Saturday, 2 October 2004

Plane reading

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828, played by Wolf Harden.

Just read:

Two books that I read on planes while travelling recently:

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

This is the book that made McCall Smith’s name. It’s an enjoyable novel about a middle-aged woman, Precious Ramotswe, and her adventures once she sets up the detective agency of the title. The setting of the novel in Botswana lends it a great deal of interest and charm. There’s simple novelty value here, but McCall Smith also writes appealingly about a country and culture that I knew next to nothing about.

The two books by McCall Smith that I read earlier (Heavenly date and other flirtations and Portuguese irregular verbs) were both effectively collections of short stories. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is similar because it’s naturally structured around the series of cases that Precious investigates and solves. Nonetheless, it does a little better than the other books because Precious has a richer character (in fact we get quite a bit of interesting background on her childhood and father before the agency cases begin), and because there is a little novel-length plotting too. The latter has two dimensions, Precious’s romance with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and a longer running case that is rather more sinister than the others.

This is a charming and enjoyable novel. I read it in a single sitting. I’m sure I will read at least one of its many sequels.

Thomas Pynchon, The crying of Lot 49.

I read this short novel on the return journey from Utah. It is a little bundle of ’60s weirdness from someone I believe to be one of America’s prominent novelists. This is the first book of Pynchon’s that I’ve read, but I’ve often seen other novels of his in the “serious” sections of various bookshops. (These novels include Gravity’s rainbow and Mason & Dixon.)

Superficially, The crying of Lot 49 is the story of a woman, Oedipa Maas, who is summoned to be the executor of an ex-lover’s will. As she bums around with the lawyer also attached to the case, she discovers what seems to be an ancient conspiracy to do with postal systems. She investigates and finds all sorts of interesting evidence pointing in this direction, including the possibly doctored text of an Elizabethan play.

It’s impossible to take any of this too seriously. For example, the big company in the town where the lover (Pierce Inverarity) died is called Yoyodyne, and has a “company song” featuring the verses:

High above the L.A. freeways,
And the traffic’s whine,
Stands the well-known Galactronics
Branch of Yoyodyne.
Convair boosts the satellite
Into orbits round;
Boeing builds the Minuteman,
We stay on the ground.
Yoyodyne, Yoyodyne,
Contracts flee thee yet.
DOD has shafted thee,
Out of spite, I’ll bet.

The Elizabethan play also has a plot that is clearly an OTT piss-take of the genre. Even as people around Oedipa go bonkers and/or disappear, she never really figures it out. Then it all finishes on a cliff-hanger with the central question quite unresolved.

Weird, and short enough (130pp) to be entertaining.

Still reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

Saturday, 16 October 2004

The voyage of the Beagle

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D.759. Played by the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Otmar Suitner.

Just read:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

This is a famous scientific classic. It describes Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle in the mid 1830s. The journey was a circumnavigation of the world, but most of the time was spent to-ing and fro-ing around South America. Darwin famously made it to the Galapagos Islands, but also visited the Cape Verde islands, the Falklands, New Zealand, and Australia. To use the Kiwi jargon, it was the OE to end all OEs.

Darwin’s job on the journey was to be a geologist who knew something about biology. His book is something akin to his official report, so there’s lots of geology and biology in there. For example, one not insubstantial chapter is an extended discussion of how coral atolls came to be formed. (His theory is that the coral originally ringed an island, and that as the island subsided, the coral naturally grew upwards within the increased height of water above it. If the subsidence went on for too long, the coral would die because the lower parts of the organism couldn’t survive at that depth of water. I don’t know if this theory is now considered correct, but it seems pretty convincing.)

Darwin’s biology is also interesting. He was apparently one of the first zoologists to make a point of describing animal behaviour in addition to animal bodies and structures. At this point in his life, he hadn’t realised that all of the variety and similarities he observed could be explained by evolution and natural selection, but there are occasional hints that he is on this path. I find it quite fascinating to see what is to come foreshadowed in his comments. It’s also worth pointing out that he revised the book a few times in the years between returning from the journey and publishing The origin of species, so some of the musing is not necessarily true to what he felt while actually abroad.

A book full of just this material would probably make fairly dry reading. It must be said that Darwin is so enthusiastic about his material that I could even cope with the geology, about which I know very little. But in addition to the science, Darwin also describes the people he meets, from South American generals, to gauchos that acted as his guides in modern-day Argentina, to the miserable people from Tierra del Fuego, to New Zealanders (pakeha and Maori) and Australians (aborigines, convicts and other colonists). It sounds as if he was happy to talk to any and everyone, and he is almost always sympathetic. On a couple of occasions, he vividly describes his encounters with slavery and its hideousness.

If you’re going to follow someone ’round the world, it helps if they’re not only intellectually stimulating, but friendly and engaging as well. Even if you occasionally find Darwin’s 19th century English a little hard-going, this is just what The voyage of the Beagle provides: a fascinating journey with a great guide and companion.

To review next:

Patrick O’Brian, The wine-dark sea.

Sunday, 24 October 2004

Google saves the day

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 4 in C minor, “Tragic” D.417. Played by the English Sinfonia, conducted by Charles Groves.

This story at the BBC reveals how an Australian journalist, kidnapped in Baghdad was able to establish his identity by getting his kidnappers to look him up with Google. Convinced that he was just an innocent journalist, they then let him go.

Earlier, I have mused about how I could do this myself. What if I had to establish my identity for suspicious immigration officials when entering a country? It wouldn’t be hard: great chunks of my academic career are visible on the Web. My earliest “official” presence is probably a technical report from my time in Wellington. Cambridge and Australia links are even easier to find.

Wednesday, 27 October 2004

The US election is upon us

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong, Mahogany Hall Stomp.

Not long now. The election is on Tuesday. Here are a couple of interesting sites for following poll data:

  •, lots of raw data available if you dig into the site, including information on Senate races too.

  • From the LATimes, a neat tool to look at current data, and then play through scenarios where you get to pick who wins the various states and their electoral college votes.

Isn’t it weird that the left-wing party in the US is associated with the colour blue, and the right-wing party with red?

Sunday, 31 October 2004


Listening to:

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Corcovado.

The Japanese in my title literally means “The world of Unicode is wonderful”, which I decided was the idiomatic way of getting “The wonderful world of Unicode”. I’m impressed with it at the moment because I was recently browsing the Wikipedia article on Al-Khwarizmi, which has the Arabic form of his name (أبو عبدالله محمد بن موسى الخوارزمي). I cut and pasted the Arabic into a presentation I’m writing with Open Office’s PowerPoint equivalent (ooimpress), and found it transferred perfectly. Based on the funny things my cursor was doing, I think ooimpress also knew that this was a right-to-left text.

I was sore amazed.

On the other hand, writing my Japanese title was quite tedious. For one thing I decided to use HTML numeric entities, so my title in the raw actually looks like ユー... which is pretty cryptic. (Wikipedia has done the same thing with its Arabic.) Using Unicode charts to find all of the various characters one-by-one is also a very tedious way of working. Jamie’s set up the server here to serve UTF-8, so I could use the “real” characters directly, except that I don’t have an editor that could cope, and I’m not sure that Movable Type’s text entry boxes would cope either.

Of course, if you find your browser turns all of my foreign characters into strange gibberish, you should probably get rid of it, and find a more modern alternative. Alternatively, your fonts may need updating.