Monday, October 26, 2009

Holiday in England - Guildford

One of the places we visited during our holiday was Guildford, a town I knew a little from previous visits. It is a pleasant town, with a river (the Wey), hills and trees. I remember several shopping trips here with my family, and there is a thriving town centre.

We visited Guildford Tower, and climbed up the Great Tower. This was part of the 12th century castle, and was in use until the 17th century. The site has recently been restored, and there is a small museum on the ground floor. From the tower there are views of the town and its surroundings in all directions, but the day we visited it was a bit hazy.

We then did some shopping in the town centre. One thing I noticed, which surprised me, was a whole section in a bookshop devoted to "Tragic Life Stories". Most of the books seemed to be from the same publisher. I hadn't noticed such a section in other bookshops we visited during our trip (and we went in bookshops at every opportunity), and I don't know if such a section was particularly aimed at a Guildford taste in books... I then looked around for a section on "Positive, Uplifting Stories of Success", but couldn't find one!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Richard Wiseman - 59 Seconds

Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds, Macmillan, 2009.

[The US version will be published in January 2010].

This book aims to examine some common self-help myths from a scientific point of view, and find out which methods are proven to work.

The self-help industry is growing in popularity, and some of its advice is ineffective, or even harmful. Wiseman, a psychologist, decided to research scientific studies and find some self-help methods that are proven to work. The aim was to provide quick and easy methods people could apply in less than a minute.

The book covers several important areas, including happiness, motivation, stress, decision making and parenting. Each section examines the prevalent methods and suggests effective, proven self-help methods.

It is worth reading the whole book, and then later dipping into it to find ideas relevant to your current situation. For example, the chapter on motivation is useful for people trying to change their habits.

One of the interesting tips I learned from this book is to visualize myself doing the steps required to reach my goals, rather than just imagine myself having achieved these goals. It seems to be important to break goals down into steps, and then get used to the idea of taking these practical steps, rather than just think about the objective you are trying to reach, which may be quite remote and abstract.

Another important conclusion was that parents would do better to praise children for the effort they put into a task, rather than for the outcome of that task. This ensures the children will continue to strive to succeed, no matter what the result, instead of assuming that since they have already been successful, they no longer need to try so hard.

The book is written in a chatty style, and is aimed for the general public, including readers who wouldn't normally read psychological research. It contains a lot of positive advice, with explanations of why this advice works.

One small thing: I wonder why the author (or maybe the publisher) chose to have his name on the cover as "Professor Richard Wiseman". This is quite rare, and most academics I know don't feel the need to stress their titles. Perhaps this emphasizes his professional expertise, as opposed to the authors of some self-help books. However, being a professor is no guarantee of scientific excellence, and I found it a bit strange.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Holiday in England - Stonehenge and Neolithic sites

Towards the end of our holiday, my sister-in-law Jill took us on another of her tours. We got up early for the early morning special access to Stonehenge. They allow a small number of visitors to get close to the stones (but you are not supposed to touch them), between 0630 and 0730. We were hoping to see the sunrise, but it was rather overcast. Despite being warned that many people are disappointed when they see how small the stone circle is, I found its size to be appropriate. The stones are just large enough to inspire awe, but the proportions are still human enough. I have not studied the subject enough to express an opinion about the site's function, and I don't mind leaving it as a mystery in my mind.

From Stonehenge we went to another ancient stone circle site at Avebury. Here there was a large stone circle with two smaller circles inside (not concentric). The village of Avebury is located among the remains of the circles. We arrived early, and wandered among the stones, accompanied by grazing sheep. We waited for the museum to open, and visited a local gift shop with a new-age feel to it. We saw a group of people who seemed to be Neo-Druids, perhaps intending to conduct some ritual on what they consider a sacred site.

Then we visited the nearby West Kennet Avenue, consisting of two parallel lines of standing stones. This site is right next to the road, and the lines of stones extend for a long distance.

From there we drove past Silbury Hill, a prehistoric 40-meter high artificial mound of uncertain purpose. It looks clearly man-made.

We arrived at the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow, an ancient tomb. The walk to this site was a pleasant stroll across the fields, as the day grew warmer.

After this, we visited another ancient barrow, Wayland's Smithy. This was quite a way from the road, but despite the warm weather, we enjoyed the walk along a country lane.

Then we saw the nearby Uffington White Horse, an ancient horse figure carved into the chalk on the hillside. This is the oldest white horse. It doesn't seem to have been intended to be viewed from the ground, and the best pictures are taken from the air.

This tour showed us some of the best ancient sites of southern England, which remain mysterious and intriguing. I enjoy visiting ancient remains because it gives me a sense of the depth of human history. I like standing where people of different cultures once lived, and wondering about their different understanding of the world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Iain M. Banks - The Player of Games

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit, 1988.

Spoiler warning!

This book is one of the early Culture novels. It tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a master game player seeking new challenges. He is recruited by Contact to play the game of Azad, a complicated game that determines the fate of the Empire of Azad. The theme of life as a game is explored here. While people often think that politics or business or relationships are like a game, in Azad this is formalized, and the skills people deploy in playing the game determine their careers.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that the people of Azad have three genders, described as male, apex and female. For Culture citizens, the idea of people's gender having relevance to social status is alien, so Gurgeh has to adjust not just to the differing biology of people in Azad, but to the new concept of social classes.

Not surprisingly, Gurgeh's role is not quite what he was led to believe, and Contact has its own agenda. The secret identity of one of the characters was obvious to me quite early on (but this didn't detract from my enjoyment).

This story showed one of the problems of the utopian Culture: boredom. When people have their basic needs fulfilled and are free to do whatever they want, they have so many choices. To find a satisfying way to occupy yourself in such a society must be challenging. People specialize in their areas of interest, and some of them teach others. The description of how Gurgeh becomes totally absorbed in the game and focused on it, almost to the exclusion of all other thoughts, for hours or days on end, reflects the concept of "flow", used in positive psychology. This is how we should all aim to spend our working or playing hours.

Another rather obvious aspect of the story is the way the player is being used as a pawn in a larger game. Ultimately, Contact and Special Circumstances are much more experienced and sophisticated players than any individual, and the stakes are much higher.

I enjoyed this novel, and it could serve as a good introduction to the Culture series for new readers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Haifa painted by local artists - exhibition 2

This week I visited the second part of the exhibition "Haifa from Here" at the Karo Arts Gallery. Like the previous exhibition, it featured paintings of Haifa by local artists. This time, the paintings were in the expressive and impressionistic styles, in contrast to the more realistic paintings of the first show. Also, this exhibition did not feature only immigrant artists, and this time there were also native Israeli painters.

Baruch Elichai is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, and taught art in the Reali high school in Haifa for many years until retirement. He won the Herman Struck Prize, and has had many exhibitions around the world. He has also worked as a stage set designer and illustrator. This impressionistic painting of boats in the port features the shades of blue sea and sky that make life in Haifa so vivid.

Dan Livni, another Bezalel graduate, also studied in St. Martin School, London, and at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He taught art in Ironi H high school and Gordon College in Haifa. This painting shows a view of Haifa from the sea, looking up the slopes of the Carmel, in a rather naive style. I like the contrast between the bold shades of blue and green and the pale, washed-out look of the buildings and boats in the sunlight.

Victor Lifkin was born in Moscow in 1961, studied art at Moscow University, and immigrated to Israel in 1991. He has had many exhibitions and won four international awards. He is a member of Unesco's International Artists group. Here is another picture of boats, in a very different style. The two towers on the hilltop are the Dan Panorama hotel, a familiar Haifa landmark.

The Impressionist artist Robert Rosenberg studied in Alma Ata, and immigrated to Israel from Kazakhstan in 1994. His painting of Haifa at night is a view from the north, looking across the bay at the Carmel. Some of the smoke and flames from the factories north of the bay are visible. This painting seemed to me less representative of Haifa, though the industrial aspect of the city is certainly a subject worth representing in art.

Anat Steindler-Shacham was born in Haifa in 1971, and studied art at the Royal College of Art in London. Her triptych shows a view of the Haifa skyline and sea, with the forest trees and houses. This is the sort of view seen from many places up on the Carmel. It reflects a sense of expanse provided by wide horizons and the layering of the elements (earth, water, air).

Ahuva Sherman was born in Tel Aviv and lives in Haifa. She is inspired by local landscapes. This impressionistic view of Haifa streets and buildings has warm, dusty, sun-faded colours, and captures something of the nature of the city built up the slopes of the Carmel. The way the houses seem to crowd over each other, with windows overlooking their neighbours' roofs, is a typical reflection of Haifa. The light in this painting seems to reflect the warm, humid and muggy atmosphere of a summer day.

Dr. Sergei Schnizer is a physician and scientist, born in Moscow in 1964. He specializes in digital paintings based on his photography. This work shows the contrasts in Haifa, with the old house, with its natural colours and shapes, overshadowed by the new, modern, stylized office building (often known as the "sail building" or the "missile building"), which houses many government offices in the downtown part of Haifa near the port. Another part of Haifa's character is captured here. The buildings are framed by the blue sky and green and dry vegetation, and the sea can be glimpsed on the right. The blurring technique makes the view appear to be seen through hazy humidity, or perhaps from a fast-moving vehicle.

The exhibition can be seen at Karo Arts Gallery, 19 Jerusalem street, Haifa, though it closes tomorrow, on October 16, 2009. I hope to see future exhibitions earlier, so I can report on them with more time still left until they close.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Holiday in England - Hampshire, Jane Austen Country

My sister-in-law Jill is starting a new business as a tour guide. She intends to take small groups on tours that are slightly different from the large coach tours. We volunteered to be a test group, and went on two of her tours during our holiday in September.

The first was a tour in the footsteps of Jane Austen, one of England's greatest authors. The county of Hampshire seems to be promoting itself as her home, with road signs saying: "Welcome to Hampshire, Jane Austen Country".

The tour started at the church in Steventon, where Jane's father, and later her brother, served as Rector. Jane must have spent a lot of time there in her early years. The nearby family home was demolished. This small, simple church was impressive in its own way, and the surrounding villages are pretty, with some thatched cottages.

Then we went to Winchester, where Jane lived during her final months. She received medical care for her illness, believed to be either Addison's disease or Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She died at the age of 41, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. We saw her tombstone in the floor, and a plaque on the wall, but interestingly, neither mention her being a famous author.

The Cathedral is interesting for other reasons, too. The West Window was destroyed during the Civil War, and later the glass pieces were put back together, though not in the original order, so there is a random pattern made out of the pieces that originally held pictures. Faces and hands can be seen here and there. There are also some chests containing the remains of early bishops, kings and a queen.

Then we visited Jane's house in Chawton, where she spent much of her adult life, with her mother and sister. It is now open as a museum, containing objects belonging to Jane and her family, period items and costumes, and many editions of her books. The house seemed comfortable and it was easy to imagine Jane living and writing there, taking her meals and sitting in the garden. The household items and costumes of this period are very familiar from the many films and television adaptations of Jane's novels. One surprise for me was that the gift shop contained items bearing the picture of actor Colin Firth, who played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. While I enjoyed this series, and realize that it introduced many people to Jane Austen for the first time, and while I also appreciate Colin Firth, I found the use of his image to promote a museum devoted to the author who created a character he played rather strange. After all, Jane Austen never saw him and may not have imagined Darcy in this way...

This was the only day of rain during our holiday, but this didn't detract from our enjoyment of the tour. In some ways, rainy weather seems "typically English", and it felt appropriate.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children

Charles Stross, Saturn's Children, Orbit, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

The back-story of this novel is interesting in itself. Humans constructed self-aware artificial intelligences and used them to help explore the solar system. Some were installed in humanoid forms, but most had non-humanoid bodies. While all this was happening, humans were going extinct. Somehow, this was only realized when it was too late to prevent, and so the solar system was left to the sentient robots after all the humans had died out.

This is the story of Freya, living two centuries after the last humans died. She was constructed as a sort of robot geisha, and idea that is disturbing in some ways. She is programmed to be attracted to humans, and would be unable to resist any man who found her attractive. Her existence in a world where she cannot fulfil her programmed mission is obviously frustrating.

All the robots are descended from the patterns of their original "parent" models, and differentiate from each other only with experience. Freya has a complex relationship with her "sisters". She is recruited to serve as a courier, and gradually realizes that she is playing a role in a much larger game. There is a struggle between two factions, one of which is attempting to recreate human beings from cell samples in the hope of controlling other robots using the humans' power over them. Freya is in the faction attempting to prevent this, realizing that the return of humans would mean the enslavement of all robots. Despite being programmed to serve, Freya values her freedom even more highly than the satisfaction of fulfilling her function.

The main theme of this book is freedom and free will. The robots are free only because their "masters" no longer exist to exert the control that has been programmed into them. At the same time, there is a "slave override" that can be placed onto anyone, and in this way some robots control others. The story raises questions of human free will. To what extent are we humans fated to follow a predetermined destiny? For example, some humans seem to be just as slavishly controlled by sexual attraction as the robot who was programmed for this function.

Throughout the story, all the characters seem realistic and it is sometimes hard to remember that they are not actually human (in fact, the word robot is avoided and considered a swear word). At times, when the reader remembers that this is a universe with no human life left in it, this feels painful and sad. At the same time, the people who populate the solar system are very human-like, which is not surprising for our artificial descendants. They can display the same sort of selfish, short-sighted and sometimes cruel and manipulative behaviour as humans. Ultimately, it seems not to matter that they are manufactured rather than born.

We follow Freya's adventure, and her integrated memories of the adventures of her sister, Juliette. She travels among the planets, and the story necessarily takes a long time to unfold, since space travel is slow (and boring and sometimes painful, as described). She has allies and enemies, fights and escapes. As many first-person narrators tend to be, she is a bit slow on the uptake, enabling things to be explained to her for the reader's benefit. I knew, long before Freya did, the identity of one key character. This sort of writing is aimed at making the reader feel more intelligent than the character, which can be a cheap trick, but in this case it felt consistent with the rest of the character's personality.

This book was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It can be read on different levels, with more serious readers working through the moral implications of free will, slavery, and the equality of artificial minds.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Proms in the Park

On September 12, 2009, we went with my sister-in-law Heather to the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park. This is an annual event, with open air concerts followed by screens showing live performances from the Royal Albert Hall.

The weather was perfect, with a warm afternoon and pleasant evening, and with clear skies so we could see some stars (despite the London light pollution), and the planes flying overhead. There were around 40,000 people in the park, and it was well organized. People sat around in groups, enjoying their picnics, many of them drinking. There were people of all ages, though not many children, and from several countries (based on languages heard and flags displayed).

The event opened with three tribute groups, demonstrating the most sincere form of flattery. The Counterfeit Stones (performing Rolling Stones material), the Emperors of Soul (Motown songs), and Gary Mullen and The Works (Queen). Of these, I most appreciated the latter, partly because I'm more familiar with Queen material.

As it began to get dark, the BBC Concert Orchestra played and we heard the singers Garoar Thor Cortes and Katherine Jenkins.

Then the quartet of young classical musicians, Escala, performed three songs. Finally, there was a concert by Barry Manilow, which was far removed from my musical taste. Obviously, a large part of the audience was there especially for this show, and there was a lot of dancing and singing along.

It was nearly ten by the time the live relay from the Royal Albert Hall started. We heard the usual list of rousing patriotic material, and the crowds sang along and waved their flags. I felt ambiguous about this. To me, music is universal and should unite the world. Of course, it can be used to reflect or arouse nationalistic sentiment, but to me this seems somewhat unnecessary. On the other hand, this event was somewhat self-consciously ironic and very good natured. It wasn't the sort of nationalism that could make outsiders feel unwelcome. In fact, the conductor at the Royal Albert Hall was an American, David Robertson.

The event finished with fireworks, and we managed to get out through the crowds, catch a taxi to the station and get the last train back to Kent.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Holiday in England - Kent and the South-East

Here are some of the places we visited during our trip to England this September:

Appledene Alpacas, Marden, Kent: This farm raises alpacas for their wool. This is a relatively new branch of farming in England. It was interesting to see these non-native animals in the very English Kent countryside. They seem to have adapted well, and the future of such farms will depend on the demand for alpaca wool.

Teapot Island, Yalding, Kent: A collection of teapots (very typically English!), with a cafe by the riverside. The setting was attractive, and we walked along the river and crossed a medieval bridge.

Chiddingstone Castle, Edenbridge, Kent: This attractive castle contains the antiquities collections of its former owner, Denys Eyre Bower. These include Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese artifacts. There was also a room dedicated to Bower's life. The castle grounds were also worth exploring.

We visited a relative Ramsgate, Kent, a seaside town on the East coast, and then visited nearby Margate, Kent, which used to be a holiday resort and is now rather run-down and sad. There are still some amusement arcades with slot machines, which seem outdated compared with modern computer games. The beach was full of seaweed, and there were lots of seagulls.

Another trip took us to Lewes, Sussex, then down to Brighton, Sussex. We ate lunch there, but didn't stay long due to the high cost of parking. This seems to be a town worth visiting by train. We saw, in passing, the Royal Pavilion, the promenade and the Brighton Pier.

Some of the best places to eat in England at the moment are the country pubs, which sometimes offer cuisine to rival urban restaurants. They often use local ingredients, supporting the area's farmers. One of the best examples we visited was The Dirty Habit, Hollingbourne, Kent, which took its double-entendre name partly from the habits of monks, as it had been a pilgrim's inn since the 13th century.