Sunday, 8 February 2015

Giorgio Moroder is 74

I've been feeling a bit on the old side recently, but according to Giorgio Moroder's analogy in this very excellent song I'm hardly even born yet:

74 is the new 24

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reading in 2014

I read too many books in 2014. I think next year I will try replacing every fourth book with a hearty walk or something. Here is a breakdown:
  • Total number of books read: 217
  • Gender of authors of each book: 107 male, 108 female, 2 not sure
  • Number of non-fiction: 22 (10.1%)
  • Number of re-reads: 66 (30.4%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 89 (41%)

As usual, many of the best books I've read this year have been rereads, but I have read some good new stuff too. I think the most memorable books I've read are the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. They're set in the near future after something odd has happened somewhere on the American coast. It starts with a research expedition, the eleventh or twelfth, entering the affected area. Everyone on it is known just by their job title; one of them, the biologist, lost her husband to the previous expedition. When I read the books I thought they were good but not startling, but they stayed in my mind for ages.

My favourite new author of the year is probably Angela Thirkell. She's like a less snide E.F. Benson, or a softer version of P.G. Wodehouse, or a more middle-class (and less brilliant) Jane Austen. She wrote many gentle social comedies set in the 1930s or so. The Brandons is probably a good starting point. It's about an attractive and lovable widow, adored by everyone, with two grown-up children. Her deceased husband's dying aunt summons them all so she can decide who is to be her heir, and mild but interesting social problems ensue.

I loved Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and so did my mother. Karen Joy Fowler is a very good author and everything I've read by her has been great, including the odd sci-fi-ish Sarah Canary. Also loved by my mother, but more straightforwardly a fun book, is Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway, the story of a man who loves pheasant shooting and comes back as a pheasant after he dies. It has talking dogs in it without being sentimental. Also excellent are the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, a series of murder mysteries solved by a bratty upper-class neglected little girl. I also like Marie Brennan's Lady Trent memoir books. They are set in a Victorian-like world with dragons and are about a woman's struggle to be accepted as a serious naturalist in a very constricted world. Unusually they also deal with the problems of class.

Unsurprisingly Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is great. I quite liked Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries but I thought her The Rehearsal was really brilliant, conveying the strangeness of female adolescence.

In non-fiction, John Drury's biography of George Herbert was very good. But probably the most surprising book I enjoyed this year was Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel Von Grimmelshausen. This is a seventeenth-century picaresque novel set during the Thirty Years' War and was actually very readable and good. I found it on the Classics shelves of the excellent Waterstone's by the cathedral in Exeter. Apparently Thomas Mann said about it:
It is the rarest kind of monument to life and literature, for it has survived almost three centuries and will survive many more. It is a story of the most basic kind of grandeur - gaudy, wild, raw, amusing, rollicking and ragged, boiling with life, on intimate terms with death and evil - but in the end, contrite and fully tired of a world wasting itself in blood, pillage and lust, but immortal in the miserable splendour of its sins
though presumably he said it in German.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Good things

I love Dragonette:

Going home on the bus in the dark reminds me of when I started work as a developer two years ago, and the strange feeling of being old and young at the same time.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

This bugs me

1. I keep hearing people say that Grace Hopper invented the term bug, and feeling unable for social reasons to point out that this is not true. There is a record of an actual bug (a moth) being removed from the computer she worked on (it had jammed something up) but the term 'bug' was used in engineering as early as Thomas Edison. Just wikipedia it! It has sources.

2. On the other hand, I love you xkcd. This one has a particularly good mouse-over tooltip.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Closing some tabs

1. I did a girls' career event the other day, in which I tried to explain why coding is sometimes beautiful, and probably just made them all think it's a career for loonies. (I don't mind that too much, there might be a young-me-type there who hears and understands.) Here are some links about the beauty of coding:

2. Of course the tech world has its own problems. Love that someone called "bingo" in this talk.

3. Life involves weird challenges sometimes. Watch this mini version of the hero's journey:

4. Watching these people move in medieval armour is seriously freaky. It reminded me of an Italo Calvino novella in which a famous knight is a suit of armour with nothing inside.

5. Chart about US inequality. British poor pay more taxes. Even the Daily Telegraph thnks the middle classes should revolt (now the "officer class" are affected).

6. This modern setting of a medieval Icelandic hymn makes things feel better:

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Some good things

All this week I've been remembering that we have gay marriage now, and feeling happy. There are all sorts of good things it seems like we can't have for stupid political reasons, and then every now and then something cuts through all that, and suddenly the US has a black president, and two people who love each other can get married in the UK regardless of whether they are both women, or both men, or one of each (what a past chief rabbi used to refer to as a "mixed marriage"). Hurray!

More trivially, there are also some good things on the internet. If you've not seen PBS's Idea Channel, here is quite a good one:

Baby on a horse!

Cat enters house:

Friday, 7 March 2014

Pair programming

I read a review in the Graun of a book about coding. I think the reviewer has taken over-seriously the talk about every child learning to code -- I think that computer programming is just one of those things, like physics or a foreign language, to which children should be exposed. Other forms of logical thinking, like the Sanskrit mentioned in that review, are probably going to have a similar effect on people's ability to think well and write well (in any language) as adults. I bet the same sort of kids would love both Sanskrit and programming, but at least the kids who hate programming can be convincingly told that there's a practical reason for learning it.

Writing programs is really excellent. I can't think of anything quite like it. I spent today "pair-programming", which is when two people work together to do a "code spike", which is when you get lots of rough code done in a short time. It's very immediately obvious when you do this that you can get further this way than by each working alone -- and I say this as someone who likes to work independently. It's exhausting on the brain but very satisfying; you can easily start a day with a problem you neither of you know how to handle, and end up the day with an unpolished but working solution.

In my previous life I don't think I ever did anything quite like this. I suppose the closest I came to it was in discussing things with intelligent colleagues, which alas is a less prominent part of academic life than people might imagine. I do know a few excellent people whom I would seek out to bounce ideas off. Sometimes at good conferences, the ones where genuine interest in the subject was unhampered by political currents and expressions of ego, you'd get excellent discussions which felt like a bit more than the sum of the previously-held opinions of the people there. So from time to time I might get the same sort of thing, a sense in a conversation between two or more people that although separately we might be quite intelligent, we are each of us more intelligent for being in conversation with the other. But the difference is that what we were talking about was not a thing we were making. It wasn't a thing where one of us could say "Well, we could just run it and see what happens", and then right-click on it and select "Run as Java program", and wait to see what the errors tell us about it. Ideas about Anglo-Saxon history or about manuscript production don't really do anything. Maybe they affect other people's ideas about things, but they take a long time to do it, and it's easy to suspect that there wouldn't be a complete correlation between the degree to which people are affected and the truth of the idea. But the recursive function we've just written either works or it doesn't; we can quickly find out that it's flawed, and use that to move us forwards.

I think that what makes writing code so compelling is that it has two complementary but different aspects. There is this baseline: it has to work. You give it to a computer, and if you've written it right the computer does what you want. But that's only the baseline: the code also needs to be well-written. Writing code that a computer can read is the (relatively) easy bit. Writing code that other humans can understand, maintain, improve, and reuse is the really difficult thing. That's where it becomes important to make your code elegant and simple. You can repeat code as much as you want for all a computer cares, it's the human beings who need it to be possible to alter a particular piece of functionality in just one place; a computer has no trouble using hideous labyrinths of interconnected methods with variables called things like "integer1", but the people who try to expand or reuse your work will curse you heartily, and probably do it badly, and it will be your fault. So making code that works is a bit like the satisfaction of making a practical physical object, and making code that is elegant is like making something beautiful. (It's a pity William Morris was born too early to join in.) Steven Poole in that review says
though some code in action can constitute art (eg certain videogames), the millions of lines of symbolic instructions themselves are not poetry
I have seen code that's beautiful in the same way as my favourite jug is beautiful (it was designed by Vera Wang). You need to know a bit about coding to see its appeal, but I think the same thing's true of football and certain complicated wines, and I take it on trust that there are things in those to appreciate. I might prefer to read that code than play the 'videogame'.

Also, when I retire I think I might learn Sanskrit. Life is good!