March 05, 2007

Second Life is wierd. And sad, but not in the way you'd expect.

A couple of weeks ago my then boss at work mentioned in passing that as a company we were looking at establishing a presence on Second Life, but that the IT guys seemed to be far to busy to ever get round to it. Seeing the chance to waste some company time building virtual buildings, I volunteered to have a look at it.

Second Life, for those of you who better things to do than concern yourself with what is essentially an internet ghetto, is a virtual 3D world created by the company Linden Labs. It differs from most 3D online worlds in that it isn’t part of a game, as such, with no clearly defined goals or rules. Instead, it provides an environment to create and trade virtual objects, leading to a virtual continent, with virtual cities, composed of individually realised buildings, inhabited by virtual “avatars” of real people.

Now, I’ll state early on that I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and happen to think personally that a 3D object based “Metaverse”, in one form or other, will replace the text-page-based internet as we know it in the not too distant future. So my experience of Second Life was very much coloured by my disappointment that the Meterverse, it ain’t.

Leaving aside the people for a moment, there seem to be two sides to what I saw in Second Life, on the one side, the large corporate-created virtual office buildings, and on the other personal houses. The first is what my boss wanted for our company. So I went and had a look at the Bloomberg HQ. Big, fairly dull building, with lots of interactive Bloomberg screens showing various content. Ditto in most of the other corporate warehouses, overall the kind of dull design only a committee could achieve, coupled with occasional surreal flashes. One of the IBM buildings an office space complete not just with virtual cubicles and virtual houseplants, but also a virtual vending machine selling a virtual Snickers bar. The design of this totally unused and unusable workspace probably took more time than the virtual architecture of the building.

Personal “homes” reflect a much wider range of skill level, and are much harder to describe in a few lines, so I shan’t bother. Other than the purely artistic houses, you also see shops and such like, reflecting the real function of second life – buying and selling.

Commerce in Second Life uses the Linden dollar, tradeable against the US dollar at roughly 250 to one. Yep, you spend “real life” money to get “virtual reality” money, which you can then spend in-world. You can, theoretically, make enough VR money in-world and trade back into RL money to support your RL lifestyle, although in practice very, very, very, few people manage to do this.

The money to be made seems to be in VR property development and product design. Property development is just buying up land as it’s released by Linden Labs (who’ve been criticised for holding the supply of land down, although this probably reflects their lack of RL infrastructure to support it, rather than any arch-capitalist goals) and selling it on. Product design is a bit more interesting.

On the one hand object design. Now a cubic meter of gold is relatively easy to design in VR, a half eaten chicken leg almost impossible, so the economics can be very different from RL. Good, or realistic, objects can be worth quite a lot in world. Good hair, for example, is harder to create than you’d first think.

Because land costs (quite a lot of) money, most people concentrate first and foremost on their personal appearance, buying clothes, jewelary, and so on, so the market is quite active. Incidentally, it doesn’t come as much surprise to see almost no fat or short avatars, but it’s slightly more interesting to see almost no non-white avatars.

On the other hand, script design – creating objects that do stuff. Hence the vending machine mentioned above needed to be set up with a script that created an object (the virtual snickers bar) when it was touched by an avatar, and so on. The scripting language is unique to Linden Labs, but didn’t seem ridiculously hard to learn. Also in this category fall avatar scripts, things that make your avatar dance, jump, etc. realistically.

So what’s the point of all this, anyway? Well, I’m not quite sure. Now our company wants to have a presence in SL simply because, well, other companies do. Now in RL we’re obviously nowhere near competing with Cognos or IBM, but in SL we could have a private island three times the size of theirs with even better virtual vending machines. Which is a boost to someone’s ego, I guess. It’s also, I have to admit, conducive to meetings and conferences between people in geographically dispersed offices, and could potentially tie in quite nicely with our line of work in ways I can’t go into here.

But companies are very much the exception. Most of the stuff in second life is generated by private individuals for, well, fun. Now, I can’t really criticise obsessive interests in internet pursuits per se, I can’t help feeling that much of the stuff people do in second life is pretty small minded. There’s SL sex, but I don’t really care to investigate that. For one thing it takes quite a lot of avatar customisation. Instead, take for example, SL discos. (Somehow the word “disco”, which ordinarily I’d never use, strikes me as appropriate. I’m not quite sure why.)

Now, you take your heavily customised avatar, dress it up in carefully crafted virtual clothes and jewellery, take it along to a virtual dancefloor and make it execute carefully crafted dancemoves in sync with streamed music. Since all but the very very best avatars dance rather like the German entry for the Eurovision song contest the result is unlikely to impress the casual viewer. (In case you’re wondering, no I didn’t try myself. I certainly wasn’t going to buy dance scripts, and anyway, I don’t need a virtual world to dance badly.)

Second Life seems very much to be trying too hard to mimic the real world. It’s as if when the internet came out the greatest focus had been on trying to mimic the look and feel of the printed word. Am I the only one who finds sites that put text online in the form of virtual book with pages that have to be read and turned one by one incredibly irritating? The whole advantage of having computerised text is that it doesn’t have to be treated like a book. That’s why internet sites are moving further and further away from being simple “pages” with text and pictures. Likewise, the whole point of having a virtual world is that it doesn’t have to conform to real life rules. Automatic doors are an interesting case. Now to have an automatic door, you have to script an object that reacts in a certain when an avatar approaches within a certain distance from a certain direction. But what’s the point of a door, anyway? In RL it’s to keep the weather out. In SL, if you don’t want people coming in, have a wall, if you do, don’t have a wall. Doors, particularly doors that reflect a certain design based on current economics and technology, are completely pointless in SL, and they’re not even there by default. You have to design them specifically.

Avatars are an even more interesting case. Now, as I’m sure you know, an “avatar” is a mortal incarnation of a (Hindu) god. If I might be permitted to speak for a god, it seems the whole point of the exercise is to take on the attributes of the mortal plane, take on the limitations of the human body. If you wanted to be a god, you’d stay a god, only if you wanted to be human would you limit yourself to the human body. Now, the word avatar derives from the Sanskrit for “descend”, more or less, reflecting the metaphysical “step down”. What we have with a computer “avatar” is a more of a step up in nature: the possibilities are much greater without the physical limitations imposed on us by the material plane we inhabit. So, why oh why do we spend hours carefully attempting to mimic the limitations of the physical reality we’re forsaking?

How long has the internet been around? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m really not sure. 15 years? Thereabouts. It’s only now we’re getting websites that are more than just re-hashings of material formerly held elsewhere. Company websites are really just brochures in flashy formats; wikipedia, for all it’s collaborative content, isn’t really much more than a fancy reference book. The difference lies in things like blogs “transcending the public / private boundary”, and myspace/facebook/WAYN/bebo/insert-flavour-of-month-here “creating a new paradigm of social relationships”. It’s very difficult to imagine a pre-internet equivalent. (This is, incidentally, my personal working definition of Web 2.0.)

So maybe it’ll take a decade or so for us to concieve of ways to use SL / the 3D metaverse for something truly original. The problem is that, if I might be permitted a sweeping generalisation on the forces behind technological change, new inventions achieve widespread adoption if they help people do old stuff better, only later being used to do new stuff. And right now, SL doesn’t really seem to help anyone do anything better.

Why not? Well, first off, it’s expensive. Leaving aside the investment in terms of technology and time, which cut the market down to rich western kids, stuff in second life costs money. Although many things are cheap, land isn’t. To buy a private island costs about 1600 dollars. (This revelation shelved our company’s exploration into SL, at least for now.) Without land to build your own environment, you are pretty much confined to interacting in someone else’s. This is, I suspect, an inherent confine to innovation. It’s also impossible (I believe) to design physical objects outside the world. So you can’t, for example, play around with 3D design then import the chosen version into Second Life. So there are no third party design tools. This limits innovation within the boundaries defined by the Linden Labs tools provided.

(An exception is avatars. You can work with Poser, a piece of software use to model human movements. If you want a non human avatar you have to work a bit harder, but it can be done.)

I’m left with the curious sensation that Second Life is to the Metaverse what the Compuserve “walled garden” was to the Internet. You can do a lot of stuff that’s pretty cool, if you like that sort of thing, but only what the designers were already thinking of when they originally set up the project. And the whole point of great technology is that it allows people to do a whole lot of stuff that they’d never have originally thought of.


February 11, 2007

Getting rid of books?

The time has come, I am forced to admit, to get rid of some of my books. I was looking around my flat the other day, thinking that I should really get around to bringing up the last few bits and pieces of my stuff, when it occurred to me that there was no practical way I could possibly fit in all my books.

Having spent the last 5 years moving round the country between various student lodgings I’ve been storing all my books at the house of my long suffering grandmother, which is beginning to resemble a library. So the last time I went down to visit her, I decided to try and work out which books I actually wanted to keep, and which could be safely consigned to a better home.

Now most people would simply gather piecemeal all the books they didn’t want, put them in boxes, and take them off to a second hand bookshop. But I decided to proceed more systematically. Now a while ago I discovered a rather curious site www.librarything.com that allows you to catalogue books and use them to generate recommendations and so on. Another of those sites that will probably be totally pointless to the vast bulk of the population, and ridiculously addictive to a tiny minority…

Anyway, I thought it would be quite nice to keep a record of books, even if I did decide to get rid of them, and it also seemed like an easy way to tag books for disposal, without the need to keep running up and down the country. That I way, I’d be able to work out a list, print it out, and post it to the long suffering grandmother, who could dispose of the books whenever she had time. Unfortunately this required manual entry of either title/author data or ISBNs. So I spent the best part of a day laboriously working my way along shelves, entering numbers into the computer. Thanks to the wonders of librarything, the results are actually viewable online…

For the first time, I became aware that I have literally hundreds of mediocre fantasy novels. I have scores of books that I have not the slightest intention of ever reading again, old course books, books that I bought on impulse because they were on special offer, random non-fiction books that caught my eye in second hand bookshops, and an entire collection of Teach Yourself language books for which the only justification is that I once used them in an essay on linguistics. So really, the question is not “which books should I get rid of?”, but “which books are worth keeping?”.

So which books are worth keeping? Well, reference books, for a start, but really, in the age of the internet, the only reference book I regularly use is a good dictionary. And a road atlas every now and then. The rest can pretty much go. But can I really bring myself to get rid of a perfectly good dictionary of languages? A guide to English usage? One of those delightful Victorian books that profess to contain information on just about everything? Who’s who in British history?

What are the books that everyone should have? Hmmm… A Complete Works of Shakespeare, a Bible? A Koran? Where do we stop? I’ve got a Bhagavad-Gita, a Book of Mormon I stole from a hotel room, one of those books the Jehovah’s Witnesses give out to anyone who talks to them for more than a minute, a couple of books of sayings of the Dalai Lama – one of which is in Italian. Oh, and the Tao Te Chi. Rather suspicious for an avowed atheist.

Fiction should be pretty easy – if a)I didn’t like the book, and / or b) I’m unlikely ever to read it again, it should go. But what about classics that I might not like now, but might appreciate in my dotage? What about books I enjoyed as a child? Should I keep them for sentimental reasons? What happens if it’s a series and I liked some and not others? Should I keep the series together?

Non-fiction is even worse. Should I get rid of all books I’m not likely to read again, no matter how interesting they were? What about old textbooks – can I really bring myself to just throw out all those books I spent hours slaving over? Coffee table books – so I don’t actually have a coffee table at the moment, but suppose I get one? What would I do then? And should I keep a smattering of erudite tomes around to look impressive?

Then there’re all the books I haven’t actually got around to reading – am I likely to read them or not? How am I to judge? Why the hell did I buy them in the first place? Why do I have an English / Norwegian dictionary?

I have to confess, before I put them in the database, I had long since forgotten most of these books, but now I’ve dug them all up again, they suddenly seem indispensable. I may be here some time….


February 07, 2007

Things to do when your back's to the wall…

... in the literal sense. The other day someone asked me whether I’d given up writing blog posts, and I replied by complaining about being too busy working. Fortunately a re-arrangement of the office has meant that we’ve moved into the other end of the building, and my desk is now carefully positioned to leave me free to write random crap whilst pretending to work.

(Hmm, this built in spellchecker for Firefox is good, isn’t it? Now I don’t have to worry at all about my inability to spell…)

I have of course, little to write about at the moment, except to take a moment to praise the guy on the boat the other day who found my lost mobile phone, and took the trouble to call up the last numbers dialled, track me down, and give it back. Just goes to show that there are some nice people left in the world!

JJ


November 12, 2006

Pointless Statistics

One of the consequences of ripping all my music to MP3 and playing it in winamp is that winamp keeps track of each play of each song, and can generate and export a list of most played songs. I happened to glance over this list today, and am not entirely sure whether I should be embarressed or just confused. This is over the last 18 months or so since I last reinstalled winamp, every song played more than 10 times (playcount in brackets):

Green Day – Holiday (21)
Duran Duran – what happends tomorrow (21)
Bon Jovi – Blaze of Glory (20)
Coldplay – White Shadows (19)
Green Day – Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (18)
REM – Aftermath (17)
Bebel Gilberto – Aganjú (17)
Snow Patrol – Run (17)
Green Day – American Idiot (16)
The Rasmus – In The Shadows (14)
U2 – City Of Blinding Lights (13)
Simply Red – Fairground (13)
The Killers – Somebody Told Me (13)
Foo Fighters – DOA (13)
Pulp – Common People (13)China Crisis – Wishful thinking (13)
Blind Melon – No Rain (13)
The Killers – Midnight Show (12)
The Killers – Mr Brightside (12)
Bon Jovi – In These Arms (12)
Franz Ferdinand – This Boy (12)
Alice Cooper – Poison (12)
Oasis – Little By Llittle (12)
The Wonder Stuff – The Size of a Cow (11)
Tears for Fears – Mad World (11
Franz Ferdinand – The Fallen (11)
Robbie Williams – Let Love Be Your Energy (11)
The Farm – All Together Now-Original Version (11)
Queen – Living on My Own (Freddie Mercury) (11)
INXS – Beautiful Girl (11)
Keane – Somewhere Only We Know (11)
Electric Light Orchestra – Hold On Tight (11)
Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Love Flow (11)

(33 songs)

I did once try to compile a list of my top 20 or so favourite songs, but gave up. I don’t think, though, that I’d include any of the above songs. So maybe I don’t know myself as well as I thought?

Anyway, I’m blogging this to have something to refer people to next time I find myself unable to give a succint answer to the question “what sort of music do you listen to?”.


September 30, 2006

The God Delusion

Title:
The God Delusion
Author:
Richard Dawkins
ISBN:
0593055489
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Well, I know I decided to stop writing book reviews, but I decided to make an exception for this book…

Following up on his recent TV programme The Root of All Evil, Dawkins’s latest book mounts an attack on religion, from just about every angle he can find. ‘Although at times he veers dangerously close to ranting, for the most part The God Delusion is well argued and thorough.

Dawkins largely limits himself to the Abramaic (Abrahamaic?) religions, and it would have been nice to have little more space given to anthropological considerations of just why people believe. Those are, however, covered extremely well by Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, which I’d reccomend to anyone interested.

I enjoyed this book, but was already familiar with most of the arguements used both for and against religion, and have always been a staunch atheist, so to a large extent he was preaching to the choir. I’d be extremely interested to know whether anyone with any degree of religious beliefs has read this book, and if so, what they made of it. I’m quite tempted to buy some more copies and give them to religious people I know, but that might be taken as an insult, so I won’t!


September 25, 2006

Fear and terror

Somewhat ironically, the one day we get out of work before 7, there happened to be a bomb scare on the train which meant I might as well have stayed for another half hour getting some more research done. Instead I spent 20 idly considering Wembly stadium whilst waiting for some stupid fool to reclaim his bag. It lead me to consider 1) it’s not actually an unattractive stadium, in fact it seems something of a shame to waste of good architecture to use it for sport; and 2) do people really feel threatened by terrorism?

Now although one gentleman was concerned enough to pull the communication cord (I’m probably showing my age in the use of that term…) no one on the carriage looked at all worried, just irritated in a resigned fashion. Yet from what the papers say regarding opinion polls, we’re all terrified of the the possibility of another “7/7”.

Which leads me to ask, is it possible to distinguish between the emotional fear one has when confronted with, say, a burglar in the wardrobe; and the intellectual fear one has of a perceived potential material threat- i.e. the worry that there might be a burglar in the wardrobe. Or are they merely variations in intensity in the same phenomenon?


September 20, 2006

Identity Security?

Well, perhaps one of the least considered aspects of graduating was the fact that the login code for this blog would run out. I’d scarcely given it a thought when I happened to speak to someone the other day about the dangers of how how a blog, particularly a blog with a relatively high google rank, means that Unknown Others can find out information about you relatively easily. They asked me to remove any mention of themself that might appear on my blog in an attempt to remove their online presence. Now previously I’d simply ignored this issue of online privacy, basking in the comfort of having a name that generates more than 200,000 google hits, as opposed to the slightly rarer name of the person to whom I was speaking, which typed into google will produce a (correct) postal address and details on the first or second page.

This got me thinking. Should I be attempting to cover all my tracks on the internet? After all, do I really want people to know I take such a careless approach to spelling when deprived access to an automatic spellchecker? Might I one day fail to obtain a job I want because a recruiter disagrees with my opinions on an obscure sci-fi film?

What I concluded was that frankly, it’s too late. I’m prepared to believe that just about any digital information sent into cyberspace can be later found, bouncing round the virtual cosmos like the electromagnetic echoes of the big bang. I think that if someone really wanted to do so, and were prepared to spend the money, they could find tracks of just about everything I’ve ever done online.

So frankly, I believe that the internet should be regarded as “public”, in the same way that, say, the supermarket is. Anything I say in any online format, I shall, or should, regard in the same way as I would regard something said publically. In other words, I shall refrain from saying anything obviously stupid, and be fully aware that anything I do say might come back to haunt me.

Which prompts the question, should I try to minimise my online presence? Well, if you think about it, an increasing amount of “life” is conducted online, which means that anyone whose name fails to produce a “reasonable” paper trail on google could easily be suspected of hiding something….

So, I think I’d better keep this blog going…


August 07, 2006

Reading Roundup

Title:
Various....
Rating:
Not rated

Reading Roundup

Being somewhat busy for the last couple of weeks, I haven't had a chance to post anything, particularly not reviews the last load of books I've read. However, rather than post individual review, I've decided to take a different approach. Looking back, it seems that with most of the books I've reviewed, I really haven't had anything particularly interesting to say. Particularly not for the mediocre fantasy novels I devour by the ton. In addition, during the period I've been posting reviews, I've accounted for more than half of the book reviews posted on the whole Warwick Blogs network. Which seems a little excessive, and probably a bit boring for anyone who actually reads them. (Incidentally, I have no idea whether anyone actually reads what I write about any of these books – but that is after all the whole point of blogs…)

So instead I'll post a roundup every week or so, in which as well as giving a star rating and a few comments I'll try and make some sort of general summary of what I've learnt. This way anyone who reads my blog but is sick of the bloody book reviews can skip over it in one go for the occasional post of interest. Unfortunately it's a bit hard this time, as I've left it two weeks and I'm faced with quite a selection:

Robert Harris – Pompeii
Peter Barry – Beginning Theory
Tad Williams – Tailchaser's Song
Terrance Dicks – Timewyrm: Exodus
Mark Thomas – As used on the famous Nelson Mandela
Jonathan Carroll – The Wooden Sea
Tim Powers – The Annubis Gates
Martin Meredith – The State of Africa
Benoit B. Madelbrot and Richard L. Hudson – The (Mis)behaviour of Markets
Naomi Novik – Temeraire: Throne of Jade

So first let's pick out the obvious theme: history.

Now The State of Africa is a "pop" history of Africa since independence, with particular attention given to the generally dismal record of African leaders. (It occured to me that this book might well stir up criticism from the sort of critics who take western writers' criticising anything African as Cultural Imperialism At Work, but I didn't take it that way at all.) This is not a particularly cheerful book. In fact, Meredith dwells for so long on the suffering caused by various dictators that the book degenerates into something of a hard slog. His habbit of jumping from country to country and leader to leader means that I at least soon lost track of just who was who. What would have been particularly helpful would have been a list of countries with chronologies of leaders. But that's nitpicking what is a fascinating and comprehensive history of modern Africa. There's not a country ignored, and although some receive scant attention – the relatively successful Botswana rates about five pages, for example – Meredith strikes a good balance between historical narrative and specific anecdotes. This really is a book that should be read by anyone interested in Africa, as even if the details don't necessarily sink in, it gives an excellent overview of the tumultuous years since independence. I give it 4 stars, very nearly 5.

From a history book, we move to Pomeii, a historical novel set in the time of the famous eruption. Unfortunately it doesn't measure up to the standards set by Harris in his other books. It's not that it's bad, just unexceptional, and coming from Harris, this is a disappointment. It's easily readable, but the plot, concerning a young engineer sent to maintain the acquaduct, is predictable; the largest portion of the book is given to build up to a climax already known by the reader; and the characters aren't amazing either. Actually that's not entirely true, I did like the portrayal of the Plinys , the Plinies , the Elder and Younger Pliny. Coming from anyone else, this would maybe, maybe, get three stars, but I know Harris can do much better. Two stars.

Moving from history to alternate history, we have Temeraire: Throne of Jade, the second in a trilogy of books set in Napoleonic Europe. With dragons. In book one, we learnt how the eponymous Chinese Dragon Temeraire was captured as an egg from the French and turned out to be very important indeed, and in this book, the Chinese want him back. So Temeraire and his handler, the impecably polite Captain Laurance, travel to China to plead the case for Britain keeping him. The result: (reasonably well thought out, if unoriginal) political machinations and (lovingly described) sea battles galore. This is not great literature, but it's highly readable, mainly because Novik uses a style I'm at a loss to describe, but that calls to mind the tone used by one's elderly maiden aunt to address the town council. She also does a good job with the dragons, thinking through the various social and political effects. I'll be a bit generous and give it three stars.

Now, I will add that Temeraire requires a rather interesting suspension of disbelief. I'm not talking about the dragons themselves, it goes without saying that they require a suspension of disbelief, but this is fiction, after all. And to a certain extent they can be logically posited in a way that the Emperor Napoleon cannot. To refer to an essay the title and location of which I've long since forgotten, positing a point of departure in history from our current timeline logically requries every event that takes place in the temporally downstream light cone of the point of departure to be affected by said change. In other words, if one were to hypothesise that, say, a child of Queen Anne survived her and inherrited the throne, everyone in Britain, and to a certain extent the rest of the world, would be affected to the point where two centuries hence, even if the social structures remained comparable to our own (and this is obviously highly debateable), the individuals could not possibly be the same. In other words, to hypothesise a world with dragons is reasonable (if one comes up with a tenuous expanation of how they can be so big heavy and yet fly), and hence SF alternate history (Harry Harrison does something fairly similar in West of Eden, in which dinosaurs survive (with appropriate evolutionary changes)) but to posit a world with dragons, hence a point of departure, what, millenia into the past, which contains the Emperor Napoleon fighting the very same Battle of Trafalgar, but with dragons, is just, well, silly. So this is one of the very few fantasy novels I've read that is not merely impossible, but intrinsically logically impossible.

It's still a good read, though.

From alternate history, three books about time travel: Timewrym: Exodus is a Doctor Who New Adventure, ie a story writen for a novel, not a novelised tv script. It's the second book in a linked series of stories, and the reason I bought it is because I found it in a charity shop and mistook it for the rarer, and more valuable, fourth book. It reads like a particularly good Target novelisation (not that anyone reading this will have read a Target novelisations, but hey), but Terrance Dicks, as always, aims for easy mediocrity, rather than attempting anything ambitious. So we see the (seventh) Doctor and Ace thrawt at attempt by an Alien Entity to take over Adolf Hitler and win the second world war for the Axis. Fun. Two stars.

Slightly more intellectual is The Anubis Gates, where a 20th century Coleridge expert finds himself in the middle of the eighteenth century, caught between a time travelling tycoon and a bunch of Egyptian sorcerors. I said slightly more intellectual. Powers writes an extremely entertaining tale, if one is prepared to overlook the more implausible plot twists. Varying from ridiculously predictable to totally unexpected the many twists and surprises kept me gripped, and this is a book that really does deserve every page it uses, which makes for a nice change in fiction. I liked it, anyway. Four stars.

More intellectually pretentious is The Wooden Sea, in which the protagonist finds himself caught up in a plot involving his younger self, a dog that won't stay burried, and mysterious higher entities. Unfortunately it soon degenerates into incoherence. God only knows what the author was getting at. Two stars.

Well, that's the easy link done. The other three books resist easy classification, but there's not much to say about them anyway. Beginning theory is a very readable textbook introduction to literary theory (four stars), As used on the famous Nelson Mandela is a mildly amusing exposť of the arms trade (three stars), and The (Mis)behaviour of Markets is an attempt by Mandelbrot (as in the set) to apply chaos theory to financial markets (four stars).

Acually, I will say a bit about the last two. As used on the famous Nelson Mandela will either be enormously popular or sink without a trace, so I should probably write something about it, but it really didn't make that much of an impact. Maybe I'm just too cynical to be shocked of the dodgy politics and legalities of the arms trade. And for a book by a commedian, it's not that funny. Give me Mark Steel's history of the French Revolution, any day.

The (Mis)behaviour of Markets, on the other hand, is fascinating, but sadly likely to appeal only to those interested in both chaos theory and finance, a group that, in my experience, includes only myself. And I'm not that interested in financial markets. I would, however, reccomend it to the non-scientist who enjoyed James Gleick's Chaos – as there are lamentably so few books on chaos theory for the non mathematically knowledgable reader.

[Good grief. The number of tags I'll have to apply to this post is ridiculous. Maybe this isn't such a good idea…]


The joys of commuting

These last two weeks, I've had the pleasure of rising at 6:00 each morning to catch the train from Leamington to London, returning home just before 9:00 in the evening. Now normally this would provoke in me a three hour tirade on the inconveniences thereby suffered, but in fact, I can't say as I've really minded.

An hour and a half train journy twice a day has provided me with quite a nice time to justifiably do nothing in particular. I can sit, read the paper or a book, listen to music, or just gaze at the (admitedly somewhat monotonous) countryside, all without having the slightest feeling of guilt that I should be doing something more productive. In fact I might even miss this rather pleasent period of enforced idleness…


July 19, 2006

Well, isn't this nice….

As I'm fequently accused, by, well, just about everyone I know, of moaning constantly about, well, just about everything, I'd thought today's post would be a nice positive one.

After all, it's summer, it's hot, and isn't it good? Speaking as someone with nothing to do but laze around the house waiting for the beers to chill in the freezer, I'm loving this hot weather. Oh, sure, for those poor unfortunates travelling to work in 50 degree underground carriages, I have nothing but sympathy, but I, dear reader, am fortunately excluded from such company by dint of my being temporarily professionally disadvantaged.

So as I find myself in the garden in a deckchair with a book, my mind turns to the price we've paid for civilization. Would it not be a fine thing to be a hunter–gatherer on the savannas of africa? A morning spent gathering water and preparing tools, a lazy siesta, an afternoon tracking the heards of wildebeest while the missus gathers fruits and berries, a triumphant return to the camp for an evening bonfire and barbeque….

Well, I suppose it wouldn't have been like that at all, but it's a nice image, don't you think? Anyway, back to civilization, as I think the beers are probably cold by now.


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