The hunger that first alerted me to my pregnancy continues and and has grown to absurd proportions.

When it comes on at full strength, it is deafening, driving out all other thought other than itself. It is so insistent that I cannot think about anything except that I MUST. HAVE. FOOD. RIGHT. NOW. On the days when I have gone out to buy a sandwich for my second lunch, I have found myself wondering, on the way back, whether it is really necessary to wait until I’m all the way back in the office… perhaps I could tear into the sandwich right there and then, in the street. It feels like I have been starving for many days, whereas in fact about two, possibly two and a half hours have passed since I last ate.

I eat four full meals a day – breakfast, lunch, another lunch, dinner. In fact if you count all the snacks as well, I probably eat about eight times a day. Or actually, to be more precise, I eat pretty much all the time. Not only am I hungry, but my blood sugar level seems to be doing funny things. I need injections of sugar quite frequently, so I eat lots of fruit.

Pre-breakfast snack (a yoghurt or some dry cereal)
Breakfast (double sandwich, orange juice)
Mid-morning snack (banana / yoghurt / müllerice / cereal bar)
Afternoon snack
Another lunch
Late evening snack

No cravings, thus far. A strong preference for dairy, fruit and vegetables, even more marked than usual – if that’s possible after 15 years of vegetarian living. I used to eat seafood occasionally, maybe once every one or two weeks, and fish maybe once a month. I haven’t wanted any fish at all in the past few weeks. Yoghurt in particular feels very good. When I am hungry but have a feeling that I don’t really want to eat, if you see what I mean, a yoghurt awakens the appetite very nicely. Raw fruit and veg likewise. Carrots… fruit juice… mmm.

On the other hand I have lost all taste for high-calorie snacks: sweets, chocolate, chips, cakes. I had been trying to gain weight for a while through regular consumption of chocolate croissants and cakes. The weight gain effort was rather unsuccessful in the end, but it gave me a habit of afternoon cakes. That is now completely gone. I tried potato chips the other day, didn’t like the taste at all, and gave up after two of them.

I haven’t felt any real nausea either, for which I am very grateful. I do feel an almost constant low-level queasiness, but that’s probably due to this constant eating and the fluctuations in blood sugar. Sharp juicy fruits, such as mandarins, seem to help.

I’m spending all of this week on a Java course (J2EE). It’s a broad but shallow course, giving an introduction to a number of things in the J2EE SDK, but not going into much detail on any of them. Yesterday and today, for example, we’ve covered JDBC (database access), JNDI> (which doesn’t really have a VB equivalent as far as I know – it’s a service that allows objects to be looked up by name), sending and receiving mail, and servlets (dynamic web pages – the Java equivalent of ASP). Dizzying.

You’re probably all getting rather bored with all these posts about how excited I am about learning all these things… But that really is all that’s going on in my life at the moment. So that’s what you get.

The only other event worth noticing is the long-awaited arrival of spring. We’ve had winter here all the way until this weekend – temperatures barely above freezing, even though it’s already the end of March. Wool-lined gloves and thick woollen scarfs in March! Now at last we’ve turned the corner, it seems.


It was even warm enough at midday today that I spent half of my lunch break walking around in a tiny park at Gray’s Inn. It’s a private garden, really, open only for 2 hours around lunchtime on weekdays. And it’s only got two entrance gates and no straight way through, which gives it a peaceful atmosphere – there’s no through traffic. And full of cheerful daffodils. A nice spot to spend half an hour in the sun.

One of the side effects of having a developer job is that I have very little energy or desire for coding in my spare time these days.

There is only so much code that one can fit into a head in one day. 10 hours of muddling around in strange languages and environments leaves that part of my brain completely drained, so when I come home, I don’t want to see any code. I don’t even feel like turning on the computer.

My previous job was a comfortable one. I knew what I was doing. I had a month or two of intense learning when we started using SAS, but after 6 months even that was quite familiar, and there was only incremental learning in small steps. About half of my job I could have done in my sleep, especially the simpler Excel tasks.

Now, on the other hand, everything is new, and there is so much to learn. Only on a few rare occasions when someone has needed something done in Excel, and asked me for advice, have I felt that I know what I’m doing.

The languages are new. The systems are new – source control, build systems, application servers. All of these are things I had heard of (thank heavens for the Internet) but didn’t really have a clue about how they work. Even the environments are new to me, since much of our “stuff” resides and runs on UNIX servers, and I had never even seen UNIX up close. On the first day I was utterly helpless – I couldn’t even copy a file from one folder to another. I had barely touched databases in my previous job, and now I’m neck deep in Sybase stored procedures. In fact SQL is the easiest part of my job since I had at least encountered it before!

All of what I’m doing is very useful and interesting. But it does take a lot of energy.

Just about a week ago, I discovered I am pregnant. I’m very happy about this, but still getting used to the idea.

In retrospect, of course, it is pretty obvious… Two weeks of tiredness and lack of energy might not be a clear enough sign on its own. Add to that tender breasts, and the message should be clearer. Still it didn’t click for me. Only when I found myself ravenously hungry did I seriously start to wonder whether I might be pregnant.

But since I’d been hoping for a pregnancy for the last three years, and spent the last year or so going from one test to another, regularly getting stuck by needles, while doctors were trying to figure out why my body wasn’t behaving the way it should, I became somewhat cautious and sceptical about such things. I didn’t dare to put forward what would normally be the most obvious explanation, because it is no longer obvious.

I always used to feel that my body was working well, and any signals were true. Body says it’s hungry – feed it. Body says it’s tired – rest. Body says this food doesn’t feel good – don’t eat it. But it becomes difficult to know how much I can trust the signals of my body, when I’ve been munching pills for months, just to get the body to do the right thing. And it becomes difficult to separate signal from noise. Is it my body speaking, or is it the pills? I’d just started on a new medication that was supposed to knock some sense into my hormone system, and it seemed likely that any sensations of being off-balance and not-quite-normal would be due to side effects from that medication.

After the fact, the signal is clear, and the noise was minimal. I just wasn’t listening properly. It is good to know that the signals are still reliable. And I have to admit, despite my general aversion to and distrust of pills and medication, they’ve exceeded my expectations this time.

I’ve been a member and moderator of XtremeVBTalk, a discussion forum about Visual Basic, for several years now. At first I asked a few questions, but I soon realised that answering them is a lot more interesting and educational, so I’ve mostly been doing that. I especially like answering questions that I almost know the answer to, but not entirely – I know where to start but not where it will end. (Those are the educational ones.) The other interesting category is open-ended questions about fundamental principles and approaches – the kind that asks, “How would you approach this problem” or “How would you start thinking about this”.

That site has done more for my education and development as a programmer than any other resource out there. In fact, if it hadn’t been for XVBT, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t hold my current programming job. I might have gotten there by some other route in the end, but it would certainly have taken a lot longer.

Answering other people’s questions, and reading even more questions, I can’t help noticing that some people there have no business programming. The whole enterprise is obviously doomed from the start. Some of them stick around for many months, and there is no perceptible improvement in the quality of their posts. Their questions are not ignorant – which would excusable. Worse: they display such a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic principles of programming that I don’t even understand how they think. I’ve tentatively come to conclude that to them, programming appears to be a combination of (1) imitation (= copy & paste), (2) random attempts at changing things without understanding why they do what they do, or knowing what effect they expect the change to have, and (3) simply crossing their fingers and hoping. Basically they appear to treat computers as black magic, unpredictable and unfathomable, rather than as dumb machines.

I found an interesting article a month or two ago, that talks about this – The camel has two humps, by Dehnadi and Bornat. The authors gave students a multiple-choice test asking them to predict the results of very simple Java programs, focusing on simple assignment. The code for a typical question looked like this:

int a = 10;
int b = 20;
a = b;

Their intention was to “observe the mental models that students used when thinking about assignment instructions”. The test was administered twice – before the start of a programming course, and in the middle – and correlated to results on examinations.

Some quotes from the article:

We expected that after a short period of instruction our novices would be fairly confused and so
would display a wide range of mental models. We expected that as time went by the ones who
were successfully learning to program would converge on a model that corresponds to the way that
a Java program works.

We could hardly expect that students would choose the Java model of assignment […], but it rapidly became clear that despite their various choices of model, in the first administration
they divided into three distinct groups with no overlap at all:

  • 44% used the same model for all, or almost all, of the questions. We called this the consistent
  • 39% used different models for different questions. We called this the the inconsistent group.
  • The remaining 8% refused to answer all or almost all of the questions. We called this the
    blank group.

It turns out that the consistent group generally succeeds in their exams, and the inconsistent group performs poorly. Notably, some students moved from the inconsistent group to the consistent one during their course, but no one moved in the opposite direction.

And finally the important bit – why is this so? This is the part that I found really interesting, because it matched my own observations so closely:

It now seems to us, although we are aware that at this point we do not have sufficient data, and so
it must remain a speculation, that what distinguishes the two groups is their different attitudes to
Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs – which are formal logical proofs that particular
computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language – are
utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept
that whatever the problem seems to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and
come to some meaningless conclusion. In behaving consistently in the test, the consistent group
showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems
in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group,
on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at
meaninglessness, and rejects it.

I recommend you to have a look if you’re interested in programming and/or education at all. It’s a well-written article and easy to follow, since presents both the methodology and results very clearly. And at only 13 pages it’s quick to read.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but you’ve got to start somewhere, and the cover is the first thing you see, if you look at a book in a bookshop. And the covers are often quite informative. So I do judge books by their covers. Especially when it comes to SF, where there are many more good books than I have time to read, and where covers can say a lot about the type of book. If the cover shows a half-naked woman + horse + sword, or spaceships in battle with beams of light, it’s generally safe to assume that it’s a traditional story with nothing particularly interesting to offer. Most of my recent purchases of SF books have either been based on the cover, or authors I already know.

The cover of “Tom O’Bedlam” is both beautiful and intriguing, and I had to look inside. The books by Robert Silverberg that I’ve read previously have been somewhat disappointing – not exactly dystopic, but rather grim – but this one seemed different.

It’s a post-disaster world, with half of America inhabitable due to radioactive dust. Civilization still exists, but society’s mood is one of dull hopelessness. Against this gloomy backdrop, people start having dreams of beautiful alien worlds – verdant, peaceful, cultured. Different people report having the same dreams, and the dreams get more and more intense. And for some reason, they’re most likely to happen, and most intense, near one man – the crazy, innocent Tom O’Bedlam. He himself has those dreams even while he is awake.

Calling this SF is a stretch, really – it is really a future fantasy, there’s barely any science there. It’s about how people react to and deal with the unknowable – mistrust, hope, mysticism, cynicism, adoration… But in the end, it’s mostly about belief. Above all, it’s a very beatiful book (the cover didn’t lie!) – beautiful descriptions of beautiful dreams and visions, vivid and detailed. In fact the whole mood of the book is beautiful – there is hope for people in a world of despair. An uplifting read, without getting mushy, and a gripping story. Left a good feeling after it for several days; best book I’ve read in several months.

Subtitled “A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything”, and having praising quotes from Malcolm Gladwell and the Wall Street Journal on both the front and the back cover, and positive reviews in all sorts of places, this book has certainly gotten a lot of attention. And the premise is an interesting one: an economist points his economist’s way of thinking at problems that aren’t traditionally considered as part of the field.

The economics covered are microeconomics, or how individuals make their decisions (as opposed to macroeconomics, which is concerned with entire nations and economies). Different chapters cover different aspects of economic thinking. One discusses cheating and the detection of it – among schoolteachers cheating their students to better results on standardised tests, and among sumo wrestlers. In economic terms, this is about incentives and statistical measurement. Another chapter covers information asymmetries and the power of having more information than outsiders – exemplified by real estate agents, and the story of how the Ku Klux Klan was more or less destroyed when its secret information was made public. Other chapters examine the economics of crack dealing, what childhood factors affect a child’s success as an adult, and the different distributions of baby names among high-income parents and low-income parents.

I really wanted to like this book. It applies an analytical approach to everyday problems, and that sort of thing always deserves encouragement. And economics is an interesting subject, so if someone can write an interesting and entertaining book about it, that’s a good thing.

But ultimately the book left me unsatisfied. First of all, it was really lightweight. Big type, sparse layout, 200 pages – barely a day’s worth of reading. And while I knew it was aimed at a non-specialist audience, I was expecting a weightier discussion than this. It appears to be aimed at a rather naive audience who doesn’t really question conventional wisdom, or anything much at all. A fair amount of space is dedicated to excerpts from the NY Times essay about Levitt that led to this book, and there is quite a lot of repetition. The book’s magazine-article origins shine through, I guess. Too much entertainment, stories and anecdotes; too little substance.

Related to this problem of light-weightedness (is that a word?) is the unfortunate fact that some of his claims don’t really hold up when you look at them more closely – he presents facts that support his thesis, but doesn’t look for alternative explanations or contradictory evidence. Dave Taylor goes through a bunch of these slips.

And then of course there’s his best-known chapter, about how the decline in crime in the US was due not to gun control, better policing, higher usage of prisons etc, but to the greater accessibility of abortions. That one appears to have been debunked (solid discussion at ISteve; see also articles in the Economist and Wall Street Journal.) The main methodological flaw is that they measured total arrests, not arrests per capita… oops.

On the whole, a relatively entertaining read, but not worth the money if you know anything about economics at all, and won’t leave any lasting memories.

First yoga class since some time in October. Wonderful.

Now that I have a permanent contract and a full-time job again, I immediately became a member of the corporate gym again. It’s all for the yoga classes – I’ve never used the gym for much else. The same instructor is still running the class, which was very good news, because I like his style. The classes he does at our gym are “dynamic vinyasa yoga”, which is mostly based on ashtanga yoga. He deviates a bit from the standard sequence, so each class doesn’t follow the exact same pattern, but in general his approach is quite close to ashtanga yoga.

Yoga appeals to me for several reasons. One of the most important ones is that it requires your mind to be present and active as well as your body – if only your body is involved, it isn’t yoga, it’s stretching. Unlike something like, say, aerobics, you need to think about what you are doing, you cannot just ape the instructor. In fact if you try to imitate someone else, the postures are likely to either hurt you or be ineffective.

A necessary side effect of this focus on awareness is that yoga is never rushed. (As long as the teacher is any good.) There is time to explore each posture, tweak it slightly and feel which way is more “right” – even though ashtanga yoga is a dynamic kind of yoga, with a lot of movement. And there is no one in the front of the class shouting at you (we’ve got a boxercise class next door, and their instructor seems to shout all the time) or pushing you to do more. The only thing a teacher can do is show the postures and correct your pose. The rest of it is up to the individual.

Ashtanga yoga also pays a lot of attention to breathing. Every movement is syncronised with the breath. Breathe in – stretch up. Breathe out – bend forward. Etc. In addition to the direct physical effects, i.e. breathing that fits the exercise, this helps me concentrate. It also gives the exercises a definite rhythm – sort of like a dance, without any music.

Some people like to do yoga in the morning. I much prefer the evening. I don’t want to go straight to my desk after a yoga class. After yoga, I feel so pleasantly tired, but at the same time very relaxed, both in the body and in the mind. I like to just savour this feeling for a good while.

Common types of yoga in England:
Ashtanga yoga focuses on movement in sync with breathing.
Iyengar yoga emphasises precision and tends to hold each posture quite long.
Classes labelled as hatha yoga or just yoga can be anything, but tend to be less vigorous.

Played by Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide; directed by Michael Blakemore; based on a novel by Sándor Márai.

It is 1940. Henrik (Irons) has waited for 40 years for his friend Konrad (Malahide) to return, after he left in mysterious circumstances. This is the evening when Konrad returns, and Henrik is determined to find out the truth about what happened.

In the first few minutes we learn that this is somehow about Henrik’s wife, now long dead. (Not surprising, really, that a drama between two men would revolve around a woman.) The rest of the evening slowly uncovers more of the past, revealing why 40 years have passed since they last met, and also explaining why, after 40 years, the meeting is happening at all.

Márai’s storytelling skill is a large part of what makes this play interesting. The story itself is simple. But the way it unfolds is compelling: step by inevitable step, revealing small things that – when you reflect on them for a moment – tell of larger things in the background. It hints at the hours that Henrik has spent obsessing over all of this and rehearsing for this single evening, which he has been waiting for for years. It was also interesting to wonder how much Henrik already knew or guessed, and how much he only consciously realised when talking to his friend.

(As usual, reviewers and even the programme reveal far too much of the story. I’m glad I hadn’t read any of them in advance. The drama would have lost a lot of its power for me if I had known more about the story.)

The stage version is really a monologue by Henrik – Konrad is only there to act as the reason for the story. Unfortunately the only seats we could get, for any weekend, was the last row in stalls, so we didn’t have a very good view and missed quite a lot of Konrad’s performance. Facial expressions don’t carry as well as sound.

I have not read the book, but I understand that it’s not presented as a monologue. I think this approach works well on the stage, but I am interested in reading the original version. Several reviewers have said they preferred the book, and found the stage version inert, bloodless and lacking in life. A matter of taste, I guess – I would describe it as refined, subtle, and simply told. And a play about two old, bitter, world-weary men shouldn’t be lively.

As with many recent shows we’ve seen, the performance would have been even more enjoyable if it the rest of the audience hadn’t been there. Adults should be able to sit still without constant fidgeting through two short acts. And I cannot help but be annoyed by people who expect every play to be funny, and laugh out loud as soon as the story takes an unexpected turn, or an actor uses an unexpected phrase.


Interesting tidbit I learned today:
The main physical constraint for our firm’s expansion, and for large firms in the City of London in general, is access to electrical power. With all the computing power we’ve got in our London buildings – a couple of thousand employees, each with at least one workstation, many of them quite powerful, plus innumerable servers – and the air conditioning needed to keep them all cool, we suck huge amounts of power out of the grid. And now it’s apparently gotten to the point where we can’t take much more than we do today. It will be interesting to see whether we move out (we wouldn’t be the first bank to leave the City) or just shift the servers to an external data centre.