21 December 2009

I was reading the other day about how, at the temple of Delphi, when the holy fire was extinguished, it could not be re-lit by earthly fire. Instead, according to Plutarch, it would be lit using "concave mirrors, of a figure formed by the revolution of an isosceles rectangular triangle." A few days later, inspired by the Greeks (and in imminent danger of falling asleep during a meeting at work), and wondering what was meant by the term "isosceles rectangular triangle," I decided to try to derive the formula for the focus of a parabola. I gave up after muddling into trigonometric identities long since forgotten, and didn't bother looking up the answer. (I did, though, manage to stay awake through the rest of the meeting.) Today, I saw this picture in a NYT story about how students are taking too many AP tests. Hopefully those students will be qualified to be Delphic priests!

03 November 2009

There's a shelf at my mother's house that is devoted to storing, apparently for eternity, the fruit preserves that people give her as gifts. This summer I decided to help her clean off the shelf. We threw out the jars that looked obviously toxic, but (I'm still not sure why) I decided to salvage the unopened jars and try them out.

So, for the past month or so, I've been testing these aged fruit preserves. I've thrown out some, but a few have been ok. I ate one jar of a brownish fruit that could have been either figs or some unknown berries, and another jar that was either apricots or peaches. Now I'm eating a jar that's simply labeled, "Crabapples '92."

Apart from an admonition about botulism, AM's comment was, "why would anyone want to preserve crabapples?"

02 October 2009

Unless the Twins manage to pull off a miracle in their last three games, this year's MLB postseason lineup is going to be very disappointing. When the Twins aren't in the playoffs, I root for the team that "deserves it most" as measured by when they last won a championship. By that measure, almost none of the teams in this year's postseason deserve it. Seven of the eight teams have appeared in the World Series since 2002 (Yankees '03, Red Sox '04 & '07, Tigers '06, Angels '02, Phillies '08, Cardinals '06, Rockies '07), and five of those teams have won this decade (the Rockies and Tigers lost; the Yankees lost in '03 but won in '00). The remaining team is the Dodgers, who technically deserve it the most, but as an adopted San Franciscan I have a hard time rooting for them, especially after how their fans behaved at the game I went to in August.

So I guess you can call me pretty apathetic about this postseason. This is probably just as well, since all of the games will be on at 2.30 in the morning where I am. Of course, last time I spent a fall in Europe (2002) it was one of the most memorable postseasons in recent history. So I guess my position is: I'll get up in the middle of the night to watch any Game 7, and World Series Game 6 if it was 2-2 after four.

Unless the Twins are in it.

18 September 2009

I arrived in Virginia yesterday, and I'm staying with Almea while I continue to look for an apartment. For those of you who don't know about it, the website spotcrime.com is a lot of fun. It gives you a searchable map pinpointing all the reported crimes in an area during a specified time period.

Something interesting I saw on the website: Arlington, a city with a population of about 200,000, had about 200 reported crimes in the past two months. Alexandria, with a population of 150,000, had about 200 reported crimes in the past two weeks. Washington, a city with a population of about 600,000, had about 200 reported crimes in the past four days.

According to the spotcrime map, most of the Washington crimes are not in the poorest neighborhoods, but are instead property crimes in some of the trendiest parts of the city. Perhaps criminals have easy pickings among the young and well-to-do. (I am reminded of the Harvard students who were repeatedly burgled when they left their dorm rooms unlocked.) I'm not sure, however, why the trendier parts of Arlington have so many fewer crimes; maybe would-be criminals are deterred by northern Virginia's famous transportation problems.

08 September 2009

My apartment in Arlington just fell through, so I'm back on craigslist looking for a place to live. My favorite listing so far: "$650 Basement near Ballston with 20 Some restaurant workers." After I clicked on it in sheer fascination, I realized they were refering to their ages, not their numbers.

19 August 2009

In the past month, three people independently recommended that I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Two bought me the book. The other said, "this book will make you want to tear off all your clothes and go running into the wilderness."

I just finished the book, and I can only nod in agreement. And I bet it has an even more profound effect on non-runners.

14 August 2009

We've been back in the U.S. for a week now and are halfway through our Tour de California. Some things we've noticed:

  • air conditioning
  • weird small green money
  • fat people
  • sandwiches with more stuff than bread
  • toilets with lots of water
  • diversity

11 August 2009

What kind of important issues will Justice Sotomayor be handling in her first term on the Supreme Court? How about crush fetishes? In United States v. Stevens, the justices will be considering the constitutionality of a statute banning the depiction of animal cruelty, which was apparently intended to crack down on crush fetish porn but whose language is sufficiently broad to prohibit depictions of all kinds of animal cruelty, whether or not high heels are involved. Here's an interesting (if slightly technical) preview.

08 August 2009

It's already been a year since this post about Norman Schwarzkopf's "Be Bear Aware" campaign. I'm planning on going back into the mountains, and for the first time I'm going to be camping in grizzly country - the Wind River Range.

Following General Schwarzkopf's advice, I'm trying to be Bear Aware, and for the first time I've bought bear spray. Annoying thing about the bear spray: it has an expiration date of June 2010. That means even if I don't use it I have to buy some more next summer. I was hoping I could keep this canister forever, kind of like a fire extinguisher. What? Those have expiration dates too? Oh man.

06 August 2009

Wailin was interviewed about social media on last night's episode of Chicago Tonight, the local news program on Chicago's PBS station. I thought she did a nice job!

29 June 2009

The latest issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, featuring my novelette "The Last Resort," is in bookstores now! You can probably find it at any larger Barnes & Noble or Borders. It's a nice way to bookend my time in New York. (I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon for Chicago...)

26 June 2009

Three important updates:

  • Domna retired

  • Malia has joined a traveling math circus

  • Here in Harlem they sure do love their Michael Jackson. We heard 5 different cars playing his music just on the walk back from the subway.

24 June 2009

One of our local papers has this front page article today: Bigfoot: a search in Utah. The article is a real gem. It tells about a group of bigfoot seekers who are gathering in Utah this weekend to look for the big guy. There are too many wonderful touches to recount here, but my favorite is this: "Reported Bigfoot sightings vary, but according to folks like Curtis, 80 percent happen at night."

Of course, it may say something about the state of the media that this is on the front page. Although the Wall Street Journal usually has a funny story on its front page, this article, from what I can tell, isn't trying to be funny.

09 May 2009

Are you looking for a unique and special pack animal? If so, perhaps you should consider raising and training pack goats. This website has all the information you will ever need on the subject, including the pros and cons of removing the goat's horns, how to transport your goat, and first aid for goats. All very interesting stuff. This goes to show people will try to train anything these days.

21 April 2009

By the way, I know that I haven't been blogging a lot recently, but I've switched a lot of the action over to Twitter. If you're still interested in what I have to say about things (with the added advantage of it being 140 characters or less), you can find me there.

16 April 2009

Now that they've finally paid me, I can officially announce that my latest novelette is being published in this magazine later this year. I'll let you know when it comes out!

11 April 2009

Apart from explaining the bribes and backroom deals that helped keep Robert Moses in power in New York for over three decades, The Power Broker has a lot to say about an issue that is currently receiving a lot of attention: the role of newspapers in modern American democracy.

The book does not cast newspapers in a flattering light. By courting publishers and bribing reporters, Moses was able to grossly manipulate media coverage of his construction empire. The Times comes off looking worst of all (the only paper that stood up to Moses at the height of his power was, ironically, the Post.) Eventually the newspapers turned on him and exposed scandals that led to his downfall, but they were literally thirty years late.

The message is this: if newspapers are democracy's only hope, we're in a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, they probably are the best way to keep public officials accountable. Investigative journalism is expensive and difficult, which categorically rules out television news as a replacement. The blogosphere might break a few stories, but I doubt bloggers can match the investigative skills (not to mention journalistic ethics) of veteran reporters. If newspapers survive in more than a few cities, I will be happy. I'll also be hoping that media critics on the internet will be able to call out newspapers when they're not doing their job so that Moses's tactics don't work in the future.

04 April 2009

The Bobcat Bite is a couple of miles from where I grew up, and I just learned it was named best burger in the US by Bon Appetit magazine. (Apparently this happened a couple of years ago, but I'm slow to learn these things because I don't watch the Food Network.) Anyhow, this is a cute little documentary about why their burgers taste better than everywhere else.
In The Power Broker, Robert Caro describes the rise of "Impy," the New York City Council President who became mayor in 1950 when William O'Dwyer resigned to become Ambassador to Mexico:

The nomination of this totally unknown minor Tammany ward heeler to the city's second-highest elective office, the position of succession to the mayoralty, had "staggered . . . even the most imaginative among political reporters." And so had the explanation of how he had obtained the nomination. At a last-minute reshuffling of the 1945 Democratic ticket, the leaders finally agreed on Lazarus Joseph for Comptroller, and then realized that since O'Dwyer was Irish and from Brooklyn, while Joseph was Jewish and from the Bronx, the slate could have ethnic and geographic balance only if its third member was an Italian from Manhattan -- and were unable to think of a single Manhattan Italian official they could trust. After hours of impasse, one leader reasoned that since legal secretaryships to State Supreme Court justices carried a respectable salary for which little or no work was required, they would have been given only to the "safest" of Democratic workers. Pulling out a little "Green Book," the official directory of city employees, he turned to the list of legal secretaries, ran his finger down it looking for a name that even the dumbest voter would be able to tell was Italian -- and came to Vincent R. Impellitteri. . . .

. . .this explanation seemed almost unbelievable -- until one met Impellitteri.

I'm not sure whether to feel insulted or excited about my future job prospects.

02 April 2009

Sources tell me the Guardian fell for yesterday's Moscow Times story about Russian PM Dimitri Medvedev's limousine for the G 20 conference, coined (among other things) "the hippopotamus." Apparently the vehicle has more armor, more weapons, and more rear window curtains than President Obama's limousine, and contains a desk with six telephones and a shower. The vehicle is capable of withstanding a small nuclear attack "if the wind if blowing in the right direction."

01 April 2009

What I learned this April Fool's Day: fake plastic insects do not need to look perfectly realistic in order to scare people. They just have to be unexpected.

15 March 2009

In an effort to assist readers in filling out their NCAA tournament brackets, I've looked at results from past years (from the beginning of the 64-team era) to determine if there are any upset tendencies they can use to their advantage. There's nothing really earth-shaking, but here are my takeaways:

1) 1 seeds do far, far better than 2 seeds. Picking all 1 seeds for the final four is almost never a bad strategy.

2) 10-12 seeds win their first round matchups roughly a third of the time; interestingly, they also do well in second round matchups, and 10s and 11s do well in the sweet sixteen. 10 seeds are more likely to reach the elite eight than everyone except seeds 1-4 and 6. They have never made the final four, however.

3) The 8-9 game is a tossup in the first round, but that doesn't mean those seeds are interchangeable. In the second round 8 seeds beat 1 seeds 20% of the time, but 9 seeds almost never do.

4) 5 seeds almost never reach the elite eight.

5) Once in the elite eight, 1-5 seeds perform similarly.

6) Seeds 1-3 have won all but three of the championships.

08 March 2009

The Ivy League is one of the only Division 1 conferences with basketball games on Friday night. That means Ivy League basketball draws an inordinate amount of attention from professional sports gamblers looking to place bets on Friday nights. This is a tawdry scandal/grade B movie waiting to happen!

04 March 2009

Why did no one ever tell me Manny's middle name is Aristides??

28 February 2009

An fun part of living in Salt Lake is the opportunity to watch sporting events and root loudly for the visiting team. I live within an hour of two of UNM's archrivals, BYU and Utah, and when UNM came to play both teams, I went to each of the games. It requires some thick skin, but it's not physically dangerous unless you're a jerk or you try to do it in Oakland.

There's definitely an art to rooting for the visitors. You cannot out-cheer thousands of enemies, so you have to use the weapons of asymmetric warfare to maximize your effectiveness. The first key is sitting close enough to the court so that someone can actually hear you. The second key is to cheer when the crowd falls silent. The third key is to yell coherent phrases, rather than just make noise. Words are easier to pick up on than a clap. Usually what happens is the people next to you get annoyed and start cheering louder. Then they start cheering at you specifically, sort of as a taunt. At this point you cannot avert your eyes from the court and look at the taunters, as this will trigger a taunting match, and you cannot win a taunting match on enemy territory.

Alas, my cheering was not effective enough, as New Mexico lost both games up here. Maybe if I learn how to whistle loudly. . .

30 January 2009

Some exciting news. First off probably everyone still reading this blog already knows, but Malia and I got engaged last month. Second, I got an NSF yesterday, so we'll be moving to NYC where I'll be at Columbia. As Malia said, "Now you're all grown up! A month ago you were just a grad student, now you're engaged and employed."

27 January 2009

Here's what Nicholson Baker had to say about Updike in 1991:
With Barthelme gone I suddenly got a glimpse of how disassembled and undirected and simply bereft I would feel if I were to learn suddenly through the Associated Press of Updike's death. All I wanted, all I counted on, was Updike's immortality: his open-ended stream of books, reviews, even poems, and especially responses to pert queries from Mademoiselle and The New York Times Book Review. I thought I remembered him saying recently in Esquire, in response to a survey question about popular fiction, that "in college I read what they told me and was much the better for it." I wanted more of those monocellular living appearances. More awards-acceptance speeches! He was, I felt, the model of the twentieth-cenury American man of letters: for him to die would be for my generation's personal connection with literature to die, and for us all to be confronted at last with the terrifying unmediated enormity of the cast-concrete university library, whose antitheft gates go click-click-click-click as we leave, dry laughter at how few books we can carry home with us.
From Rabbit at Rest:
From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father's direction. "Don't die, Dad, don't!" he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn't leave the question hanging like that, the boy depends on him.

"Well, Nelson," he says, "all I can tell you is, it isn't so bad." Rabbit thinks maybe he should say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

23 January 2009

On the biggest Oscar snub of the season, David Carr writes: "Sure, the big studio movie The Dark Knight came up short, but that probably had less to do with who made it and how much it brought in than with a third act that left some moviegoers and Academy members cold and confused."

Right. Because the Academy would never nominate a movie with a confusing third act.

21 January 2009

Time for my Mystery Hunt review. I'll discuss individual puzzles in a future post. This year's hunt, Escape from Zyzzlvaria, was put on by the Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight who also wrote the hunt from two year's ago. It was fun, beautiful, and very ambitious. I subscribe to the Setec opinion that your first hunt should be short and clean, and your second hunt should push the envelope. By that metric the Bombers have been a great success. Furthermore this hunt fixed many of the issues that made my team not really enjoy their first hunt (lack of a feeling of progress, too much data mining, not enough puzzles available ever, and no pure metas). Although it went long, we had a lot of fun almost the whole time. Thanks a bunch to the Bombers for putting on a great show.

It's good to have an overambitious hunt once in a while that can raise the bar a bit and have lots of new ideas for other teams to process in their later hunts. Monopoly, Matrix, Time Bandits, and this hunt are the recent ones that had lots of new ideas. Of those Monopoly was perfect, while the other three wold have been improved by dialing it back a bit. It could rightfully be said that most of the structure of our SPIES hunt was just taking a third of the ideas from Time Bandits and doing them well. Of these I think Zyzzlvaria will be remembered as being the most innovative, and its impressive that they managed to be that overambitious while still ending up with an good product (sorry Time Bandits).

The dollarbucks round opening mechanism was really really good. Other teams in the future should just steal it. Really. The first round metas were beautiful, and by using round titles as a clue for each they allowed themselves more flexibility to use ideas that would otherwise have been too difficult (for example, Hiigari). I liked the idea of having a first half with pure metas and a second half with shell metas (although, see rant below). Having some pure metas is important to me as Mystery Hunt is almost the only time I get to work on them, but I'm happy with 5 good ones and shell metas allow for more flexibility. The Bombers used this flexibility very well. The production values raised the bar a lot (an actual game for each of us!). Finally the second half of this hunt had a greater number of interesting structural innovations than the last three hunts combined. It's really fun to figure out how different hunt structures work, and one of the downsides of mystery hunt relative to similar events is that there's often only one structure to figure out which leads to a low puzzle to structure ratio.

The puzzles were hard but fair (but hard!). It seemed to me that there were many fewer easy puzzles than in the Normalville/SPIES/Hell era. I was happy that this year seemed to have less data mining than Hell, but on the other hand it seemed that there were more puzzles where the answer extraction was difficult. I firmly believe that answer extraction should be either interesting or easy. Many puzzles (the hitchhiker's puzzle comes to mind) had fair gettable answer extractions that were still difficult to find and detracted from the overall quality of the puzzle. Nonetheless the puzzles on the whole were excellent. I'll have some shoutouts on particular ones after I get to go through the puzzles I didn't see.

Now for the rant... The second round metas... I joked at some point on Sunday that after everyone complained about the Senate meta the Bombers decided "Well maybe if we just make all our metas like this people will stop complaining and just figure that's how metas are supposed to work." Of the 7 metas we only solved Lazyr Zone. Nonetheless we had also solved Orbital Nexus modulo reading the clue phrase, and for both Astro Jail and Harvoid it was our fault not the puzzle's fault (we were close on Astro Jail but missed the connection with the cards even though we figured this meta used the cards, and on Harvoid we misplaced the box and forgot about it). The remaining three all had major major issues. Of the 4.5 point people from our hunt (Reid, Roger, Aaron, Andrew, and half me) I can't imagine any of us approving any of these three puzzle ideas without modifications. I'm still baffled by how they got in a hunt that otherwise was of such high quality. A checkers puzzle where not all the pieces are on the same colored squares?? Really? How could this possibly be a good idea?

Sometimes in these post hunt discussions I feel like some other people have a puzzle aesthetic that's totally foreign to that of my team. I can already anticipate someone commenting "Yes but the switching colors was clued! So it's fine." I don't care if it was clued, it's still ridiculous. The key property of checkers is that it only takes place on one color, a puzzle that ignores this is a bad puzzle. When you think of checkers as an option the first check about whether it's a sensible theory is to check if the pieces are all on one square.

On Combat Zone, I essentially solved the meta on my walk in on Sunday (my one good idea all hunt, I was mostly off my game), I showed up with a complete theory of how it worked that turned out to be exactly right. Except that the two obvious checks for whether my theory was right failed (the mapping wasn't well-defined because some of the reversed letters occurred multiple times on the same dice, and the ominoes didn't fit into a rectangle). We still tried it, but when we couldn't make out any words (we never had more than 7 puzzles) we assumed that we must be missing something (something in the names of the gods? the "God given order" given by the order of the gods? the pairing between puzzles and shapes?). Any small confirmation and we'd have solved this puzzle. Why not make it a rectangle? Why not make the mapping well-defined? Why not mark the boundary edges of the final shape? Why not put the gods in the same order as the puzzles? Sure the puzzle was solvable as is, but why not make it better?

The Virtual Sectors meta I just don't even want to talk about.

Our team's aesthetic is very much based on Setec's hunts and on the advice they sent us about puzzle writing. These three meta puzzles all fail badly: Was there only one aha? No. Were the steps obviously right in retrospect? No. Is the puzzle solvable without psychoanalyzing weird flavor text? No for two of three.

Again, other than these three puzzles (which didn't spoil our enjoyment of the hunt that much) it was an excellent fun hunt. But I'm really curious about how the second round meta debacles could have happened and how future teams can avoid it. Especially because in my mind it was only this issue that stopped this hunt from being in the argument for best hunt ever.

18 January 2009

Hooray! I finally gave in and turned on the heat in my apartment. Toasty and extravagant.

In other news, I attended Sundance screenings yesterday and today, and I'll go again tomorrow, Wednesday, and next Saturday. It's sort of surreal to watch a movie and then at the end be introduced to the director and the cast and be able to ask them questions. Much better than my last experience like this, with the Grizzly Man.

Yesterday I saw Push, which was a great movie that had everyone in tears. And in case anyone was wondering, Mariah Carey actually pulls off the role of middle-aged frumpy Jewish social worker. (She and Lenny Kravitz were the only cast members not in attendance. Carey probably didn't show up because she didn't want to be upstaged by Paula Patton.)

Today I discovered that not every Sundance movie is great. Victoria Day is a Canadian coming of age tale set in the late 1980s. It's technically well done, but it leaves about a million story lines unresolved. The director said that was intentional because that's how teenage lives are. Whatever.

The movie I'm most looking forward to is Good Hair, a Chris Rock documentary about, well, hair.

14 January 2009

Here's what Pauline Kael had to say about Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
Montalban is unquestionably a star in The Wrath of Khan (and his grand manner seems to send a little electric charge through Shatner). As a graying superman who, when foiled, cries out to Kirk, "From Hell's heart I stab at thee!," Montalban may be the most romantic smoothie of all sci-fi villains....And that great chest of Montalban's is reassuring—he looks like an Inca priest—and he's still champing at the bit, eager to act: he plays his villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty....You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that punctuate the end of a flamenco dance and the dancers don't let you? Montalban does. His bravado is grandly comic....This man, who believes that his search for vengeance is like Ahab's, makes poor pompous Kirk even more self-conscious. Kirk is Khan's white whale, and he knows he can't live up to it—he's not worth of Khan's wrath.
But then again, who would be?

08 January 2009

Quote of the day, from Nate Silver:

In his career running for statewide office, [Norm] Coleman has lost to a professional wrestler, beaten a dead guy, and then tied a comedian.