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!

Saturday, 22 February 2014


1. I suppose it's a badge of honour to work for a place which the Daily Mail hates so much. I like this collection of gifs which tries to give the overall message of the recent Met Office report on this winter's weather, with the proviso that "the global weather system is insanely complex".

2. The NHS is selling off patient records. They'll be anonymous -- of course they'll be anonymous, everything is anonymous these days, and there is no way they could possibly be abused. But in case you still don't like the idea you can opt out. There's a useful Fax Your GP service here. My doctor's practice actually provides a model letter on its website for you to print off and post in, so I've already done that.

3. And if you're wondering about anonymity and uniqueness in another area, this website can tell you how unusual your computer is just by looking at the information that the browser gives it. Mine is unique among the nearly four million tested so far due to its combination of plugins and fonts. It's an EFF site so I sort of trust it not to abuse the information... Is that inconsistent of me? To be honest I don't really think there are many people who want to abuse my information, but there's not many people I trust to be intelligent with it.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Entertainment mostly

1. I was listening to Radio 1 this morning and a song came on which starts out as a setting of D. H. Lawrence's poem about the singing woman and the piano. Nick Mulvey, Cucurucu. I've always found that poem disconcerting; I don't think of D.H. Lawrence weeping like a child for the past. The song is OK.

2. I've been watching lots of The Good Wife -- damn you DVD box sets! -- which I rather like. It's about a woman whose husband is caught using prostitutes and possibly being corrupt in his role as District Attorney of Chicago. She stands by him at humiliating press conferences, he's jailed, and then she has to go back to work as a lawyer to keep the family going. It's pretty watchable and passes the Bechdel test in spades. The main role is played by Julianna Margulies, who has this excellent way of setting her jaw and saying nothing which I puzzled over for ages until I realise it's just like Frances McDormand in Fargo. Legal dramas are always a bit odd because they give the impression that going to court involves a lot of shouting like an argument at primary school, and I have no idea if that's true. The Good Wife makes references to this gap between real life and narrative drive in a way I don't completely get. The firm's partners are accused of taking decisions based on feelings and their drive to win rather than on business logic, which is surely a necessity for a TV drama; one of the main characters gets promoted in a narratively satisfying way, and later it's pointed out that the promotion was rather arbitrary. Maybe like in Sophie's World they will eventually get accused of being fictional characters. Anyway I'm enjoying it quite a lot.

3. The storms here have been pretty grim at times. These last two are apparently of a type that's quite interesting meteorologically -- something to do with how they form, and the way that they don't just go over straightforwardly but have a sort of sting in their tail. I went with my parents on an RSPB bird-watching cruise in the Exe estuary yesterday. We didn't go any closer to the sea than Exmouth and Dawlish Warren, and we went up as near Exeter as Topsham. We saw quite a lot of dunlin (also known as the "sea mouse") and huge flocks of godwits, as well as many other birds such as mergansers, curlews, shags, and a few of the avocets which are the ostensible purpose of the trip. The mud banks were markedly speckly, and apparently this was because so much water has come down the Exe that the top layer of mud has been washed away, exposing stones which are usually more deeply buried. The large flocks of avocets which I saw last year when I did the same trip with a friend were not in evidence. They must have gone somewhere with more food. I hope they'll be back. We went at low tide because it's the best time to see birds, but really far up the Exe you could see wave damage done in the recent storms. We did see a peregrine menacing some godwits, which was a pretty impressive sight.

4. In other news I have to do a Java exam in April. It's not a trivial one -- eight people did it from the office last year and two of them failed. I think I'll probably be OK if I can muster the energy to put the work in. I'm quite keen to get it over and done with. I feel like I've come a long way over the last year and a bit, and that I'm just beginning to know what I'm doing, but there's a lot more to learn.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Chickens and luxury cars

This advert makes me feel quite happy but also slightly helpless, like there are too many things I understand but can't explain.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Reading in 2013

So I read less in 2013 than in 2012 and less in 2012 than 2011. I've worked out that at this rate I will read nothing at all in 2019. Here is the breakdown in the same way I've done it for the past two years.
  • Total number of books read: 155
  • Gender of authors of each book: 76 male, 79 female
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 134 to 21
  • Number of re-reads: 63
  • Number read on Kindle: 42 (27.1%)
I reread far more books than last year, and read far fewer on Kindle. This is probably because I've unpacked from boxes a lot of books I haven't seen in ages. And most of the really good stuff I read this year I have read before, which I suppose is also understandable, given that they've withstood multiple paperback culls by now.

It's been a bit of a disappointing reading year in terms of new things. I've read a lot of hyped stuff that I found very shallow. I'm not going to mention which, but at least Hilary Mantel and Michael Chabon did not let me down, with Bring Up the Bodies and Telegraph Avenue respectively. Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis and Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife are both very good, and also disconcerting -- the former because it's about a drugged up unfamiliar world and the latter because it points out the wierdness of normality. I enjoyed two books by Lynn Shepherd: Murder at Mansfield Park is set at a Mansfield Park where Fanny Price is much richer than her cousins rather than much poorer; and Tom All Alone's is based on Bleak House and brings out the uncanniness of Esther's narrative by replacing it with a very similar one by someone called Hester (though to be honest Esther's narrative has always been disconcerting). These are excellent examples of literary criticism as novel in the style of John Gardner's Grendel. Two odd but excellent sci-fi books are Leonard Richardson's Constellation Games and Eduardo Mendoza's No Word from Gurb. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov is the sort of book I only come across on the tables in the Waterstone's by Exeter Cathedral, an interesting collection of strange stories by an obscure Russian author.

S by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is the most unusual book I read all year. It comes in a slip-case, pretending to be a stolen library book called The Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka, translated by one F. X. Caldeira, who has put in some rather odd footnotes. A English student and a disgraced post-grad who haunts the library where she works start having a conversation by adding notes to the margins of the book, trying to solve the question of the identity of V. M. Straka, an anarchist and possible murderer, perhaps part of a radical literary collective, whom even his translator never met. In the main novel a man with no memory emerges from the sea only to be shanghai-ed onto a strange boat where the silent crew do mysterious things in the orlop. In the margins the students argue, share stories, and flirt rather disfunctionally, and get caught up in something that could be simple academic rivalry but might be much more sinister. The really excellent thing is that the book is full of tucked-in replica postcards, newspaper clippings, even a scribbled map on a coffee shop napkin, and all in a variety of languages from Swedish to Czech (though provided with translations, naturally, since this is the subject of the post-grad's research). It's an excellent artefact, and very pleasing. I love that it so clearly draws on all sorts of high-brow things like Nabokov's Pale Fire or B. S. Johnson's pamphlet book, but it does it all entirely in aid of entertainment. It also reminds me of Corpus Christi College MS 41, often called a "book as archive" because of its marginal additions, and there are tons of other medieval manuscripts like this too. Apparently the manuscripts of Thomas Wyatt's poetry were like that too. Everything post-modern is really pre-modern.

In non-fiction, Carola Hicks' Girl in a Green Gown (about the Arnolfini Wedding) and Tom Reiss' The Black Count (about Dumas' father) were the best conventional history books I read. Tom Lubbock's English Graphic contains brilliant yet very readable writing on art. Soldaten freaked me out a bit. But perhaps a parallel to S, the most striking non-fiction book I read was Humphrey Jenning's Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers 1660-1886. Although this is apparently not to be called an anthology, really that's what it is -- a collection of excerpts from texts of the age of the Industrial Revolution. There are also some notes by Jennings, who seems to have been strongly of Blake and Ruskin's point of view. Apparently it inspired Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony thing, which I've never watched, so I don't know if it took the same line. This book is far more interesting than it sounds, and has all sorts of strange things in it (including the only bit of Smart's Jubilate Agno I've ever seen that isn't about his cat -- I must read that this year). I loved George Ticknor's 1835 description of going to see Babbage's calculating machine:
The first thing that struck me was its small size, being only about two feet wide, two feet deep, and two and a half high. The second very striking circumstance was the fact that the inventor himself does not profess to know all the powers of the machine; that he has sometimes been quite surprised at some of its capabilities; and that without previous calculation he cannot always tell whether it will, or will not work out a given table.
The idea of making a machine the powers of which you don't know is still pretty crazy today.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tudors, Stuarts, jewels, and exploration

I went up to London to see some people, as an early Christmas present for myself. It was a very pleasant trip. I thought I'd review two excellent and complementary exhibitions, "The Cheapside Hoard" at the Museum of London, and "Elizabeth I and Her People" at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Cheapside Hoard is (probably) the working stock of a particularly fine jeweller in the the seventeenth century, buried beneath a Cheapside cellar sometime between 1640 and 1666. The cellar survived the Great Fire but the building above did not and was rebuilt in 1667. The hoard was dug up by startled navvies in 1912, and we may or may not have the whole lot. If as a child you ever thought of the treasure in a pirate's chest, or the hoards that dragons sit on, or the fabulous jewels in the treasury of a sultan's palace, this exhibition is almost gratuitously satisfying -- there are just so many jewels. There are amazing delicate chains of enamelled flowers, buttons set with pearls and diamonds, amethysts and emeralds carved into bunches of grapes, garnets, moonstones, diamonds, agate cameos and carved gems, even toad stones. Some of the stones are unset or even uncut but most are in the form of jewels in the old sense of several gems in a settings, jewels like you might find in an inventory, or jewels you might wear in a ruff or in your pomaded hair. There is a fantastic emerald salamander which could have been 1930s Cartier, and a watch case made from a single hollowed-out emerald with a slice of translucent emerald as lid. The word for all this is gorgeous. It's a thoughtfully laid-out exhibitions too. You get a magnifying glass when you go in the door, and most of the jewels are not laid down in flat displays but hung up in front of you in glass cases so they catch the light. There's good contextual material, with maps and city views, as well as information about where the jewels came from, and the state of the goldsmith's trade in seventeenth-century England. The best contexts though are given by the literally sumptuous portraits showing how these sorts of jewels were worn, in one case even seeming to show an exact duplicate of a pendant in the hoard being worn as an earring.

The NPG exhibitions is a bit more conventional. I love Tudor and Stuart portraiture, with its grave expressions and willingness to turn people into patterns. The best pattern of all is Elizabeth, an oval face between a geometric ruff and hair criss-crossed with jewels. The second-tier portraits of her are often the most interesting. There's a really lovely one owned by Cambridge University which is all in yellow and gold, and one from Hardwick Hall where the focus is on her complexly embroidered skirt. The builder of Hardwick Hall (more glass than wall) was the shrewd Bess of Hardwick, known to have had an interesting in embroidery, and there are some pieces from her collection in the exhibition. The catalogue doesn't make any mention of this but I wondered whether the skirt, which is covered in sea monsters and other beasts, was made or commissioned by her. There's a very good short story about Bess of Hardwick in Susanna Clarke's Ladies of Grace Adieu, catching her uncannily successful brand of domesticity.

The idea of the exhibition is to cover people from various ranks of life, on the grounds that the middle class became more prominent in Elizabeth's reign. So as well as a room full of aristocrats there's one of burgesses and other professionals, and at the end, to represent the poor, a rather plaintive collection of rough pots and a sailor's costume. There are quite a few loans from private collections, as well as the well known and obvious pieces like Burghley on his mule (which makes me want a mule). There's a wonderful picture of three children, whose identities aren't known but whose ages are five, six and seven. The eldest, a girl in a starched ruff and lace cap, sits in the middle with a guinea pig, while her brothers flank her in identical slashed peach doublets. There's also an excellent picture of Elizabeth Vernon, who married the Earl of Southampton (possibly Shakespeare's fair youth) in secret when he got her pregnant, thereby annoying Queen Elizabeth a lot. Elizabeth's reaction to the affairs and marriage plans of her maids of honour is often interpreted as jealousy, but given how much depended on her personal myth I think it's fair enough if she wanted the girls closest to her to behave themselves. The portrait of Elizabeth Vernon shows her dressing (says the catalogue) or undressing (says me) in a private chamber. Her ruff is pinned to a curtain behind her, and her jewels are laid out on a table beside her. She looks straight out at the viewer, her bodice unlaced, and she brushes out her long loose hair with a comb marked "Menez moi doucement", which means lead me gently. More strait-laced is the picture of Esther Inglis, a famous Edinburgh calligrapher, some of whose work is also on show.

At the end of the NPG exhibition was a sign about two related exhibitions: one was the Cheapside Hoard, and the other an exhibition at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum. This seemed like a nice coincidence to me. The Exeter exhibition is called "West Country to World's End: the South West in the Tudor Age". It fits in rather nicely with the other two. The biggest contrast is that it's free -- the catalogue costs little more than the entry to the NPG. It includes loans, including a few Holbeins from the royal collection, and old bits of Exeter now belonging to the V&A, but in general it's quite small. The idea of the exhibition is that the Tudor era was a golden age for the South West, not least because local sailors took part in the world exploration of the time -- Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh would be the most famous of those. There's a section on Exeter goldsmiths, as well as on Nicolas Hilliard, the son of an Exeter goldsmith who became a famous miniature painter, and went into exile with the Bodley family during Mary's reign. There's even some information on Thomas Bodley of Bodleian fame, though without mention of his embezzlement of Exeter Cathedral's manuscript collection. Apart from size and price, the other big contrast is in the oddly broader focus of the Exeter exhibition. Because of the question of sea voyages and exploration it's much more international than the other two London-biased exhibitions. There's some excellent pictures of native American life from Raleigh's Virginia expedition. They also have the Elizabeth I Armada portrait, which shows the defeat of the Spanish, admittedly largely by the weather rather than the English navy, behind a tremendously ornate Elizabeth with her hand placed over America on a globe.

The NPG exhibition is only on until the 5th January, but the Cheapside Hoard is around until the end of April, and is really worth seeing. I also saw the early Durer drawings at the Courtauld, which is always a good place to visit with intelligent shows. Also at Somerset House, and really worth catching, is Stanley Spencer's First World War Memorial Chapel from Sandham. It's very moving. Most of the panels are of very routine parts of soldierly life, like making tea and doing laundry. The big altar piece couldn't be moved but a picture is projected on the wall. It's called the Resurrection of the Soldiers, and shows those serried ranks of white crosses all jumbled up and pushed aside as the soldiers rise on the last day.