peteg's blog

Martin Davis: Engines of Logic (softcover, previously The Universal Computer)

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Professor Martin Davis got sick of engineers getting all the credit for the omnipresent computational machines and wrote this book, released in 2000, to reclaim some ground for the grand tradition of logic. It is lively, well-written, but too short, selective and incomplete, as it is driven by the author's interest in particular topics, which he doesn't always contextualise sufficiently for the non-expert to nod along with.

The Professor is most famous in computer science circles for his propositional calculus, which is still the basis of modern SAT technology as far as I know. This doesn't really come out here, or why SAT is so important. Similarly Wittgenstein gets mentioned in passing, but nothing is said of his contributions to the story of logic, or his overlap with Russell and Turing. This book seemed a prime opportunity to canvas his opinions of Gödel's work and also Turing's. The micro-biographies of the logicians are quite well done, I think, albeit with a slightly jarring special focus on their political stances and (anti)semitism. (Many Jewish intellectuals oppressed by the Nazi regime moved to U.S. academia, with Princeton a major beneficiary.) Even so I came away with no better conception of David Hilbert than that with which I started. I guess mathematicians don't stick.

Personally speaking, I'm not interested in reading pop sci accounts of Turing or his machines; his biographer Hodges has more details, and it is difficult to get excited about the 1001st popularisation of the universal machine. I skipped those bits, and for that reason this wasn't the book for me. Conversely I was interested to know how set-theoretic esoterica like the Continuum Hypothesis (that Davis goes on about) fit with notions of computability. What do the constructivists think? What does Davis think about the rise of neo-Brouwerism, the contemporary flowering of type theory as a (the?) logical foundation of programming? We want to know! Instead we get some engagement with the philosophy of AI types like Penrose and Searle, which seems so quaint in these days of Google-level natural-language processing, and what IBM recently did with Watson. Intelligence is so 20th century.

The obvious comparison to draw is with Logicomix. I'm not going to attempt that.

Some money quotes: On Kurt Gödel:

When Gödel: sought to become a U.S. citizen, he prepared, in typical Gödel: fashion, for the perfunctory examination on U.S. institutions before a judge — he submitted the Constitution to the kind of meticulous analysis only he would have performed. Moreover, he became quite agitated when he concluded that the Constitution was actually inconsistent. While driving to Trenton, the [New Jersey] state capital, for the procedure, Einstein and Morgernstern his supporting witnesses, tried to distract Gödel from his discovery, fearing it might cause trouble if broached. Einstein told one joke after another. But when the judge asked Gödel whether he thought a dictatorship like that in Germany was possible in the United States, the candidate began to explain his discovery. Fortunately the judge quickly understood with whom he was dealing and interrupted, so that all ended happily.

Davis also recycles Turing's good point that Gödel's incompleteness theorem only applies to sound systems, i.e. in a limiting sense intelligence requires us to be prepared to speculate. Turing made similar observations.

On Hegel:

[...] Despite Kant's emphasis on the importance of science, post-Kant philosophy in nineteenth-century Germany evolved in a different direciton, moving to an absolute idealism that conceived of ideas and concepts as primary and sought to understand the world almost as though these were what it was made of. One of the leaders of this movement was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose lectures were attended by hundreds of eager disciples. Hegel had many followers (among whom, famously, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), and scholars still find much worthwhile in his writings. However he was capable of contorted reasoning that simply invites ridicule, especially in his massive two-volume Science of Logic in which readers were asked to ponder the deep thoughts:

Nothing is simple equality with itself.

Being is Nothing.

Nothing is Being.

Both of these categories in the transition from each to the other dissolve into the further category: Becoming.

That probably tells you if this is the book for you. In any case, do read this good interview with Davis.

Saving Private Ryan

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With one half of Hollywood off fighting in Guadalcanal, crowd pleaser Spielberg took the remaining men to the beaches of Omaha on D-Day, 1944, delegating operational command to Captain Tom Hanks and his band of teary-eyed cannon fodder. The opening action is incredibly well-shot, perhaps the best unreal war footage I've seen, which makes the dialogue in the less breathless scenes so much more painful. (I remember being completely overwhelmed by that opening scene when I saw this at a cinema back in 1998.) The incredible scale of these scenes and the rhythm of life in the army (at least as I imagine it, tedium interlaced with adrenaline rushes) are somewhat ruined by the impression that these boys barely know each other, let alone themselves.

Matt Damon is actually pretty decent here, maybe because he has a bit part. Tom Hanks always strikes me as hokey, in a way that American audiences seem to love. Wave that flag, shut up and love your country already (or leave). #43 in IMDB's top-250.

In a Lonely Place

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Bogey plays the domestic rough nut and gets the beauty but unsurprisingly can't keep her. This one from 1950 is set in Hollywood or thereabouts and he doesn't seem to have had a moment's peace since before the war. Gloria Grahame as the female lead would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder now, for she goes from strong and combative to doormat within a scene or two, despite being the Scarlett Johansson of her era. There's enough rom but no com, and while it isn't terrible I can't see why it's 8/10 at IMDB.

— refrain of the 1950s socialite. "Likewise, I'm sure!"

Gaby Wood.

Bringing Up Baby

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Classic Howard Hawks screwball, with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in 1938. I didn't really get into it, apart from the odd one-liner. The monomania of Hepburn's Susan outdoes the dishiness of Cary's zoologist David in their hunt for the leopard, the dog, and the intercostal clavicle bone of a brontosaurus. Grant was much better in later pictures.

His Girl Friday

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Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell take on the newspaper game in a suitably cynical fast-paced screwball stage-show kind of way. An absolutely classic Howard Hawks from 1940. Here's Hildy's (Russell) account of her getting organised with her boss / former husband, Mr Burns (Grant):

Remember the time we stole Old Lady Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's physician... We proved she'd been poisoned then, didn't we, Walter? We had to hide out for a week. Do you remember that?... That's where, I mean, how...

Rated #239 in IMDB's top-250, deservedly. The closest thing to this now is some kind of Coen brothers flick; indeed, I'm sure there's a PhD out there comparing Hildy and Jennifer Jason Leigh's character in The Hudsucker Proxy.

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop

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I extracted a recent edition of this book from the UNSW Library on the strength of Hitchens's atypically muted column on Murdoch's travails, and The Loved Ones. Sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes historically obscure, always heavy-handed. A quick read.

John Lanchester wrote a good, long long article on Murdoch a years ago, from the London Review of Books.


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Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak play in Alfred Hitchcock's Freudian San Francisco, 1958. Rated #45 in IMDB's top-250. Yeah, I didn't get that masterpiece feeling from it, mostly because the second half left me wondering how long it would take Jimmy to twig, or when he'd realise that Midge was the keeper, while nothing much happens on screen. I'm also totally over car chases (at any speed) on the streets of that city.

Novak does a good job of making the 1950s look glamorously horrible for women.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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A neo Picture of Dorian Gray that is far too Forrest Gump for my tastes. The clock runs backwards, really? The plot arc is tediously predictable — Caroline, Benjamin is your father! — as there is not much flexibility in the frame. Every so often Fincher pulled a camera angle or sequence that reminded me what a genius he is, but the material is too limited for him to make much of it. On that front the narrated car accident multi-timeline sequence in Paris was the pick of the few parts that lifted the pace and engagement above the soporific.

Brad Pitt is a bit too blandly Brad Pitt here, as his character is essentially an everyman (really no man) playboy whose only trick is to age backwards. Maybe he pushes some people's Hemingway buttons, I don't know. Cate Blanchett is occasionally luminous in her role as a black swan turning white (maybe). The effects are seamless but to what little end.

Vietnam: A Traveller's Literary Companion (ed. John Balaban and Nguyễn Quí Đức)

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I also extracted this one from the ANU library. It is much better than the previous two collections as the two editors have carefully ensured the translations are top-notch and made a decent fist of selection. What is even more awesome is that they include enough bibliographic detail that one could track down not only where the English translation was first published but also the original too (for the most part). I'll be looking for more from these guys.

Some are products of đổi mới, e.g. Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's four contributions, though the general flavour is mid-90s contemporary. I wish they had found something else to excerpt from Dương Thu Hương than Novel without a Name. Standouts:

  • Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's Salt of the Jungle, Crossing the River and Remembrance of the Countryside were all great, but would have benefited from some framing. I found his Fired Gold intriguing and opaque.
  • The Saigon Tailor Shop by Phạm Thị Hoài is at once a lark and mostly disposable. The melodrama is palpable and consciously overblown, I guess to contrast the Hà Nội setting with the fashion.
  • Lê Minh Khuê's contribution is a reverse-Oedipal romance, A Small Tragedy.
  • The piece by the editor Nguyễn Quí Đức, The Color of Sorrow is one of those classic Saigon stories/cliches: spend more than a few days there and you'll marry someone, or at least get your heart broken. Andrew X. Pham recounts a similar experience, and I could go on.

For all that I'm not sure there's as much evocation of place as the authors wished for, or as implied by this format. Where is the coffee, the bia hơi, the lẩu? How about the cyclos, the traffic, the modernity? The map on page v evokes that feeling of things being a bit indefinite.

The Thin Red Line

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A Malick segue from The Tree of Life, over two nights. Hollywood goes to war, as it was billed at the time. The acting is pretty solid as apparently he put them through hell, so there wasn't much need to actually act. Least convincing are Travolta's fly-in fly-out General and Clooney's ma-and-pa routine at the end.

Malick does not attempt a female character here; Miranda Otto is ethereal, beautiful, and plotwise a vehicle for some faithless brutality that smudges the hard-fought victory of a ridgeline in Guadalcanal in World War II. James Caviezel is beautiful to watch, credible in his Jesus role, which is probably what got him the guernsey in Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (unknown and unseen by me). Sean Penn is solid but uninspired, and Nick Nolte has boots too big to fill as the arsehole Colonel sacrificing men to his career aspirations. (The boots are Robert Duvall's from Apocalypse Now, and there is no surfboard.) The list goes on, but I'll stop here.

The version I saw was fully 2hr 50 min, with awesome cinematography. I like the ambience, especially the opening scenes with the villagers. The Japanese are totally characterless and barely differentiated; the game here isn't to humanize the enemy but to dehumanize the Americans, or at least subject them to some kind of Zen retribution.

I saw this at the cinema back in 1998, I'm sure of it, probably at the Verona. I also saw Saving Private Ryan then too, but remember nothing of it apart from Spielberg's overwhelming opening scene. Maybe worth a revisit.

When too much hardware is barely enough

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Apple continue to ship their MacBook Pros with insufficient memory. I got jack of this thing hitting swap even though it had another gigabyte on my previous MacBook; subjectively it felt worse for the same workloads, maybe because Chrome is a memory pig. (I'm back on FireFox now.) So last Friday I went to MSY to buy a couple of 4Gb sticks. Their price for Kingstons: $42 each. Apple wants $480 for the pair. That is an insane price differential.

MSY (being MSY) only had one in stock, however, and I wasn't in the mood to wait howeverlong. (It is extremely irritating that they don't indicate their stock levels online, or allow online orders. It is also irritating to have to wait for some bloke to pointlessly, endlessly complain about their refusal to give him a replacement/refund when his son couldn't install a CPU properly.) I hoofed it back to the place where mrak got his last time, in the little slice of Tokyo on George St near the tram line. They wanted $60 a stick which was fine by me, and the bloke helped me install it. While prying the underside off it I tipped three of the tiny screws onto the floor, but somehow by the end of our conversation he had recovered all three. I have no idea how he did that.

Thus far I cannot get it to use the final 1.5Gb or so, even with Windows XP and Debian running in VMware concurrently. Thus I can hope it will last a year or so, though I fully expect Lion to eat it when the time comes.

Today I bought what may have been the last two Logitech USB hubs available in a shop in New South Wales, from Myer in Orange, for $36 each. mrak told me ages ago that these things were reliable and I've been happy with the one I got at the time, which is presently hooked up to the BeagleBoard at ANU. The price tag was $60 each but the bloke gave me a hefty discount on the merest suggestion they were overpriced. I am shocked that Logitech has not replaced this classic hub, and that there is nothing else readily available with its reputation for just working.


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Another Pegg and Frost bromance. I dunno, it's a lot weaker this time around; previously they renovated the cliches, this time they just ran with them, and there's a limit to what Pegg's puppy-dog eyes can lift. Everyone is willing but the script is weak. Kristen Wiig's effort makes me wonder if Bridesmaids is more chop.

Byrnes at the SMH.

Super Rugby: Queensland Reds 18, Canterbury Crusaders 13

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I headed down to the Duke of Gloucester for the first time in ages to watch a Super Rugby match. This one was far superior to the Brumbies versus the Western Force farce from a few months ago, almost enough to restore my faith in Australian provincial rugby. (Now if the Waratahs could field a full-strength side for more than half a season...)

In brief, there was some great work from the Reds early on when they lacked possession but still scored first points (Cooper kicked a penalty after Carter missed one). I was slightly worried when Cooper made a massive knock-on under no pressure whatsoever, as if he was auditioning for the Wallabies circa 2005, but no, that seemed to be his only egregious stuff-up for the night. He didn't get to do much, which was unsurprising as the Crusaders are canny enough to shut out the playmaker more often than not. Genia worked hard, as did Saia Faingaa. The personal tries for Genia and Ioane were awesome, both untouchable, as was Carter's effort. All reminded me of Latham's ability to score from anywhere, something Kurtley Beale is doing for the Waratahs and the Wallabies. Hopefully they can play off each other.

Richie McCaw was all over the rucks, and one can only hope that Pocock will address that for the Wallabies. Also the Reds scrum was pushed around pretty much all night, which doesn't bode too well. I see that the Reds number eight Radike Samo is making a return to the national squad, and I hope he is more disciplined there than he was here in the dying stages of the match.

I have never seen so many people in a pub in New South Wales barracking for Queensland and New Zealand, or so glad to see a Queensland victory.

Tillsammans (Together)

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Moodysson's best effort, I reckon; just as excruciatingly funny the second time around. He did most of the work in choosing the setting of a hippie commune in suburban Stockholm in 1975, as it seems to have pretty much written itself. The early scene in the kitchen is the best I've seen him do.

He seems to have gone quiet since he got into too-hard-to-watch territory with Lilya 4-ever and A Hole in My Heart in the late 2000s.

Hồ Aanh Thái: The Legend of the Phoenix and other stories from Vietnam

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I scraped this strange short-story collection from the ANU library a while ago, along with Banerian's and a couple of others. It was published by the National Book Trust, India in 1995, as the anthologist has ties to that country.

Unfortunately there is nothing particularly good in this collection that I hadn't read before — Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's The General Retires is probably Lockhart's translation but is not identified as such, and jangles in the context of the other much poorer translations, as does the excerpt from Dương Thu Hương's Novel Without a Name. It is very post-war victor-oriented, and as such there's plenty of enemy puppetry here.

Fight Club

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It's been five years and I still remember just about the entire thing. Still rated #14 in IMDB's top-250, good to see.

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Early-afternoon snorkel with Rob at Gordons Bay. The Manly Hydraulics Lab makes the unbelievable claim that it is 21 degrees in the water, warmer in than out, and sort-of comfortable in a wife beater, spring suit and gloves. It started to rain just as we got there and just as we left; in between we got some fantastic sunshine, and the water was clear in any case. Saw a few groper including a large but not fully mature blue one.

The Tree of Life (2011)

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At the 9.15pm session at the dear old Verona. There were a surprising number of people at the bar and at this session (and the other movie at a similar time). Movie Club tickets are getting expensive: for $13 I hoped not to have someone mouth-breathing behind me and so forth. Anyway...

This is a Terrence Malick flick. If it wasn't I wouldn't have been there. I think I went to see his The Thin Red Line at the cinema for the same reason; the critics go ape when this great auteur cranks out something new, like they used to with Kubrick. I guess they think he is the opposite of Michael Bay.

Here we have Brad Pitt being a generically strict father in 1950s Waco Texas, and Sean Penn going all emo under GWB in 2003. The universe is born in scenes that LSD fans have been waiting for since 2001. (The star child need not be jealous, however.) Yes, it is impressionistic, but it is more scattered and mildly incoherent. The aesthetic is probably Mad Men (but I don't watch that). Jessica Chastain is luminous but lacks any kind of inner life; her faith in god, dotage on her children and under explored entanglement with Brad Pitt is the limit of her character. (We see the rough edges of their marriage and Pitt's disappointments, but I have no idea what she wants from life.)

Yeah, it's not a bad way to pass the time, but you really need to be in the mood for an extended melancholic trip. No distractions!

Dana Stevens, yeah.

The Wrong Man

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... and in my case, the wrong movie. The year 1956 has an honest-as-the-day New York family man accused of heists he didn't commit (he's honest, remember?), and Henry Fonda and Alfred Hitchcock make it entirely banal. In contrast to the roughly contemporanous Fonda vehicle 12 Angry Men (1957), this (almost) made me wish for the summary justice of Dirty Harry's San Francisco circa 1972. Fonda was also way better as the bad dude in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.