Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sudoku (unfinished)

It has been well said that "Sudoku is a denial of service attack on the human intellect".

Sudoku is an entirely mechanical procedure. Solving a Sudoku is just following an algorithm. Many sudokus can be solved by the most mindless constraint-propagation approach. All can be solved by combining this with a backtracking search.

Some very hard puzzles would take a long time to solve this way by hand, so one can make the algorithm faster by putting in shortcuts which are not immediately obvious from the ground rules. Perhaps the fun is in deducing what these shortcuts are as one develops an intuition for the puzzle?

But it is a bit as if newspapers printed long multiplications and divisions daily with their answers the next day.

I've never really got it, but many people do. Why is is it so addictive?

It's definitely maths, though. It distresses me when people say it's not on the basis that it doesn't involve any adding up.

Granted the numbers aren´t really doing anything numeric. They may as well be different colours. Are there nine easily distinguishable colours? It might prove quite pretty presented like that. You'd need special coloured pens to solve it though.

But the puzzle is saying ¨Given that these things are true, what else must be true?¨, which is pretty much a definition of mathematics: ¨All that which can be reasoned about without error¨.

In fact, why not teach sudokus in maths classes? If people really find these sorts of formal systems interesting, there's a lot to learn from examining them.

Of course a possible consequence would be an all consuming addiction, with the whole of society wasting endless amounts of time. But that is happening anyway. And it would be a nice environmentally friendly way to waste time, which wouldn't hurt anyone. What are people supposed to do? Go out and get jobs so that they can buy cars?

I wonder if there's a useful analogy between sudoku and formal logic.

The rules of sudoku would be analogous to logic itself.

If you had a blank grid, then there would be many possible solutions available, which would be the analogues of all the possible formal systems.

Specifying that a particular number had to go in a particular place would reduce considerably the number of possible solutions, and would be the equivalent of adding axioms.

Certain combinations of axioms would be compatible, certain combinations would lead to contradictions.

Deductions about what other number-placements were forced by the axioms would be theorems of the system.

Certain combinations would lead to unique solutions, analagous to axiom systems which are both consistent and complete.

Sadly there's no Gödel theorem due to the finiteness of the system, but is it possible to make a sudoku like thing powerful enough to express the problem?

The Arse Bomber

Once upon a time, there was  "the shoe bomber". A drooling comedy halfwit type who failed to set fire to his shoe, causing worldwide terror.

In response to this, another drooling idiot and a man mainly famous for lying set fire to the wrong bit of the middle east, killing millions of people who'd never set fire to any shoes or anything.

One of the few people left alive threw his shoe at the idiot. Again it failed to explode.

In a display of spectacular ineptitude, two men attempted to set fire to themselves and a concrete airport building, succeeding in the first part of their aim.

This prompted an immortal letter to a well known national newspaper, which started "Sir, I can't help thinking that if baggage handlers at Glasgow Airport spent less time punching burning terrorists and more time handling baggage then my luggage and I ......."

Hot in the news at the moment is "the underpants bomber".

I see the hand of the Carry-On team in all this. What next? Will Osama "Bin" Laden actually turn out to be the dastardly Khazi of Kalabar?

But best of all so far are the efforts of "the Arse Bomber".

glorious, glorious terrorism

Behold this heroic young gentleman martyr. He stuffed his own rectum with grenades and some sort of timing device, then surrendered to the Saudi anti-terrorist forces and asked to meet Prince Nayef, who is in charge of the counter terrorist effort on the peninsular.

I think I see a problem here. Can you imagine what it would be like if Prince Charles were in charge of MI5? Or, God forbid, either of our other two princes?

The prince was reported to have been 'surprised' when his interlocutor exploded from the waist down. This is understated irony at its best. England salutes you, Prince Nayef.

Unfortunately, of course, one can't actually get that much TNT up one's arse, and the body is a fair blast shield. The poor sap succeeded only in blowing his own legs off. No one else present was hurt.

But can you imagine the mess? I hope they patch these fellows up before they hand them over to the virgins.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Menace from Earth (Robert Heinlein)

A collection of the old master's short stories. Nothing profound, all entertaining.

I do not think that the inner lives of women are as Heinlein thought they were. Nevertheless, the world would be more fun for all of us if they were.

Canopus in Argos: Archives. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (Doris Lessing)

This is actually rather good. I'd never have read it after the pitiful first book in this series if they hadn't both been Christmas presents, and nearly didn't read it anyway, but somewhere between volumes one and four of Canopus in Argos, the author has got the hang of it.

There's still nothing you'd call 'science fiction', it's more 'magic realism with occasional mention of spaceships'. And anyone with even A-level physics is going to have to ignore a certain amount of unlikeliness. But plenty of good books fit that description. And this is one.

It's a painful, suffocating story of a happy world being slowly entombed in ice.

The pompous smug emissary Johor is a key figure. But here he's a constant beacon of hope. His presence makes the whole story much worse. The ending is a beautifully cynical betrayal.

As a bonus "afterword", there's an excellent and thought provoking essay on Scott's doomed expedition to the Arctic.

It makes me wonder whether vols 2 and 3 might be worth reading too. And why I had such a bad reaction to vol 1.

Apparently this book was made into an opera. I can just imagine. I bet there aren't too many tunes you'd find yourself whistling.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Les Contes d'Hoffman (Opera at the Cinema)

I have a new favourite (non-Wagner) opera.

Contes d'Hoffman is comical, light hearted and deep.

I think a lot of the power of this production is in the direction. A lot of the muse's malign influence is suggested by her acting and movements on stage, and very little (or possibly none) by the words.

Perhaps she can be read as an entirely positive force. If she usually is, and if the opera loses some of its meaning if she is, then that might explain how I've managed to remain ignorant of its existence for nearly twenty years.

But the music is wonderful. When you spend the rest of the evening suppressing the urge to whistle you know that things have gone well.

I've not previously been impressed with the 'Live Opera at the Cinema' idea. I think it ruined a perfectly good Tristan and Isolde, and after a very fine Tosca a few weeks ago I was left thinking "That would have been wonderful. I wish I'd been there."

But this one worked fine.

Granted it's not the same as being in the opera house. There's a certain feeling of having been present at a performance missing, and the music sounds subtly wrong. The difference between a really good recording played on a really good amplifier and the real thing. Intangible, but there.

However, there are compensations.

The sound quality is even throughout the cinema, and all perfectly in balance, so the voices are always clear.

The camerawork (I think particularly skilled in this one) gives you a feeling of being actually on the stage, involved in the action. I've never had that in the Coliseum, or in fact in any large theatre. But you do sometimes get it in a small theatre in-the-round. And in a film. And sometimes watching rugby on a giant TV in a pub. And you get it here. And it's great.

So now I wonder why it hasn't worked for me before.

And  I can think of a few possible reasons, some of which I'm ashamed of:

The first is that this opera is just bloody good, and its cast are faultless. All wonderful, without exception. Each character a treasure to remember. The staging, costumes and direction inspired.

Another may be that the Met is getting the hang of filming opera. Presumably it's all fairly new to them, and it's taking a while to get the technique sorted out.

A third may be that this one was in French. My French isn't brilliant, and I'd have been lost without the subtitles. But with them to crib from in moments of difficulty I could understand fairly well. I don't think I'd have been able to for a real performance, since I sometimes had difficulty understanding opera in English at the Coliseum. But the clarity of the cinema sound makes it much easier.

Being able to understand the words as sung makes a big difference. This is the first one of these I've seen in French.

And the fourth reason, and the one that worries and shames me, and that I hope is the least important, is this:

Every actor and actress without exception in this production looked the part. All the young women characters were played by beautiful young women. And all of them sang easily, without looking short of breath or showing apparent effort.
And they could all act as well as sing, with their faces as well as their gestures.

That makes absolutely no difference in a real opera house, since they're a long way away, and a certain suspension of disbelief can make a paunchy fifty year old into the young superhero Siegfried, or a mountainous middle aged lady desperately sucking air into the ageless Valkyrie.

But it makes a huge difference if they're on display, thirty foot tall and only twenty feet away, with the camera taking close-ups of their faces.

And this production was self-consciously sexy. Underdressed chorus-girls. The ambiguous muse as Dietrich. I don't think it would have worked in the cinema if the characters had been more in the traditional operatic mold.

Besides making me feel rather trivial, this worries me. If these streamed operas become a significant source of revenue, are we going to see opera lose its focus on beautiful singing?

Might it mean that an actual visit to an opera house might be less magical in future, because the singers have been picked for the cameras?

Are good singers going to be confined to recordings, denied the opportunity to sing live, because they don't look the part?

A dreadful prospect. I worry. I am ashamed.

(And I have fallen for Kate Lindsey.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cambridge in the Snow

Wow! About five inches of snow in one night! Walking home in a magical wonderland. Oooh Christmas.

Mill Road in the morning is a hell of nasty black sludge and honking. See the fluffies of incompetence spinning their wheels on the ice near the grandmothers and the small children! Watch the dumb-ass proles in tracksuits seizing the chance to overtake by going from 0 to thirty in two seconds on a crowded icy street!

A bit later I'm watching two small children sliding around on the pavement, and remembering my own first snow. In Yorkshire it was all crispness and supernatural silence. I wonder if memories of terrifyingly slippery pavements in the middle of a town are the same thing.

Suddenly some cunt in a van drives fast through a puddle right next to them and covers them in freezing wet black filth. They're crying and their mother is trying to comfort them.

We really have to get rid of these things. Perhaps by machine gunning traffic at random? Maybe someone could do a feasibility study?

Once safely into town away from the bastards it's a wonderland again. Parker's piece is shiny and bright and clean in the sunshine. It's like the Alps. Only flat. But flat's good.

A big group of rowdy hoodies. One of them throws an idle snowball which hits my leg. I return fire. It ends up six to one and we're all laughing but it's about to get nasty and I'm covered in snow. I surrender and we all shake hands and wish each other Merry Christmas. Thank God for that! I thought I was dead. Good lads. Up for a fight but magnanimous in victory.

On into town. King's is so beautiful. My college. I still love it. In any weather it's wonderful. In the snow best of all.

On to the Castle. Lunch and a cigar in the garden. A perfect morning.

Le Premier Jour du Reste de ta Vie (film)

Wonderful, heartwarming, family comedy. Strangely for a French film it's not obviously set in Paris. But maybe it is and I just didn't spot key landmarks.

Zabou Brietman deserves a mention just for being so gorgeous.

A Serious Man (film)

Traditional Coen brothers' weirdness. No plot. No point. No ending, even. Very dark in a light-hearted sort of way. Awesomely Jewish from start to finish. The only understandable bit was the lecture on Quantum Physics. Wow his neighbour is sexy. How can someone saying "They're goys, aren't they?" make a goy go weak at the knees?

I love Jewish humour. I was unaccountably skipping down the street afterwards. All the way home.

Citizen Kane (film)

I've avoided seeing this on TV for so long in the expectation that someone would eventually show it full size. I was so looking forward to it.

I suppose a little disappointment was inevitable. It might have been better if I hadn't known who Rosebud was from the start.

I'm not saying it's bad. I'm glad I went to see it. It's affecting. It made me think. A bit.

It's just that from what's generally agreed to be the best film of all time, I was expecting something a bit more.

Maybe you had to see it at the time. Or maybe I just didn't get it.

The Godfather (Film)

My God this is a good film. It's three hours long and I was amazed it was over so quickly. Absolutely riveting from start to finish. Not one wasted scene. And I've seen it before. Twice.

Where the Wild Things Are (Film)

Nicely captures the fact that children are utterly insane. Goes on a bit.
Don't know how children will react. Don't bother if you're an adult.

Cracks (Film)

Alive as I am to the necessity of setting desperate deadly lesbian intrigues in girls' schools, I can't help wondering if it would have been possible to come up with a plot that didn't require every single character to be barking mad from start to finish.

What was all that about? What was the point? What was the message? Don't trust the obvious sexy weird lesbian paedophile with the mysterious past alone with the hormone saturated obsessive cruel teenagers?

What were they thinking? What were they all thinking?

Death of Borders

So Sad.
Beloved bookshop.
Hope books find good homes.
Flying off shelves. Not many left.
Happy hours. Browsing and café.
Quiet third floor. Physics and maths.
Novels and magazines and calendars and newspapers.
Pens! Notebooks!
Couldn't say goodbye. Danger of crying.

What will replace it? Another horrid "sports" shop?
Once had a girlfriend who cried when her shoe shop closed.
Know how she felt now. Sorry for laughing.

Desolation and loss.
Two left.
Guard them. Protect them.