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 Fran├žois 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!