Saturday, October 11, 2003

I'm with Jacob Levy

I too am at about the 100 page mark of Quicksilver, and I won't have time for the rest of it for several weeks. There are lots of interesting things in it, but I don't think it has really got going from a narrative point of view yet. It isn't as self-consciously funny as a lot of Stephenson's other work, although it is occasionally. This isn't bad - just different.

The Samizdata post on animated movies is now up in its entirety. I started out just intending to post about Miyazaki's Spirited Away which I have now finally seen, but got carried away. The Miyazaki commentary is towards the end.
I hate computers

Well, I don't really. However, I am home at my computer in London because I had endless computer problems trying to submit a job application electronically that had been be in by a certain time yesterday, and I wasn't able to make a flight to Copenhagen that I had intended to be on because it took me to the last minute. (I am only about £30 out of pocket, so it isn't that bad. And I did ultimately get the application in on time. On the other hand, I would much rather be in Copenhagen right now. And for that matter I could have bought a really nice bottle of single malt whisky for the £30).

Secondly, I just wrote a big long post on animated movies for Samizdata, and the server is getting flakier and flakier, and only half of it got posted. And I have been now struggling with the server for over two hours trying to fix this. To no avail. As a positive, I at least did not lose the post. I shall post the rest of it when the server is better.

Thank goodness I have the reliability of Blogger for my personal blog.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Low cost electronics, and the curse of batteries

When I was a child, not all that many things ran on batteries. Radios. Torches (flashlights to my American readers). Mechanical toys. Wall clocks, perhaps. That was about it really. In the days of carbon batteries, torches, radios and clocks would run for a good while on these batteries, and moving toys would not. This would because moving toys have moving parts, and causing anything the move uses a lot of energy. But I didn't understand that then. (Now that I do understand it, it amazes me that you can get that much mechanical energy out of a simple chemical process. But I digress).

As life went on, more and more things that ran on batteries were invented. Portable video games, clock radios, more and more complicated mechanical and otherwise electronic toys. Cameras gained a certain amount of electronics, and needed batteries to run it. Lots more things I can't think of right now. Alkaline batteries were invented, which had longer lives, but which were chemically nastier if they broke than the carbon batteries. A slight improvement only. It became a matter of lore that rechargeable batteries did exist, and these were known as NiCd (Nickel Cadmium, pronounced "Ny-cad") but most people did not use these, as they were unreliable and expensive, produced dodgy voltages, and there were relatively few electrical devices for which the batteries needed to be replaced so often that disposable batteries were not adequate.

All this changed with the invention of the mobile phone. These went through power at a dreadful rate, and the batteries ran out after a day or two. (Initially it was worse, and the first mobile phones tended to by physically mounted in cars due both to their size and the power requirement). It would clearly be expensive and would regularly drive us mad to buy new batteries all the time, so mobile phones came to work with rechargeable batteries. You use the phone for a day or two, and then remember to plug it in to the charger at night so that it will be refreshed by the next morning. The laptop computer was also invented, and it used even more power, so there was enormous effort put into inventing new types of rechargeable battery that could deliver more power for longer. Two new generations of rechargeable battery were invented, the Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery and then the Lithium-Ion (LiI) battery.
We live in an age of low cost, high functionality, portable electronic devices. People got used to plugging their batteries in at the end of the day. Sadly though, battery technology did not advance anywhere near the speed with which almost every other technology in the average laptop advanced (possibly excepting the display). This is a shame, because new generations of technology initially consume more power than the old one, so one perhaps sad consequence of this is that newer devices often last for shorter periods of time before the battery runs out than do the older ones they replace.

And since them there has been a profusion of other electronic devices that we may want to carry around with us. The one that affects me personally is of course the digital camera. Careful readers of this blog will have noted my increasing frustration not so much with analogue photography per se, but with the time and cost of getting films back if I want to post things on my blog. I am not in a position to be able to afford the lovely digital SLRs that were discussed in the comments last time I brought this subject up, but I decided that I would get a digital compact with enough features to produce good photographs of me to e-mail to my mother, and also to produce good photos to put on this blog.

I quickly discovered that I could get a lot more in terms of features if I departed from the big name brands, and I ended up buying this cute little compact, something called a Trust 820 LCD POWERC@M Zoom. It's a four megapixel compact camera, and it cost only £95. (It only has a digital zoom, but this is far more acceptable with four megapixels than with two, given the "digital zoom" essentially means "crop off the edges and blow up what you see in the centre". It only cost £95, and came with a little cute tripod an a nice little case which attaches to my belt. It has a two year warranty, and it is fine for my purposes. In terms of the quality of the pictures or simple flexibility, it can't keep up with my analogue SLR, but for now it will do. In a couple of years when digital SLRs are cheaper and I have more money, I will buy one.

The aim is that I will carry this camera around with me most of the time as I do my mobile phone, so that if I see anything interesting I shall be able to get a picture and then blog it later. Because of that, I expect to use it a lot. And I quickly discovered a problem. The camera takes AA batteries, and came with a set of two alkalines. I used it for a day or so, taking a lot of shots, and then plugged it into my computer to download the pictures into the computer. I assumed that when it was plugged into the computer, it was drawing power from the USB port, so I was slightly perturbed when I unplugged it and discovered that the battery was flat. (It must be drawing some power from the USB port, because it continued to work even after the batteries were dead. I assumed that in fact the batteries were just close to exhaustion when I plugged it in, so I concluded immediately that this will not do, and to avoid paying as much for batteries as I do for film and processing for my analogue camera I would have to get some rechargeables. The instruction book for the camera said to use NiMH batteries and not NiCd. Because the British High Street retail business is so dreadfully uncompetitive, I had to go to a market to get rechargeables at a good price, but I did this, and it cost me an extra £10. I took the batteries home, charged them, and bingo. No more money spent on batteries. (I got four batteries and a charger for the £10, so I have a spare set). Oddly, though, when I plugged the camera into the computer again the next day, the same thing happened and the batteries ran down. With rechargeables this is not really an issue, however, but I will remember not to leave the camera plugged into the computer for prolongued periods. Right now I have had the camera in my pocket for three days since I recharged the batteries. This seems adequate. (After buying the batteries, I also realised the instruction book says the batteries should be at least 1800mAh, and the ones I have bought are 1300mAh. This doesn't seem to have mattered much, because the camera works fine with them).

Now, obviously what is happening is that if I buy a low end camera, the manufacturer is saving money by not providing rechargeable batteries, although a digital camera is a device for which you really need them. (Presumably a high end camera would come with rechargeables). However, I don't think this is actually bad. Because the batteries in question are standard AAs, I can buy them cheaply, and I can get spare sets and replacements easily. Often when you buy a mobile phone or a laptop computer or some product that comes with rechargeables already, the rechargeables in question are built to some proprietary design, and the only way to buy a spare or a replacement is from the manufacturer. And the price of this can be extortionate. (I decided not to buy a spare battery for my laptop when I was quoted a cost of £250). At least doing it this way means I am using an open standard.
No, he really wasn't

I wonder why Google sent this guy here?
Not much fun if it is yours though

It seems Nokia have produced some exploding mobile phones. Sounds like the most fun since those laptops that spontaneously caught fire that Apple produced a few years back.
Hayden breaks record

Batting for Australia against Zimbabwe today, Australian opening batsman Matthew Hayden scored 380, the highest score in the history of test cricket, a history which consists of 1661 matches over a period of 126 years, and breaking the previous record of 375 set by West Indian Brian Lara. Both Scott Wickstein and myself have written on the subject over at übersportingpundit.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

A cry for help

Some time ago, I switched to the UK ISP Freeserve. When I did so, Freeserve's software messed around with some of the sofware already on my system. One thing that it did was configure Outlook Express so that a box appeared at the bottom containing a couple of ads for Freeserve and related businesses. Although Freeserve is no longer my ISP, this has remained there. Yesterday, for some reason things changed so that this box is now taking up almost the whole of my Outlook Express screen. The Menu bar is at the top. There are a couple of toolbars underneath this, but underneath this where I would normally get the list of folders on the left and the titles of messages on the right, I am now simply getting a large blue box containing Freeserve's rubbish.

Does anybody have any idea how I can fix this? I have tried uninstalling Outlook Express and reinstalling it, but this didn't help. Presumably the Freeserve stuff is stored in some configuration file somewhere that wasn't deleted.

If anyone knows the answer, I would be hugely grateful. I have wasted a lot of time on this already.

Update: As to why the little freeserve window had grown to take up most of the screen and I couldn't resize it to get it back to its original size. I don't know. However, this advice on how to get rid of the "info pane" did make it go away completely, and I can now see my folders. Thankfully.
Michael Jennings quote of the day

The rain on my car is a baptism. I'm a new me. Ice man. Power Lloyd. My assault on the world begins now. I believe in myself, answer to no one.

--- John Cusack as Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything, written by Cameron Crowe.

(Has Steve Waugh seen this movie? It's release did coincide nicely with the turnaround in his career in the early 1990s).

I have a piece on ubersportingpundit explaining why I am not especially keen on the game of Rugby Union.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The long cricket season has begun

In virtually all of the world in which cricket is played except for England, the game is principally played at the time of the English winter (which may or may not be summer in the country in question). As more and more matches have been scheduled, most of the international cricket teams of the world have become more and more busy in this period, and the period itself has slowly expanded, so that it now generally starts in early October (sometimes even September) and goes through to May (and occasionally even June), with the season being centred on different months in different countries.

In any event, this long season has been underway for about a week. South Africa are in Pakistan, and are playing a one day series. After three matches, Pakistan lead the five match series 2-1. New Zealand are in India, and after one day, they are in a good position in the first test thanks to a hundred from Rahul Dravid. England are about to arrive in Bangladesh. And Zimbabwe are in Australia, with the first test to start in Perth this evening British time. Scott Wickstein has been covering the buildup to this on ubersportingbpundit, and I will be providing coverage there as well, of all sides but with a particular focus on my Australians. (I think that is where most of my cricket coverage will be from now on, although I will continue to provide links from here). Any any event, that little buzz of pleasure I get whenever Australia is playing is about to hit.
More Nobel stuff

And just as I was saying now often happens, the Nobel Chemistry prize went to something that was clearly biology - work by Americans Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon on mechanisms for how water passes in and out of cell walls that I have to admit that I was not familiar with.

The physics prize went to something I was quite familiar with, however. Anthony Leggett of Britain won the prize for an explanation of the working of superfluidity, in which Helium does really strange and unexpected things when cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. This is really cool (literally) and amazing stuff. The awared was shared with Russians Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginzburg, for theoretical work on the equally interesting but better known (and related) field of superconductivity.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Various encounters

Today I saw the white cliffs of Dover, went on a couple of ferries, discovered that Calais is just another dirty Channel port, had some fun with my new digital camera, had an unpleasant experience with the worst kind of English yob, and observed that Canterbury is still one of the nicest cities in England and is full of nice people, amongst other things. More when I have had some sleep.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Groping for recognition

It is Tuesday morning here in London, although not yet in the US. Just think. Today may well go down in infamy (or at least go down in something) as the day that Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, which I will say is not a development I was expecting at the start of the year. (We all knew he had ambitions in that direction, but I wasn't expecting him to get anywhere near achieving them).

Update: Yes, Schwarzenegger did indeed get elected. The main is clearly very smart and very capable, but an inexperienced politician, and not an especially nice man. My compliments to Mickey Kaus at Slate for the way he covered the recall election, too. He really did a great job. (I think reading his stuff pretty much conclusively proves both the things I said about Schwarzenegger, too)
On British children learning foreign languages

Brian Micklethwait has a piece on the British government setting up a new centralised bureacracy in order to encourage the teaching of foreign languages in British primary schools. Brian is disdainful, believing that all that will happen is that the bureacracy will eat up the budget for teaching languages, and generally get in the way of actual education. Brian is very likely right, but none the less I have some thoughts on whether British children are likely to learn more foreign languages in the future than they do now. And, oddly enough, I am reasonably optimistic.

I studied a couple of years in German at high school. I didn't learn to speak German, as I didn't study it for long enough, and I wasn't taught well enough. It would have been better if I had leaned to speak German, but oddly enough it still wasn't a waste of time. One major reason for this was that for some unearthly reason the fad at that time in the teaching of English was that it was not necessary to teach any formal grammar at all. Somehow the idea was that you learn your language through speaking it, and knowing what a noun and a verb are is a distraction. Or something.

And, quite seriously, my English teachers were not required or even encouraged to teach me even that much - what is a noun and what is a verb. However, when studying German I was taught some grammar: so I thus learned the difference between a past tense and a past participle, and the difference between the nominative and the accusative cases. And it was certainly worth it for this reason alone. Plus I did at least learn enough German that when I go to Germany I can figure out what signs say, even if I cannot understand more than a tiny fraction of what people are saying.

Of course, at school I was not even required to study the small amount of a foreign language that I did. (However, I was encouraged to do so by my mother in particular. And she was absolutely right to encourage it). And amongst my fellow students the response to the idea of my learning German was "Why on earth would you want to do that?". Now part of this was the simple issue that English is the dominant language of the world: it is perfectly possible to function at almost any level in our globalised world speaking only English. This is not true in any other language. Part of this, I now realise, was that I was going to end up a more globally minded person than many of my classmates, and to be honest I was even then, although I perhaps didn't realise it yet. Since then, I've been to Germany more times than most of my classmates have. (They are Australians though. At least a few of them have been to Bavaria towards the end of September, if nowhere else in Germany).

However, the point about living in Australia is that it is isolated. While you do hear foreign languages spoken in the street from time to time, when you go up in Australia you never go anywhere where English is not the normal language of discourse. I did not visit a country where English was not the normal language spoken until I visited Hong Kong in 1987, and even that was a place where English was actually an official language and where it was the language of officialdom, if not most of the population. Excluding a day trip into China proper on that trip, I didn't visit an entirely foreign language speaking country until I visited France in 1992 when I was 23 years old.

And for encouraging you to learn a foreign language, there is nothing like being immersed in one, and wishing that you could communicate. I am sure that if I had been exposed to foreign languages like this when I was a child, I would have been pretty eager to learn them.

And this, rather than new bureacracies designed to encourage today's children to learn languages, is what strikes me as perhaps encouraging. With travel in Europe costing as little as it now does, huge numbers of British children today travel regularly to France and Spain in particular. Does this make them want to learn foreign languages? I have to think that in some cases that it must. I think it would have at least had this effect on me if it had been something I was exposed to as a child. This is a different thing to growing up in a non-English speaking country, particularly a small one, where you can see an immense world out there and you know you are unable to participate in it properly without learning English. But it is something. And I shall be interesting in seeing where we are on that particular issue in a few years time.

(While Australian children travel outside the country more than they did 20 years ago, they still do so much less frequently than do British people, because of the distance and expense. And the languages of most countries near Australia are non Indo-European and thus much harder to learn. (Okay, there are one or two French speaking islands in the Pacific, but that is about it). I think even Australian children actually are learning more languages. But it is not the same as it potentially is in Britain).

The British publication date was Friday October 3. Amazon dispatched it to me on October 4 and I received it on Monday October 6. This is perfectly satisfactory service, but not perfect. For the latest Harry Potter book, Amazon managed to post it on the day before publication, so that it managed to arrive on the morning of publication day. It would be nice if Amazon could manage to do this for all new books - particularly really anticipated ones like Quicksilver. Their logistics and supply systems are normally very good, and this is one way they could be slightly improved.

Of course, I ordered another book at the same time in order to get free shipping, which may have made the exercise harder, but maybe not. In cases where an order contains pre-orders of yet to be published books, Amazon should aim to post the day before the publication date of the book with the last such date. They are not quite managing it.

As for the book, it's the British edition. British editions are never as well put together as American editions, and having had a look at both editions of this one, this seems to be the case for this one too, although this one is actually better than most. The most common criticism of British hardcovers is that they are glued rather than sewn. This one is sewn, which is good. The paper seems a little shinier and thinner than in the American edition - presumably meaning the US edition has acid free paper and the British one doesn't - and the printing seems a little uneven. (Some pages are darker than others). The American edition looked nicer, and would also look better on my bookshelf next to the American edition I have of Cryptonomicon. But these are not good reasons to pay nearly twice as much. The British edition looks generally fine.

However, one thing that is less fine seems to be a puzzling editorial decision. The American edition opens with a map of baroque Europe, which is no doubt useful for following the action. The British edition contains no such map. Why is this? I have no idea. I feel slightly deprived, however.

I now have to not spent too much time reading it over the next three to four weeks. I have too many other things to do.

Update: I am actually sitting at a free internet terminal in a public library. I had the book sitting next to the keyboard. Somebody came up from behind me, and asked "Is that your book?". I said "Yes". He said "You lucky devil", and walked off. He had just had a small hope that there was a library copy lying on a desk three days after publication, I suppose.

It's not so much that I'm lucky, though. Just that I was willing to fork over a little cash.

I had a very pleasant dinner last night with an old friend of mine. He is a fund manager. I am an unemployed stockbroker. And, over the Peking Duck, we had a long, impassioned, and surprisingly detailed conversation about number theory. This was surprisingly cool. (We both have PhDs in mathematics, but mostly they seem in the past).

The Nobel Price for medicine and physiology has been awarded to Paul Lauterbur of the United States and Peter Mansfield of Britain, the developers of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), originally called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), and still called that in non-medical contexts - the use of MRI became common because patients are often frightened of the word "nuclear". These are extremely worthy winners, but the intersting thing is that the medicine price has actually been given to a breakthrough that is principally about medicine.

When the Nobel Prizes were introduced, the choice of subjects reflected which sciences had the highest profiles in the 1890s. Therefore there are three science prizes: physics, chemistry, and medicine. In the second half of the 20th century, there have I think been two breakthroughs that come above all others and which have changed the scientific world utterly - and which are in the proces of changing the world utterly without the adjective "scientific" being necessary. One is the invention of the computer, and the other is the unlocking of the genetic code and the consequent revolution in the biological sciences.

Biology has become perhaps the most important science of all. As there is no Nobel Prize for biology, the medicine prize has de-facto taken this role. The prizes have been given to people who have made biological breakthroughs in general, and if necessary the argument can be made that these will in most cases eventually filter there way through to medicine. In addition, chemistry has become less interesting a science in its own right, and the chemistry prize has also been given more and more frequently to people whose work probably qualifies as biology first and chemistry second.

Physics has remained physics, however. The subject is perhaps not the queen of the sciences it once was, but lots of interesting stuff is still being done.

And should there be a Nobel Prize for Computer Science? The trouble with computers is that a large portion of the world population now uses them, which might influence the award. If it were to exist, I think it should only be for people who have done revolutionary work - say the person who invented quicksort or the person who invented packet switching. (I think it would be best to avoid giving it to Bill Gates and Tim Paterson for MS-DOS, or the like). Mathematicians have been known to grumble about there being no Nobel Prize for mathematics. In a way this is now a shame. It could have evolved into a prize sometimes given to mathematicians and sometimes computer scientists. But because it had a nice theoretical name like "mathematics", the pressure to cheapen it would be weaker.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

More redirection

Another letter from me on movies in the Chicago Sun-Times. Essentially I sent Ebert a summary of the piece I wrote here about Sofia Coppola a couple of weeks back. He cut it even more before publishing it, but still, it's there.

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