Sunday, July 24, 2005

That book meme thing

It seems David has "nominated" me to answer some questions about books. This triggered a long slow period of thinking, and a rambling article started to form in the dark and drafty spaces of this site...

How many books do I own?

Quite a lot, now - but many of them are in boxes till I can get a few more bookshelves up. I used to use libraries a lot, and never really felt the need to own books (books are for reading, not keeping, aren't they?). But then our libraries stopped buying books, so I had to start buying. And now it's nice to be able to refer to them, to refresh my memory, or to reread old favourites. If only I had the time.

Last Book I Bought?
That would be, er.. Harry Potter and the... Half Blood Prince. Just as well I have no literary pretentions :-)

Last Book I Read?
The last book I finished was the Bookseller of Kabul - a fascinating view of life in a very traditional Islamic society from a foreign writer who lived for a while with a local family. I've picked up Fermat's Last Theorem again (I'd "lost" it for a while) and of course I'm reading Harry Potter (which has temporarily displaced Lord of the Rings in my reading queue). The Bible is in a constant state of "being read" - though not quite as constant as it should be.

It's just as well that the "not a book club" Book Club is off for the summer - I'd have no time :-)

Five Most Meaningful Books In My Life?
That's a harder question. I'm not sure if I can answer it. It's not that usual for my life to be revolutionised by reading book. Ideas, yes - they change lives - but they come as much from interacting with people as from reading books. And the changes tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I think my mind is sort of like putty in that respect - new ideas and thoughts stick to the old ones and extend them in new directions, rather than completely replacing them. Does that make any sense?

That said, here are some books that have been meaningful to me (not necessarily in order of importance, but not entirely random either)...
  1. The Bible - it has been and continues to be a huge influence on my thinking, even as I sometimes struggle to understand what it is saying to me. In theory it's where I get my beliefs and practice from, though the reality is sometimes "more complex". Yet, I try. Most days.
    I like that it's more realistic about people than many of us in the "christian world" often are. The heroes are not all perfect supermen. And some are women!
  2. Metamagical Themas (and Goedel, Escher, Bach) by Douglas R. Hofstadter. My first encounter with the "Meme" meme, among many other fascinating ideas.
  3. The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins. A dreadfully evangelistic humanist, but a smart guy, Dawkins has a strange and compellingly different way of looking at life and genetics. But he seems to suffer from the Philosophers' Syndrome [1] - a habit of taking an insight, and believing that everything is suddenly about that one thing. I suppose Hofstader's thoughts on levels of existence and emergent properties had prepared me to incorporate some of these ideas into my hazy world view.
  4. In Understanding be Men. You couldn't write a book with that title nowadays - the politically correct theological establishment would have you for breakfast. But this old book gave me a valuable insight into the pros and cons of many's a theological connundrum, and left me with the feeling that good, er, men, could start from the same premises and come to quite different conclusions.
  5. The Trouble with Guns, by Malachi O'Doherty. A persuasive analysis of years of Irish republican violence.
  6. The Fight - John White. This small book took a remarkably common sense approach to many issues, when I was working through various things in my mind. It would be interesting to re-read it now...
  7. The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence. Conversations and letters of a remarkably humble seventeenth-century servant of God. (Less paraphrased translation here).
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. A powerfully told tale, which only strengthened my view that we are people first, and members of groups, classes, or races second.
  9. Chaos, James Gleick. Fascinating insights into a world that was almost unknown just a few decades ago. It explains why we'll never abe able to forecast the weather perfectly, and shown how (on a different level from Harper Lee's book) the universe is all about Maths. Well, almost all.
  10. The Jargon File (aka Hackers Dictionary). Edited by ESR. It gave me a sense of the history of the discipline of coding, and an appreciation of its folklore.
This list is subject to change without notice. I've probably forgotten something vital. And it's not 5 books. So sue me :-)

I suppose I'll have to think of some more people to bug with these questions:
  • How many Books Do You Own?
  • Last Book You Bought?
  • Last Book You Read?
  • Five Most Meaningful books In Your Life?

[1] Philosophers' Syndrome - I suppose it's often really the Apologists' Syndrome, where those who follow and interpret the great thinkers claim more for the insight than was ever intended.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in many philosophies.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Small explosions - not much damage!

There were four more blasts in London today - but this time I was outside the M25. Once again there were three explosions on the underground, and one on a bus. The blasts seem to have been very small, and it's possible that the bombs simply failed to go off. While the would-be bombers seem to have escaped (for now) at least this time round there should be plenty of forensic and other evidence.

Back to Belfast tomorrow. It still seems odd for Belfast to be the peaceful part of the country!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Words of Solidarity and Defiance

The warm, humid air was heavy last night with the scent of flowers, left by wellwishers to express their sympathy and solidarity with the dead and injured, and their friends and families. Some had lit candles, others had left notes, poems, and letters. There were flags and messages from many countries, in that space below the corner of Kings Cross Station.

The messages - from Londoners, and people of many nationalities and faiths who were visiting the capital, or who had made their home there - expressed sorrow, shock, outrage and defiance, and a determination to carry on with life. Some messages which stood out for me were from muslims who expressed outrage and sorrow that their faith should be used as a pretext for such an evil deed.

The response of so many ordinary people, more so than the speeches of any number of politicians, is a sign of hope. The mood of those who stopped to watch and contemplate was sombre, but their quiet determination was almost palpable.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Crusade against Freedom

I had originally commented on the terrorists themselves - I may come back to that.

For now, I'll point out that the attack on London seems to be in the tradition of indiscriminate attacks on the West, or "western" targets elsewhere - such as the Twin Towers massacre in New York, the Bali bombing, and the train bombs in Madrid.

While specific grievances may attract misguided zealots to this murderous campaign, it seems to be bigger than any one cause. The attacks on the west are not "about" Palestine, or Israel, or Iraq - as such. These pretexts just fan the flames of the crusade.

I believe that these terrorists want to demolish the influence of the West, and reconstruct the world as the realm of Islam - and a peculiarly backward-looking, rigid, authoritarian Islam at that. It is, fundamentally, a crusade against freedom. Not just the freedom of the West, but the freedom of all who do not share their twisted version of Islam. If you doubt that, consider the murderous attacks in Iraq on rival sects within Islam, and the commitment to pluralism that the Taliban demonstrated in deliberately destroying ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.

Yesterday terrorists destroyed some trains, one bus, and many lives - they killed and maimed human beings, with hopes and dreams, friends and families - real people, real lives.

There are only two ways they can defeat us: they can force us to submit to the same crazed, narrow version of "Islam" which imprisons them, or they can force us to abandon the freedoms that make our civilisation a place worth living in.

We may need to address injustice - the West has not always acted wisely - but we need to work harder at security too: both individually, and as a society. We may need to consider the tradeoff between individual liberty and safety that is inherent in any society. But we must consider it very carefully - in a democracy, that's our job. Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Bruce Schneier, who writes thoughtfully in his Crypto-gram Newsletter about security in our computerised world, lists some questions we should always ask when any new security measure is proposed.

  1. What problem does the security measure solve? If we don't know exactly why we're doing it, how can we tell if it works?
  2. How well does the security measure solve the problem?
  3. What other security problems does the measure cause? There are almost always some.
  4. What are the costs of the security measure? Financial, social, etc.
  5. Given the answers to steps two through four, is the security measure worth the costs?
As he puts it, the last step is the easy one, but all too often nobody bothers. It's not enough for a security measure to be effective. We don't have infinite resources. We don't have infinite patience. As a society, we need to do the things that make the most sense

The G8 leaders said, after the explosions: "we will not allow violence to change our society and values."

If on one hand we adopt useless "security" measures in a knee-jerk reaction, or on the other, if we fail to meet the security challenge or if our attempts to address the issues of world poverty, corruption and oppression are derailed, then the terrorists will have won a victory in their crusade against freedom.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Madness in London

The next underground train arrived just as I reached the platform in Paddington, and on I jumped. We started to pull out of the station - and stopped, with a jerk.


The doors opened.

"I don't know what is the problem," announced the Driver, "but I've just been told the power is shot in the next section of the track, so we're waiting here."

People started to leave.

It wasn't just our line - the power was out all over the underground. Almost all the trains had been stopped. Very soon all of them had. And then the buses.

As I shared a taxi with four strangers, we speculated on what was happening. There were reports of power surges and collapsing cables. There had been an explosion. "Maybe it's the French?" one of the other passengers suggested. "Annoyed by the Olympic decision." We laughed.

The enormity of the disaster gradually became clear. There had been a major, coordinated terrorist attack on London, with three bombs on the underground, and another in a London bus. It's just dawning on me now that I'd very nearly been in the path of one of those bombs...

But I'm safe, for now. I've been texting, phoning, and replying to concerned queries from friends, colleagues and family who knew I was in London. And fortunately I don't have to brave the cancelled public transport to get to the airport tonight.I've been fortunate.

37 people are dead. Many more are injured. For the first time in the "war on terror", London has been directly attacked. I'm not sure where this will lead, but I suspect we're in for a rough ride.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Good news from Europe

No, I'm not talking about Paris losing the bid to host the 2012 Olympics - nor even about London winning it. That's news from Singapore, anyway.

The good news is that the European Parliament threw out the EU Council of Ministers' Software Patent directive - by 648 votes to 14. I complained about the Council of Ministers' shenannigans earlier.

This means that the current unsatisfactory system, where some states issue patents for trivial algorithms and some don't, continues. On the other hand, it avoids the even more unsatisfactory situation where they all issue daft software patents and mess up the entire European industry.

This one will be back, I think. But for today, it's good news.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Live Late

It was an amazing concert! And far from stopping at 8pm, Live 8 went on late into the night...

Artists that even I have heard of were there - Madonna and Sting...

and Pink Floyd played on as it got later and later...

and darker and darker... and the time of the last trains got closer and closer (for a major city, London does seem to close early).

They were still playing when we left!

It was an amazing concert! I'm not sure how much direct benefit there was to the starving in Africa, but it certainly raised public awareness of the problem, and of the make poverty history campaign. Hopefully the demands for action won't be frustrated by greed and politics at the G8 conference (or in legislatures back home afterwards, when its time to honour the pledges), or by the corporations which seem to have a lot of control over where the aid goes.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Busy busy busy

It's been a bit mad here (or more to the point, not here). I've been doing a wee bit of travelling, and it seems like I've hardly been here at all, recently.

One problem with short holidays can be that you spend so long clearing up and finishing off work before you go - and then catching up when you get back - that you don't actually do much less work than if you'd had no holiday at all. But it was still worth it.

Maybe I'll stick up a few pictures in a day or so, when I get a round tuit. Or maybe I'll start now...