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.)