Monday, 2 January 2012

On not writing a diary

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 13 in B flat minor, op. 113 “Babi Yar”.

For the last 25 years, I have written a page-a-day diary. I started in 1987 at age 15. It’s now 2012, I’m 40 and it seems entirely reasonable to give it up. I tried to write a special last entry on New Year’s Eve, but it’s not easy to find a common thread. At age 15, I would never have predicted the form of my life to date. Yeah, I have a job, and I’m married with a child. But anyone could predict that: it may not happen quite like that to most men (I don’t know one way or the other), but it surely happens to a significant fraction.

I certainly didn’t imagine being in research/academia. And yet my intellectual life over those 25 years has been utterly dominated by computer science, starting in 1990. I think most 15 year olds have a pretty limited view of what the adult world is really like, and a pretty limited idea about the really vast number of possible directions a life can take. After all, they probably don’t have that many adult lives to observe at close hand.

Given all that, I instead ended up musing a bit on just what I was going to do with all the extra time I was going to get each evening. For example, I might try to transcribe all those handwritten pages so that I’d have an electronic, searchable form of the diaries. But yikes, talk about tedious. Another option might be to write more blog entries, starting with one all about not writing diary entries.

The way I approached it, the diary really was a never-ending obligation. If I fell behind one day (I did go out in the evening sometimes), I’d just have to make that up with two entries later on. Simply skipping a day just wasn’t on. And I managed it too! But really, to what end? I only very occasionally looked at my diaries again, and the majority of the entries really were very dull. I’m glad I have some entries of course (getting married, having a child), but these events happened on easy to remember days. Finding the other nuggets in there is a pretty unappealing prospect.

Even over the last two days I have caught myself thinking, “Oh, I should make sure that gets into the diary” only to think with a start that it isn’t going to get written down by me now! That is almost a painful feeling, but it is also a good indication that I was seeing life as something to be led in order to fill up the day’s page.

On top of blog writing, I should get even more time to read (for pleasure and work), to play games, and to do “fun work” things like my HOL4 mechanisations of whatever maths has taken my fancy. And that is all to the good!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Space Opera

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”, with the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle.

Just read:

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, all by Alistair Reynolds.

Considered individually, I’d probably give RS and AG high marks out of ten, with RA slightly fewer. Unfortunately, as a trilogy, the set is laid low by AG. I really, really disliked the way it concluded the series.

The trilogy gets off to a great start in RS, with some great ideas and situations developed. I particularly liked the “lighthugger” ship controlled by a triumvirate of anti-social nutters, which also houses an infected captain who has to be kept frozen to stop the nano-plague he’s subject to from spreading further.

There are a bunch of other threads to the story too. The development is a tease: there are no big reveals until very late in the first novel, but I found the pace just on this side of bearable. That certainly makes for a page-turning experience, though I could imagine people also finding it too exasperating.

The whole series seems to take the speed-of-light limit quite seriously. Interstellar travel really does take years, with people freezing themselves to cope with the transit times (of course relativity effects mean they don’t find the transit time to be as great as other observers). Nor is there any faster-than-light communication, making for a set of systems that really are years apart. (No human society has ever tried to hold itself together over such time-distances; I wonder how it would really pan out.) In itself, this commitment to Einstein really does give the trilogy an interesting flavour.

The second volume of the trilogy introduces a new angle on the developing story, and a new set of mostly unsympathetic characters. I didn’t think so much of it.

Finally, Absolution Gap. This has one of the all-time best basic premises for an SF novel. On the other hand, it really doesn’t tie into the rest of the trilogy all that well. It could have easily been a completely separate novel. What’s worse is that this volume ends up dispensing with the trilogy’s overall threat in a completely cavalier and off-hand way. And then it leaves everything hanging with another threat supposedly about to do in the civilised galaxy. This is an absolutely terrible way to finish, and left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Board Games I

Listening to:

Dvořák, symphony no. 8 in G, op. 88. Played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Carlo-Maria Guilini. (A free download from the Dutch Radio 4 channel.)

Why Board Games?

To even make this post, and have it properly tagged, I had to edit my list of “blog categories”. It already included computer games, but not board games. I don’t know why I was so narrow-minded when I started the blog (what was wrong with just gaming?), but I’ve definitely come back ’round to an interest and appreciation in board games.

As a young child, I was taught classic games like draughts (checkers in the US), chess and various card games. None of these made a particularly big impression at the time. I subsequently played chess at secondary school a bit, but was put off by not being particularly good, and disliking opening theory. Incidentally, I’m certainly willing to consider card games as if they were board games; the BoardGameGeek website has a similar attitude.

I guess the first game to make a big impression on me was Monopoly, which I played as a child with my cousins. I was sufficiently interested in it at the time that I even borrowed and appreciated Brady’s The Monopoly Book from the library.

As a teenager I also came to learn and play quite a bit of Go and Bridge. Go doesn’t have Monopoly’s social nature, but it’s clearly an amazing game: elegant, deep and sufficiently well-regarded to support professional players and an extensive literature. These factors made it the apple of my eye for quite a while. Bridge was a bit more social, but it suffers from the problem that the best ways to play (teams or duplicate) require at least 8 people and 2–3 hours. (Bridge also has the problem that it may be in terminal decline; see David Owen in The New Yorker.)

With the exception of Monopoly, all of the games mentioned are theme-less and abstract. The board games I’ve been playing more recently are social and much better themed. But that will have to wait for Part II.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Origins of Virtue

Listening to:

Bach, double violin concerto in D minor, BWV 1043. Played by Lara St. John, Scott St. John and the New York Bach Ensemble.

Just read:

Matt Ridley, The origins of virtue.

An entertaining and interesting read, speculating on how it is that humans are actually a very co-operative species. Lots of people will readily tell you that humans are unique in their nastiness (waging war, harbouring grudges and seeking revenge, and doing it all quite consciously). However, humans also form huge societies that mostly work, and do so without the requirement that all members be genetically very close (for example, the members of ant colonies are all essentially clones).

The book includes interesting discussions of things like human eating habits, focusing on the fact that humans (and chimpanzees) share food, and not just with family units. In particular, humans (and chimpanzees, but not monkeys) share meat, which is always the most prized component of a meal (reflecting, no doubt, the difficulty of getting it at all, and the fact that it is highly nutritious by weight).

The discussion goes on to cite the Wason test, which demonstrates that people are very good at solving logical problems if they are expressed in such a way that the solution involves the detection of possible social cheats. It seems natural to conclude that humans have evolved good methods for detecting freeloaders and cheaters because their genes have adjusted to their social circumstances.

The book is wide-ranging, and tells engaging stories about research into humans, chimpanzees and other primate species. I particularly liked the discussion of the fact that aboriginal tribes in Australia traded with each other over huge distances. Axes made with stone from particular quarries spread large distances because they could be exchanged for other desirable objects in a network that has been well investigated.

Just as with his other book Genome (reviewed previously), Ridley does occasionally lapse into obvious British right-wingery, or at least, Economist-style liberalism. This is stuff I’m usually pretty sympathetic about, and I think he’s usually pretty careful in his arguments, but sometimes the barrow-pushing does get a bit much. (The page about him at Wikipedia is quite interesting on this topic.)

There’s much, much more that’s good about this book than there is that’s bad; I definitely recommend it.