22 December 2006

My mini-hunt is up.

21 December 2006

I'm in Zambia now, and while I won't give a comprehensive description of the country right now, I'll try to post my impressions after they've had more of a chance to form. I will say that my experiences do not resemble those described in this NY Times article entitled "In Zambia, Safaris With a Penthouse Touch" anointing Zambia as an "in" luxury destination for 2007.

17 December 2006

Off to Africa tomorrow. I'll try to bring back a wish-granting monkey paw . If they're out of those, maybe I can score a t-shirt.

14 December 2006

I was subjected to an Ann Coulter op-ed piece this morning where she repeated the Republican talking point that Democratic gains this year weren't even in step with historic opposition performance 6 years into a President's term. Republicans who actually bother to give a figure say the average is about 30 House seats, and they say it's the average for the past "several decades."


By my count,

Democrats actually picked up 5 House seats in 1998 while the Senate stayed even.

Democrats picked up 5 House seats and 8 Senate seats in 1986.

Democrats picked up 49 House seats and 4 Senate seats in 1974.

That pretty well covers the past several decades. The mean gain for the party opposing the President is under 17 House seats.

It's possible, however, that Rs really meant to include earlier elections; I went back and tried to figure it out (not easy with some of these elections; I gave up on 1822 and 1794) and excluding those two years, there was a historical average of a bit under 30 losses for the president. So I guess if we want to compare the Democrats' gains to those amassed against Ulysses S. Grant (loss of something like 97 seats) or FDR (loss of 72), then yes, they are below average. Barely.

(A few notes on methodology: I got my data from the House of Representatives Clerk. When there were multiple parties, I treated the small parties like the opposition. When the House increased in size, which happened a lot back in the day, I would add the President's losses to the opposition's gains and divide by two. Finally, there were big realignments in 1822 and 1794, so I didn't count those elections, but I don't think they represented large net movements against the respective administrations. Historians among the readers, feel free to correct me. Had I included them, the average might have dropped to as few as 25 seats).

12 December 2006

Note to self: never update your Netflix queue while drunk. I suppose it isn't the worst thing you could do while intoxicated, but there's still something unnerving about opening that red envelope and finding that you've rented Hudson Hawk.

09 December 2006

I suppose most readers of this blog pretty much give George W. Bush zero political credibility, but I for one have often thought that he's got a good tactical political sense about him. Firing Rumsfeld, for one thing, was the exact right thing to do at the time it was done.

It's surprising to me, then, how poorly he's used the Iraq Study Group. (Note: the following analysis doesn't have anything to do with the wisdom of their recommendations; I'm not qualified to evaluate that. It's the President's public reaction that I'm critiquing.) It's really not necessary to appoint this study group to actually come up with new ideas on Iraq; there are literally thousands of people with more expertise who are working in various agencies in Washington who have come up with plenty of ideas. The purpose of appointing a Study Group composed, as I can see it, of People With Credibility, is to have them suggest something and then give the President political cover for doing it. The President has massive face-saving problems when it comes to Iraq; any suggestion of changing strategy looks like a political defeat. So instead of him admitting he's been wrong, he can say he's following the recommendations of wise people.

Of course, he hasn't done this at all; he's essentially rejected the Study Group's recommendations, managing to eliminate all political benefit they could have conveyed to him AND exacerbating his stubbornness/stupidity image. It may have made sense from a policy standpoint to reject those recommendations, but it was politically calamitous to do so. If he didn't want those options on the table, he should have told the study group (when it was still secret) that they were off the table. Even better, from a Machiavellian point of view, would have been to tell them exactly what to recommend.
Despite a sluggish start and a depressing summer, this has turned out be a surprisingly excellent year for movies. Any year that can boast career-defining works by Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Robert Altman, and even Michael Mann is, by definition, extraordinary. There's even a Lars Von Trier movie (Manderlay) that I somehow haven't seen yet. If Curtis Hanson's Lucky You hadn't been pushed back to next spring, this year would have seen a major new release from all of my favorite living (or recently living) directors, except for one. And it sounds like Wong Kar-Wai has something amazing up his sleeve for next year.

All this, and A Canterbury Tale is finally out on DVD. Who needs YouTube, anyway?
I never thought that I would find a picture that would make me laugh harder than this photo of Malaysian politician Lim Keng Yaik (blogged here several times before). And I haven't. But this picture of Harvard's own Jorie Graham on the foetry.com website comes pretty close.

Foetry.com, by the way, is a muckracking site about the military-industrial-poetry complex, focusing on fraudulent and unethical practices in poetry contests, run by an angry librarian. I love the Internet.

08 December 2006

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Judging from the reviews of High Fidelity: The Musical, if you actually end up seeing this show, it'll probably be the latter.

07 December 2006

Recently, for the first time since college, I've been seeing a lot of movies alone, often in nearly empty matinees. It's a nice change of pace, and it makes me reflect on how movies can be shaped by the environment in which you see them. Obviously, there are certain movies that should only be seen with an audience. The Aristocrats, for example, is physically impossible to endure on DVD, without the safety and anonymity of a darkened theater, especially if you're watching it with anyone but a close friend. I'd also say that Borat should only be seen in a packed audience, preferably in Brooklyn. By contrast, The Fountain should only be seen in an empty auditorium. (One giggler in the room, and that whole beautiful, delicate, absurd movie would fall apart.)

Finally, Inland Empire, which I saw today, should only be seen alone, just so you aren't cornered into giving an opinion right after the credits roll. It's the weirdest movie that David Lynch has ever made, which means that it isn't the sort of thing you can figure out over a couple of cappuccinos. I'd be actively against any attempt to reduce it to a neat row of symbols. This isn't a puzzle, but a process, or a dream, an extended rhapsody on two sequences from Lynch's earlier films: Laura Dern's choked sobs near the end of Blue Velvet, and the last twenty minutes of Mulholland Drive, here transformed into an epic of nearly three hours. It's something of an endurance test, but it contains some of the most amazing stuff that Lynch has ever done. Like Blue Velvet, it evokes almost every emotion that you can feel at the movies. Just remember not to bring a date.

05 December 2006

Are libertarians the next big Democratic constituency?

Sebastian Mallaby reports that some Cato Institute wonk is suggesting that a libertarian-Democrat fusion might make sense in the future. The wonk, a man named Brink Lindsey, believes that there is a fundamental tension between libertarianism (small government, personal autonomy) and Christian Conservatism (Government promoting religious values). It's true that their alliance is slightly anomalous - southern conservatives have disliked the federal government for the past half century at least in part because liberals in DC forced them to adhere to different values.

George W. Bush was the perfect Republican presidential candidate in 2000 because he could bridge the divide between the small government people and the Christians, and he got both to vote for him. There are obvious fissures in the party, and the 2008 primary is going to lay them bare.

That said, I think that Lindsey (and Mallaby) are still going out on a limb with their next suggestion. Mallaby claims that libertarians should realistically stop trying to dismantle government and should just try to keep it from growing any more. And Democrats should be happy with what they have and just stop trying to grow the government. Once they do that, they'll be a happy supermajority, so the argument goes, because both oppose the Christian right on social issues.

The problem is that neither side wants that. Libertarians don't want to keep sending 40% of their income to the government, and most Democrats (the ones who believe in something besides getting elected) would like to strengthen the social safety net, especially in the realm of health care. I don't see these two sides being especially comfortable with each other.

One final note: My sneaking suspicion is that libertarianism is going to increase dramatically in scope over the next decade or so. I think that a large number of people under 40 are going to transform their famous apathy into general distrust of government. I don't see this as a good thing at all, but I think if these people believe in the government they would care more about who runs it. So this is not, in my opinion, an inconsequential debate at all. It could be that libertarians form a swing bloc that pushes both parties to support their policies.

04 December 2006

A New York Times writer who apparently lives on the planet Zorkon thinks that the Twins should sign Barry Bonds.

29 November 2006

In a telling sign of exactly how principled I am, yesterday I used a socialist transportation method to get to the most bourgeois grocery store imaginable.

21 November 2006

In 1972, Pauline Kael wrote:
Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction every time, and scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.
Altman's next movie after Images, it turns out, was The Long Goodbye, which goes a long way towards explaining why this guy had the most interesting career in American movies. When he directed M*A*S*H, he was already in his forties, and I guess I assumed that he would be around forever. I never thought I'd see the day when there wouldn't be another Altman movie around the corner, but I suppose that day had to come.

(On the other hand, there are approximately twenty-five post-M*A*S*H Altman movies that I still haven't seen, which makes me feel a little better. As David Thomson once wrote, "There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.")

20 November 2006

Phew, it appears Rangel has escaped from Al From's underground dungeon and returned to his old rascally ways. There's nothing like renewing calls for a draft to make America excited about a Democratic Congress!

15 November 2006

Today a paper titled Lame curves with bad reduction was posted on the arxiv. Turns out not to be quite as funny as it seems (see the abstract and see if you can figure out why).

14 November 2006

Today's IMDb poll asks, "Which actor's movies would you watch, even if you didn't know what that film was about, just because he was in it?" The winner, with 26.2% of the vote, is Johnny Depp. The runner-up is "Other."

(Curiously enough, neither Tom Hanks nor Christopher Walken is on the list. And which actor got my vote? Well...)

11 November 2006

Who abducted Charles Rangel and replaced him with a tax-cutting imposter? Is the real Rangel locked in a closet somewhere deep beneath the DLC headquarters? Is that where they'll keep the real Pelosi too?

09 November 2006

I'm not sure why, but I really want to see this movie about the dancing penguins. Maybe it's because the director is the same guy who made The Road Warrior.

08 November 2006

In totally unrelated news, I finally made myself a puzzle website. There are two brand new puzzles up there if any of you are bored.
By the way, I was wrong about my stock portfolio. I'd forgotten that from Wall Street's point of view, the prospect of gridlock is a good thing.
It is indeed a good day. Here's what I want the Congress to do (from a popularity point of view) in its first weeks in power:

1) raise the minimum wage
2) enact port security measures
3) pass pro-stem cell research legislation
4) do NOT begin censure proceedings
5) do NOT focus on things like detainee rights, repealing Alec's tax cuts, and all the other wedge issues that Republicans scare people with.
6) increase military pay
7) do NOT call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq; there's plenty of wiggle room for changing strategies and timelines and whatnot
As Torrey and I were heading to the opera last night, we noticed a large number of people walking with us who weren't exactly in the opera-going demographic. Turns out they were heading for a concert. (Sorry Alec, we stuck with the opera.)
My thoughts:

  • Hooray!
  • Minnesota is not the liberal bastion it used to be, but things are not as bleak as they were a few years ago. Not they just need to repeal the stupid concealed weapons law.
  • How did a Democrat get 70% of the vote for Wyoming governor?
  • My representative (Barbara Lee) got 85% of the votes in her district. Talk about gerrymandering.
  • Ballot measures are also looking good: a parental notification law lost in California, the South Dakota abortion ban lost, and someone, somewhere (Arizona, to be precise) rejected a gay marriage ban. Unfortunately, Californians still refuse to tax anyone and instead passed about $50 billion of bond measures.
  • Berkeley passed a city resolution by a 2-1 margin calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. There will always be a Berkeley.
A few thoughts that ran through my head this morning:
1. Sweet.
2. Hmm, a recount. Are we any good at those?
3. This can't be good for my stock portfolio.
4. I hope these guys don't raise my taxes.
5. Seriously, just let me keep the dividend tax cut.
6. No? Fine. But I'm watching you, House Majoricrats.
All in all, though, it's been a good day. Spitzer in 2016!

02 November 2006

In his terrific autobiography, Robert Evans talks about meeting Darryl Zanuck, the legendary studio chief, and realizing where the real power resides in Hollywood: "Not some actor shitting his pants over whether he gets a role, but the guy [i.e., the producer] who says, 'The kid stays in the picture.'" It's as true today as it ever was. Which just goes to show you, Tom Cruise is awesome. And very, very smart.

01 November 2006

For some reason, I always thought of William Styron as being vaguely my age. He died today at age 81. I'm not sure what this means.

29 October 2006

I know everyone has been waiting to hear about the latest celebrity that I've been told I resemble. This time, it's Chachi from "Happy Days" and "Joanie Loves Chachi." I had no idea who this person was, but the real-life actor, Scott Baio, has had a long and distinguished acting career, including an appearance on "Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2."

I think the similarity is more apt than prior comparisons to Jake Gyllenhaal (before he was popular) and James Frain, a supporting actor from "The Count of Monte Cristo" and the terrible Natalie Portman movie "Where the Heart Is" (that one still puzzles me).

24 October 2006

I was going through some old blog entries, and came across a posting by Dave from April 28, 2003:
I've decided that my goal for the next n years is to explain my thesis topic to my non-math girlfriend, for then I will have both an interesting problem to work on and a non-math girlfriend.
So, Dave, how's that working out for you?

22 October 2006

Oh, and Marie Antoinette? It's a fluffy mix tape of a movie, which means that I loved it. The friend who saw it with me...well, she was less pleased. ("I just wasted two hours of my life.") But it's exactly the movie that the trailer promises, with a fantastic soundtrack and a lineage that goes from Amadeus to Barry Lyndon and Tom Jones. Nice shoes, too.
If anyone offers to spoil the ending of The Prestige for you, make sure that you have a solid five minutes to spare. I'm not even sure that I could manage it, even if I thought it was worth the effort. In the end, it's probably easier just to see the movie. To make the obvious comparison, it's sloppier and flashier than The Illusionist, and arguably more compelling on a visceral level, although it doesn't exactly stick to your bones. (It's also remarkably skittish about its central "surprise," like a bad liar who betrays himself by his own evasiveness.) Still, in a season of astonishing ensemble casts (The Departed, Marie Antoinette, The Good Shepherd), it has the greatest number of faces that I was happy to see. Any movie that finds time for Ricky Jay, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie is probably worth two hours of your time.

20 October 2006

You have to love those New York Times articles that are targeted towards (and seemingly written by) the rich and the clueless. Only someone with a dim view of the real world could say that $40 entrees have caused "populist outrage." Populist outrage is what you call the reaction of normal people to things like job layoffs and gas prices, not the reaction of upper-crust diners to higher prices for lobster.
Someday, I swear, I'm going to start listening to pop music that hasn't been previously approved by Nick Hornby, Cameron Crowe, or Zach Braff. In the meantime, though, the soundtrack to The Last Kiss is pretty awesome. (In unrelated news, I've decided to name my firstborn daughter Imogen Heap N-L. What do you think?)

16 October 2006

Erwin Chemerinsky has more (I lost count but it's certainly over 300), although a lot of the publications are articles in newspapers, which sort of seem like they shouldn't count. Still, he has 131 published law review articles and authoritative treatises on Constitutional Law and Federal Jurisdiction. I'm guessing he doesn't get out much.
This is the home page of the guy who presented immediately after me in Toronto. I was looking for a paper of his, and discovered that he has over three hundred published papers. Given that I started publishing in 2002, at my current rate I will have three hundred papers in the year 2402.
On Saturday, I found myself at Radio City Music Hall, watching a 52-year-old British man in full evening dress croon uncertainly into a microphone while another Brit, of indeterminate age, fiddled with a keyboard while wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a glow-in-the-dark hoodie. Other attractions included occasional breakdancing, several soulful backup singers, some curious sets, and a dancing opera hat. It was the best concert ever.

14 October 2006

And here's a great travel article.

Apparently they just "discovered" the third-highest waterfall in the world in some remote part of Peru. (Is there a non-remote part of Peru?) This writer goes to check it out, and despite pictures that are worse than the ones I take with disposable cameras, he tells a gripping story. The waterfall is only a small part of the story - this guy comes across a pre-Incan ruin larger than Machu Picchu, visits a museum where the employees fiddle with mummies, camps out in front of an Adventist Church and manages to trip the churchgoers with his tent cord, confronts angry drunken villagers...now that's traveling.
Now this is a great poster.

10 October 2006

Forget hypoallergenic kitties: some New Mexicans apparently want to attract cats of the 200 lb. variety.

The most interesting part of this jaguar article (to me, at least) is that the dateline is Santa Fe. There is no defensible reason for this. The events and people in question are 300+ miles away from Santa Fe, and as any visitor to the region knows, Santa Fe does not have its own major airport. In other words, the reporter had to go pretty far out of her way to get to Santa Fe and write her article there. I hope she enjoyed her stay.

The second most interesting thing is how the guy just takes pictures while the jaguar maims his dogs. So much for man's best friend.

07 October 2006

I recently stumbled across an interesting book entitled A Wolf At the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust, written by Geoffrey Cocks, a professor of history at Albion College in Michigan. Why is this book so interesting? Well, according to the Search Inside the Book feature at Amazon.com, I'm, uh, cited in the bibliography. Best of all, it's for an article that I wrote when I was fifteen years old. This is so embarrassing.
Random observation: "BTW" has to be the weirdest acronym in the world, because it takes longer to say than the phrase it stands for.
According to the New York Times, a California biotech company is breeding and selling hypoallergenic cats for $4,000 apiece. Apparently, they're great, as long as you don't get them wet or feed them after midnight...
I'm pleased to announce that The Departed is the most satisfying American movie since...well, okay, The Illusionist. But The Illusionist, with its somewhat hermetic perfectionism, is vaguely European, while The Departed is a full-blooded American movie. Released under the old Warner Bros. logo, it's violent, incredibly entertaining, messy and rich in the details, but neat as mathematics in the whole, with a huge cast of stars, most of whom are doing their best work ever. In other words, it's a lot like L.A. Confidential, except that instead of making careers, it gives a new luster to established superstars, including Martin Scorsese. It's always hard to make predictions like this, but at the end of my life, when the tally is made, this may end up being the Scorsese movie that I watch more than any other.

Anyway, you probably don't need my encouragement to see this movie. Moreover, any litany of my favorite moments (Alec Baldwin grabbing his own balls to make a point; the penultimate scene's homage to the last shot of The Third Man) would rob you of the chance to discover them for yourself. Also, there are a lot of them, including the last five minutes, which go from lame to awesome to lame to sublime to awesome to inexplicable so quickly that it's like watching an entire Michael Mann movie in fast forward. My friends and I came out of the theater arguing about this, but for me, the conclusion works. Unlike the original Infernal Affairs, which closes on an ironic note, The Departed ends, as it should, with an elegant severing of the knot. Full stop. Like De Niro says at the end of Casino: that's that.
Torrey and I went to the Twins playoff game in Oakand this afternoon. I didn't have much hope of them taking the series, but I didn't get to see them during the season, and I had to come pay my respects to the team that came back from 10 games behind in August to move into first place on the very last day of the season. It was also my last chance to see Brad Radke and his duct-taped arm, perhaps my last chance to see Torii Hunter in a Twins uniform, and my first chance to see a Justin Morneau homerun. I even got my dad to FedEx us a couple of Homer Hankies.

On a related note, we got to be on TV. A San Francisco news station saw us wearing Twins gear outside the game this afternoon and interviewed us. Of course, they took the sound bite that made me appear to be a complete moron. Or perhaps just a wimp. (Of course, what can you expect from local news...the graphics people couldn't even figure out who I was when they tried to put my name on the screen.)

The last postseason game I had been to was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. That one ended a little differently.

04 October 2006

Looks like there is someone else out there who is always prepared for international culinary adventures. If you already carry a pepper mill in your travel bag, a cheese grater can't be too far behind.

02 October 2006

Say, if anyone out there has a subscription to this new 02138 magazine, can you tell me if I made the Harvard 100 or not? Thanks!

01 October 2006

A few weeks ago, I snuck out to see World Trade Center, which was moving and impressive, but vaguely dissatisfying. It struck me as too careful, too impersonal a movie for Oliver Stone, the rare director whose craft improves in proportion to his looniness, and who can make complex ideas vivid and exciting. Since then, I've begun to appreciate the minefield that this movie had to navigate in order to be made at all, and I've come to regard it as graceful and modulated, rather than timid. Still, I hope that Stone revisits this story again, as he did with Vietnam, and that he grows more confident and outrageous with time. After all, he seems to have strong opinions on the subject.

In any case, in a fit of nostalgia for the old, devilish Oliver Stone, I rented a bunch of his movies from Netflix, and have been watching them more or less continuously over the past couple of weeks. I made some interesting discoveries. Alexander is a real mess, a muddled, sluggishly paced movie redeemed only by a couple of magnificent battles and (I may as well be honest here) the best nude scene of the decade. (It's Rosario Dawson's, wise guy.) The style of Natural Born Killers seems almost quaint today, but its satire of television feels sharper and more coherent than ever, maybe because its video effects and schizophrenic cuts have entered the pop cultural mainstream. (It's like watching an ultraviolent episode of Behind the Music.) JFK now feels ludicrous as history, but incredible as a movie, a cinematic colossus in a world of pygmies. It's one of only two films made during my lifetime that honestly build upon the legacy of Citizen Kane.

The other legatee of Kane is, of course, Nixon, which is the Oliver Stone movie that fills me with the most awe today. I saw Nixon when it came out in 1995, and have retained strong memories of it ever since, but on watching it again, I realized what should have been obvious: this is one of the greatest of all American movies, with a performance by Anthony Hopkins that grows even more extraordinary with the passage of time. He doesn't look or sound much like Nixon, but whoever this guy is, he dominates the screen for over three hours, creating a character who is heartbeakingly tragic and pathetic, part angel, part vampire. It's one of the most moving performances I've ever seen, and it gets you closer to the events of Nixon's life than you probably feel towards some of your own memories. If there's a lost masterpiece of American cinema, Nixon is it, and the DVD currently costs less than a matinee ticket for All the King's Men. If that isn't a bargain, what is?

29 September 2006

As I become more and more of an absent-minded mathematician, I've taken to carrying around an index card with me, where I write down things I have to do or things I want to look up when I'm not on the computer at the moment. Not only does it help me remember to do things, but at the end of the day it helps me remember what I've done. More than once Torrey has asked, "So, what did you do today?" and I replied, "Not much," then looked at my card and said, "Actually, I did a whole bunch of stuff!" (Or in true Dave fashion, "Oh, look at all the stuff I didn't get done.")

In any case, I received a request to post the contents of yesterday's card. To oblige my loyal fan, here it is.

  • Call the eye doctor and ask why I haven't received my new contact lenses (ordered two weeks ago) yet.
  • Talk to the program manager here at Fields and report what an abysmal hotel the Days Inn Toronto is.
  • Email friends to talk about plans for New Year's 2008.
  • Talk to officemate about lodging options in Toronto for when I come back in November.
  • Renew my bicycle (loaned out through an awesome program called BikeShare).
  • Find out who the Canadian Prime Minister is. (Turns out to be a guy called Stephen Harper. Who knew? The last one I remember is Jean Crétien.)
  • Find out what time Yoga classes are on Friday.
  • Blog.

Today's list includes "Return keys," "Check in for flight," and "Learn about plaque." Also, I just discovered that "Buy cottage cheese" appears on the list twice.

(In another sign that I'm going to be a real mathematician soon, I spent 5 minutes this morning storming around the apartment looking for my keys, which turned out to be in my pocket the whole time.)
I've been listening to the CBC as I get ready for work in the morning. It appears to be something like NPR Lite -- in each hour there's about 25 minutes of news, 25 minutes of fluff, and 10 minutes of weather, traffic, and sports. While listening, I get tickled every time they announce that a program is "Coming up this afternoon at 4 -- 4:30 in Newfoundland." It turns out that Newfoundland is in its own time zone, a half hour later than the other Maritime provinces (and an hour and a half ahead of New York). Which leads to the question -- what's the point of having your own time zone if you just have to wait an extra half hour for everything?

On the program this morning I heard an excellent response to what could be a very tricky question. Someone was reporting on a local photography exhibit, and she asked the host, "What would you do if someone asked you to take a picture of an `ethnic person'?" After a couple of "um"s, the host (who sounds pretty white) responded, "Well, to someone from Sri Lanka I'm an ethnic person." Would you have come up with that on the spot?
On a similar note, I was wondering if there's anyone else out there who, when they're going to be in a foreign land for a few weeks, always makes sure to bring a cheese grater.

28 September 2006

Greetings from Toronto, eh! I've been here for nearly two weeks, first to give an invited talk at ECC 2006, then to hang around and do research and talk with other cryptographers, an opportunity I rarely get in Berkeley. Everyone says they love Toronto, but I haven't been so impressed. It might have to do with location; the area I'm staying in is not particularly nice. So far I've found one cute neighborhood, Yorkville, and everything else is described by the locals as "up-and-coming," which upon observation appears to be a synonym for "total-crap." I've got a little apartment here that I found on Craigslist, and while it's been nice to have a real place with a kitchen, a friend did ask, "Who makes Salade Niçoise when they're only staying somewhere for two weeks?"

25 September 2006

Not only has this been a lousy year for movies, but it's been an especially lousy year for movie titles. I'll give The Illusionist and The Descent a free pass here, but I defy anyone to remember the difference between The Sentinel, The Guardian, and The Protector. (I know that one has Kiefer Sutherland, one has Kevin Costner, and one has Tony Jaa and some elephants, but otherwise, I'm stumped.) There's also The Proposition, The Covenant, The Promise and The Wild, not to mention the remake of The Omen. (Is Hollywood running out of nouns?) Over the next few months, we've got The Departed, The Prestige, The Fountain, The Queen, The Marine, The Return, The Reaping, The Bridge, The Motel, The Hoax, The Italian, The Zodiac, The Namesake, and The Quiet. And not one of these movies, alas, stars The Rock.

24 September 2006

I've been waiting for All the King's Men for over a year, and I'm happy to say that it's as decent as I hoped it would be after a raft of disappointing reviews. Some readers may remember my previous post about Huey Long, and I really just wanted to watch Sean Penn act the part of raving Southern demagogue. Penn is excellent, and I think I could have watched him just walking around, giving orders, and making speeches for two hours. As it was, I had to watch some weird sideplot involving Jude Law, which was happily salvaged by Anthony Hopkins's ten minutes on the screen.

What I don't get is why someone doesn't just make a movie about Long without changing the facts. It's not too common to see a based-on-a-true-story movie that's less sensational than reality. They ignore some of Long's more outrageous exploits (like his surprisingly effective term as Senator, where he also manages to keep control of the Governor's office) and gloss over others (his legislative arm-twisting tactics). Long also had a more interesting ascent to the Governor's office than Penn's Willie Stark, who (according to the movie) only becomes a political mastermind after taking up hard liquor. Still, these are minor quibbles, and if you want to see seedy politics in action, you could do worse than this movie.
By the way, the De Palma retrospective mentioned below is worth a look, if only to demonstrate the flights of fancy to which this director's fans are often driven in defending their favorite auteur. It's especially heartening to read a spirited defense of Mission to Mars, a movie for which I have an inexplicable fondness. (Leave it to the Internet Archive to furnish incriminating proof of this.) Of course, I still think that De Palma's best movies are Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible, which, to rabid De Palma fans like these guys, is sort of like saying that Velveeta is your favorite cheese.

And then there's The Black Dahlia. It offers the richest material that De Palma has had in twenty years, and it's clearly the work of a master, albeit a master serenely indifferent to exposition, and addicted to moments of high looniness. Unfortunately, Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson come across as kids in a costume shop, and Aaron Eckhart feels like an indulgent dad in someone's student film. Hilary Swank is great, though, and the movie has one moment (Hartnett's delayed reaction to a pillow-talk confession) that ranks among the best of De Palma's long career. I caught it at a Thursday afternoon matinee, which is probably the best way of seeing it. You get your money's worth, as long as you aren't paying full price. Which, honestly, makes it a quintessential De Palma movie. After all, I saw Mission to Mars for free.

22 September 2006

Some crackpot in California has convinced the legislature to pass a law that, if signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, might significantly alter future Presidential elections. Basically, the legislature will give California's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular national vote. (They can do this because the constitution explicitly gives state legislatures the power to direct the selection of electors.) The bill's supporters are apparently liberals, and I don't think they realize that if their bill had been in place in 2004, and Kerry had narrowly won Ohio, California would have ensured that Bush would get the Presidency anyway.

The crackpot was correct in targeting California first; as of now, candidates only have the incentive to win 50% of California's votes, and Democrats have been able to do that easily in recent years. Now, candidates will want to campaign as hard as possible for every vote (although candidates will, of course, weigh the marginal costs of going for votes in California versus other states). He should go to Texas next. If he keeps targeting blue states, it will be something that absolutely hurts Democrats.

Swing states are the big losers. The big reason this reform might succeed is that, while there are too many small states who want to keep their disproportionate influence in the electoral college, there are a lot of people who live in big blue and red states who would prefer their votes to count.
What is it about Chinese babies? This article has the cutest kids this side of Suri Cruise.

18 September 2006

I don't know about you, but I still think that this was Stephen Colbert's finest moment. (Thanks, YouTube!)
While we're on the topic of pressing issues in higher education, the President of the University of Oklahoma and University of Oregon administrators have engaged in high-minded discussions about the outcome of...a football game.

Oregon beat Oklahoma on Saturday and they were aided, in part, by several controversial calls in the final minutes of regulation. Oklahoma's president acting with considerable speed and dispatch, sent off letters asking for the result to be overturned, arguing that that "[to say the calls] constitut[ed] an outrageous injustice is an understatement."

An outrageous injustice! Indeed. Forget about things like admissions policies that are slanted towards the affluent. This is important stuff. Because who stands to lose from such wanton misconduct? The innocent players: "It is truly sad and deeply disappointing that members of our football team should be deprived of the outcome of the game that they deserved because of an inexcusable breakdown in officiating."

I share the President's concern with injustice and wish him luck overturning the result of the football game, which (for non-sports fans) is essentially never done - not even when the winning team admits that the officials made the wrong call.

17 September 2006

According to the New York Times, Harvard's recent move to end early admission may actually have been motivated by self-interest. (Shocking, isn't it?) Here's my favorite paragraph:
Among those who were admitted to both Harvard and Duke—sometimes called the Harvard of the South—and who attended one of the two, about 3 percent picked Duke, according to the economists’ statistical model. Only 11 percent chose Brown, perhaps the trendiest Ivy League university in recent years, over Harvard. Princeton and Stanford win only about 25 percent of their battles with Harvard. Yale gives the stiffest competition, winning about 35 percent of the time, which in politics would be considered a crushing landslide.
Personally, I'm glad that I picked Harvard over Stanford. If I'd gone to Stanford, who knows what kind of weird fringe element I'd be sharing a blog with today?

16 September 2006

As I've mentioned on this blog before, David Thomson is my favorite film critic, surpassing even Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. He's a bit of a weirdo, though, and he can inspire strong negative feelings in a lot of people, including me. This morning, I began reading Rosebud, his loopy biography of Orson Welles, and was a bit nonplussed by the section in which Thomson airly wonders whether Welles and John Houseman ever, er, "enacted" their love. ("I don't think so. Yet I suspect that both men entertained the thought, and smiled loftily at each other sometimes to signal the awareness.")

Uh, okay. But there's more here than meets the eye. My theory, if you care, is that Thomson's writing on movies, especially his Biographical Dictionary of Film, consists of one huge, self-conscious work of fiction, in which Thomson himself is the main character. It isn't a coincidence that one of Thomson's earliest books is a biography of Laurence Sterne, the guy who wrote Tristram Shandy. His whole career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, and Thomson-as-protagonist seems cheerfully willing to make himself seem creepier than he really is.

This may be why his personality is so hard to pin down. In the past eight hours alone, without even trying, I found myself reading two diametrically opposed attacks on Thomson. First, according to the review of The Fury in Slant's otherwise excellent Brian De Palma retrospective, "Thomson's fussy, detached approach to movie appreciation is about as sensual as drying out homemade beef jerky." Well, maybe. But you'd be hard-pressed to conclude this from today's New York Times review of Thomson's new biography of Nicole Kidman, which the reviewer describes as "a weird and unseemly mash note":
He imagines the non-obsessed will want to hear his bizarre fantasies about casting Kidman in remakes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and François Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” or his dream—recounted over three excruciating pages—about stumbling across his beloved in a Paris brothel. (She’s wearing “a very revealing white brassiere, a size or two too small,” as she cavorts with a Gestapo officer and an “elderly Chinaman.”)
Elderly Chinaman, eh? I don't know about you, but that's just about the horniest piece of homemade beef jerky I've ever seen. In any case, I'd better pick up a copy of Thomson's Nicole Kidman posthaste. I can't wait to hear what this guy has to say about Tom Cruise.

15 September 2006

From the Tom Cruise article in the current issue of Vanity Fair:
Katie, Tom, and the family ride horses, fish, exercise, hike -- and play round after round of Take Two, a quick-paced crossword-style game, using Scrabble tiles.
My fellow word-nerd bloggers will hopefully understand why my first reaction to reading this was, "Awww, they're just like us!"

14 September 2006

One of the biggest jokes in the law is the word "reasonable." It shows up all the time, and no one has any idea what the word means. My accounting professor told me that it's just a method for lawyers to make money by giving them something to interpret. He says accountants do the same thing, and threw out other weasel words like "material" and "substantial."

But if you had to quantify a "reasonable chance," what number would you put on it? Today, from two different sources, I learned the answer. First, I learned in my Income Tax class that attorneys have an ethical obligation to only take legal positions that have a reasonable chance of succeeding in court. In the Income Tax context, the IRS has decided that a reasonable chance means 33%.

Next, I was reading the blog of a supreme court litigator. He reads all of the paid certiorari petitions and then decides which have a "reasonable chance" of being granted. Guess what percentage of his picks are actually granted? That's right, 33%.

10 September 2006

Neil Burger's The Illusionist, which is easily the best film I've seen all year, is something so rare that it took me a long time to figure out what it was: a fully realized American movie. I've grown so used to ambitious but scattershot films and screenplays that run out of ideas before the halfway mark that it's almost a shock to see a movie that starts promisingly, moves sedately from one great scene to another, and never steps wrong. You almost have to go back to The Usual Suspects, which The Illusionist resembles in more ways than one, to find a movie for grown-ups that brims with this sort of quiet confidence. It's a movie that Michael Powell would have been proud to make.

In some ways, The Illusionist is so controlled and modest a film that I'm worried about overselling it. It's wonderfully entertaining without being frantic, visually impressive without being flashy, and clever without showing off. At times, the wheels of the plot are a tad too visible, and you can see the ending coming a mile away, but it's hard to complain when what happens in the meantime is so pleasurable. The film never runs out of surprises, and the acting, especially by Paul Giamatti, is so stylish that it upstages the music and cinematography, which are among the best I've encountered in years. It's enough to make you believe again in clean, unobtrusive craftsmanship, verging on genius. When was the last time a movie pulled off that trick?

07 September 2006

It's not that I have anything against New York Times critic Caryn James, but...well, I can't think of a way to finish that sentence. I'm a mild-mannered guy. I don't go out of my way to trash people on this blog. But Caryn James is just asking for it.

First, there was her article on the "woozy and poetic" nominees for the National Book Awards, which I blogged about here. Then, her dismissal of "big idea" movies, which forced me into this rant. And now, to top it all off, this astonishingly muddled and mean-spirited piece on Suri Cruise and her daddy.

This time, it's personal.

05 September 2006

For some reason, I found myself watching tonight's debut of Katie Couric as anchor of CBS Evening News, and was rewarded with a glimpse of tomorrow's Vanity Fair, with Annie Leibowitz's long-awaited photos of Suri Cruise. Please don't laugh, but I swear that this is the cutest baby I've ever seen.

03 September 2006

Another sign that I'm growing old: 49 Up (!) is coming out in October.

02 September 2006

By the way, I finally picked up a copy of The Eraser, the first solo album by Radiohead's Thom Yorke. What's it like? Well, according to Google, several hundred listeners have already begun referring to it as Kid B. Hooray!

31 August 2006

My last random video clip of the day is the famous "No Smoking" announcement featuring John Waters that used to play before movies at the UC Theater in Berkeley, until it closed five years ago. Some of the best times of my life were spent in that theater. Just seeing this clip makes me feel weepy...
I've been waiting for years for Disney to release a DVD of Donald in Mathmagic Land, but in the meantime, you can find the entire thing on Google Video. I don't know about you, but I'd take five minutes of this movie over all of The Da Vinci Code.
Finally, a movie critic who gets it! The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter makes a case for why Mission: Impossible III is his new favorite movie. I can't say that I care for Mr. Hunter's tone, but I can't argue with the sentiment. I mean, I've been there before.

28 August 2006

I see that Epping is in the news. Would our favorite milkmaid like to explain herself or her town?

25 August 2006

Today I got two emails back-to-back. The second tentively accepted a paper of mine to the Proceedings of the AMS, and the first began:

On behalf of all my colleagues on the committee, it gives me great
pleasure to award you tenure.

(It will probably be another decade or so until you hear those words
again, so relish them now :) )
Here's a good new poster for Nat.

If anyone has any good captions for a Pluto-based poster, Malia and I are trying to come up with one.

24 August 2006

Purely hypothetical question: for how many nights in a row is it acceptable to eat nachos for dinner?

23 August 2006

This otherwise well-written and interesting article in Slate about efforts to reform sentences for federal drug crimes begins with the following unfortunate paragraph:
In federal court, crack offenses generate sentences 100 times greater than comparable powder-cocaine crimes. In other words, while it takes 500 grams of cocaine to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, 5 grams of crack earns the same punishment.

Sentences aren't 100 times greater for crack possession; the amount necessary to trigger a given sentence is 100 times less. This ratio is seen as too high, and efforts are underway to reduce it.

A useful statistic, it seems to me, would be the amount of the drug consumed at a time. This website claims you can get one hit of crack in 1/1000 of an ounce. (It also features William F. Buckley discussing crack, which is as interesting as Alec's Buckley videos.) The ONDCP (which I do not trust) seems to suggest here that crack is sold in one tenth the amount of cocaine, roughly .1 gram to 1 gram. (These figures match up in terms of order of magnitude: .1 grams=.004 ounces.) These data suggest that a quantity ratio of 10/1 wouldn't be unreasonable for sentencing purposes. This article argues on similar grounds that 1/1 correspondence is a bad idea and would let crack dealers off too easily. The elephant in the room, of course, is that crack users are almost all minorities, leading to all the usual racial disparity problems prevalent throughout the criminal justice system. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

21 August 2006

I'm trying to follow the world basketball championships, which is more difficult than it should be because most websites are just carrying AP stories, which aren't particularly in-depth. So, I've started to visit the USA Basketball website. The articles are a little longer, although they're artifically upbeat, consistent with the website's function as a propaganda outlet. Today, though, I noticed something else funny about the site. Can you see it?

Yes, that's right, they've begun to carry a haiku of the day.

20 August 2006

Less than a year ago, I was hoping (and actually believing) that the big issue for the 2006 elections would be corruption. I don't think that's the case any longer (although it is a primary issue in New Mexico for isolated reasons). Democrats weren't able to distinguish themselves well enough on corruption. Even though the economy is slowing, the big issue looks like it's going to be foreign policy, again.

This Slate article outlines the best Democratic attack I've seen in years, especially considering that it flips national security from a weakness into a strength. Here's the (deceptively simple) idea: hammer Bush and the Republicans for fostering the growth of terrorist movements by radicalizing the Middle East. Individual politicians have made this point, but to be effective it needs to be thrown at voters with millions of dollars of paid advertising. It can even be done with a nature theme: I envision a mock sequel to the infamous wolf commercials of 2004. A commercial begins with embers in a dry forest, smoldering, and while an announcer talks about how Bush is radicalizing the Middle East and increasing the attractiveness of terrorism, a wind comes along, causing a fire to erupt. The wind continues blowing, fanning the flames until there's a full-fledged inferno.

Of course, the author says the Democrats will probably miss the opportunity to go on the attack, so I guess there's little chance of my commercial becoming reality.

17 August 2006

Whew. After weeks of bloodshed in the Middle East, grim stories about the global AIDS epidemic, and partisan wrangling over Iraq, it's nice to see that the media has given us a nice distraction for a day.

This raises a question for me, though. How, exactly, do murders become national news? JonBenet was an easy case, because of all the beauty pageant weirdness. But I can never figure out how the national media select, out of the thousands of murders that take place every year, the choice few to scrutinize and sensationalize. Is it the attractiveness of the victim? The existence of a bizarre side plot? The extraordinary brutality of the killing? The race of the victim/perpetrator? (White perpetrators seem to be sensationalized more, perhaps because white people can relate to them better and don't just see them as thugs.) From my minimal personal experience with the criminal justice system, I would say that there are plenty of murders every bit as brutal that never get attention. For the life of me I never knew why anyone paid attention to Scott Peterson, except for the wrinkle that Laci was pregnant. Is there something I'm missing?

15 August 2006

Here's a pretty good article from the Times about the Poincaré conjecture, which is (apparently) the first of the "million-dollar problems" to be solved. It always fun to read high-level math described for a non-mathematical audience. The author does a good job describing topological spaces and contractible loops, but it gets hairy when he tries to explain Ricci flow and singularities. Not that I have any idea what Ricci flow really is.

14 August 2006

Today the NY Times gives CIDRZ, the NGO Almea is working for, mad props for its work getting antiretroviral drugs to people in Zambia. I haven't heard about any Alicia Keys visits, however.
The Virginia Senate race has taken a bit of a weird turn, with George Allen coming under fire for calling his opponent's staffer "macaca." No one quite knows what Allen meant, but I know I'd be offended if someone called me that.

13 August 2006

The Descent is the first horror movie in years that I've bothered to see in the theater, partly because of what I persist in thinking is a great poster, but mostly because a horror flick that gets sensational reviews is a rare bird in itself. The first forty minutes are amazing, a clever exercise in everything that makes me uneasy, including enclosed spaces, heights, the dark, and strong, assertive women. Then, once the horror in the darkness reveals itself, the movie falls off a bit. I mean, there are some nerve-jangling moments, but it's tough to take the horror seriously once you've realized that the characters are being stalked by Flukeman.

Even after it stops being creepy and settles for shocks and gore, though, The Descent is great fun, and it does a nice job of toying with the usual horror movie conventions. My favorite moment, out of many, is when a character peeks down a corridor, sees that the route is clear, and goes to find her friend, with the camera following her to the right. When the camera follows her back to the corridor, of course, we're expecting something to have materialized out of the darkness. But, no, the corridor is still empty. Then the camera pans to the right again, and...

In any case, I had forgotten how much fun it can be when a packed theater just screams in unison, repeatedly, and when your non-date grabs your arm while whispering, "Alec, I'm scared. Is something bad going to happen?" Indeed, The Descent is a great date movie, with a double handful of classic arm-grabbing moments, including a corker at the very end, which demonstrates, once and for all, that there's nothing scarier than a hot Asian girl. And guess what? It even passes the Mo Movie Measure.

10 August 2006

The government is reacting to the latest terrorism news with its usual ignorance and stupidity. George Bush (or his speechwriter) really needs to look up the definition of fascism. I haven't heard anything about home-grown terrorists wanting to set up an authoritarian state, and as we have seen, the Islamic fundamentalist movement is an international phenomenon, not a nationalist one.

In addition, Michael Chertoff announces that the plot was "an attempt to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale," while the UK Home Secretary says that "loss of life of civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale." Let's see: they were planning on blowing up 10 planes, each carrying around 300 people each. Yep, using planes to kill 3,000 civilians is certainly unprecedented. Who could even imagine such a thing?

Maybe I'm just pissed because I'm supposed to fly tomorrow and now I have to leave work at 2 to make my 5.30 plane.
At least they weren't trying to bring snakes onboard.
I know there's something on a lot of peoples' minds this morning, especially travelers. I wish I could put them at ease, but here's all I can say on this vexing topic: Robert Caro doesn't mention anything about Lyndon Johnson being part of a teacher's union.

09 August 2006

Ned Lamont has pulled the first upset in Campaign '06, and Joe Lieberman appears to be reacting with his characteristic stubbornness and air of denial. For my part, I'd have preferred Lieberman to win; it's not like the Senate Democrats have enough votes to influence anything Iraq-related anyway, and I don't think it's a particularly good thing for the party to be knocking off incumbents in primaries.

That said, Lieberman is a moron. I expect Charles Schumer is going to start sending him dead fish in the mail this week, and when that doesn't work, Schumer will put a horse's head in Joe's bed. When that fails, I think Joe's daughter will be kidnapped. That will fail as well. Lieberman is categorically incapable of acknowledging that he was/is wrong. I eagerly await the early general election polls to see the impact of his intransigence.
After seeing Wordplay, I inevitably went and signed up for the New York Times premium crossword site, and I've been having a great time going through the archived puzzles. The process, needless to say, has instilled me with a whole new level of respect for the crossword fanatics featured in that excellent movie. (Two minutes to solve a puzzle? It takes me that long just to read the clues.)

Anyway, I was just going through the July 18, 2006 puzzle, in which the clue for 35-across (seven letters) is "35, 3/4, pi, square root of -1...or a word that follows the starts of 17-, 27, 43- and 58-across." The answer (spoiler alert) is NUMBERS, and the answers for the clues indicated are WHOLE WHEAT BREAD, RATIONAL THOUGHT, REAL ESTATE AGENT, and IMAGINARY FRIEND.

I was about halfway through this crossword when I thought to myself, "Hmmm, I'll bet I know the guy who wrote this puzzle." I checked the name of the author and, yep, I was right. Some people are so predictable.

08 August 2006

George Lucas has approved a 20-minute live version of Star Wars to be produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. That's pretty exciting, but it can't be nearly as good as the short version of Scarface.
Here's something that might compete with Snakes on a Plane: dead bodies of dubious origins. Apparently dead people, in various stages of dissection, are the newest cool thing in museum exhibits. (I have to admit, the pictures are pretty neat.) As one museum director put it, "We haven't seen anything like this since the robotic dinosaurs came in the 1980's." Er, did I miss something?

Of course, when every museum wants some flesh to display, questions arise about where the bodies are coming from. This story has it all: Chinese body smuggling, a bitter rivalry between two scientists, and comparisons to Nazism. Gripping stuff.

06 August 2006

So Alec, are you eagerly anticipating Snakes on a Plane? I mean, what could be better than Samuel L. Jackson and snakes? In the words of the Man Himself (according to Wikipedia):
I'm here tonight to present the award everyone's been waiting for: best movie. This award holds a special place in my heart because next year I'll be winning it for Snakes on a Plane. Now I know, I know that sounds cocky, but I don't give a damn. I'm guaranteeing that Snakes on a Plane will win best movie next year. Does not matter what else is coming out. New James Bond... no snakes in that! Ocean's 13... where my snakes at? Shrek the Third... green, but not a snake. No movie shall triumph over Snakes on a Plane. Unless I happen to feel like making a movie called Mo' Motha-fuckin' Snakes on Mo' Motha-fuckin' Planes."

There are some pretty hilarious videos about the movie on YouTube, including fake trailers, Christopher Walken, and the evolution of the story from The Diary of Anne Frank.
In yet another thrilling chapter of Nat Living Alone (vol. II), I learned how to cut my own hair yesterday. The key was having a second mirror so I could see the back of my head - that helped with the cornrows back there.

01 August 2006

Mel Gibson may be an anti-Semite, but he takes an awfully nice mug shot. Most people don't look this good in their wedding photos. (He's certainly no Nick Nolte.)

31 July 2006

Today's trivia question: How many Presidents of the United States have ever belonged to a union?

30 July 2006

Hasn't this kid seen Citizen Kane? Jared Kushner, the Harvard-educated 25-year-old son of a disgraced New Jersey real estate magnate, has just bought a majority stake in the New York Observer for $10 million. "I own the New York Observer," he said yesterday. What he should have said, of course, was "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."

29 July 2006

Can we pass some Constitutional Amendment automatically removing Members of Congress when they send out god-awful letters at taxpayer expense?

Almea sent a postcard to our Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, asking that a treasured piece of national forest be protected from drilling. In response, Wilson sent Almea a long-winded, three page letter replete with typos and prose like this:
Almea there are some places that have outstanding recreational, scenic, and wildlife value. The Valle Vidal is one of these places. I look forward to continuing to work to see the Valle Vidal protected.
And this:
With my support, the House recently passed a refinery permitting bill that would require all of the permits that are currently required, but make the process shorter by doing a lot of things simultaneously.
Ah, that clears things up for me. Thanks, Congress!
Apparently Iran has banned its people from using 2000 foreign words that have crept into common usage. Helpfully, they've given people an alternative phrase in Farsi. Pizza becomes "elastic loaves," for instance. Thinking up those new words was probably a fun job for all those workers over at the Ministry of Truth.
Two years ago, when Collateral first came out, I blogged that it was the work of an incredibly ambitious director "working on a studiously modest scale," and that I vaguely wished that he had "tackled something of more epic dimensions." Judging from Miami Vice, it seems that Michael Mann, clearly a faithful reader of this blog, took my advice to heart. The New York Times review helpfully points out that the total operating budget for the Miami police department last year was approximately $50 million less than the production costs of Miami Vice. Oddly enough, with all the money being spent on speedboats and gunfights and explosions, it appears that the producers could only afford one beard, which was duly divided between Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell. (Or, as Haiwen puts it, their facial hair is "complementary.")

In any case, it's clear that Miami Vice marks the conclusion of a certain stage in Michael Mann's career. It's impossible to imagine how he could ever advance beyond this movie, which takes all of his obsessions with violence, video, and men at work and blows them to smithereens. The result may not be the best movie I've seen this year, but it's certainly the most fascinating. It takes coolness to the level of a pathology. In this version, Crockett and Tubbs barely even notice one another, and seem weirdly disengaged from the task at hand. At times, the effect can be alienating, especially in the movie's opening scenes, which seem deliberately designed to confuse and frustrate the audience. Then again, there are times (when Colin Farrell takes Gong Li on a speedboat cruise with Moby blaring in the background, for example) when we're closer to the throbbing heart of pulp than any movie has taken us in years. It's all completely gratuitous, of course. But I have a hunch that I'll be seeing it again.

28 July 2006

"In the room the women come and go / Talking of DiCaprio."

Wow. I'll say it again. Wow.
My apologies for the prolonged absence. I've been, er, occupied for most of the last month, and then I got waylaid by a tomato. I hate those things.

Anyhow, for reasons that aren't relevant here, I've been alerted to the existence of Skype, a VOIP that lets me call, say, Zambia for a fraction of what calling cards charge. I don't know if anyone else on the blog wants to call Zambia, but it's a pretty good deal.

Anyhow, I just signed up, and it looks like calls to any phone in the US are free for the rest of the year. This is also a pretty good deal. On top of that, Internet-to-internet calls to other Skype users are always free. This has the potential to radically alter my telecommunications posture.

One thing that's funny is they have warnings all over the place that they're not a phone company and you can't make emergency calls through them. Apparently there are laws out there mandating that phone companies provide emergency calling services (i.e. 911), and VOIPs don't want to do it because it costs money (and because if they admit they're phone companies it would open them up to tons of other taxes and regulations). It'll be interesting to see how long they'll be able to skirt the law.

25 July 2006

Don't ask me why, but even though it's a beautiful day outside, I've spent the entire afternoon indoors, watching videos of William F. Buckley, Jr. In fact, Buckley circa 1968 may have overtaken Kevin Spacey in the ranks of my inexplicable obsessions. (At least Buckley can't be blamed for Superman Returns.) Buckley's recent comments criticizing the Iraq war were what got me into this mess, but even better is this video of Buckley debating Noam Chomsky in 1969, which is just as much fun as it sounds. (One priceless Buckley moment: "Say you're a farmer, and you come to me for fertilizer...") And then there's Buckley's debate with Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in which Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley says...well, maybe you'd better see it for yourself.

Anyway, I've been watching this guy for hours, and now I can't get that incredible North Atlantic faux English accent out of my head. Maybe if I listen to some Eminem...

24 July 2006

Speaking of feeling old, the average student (or "camper" as they call them here) at Mathcamp was born in the 90's.

My last year in graduate school the incoming freshman to whom I will likely be teaching calculus, will also have been born in the 90's.

23 July 2006

I'm quite tickled by the video for "I'm With Stupid," the new single by the Pet Shop Boys. But who are those two old queens at the very end?
Has it really been almost a decade since Thomas Pynchon's last novel came out? Jesus, I feel old. (Not that I actually finished Mason & Dixon, but still...) Anyway, Pynchon's own blurb for Against the Day on Amazon.com has me drooling with anticipation:
Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it's their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.
Hey, wait a minute. That sounds just like my novel!

21 July 2006

Joel Siegel doesn't know what he's missing. Yes, there were a couple of times when I wanted to puke, but, rather unexpectedly, Clerks II is the best time I've had at the movies all summer. If I were you, I'd rush out to see it this weekend, because it's best experienced with a theater full of Kevin Smith fans, who will respond on cue to every Star Wars riff and cringe-inducing sexual reference. With the wrong audience, this movie would be unbearable. With the right one, it's a party.

Smith has grown considerably as a director, by the way. He effortlessly handles a large cast of old friends, a rich soundtrack, and an impromptu musical number, and you know what? He'll never admit it, but he clearly learned a lot from Magnolia.

20 July 2006

Morgen fahren Torrey und ich nach Deutschland ab! Vielleicht werde ich in Berlin bloggen, aber Torrey wird unbedingt jeden Tag bloggen. Clickt bei ihrem Blog, zu finden was ich mache!

19 July 2006

By the way, I love the trailer for The Prestige. David Bowie is Nikola Tesla!

18 July 2006

A few days ago, Mrs. Toub and I caught a performance of Hot Feet, which, as I've blogged previously, is an Earth, Wind and Fire jukebox musical transparently based on The Red Shoes, my favorite movie. I'm actually rather curious as to the legal status of this remake. The official program doesn't credit the movie, but it's clearly a character-by-character takeoff on The Red Shoes, complete with cribbed dialogue and plot points. (The actors are, however, noticeably shy about saying the words "red shoes" onstage. This leads to a number of awkward moments, including the lead character's death scene. Instead of saying "Take off the red shoes," she's reduced to yelling, "Take them off! Take them off!")

Anyway, it's a lousy musical with some good dancing. It's closing on Sunday, and it sure looks like a flop to me. The New York Times begs to differ, however. According to Transamerica, the insurance company that financed the show, it was a great investment—because it's all about branding. In the long run, when it comes to building brand awareness, spending $8 million to sponsor a musical may make more sense than spending the same amount of money on television commercials. I'm not sure if I buy the argument, but more importantly, Transamerica has deep pockets. If I were Emeric Pressburger's grandson, I'd be looking into my legal options. Clearly, somebody at Transamerica took the words "Take off The Red Shoes" much too literally.

17 July 2006

I must be having a silly day. For my novel, I've been doing some online research on fireworks in India. When you type "india fireworks" into Google, however, this is the first site that comes up. Hey, it makes me laugh.

14 July 2006

I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one wondering about that Shamu article in the New York Times. Slate does a decent job of trying to figure out what the hell is going on here.

12 July 2006

Three thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest:

1. Years ago, even before the first Pirates movie came out, I predicted on this blog that Gore Verbinski would win an Oscar for Best Director sometime in the next twenty years. Dead Man's Chest, which is, truth be told, a rather shapeless and mediocre movie, only confirms it. Hollywood tends to reward directors who are masters of organization, rather than artists, and Verbinksi is a peerless director of traffic. In a few years, he'll be up there with Peter Jackson. (If you don't believe me, take a look at Jackson's filmography prior to The Fellowship of the Ring, and tell me which of the two looks more impressive.) After all, there are mediocrities and then there are mediocrities, and one overstuffed reel of Dead Man's Chest has more atmosphere and zest than anything that, say, Ron Howard has ever done.

2. If you look at other movies that generated tremendous opening weekends in the past, you'll notice one thing: very few of these movies are driven by an actor's performance. In fact, I don't think that any of the top ten even list an actor's name above the title. Pirates is the lone exception. I have mixed feelings about Jack Sparrow, but I'm always pleased when audiences actually show up at a movie to watch something resembling a human being, rather than a digital special effect.

3. Speaking of which, the special effects here are really, really good. So good, in fact, that I didn't even realize that one major character is entirely digital. (It's like taking Gollum for granted.) If that isn't a landmark in movie history, I don't know what is—even if the guy is mostly tentacles.
The other day, I was talking with Haiwen about the original Superman, and, in particular, Marlon Brando's portrayal of Jor-El. I noted that Brando, who was paid $3 million for ten minutes of screen time, was clearly reading from cue cards.

"Christopher Walken would have done a better job," Haiwen said. "Now there's a scary thought. Can you imagine if Chrisopher Walken were the last sane man on a dying planet?"

My reply: "Well, maybe he is."
Most of you have probably heard about the building that blew up in New York the other day. The best part, of course, is the fact that the property has now gone up in value. I love New York real estate.

05 July 2006

I'm working on a long post about Superman Returns, but in the meantime, you might enjoy seeing how they created the best performance in the movie.

(Oh, and some other stuff also happened this weekend. However, I'm not sure I should be the first one to blog about it...)

29 June 2006

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

On June 10, the Twins were 27-34, 10 games behind Chicago and 11.5 games behind Detroit. Today they are 9 games behind Chicago and 11 games behind Detroit. Oh, and their current record is 42-35. They've won 15 of their last 16 games and have gained no more than one game on both the teams in front of them.

Now is a great time to be a Twins fan: Joe Mauer is hitting nearly .400; Johan Santana gives up 2 hits and strikes out 9 in 7 innings; they've figured out how to "run Santana through the Xerox machine and throw him out there twice every time through the rotation" (according to bat-girl); Justin Morneau might actually hit 30 homeruns and thus become the first Twin since 1987 to do so. We might even have the best third-place team in history.

28 June 2006

Noah, I think you'll need to narrow it down a bit.
Guess who I passed on the sidewalk near Embarcadero wedensday? Hint, she didn't aknowledge my existence :-)

23 June 2006

Why am I unreasonably obsessed with tiebreaker rules? I look at the scoreboard for the WC right now (SUI up 1-0 over KOR and FRA up 2-0 over TOG) and the first thing I think is that "If Korea can tie it up then FRA and SUI would have to go to drawing lots for first in the group!" For some reason this prospect excites me to no end.

Speaking of things that I find unreasonably exciting, Wednesday Malia and I saw the trailer for Scoop. We could hardly contain ourselves.

We saw that trailer before A Prarie Home Companion at the theater near Torrey's. It was a somewhat odd theater in that half of the chairs (those to the right of the aisle) were not perpendicular to the screen. On the other hand, the seats to the left of the aisle had the advantage that many of them were in great locations, which is rare for a middle aisle setup.

As for A Prarie Home Companion, it was fun but nothing special. Lots of good actors putting in good performances. The noir parody bits were hysterical though. Lindsay Lohan really can't sing. Oh, and it was nice to finally see a film this year that passed the Mo Movie Measure. (The other films I'd seen this year: Brick, Inside Man, and X3 all failed miserably.)
Since I'm writing a novel about India, I figured that it was time to take a look at Midnight's Children, which is what I'm currently reading. Whenever I think about Salman Rushdie, however, I'm also compelled to remember The Greatest Moment of My Life, in which Rushdie played a memorable part. It's been more than four years since my Greatest Moment, and I was curious to see whether it had been recorded for posterity. A quick online search reveals that the newspapers reported it here, here, and here. The version in the Harvard Gazette is the most accurate:
Three of the 21st century's foremost writers of English gathered at Harvard March 8 to read from their works. Sponsored by the Harvard Advocate, America's oldest college literary magazine, the event featured poet John Ashbery '49, and prose writers Jamaica Kincaid and Salman Rushdie. [A short question-and-answer period followed.]

For the final question, a young man asked, "Is it possible to be an artist and also be happy?"

Ashbery paused reflectively, then said: "I don't know yet." Kincaid responded archly: "Maybe the question ought to be, is it possible to be happy and be anything else." Rushdie declared simply: "I'm extremely happy."
The article fails to note that the young man's question was greeted with thunderous applause from the crowd. It also fails to mention that the young man was me. Well, fine. It was my only moment of glory at Harvard. I did learn a few things when researching it online, however. First, Natalie Portman was in the audience that night. Second, my question was apparently much more profound than even I had realized. Here's the Harvard Crimson's version of my question:
In the end, however, if the world created in the works of these three looming figures consists of estrangement, interminable searching and an everlasting desire to return home and understand one’s self and one’s society, how can the outsider—forced to confront these problems at every turn—be happy? In response to this question...
Yes, well, I guess that's what I meant to say.

20 June 2006

Having watched game 7 of the Stanley cup, I have to say that I can't stick up for hockey at all. Great to play, but really not much fun to watch.

Also you're right about the NBA finals, they were a travesty. Which is a shame, because most of the rest of the playoffs were really quite excellent.

I think my problem with Soccer refereeing is that in a sport like basketball, no matter how bad one call goes against you, you still could have won if you'd just stepped it up a little bit. Howard hits his free throws in game 5, or Nowitzki hits his one in game 3 and suddenly all the bad calls don't matter. In soccer, however, where most of the game doesn't matter at all, one bad call can demonstrably determine the outcome of the game.

Speaking of hockey and soccer and fouls though, why doesn't soccer borrow some sort of penalty system from hockey? If you get a yellow card your team is short handed for 10 minutes or something.
Once again, I have to disagree with Noah about soccer. I do think that there are too few goals, but the same is true of hockey. On the other hand, the sport is simple, beautiful, and the competition is intense. (I've also heard that soccer players are more attractive than other athletes. I know that's true of women's soccer, but I'm not qualified to judge the men's side).

On the referee front, I don't see, in general, referees in soccer having too great an influence on the sport, and certainly not having a greater influence than their counterparts in other sports. You can't say that the home plate umpire in baseball doesn't have an enormous influence over a baseball game; a lot of pitchers become unhittable just because umpires decide that they're painting the corners. In football, pass interference calls are absolutely deadly, and you could call pass interference on every play if you wanted to. In basketball, the referees in the NBA finals have decided that everyone who breathes on Dwayne Wade fouls him. That is the only reason Miami won game 5, when they abandoned all other offensive options besides the "let's get Wade the ball and see him get fouled" option.

Soccer referees do screw teams when flashing cards and when calling penalty kicks. I've seen a big decrease in penalty kicks this year, which pleases me. As for the yellow cards, I hope they lead to teams playing less physically, which is dangerous for the players and less fun to watch. The problem is, it works, and so players are going to grab and elbow and trip as long as it's worthwhile to do so. I might be in favor of loosening the accumulated card suspension rule, but in theory it's not a terrible idea.

I'm not so naive to think that there are no problems with the world cup referees; problems do occur. But I don't think those problems detract much from the attractiveness of the sport as a whole.

18 June 2006

Here's a particularly egregious example of the american press's annoying tendancy to give "balanced" reporting on things that aren't at all balanced.

Then Henry blamed the referees for not awarding his team another goal later in the first half on Patrick Vieira's header that TV replays appeared to show was over the goal line.

I know that sometimes even with instant replay there are still close things that are too close to call. This goal just wasn't one of those close calls.

Between the France/Korea travesty, and the Italy/U.S.A. game I have a few more complaints to add to my old rant on why soccer is not a great spectator sport. The referees have to much ability to swing the whole game, and the yellow card/red card system leads to too many suspensions. Zidane being forced to sit for his last game on the French team is not spectator friendly. (Of course, basketball is inching closer to this problem.)

It's a good week for sports though. NBA finals, NHL game seven, stunning golf collapse, and lots of world cup.

16 June 2006

The scary thing about Paul McCartney's sixty-fourth birthday is that it makes me realize that I'm older than the Beatles. Not literally, of course...but all the news reports have reminded me that when I'm listening to, say, "Hey Jude," I'm listening to a twenty-five-year-old.

15 June 2006

As Pauline Kael once said, "Movies are so rarely great that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." I'm at a point these days when I'd rather watch great trash than great art, at least when I'm renting movies on my own. It took me a long time to realize this. As a result, my Netflix subscription went unused for months. The Werner Herzog and David Lean DVDs piled up, unwatched, when all I really wanted to rent was, say, Star Trek VI. Luckily, I realized my mistake in time, and now I have a cheerful little Saturday matinee every evening.

I've already rhapsodized at length about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the greatest piece of dumb fun ever made) and The Mummy, so I'd like to spotlight a couple of other goofy masterpieces. First, Serenity. I finally caught this on DVD last week, and I was awfully pleased. Appealing cast, good story, dialogue that ranges from brilliant to incredibly annoying, and a hero who isn't afraid to shoot Greedo first—not to mention the funniest outtake reel I've ever seen. (I was going to quote the best outtake of them all, but several hundred Joss Whedon fans already beat me to it.)

Second, Anaconda. Wow. I love King Kong, but watching Anaconda makes me realize what King Kong was missing: Jon Voight. If we'd had Voight on Skull Island along with—or instead of—Jack Black, we'd have had the movie of decade. Some performances are special effects unto themselves (another that comes to mind is Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York), and Voight would have sent an electric charge through that beautiful but hardly dangerous epic. As it stands, we're left with the terrible beauty of Voight in Anaconda, especially his final scene, which I've already watched about five times. I'd better mail it back to Netflix, though, because I can't wait until they send me Congo.

14 June 2006

According to Wonkette, the White House hottie's name is Taylor Hughes, and she's Rove's executive assistant. (Funny, how often these roles go to unusually attractive women. I've noticed the same phenomenon on Wall Street.) If we're going to develop crushes on Republican aides, though, I'd nominate this lovely lady, who apparently plays a major role in determining Bush's policy in Iraq. Isn't power the ultimate aphrodisiac?

13 June 2006

After I actually read the article referenced in my previous post, I had more troubling thoughts. It appears as though Rove essentially got off because he was too good of a liar and they were never able to find good proof that he was lying. The prosecutors couldn't punch a big enough hole in his rather implausible argument that he never recalled contacting Matt Cooper (and hence when he initially told the grand jury that he never contacted Cooper, he wasn't lying).

At any rate, the White House shouldn't be able to say that this decision not to bring charges somehow vindicates Rove. His actions were questionable at best in e-mailing Cooper regarding Plame, and his argument that he had forgotten the e-mail indicates either perjury (see above) or incompetence. The fact that the special prosecutor didn't have enough evidence to convince a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt doesn't mean he didn't act in a very slimy manner.
This NY Times article about Karl Rove evading criminal prosecution for his role in the Valerie Plame affair is troubling to me. In particular, the burning question in my mind is this:

Who is that woman walking beside him? She is WAY too happy considering she's escorting Karl Rove, and WAY too beautiful to be a run-of-the-mill White House stooge. I guess appearances can be deceiving.

08 June 2006

In a recent fit of procrastination, I decided to download all of the #1 singles from the Billboard Hot 100 from the past ten years, as a rough way of filling in the gaps in my knowledge of pop music. Listening to all of these songs, which takes about six hours, is an interesting experience. There's a lot of awful music here, but I was also reintroduced to great songs that I'd forgotten ("Ms. Jackson") and favorite songs that I never even knew had hit #1 ("Everything You Want"). A few random opinions:
Favorite Song That I Hadn't Heard Before: "Bills, Bills, Bills" by Destiny's Child. I'm not sure what I was doing on July 17, 1999, but apparently I wasn't listening to the radio.
Guilty Pleasure: "SOS (Rescue Me)" by Rihanna. Normally, I try not to indulge in songs that are little more than R&B vocals hitched to a shrewd sample, but if you're going to cannibalize something, it may as well be "Tainted Love."
Biggest Surprise: "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt, which charted this past March, is the first rock song in more than four years to hit the #1 position. Longer, if you refuse to recognize Nickelback.
Best #1 Single of the Past Ten Years: I was going to be boring and go with "Lose Yourself," but I was blindsided by a little number called "Crazy in Love," and I'm sticking with it.
Also, for what it's worth, I can never hear Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply" without experiencing a disorienting flashback to my high school prom. I'll bet I'm not the only one.