29 August 2005

While looking at a map of the Gulf of Mexico while trying to plot out the path of Hurricane Katrina, I realized something that makes a lot of sense but that I would not have guessed before: Miami is almost exactly equidistant from Colombia and New York City - 1000 miles from each.

28 August 2005

If I were to be honest with myself, I'd have to confess that my non-literary interests these days consist mostly of 1) finance and 2) celebrity gossip. As a result, I love reading about the investment portfolios of famous people. Take this article from Slate, for instance, about the investment holdings of John Roberts:
46 common stocks (including Coke, Merck, and AT&T)
31 mutual funds
four money market funds
three bank accounts
one exchange-traded fund
one real-estate investment trust
one coal unit trust
one-eighth share of a cottage in Limerick, Ireland
I love the "coal unit trust," which is just the sort of goofy diversifying investment that I'd buy if I had $3 million to invest. Unfortunately, as Slate puts it, "Roberts' investment decisions do not show evidence of the rigorous, summa cum laude analytical skill that he is said to evince on the legal side….A wise investment adviser would tell Roberts to sell all his stocks and buy one low-cost index fund instead."

Still, the article concludes that "On the whole, Roberts' investment choices suggest that his financial character is much like his legal one. In investing, he tends to accept prevailing conventional wisdom—which, in the case of the financial markets, often changes and is often wrong—and to apply it with above-average competence." In other words, his portfolio is quite, er, conservative. Make of that what you will.

27 August 2005

Coke v. Pepsi is out.

Windows v. Mac? Nope.

On law school campuses today, there's only one big corporate competition that matters: Westlaw v. Lexis Nexis. The two are the behemoths of the legal research world, offering very, very powerful search tools, armies of research attorneys, and flocks of attractive salespersons.

What's at stake? The surprisingly expensive accounts that attorneys take out to do online legal research. The problem is, the two companies offer an almost identical product. Sure, one is blue and the other is red, but for meat-and-potatoes legal research, I can't distinguish a single meaningful difference.

Where do the law schools fit in? Since most every major firm in the country uses West or Lexis, law students need to learn how to use both of them. So every law school pays for students to be able to use both while they're in school. Furthermore, at least at UNM, the law school seems to prohibit direct competitive marketing to students.

But that doesn't mean they don't have their subtle ways of getting their hooks into you. Both companies want students to become more familiar, and hence more comfortable, with their product. That way, when the students become practicing attorneys, they'll be more likely to use that product. They each buy and stock special printers in the library, so it's free to print cases or articles you pull up with either service. They also offer Reward programs that give students points every time they do research. If you accumulate a lot of points, you can redeem them for free stuff. Thus, the Reward program rewards you for picking one service and sticking with it.

Which one will I choose? It's too early to say. Maybe one of their smaller renegade competitors. I'll post more when I learn more about them.
I am thinking of learning how to program. Given that the built-in Basic for the Apple IIc is a bit out of style, anyone have any advice on what language I should learn? My criteria are:

1) There should be a free compiler/interpreter that will run on my iBook (OSX or X11 is fine).

2) I only want to read one book. So there should be a good book which can serve both as a reference and as instruction.

3) I want to be able to make calls to grep from inside programs.

4) I want to be able to manipulate wordlists with relative ease (say, replace all a's with x's, or make a new wordlist consisting of concatenations of all pairs of words from the old wordlist, etc.).

5) Aesthetically I tend to prefer recursion to iteration.
The Silence of the Lambs barely passes, I think. (Clarice has a roommate named Ardelia, and they aren't always talking about Buffalo Bill.)

As for my favorite movies...well, Lawrence of Arabia doesn't have any women at all, and the others don't qualify for one reason or another. Probably my favorite movie that qualifies is Dancer in the Dark, and that isn't even in the top ten.

Embarrassingly enough, the first other example of a qualifying movie that comes to mind is Mulholland Drive, which certainly has plenty of girl-on-girl action.

26 August 2005

Hey Alec, what are your top 10 movies that pass the "Mo Movie Measure"? Depressingly, I don't think a single film on my top 5 passes (high fidelity, vertigo, l.a. confidential, casablanca, the silence of the lambs).

24 August 2005

After posting this morning about attributing dangerous accidents to people who drive big cars (instead of, in my view, the ecologically more responsible small cars), I realized that my logic in this regard is opposite my logic with regard to sex ed and, to a lesser extent, abortion.

In the case of sex ed and abortion, my belief is that we can't curb dangerous and morally questionable behavior (at least if it's sex), so we should make sure that those people who do it are safe anyway. On consuming fossil fuels, though, I demand that people should all be held to a rigid moral standard even though they personally might be safer if they refuse.

George Lakoff would probably say that this is all a result of me oozing empathy for teenage girls and penguins, but apparently not for soccer moms.
Observers wasted no time in trashing the Bush administration's weak new fuel efficiency standards. The increases in mpg only apply to light trucks and smaller SUVs, leaving alone the biggest problem we have in fuel economy - the big SUVs. To bring the disconnect with reality to new heights, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta arrived at the press conference to announce the new standards in a Lincoln Navigator, which - Surprise! - isn't going to have to be more fuel efficient under these rules. According to the Department of Energy, the Navigator chugs along at 15 mpg, and receives some of the worst scores possible for emissions. (Note: my former boss also drives around in a Navigator, but that doesn't mean I think it's a good idea).

Another problem: U.S. cars have less stringent requirements than imports. This is protectionism, pure and simple, and it drives up the costs for consumers who actually care about their fuel mileage.

Some studies have been done that argue that smaller, lighter cars that were sold after CAFE standards were introduced in 1975 may have been ultimately responsible for a few thousand deaths in collisions with bigger vehicles. Here's the most reputable one, done by the NAS. However, I'd argue that the problem isn't the guy in the small car - it's the guy in the bigger car. If everybody were driving smaller cars, it's not obvious to me that we'd be in a more dangerous situation than if everybody were driving bigger cars, which bring a lot more energy into collisions. At any rate, Detroit can and should manufacture more efficient cars, which it can do without reducing the size or safety of vehicles (mainly by making engines more efficient).

What are the chances of that happening right now? Smaller than a Cooper Mini.

20 August 2005

Grizzly Man is one of the most fascinating, and weirdest, documentaries ever made. It makes me realize that Errol Morris, for all his brilliance, often lets you off the hook by telegraphing exactly when to laugh and what to feel. Instead of Morris, we're in the hands of Werner Herzog, he of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, who is certainly one of the weirdest directors in the world and probably one of the least sentimental. If Grizzly Man were a mockumentary, or if it ended happily, we'd be laughing all the way through. As it stands, our usual responses don't work: we're seeing something absurd and cosmically hilarious, but also tragic and terrifying. Like Tarnation, this movie leaves you feeling riveted and uneasy all the way through: it's draining.

It's about Timothy Treadwell, a likeable goofball who spent thirteen summers camping out in Alaska within touching distance of grizzly bears, lectured on grizzlies to grade school kids and David Letterman, obviously prefered the company of bears to humans, and was finally killed and eaten (along with his girlfriend) by a bear that he'd videotaped earlier that day. He took almost one hundred hours of video footage in the wilderness, and most of Grizzly Man consists of Treadwell's amazing video diary, including footage that he shot only a few hours before his death. The camera was running when he was killed. The lens cap was still on, but the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend were caught on audio. (We don't hear the audio track, although Herzog, wearing headphones, does.) There are times when the whole thing feels like a joke, or a like Christopher Guest movie: Herzog's narration sometimes verges on self-parody, as do some of the interviewees. But it's all unspeakably scary and sad.

Anyway, it's hard to describe. Only a few blog readers will know what I'm talking about here, but if you can imagine a version of Project Grizzly in which Troy Hurtubise was killed and eaten at the end (rather than making yearly appearances at Harvard), you'll have a sense of what Grizzly Man is like.
Overheard in Times Square:

"All the people in this ad have the same nose."
—Tourist, looking at a billboard for JDate.com

18 August 2005

Here's a fun new Google feature: enter a few items from a set (John, Paul, George) and it will return a list of additional items (Ringo). For example, if you enter Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, it will return a list of Bob Dylan albums, and if you enter Dopey, Sleepy, Doc, you get the names of the remaining dwarves.

Check it out. And if you generate any interesting or funny responses, post them in the comments.

17 August 2005

Dave's movie post: I saw The Aristocrats last night. Go see it. Now. I haven't laughed longer or harder in a long long time, and you all know how hard it is to amuse me. However, the movie made me wish (ever so briefly) that I was more in tune with popular culture, as I recognized about three of the featured comedians (Robin Williams [filmed on my favorite beach in SF], Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, and the Monty Python guy. Ok, that's 5.)

I will never again hear the word 'longshoreman' without thinking of a raised fist.

16 August 2005

Who says that the death penalty is irrevocable? The state of Georgia has just granted a pardon to a woman whom it executed 60 years ago. I'm sure she will be very happy when she learns she's been vindicated -- oh wait, she's dead.

As someone who has firsthand experience with this type of thing, I can say that it's a lot easier to turn back the wheels of justice when the defendant is alive.
Oops. Albuquerque city officials just realized that having city elections in early October might not be the best idea. The city election happens to fall during Rosh Hashanah this year. Incidentally, none of the mayoral candidates is Jewish, but this should certainly help Republican city council candidates.

15 August 2005

Quick, raise your hand if you've ever heard of Robert Moses. I hadn't until I was told about The Power Broker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses by Robert Caro. All Moses did was totally rebuild huge swaths of New York City and Long Island between the 1920s and 1960s. He built nearly every expressway, parkway, modern bridge, and state park in the area, as well as Shea Stadium, the UN building, and other structures too countless to mention.

Rest assured, however, that this is not some dry book on urban planning. As the title of the biography suggests, Moses was immensely powerful, perhaps the most powerful man in the state. He crafted laws that gave himself unchecked powers, and he ruthlessly brought down his enemies through deception, treachery, and media manipulation. The book has one of the best descriptions, better than Citizen Kayne, of an ambitious young reformer's descent to corruption. Moses, of course, took great issue with the biography, and hammered out a 23 page typewritten response that can be found here. In it, he taunts his opponents who charged that he didn't do enough for mass transit by saying, basically, that if they don't have mass transit, it's because mass transit proponents weren't ruthless enough to get it built.

As Robert Moses often said, "If the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

13 August 2005

I know that we don't usually trade fashion tips on Deadly Mantis, but I just wanted to say that this store is the clothing label I've been looking for my entire life: beautiful colors, no obnoxious graphics or logos, a vague sense of social responsibility (all clothing is manufactured in the United States, and allegedly sweatshop free), reasonable prices, and best of all, flatteringly cut clothes where a medium T-shirt actually fits a medium guy (like me). Check it out; you might like it.
Here's the funny thing about MSN's lists of the ten things that every single man and single woman must own: by my calculations, the man's list would set me back at least a thousand dollars ($150 jeans, $200 dress shoes, $230 coffee maker, $120 sheets, not to mention the comfortable couch…), while the woman's list would probably cost all of $50 (an Eminem CD, earplugs, a six-pack of bottled beer...a condom...?). I'm not counting the "nice pair of heels," of course, which I assume that most women already own, but still: $1,000 vs. $50—doesn't that sum up the whole dating game right there?

11 August 2005

What do recent movies The Pacifier, Sin City, Kingdom of Heaven, Monster-in-Law, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Madagascar, and Fantastic Four all have in common? They all use the Wilhelm Scream, which is a perfect example of the sort of cinematic arcana that I find irresistible. Apparently I'm not the only one: this is one of the few sound effects that actually has a "following," and its fans include Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, not to mention untold legions of sound effects editors. (They seem like a sentimental bunch.)

10 August 2005

Am I the only one who finds the thought of a kid's movie with a director known for drugging and raping a 12 year old a wee bit disturbing?

09 August 2005

If you have Netflix, prepare to use it now: First Person, the television series that Errol Morris produced for Bravo, is finally out on DVD, and it's a doozy. Morris, I've mentioned before, is my nomination for our greatest living filmmaker, and this collection—basically a series of short documentaries in the Morris fashion—contains some of the best work he has ever done. I'm stunned that this is ranked at #1,408 in DVD sales at Amazon.com. I know that I seem to be raving about everything these days, but this set represents the best that the documentary medium has to offer. It's impossible to overpraise.

I'm still working my way through the set, but please: just rent a copy of Disc Three and watch the episodes "One in a Million Trillion" and "Leaving the Earth" back to back. You will be amazed. "Leaving the Earth," in particular, is the most riveting hour of television I've seen in a long time. The subject is a calm, extraordinarily articulate man named Dennis E. Fitch, who talks with amazing vividness about the most important day of his life. You can read something about that day, and about Denny Fitch, here. And then, thanks to Errol Morris, you can also meet him.
Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times once observed that most of Charlie Kaufman's screenplay titles sound like track names from the R.E.M. album Reckoning. (Human Nature...Adaptation...Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind....) I'm not sure why I was recently reminded of this. Oh, right. It's because somebody has actually made a movie called Pretty Persuasion.

07 August 2005

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I am really amused by this poster.

06 August 2005

In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics' poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It's always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.

It's the sort of film that was made for international top ten lists—the most beautiful, hypnotic, and ambitious movie ever to come out of Hong Kong. I do miss the humor of Wong's earlier films, and deeply regret the fact that 2046 represents a long, deliberate retreat from the spontaneity and grace that made Chungking Express such a miracle...but really, I shouldn't complain. I'm just glad to have more Faye Wong—as a beautiful android, no less—and more cigarette smoke, more sequined dresses and lonely apartments, more opaque voiceovers, more night. It's Wong, it's big-time, it's the movie of the year. And it's so very, very sad.

05 August 2005

While Nat and I were hiking along the Sandia Crest yesterday afternoon (Dave was busy giving his talk and being worshipped by undergraduates), we ran accross an 8 year old alone in the middle of the trail with a stick.

He said: "I want to save the world!"

I said:"good luck with that"

We walk on and chuckle, and then the kid says:
"I hope I'm rich when I grow up so that I can save the world."

We pause not really knowing what to say, and he continues:
"We're here on business, so that we can pay our taxes."

I wonder if when he asks his parents for a new toy they say "sorry, we'd like to get you that toy, but we have to pay our taxes with that money." I kinda think they do. It was a bit disturbing.
Rumor has it that Wong Kar-Wai's next movie will be The Lady from Shanghai, starring Nicole Kidman. Apparently it isn't a remake of the Orson Welles movie of the same name, though—which would have set my head spinning right off my shoulders.

I'm holding off on seeing 2046 until tomorrow. For a movie that I've been anxiously awaiting for a long, long time, I know almost nothing about it, due to my avoidance of spoilers for the past five years. If I can manage to get through the next twenty-four hours without reading anything about it, I'll be fine…

But in the meantime, here are some pictures.