Thursday, December 20, 2007

the importance of SSRIs (or 'Whispers comes out')

I'm just saying that Tom Cruise is an idiot.

I can go months doing all the mental exercises in existence, work hard, exercise, eat right, and even swallow down St. John's Wort and still feel like crap. But a couple days back on citalopram and I'll be good as new.

SSRIs are not the end-all to avoiding depression. But having fought this battle for twenty years, both with meds and without, I think at this point, esp. as I get older, that the notion of trying to fight depression with taking meds makes about as much sense to me as a person trying to fight diabetes without insulin injections.

p.s. No, I'm not gay. I'm thin and single, but I'm not neat by any stretch of the imagination.

p.p.s. In case the p.s. seems obscure, it's a reference to a famous "Seinfeld" episode.

Ikea boy gets to work

So, I'm facing a mostly-empty condo, with only a bed frame, a couple bookshelves, and a futon mattress hijacked from Landru which will probably turn into a pumpkin at some point. The girls are very happy that I'm back on a queen-sized mattress, instead of the tiny twin-sized sofa-bed I was sleeping on in Montpellier. Now they can both demand my attention simultaneously, rather than be forced to take turns. (And somehow, when they are forced to take turns, it is usually Ginger's turn.)

Anyway, I'm gradually furnishing this place. First I've dug out things from storage in MD and KS. I got a cheap 19" flat-screen TV at BestBuy early this week. And a couple days ago I made a run to Ikea on Route 1.

I swear, I really am the target audience for Ikea. I just love the place. Getting furniture that I build myself is so much fun! On this trip I decided to pick up what I need most, while leaving the more luxurious items for the next trip, and the general storage items for a trip after that one. (I could probably use a few more bookshelves, but really, that's a low priority.)

So, I've picked up a desk, which is the highest priority, and a chair to go with it. And a coffee table for the TV & VCR. And a comfortable chair to sit in while watching TV. But the only thing I've assembled so far is the nightstand.* What else do I need? Dining room set, sofa, another comfortable chair or two, a mattress set, storage, etc. The mattress set is next on the list, but I think I'll defer that until after Christmas.

*In German, "nightstand" is "Nachttisch" and this is a great word for testing the tendency of English-speakers to run the end of one consonant into the next consonant. The German word for dessert is "Nachtisch", which literally means "after table", i.e. after the meal, while "Nachttisch" literally means "night table". The thing to remember is that when saying "Nachtisch" you need to have clear separation between the syllables, "Nach tisch" (nawhk tisch) and avoid the temptation to use the 't' in the first syllable. If you do that, when you think you are ordering dessert in a German restaurant, they will wonder why you are ordering a small table to be put next to your bed.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

close calls for the Pats

I don't care.

OK, for starters, everybody who has doubts about the validity of the numerous penalty calls against the Ravens on fourth downs during the Patriots' last drive on Monday needs to watch the NFL network's rebroadcast of the game, and have the NFL's rules guru explain why it really is holding when Chris McAllister rides Randy Moss for the first 7 yards of his route, seeing as no contact at all is allowed beyond the 5-yard zone.

Anyway, the Pats are going to get the #1 seed and I don't really care if they go 16-0 or not.

Though it would be good to do so, if only to piss off Mercury Morris.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

the streak

On Tuesday, October 16, the Cleveland Indians won Game 4 of the ALCS. Since then, none of the three major Boston franchises have lost.

- the Red Sox took the last three games of the ALCS, and then swept the World Series in four games.
- the Patriots have won three games in a row, as part of their 9-0 start to the season
- the Celtics have won their first 7 games of the NBA season

The latter is the most surprising. Apparently this is the best start since 1972-3.

Which is kinda weird, seeing as there was this guy named Bird who played on the team throughout the 80s, along with a few other pretty good guys.

I don't think this team is as good as the '86 Celtics. Of course, the entire league is flatter now - there are more teams and the average team is, IMO, worse. Individual players are better than they were in the 80s, but team play is a lost art.

The Celtics have the advantage of playing in the awful Eastern Conference. They won't play the Spurs or Suns until February. Of course the streak won't last that long, as they have a stretch in December where they play the Pistons and then go on a four-game West Coast road trip right after Christmas. The last game of the four is at the Lakers, and it's the second game in two days.

Of course, the Lakers might have gotten rid of Kobe by then, so who knows?

I'm talking about the Celtic's winning streak, which we all know isn't going to last, to avoid talking about another streak, which I don't want to jinx.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tommy and Tom

I had been mulling over a post entitled "Tom Wilkinson kicks ass" raving about his performance in "Michael Clayton". In this film, he has a supporting role as a lawyer who has a manic-depressive moment while interviewing a witness for a class action suit.

He strips naked and professes his devotion to one of the plaintiffs. (Thankfully, and with all due respect to Mr. Wilkinson, this happens off camera.) Problem is that his job is with the defendant's team.

Tom Wilkinson was "just another one of those British actors" before he really made an impression in "The Full Monty". Then he started getting more interesting roles. He really broke through with a masterful performance in "In the Bedroom" as the father of a boy who is murdered by a vengeful husband. He is still doing mostly supporting performances, as is typical for actors of his age, but he shines again in "Michael Clayton".

It is very easy to do a hack job playing a person with mental illness. Most actors just behave weirdly and illogically, and with excesses of anger and sadness, and that combination is supposed to represent mental illness. (BTW, Nicole Kidman did even worse than that in "The Hours" but because she had a fake nose on and had been jobbed for "Moulin Rouge", the film she deserved recognition for, she got an Oscar for "The Hours", even when she was the weak link in the trio of actresses in that film. But I digress. Well, not really since my point was about portraying mental illness.)

Anyway, Wilkinson is masterful at conveying the logic of a man undergoing a "moment of clarity" induced by going of his meds. He realizes that his job essentially consists of defending a rotten corporation that consciously did a cost-benefit analysis and decided to poison its customers. I think it is easy to play such a role incorrectly: to either be too righteous or too nutty. Wilkinson does a great job portraying a person aware of his own mental illness and struggling to decide which of his thoughts are valid and which are solely a result of manic depression. And under all of that is his own legal knowledge, which bursts through in a moment when he's discussing with George Clooney the firm's options in terms of trying to keep him quiet.

Or, to put it differently, Wilkinson is handed a very complex, realistic character and does a masterful job bringing him to screen. I really think he steals the film from George Clooney, who is no slouch in "Michael Clayton" by any means.

Based on what I've seen so far, I would put Wilkinson in the lead for any "Best Supporting Actor" consideration for 2007.

And that brings me to Tommy Lee Jones. I had last seen him in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", where he did a fine job playing a bilingual rancher investigating the death of a Mexican who he'd worked with. In "In the Valley of Elah", Jones is again playing a man investigating a suspicious death, in this case the death of his son, Michael, a soldier recently returned from Iraq. "Elah" is an interesting film - it would be really easy to do a hack job of a film like this, stridently criticizing the war in Iraq and the concomitant dehumanization of everybody involved. Paul Haggis does a much better job than that. The story is well-balanced and, indeed, seems very friendly to the military perspective throughout. And a key to that angle is the great job Jones does playing a career military man.

"Elah" succeeds magnificently because it "keeps it real", depicting the soldiers with such detail and care that it is easy to imagine these people being people one knows in real life. The horror of the war zone is communicated mostly through videos Michael had recorded with his cell phone, that were damaged in fire and which we see only distorted scenes from. As more details come out about Michael's death, his father's feeling of confidence and of understanding the world are gradually beaten down, though he soldiers on throughout.

I don't know quite what to say about the film as a whole. I think the best anti-war movies and stories are the ones that simply show what happens when war is going on. With the ill-conceived war in Iraq, this should be fairly simple, and yet doing the simple is often very difficult, because the temptation for overt anger and grandstanding is so great. Well, "Elah" his the mark exactly right.

The film is bookended with two scenes where Jones is dealing with the American flag. At the beginning of the film, he sees a building with the flag upside down, and pulls over and finds the person in charge of the flag, a Salvadoran, and explains to him that the upside-down flag is a symbol of distress while they take the flag down and put it back up in the proper position. At the end of the film (is this a spoiler?) he drives by the same flagpost and puts up a flag from Iraq sent by his son, and specifically flies it upside-down, while using duct tape on the flagpost to keep it fixed in that position. The implication is a bit melodramatic, but people are melodrmatic from time to time, especially with symbols like flags.

Jones might get a Best Actor nomination, the film and the writing should. I would rate Jones' performance very highly, though still a notch below Philip Seymor Hoffman in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". Hopefully one of the two will win, but more likely something awful will happen like Tom Cruise winning. (OK, I shouldn't prejudge "Lions for Lambs", but Cruise makes it so hard not to.)

In summary, I highly recommend both of these films. "Elah" is probably a better film, but I think Wilkinson does the better acting job.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Patriots 24, Colts 20

Well, the Pats won the big football game and now have the inside track for the best record in the NFL and #1 seed in the playoffs.

And still, I'm not terribly pleased.

There are two things that really bothered me about the game: the penalties and the poor tackling.

The penalties were ridiculous. There was a combination of bad officiating and then the Pats starting committing stupid penalties, which made it harder to complain about the actual mistakes the officials made.

There were three pass interference calls on the Pats, two on defense, and one on offense.

There was one pass interference call on the Colts.

The first PI call on Assante Samuel seemed ticky-tack to me. The charge seemed to be that Sammuel grabbed the receiver by his jersey, which prevented the receiver from being able to catch the ball. At first glance, it seemed like the pass was uncatchable in any case. And any contact was minimal. But Sammuel did grab the jersey, so I can let this one pass.

The second PI, on Ellis Hobbs, was absolutely ridiculous. Hobbs was covering Reggie Wayne, and the pass was underthrow so Hobbs turned and went for the ball, while Wayne crashed into Hobbs while going for the ball. When I first saw the play, I thought Wayne had committed offensive PI. Hobbs had position and went for the ball. By the rulebook, that means that it's not PI when Wayne crashes into him.

The third PI was called on a Colt on a long pass to Randy Moss that he caught. Some commentators are citing this flag as evidence that the refereeing was fair. Um, guys? Don't you notice the difference between a PI flag thrown on an incomplete pass and a PI flag thrown on a completion? Let's not be children here.

And then there was the offensive PI called on Randy Moss which was completely ticky-tack, if that. Moss had one hand on the receiver but was not pushing him or moving him, and was whistled for OPI.

Some people argued that the PI calls did not change the game, but given Vinatieri's difficulty kicking the long FGs, I think it's hard to support that claim when the PIs give 37 and 40 yards respectively.

And then there was the tackling by the Patriots on Addai. God that was horrendous.

If this had been a playoff game, I would be happy with "survive and advance". But it was an ugly win and the bad officiating really tainted things.

I have to give credit to Randy Moss, who deserved the game ball. Once the Pats figured out in the 4th quarter to stop messing around and to go with their best weapon, they started moving the ball more efficiently. There was nobody on the Colts who could cover Moss, so the simple plan was the better one.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

propaganda in American TV

So, I've got an episode of NCIS on in the background, and I realize that the plot centers around something quite bizarre. Apparently there are Iranian secret service agents trying to buy weapons in the United States and are willing to commit murder to do so.

Wow. Just wow.

This is what passes for plausible plotting at CBS these days. I'm not going to bother to explain what's wrong with this.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

p_min

In discussing the "fine-tuned universe" argument at PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, I tackle the usual fallacy regarding unlikelihood. In many arguments advanced by so-called Intelligent Design theorists, it is argued that the very low likelihood of some physical state forces the observer to concede the point that design has been involved.

Indeed, this argument-by-unlikelihood is the foundation of intelligent design.

It's crap. This is what I say
(original typos included for posterity's sake)

As a final note, this "fine-tuning" argument, like many arguments involving probability advanced by IDers, (not that I'm accusing steve of being one) is based on the implicit notion that events that are highly improbable could not possibly have happened by chance.

Whenever this kind of argument occurs, I have to ask: just what is the minimum p value for which something with probability p can happen by chance? People who make these kinds of arguments misunderstand the relationship of probability and statistics with science. All that probability and statistics can do is assign relative value to competing, well-form scientific hypotheses. Statistics alone cannot be used as a justification for an argument or theory. Even if somebody were to say "the probability of the universal constants being exactly what they are is 10^-425665327" I would say: "so what?" Setting aside for the moment the dubious premise that this probability can be well-defined and meaningful, it still doesn't mean a damned thing to describe the probability of an event when we already know that the event has happened.

Since we know the event has happened, and we know that there is no lower bound p_min which forms the mathematical boundary of chance, telling me that p[X] is really, really low for some event X for an event X that I observe does not imply, by itself, that the event X did not happen by chance.

As a demonstration of this principle: get a bag full of, say, 100 20-sided dice. Roll them in order, noting the number rolled on each. Whatever result you get, the odds of it having happened by chance is 20^-100. And that's a really, really small number! And yet, to all apperances, that result just happened by chance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

good morning!

Somebody planted a camera in my bedroom!



Hat tip to Grrlscientist at ScienceBlogs.

Buffy is very much like this in mornings, though she is more likely to simply be loud and attack me with headbutts than to resort to more drastic measures.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

where oh where is my camera?

OK, so when I moved out of Harrow in August, I packed everything up and hit the road. I am certain that I had the camera before packing up, and I am nearly certain I packed it somewhere.

I thought it was in my suitcase or backpack that I was bringing to the States, but when I got to the US, it wasn't there. Then I thought "well, I must have left it in the bag in the office or in my desk", since I had stored some things there to pick up in September when I was to pick up the cats. So I wasn't too worried, until I got to London in September, and the camera was not in the office.

At this point, I'm wondering if it was posssible that I left it in the flat when I left. But I really don't think I did. I was throwing everything of value in bags, and leaving the camera out? Doesn't seem possible.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm fairly certain I threw the camera in the suitcase that was going with me to the States.

So now my theory is that it was stolen from my suitcase. But maybe it was stolen from the office?

Or maybe I was absent-minded and left it on the Tube? Nah - I never carried the camera around outside of the backpack.

So, if anybody has seen my camera, let me know. It's fairly obsolete as digital cameras go, seeing as it was made in 2000 and features a whopping 2.3 megapixels! I am pretty sure I could get a more powerful camera these days for $100 or possibly less.

I would include a photo of the camera, so you would be able to recognize it, but curiously, I do not have a photo of my camera.

(Yes, that last little bit was my entire motivation for this boring post.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

taxi to the dark side

Rather than watch the Cold Case marathon on France 1 or 2, I decided to watch a documentary on Arte TV, a French-German network. It's a documentary by Alex Gibney discussing the torture policy implemented at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo.

I don't want to say much about it because it's so depressing. But one thing that has struck me is how the "techniques" involved simply amounted to rationalized sadism. A person who has resisted interrogation for 8 months is not going to suddenly "crack" because the sadistic, perverse side of the interrogators has been given free reign.

And that doesn't address the question of just what kind of information can be obtained from a person who has already been detained for 8 months. Surely we're well beyond any "ticking time bomb" scenario at that time. Indeed, given the disconnect between the prisoner and Al Qaeda at that point, it's hard to imagine any valuable operational intel would be unearthed at that point.

OTOH, if you were engaged in the practice of trying to get people to confess to crimes to justify the detainment, I can see the desire to continue pressing with harder and harder techniques. This is, of course, the problem of moving backwards from the conclusion to the evidence. But if there is any common thread to the madness that has consumed a certain part of the US in recent years, it's the tendency to conflate "knowing" with feeling a strong prejudgment.

Oh, and when all is said and done, a good number of the people detained have yet to charged with anything and would presumably be considered innocent. And that leads to the title of the film, which concerns a taxi driver taken, tortured, and killed by American troops.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

goddamn Blogger

first it insists on giving me everything in French, and then it diches my edits to the review I was writing.

*sigh*

Now to finish the review for the THIRD TIME.

(message to be deleted when I'm less annoyed with Blogger)

an antidote to the glorification of crime in cinema

In the distant past, back when the Rat Pack was walking the street, there was made a film called Ocean's Eleven. The film was basically an excuse for Sinatra and his buddies to be in Las Vegas for a few weeks and get paid while they were partying all night. The film is somewhat forgettable, and is only noteworthy today for the remake which was made a few years ago.

In the original Ocean's Eleven, the bad guys lose all the money at the end of the film. That ending was in line with the dominant moral philosophy of the time, which said that crime must not be shown to be lucrative in film. After all, every film must demonstrate the truth of the notion that crime doesn't pay.

The remake with Clooney, Pitt and the gang had a much different ending, as I'm sure everybody reading this knows. Indeed, in recent years films like the Oceans' Eleven series, Entrapment, the Italian Job remake, The Score, etc. Indeed, the fantasy theft caper is a booming genre in Hollywood these days.

So, I decided to see an English-language film in Montpellier, after sitting through Shoot 'Em Up in French a couple weekends past. (Oh, I'm sure I missed the subtleties of that film because of the language barrier!) This evening I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei.

I really liked this film. I recommend it highly to everybody. It is an antidote to the trend of glamorizing crime in films of recent years.

(minor spoilers follow)

This film concerns a robbery planned by a man named Andy, played by Hoffman, and his brother named Hank, played by Hawke. Andy and Hank are both short on cash, so they decide to rob a small jewelry store in a suburban strip mall, a "Mom and Pop" place. The film starts with the robbery, which goes horribly wrong when the robber, who is a third man, is shot by the old woman alone in the store. In retaliation he shoots her back, critically injuring her, before she shoots him again and he flies through the glass door of the store, startling Hank, who has been waiting outside in a car in a curious moustache, wig, hat and glasses disguise. Hank drives off, swearing.

The film is told from three points of view, those of Hank, Andy, and their father, Charles. The magnitude of the fiasco is slowly revealed.

First, we find out that the store was not just any "Mom and Pop" store. It turns out that the Mom and Pop were Charles and his wife, Nannette. The plan was to hit the store when the place was manned by a nearsighted employee, Doris.

Then it's revealed that it wasn't Doris there after all.

As even more secrets become revealed, the fiasco slowly crushes all of the people involved. Decisions that seem initially innocuous ultimately turn out to have drastic implications.

I am a fan of realism in films, and the crime genre has been in need of a jolt of reality to the fantasy fare that audience have been gobbling up in recent years. What this film underscores is that crime is borne of selfishness and hatred, and the path taken can have severe consequences. Thankfully, this film does not fall into the opposite trap common in serial killer films (and much of TV crime), namely viewing life through a "good guys vs. bad guys" filter, where there are a certain number of "crazy" or "evil" people out there just waiting to prey on the weak and innocent. This other genre feeds the police state mentality, while the caper genre feeds the guilt-free capitalist mentality.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Come to papa!

After 16 days, my Barclays' debit card, which my mother mailed via US priority mail from Loo-zee-anna to Paris to try to catch me before I left for Montpellier, has finally arrived chez ma souer.

Go go postal service!

Looks like this guy was in charge:



(And a hello to the new visitor, Jolene!)

Friday, September 21, 2007

In case anybody was wondering

I have very little to say about the baseball situation, other than it was nice to wake up this morning, my fifth morning in Montpellier, and the first when I didn't check the scores to see that the Red Sox lost and the Yankees won.

Of course, neither played yesterday. But I'll take what I can get.

In a very real sense, it hardly matters now whether the Sox win the playoffs or not. The Yankees have so clearly been the better team for the past two months that I really have low expectations for the playoffs. With the best four hitters on the Red Sox all injured and the bullpen running out of steam, it could get ugly.

That will be my only comment for a while, as my German readers don't want to read about baseball.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Talk like a pirate day!

Garrh! Avast ye maties!

Some resources for your pirate inclined.

The homepage, your handy Talk Like a Pirate Day translator, and a YouTube clip featuring everybody's favorite movie pirate!

No, not Captain Jack Sparrow! It's Steve the Pirate!

RIP, Robert Jordan

Sad news.

Lesson for other authors: do not overestimate your ability to stay alive indefinitely, when choosing to add exponentially many characters and plot twists to your fantasy series. In the early 90s, Jordan put out the Wheel of Time books at a pace of about one every year to 18 months. And then the books started getting longer and longer, with more and more (mostly identical) characters, pursuing ever more uninteresting plot lines.

And now the series remains unfinished.

*sigh*

OK, this post is in poor taste. So be it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

going King mode

Too many things...time to go into an incoherent, Larry King-style rant.

- OJ got away with murder, so of course he thinks armed robbery is an easy thing!

- I'm sorry, there just is no moral line between "using your own cameraman to steal signals" and "using the network's cameramen to steal signals". Yes, rules should be followed, but enough of the moral outrage already|

- Buffy is tired of moving. She needs a permanent home.

- All those websites that have decided I speak French? Stop it! (I'm looking at you, Google..)

- Anyway, while the cats were staying at the Finsbury park flat of Dr. J and his red-head, the good doc tested his stealth badger camera in the flat to track cat movement. Some pics will be forthcoming.

- Bush cannot leave office soon enough. I'm tired of the idea that winning a war is done just like any other PR campaign. And the media fall right in line, every time, sucking up to General Petraeus on schedule. Stop it! The war is still a stupid and immoral idea. The fact that a temporary increase in force (and unsustainable increase in force, in fact) can be used to create statistics indicating a decrease in violence (as long as the stats are doctored sufficiently, and the media don't examine the story closely, which of course they won't) does not in any way justify staying in Iraq.

Whether Iraq becomes a peaceful, democratic society or not is not something that further American military presence in Iraq can affect in a positive way. Best idea? Get out. See Vietnam for an example.

I was refreshed to see Alan Greenspan acknowledge the elephant in the room: this war is about oil and always has been. That's always been true. I'm sorry, but it's so obvious that it's hard to stomach the steadfast refusal of mainstream media outlets to address this issue.

Look, oil prices have doubled since the invasion of Iraq. That fact is caused in part by the decrease in oil production from Iraq. It's also caused in part by the fact that the Bush family is essentially a subsidiary of the Saudi royal family.

Not only are oil prices going up, energy company profits are zooming up. Net profits at ExxonMobil, for example, have doubled during the war years. This is a fact that needs to be pointed out in any discussion of the war. Right now regular taxpayers are paying for a war (or, more precisely, funding debt to support a war) in order for Exxon to double their profits.

When discussing the American foreign policy, it's important to keep an eye on the ball. It is not in the interest of the country as a whole to do everything one industry wants it to do, no matter how important that sector of the economy is.

Let's take on these ratfuckers directly.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

update

Have not really had a chance to blog recently. I'm at my sister's place in Paris. Sadly, all of her WiFi neighbors have discovered encryption, which means that I have to take my turn at the PC along with my sister and her husband.

Lots of things to talk about...the incompetence of Bush, the sheer vapidity of the news media, and the Patriots videotaping scandal.

I don't have time for any of this right now, but I should be back online tomorrow.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mission Statement, Part I

I think I will start this with a post-mortem on my academic career.

I don't think I've ever really liked academia. The goals and aspirations of the academic life just do not seem to be as focused as I want. When I ask myself the question "Why am I doing this?" in academia, too often I cannot find a satisfactory answer.

Let's be a bit more practical here. If I wanted to be a successful academic, the route would be
a) publish often
b) achieve grants
c) develop students

My basic problem is that I don't find the things I have been working on to be terribly important. For example, I was working in London on the problem of estimating divergence times within mammals. While that is an interesting problem, my interest in the problem is somewhat limited, in that I don't want to spend years on it. But that is how actual research science progresses.

This raises the question of whether I can repair the career in science by being more focused on what my objectives are. But there is a problem with this attitude. Namely: life is going on and I see lots of things going on that I want to be involved in, and my research career is not bringing me any closer to these goals.

Part II: the goals.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

back in the States

Blogging from the Casa, but the Senor and Senora are not at home, as they are with the Kinder in the great state of Maine.

Tired today because of the flight, and all the moving activity, and the fact that Brian Shelden and I ran hour-long runs at high noon today. Why high noon? Seems a bit silly, no? Well, space was at a premium in the luggage, and I put my #1 running shoes in "luggage going to France" and #2 pair of running shoes in "the bin".

I put "the bin" in quotes to honor this divergence in linguistic traditions. England has rubbish bins. The US has trash cans. We know what the word "bin" means, it's just that we don't use it that often. In contrast, some UK words are not even known in the US.

For example, "moggy". What is a moggy? Well, here's one:

and here's another:

In the former photo, we see Ginger relaxing in my bike helmet box, which is perfectly Ginger-sized.
In the latter photo, we see Buffy conversing with Mr and Mrs Slugworth, two garden-based visitors who had a habit of visiting my kitchen area and making a beeline (well, a slug-line really, which is much slower) to the cat food dish.

In any way, I've left Crown Court behind and Ginger and Buffy are now visiting Finsbury Park. In fact, they have a group at FaceBook dedicated to them. :) I'm crossing my fingers that they will behave well at Paul and Lucy's.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

KG to Celtics, Gagne to Red Sox

OK, this is a move I can get behind, and it validates the trade for Ray Allen somewhat.

Kevin Garnett is still one of the five best players in the NBA and he should be able to maul the light Eastern Conference, esp. with Pierce and Allen on the team. My understanding is that Al Jefferson is a real talent who will be missed. But it is doubtful that he will ever be at Garnett's level. I'm psyched.

Also, the Red Sox grabbed Eric Gagne, who a few years back was the best reliever in baseball by far. He's not at the same level any more, but the key aspect of this trade is to keep him off the Yankees. The Yankees' bullpen is awful except for Mo Rivera, and bringing in Gagne as a set-up guy would have made them very hard to beat late in the game. For the Sox, Gagne, Okajima, and Papelbon makes for quite possibly the best Red Sox bullpen ever.

today's conundrum

If it costs £220 or more to ship three boxes full of books to the US, is it worth doing? For a point of reference, that would be about $450 spent. I could buy a lot of books in the US for $450. Also, I could pick out the 5-6 most valuable books and take them in my backpack.

Too many things to think about.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Been lax this month

Enjoy photos of Brighton from last Fall and Carcassonne from this Spring.

Rumors that Jeff Ladd was finishing a cloister were decisively disproven.



Friday, July 06, 2007

Friday cat blogging

Featuring a pair I saw in Ireland. Apparently cats in Ireland photosynthesize and grow in planters. Who knew?!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hey, Blogger!

OK, this is getting tiresome. Sure I'm in France, but this is an English-language blog. Language choice should be permanent per blog and not vary depending on the IP address of the computer making the connection.

Stupid Republicans

Clearly the Clintons are hypocrites, says the White House. Bush, after all, has only commuted one sentence, while Bill Clinton issued hundreds of pardons!

Quick talking point for people momentarily floored by the 200:1 ratio: NONE OF CLINTON'S PARDONS WAS IN SELF-DEFENSE!

None would even remotely qualify as "obstruction of justice". And yet that's what the Libby commutation is.

The Republicans serve as a good argument for mandatory class mobility. Let's have a restoration of the estate tax, at a higher level. And no more private schools. Public schools for everybody! Then we'll see how good they are.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Ray Allen to Celtics

You know, Ray Allen graduated from UConn before they won their first NCAA championship. Which was in 1999.

Ray Allen was a great player. But he's on the wrong side of 30. What we are seeing here is the phase of a franchise known as "desperately trying to win before the GM is fired".

I sure as hell hope the C's have some play other than "play Ray Allen alongside Paul Pierce". Um, guys? They play the same freakin' position!

Jeff Green is going to be a good pro. And he would have made a better fit for the Cs than Ray Allen will.

I just don't get it.

Well, maybe next year the Cs will win the lottery. They certainly will have plenty of chances to do so. Trading a young, healthy, good player for an over-the-hill shooting guard was pretty much exactly the opposite of "useful". Let's face it: Danny Ainge has no plan here. He has no idea of how he's going to build a winning team, in what order, and which players are going to be the most useful. The Roy-for-Telfair trade of last year's offseason is still hurting the Cs.

Well, at least Ainge is doing his part to bring quality basketball to the Pacific Northwest.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

la belle France

Oh, isn't Blogger clever! I'm in Paris, so all of the messages here are in French! I can modifier le code HTML, sauvegarder maintenant, or publier le message blog!

In France for two weeks, including a jaunt to Montpellier. I plan to finish up in Carcassonne, a city planned in the Middle Ages in anticipation of the tile-based German game that is popular today. I've got the camera but I left my mini-disk drive at home.

So, I will be attaching old photos from France and pretending they are from this trip. It's a chateau named Chambord, one of the many from the Loire valley.

Friday, June 15, 2007

and the semifinal

Not bad, eh?






I suspect he'll win.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paul Potts

He works at the Carphone Warehouse






He was even better in the semifinals. I'm looking forward to his performance in front of the Queen on Sunday.

Monday, June 11, 2007

English words to bring to America

A co-worker asked me which "Englishcisms" I might use in the States. I had thought of some that I cannot quite remember. The only one that came to might was "fancy", in the meaning of "being attracted to a person". But it's a bit more than that: there are numerous women that I think are attractive that I don't really feel drawn to in that way. "Fancy" captures what we used to call "like like" in middle school. As in: "I know you like her, but do you like like here?"

Trying to remember other words...the obvious candidates are out: lorry (truck), jumper (sweater), boot (trunk), trainers (sneakers), maths (math), not to mention all the words with extra 'u's (labour, colour) or which have 's' instead of 'z' (any -ize word like compartmentalize).

But there are a few other Anglicisms that I think are worth using in the States - if only I could remember them.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

a snarky religious post

I usually don't wander into alt.atheism types of arguments, because, to be blunt, I haven't heard a novel argument against atheism is over twenty years. I tend to be of the Dawkins school that views the entire God brouhaha as a way of creating mental blocks in human beings that are used as mini-taboos to block certain patheways of thought. I think, furthermore (and I don't know if this agrees with Dawkins because, um, I've yet to bother to read him) that these tendencies in the human mind probably have had some evolutionary fitness, as people have historically been so predisposed to self-destructive ways that only deep taboos against certain types of behavior have enabled sub-populations to survive. And, as any population geneticist will tell you, a trait that gives even the slightest fitness advantage will rapidly spread throughout the population.

So I tend to think people are hardwired for the possibility of doctrinaire religious thought - though this is hardly a rigorous theory.

In any case, I was pointed by PZ Myers to an excellent article about the semantic differences between the terms "atheist" and "agnostic" by Trevor Burrus. Most of the comments were along the usual lines of thought for atheist, but there was a brave soul who was pushing a doctrinaire Christian line. As an exerise, I decided to tackle his claim. It wanders a bit. Here it goes:


JK Jones:


The laws of logic are universal (absolute, consistent over time from one person to another and one place to another).


Presumably this is true. But we really do not know this to be true. Indeed, as far as I understand modern physics, all of the laws of physics are constrained to only be true when various prerequisites are in place. Or, to put it differently, we can only observe the laws of physics as having existed from a certain point on after the Big Bang.

And those are the laws of physics. While I tend to think that (d(Mathematical Truth)/dt) = 0, it’s not really something that we could ever test.


One example is the law of non-contradiction.


Non-contradiction is an abstraction. It’s not completely clear that it holds for the physical universe, though it certainly appears to.


These universal laws require an explanation.

Uh, why? Where did “require” come from?


A Christian can provided an explanation for the universal laws of logic: an unchanging God upholds them in His being and knowledge.


That’s really not much of an explanation, if I may say so. It just beggars the question about explanation by creating a circular loop. Existence needs explanation, so there must be a God upholding existence. All the questions about the mysteries of existence have merely been shunted off into the blind ally of this “God” fellow. The “God” entity is interesting because no truth claims are made about it and no actual physical existence is postulated about it. Indeed, almost nothing testable about “God” is said at all.

This is not very close to “an explanation” in my book. It’s just a rhetorical trick - a way of stopping arguments. Usually the people who use the God argument block up all sorts of emotional drives with this idea, and can only respond with anger and/or indignation if the area is probed.


You must supply an alternative explanation for the universality of the laws of logic before we can even disagree on any subject.


I think you’re getting way ahead of yourself here. For starters, the “laws of logic” is a field of mathematics. Many people do very good work in this field without ever referring to a Christian God. Why do you think this is the case? Indeed, one of the seminal consequences of 20th century logic was the realization that certain truth claims are independent of well-devised systems of mathematical axioms and their consequences (aka ‘theories’). Indeed, one can describe fairly comprehensible mathematical postulates (e.g. the Continuum Hypothesis) whose truth or falsity is independent of the commonly used axioms of mathematics (aka ’set theory’).

Here is my take on this: people who want to assert something as being true need to first create a framework where the statement can be comprehended, and then they can describe the framework upon which the truth or falsity can be judged. This is a completely different point of departure than what you are doing. From a logical standpoint, you have simply arrogated to yourself your personal theory of comprehensibility (aka ‘the God Hypothesis’) and are now demanding that any competing theory meet your criteria, and, if it doesn’t, your theory must hold the day by default.

Well, that certainly would be a sweet position to have in the world of abstract nonsense, but I haven’t seen anything to grant you such a default position in the universe of hypotheses. To the contrary, I think that, if you want people to believe in your God hypothesis, the heavy lifting is up to you. You are the one making a truth claim about the nature of the universe, after all.


Otherwise, I’ll just continue on with the assumption that logic can only be accounted for by the existence of an unchanging God.


Logic just is. It doesn’t need a God hypothesis to validate its existence, unless one comes to the table making this demand, as you do. Your demand that your God hypothesis be granted equal standing with the “laws of logic” strikes me to be as unjustified as my nutty neighbor’s demand that his sun-worship be given equal status with the “laws of logic”. Neither his Apollonian beliefs nor your Christian beliefs have ever demonstrated any tangible relationship between their truth claims and the “laws of logic”. Indeed, the situation is worse than that, as the “laws of logic” usually make a fair mess of your religious truth claims, when they are applied with vigor.

If the laws of logic do not apply…


Oh, we needn’t worry seriously about that…


…we cannot even have a conversation because no ideas can be communicated.”


So now all communication skills are tied into your pet metaphysical theory. That’s a neat trick!


If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot evaluate ideas and systems of thought for internal consistency. If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot even make generalizations about what we perceive.


(Aside: you are granting more permanence to the “laws of logic” than I think is justified. Indeed, my perspective on the nature of thought suggests to me that logical reasoning is far more complex than would be understood by your epistemology. After all, we know via Godel that any finite mathematical theory will necessarily be incomplete. I suspect that the actual truth content of the abstract nonsense which undergirds the universe is far more rich and complex than is implied by your brutish invocation of the “laws of logic”.)


Rational – “pertaining to or attributable to reason or the power of reasoning”


Sure.


Truth – “conformity of assertions to fact or reality”


Agreed.


Both definitions are from The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary.


Yes, Webster was a good West Hartford boy. I prefer his work to the OED, but that is because of my Yankee upbringing.

I’m waiting for the point where the elevation of the Christian God to a supreme place in metaphysics is in any way related to the various claims about epistemology that you have made. I fear I would have to wait for quite some time.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

brit lit

About two months ago, I decided that I was burning through Terry Pratchett too quickly, and that the stories were starting to blur together. Also, there is a limit to how many times I can watch Rincewind run away in terror and still find it humorous. So I decided to "improve myself" by reading a few classics: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

Brief reviews from my middle-brow perspective.

The Canterbury Tales: a mixed lot of pompous and raucous stories. The stodgy, respectable stories got a bit dull and excessive after a while, while the racy ones were amusing. I found the Wife of Bath to be anti-climactic after years of having heard her built up. But times change, and these days she's wouldn't be considered so rebellious or novel. I enjoyed the overt depictions of corruption in the clergy. Then there's the tale about Griselda, the woman who suffered in silence while her lord and husband hid her children from her for twenty years, pretending that they had been killed. Um, bad role model. Repulsive story.

Basically a mixed bag. A good view on medieval life in England.

Great Expecations: I had seen the modernization of this story with Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert deNiro, so I knew roughly what was going to happen. I also watched the recent Masterpiece Theater version of Bleak House at roughly the same time. My previous expose to Dickens had been restricted to A Christmas Carol, which is just a silly fantasy, and A Tale of Two Cities, which wasn't very compelling to a 14-year old. Let's just say that Great Expectations the book was much better than I was hoping for. I'd thought of Dickens as being just an author of serialized stories about the poor in London in the 19th century, but he does quite a bit more than that. His ability to define all the class distinctions in England is masterful, but he also is very good at drawing characters.

And that brings us to Wuthering Heights. Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to this song was from the Kate Bush song. (Ohmigod this video is priceless! Kate Bush makes Elaine Benes look like a controlled, restrained dancer in comparison.)







I've always loved this song, but I wonder how I would have felt if I'd seen the video a long time ago.

A few years later I saw the film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. That was quite tedious! My first inkling that perhaps Olivier was overrated.

Anyway, the book was reasonably good, and I can see why people like it so much. It's hard for me to do this, but it's important not to view it through a realist's lens. I'm very tempted to dismiss Wuthering Heights as "a lot of emotional misfits get sick and die". Certainly Brontë doesn't show the variety of human experience that Dickens does. But I can also see why this story became iconic for Romantics. There's a lot of stuff going on in this story, even though the writing isn't as polished as it might be.

I was really stunned to read the entire history of the Brontë's. Wow. They all died young - out of a family of six, not one made it to the age of 40!

Muppets at homeland security

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Buffy and Ginger's international fan club

They make an appearance at Fish & Chips! They are looking out the window at any humans passing by. This is what the girls do all day while I work. See for yourself!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Shiver me timbers!

Saw Pirates 3 today. It was much better than Spidey 3. Key to this is the fact that Priates 3 actually had an interesting plot, and developed some characters who had been neglected somewhat in Pirates 1 and 2. Both K^2 and Orlando Bloom had a lot more to work with in this film than in either of the first two films, and in the case of Bloom, he had a lot more to work with. K^2 got to walk away a bit from her Good Girl image that was central to her character in Pirates 1 (but not so far away as to offend the public and kill the box office).

There were also a couple surprising plot twists, which is very rare in the tentpole/blockbuster genre. Not a film that I'll see again on the big screen, but on the whole a worthy addition to the trilogy. Indeed, I would say that the Pirates trilogy has maintained a decent quality level, a feat missed by most trilogies (Godfather, Star Wars (each trilogy considered separately), X-Men, Spidey, Lord of the Rings). Where Godfather II has always been the standard for the best sequel ever, I think Pirates, though not quite at the same level in any of the films, should show the way to how film quality can be sustained.

(About LotR: I really found the third movie to be cutesy and tedious. There was a steady decline in quality from the first to the third film, and that's too bad. If Peter Jackson had held his excesses in check a bit more, the entire trilogy could have been a masterpiece. As it was, I had to cringe at the ridiculous fight scenes in Return of the King, and then endure about five different moments where I said "the film could end now. Yes, part of the latter problem was because of Tolkien's writing, which also peaked in the first book. But a good director would have cut out the trip back to the Shire.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hammerhead parthenogenesis

So, it turns out that a hammerhead shark had a virgin birth in Nebraska via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction).

Reminds me of the Shriekback album Oil and Gold, which featured two songs: Hammerheads and Nemesis (which featured a line about parthenogenesis).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

I'm boycotting this movie because I hate intentional misspelling.

Oh, and Spidey 3 is mediocre. Boring!

Vonnegut

I've been thinking about what I wanted to say about the passing of KV, Jr. There are a lot of things that could be said. For starters, he wasn't considered a "great writer" like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow or James Joyce or one of those guys English department grad students get all excited about. But I've never gotten excited by that kind kind of writer.

I think "accessibility" is a key feature of a writer, and that's a trait that Vonnegut has to a much greater extent than the above-named wrtiers (esp. Joyce). But what really set Vonnegut apart was the sheer quality of his ideas. Ice-9 was, for example, a tremendous concept. A lot of writers seem to write books and books and books without ever saying anything interesting. Then there's the kind of gifted writer who blazes onto the scene with a compelling style, but never learns a damned thing about life worth passing on to the next generation. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Salinger.)

The first Vonnegut story I read was Galapagos. I noticed several interesting things. For starters, the narrator had the habit of putting asterisks next to characters when they were about to die. This way the death wouldn't come as a shock to the reader. It also dealt with evolution to some extent, but the great theme of Vonnegut was just how freakin' stupid the human species is. Somethings this theme collapsed into bleakness, but more often it validated its existence with a vicious streak of humor.

Hi ho!

After reading Galapagos I devoured most of Vonnegut's writing during high school. Of course I read Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Mother Night and God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater; and in addition some of his lesser works: Bluebeard, Welcome to the Monkey House, Player Piano, Slapstick, Deadeye Dick, etc. I basically read everything except The Sirens of Titan. I still haven't read that book, for somewhat complicated reasons. But I'll get to it eventually.

The course of my intellectual development from the age of 14 to 18 is not something I can retrace so clearly. When I was 14, I was a practicing Catholic. I was even confirmed. By the time I was 18, I was an atheist, and even going to Georgetown University did little to rekindle any religious devotion.

I think Vonnegut was one of the key writers during this period. I got into the French existentialists a little bit, mainly Camus and Sartre. Other irreverent writers I liked included Joseph Heller, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, though for most of them I only read one or two works. (I tried reading other Heller books but didn't find them anywhere near the level of Catch 22.) With Vonnegut I read everything.

For a while I was a Deist - thinking that the workings of the universe were likely directed by a supreme being who stayed out of it. But as I've gotten older, I've come to view that attitude more as human projection. I do believe in the existence of order to the universe, but I think the variation between complexity and simplicity tends to defy our tiny little minds.

For a long time, I was really caught up with the epistemological questions of how people know anything. The certainty of mathematics is its greatest appeal to me: somehow, when one asserts a mathematical truth that has been properly verified, the proposition simply is true. It's not a matter of perspective, or interpretation. It simply is true. And I don't know of any field other than mathematics that has such a firm grip on truth value. Back in the days of ancient Greece, philosophers like Aristotle were considered equally valuable to Euclid and Pythagoras. But these days, Aristotle is considered laughable when he ventures into discussing the natural world, while the proofs of Euclid are just as valid today as they were 2500 years ago.

Vonnegut's writings were packed with this irreverence, which contrasts nicely with the overbearing assertiveness typical of arrogant American culture. Indeed, after leaving the Catholic Church and its reckless attitude towards making truth claims, I found it very hard to believe in anything. Lost myself in mathematics for a decade there, but that was to a great extent simply Avoiding the Question (in addition to a burgeoning contempt for our species that was reinforced at many occassions.) I only had a breakthrough in my early 30s when a friend who is in physics explained to me that absolutely every scientific proposition is always subject to review. Nothing is considered to be "true" in science in the same fashion as it is in mathematics.

I'm starting to get a grip on empiricism and natural philosophy. That means I'm catching up to 18th century science! Yay!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Othello was a dumb ass

Trying to think about the posts that I owe this blog.
1) Homage to Vonnegut
2) Mission statement
3) Discussion of Chaucer and Dickens

So I'll launch into a discussion of Othello, which I saw at the Globe (in Southwark) with my sister on Saturday. As viewing experiences go, seeing a play at the Globe is, um, authentic. That means that acoustics are crap, various players are hidden behind pillars, and the play takes way too long.

I'll have to give Othello another try at some point. Maybe I'll rent the Branagh/Fishburne collaboration. Because the performance we saw was not terribly compelling. We got tired by intermission (esp. a problem given B's chronic fatigue) and took off. So we missed out on all the stabbing and strangulation.

Here's my basic problem with Othello: I really don't care about the main character at all. A tragedy is supposed to involve a fall from an exalted position. But I don't see anything about Othello that is supposed to inspire me. And the defense of his crime is pathetic. "Well, I guess if my wife doesn't have her handkerchief, that must mean she's cheating on me, so I'll strangle her." And all of this in the first week of the marriage, and the day after they finally sleep together for the first time!

To say Othello has trust issues is an understatement.

I think I would have enjoyed the play a bit more if Iago hadn't always been facing directly away from me, speaking to the audience on the other side of the circle. Again, I'll have to see how Branagh plays this role. I suspect Iago is a more interesting character than Othello in any case, even when the play is done properly.

Some background here: Papa Whispers is an Oxfordian, which means he's of the school of thought that the plays in the Folio authored by "William Shakespeare" were really written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. It is a matter of historical record that de Vere was associated with the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the same company that hired Shak(e)speare (of Stratford-upon-Avon) as an actor. I could see the case arguing that the man called Shak(e)speare was a bit socially limited to have written all the courtly behavior in the plays. I tend to buy the argument that there's something very fishy about the authorship question here, but don't know if Oxford is the right answer. In any case, Edward de Vere had some notable episodes of jealousy involving his wife. This kind of jealous is something that appears in many of the plays of Shakespeare, and it is most obvious in Othello. According to the bio of de Vere, Othello was one of the earlier of Shakespeare's works. That shows in the simplicity of the play. Unlike his more celebrated plays, there are no subplots, competing supporting characters, or subtle themes circumscribing the story. Indeed, it's the simplest of Shakespeare's that I've seen. It is definitely a notch below what I consider to be the masterpieces of Shakespearian tragedy: Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet (with a nod to King Lear).

(Aside: regardless who the author of the plays was, I think it has to be conceded that their appears in an omnibus publication, after the death of Shak(e)speare, has to be viewed in a suspicious light. I think it's entirely possible that the plays were written jointly by several authors, a la the Bourbaki series in French mathematics. Or Shakespeare could be a pen name like Mark Twain or O. Henry.)

But, back to my main point. Othello was a tool. I don't care if he invented Reversi, the man was a tool.

I may go to another play at the Globe - at only £5 for the standing area it's not a bad deal. But I think if I do, I'll read the play beforehand, or possibly just print out a copy to bring with me.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

politicization of DoJ

A quick hit:

back in 2000, I repeatedly ran into Bush supporters who argued with a straight face that there was nothing wrong with what Katherine Harris was doing in Florida. After all, she had won the election to be the Secretary of State, so she had the power to do what she wished, even if that meant putting all of her energies into making sure George W. Bush was elected.

This argument was advanced in all sincerity! When I tried to argue that she was supposed to serve the interests of the citizens of Florida and maintain fair elections, that criticism was laughed away as being hopelessly naive. "The Democrats would do the same thing" I was told, and numerous people made vague references to JFK's triumph in 1960 as if that were the only proof they needed.

I guess they skipped the "Two wrongs don't make a right" part of ethics instruction.

Anyway, what is going on now at DoJ is directly analogous to what Harris did in Florida in 2000. Harris then, and Gonzales now, have been using the power of the state to directly advance the interests of the Republican party instead of the interests of justice. At DoJ, this is most dramatically seen with the various USAs who were fired either for refusing to investigate Democrats or for having the gall to investigate Republicans. But a lot more of this kind of "party first!" thinking has been going on.

What's my point? Anybody who is surprised at all the scandals that have arisen with Bush wasn't really paying attention during the Florida recount, when it become perfectly clear that Bush had no respect for the rule of law and was utterly focused solely on advancing his own interests at every step. As usual with this kind of thing, Republican projection launched the identical complaint at Al Gore, and the GOP-friendly media lapped it up.

*sigh*

I think it's naive to assume this problem will go away once W. and his family move to extradition-safe Paraguay after he leaves office.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Britain is wacky

Prince William broke up with his girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Given that he's only 22, that really isn't so strange.

What I find strange is that this is the lead story on BBC news. They are spending about 10 minutes discussing the fact that two people in their early 20s are no longer a couple.

It beat the war news.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut's death

Well, the man has shoken loose his mortal coil and left us. Or, as PZ says,
Kurt is up in heaven now.


(It's really quite funny if you're a freethinker.)

I have a lot to say about Vonnegut but won't get around to it until the weekend. Short version: he's the most important author I've ever read. His prose wasn't as pretty as Shakespeare's, but his understanding of the world far outpaced the Bard's.

And that's what I'm talking about.

Monday, April 09, 2007

500 miles by the Proclaimers

So why is this on the charts again???

Uh - Sopranos is on. Gotta run.

Meet me in Montauk

So Channel 4 has Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on this Easter Monday. As I said in my previous post, ESSM is one of my favorite SF films, though it's kind of a mix of a love story with an intriguing SF premise. I really think it's the most compelling psychological film I've ever seen. But Charlie Kaufmann has a gift at finding a way of viewing life from a completely different angle.

The "science" in ESSM is simply a plot contrivance, nothing more. Furthermore, it's completely unrealistic from a scientific point-of-view. So I suppose it's not really science fiction. But it's still a great flick.

I'm particularly fond of the bit where they visit the frozen Charles River. It really takes me back to being a kid in Massachusetts, back when winters actually got cold.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sunshine is the best SF film I've seen in a very long time

Sunshine opened in the UK this week. (It won't open in the US until September, which means that I'll be able to see its opening weekend twice.)

Sunshine is the entry by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland to the science fiction genre. Well, that depends a bit on how one views 28 Days Later, which was a bit of a SF zombie flick. But where the science in 28 Days Later could be viewed as just a plot device, in Sunshine, the science is central to the plot and, for the most part, fairly realistic.

A brief plot summary: it's 50 years in the future and the sun is dying. (How does this happen so suddenly? Who knows? I don't care. More on that in a bit.) The 8-person crew of the Icarus II is on the way to the sun to deliver a payload of fissionable material - some kind of mini-Big Bang to serve as a "jump" to the sun. Why Icarus II? Well, seven years earlier the Icarus flew to the sun to perform the same mission, but after it went out of communication range, it was not heard from again.

The film starts with the Icarus II moving past the point of no communication. The plot device here is that the "solar wind" is too strong to allow communications inside a certain radius from the sun. Is that true or not? Who knows. I think it would have been a bit better to say "solar flares" instead of "solar wind", but I'm happy to take this explanation. Next, the ship passes Mercury, and thanks to the iron in the planet, they pick up a distress signal from the Icarus, which is a bit off their planned course just a bit inside the troposphere.

This leads to a discussion amongst the crew. Is it possible that the crew of the Icarus is still alive? Well, both ships have large nurseries, so oxygen shouldn't be a problem. But there would not be enough food for eight people to live more than three years. Of course that begs the question: what if there were fewer than eight?

The navigator, Trey, has worked out an alternate course to their planned course, that will lead to a potential rendezvous with Icarus. Mace, an engineer, objects vociferiously to any deviation from the plan, but the psychologist/physician Searle suggests that there would be a valid reason to visit the Icarus. If the Icarus has a usable payload, that would be a good justification for the detour. There is no possibility of a third Icarus mission, so they have to succeed, or the sun will fade out and the Earth will freeze.

Mace suggests a vote, but Searle points out the mission is not a democracy. The best thing to do would be to come to an informed decision. Ultimately, the decision is up to the captain, who hands it off to the ship's physicist, Capa, who is in charge of making sure the explosion works properly.

After considerable reflection, Capa advises they make the detour. That turns out to be the wrong decision. The problems start at a minor level: Trey, who is so obsessed with the navigational calculations, does not instruct the computer to rotate the anti-solar shields when the course is changing. The computer fixes the problem quickly, but not before there is considerable damage, and a need for a space walk to see how much damage there is. At this point I'll stop summarizing the film, except to say that one mistake leads to a decision that leads to more problems, more bad decisions, and a general breakdown of the mission.

Why do I like Sunshine so much? This film does a fantastic job keeping the potential and limits of science in perspective. I'm particularly interested in the decision-making regarding the detour. My philosophy tends to be that science should be used to inform decision-making, and that good science analyzes any question from all possibe angles. The decision Capa has to make puts this decision-making process in perspective. Where Capa wants data, he has none. Which is more likely - that the detour will create problems, or that without a detour, the mission would fail because they only have one shot? No kind of analytical reasoning can answer this question. Life is only lived once, and the consequences of decisions can often happen much faster than analysis can.

Sunshine also breaks ground with regard to considering questions that had not really been considered. Recent SF films tend to be of a few types: there are the combat films that simply use SF to locate the film: Starship Troopers, Aliens, the Terminator films, the Matrix films, and legions of others. There are the space operas like the Star Wars films and Star Trek films, which are only minimally SF. A recent sub-genre that I enjoy a lot are the Philip K. Dick films that basically screw around with perceptions of reality. Blade Runner is the best of these, but it wasn't really allowed to be as good as it could be, as it ended up falling into a combat movie. Vanilla Sky and Minority Report are also both excellent films, but both suffer a bit because they star Tom freakin' Cruise! Then there are the AI/Robot movies, like Spielberg's AI and I, Robot with Will Smith. These end up reverting to tired cliches about the difference between being human and non-human.

I tend to prefer 10-minutes into the future movies, that don't try to change all that much, but use a little twist to create a different type of story. Children of Men is a good example of this type of film, 28 Days Later is another, and Solaris is another. Solaris is a tremendous story, and I applaud George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh for making an American remake (I've yet to see the Russian version). But Solaris is essentially a love story and the science ends up being secondary.

I do wish somebody would make films of other Lem stories. In particular, I think Fiasco would be a great candidate to be filmed.

Sunshine doesn't use many common SF cliches that kill stories. The worst of these is time travel. I stopped watching the Star Trek series when they started using time travel three times a season (or more!) Very few films do time travel well: Twelve Monkeys did a great job, and so did Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, although the latter film was a comedy. I also don't care about clones or androids, and virtual reality has been pretty much beaten to death. Look - creating a fake reality within a fake reality is really not so much of a trick. Not only can you nest fake realities, you can reverse the order of the fakeness, so character in reality X dreams that he's in reality Y dreaming that he's in reality X. You can do all of that because all of the realities are fake! None of this nesting (see Existenz for example) is even moderately interesting!

Sunshine does cut a few technical corners to keep the story going. I'm completely fine with that. I don't want SF to be "real life". I'm not looking for "real life" in fiction. I think the biggest corner cut is the artificial gravity on the ship. Artificial gravity is essentially a scientific impossibility. 2001 avoided this pitfall by having a rotating ship, but most space films simply use "artificial gravity" since, well, they are filmed on Earth, and it's too much of a pain to get rid of gravity. :)

The other main corner cut is the premise that the sun is dying. I'm more than happy with this premise. Indeed, I think one of the purposes of SF is to take possibly unrealistic premises and to run with them. Thus it is an excellent feature of Children of Men that the entire human population of the planet has gone sterile. The value here is that SF explores a completely different region of psychological space than our daily lives.

The theme that Sunshine uses is the end of history. It's true that this has been a fairly common theme in recent years, including films like Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Core (ugh!), The Day After Tomorrow (ugh! ugh!), among others. Somehow, though, Sunshine avoids becoming a cliche. Why is that? I think part of it is that the crew becomes quite conscious of the fact that not only are they are carrying the fate of humanity on their shoulders, but there is a very good chance that, even if they should succeed, none of them will make it back alive. Sunshine carries out this level of psychology a lot better than, say, Armageddon does.

To this end, a lot of the second half of Sunshine feels like a metaphor for life itself. Faced with the awesome tasks and destiny ahead of them, how do the crew react? Some act heroically, and some fall apart. Some become willing to make sacrifices, some don't, and then there are even different kinds of situations.

There is some criticism of the film's last half hour, and I think it's a bit justified. But I would just say that the film dropped only from being fantastic, as it was for the first hour or so, to being merely very good. But on the whole the film is excellent.

2001 has long been considered the standard for SF films, especially in the space travel genre. I think this is a great film, but I've long thought it a bit overrated, and its ending is particularly weak. What are my other favorite SF films? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of them. Alien (the first one) is great, though it's really just a horror film set in space. I also enjoyed Pitch Black and 28 Days Later a lot, but they were both just horror films in new settings.

One film I was reminded of a lot was Mission to Mars. There is a similarity to the two films: both have missions going into space to follow original missions that have curiously failed. Of course the stakes with Sunshine are much higher. Mission suffers, though, from a horrible Deus ex Machina ending. Deux ex Machina is exactly what I don't want in a SF film.

So, to sum up, Sunshine delivers the goods. I'll have to reflect on this a bit, but my first feeling is that it's the best pure SF film since 2001. It has good science, kept in perspective, and realistic human characters who just happen to all be scientists. It touches upon deep questions about human nature and our position in history, and does so (mostly) intelligently. It has a small flaw that I don't want to give away, but on the whole it is excellent.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

not posting much

Will get to posting something new soon. Had a nice hike today in Hertfordshire. It was more of a hike a mile/stop at a pub/hike a mile/stop at a pub experience.

Lovely day.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Foxy!

Harrow-on-the-Hill's own foxy fox is outside barking at the moon, or whatever he's barking at. He's been walking around the building for about a half hour making noise. Ginger and Buffy don't seem to care at all. I thought they might be spooked, but they could not care less.




Anyway, here's a photo. You might have to squint hard to see him - he was out of range of the flash and I didn't want to spook him.





Oh - here he is again, with a bit of help from Photoshop...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

RIP, DJ

Way too young to go. DJ was a great defender an a great true point guard. Can't believe he's gone at the age of 52. I expect there will be plenty of praise for the man over the next week, so I'll spare any readers, most of whom probably are not terribly interested in basketball or the Celtics. I assume that DJ will make the Hall of Fame, and he should get in this year, I hope. Not only did he win two championships starting for the Celtics, he always was the Finals MVP when he won a title with Seattle in 1979. I should think that's enough.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Babel

So I saw it on Friday. For the first hour or so I was really quite excited and impressed. Alejandro González Iñárritu does a great job expressing complicated situations with realism and honesty that is quite impressive in its accuracy. Babel is the first film I can think of set in Arab North Africa, and is, along with Syrianna, one of the few films to present a realisitic view of what life is like for Arabs.

If you want to watch the film without spoilers, you might want to stop here.

The film opens in Morocco, though it could as well be Egypt or another Arab land. A goat herder buys a rifle from a neighbor and gives it to his two young sons, telling them that they need to shoot the jackals who have been harrassing the herd. The boys, being immature and irresponsible, start shooting the rifle out of boredom. The older of the two complains that it doesn't have the range that it is supposed to, so the younger, who is a better shot, starts targeting vehicles on the road overlooked by the hills where their herd is grazing.

No, this can't end well. This story line leads to the second story line, featuring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt as an American couple taking a vacation to "be alone" to try to resolve some marital issues that become clear. After an opening scene involving an argument (or a non-argument, depending on your perspective), they are riding in a bus, with Cate at the window, when a bullet flies in and seriously wounds her in the shoulder. This leads to a panicky situation as the tourists try to find medical care more than an hour's drive from the nearest hospital. With the help of a local, they pull off the road to a small village where a doctor may help.

A third story line features a teenager in Tokyo. I've taken two trips to Tokyo and also found the Tokyo sequences to be very well done. Rinko Kikuchi plays a deaf girl, Chieko, who is fighting serious psychological issues with her father and with puberty that also include her mother's recent death. Her psychological troubles manifest themself in exhibitionism.

A fourth story line concerns two children, a boy and a girl, at home in California, who are waiting for their parents to return from vacation. (Small surprise: the parents are Blanchett and Pitt - no kidding!) The cleaning woman Amelia, played by Adrianna Barazza, tries to find a sitter for the kids so she can go to her son's marriage in Mexico. When she cannot find anybody her solution is to bring the kids with her!

For the early part of the film, the drama is building in the Moroccan sequences, and starting to bud in Tokyo, while the Mexican sequence grows more slowly. This leads to my main complaint with the film: the pacing is off. A half hour of watching Blanchett fight the bullet wound is interesting. It drags on the length of the film so by the time the situation is resolved, I'm just sitting there thinking "Get done with this already, I stopped caring an hour ago." There is a finite amount of drama involved here, and it's stretched too thin.

I never quite cared enough about the two Moroccan boys. One of my peeves with films is when they have children do incredibly stupid things. The implication is that children are somehow too stupid or immature to know better. And yet I remember being a child, and at no point in my childhood did the idea "Hey, let's shoot this rifle at a bus!" be at all in the list of Things I Might Do. I understood why the kids did what they did, but I didn't really feel any empathy for them. The story might have been better if they had simply been terrorists.

As for the Mexican storyline, it became quickly clear that Something Bad would happen as a result of Amelia's decision to bring the kids to her son's wedding. Her driver is her nephew Santiago, who insists that he's not drunk and can drive them back to San Diego even though it's nearly dawn. It's bad enough that he's driving tired and half-drunk, but then he starts to get into ego conflicts with the border guards. Much silliness ensues.

At this point I lost patience with the film. I was expecting a bit more from this film than Mouthing Off at Authority Figure. It's not that I doubt that the resulting situation could happen, but it's more that I figure that Amelia deserves the mess she gets into. The kids don't, but that's not the point.

The Japanese story is not quite as disappointing. In fact, it nearly redeems the film by itself. But on the whole, I thought the film was going to be about something, and it turns out to simply be a recitation of a number of possible events, with little compelling interest to the story to justify its length at 142 minutes. What is happening? The film is so realistic as to lose any impact. I know people make horrible mistakes, and sometimes other people pay the price for their mistakes. Is that all this film has to offer? With the title of the film, I thought it would explore in greater depth the issues of communication and language and cultural barriers. But after a promising start along those lines, it just stopped developing that theme.

At this point, I wouldn't want Babel to win Best Picture at the Oscars, though I think it's the frontrunner. The other contenders are The Queen, which couldn't hold my attention on a transAtlantic flight (a bad sign), The Departed, which I liked a lot but suffered a bit on reflection, and Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine, neither of which I've seen and neither of which I think will win. I think it's down to The Departed or Babel.

I think I liked Volver, Children of Men, and Little Children more than Babel. I don't quite understand why Volver is not nominated for Best Non-English Film. Well, I do understand that apparently politics plays a role. In spite of having made a number of tremendous films, Almodovar never gets nominated by the Spanish film society to represent Spain at the Oscars, so he never gets his films nominated at all. He did win a writing Oscar for Talk to Her.

Hmm...Oscars are this weekend and I think I will try to see at least one more contender before the awards are announced.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm also Spartacus!

Spartacus! Spartacus!




Shakespeare’s Sister has announced that she is bowing out of the Edwards campaign.

I'm joining in with the legions of bloggers who are upset with the right-wing lunatics who undermine civilized debate at every turn. We are showing our solidarity with Melissa by supporting her blog.



Monday, February 12, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Babel didn't have any convenient starting times, so I saw The Last King of Scotland instead. Curiously, it seems that the only major award it is nominated for is Best Actor (Forest Whitaker), but on the other hand, he's been winning this award a lot - at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and various Critics' groups.

Forest Whitaker was great, and James McAvoy was great as the Scottish doctor/fly on the wall. His character is not only entirely fictional, but he's a bit unrealistic in terms of what he gets himself into. But of course without his recklessness, there would be no story here.

Whitaker is nearly perfect as Idi Amin. I doubt I could see another performance this year that equals it. Also, it's been common in recent years for actors to be rewarded for real-life characters - Truman Capote and Ray Charles in the last two years. I think Whitaker does a better job than either. The role is perfect for his abilities and takes a good advantage of his race and physical stature. I had long thought of Whitaker as a talented supporting actor, and first glimpsed the depth of his talent in The Crying Game. It seems weird that it's taken this long for him to find the right role. Ultimately I think he has loads more talent than Jamie Foxx, and I would even go so far as to say he has a smidgen more talent than Denzel Washington. That would put him up near Samuel L. Jackson at the top of the list of African-American actors today. Jackson, of course, remains unrecognized by Oscar in spite of brilliant performances in Jungle Fever and Pulp Fiction.

But I digress.

Whitaker conveys the combination of charm, paranoia, insecurity and rage that was Idi Amin. He captures all of them brilliantly, and gives us an idea of the kind of pathology that it takes to be a sadistic dictator. We see this personality rise to the top far too often in life, unfortunately.

A final thought: Gillian Anderson completely disappeared in this film. I realize she doesn't have natural red hair, but somehow she came and went without me recognizing that it was her. Not that she wasn't noticeable - I thought the address playing Sarah Merrit did a great job, I just didn't realize it was her. So I guess she's not typecast anymore. :)

Duke unranked!

They've dropped out of the hoop rankings.

Of course, UConn is in much worse shape. Right now they're the bottom seed (#12) for the Big East tournament, which would pretty much rule out the NCAAs.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

film season

Watching the BAFTAs, thinking on all the movies that I want to see soon. Tried to see Blood Diamond tonight, but it was sold out. And that's not on the top of the list.
Let's see...

Babel
The Last King of Scotland
Blood Diamond
Pan's Labyrinth
Dreamgirls

less important - on the DVD queue
Little Miss Sunshine
The Devil Wears Prada
The Queen
Venus
Notes on a Scandal
The Pursuit of Happyness

I think I'll see Babel tomorrow.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

do what to do what to do what to do?

OK, so we're back on target, just like the X-wing pilots at the Death Star.

Topic of the day: work.

Work bores me. I need new work. I need work that is sexier. Need to reach the masses of the world and shine my enlightenment on them.

Or something like that.

The key here is The Mission.

What is The Mission? Well, we'll be coming to that in the next few weeks. It is easier for me to say what the mission is not than what it is. But I think I'm going to have to lay out a Mission Statement , Jerry Maguire-style, to get the engine running a bit.

Friday, February 02, 2007

and as for the cats...


They can stay in the flat through July. Just got word today.

Super Bowl in London

Party at the Walkabout.

I'm in.

There's nothing more American than seeing the Super Bowl at an Australian-themed bar in London, is there?

the Star Wars holiday Special

Oh.
My.
God.






and that's just the start.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Super Bowl week basketball thoughts

I wish the game were over already. It's bad enough that the Pats aren't in it, but the Colts? Ugh.

So, since I've been focused on footbal for the past five months, and ignoring other sports, I thought I'd take a look at my basketball teams to see how they are doing.

Ugh.

UConn has several "promising" players, but they have been losing quite a lot recently. Also, I don't really have much of a tie to Connecticut anymore since Mom moved to NOLA. I doubt my UConn allegiance will last forever. If/when Calhoun retires, what ties me to the school?

My "other" college team is Georgetown, and they're doing a bit better under JTIII, but I haven't followed them enough to know if they can make a Final Four run. I'm doubting it.

And then there are the Celtics. I looked at the standings and saw that not only have they lost their last ten games, but the only team in the NBA with a worse record is Memphis. And their top three scorers are all injured! Greg Oden sweepstakes, here we come! But as any long-suffering Celtics' fan will tell you, playing for the lottery sweepstakes is a bad idea. Even the worst team has relatively slim odds of getting the #1 pick. Back in the Duncan year, when the C's had two picks in the lottery and the highest odds of winning the Duncan rights, their odds were only about 30%. Now a lot of innumerates will say "they had the highest odds of winning, so it's surprising they didn't win". But, um, duh, they had a 70% chance of not winning the top pick! (And then, when they lost that shot, their odds of getting the #2 pick were actually lower, since the Grizzlies at the time were prevented by the rules from getting the #1 pick but were allowed to get the #2 pick.)

Anyway, the C's suck right now. I don't think they'll ever put together an exciting team under Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers. Of course the standard for the Celtics is "NBA finals at least".


Update: correction - the Celtics have now lost 13 in a row. Oh, and Paul Pierce was supposed to be out for "2 or 3 weeks" starting from some date in mid-December. Why, again, is Sebastian Telfair on this team?