Entries by Tristram Brelstaff (2955)


Children's Books for Adults

For me, one of the greatest joys of being a father has been reading books to my daughter Zoe at bed time.  When she was just a year or two old I used to read her Edward Lear verses to lull her to sleep.  The Jumblies and The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo were always very good for this because they were so soporifically repetitive.  I remember also using some of the Dr. Seuss books for the same reason (Green Eggs and Ham, There's a Wocket in My Pocket, and others).  However, most books aimed at the under-threes are rather boring for adults and in those years I left most of the bed-time reading to my wife Liz.

It wasn't until Zoe was three or four that I started to take reading to her really seriously.  I began hanging around in the children's sections of Waterstone's and Blackwell's (our local bookshops here in Reading at the time - Blackwell's has since closed) looking for something that I would enjoy reading to to her.  In this way I discovered the Dilly Dinosaur books by Tony Bradman (with the wonderful pictures by Susan Hellard), the Kitty books by Bel Mooney, and the Horrid Henry books by Francesca Simon.  These were always great fun to read to Zoe because she identified with the naughty children in them.  She became so keen on Dilly Dinosaur that she even tried to read it by herself, and whenever she came across a word she didn't know she would come though and ask me or Liz what it was.

Amongst the books that I remember from that time were Tove Jansson's Moomin books.  We started with a copy of Comet in Moominland which Liz still had from when she was young.  We then worked our way through all of the other ones we could find in the town library.  These are wonderfully dreamy stories which have some quite grown-up themes running through them (like the impending destruction of the world in Comet in Moominland, and a father's failure in the eyes of his family in Moominpappa at Sea).  Don't be put off by the cute little cartoon characters - these are as much fun for adults to read as they are for children to listen to.

However, it was when Zoe was five that our bed time reading really took off.  It was then that I read her The Hobbit.  I knew that it was a bit advanced for her (I first had it read to me at school when I was seven) so I took care to explain some things, simplify others, and gloss over some of the battle scenes.  But she enjoyed it so much that, when I told her that the characters Bilbo and Gollum also appear in another, much bigger book by Tolkien, she pestered me to read The Lord of the Rings to her as well.

So, at Christmas 2000 I started on The Lord of the Rings, reading her only half a chapter an evening.  Sometimes Zoe would fall asleep while I was reading, but mostly she kept awake and followed the story remarkably well.  I again took care to explain things that she might find difficult (this was especially necessary as nearly every character seems to have at least three different names).  She had to wait a long time for Gollum to make his appearance (it is only around page 600 that he gets to speak, though we do get occasional glimpses of him from about page 400 onwards.)  She liked the chapter where Merry and Pippin met Treebeard.  It wasn't until the middle of the spring that we reached the last page.

But that wasn't the end if it.  Later in 2001, BBC Radio re-broadcast their thirteen part radio adaptation, which I taped, and which Zoe listened to over and over again.  And then there was Peter Jackson's film, starting with the first part in December 2001.  I was a bit worried that the film would be too violent for Zoe, after all she was only 6 years old, and I was expecting to have to put my hands over her eyes in parts I thought unsuitable, however, she just lapped it up without any problems.  Walking home afterwards we discussed the differences between the film and the book, such as the omission of Tom Bombadil.

By now Zoe knew the story inside out and when a Lord of the Rings craze developed at school she gained much kudos amongst the boys for this.  She even took our copy of the book in to school and got into a race with two of the boys in her class to see who could finish reading it first (she won after one of boys dropped out and the other went for a weeks holiday and forgot to take his copy of the book with him).  The craze continued for the next two years, and each Christmas I took her to see the next part of the film.  In a way, I felt relieved when we came out from seeing the last film: three years is long enough to live with one book.

Going back to the spring of 2001, I had the problem of deciding what to read after the Lord of the Rings.  Anything was going to be a bit of a let down.  Again I spent my evenings searching the children's section of Waterstone's.  Among the best books I found during that time were Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo and When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson.

Zoe so enjoyed Kensuke's Kingdom that she took it to school with her and used it as her reading book in class.  It is about a boy whose parents take him on a round-the-world yacht trip and who is marooned on a tropical island.  Morpurgo has written many other good books which are worth reading, though a lot of them seem to be rather similar, but children probably don't notice this as much as adults.

When Marnie was There is definitely more of a girly book.  It is about a orphaned girl who goes to stay in a village on the Norfolk coast.  There she meets and befriends Marnie, a girl of the same age.  The ending, in which the significance of Marnie is revealed, is rather good.

Towards the end of 2003, Zoe and I together watched the final program in the BBC Television's Big Read series.  On it, various celebrities discussed the nation's five favorite books.  I let Zoe stay up late to watch this because I knew that the The Lord of the Rings was going to be on it.  However, Zoe also became interested in what was said about some of the other book, in particular Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. So, on my next visit to Waterstone's I checked it out and bought Northern Lights, the first book of the trilogy.

Northern Lights grabbed Zoe's attention from the first page: the idea of daemons (animals that are visible manifestations of a person's soul and accompany them everywhere) in particular seemed to her to be very like Pokemon, which she was, and still is, very keen on.  Again I had to explain parts of the story to her, but she followed it very carefully, asking intelligent questions along the way.  The reading level is similar to that of The Lord of the Rings.

We read Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, all within a couple of months.  The pace of these books, the characters, the variety of scenery, and the ideas in them, make these three book like no other children's books I have ever read.  It is useless for me to even try to summarize them; you will just have to to read them for yourself.


Young Adolph by Beryl Bainbridge

An imaginary story in which the the twenty-three year old Adolph Hitler comes to stay with his half-brother Alois in Liverpool.  Hitler comes across as a paranoid tramp-like figure (one of the the reviewers uses the term 'Chaplinesque' which is nicely ironic).  The level of the story is signalled when Alois' wife decides to make Adolph a replacement for his tattered shirt, but the only material available is brown linen...  There are several other similar 'forward' reference to look out for. 

An amusing read and a good antidote to all those self-important door-stopping biographies of Hitler that fill the history shelves of bookshops.

(A search on Google suggests that this story might actually have some basis in fact.  There certainly does seem to be a tradition in Liverpool that Hitler's brother lived there for a while.  However, as all the internet accounts post-date Bainbridge's 1978 story, I suppose that it is possible that the former were all derived from the latter by a process of chinese whispers.)


Invariants should be Unadorned

Properties that always hold, ie: invariants, should not have to be indicated by special notations.  They should be unadorned.  Special notations should only be used to indicate when a property does not always hold.

Lamport's Temporal Logic of Actions violates this principle in that a predicate P holds only in the initial state, and if you want to indicate that it always holds the you have to put a box symbol in front of it:


Similarly, in Daniel Jackson's Micromodularity Mechanism you have to use the keyword 'fact' to indicate that a predicate is invariant.

It seems obvious and natural to me that if a predicate P does not always hold then this should be indicated by an implication Q->P where Q is the condition under which P does hold. 


The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories, some autobiographical, some not, each one associated in some way with a different chemical element.  You might think that this would appear contrived, but it doesn't because Primo Levi weaves most of the stories around his day-to-day life as an industrial chemist in Italy before, during, and after the Second World War.  The impact of Fascism runs as a theme through many of the stories, although only one is directly about Levi's experiences in Auschwitz.  The translation from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal is smooth and unobtrusive.  The stories are varied and stimulating and I found I could read three or four of them at a sitting without my interest flagging.

Should students of chemistry read this book?  Well, yes, I think they should, but not for the little bit of chemistry they might pick up from it, but because it is a good read and it is part of the cultural heritage of their subject (in the same way that The Double Helix by James Watson is for molecular biology).


Specifications are for Reasoning From

We write specifications of systems in order to be able to reason about those systems.  This reasoning can be formal or informal. It can take the form of proving properties, deriving properties or refining the specification to code.  The purpose of specifications is to allow this reasoning to take place, ie: specifications are for reasoning from.  Looking at specification this way leads me to make the following suggestions:

  • Specifications should be written in a way that makes reasoning easy.  A way to do this is to write them as conjunctions of ready-to-use proof steps, with the pre-conditions and variables of each step clearly visible.
  • Conciseness is not necessarily important in specifications.  Not including irrelevant material is important, as is clearly laying out the relevant material, but using abstruse theories to make the specification as short as possible is not.
  • Graphical notations that have not been designed with reasoning in mind should be avoided.  Just because a notation is graphical does not mean that it makes reasoning easy.