Friday, 25 November 2011


Here are some good things:

1. The 20th was stir-up Sunday. The full collect reads:
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may be by you plenteously rewarded through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Most Anglican collects come from late Antique Latin via Thomas Cranmer or one of his ilk, and in the sixteenth century they could get away with writing English which sounded both Latinate and elegant. (E.g. that we by thee being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness, etc.)

2. LibraryThing has introduced support for books with co-authors. I haven't tried it out yet, but this was my major problem with the system. So maybe I'll be able to put my academic books on too. (Although it occurs to me that unlike my novels some of them have value, and do I want to make my ownership of them public? LibraryThing does have a private book feature but I had assumed it was for porn.)

3. Prolog! Prolog is a computer language for doing logic. It's not like C++ where you tell the computer to do things. Instead you give the computer lots of facts and then ask it questions about them, along the lines is it possible to find a variable X which fulfils all these requirements. It's a lot more powerful than that sounds -- it's not just a database engine. We did some basic natural language processing the other day, where we made a system which could check and generate sentences from a basic list of vocabulary, doing elementary checks to see that the article, subject and verb all agreed in number, and with optional adverbs. Anyway it's not easy but it's cool. Part of me yearns to try to process some Latin. Part of me feels that would be a retrograde step.

4. London! London is great. I thought it would be hard work living here, but the tube is so much easier when you do it every day and know exactly where to stand and walk and you don't have a suitcase with you (or a box of rats), and there are many cool things going on, even if I don't make it to most of them cos I'm busy, and best of all I am catching up with lots of people I see only occasionally.  Some time ago in Cambridge I used to have a party every year between Christmas and New Year, as the best time to catch my friends who were working abroad and came back to England at that period to see their parents.  It worked pretty well for several years, but then they started marrying and having children, and if they come to England at all for Christmas they are very busy with family stuff.  But living in London makes seeing people on fleeting visits just that bit easier.

5. Even though I'm a man-hating middle-aged spinster somehow most of my friends are men. When I spend time with women without men there we somehow often end up talking about men. I find listening to women talking about men absolutely fascinating in a sort of gruesome way, and some of my female friends are very witty, in a crazy self-deprecating style, on the subject. An evening spent listening to them slagging off a) men, b) their own stupid dependence on the opinions of men, is very amusing. But sometimes it depresses me that for much of the time my life would fail the Bechdel test. So hurray for the women on my course! There are only seven of us out of fifty-six, and I think that makes us feel automatically friendly towards each other. And when we talk we talk about all sorts of things, including memory allocation and virtual functions.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Computer systems panic!

I'm panicking a bit about how I don't really understand Systems Architecture.  So I've got hold of the standard textbooks and am trying to get through them all this weekend.  Obviously the other thing I need is good music to keep me going while I read up on pagefiles and commit charge.  Here's Little Boots' new song, which I really like:

Also, if like me you're a Community fan, and I don't get why more people aren't, here's quite a nice little video, to which I am giving rather more screen-space than the previous:

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


I'm living a bit of a double life at the moment, but for once in a good way.  I got a bundle of offprints the other day and sent them out to the usual people.  As a result I've been in touch with quite a few people to whom I only talk intermittently but of whom I am fond, and I have lots of nice postcards from professors on my corkboard.

In my other life as a computing student I am working very hard and enjoying myself though feeling tired.  We are now in week six of eleven.  I'm not used to such a long term, because Cambridge has an eight-week term that goes at a mad gallop.  We're galloping too, and going very fast, but I do think that as a Cambridge undergraduate I had to produce rather more work for submission.  For one thing then I did three languages from the off (Latin, Old English, and Middle Welsh) and here we've only just started our second (Prolog, in addition to C++), plus we've only handed in two sets of coursework so far, neither of which we've yet had back marked.

There are two big contrasts for me.  The first is with being someone on the teaching end of the lectern.  For example, the fact that we're only six weeks into an eleven-week term makes me feel really good about the time I've got left to learn things before the Christmas break, whereas for so long the end of term has felt like something to be desired with mythical intensity. And there's also a big contrast in the sort of hard work we're doing.  For someone who is teaching and all that stuff, term-time is a big slog, but hard work without necessarily being of itself testingly difficult.  I'm not working as hard as someone who's teaching, but the work I'm doing is right on the outside fringes of my brain and needs a lot of reaching as far as I can into concepts I hardly grasp.  It's exhausting in a different way.  I could work harder than this but I'm more or less at full capacity in my ability to think.

The second constrast is with being a humanities student.  The great thing about trying to write a computer program is that you get instant feedback on what's wrong with it when it fails to compile or, having compiled, run properly.  If you mistranslate some Latin or misunderstand something in a history essay you don't get an immediate error message.  It's a very useful thing for learning to be told that something is wrong and only get a slight hint about what it is, so that you have to go back, work out what it is, and fix it for yourself.  I don't know how you could reproduce that in humanities teaching.

I think the one thing I would change about my classmates is the quality of our conversations.  I'm sure it's quite a lot my fault, and it's partly because so many of my fellow students are young -- the other day I was talking to someone about exams, and when I mentioned that I last did a non-humanities exam in 1994 he told me that he was four years old then.  And it's partly because I think people who choose this sort of subject have a tendency to be quite straightforward, which is mostly a good thing.  It's not that I want to spend lots of time bitching about things as such, but I miss the feeling that if bitching were to be going on it would be done amusingly and without being too predictable.  Luckily I have interesting real friends to talk to about actual things and I can continue to relate to the young course people in a largely auntly manner.  Go aunt Rebecca!  I'm trying hard to stay on the right side of patronising...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

October books: Strachey wins

I didn't read much in October, unless you count books with titles like Problem-Solving in C++ and Structured Computer Organization.  I liked The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman, though I still think Intuition is my favourite of hers.  I also liked some short stories by Muriel Spark -- her particular sort of nastiness comes over well in short story form.  But the thing I enjoyed most was Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.  I should have read this years ago.  Because it's free on Project Gutenberg I read it on my Kindle, and highlighted some bits I enjoyed.

Here he is on History in general:
THE history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.
Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes— which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.
Poetry and common sense -- not my experience of Cambridge, but maybe Newman might have done better there:
Even in his own age he might, at Cambridge, whose cloisters have ever been consecrated to poetry and common sense, have followed quietly in Gray's footsteps and brought into flower those seeds of inspiration which now lie embedded amid the faded devotion of the Lyra Apostolica. At Oxford, he was doomed. 
 The Oxford Movement, making Cambridge look good by comparison:
'It would be a gain to this country,' Keble observed, 'were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.' 'The only good I know of Cranmer,' said Hurrell Froude, 'was that he burned well.' Newman preached, and soon the new views began to spread. Among the earliest of the converts was Dr Pusey, a man of wealth and learning, a professor, a canon of Christ Church, who had, it was rumoured, been to Germany. 
The Irish monsignor who did for poor old Newman:
Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was a master of various arts which the practice of ages has brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient; and, on occasion, he could ring the changes of torture on a human soul with a tact which called forth universal approbation. 
Here is Florence Nightingale considering a proposal of marriage:
'I have an intellectual nature which requires satisfaction,' she noted, 'and that would find it in him. I have a passionate nature which requires satisfaction, and that would find it in him. I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction, and that would not find it in his life. Sometimes I think that I will satisfy my passionate nature at all events. …' 
Dr Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, wants to improve his pupils' morals:
... and it was that that Dr. Arnold set himself to accomplish. But how was he to achieve his end? Was he to improve the character of his pupils by gradually spreading around them an atmosphere of cultivation and intelligence? By bringing them into close and friendly contact with civilised men, and even, perhaps, with civilised women? By introducing into the life of his school all that he could of the humane, enlightened, and progressive elements in the life of the community? On the whole, he thought not.
And on General Gordon in the Sudan:
One catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interacting in queer complication, and hurrying at last—so it almost seems—like creatures in a puppet show to a predestined catastrophe.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Made by people

Now we've done some logic of the "Either Adam or Bill is a murderer, and if Bill is a murderer then..... etc" type, we've started doing some stuff about the basic logic that underlies the physical implementations of computers. For example, if you have an AND gate in a circuit then it has two inputs and one output. If both the inputs are true, or 1, which means that they have a small current going through them, then the output is true. Then you can put a NOT gate on it, which just turns a true into a false and vice versa. The two together make a NAND gate, which apparently is the most useful gate -- you can put NAND gates together to form lots of different types of gate.

The thing is that these outputs all vary according to the current input. If you put two NAND gates together in a particular combination you can make a latch, which can be set to true or false and then remains at that value even though both its inputs are set to true as default. This is a way of storing some information -- one latch can store one bit, e.g. one instance of true or false (1 or 0). So suppose you want to store the number 5, which is 101 in binary. That's three bits of information, but to put it into a computer you have to follow the computer's rules about how numbers are stored. On a 64-bit machine an integer is probably stored as 4 bytes, that is 32 bits of information. So you need 32 latches to store it, each of them consisting of four little gates, two AND and two NOT. I have a little USB pen about the size of my thumbnail which has 2Gb of storage. 2Gb is (strictly speaking) 2 x 1,073,741,824 bytes, which is 2,147,483,648 bytes, which is 17,179,869,184 bits, and each of those bits has four gates, making a total of 68,719,476,736 logic gates just on that little thing. I think that's truly amazing.

Of course it's possible I've not got this right because unfortunately our lecturer for this is very softly-spoken and doesn't give the impression of thinking it's amazing at all. I really need to sit down and work through it properly.