Saturday, September 22

Since my room at university wasn't ready in time for when I wanted to go back, I'll be staying at home for another week. One of the upsides to this is that I will now be able to attend the Cambridge Freshers' Evening at Liverpool.

The purpose of the Freshers' is to give new students at Cambridge from the Liverpool area a chance to talk to older students about what it's like, the atmosphere, workload and so on; it's all a very noble and friendly meeting with free wine, and I quite enjoyed it last time. But what they don't tell you is that everything said to you at the evening are all LIES!

Yes, I feel the use of capital letters was necessary there. For when I attended and talked to a Natural Sciences student, I was assured that, 'Oh, the workload isn't that bad, you'll cope, etc etc.' I wasn't told that for at least the first term you'll be simply floored by the complete change of gears up from A-Levels and will seriously start worrying how the hell you're supposed to remember the conformational domains of beta-helices in proteins.

To be entirely fair to them, the mind does tend to blot out the unpleasant experiences in the past and even I, I'm ashamed to say, am doubting my words now. Could it really have been that bad, I wonder? Well, it was. The first term of any science degree at Cambridge (and possibly the humanities, but I wouldn't know) is extremely trying. Subsequent terms are relatively easier, however.

So I see it as my personal duty on Monday evening to scare the living daylights out of any Natural Sciences students in attendance and tell them that, yes, all the rumours you've heard are true. Hold onto your hats and prepare to be shocked, the first term at Cambridge is no walkover. I honestly do think that it'll make them more ready for the experience than I was, in any case.

And now for some links... (Culture readers might as well skip this bit because I've just lifted stuff from my list emails here)

I was doing a spot of research onto systems of voting today for a discussion I'm starting at the New Mars forums on KSR's Martian Constitution when I came across the ACE Project.

The Administration and Cost of Elections Project has several thousand webpages that cover every single aspect of elections, from the different systems to legislative framework, voter education and vote counting. Sponsored by the UN, it 'represents the first-ever attempt to provide a globally accessible information resource on election administration. It provides user-friendly, operationally oriented information on options, detailed procedures, and the administrative and cost implications associated with organising elections.'

I've found that it's incredibly comprehensive and very interesting - I'm not sure whether it's still being updated (the 'last update' for most pages are two years old) but the info is still fairly current and I suspect that they're busy with their project to translate it all into Arabic. It's also supposed to be a living document including feedback and commentary from readers. Now this is a good use of the Internet.

Also, what with all the talk of 'Operation Infinite Justice', I unearthed a link on Metafilter to a very interesting article about the art of naming military operations, dating from WW1 to the present.

/ forum / 01:10 pm GMT

Friday, September 21

Session Start (chat.hosting4u.net:#culture): Thu Sep 20 15:01:50 2001

* Now talking in #culture.
* Users on #culture: Vavatch PaulM MartinM @Rich Vetere
* Topic of #culture: If there is a God, I know he likes to rock
* Join to #culture completed in 5 seconds.

MartinM: Weren't you destroyed?

Vavatch: In a way

MartinM: Is this one of those Mind things that you end up saying is too complex for me to understand?

Vavatch: Yes

PaulM: The One = that level of alcohol consumption where you are at your witty and pleasant best.

PaulM: 0 is sober, 2 is comatose. 1.0 is juuuuust perfect.

MartinM: Ah yes. It comes back to me now.

Vavatch: Is that a subjective or objective wittiness and pleasantness?

PaulM: Both? ;-) It varies with the social occasion.

PaulM: 1.0 with the boss is probably 0.5 with your mates down the pub.

Vavatch: Indeed

PaulM: I would need to hit at least 1.8 before I dressed up as a large strawberry though... ;-)

Vavatch: Meh, I needed the money :)

MartinM: 2.0 would still be similar to 1.8, which suggests that you only need a small amount of alcohol to start with. If you have too much then you might as well keep drinking because it would take a lot to make much of a difference.

PaulM: It just reminded me of when my brother dressed up as Tony the Tiger (the Frosted Flakes character) in a parade. He was also harassed by kids.

Vavatch: It strikes me that attaining 1.0 is like sitting on the top of a very slippery sphere - a bit like a false stability, it's too easy to go one way or the other

MartinM: How about you take drugs that make you ill if you drink too much and then break an arm, so that you need to drink to kill the pain. You just need the right balance of drugs and pain.

MartinM: Too far either way and want to head back to the 1.0 zone.

PaulM: It takes a grand master to attain The One. Practice is required.

Vavatch: I fear that the drug solution may be too powerful for most

Vavatch: I think that the problem is, even in a given situation with the same people, the value of 1.0 will fluctuate according to what you want to do. It's more than a poor drinker can manage.

PaulM: The One moves in mysterious ways...

* Vavatch nods sagely

PaulM: So lets chase it! Woooooh!

Vavatch: Why did we start talking about The One?

* PaulM breaks out the vodka

MartinM: So you just stab a fork into yourself whenever you need to adjust the setting.

Vavatch: What, to see if you're done?

PaulM: We started talking about The One because Martin dissected an eyeball. Obvious really.

Vavatch: I think you've already gone past The One


Two things have become clear to me: one, that the Culture list is the repository of all past, present and future knowledge, and two, that attaining The One is a goal not to be trifled with.

/ forum / 10:09 am GMT

Thursday, September 20

I had a bit of a peculiar dream last night, about poker. Not surprising since I haven't played the game for a long while now. It was one of those vivid experiences which seemed so shockingly real at the time that when you woke up, you consciously had to sift through your memories to figure out whether it actually happened or not.

I was sitting at a table somewhere, dealer to my right so I was the blind. Start off on a middling bet, it goes around, no raises. I looked at my cards; they seemed pretty good, a low pocket pair or something like that. The three-card flop is dealt onto the table and I'm quite encouraged by it - I have the makings of trips, or maybe even a full house. I tell myself to slow-play the hand but it's not much of a problem since two other people at the table make raises.

I call, it goes around again, no more raises, quite a few folds. There were probably only about three or four people left in the game, myself included. The strange thing is that I can't remember who any of the other players were, although this didn't seem untoward at the time. Turn card comes out; I've got a full house now; there's a pair on the table and a trips made up from my pocket pair. Not bad. I start off on a high bet to try and push people out of the game - I don't want anyone sucking out on the river card, not when I've got such a good hand now. Everyone remaining folds, apart from one person who calls.

Last card - river card - comes out. Doesn't do anything for me but it's an ace or some equally high card, which is dangerous considering the pair that's already on the table. I place a middling bet, which is raised significantly higher by the other remaining player. It's a high enough raise to make it hurt if I lose the hand; it won't bankrupt me and I'll still have as many chips as most of the other players on the table, but it's a risk nonetheless. I try to peer at the face of the other player, but nothing's changed and I still can't see it. After a little hesitation, I call the raise - I have a full house, after all, it's not something you just throw away on a whim.

Moments pass, and I wonder what I've done. I open my mouth and stilted words come out.

"Okay, let's see them."

I place my cards face up on the table slowly. And then I woke up.

The type of poker game that I play with my friends at home and university is called Texas Hold'em. It differs from most types of poker in that skill is paramount and the amount of random luck in the system is reduced; there's no drawing of the cards, and you share five of your seven cards with the rest of the table. Luck is reduced to the two cards you are dealt personally before the flop, and this opens up many opportunities for tactical playing, bluffing and so on.

You can also limit the way in which luck affects you - if you're dealt a bad hand then you have to know when you should stay in the game or when you should fold, based on the flop cards and the reactions and bets made by other players. Hence the name, Texas Hold'em - 'you have to know when to hold'em'.

For me, Texas Hold'em is most enjoyable when the game moves quickly and smoothly, and you also have those tense memorable moments when you're up against one person and you've got nothing to rely on apart from a vague knowledge of the statistics of card hands and the deceptive grin on your opponent's face.

/ forum / 09:38 am GMT

Wednesday, September 19

You unfold the mat and carefully smooth out the wrinkles and creases from its surface, making sure that the arrows will correspond exactly to the wires underneath. While the loading screen is still visible, you unconsciously tap your feet on the left and right arrows, getting the feel of the surface.

It finishes loading, and after a brief moment of indecision your right leg snakes back straight behind your body and you lightly tap the down arrow, then whip it across to hit the circle button. A few practicised movements chooses the song, difficulty and type of assist, then you check that all the options are correct. They are, and you hit the start button.

The music starts up and you begin nodding along to the beat, observing closely how fast the bar lines scroll up the screen.

da di di dam dariram dariram...

Within a few seconds, the first arrow appears, but you're already prepared and have positioned your legs so that your feet are on top of the left and right arrows.

left left left left right right right right left left left left side

The 'side' move energises you after you had to hit both arrows at the same time, and you ready yourself for the next set of moves, which are another problem entirely.

side side up-down-up side side down-up-down side side backleft backleft side side backright backright left-right-left...

Now that the pace has really quickened up, you're beginning to make mistakes as you try and hit all the arrows perfectly in time. You remember what you said to your friends, "The better you're doing, the less you move," but that doesn't help you right now as you desperately jump from side to side. A twinge develops in your left foot and you flex it quicky... you think it's probably because you're tensing your muscles as you hit the arrows with the balls of your feet.

The game goes on for another minute and then you finish with a flourish. The score isn't bad, but it could do with improving. You hit the circle button twice and then start all over again...

Dance Dance Revolution is one of the few games that has ever really captured my attention, and it's completely unlike anything else I've ever played. Described by one person as 'country line dancing to electronica', DDR is an addictive 'dance simulation' game for the Playstation and arcades where you have to move in time with music to hit the arrows that scroll up on the screen.

It's harder than it sounds.

I'd been aware of DDR long before I first played it in Seattle, but I'd always dismissed it as a mildly silly game, probably because I knew that I'd make a fool of myself if I ever played it. However, I had my mind changed when we visited a GameWorks arcade in Seattle with some Microsoft guys who were pretty good at the game - it just looked so fun. And it looked quite easy. I was quickly disabused of this notion when I realised that I couldn't finish any song at any difficulty apart from the easiest one. Yet several dollars later and several failed games later I wasn't disheartened. No, the failures only strengthened my resolve to buy a Playstation and dance mats for the express purpose of playing the game.

DDR has an excellent learning curve - it's not too difficult for you to become familiar with the game and start attempting the middling songs, and even when you're trying hard for the SSR songs (the highest difficulty) you can still see that you're making some progress.

A lot of people make fun of DDR, and let's face it, it does look pretty ridiculous to see two teenagers dancing in front of a TV on a couple of mats. But just like karoake, you know full well you look ridiculous - but you also know that you're having a damned good time while you're about it.

DDR is not dancing. No-one ever pretended that it was dancing and I don't even think it's a 'dancing simulator', as if there could be such a thing. It has a few similarities to dancing, and if you ever become good enough to do DDR freestyle (doing handplants, kicks, dance routines, somersaults, etc, while also playing the game) then, sure, it's dancing. What it is is damned good fun. And really good exercise, to boot!

/ forum / 06:59 pm GMT

Tuesday, September 18

When I was busy working as a fruit a few weeks back, there was a time when we were lounging around a cafe half dressed up waiting to get some tea. A friend pointed at a sign on the wall which made reference to the Earl of Sandwich and how he first invented the sandwich. He then asked me an astoundingly insightful question.

"What was bread used for before sandwiches?"

I paused, and wondered about this. What indeed did they use bread for? Did they just eat it on its own, or did they put butter and other foods on top of it? Is a sandwich with only one slice of bread still a sandwich? These strange, unbidden thoughts whirled throughout my mind as a whole new universe of possibilities and questions opened up to me. About ten seconds later, we were told that we had to get back to work and I promptly forgot about all of it.

Recently the question resurfaced in my mind and I've been asking various people for their opinions.

"What was bread used for before sandwiches?"

Answers ranged from, "Don't be silly," to "They used it for plates," and the more sensible, "Bread and butter and mopping up gravy." The latter seemed most plausible but I needed some hard evidence. Clearly some serious Googling was being called for here.

It's widely told that John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, invented the sandwich because he often spent excessive amounts of time gambling and he didn't want to get up, so he told his servants to bring him meat sandwiched in between two slices of bread; this is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us, anyway.

However, according to acclaimed American food critic Daniel Rogov, this is not true at all - it's just another one of those just-so-stories. Apparently the Earl of Sandwich suffered a wound when he was 17, causing a gastro-intestinal disorder resulting in a condition where he could only consume liquids, not solids. Therefore, it's impossible that he could have eaten a sandwich as described in the story.

Did he invent it, though? No. When he visited France in 1748, he noticed that French landowners fed their farm workers sandwiches and he was so impressed he used the idea for his own workers - in other words, he popularised the sandwich.

Now, I presume that before sandwiches, they probably didn't put that much meat or other food on top of their bread, simply because it would have fallen off if you tried to carry it any appreciable distance. So really they could only have maybe put butter or cheese on their bread. I will also agree that they probably ate bread with gravy and soup. However, I do find it hard to believe that they ate bread+xyz for a meal in itself, where bread is the main component (i.e. bread+soup does not count).

As mentioned earlier, bread was indeed used as a plate for food - but only very stale bread will do. Once you've eaten the food on top, enough of the juices have been absorbed by the stale bread that it becomes softened and edible, so you eat that. Clearly this wasn't the fate of all bread; it's not as if you've bake bread and then purposefully wait for it to turn stale, but I would imagine that if you happened to have some stale bread lying around it would be used as a plate. You certainly couldn't use fresh bread as a plate, as it'd just disintegrate and turn into a mush.

Along with all of this, I managed to find some quotations about bread though:

‘Bread and water - these are the things nature requires. For such things no man is too poor, and whosoever can limit his desire to them alone can rival Jupiter for happiness’ -- Seneca

‘A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said, ‘Is what we chiefly need: Pepper and vinegar besides Are very good indeed’ -- Lewis Carol

‘Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesman it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf’ -- GK Chesterton

/ forum / 01:00 pm GMT

Monday, September 17

A few thoughts from halfway through Thinks... by David Lodge. Definitely an interesting book in the way it's structured and speaking personally I was pleased to see such a good treatment of cognitive science in it - apparently Lodge decided to write the book after he attended a conference on the subject at Cambridge. Lots of good stuff about Searle's Chinese Room and computational loads.

I tend to judge authors (unfairly) on their ability to data dump. Data dumping is a term used to describe how an author might reel off a whole load of facts about some system or history that's necessary for the story to go forward. As the term sounds, it's not a very subtle way of informing the reader as it generally involves a narrator or character just explaining things straight out - dumping out data. When you're dealing with science fiction, where authors often have to create entire new universes and populate them with interesting characters, locations and concepts, there's necessarily a lot of exposition in order for the reader to understand all of this.

Good authors will weave the explanations right into the plot so you don't really notice them, or at least they're not particularly obvious. Bad authors will employ, say, one very bright character explaining things to another uninformed character in very dry terms. It's very jarring and even some of the best SF authors succumb to data dumping.

I don't feel that you have quite the same situation in contemporary fiction, for the opposite reasons explained above. However, when you're trying to introduce a subject like cognitive science to a readership who clearly won't have the faintest idea of what it means (e.g. people who read David Lodge novels) then exposition is required and data dumping is danger. David Lodge managed to avoid this quite neatly and I've really enjoyed the way in which he's slowly introduced the concepts to the readers through conversations and streams-of-consciousness (is there a plural for that?).

What I'm trying to say here is that so far, it's a good book.

/ forum / 02:27 pm GMT

In the last few days I've been engaged in what seems to me to be a rather pathetic attempt to try and read non-SF novels. I first eased myself in with Douglas Coupland's new All Families are Psychotic, which was a good read, and am now progressing with Thinks... by David Lodge. I've read both authors before, so I knew what to expect, but I'll probably have to venture into unknown territory sooner or later.

I think there are probably two reasons for this recent change of reading preferences:

a) As much as I know in my heart that science fiction is just as respectable a genre as any other, there is and will continue to be an unfortunate bias against SF (even good SF!) from, well, pretty much anyone who doesn't read SF. Which turns out to be a lot of people. I should be disgusted at myself for caring about what other people think of my reading habits but I'm going to have to be a bit pragmatic here - most people don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I refer to the latest political SF book by Ken MacLeod. Maybe they've heard of Iain Banks, but that's invariably because of The Crow Road or Walking on Glass. So, to sum up - in one sense I'm reading books other than SF for some of the shallowest of reasons. And yet -

b) while SF does have some great novels, so do other genres (of course). It would be a bit of a shame to miss out on them, and I am enjoying expanding my... (horizons? tastes? mind? How trite)... expanding whatever I need to expand.

Books that I want to read in the future, based on recommendations from friends: Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami and Possession by A. S. Byatt.

/ forum / 10:10 am GMT

Sunday, September 16

Today I watched Artificial Intelligence for the third time. The first time was at the world premiere in Amsterdam; the second time was at a cinema in Seattle and this time I watched it with my friends in the UK. Three countries, three screenings.

Usually I become impatient if I watch a movie for the second time around. I wait until it gets to the good bits, I'm annoyed at the slowness of the dull parts. With AI, I found it to be pretty interesting - I saw several things that I hadn't picked up on before and I still enjoyed thinking about the ending.

One of the principal reasons why I watched it for the third (and last - at least at a cinema) time was because I wanted to see the reactions of my friends. It's always a difficult thing, gauging people's reactions, especially in a case such as this one since people knew that I'd been involved with the movie to some small extent and they might have been worried about offending me if they said they hated the movie. Perhaps they weren't worried, but that's not the point - the possibility still existed.

So really, to find out what people think, you have to ask them questions. You have to give them time, and then you have to ask the right questions. No spoilers here, incidentally.

Did you think it had a happy ending?

- Well, I don't know. It's not an ending which you can point to and say definitively, yes, that was a happy ending, or no, I thought it was utterly depressing.

Did you enjoy the film?

- What do you mean by that? Did I feel happy at the end of the movie? I don't know. Is 'enjoy' really the right word to use here?

Did you think the film was good?

- Not a precise enough question; what's 'good' supposed to mean? I suppose, yes, it was a good film, but I don't know whether I share my definition of the word with you.

Did you think the film was worth watching?

- Ah, now you've made a suitable question. I did think the film was worth watching, I thought it was interesting. It doesn't matter whether I thought it was happy or sad. What matters is that I think that it was worth the admission price to watch the film and that I'm better off, in some intangible way, having seen it rather than having not.

/ forum / 10:55 pm GMT

Tuesday: To absent friends, in memory still bright...

When I was about 11 or 12, I went on the Internet for the first time, using the Solaris machines at Liverpool University. Back then, there was very little of interest on the Internet to someone of my age apart from perhaps newsgroups about computer games or fiction. I probably spent most of my time looking at the Trojan Room Coffee Machine or the latest Cool Site of the Day.

One of things that I did do was to join a MUSH - a 'Multi-User Shared Hallucination'. MUSHes are a bit like MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) where people travel around text-based fantasy worlds killing orcs and beasts and so on. I had a look at a few MUDs but I found most of them to be pretty pointless and in any case the other players had far more time to spend on them than I ever would. Even back then I considered something of a personal principle that if I was going to be involved in anything, I'd be involved as much as I could - which meant that a MUD was out of the question.

MUSHes are MUDs without the fighting, so they're just concerned with people sitting around and chatting - a bit like IRC but with a stronger sense of physical space and interaction. Anyway, I was in a bit of a whimsical mood at the time when I joined the MUSH, so I called myself 'Reason'. This caused no end of confusion for me since whenever I saw anyone on the MUSH, they'd always ask me 'Where's Rhyme?' and I had absolutely no idea of what they were talking about.

I was definitely an irritating brat some of the time back then, at least on the Internet (and some would also argue that I was off it - and still am now! Hah!).

The MUSH was called TooMUSH and it may well still exist today - its website is still online, but that was only last updated about five years ago. I can still recognise some of the names there; one of the administrators, Tangent, got me onto a beta-test programme for Ultima Online, which I was pretty happy about.

I find it pretty difficult to believe that I've been on the Internet since 1993 and for some reason I think that it would have been better being older or younger than I was. If I was older, I really would have appreciated being involved right from the start and maybe could have participated in some ground-breaking things - who knows, I could have even made a few million on an Internet startup? If I was younger, then right now I'd be growing up with the current whiz-bang Internet and would be able to take full advantage of it.

Not that it bothers me too much - you have to live some time and some place, and you might as well make the most of it.

/ forum / 11:11 am GMT

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