Saturday, April 13
The new weblog is now online! Visit http://www.mssv.net to see it. This weblog will no longer be updated (which is a good thing, since the software was broken in a recent server move) although the archives will remain.
Monday, April 8
I think it's appropriate to say now that I don't really feel the urge to update my weblog that often any more. There are two reasons for why someone might want to post a weblog entry, in general.
1) They have something interesting to say, and they have the time in which to write it up
Usually, at least one of these conditions is fulfilled with passing regularity in my life. Due to a number of recent factors (some fortunate, some unfortunate), I just don't have the time to write stuff up. This is not because I'm bored - on the contrary, I've been doing quite a bit. In the last few weeks I've learnt skiing (managed a red run on my fifth day), read a decent amount of 'proper' books and started to read more interesting stuff on the Internet. I also have a girlfriend.
Books I've read/am reading: Nonzero, Axiomatic, The Emperor's New Mind, Schild's Ladder, Dark Light and The Years of Rice and Salt.
Another problem is that a lot of the stuff that I want to write wouldn't interested people here. I've had a lot of ideas popping up in my head about all sorts of different things, and I think a fresh start in a new sort of weblog would help me express them. What I'm imagining is a differentially updated weblog, consisting of three columns. Column 1 would be updated daily, but with single links or very brief comments. Column 2 would be updated every three days or so, and consist of personal everyday musings, with perhaps paragraph-length posts. Column 3 would be updated weekly, and have page or multiple-page length posts. It would for the greater part concentrate on my new pet thought-hobby, Massively Multiuser Online Entertainment (no, I'm not going to explain that here), but would occasionally discuss various neato biological things.
As I think that there would be a fair number of people interested in Column 3, I'd probably rename the weblog to something memorable, descriptive and snappy like Massive* and register a new domain for it. All my personal stuff would remain at Vavatch. Is this overcomplicated? Probably. It's just that I don't think that an address at vavatch.co.uk is appropriate for this new weblog.
*Unsurprisingly, you can't register any domain called 'massive' since it is a dictionary word. I tried 'mssv', with which I had more success but someone has gone and registered www.mssv.com (but I'd only have to pay $250(!) to buy it. Yeah, right). So mssv.net it is, then.
When will all of this be done? Maybe in a few days, when I'm feeling sufficiently bored. I doubt it will take long to set up - I'll go and use a template CSS design for the layout and just throw on Moveable Type for administration. Nice and easy.
Sunday, March 17
Life in Cambridge - a guide for MIT students. It's not too inaccurate, and it has some handy tips ("[Take] dark trousers: It gets muddy, and if you ride over puddles with your bike, youíre going to get spots on everything") along with the weird ones ("Windpants. To put over your normal trousers if you have to ride your bike in the rain").
This page depresses me though - it basically says that everything in Cambridge and indeed the entire United Kingdom is 1.5 times more expensive than America. It's something that I already knew, but I don't like to be reminded of it. At least I should be able to reap the benefits if/when I go to America this summer.
They say, "Email isnít nearly used as much as at MIT," which leads me to wonder exactly how excessive the MIT email use is.
Friday, March 15
"By three or four years, children are essentially grammatically correct; in the case of auxiliaries, where there are 2.4 x 10^19 logically possible combinations, only around a hundred are actually grammatical - yet preschoolers made no errors in constructing auxiliaries (Strumswold, 1990)."
Beside this point in one of my short notes essays, my supervisor wrote, 'Interesting!'
I just had one of those wonderfully engaging arguments that all students have about the nature of politics. It was particularly good because all participants had strongly held and sometimes widely differing views, which eventually split us into a anti/pro-communistic schism.
I won't go into the details of the argument since that'd spoil the enjoyment you get from your own, but we did come up with some very amusing standard terms which we used in our debate, namely 'shit shoveller', 'racing driver', 'potatoes' and 'people who mark the tests'.
For example: "So in your communism, I've just taken an aptitude test and been told that all I'm good for is shit shovelling. When I complain to the guy who marks the test, 'Why can't I be a racecar driver?' he replies 'Because you only scored 5% on the racecar driver test but 100% on the shit shoveller test, and in any case, you both get to eat the same number of potatoes so stop complaining.'"
And so, with only a few variations upon these four universal themes of communism and capitalism, you can describe entire political ideologies (e.g. 'What if I say I want leeks, not potatoes?' and '...But that'd just mean that all the shit shovellers would go on strike - in a communist country - because they want to become racecar drivers, and people wouldn't get their potatoes because all the shit building up in the streets would interfere with the potato delivery mechanism in some small but eventually critical role!')
Ah, fun times...
Tuesday, March 12
In a bizarre twist to the whole 'dressing up as fruit' saga in the Volvic A Touch of Fruit campaign, I just received an email from a guy who is designing a brief for a relaunch of the Volvic fruit-flavored water campaign asking for opinions and photos. Such is the power of the Internet, that a person who dresses up as an orange is being asked for advice.
Just picked The Second Angel from my local cheap bookstore, Galloway & Porter, for £2 (incidentally, if anyone wants paperback copies of LtW for only £3, they have loads there).
What The Matrix is to films, The Second Angel by Philip Kerr is to novels - in other words, it's an SF novel that passes itself off as something else and so gets praise from non-SF readers.
This is a bit of a shame considering that it has at least one or two interesting ideas - it's set in 2069 in a world where 80% of the population has a virus akin to HIV called P2, originally spread by blood transfusions. The remaining 20% of the population practices 'autologous' blood donation (in other words, donating blood for your own personal future use); there is also a market for blood as those infected with P2 can be cured with a complete blood change and a few expensive medicines. However, at something like $1.7 million/litre, this cure is beyond the reach of most.
I won't comment on the biological basis of the book, because it doesn't withstand any more than a cursory examination, no matter how many long words he puts in; this is the problem - most of the scientific stuff in the book makes sense, but it all gets spoilt by a few humdingers of nonsense. I wouldn't be too bothered about this if the novel didn't take itself so seriously, but it does.
Since this book is a 'futuristic thriller' (i.e. marketed to the non-SF audience), Kerr has seen fit to litter the novel with footnotes explaining technical terms. In fact, in the first couple of chapters I think probably 10% or more of the text is comprised of footnotes. Why does he do this? I haven't seen this practiced in such volume in any decent SF novel - most authors are good enough to weave explanations in the plot. Kerr is just doing disguised data-dumping.
Even worse, the footnotes are needlessly dense. For example, for the footnote for 'K', he puts 'Kelvin. The SI unit of thermodynamic temperature.'
Is it really necessary to say 'thermodynamic'? I'm not even sure what that means. There are also long and irrelevant digressions into the etymology and meaning of words such as 'utopia'. I think the most amusing one I read was the footnose for the Armstrong Center on the Moon, which says 'Named after Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.'
Anyway, enough with the footnotes. The story centres around the world's best designer of security defences for the huge blood banks on Earth and the Moon (the defences are also laughably feeble for banks that store trillions of dollars worth of blood - I for one believe that the Culture could whip up a superior design in a few minutes). His daughter contracts a disease which necessitates regular transfusions of uninfected blood, and if he paid for treatment he'd go broke in two years. Consequently, his company views this as a possible security problem as he could get bribed, and decide to kill him and his family. No, I don't see the logic either.
He survives, his family dies, he decides to get revenge by breaking into a blood bank and assembles a motley crew of two dimensional loveable rogues. Add a stereotypical enemy and an uninspiring hero and the only thing that could save this novel is good ideas and science, which it is sorely lacking. Sure, the scenario isn't bad and the science isn't *too* offensive in its inaccuracy, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.
For some reason, the New York Times says, "Embracing the wonder and terror of existence by exploring the intricacies of quantum physics, gene theory and computer technology... his most intellectually satisfying novel yet." I can only conclude that the reviewer had never read a decent SF novel before.
It is telling that the bio in this book says his last four novels, including this one (bought for $2.5 million!?), are in development for film. This is not surprising, as they read as if they were intended for the screen. None have actually been produced, though. Why? Because they're shite.
Well, no. I've read another of Kerr's novels, A Philosophical Investigation - it was pretty good, actually. Set in the near-future, it didn't have as much in-your-face science and the characters were much more realistic. I get the feeling that The Second Angel was written far too quickly as a money spinner. The sad thing is, it probably did make a lot of money, and it received favourable reviews. I personally believe that a more telling measure of the novel's success can be found from the tone of the Amazon USA reviews.
Saturday, March 2
I've been suffering from something of a book drought these last few days and have consequently had to resort to re-reading White Mars (which is as bad a book as I remembered it to be) and selected parts of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (which is as good as I remembered it to be).
But my brain needed new material, so I went off to my favourite bookshop to investigate; unfortunately, while they did have some great value books, I already owned them. A bit depressed from this lack of reading material, I sat in front of my computer and typed in "diamond age" etext into Google. A few clicks later and I had a full copy of The Diamond Age (an excellent SF novel by Neal Stephenson) on my computer, as well as a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson for later perusal.
How do I feel about this? Well, my immediate feeling was of pleasure that I had something decent to read. Then came the faint nagging suspicion that perhaps the download of novels from the Internet isn't the most moral behaviour you can engage in (and let us not talk of MP3s either!). So I eventually resolved to buy these books when I have the chance - reading books on acomputer using an LCD screen and Cleartype is perfectly good on the eyes, but the experience of actually owning a physical book is something that won't be readily replaced by a bunch of bits on a solid state device, and this is coming from someone who'll be the first in line to buy a flexible electronic ink reader.
Wednesday, February 27
Children exhibit some rather peculiar beliefs when they are young. In the phase of mental development that some call preoperational thought, which lasts from about two to six years old, children are non-conservative. This has nothing to do with political ideologies; instead it refers to children's perception of reality.
There's a very interesting experiment you can do with non-conserving children (if you have one handy, it might be educational to try it out yourself). Get two identically shaped glasses, and fill them up with equal amounts of water. Obviously this should be done in the guise of a game or something or else the kid is going to be a bit confused. Make the child agree that there is an equal amount of water in the glasses. Now, get a long, thin glass, and pour the contents of one of the glasses into it. The long thin glasses should have a higher level of water than the other glass, but of course it has the same volume of water.
Does the child agree that there is an equal amount of water in the glasses though? No. Why not? Because one of the glasses (the long thin one) is filled to a higher level. Very strange.
You can do this sort of thing with lines of sweets, where you get two lines of equal numbers of sweets, which the child will agree are equal, then then spread one line out so that it is longer (the child thinks that there's more sweets in that line - even after counting them).
So you might think, "Oh, this isn't surprising, they're only kids, and no wonder they think that length or height equates to amount." But why 'no wonder'? Why do children suddenly undergo a qualitative change in thinking at about six years old, such that they suddenly become non-conserving and are able to answer these questions properly?
We were shown a very amusing video that showed two kids of the same age arguing over whether two equally long pencil were in fact equally long. The experimenters had placed the kids at opposite ends of a table and places the pencils perpendicular to the children, parallel but slightly staggered next to each other. This meant that each child would see that one of the pencils was slightly further away from him than the other - but of course the pencil in question would differ between the two children since they are looking from opposite directions. They were told to decide amongst themselves which pencil was longer, and when they did they would have to call their teacher and put the pencils back in the way they found them.
Get two non-conserver kids to do this, and much hilarity ensues as each fervently claims that the pencil furthest away from them in longest. If you get one conserver and one non-conserver in (both of the same age - the transition period is variable between individuals), then the situation is more interesting. In nearly all cases, the conserver can prove to the non-conserver that the pencils are equal in length, usually by simply moving the pencils so that they are next to each other. The thing is, non-conservers use logic to bring their partners around, whereas conservers use power (physical or blackmail).
It strikes me that this conservation problem is a rather good analogy when used against any two people with diametrically opposing viewpoints on emotive issues. It's thought that conservers really do believe what they say ('The pencil on the right is longer because it's higher!') because they are more concerned with the appearance of the situation instead of the reality. From their point of view, they are correct - the pencil on the right does seem to be longer. Same for conservers - they know that the pencil on their left does seem to be longer, but they know that in reality it is not. What we have here is a transition from thinking about appearance to reality.
Sometimes I wonder how interesting this might seem to super-intelligent aliens, if they went and kidnapped two people of opposing viewpoints and watched them battle it out on video. They'd probably have a good laugh.
Thursday, February 21
My memory bothers me. In the course of a day, I'll read or hear or think about several really interesting subjects that I know I have to remember, perhaps to look up on the Internet or to write down here or to talk about to friends. If I remember more than one of those subjects, it's a pretty good day. It's not as if I have a particularly bad memory; I've taken part in tests during experimental psychology practicals and I have a perfectly fine digit-span, short term memory, above-average recall and recognition.
It's just not good enough though; I don't feel like I have enough time to write about everything I think of on a notepad, and speaking them out loud tends to dissolve my already tenuous thought processes, so any kind of dictaphone isn't a solution. So the end result of all of this is that I have a nagging feeling that I'm missing something interesting. I tend to remember all the really important stuff that needs doing, but they aren't usually very interesting.
I guess the reason for this general rambling about my memory is due to my being superbly busy over the last few weeks (I had to get up at 5:30am for a rowing outing this morning - when I say never again, I mean it this time). I haven't had much of a chance to talk to any friends in recent days either, since they've also been busy or ill or whatnot. Add a particularly knotty social problem onto this which is fast becoming my Number One Irritation of 2002 and it doesn't make for a particularly good situation.
Anyway. Things are calming down on my end and I'm feeling much better now so weblog updates will be resuming from today, and I think I'm going to water my ficus plant now.