Thu, 26 Dec 2013
The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco.

I remember seeing the film of the book a very long time ago and loved it. Unusually for a cerebral film about medieval monks debating the fine points of theology and heresy, a lot of people seemed to like it as well and it did very well at the box office. I wish there were more films made like this. I've been wanting to read the book since then but put that thought aside until the film's influence waned Now that I've read it, I see how faithful an adaptation it was.

The book has great depth on various levels, as you would expect from Professor Eco. Perhaps the most superficial level is the detective novel, with nods to Conan Doyle in the name of the main protagonist, the English monk William of Baskerville. Although played with a broad Scottish accent in the film, Sean Connery was good in this role. Eco's prose is detailed and readable, although I have to admit to skipping over some passages fairly quickly, particularly the latter parts of Adso's mystical dream late in the book (and one or two others): a bit too long. I also wished I understood more latin, which figures regularly and is left untranslated. Wherever the monks hail from, whether Italy, Germany, Spain or England, they would be talking to each other in Latin of course, the lingua franca of the time.

As long ago as the film, I liked to submerge myself in a lot of history, including many books covering the history of Christianity and the Church, especially all the various debates on the canon. The question of the right teachings was of high importance in an age where literacy was uncommon and the "truth" something only the Church held. The spread of wrong teachings and heresy was something to guard against and watch out for at all times. The trial of the cellarer for heresy is a centrepiece in the novel and as horrific as it is fascinating. Through such scenes and the commentary and debate around them, Eco brings the medieval world to life: a world that was almost entirely centred around prayer, where religion was a matter of life (of the eternal variety) and death. The heart of the book revolves around the real debate over the Poverty of Christ, with the Franciscans fighting to save their order from charges of heresy and dissolution by the Catholic Church.

Within the church and religious communities, this sort of debate and tension has never really disappeared. Couple the theology with the investigation of a raft of murders and we have a unique book - hard going at times but a rewarding work.

A strange coincidence that I bought three books at the same time and they have some references to each other : Possession, by A. S. Byatt, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges and this book (a beautiful hardback Everyman edition). Byatt mentions Eco's book in her introduction as showing it was possible to write a successful and intellectual book set in a medieval monastery. The writer David Lodge adds an introduction to Eco's book and highlights the debt paid to Borges in the novel (the Labyrinth, library, the monk Jorge de Burgos). I've yet to read Borges but am looking forward to it.

Sun, 22 Dec 2013
moto g

As much as I liked the Firefox OS phone, I've stopped using it and bought a new Motorola Moto G Android phone.

The ZTE is just too slow and I found it increasingly painful to use. I hope to see Mozilla get their mobile OS on better hardware and, at that point, I'd have another look. For the money paid (£65) it's no great loss and the Moto G (at £160) is an amazing phone.

There'll be no FF OS updates from v1.0 here it seems, and a last straw was discovering my bluebooth headphones won't work with it: extremely minimal bluetooth support. Couple this with a slow touchscreen, sometimes needing multiple presses to get a response, and then a few complete freezes and I've given up. For me, attempting my own OS builds doesn't seem a reasonable thing to do.

The Motorola Moto G is a new "Google" phone and runs (almost) stock Android 4.3 (upgrade to 4.4 soon apparently). I haven't used Android on a phone since 2.2 (Cyanogen) and the changes are huge. It's an extremely polished interface, the whole thing looking and feeling great. It's fast, has a great screen and seems to have very good battery life as well. I am very happy with it.

Less satisfying is that MTP, the "Media Transfer Protocol", doesn't work very well on Linux. Ironic this is so bad, considering a) Android is based on Linux and b) Google do a lot of work using (and engineering) Linux. Go-mtpfs seems to work on my desktop (manual mount, fine) but not on my X220 laptop (this morning). MTP support seems to be fragile, spotty and therefore quite annoying!

Sun, 15 Dec 2013
Whistler at Dulwich

A few weeks ago, I bought a National Art Pass. This gives me a discount on the price of entry of a lot of art galleries and museums and over the course of a year, the £40 it cost me will be worthwhile in savings. It also contributes to the work they do saving and restoring art.

I used the pass for the first time visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery for their exhibition Whistler and the Thames.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American artist who worked mainly in London during the middle and late part of the 19th Century.

I'm not very familiar with his work other than his most famous painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, colloquially known as Whistler's Mother (see opposite). A great painting I think, with its subdued, almost monochromatic tones and good composition. I also appreciated his titling skills. Note: not exhibited at the gallery.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872)

A painting that was exhibited is on the left. Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872) is a picture more interested in form and colour than any realistic image of a bridge and there's a real atmosphere to it. The Nocturnes are amongst his most famous paintings and one of the best parts of the exhibition.

However, most of the show was of his etchings and lithographs of the river environment. Although of some interest, especially the historical interest of a river side changing dramatically, this work was of much lesser impact than something like a large Nocturne painting.

So not a bad exhibition but not as good as I had hoped: too many drawings and too little nocturne. Many of the paintings that were shown struck me as a little dull, both in subject and execution. Whistler has some great paintings in his canon but I'll have to keep an eye open for them in the future rather than find too many in Dulwich just now.

Wed, 04 Dec 2013
Brough 2013

In 2011 I visited the Imperial War Museum and saw T.E. lawrence's motorbike, a Brough Superior SS100 from 1932. Great bike.

A few days ago, the Daily Telegraph reported on a new Brough Superior created by Mark Upham, who bought the rights to the name in 2008.

New :

Old :

I prefer the old one and it's backend, petrol tank and wheel size but the new model's OK, just a bit expensive at £50,000. I think I'd have to rip out the seat and backend though. I really prefer the "classic" bike style and would buy a Triumph or BSA over a Kawasaki anyday.

Brough's web site.

Sun, 01 Dec 2013

Existence, David Brin.

Existence is a science-fiction book set in the near future. The seas have risen, migration and inequality are big problems, an ultra-rich trilly ("trillionaire") caste inhabit the upper reaches of society and the interconnectedness of everything and everyone is orders of magnitude greater than today. In addition, privacy doesn't exist anymore, for anyone.

That privacy is no more appears to have been the result of a pact with society after a great disaster (referred to as Awfulday), a mechanism to dampen desire for violence and revolution through transparency. Some of the background in the novel is never fully described and has to be picked up through clues.

It's a long book and, in parts, slow. However, pushing through some of the slower and duller sections (earlier) isn't too hard because chapters are often short and it is so full of interesting and sometimes offbeat technology (including AI, massive crowdsourcing, brain/computer interfacing, genetic engineering, virtual realities and others).

The main part of the book concerns the discovery of an alien artifact in Earth orbit, what it is and how it affects us. In large part, a discussion of Fermi's Paradox :

The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the high probability extraterrestrial civilizations' existence and the lack of contact with such civilizations.

If the universe is so big, and the probability so high that it contains sentient life, where is everyone? This is not an uncommon field of interest to the science-fiction author but Brin manages to add his own interesting take. The later parts of the book set in the asteroid belt with discoveries and chatter very pertinent to this question are superb.

Apart from being set in a very uncertain future world racked by a lot of problems and containing a fair amount of apocalyptic background chat, the book is definitely not downbeat or depressing. Brin's a good writer (although some bits should have been excised) and the overall arc is upbeat and positive, even if one has to be somewhat nervous with some of the potential implications.

I enjoyed the book and will definitely add his Uplift books to my queue.

Brin's Existence site seems to be full of material, including sections of the book and discussion.