomatic and espionage facets of his activities and character. In the film, he is a surgeon and a naturalist only. I felt this as a loss, though I can well believe that the film-makers felt that trying to fit it all into the one film would be too difficult.

The naval battles were very impressive. The explosive crash and terror of cannons was very well conveyed, and I got a strong impression of the way in which a whole crew had to work together to pursue its goals. There were also a number of vivid images of the ship at rest (or at least, not at battle) that conveyed the nature of ship-board life. For example, the film opens with a shot of many hammocks strung up below decks, with sleeping sailors crammed together. Later, there is also an impressive aerial shot of the crew assembling on deck, emerging like a host of ants from below, and rapidly forming into an ordered mass. Ship-life is also well-conveyed by sub-plots involving various minor characters.

Plot-wise, the film has only a superficial resemblance to the novel The far side of the world. In both film and book, Aubrey pursues an enemy ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, and stops off at the Galapagos islands. In the book, it’s 1812, and the enemy ship is American. In the film, it’s 1805 and the ship is French. In the book, the enemy ship is destroyed by nature, and the climax takes place on a deserted island where the two enemy crews have had to take refuge. In the film, there is a big naval battle to finish things off. I wasn’t too bothered by any of this, though it’s very easy to be cynical about the motives for the change in nationality of the bad guys.

More significant to my mind was the admission that Aubrey is exceeding his orders in pursuing the ship ’round Cape Horn. This doesn’t ring true to Aubrey’s character in the books. There he’s adventurous, but he is also very concerned about his status in the naval list, and keen to make sure that his career progresses well. In awarding marks for fidelity to source material, I will happily let plot go by the board (particularly if, as with O’Brian, plot isn’t hugely important in the feel of the books), but I do want to see tone and character retained. In this way, M&C: tFSotW seemed not quite right, though close.

The films of The Lord of the Rings make an interesting contrast. They include some glaring “tonal errors”, but they have at least succeeded with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Their characters are not necessarily perfectly realised, but the dynamic between them, and its development is definitely well done. The Aubrey-Maturin relationship is much more static through the O’Brian novels. There’s very little development to portray, which means that I want the relationship from the books done as well as possible in the film. In terms of plot, the LotR is different again: getting the plot right is important there because the story is an epic, and the plot dominates.

But I’ll give you the low-down on the LotR films when I’ve seen The Return of the King.

Thursday, 8 January 2004

Silly moaning

Listening to:

Bach, Aria and ten variations in the Italian Style.

We pay our rent using a scheme called National Rent Card (possibly so-called because it is run by the National Australia Bank). We have been issued with a plastic card with a long number on the back of it. Every month, I have to ring the toll-free number, type in that number, type in my secret identification number, specify how much I want to transfer, and then that much money is transferred from our bank account to an unspecified destination. I assume that the unspecified location is the back account of our landlord, but it’s possible it goes via some intermediate account so that the agents can take their cut.

Anyway, I’m telling you all this because it’s such annoying technology:

  1. I have to remember to do it at the start of each month—there seems no scope for automatic payments in my particular rent-paying universe.
  2. I have to remember how much it is we’re paying—perhaps I should take this as an invitation to occasionally register my contempt for the system by paying less than the required amount by some trivial amount.
  3. I dislike all phone-payment systems as a matter of course, particularly when there isn’t even an Internet alternative, as in this case.
  4. I loathe the general inanity of the messages on the system. Ever since I’ve used it (since March last year), there has been a message of the following form at the start of each transaction:

    Please note, there has been a change to the system. When asked for your rent-card number, enter the whole number beginning with the 831.

    Yes, it’s clear that the numbers issued have a redundant part to them, and some doofus originally allowed people to omit this part, but what really gets up my nose is that the same message is still being played, at least 10 months after the change. I can now recite at least its first part in exactly the same tone as the woman that reads it on the phone.

Wednesday, 14 January 2004

Our very own Y2K bug

Listening to:

Schumann, Piano trio in D minor, op. 63.

A time overflow bug in Moscow ML

Some time on 10 January, 230 seconds had elapsed since midnight on 1 January, 1970.

Deep in HOL’s dark internals, there’s code that calls the ML function This function returns the current time in the form of an opaque type that you can only manipulate using the functions defined in the Time API. One such function is Time.toSeconds, which turns a time value into an integral number of seconds since 1 January 1970.

So what? you say, integers are all represented in 32-bit registers these days, aren’t they? That’s more than enough space to represent numbers bigger than 230.

First of all, note that we’re using signed integers, which means that one of those 32 bits is being used to tell us whether or not the number is positive or negative. Then, for more deep and dark reasons, our ML implementation uses another bit of those 32 to “tag” its integers (to distinguish them from other possibilities). This means that our ML has a maximum integer value of 230 − 1, and this was exceeded on 10 January.

And lo, we were much surprised. Code that was working fine before the weekend stopped working on the Monday. Our beautiful programs, pristine in their Platonic perfection, were actually dependent on the environment, the tick-tick-tick of passing time, and this dependency twirled ’round and bit back.

Luckily, we can also convert times into floating point numbers that use more than 32 bits, so we’re safe for the moment. Nonetheless all our users are going to have to upgrade their system. (Roll on the day when our ML has an arbitrary precision integer type built in.)

Sunday, 18 January 2004

The open society and its enemies

Listening to:

Dinah Washington, Love for sale.

Just read:

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its enemies.

This is a classic work of 20th-century philosophy. It was written during the Second World War (mainly in New Zealand, as it happens), and is a spirited defence of the ideals of the Open Society: democratic society constructed in such a way that the ruled have a way of changing their rulers, and with its aim the minimisation of misery (Popper prefers this formulation to “the maximisation of happiness”). At the time, it really did seem as if fascism and communism represented the way of the future, and as if liberal democracy was destined for the dustbin of history.

Popper is probably most famous for his philosophical treatment of the question of determining what is and is not science, and his investigation into the nature of scientific knowledge. His work in these areas is referred to in the course of The Open Society, but the majority of the book is a political and moral criticism of the important thinkers behind those who would attack the Open Society.

Most important, and given almost an entire volume to himself, is Plato. Popper begins Volume I, The spell of Plato, with the following quote from Plato’s Laws:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader shall he direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals... only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Plato was, according to Popper, distressed by the unsettled times in which he lived (the late 5th century BC and into the 4th century BC), and modelled his ideal state on those contemporary societies that had arrested change the most, Sparta and Crete. Plato believed that true happiness and stability could only be achieved in a society that prevented change and disruption. To do this, the ideal state should be led by philosopher-kings. People who know nothing else about Plato tend to know about the philosopher-kings, and perhaps believe that this is an idealist but harmless idea (how dangerous are philosophers, after all?) But if you delve a little deeper, you also find that Plato tells his philosopher-kings that they should

  • control their subjects’ marriages, and thereby ensure the quality of the state’s children;
  • lie to the populace and pretend that marriage arrangements have been decided by lottery;
  • be prepared to use violence and murder to preserve the state; and
  • to generally ensure that justice is everywhere interpreted as being served when the state’s interests are served.

This is argued at length, and supported with extensive quotations from Plato’s writings. All in all, it’s extremely convincing.

In Volume II, Hegel and Marx, Popper gives Aristotle a chapter, before moving onto more modern targets. Hegel is dismissed in a chapter that makes it quite clear that the man was a reactionary fraud, whose sole interest seemed to be justifying the anti-democratic policies of the Prussian state. Then Popper has 13 chapters discussing Marx and his theories. Popper is basically quite admiring of Marx the man, lauding Marx’s sympathy for the plight of the working man of the period. Nonetheless, he goes on to demolish Marx’s arguments, and his theories of the inevitable pattern of historical development. Even if the events of the last 150 years hadn’t made it clear that Marx’s predictions were bogus over this period, Popper provides good reasons to doubt their general applicability.

(Marx is an enemy of the Open Society not just because his theories led to establishment of totalitarian states like the USSR and communist China. Perhaps more significantly, it is also because his theories of historical inevitability lead one to believe that piece-meal reform of institutions for the benefit of the public (and it is this which is the ongoing democratic project), is pointless; perhaps even harmful if it were to prolong the “birth-pangs of communism”. Finally, one shouldn’t assume that Popper’s choice of Marx as a target makes him some sort of rightist conservative. He doesn’t much bother to criticise fascism, except inasmuch as it derives from Hegel. But I’m confident this is because of fascism’s general intellectual paucity, rather than because Popper has any closet sympathy for it. After all, Popper was in New Zealand during the War because he had fled Austria in the 1930s.)

I’ve summarised over 800 pages in a very cursory way, and there’s much more to this book than I’ve presented here. It’s very well written and I strongly recommend it. It’s a powerful defence of the ideals of the liberal democracy, and a brilliant rejoinder to wannabe collectivists and totalitarianists everywhere.

Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Pride, prejudice and life in England

Listening to:

Bach, Well-tempered clavier, Book 2.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Pride and prejudice.

It’s tempting to simply write that this novel is a well-deserved classic, and that everyone should read it as a matter of course. But why is this the case? Pride and prejudice’s virtues include being funny, poignant, romantic and beautifully observed. Are these not reasons enough? It is true that many of the plot details rely on a Regency sense of morality and good behaviour, and these may make some of the characters’ motives seem a little alien. But Austen’s great strength is that ability to make those telling observations. These convince the reader that the characters in this distant world (200 years away) are people with much the same preoccupations as those we have in the modern world. When Elizabeth Bennett winces at her family, how can the reader not wince with her?