Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Oscar Nominations

This year's Oscar nominations have been announced. You can find the list here.

Here are some fearless predictions of the winners (not who I think should win):

Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain (it's all about the gay cowboys); I haven't seen this movie and have no desire to, but I'll go with the favorite on this one. I have been meaning to see Capote, but the times I've been free to see a movie, I haven't been in the mood to see it.

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote; not having seen the film, I can only rely on what I've heard.

Best Actress: Reeese Witherspoon for Walk the Line; why in Hell is Keira Knightley being nominated for Pride & Prejucide. I liked the film and think she's a good actress, but Elizabeth Bennett is not supposed to giggle in her pillow! She's supposed to be analytical and calculating. I heard that Transamerica is a really good film. I should see that.

Best Supporting Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain; because he definitely won't win for Jarhead or Proof.

Best Supporting Actress: Frances McDormand for The North Country; I'm picking her as a tribute to her work in Fargo (for which she won Best Actress), you betcha!

Best Director: George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck. (I almost chose Bennet Miller for Capote based on what I've heard, but I'm going with my gut and will just mention that as an honorable mention.)

Best Original Screenplay: Noah Baumbach for The Squid and the Whale.

Best Adopted Screenplay: Dan Futterman for Capote.

Best Cinematography: Dion Beebe for Memoirs of a Geisha. (I'm rooting for Batman Begins on this one.)

Best Editing: Michael McCusker for Walk the Line.

Best Art Direction: Memoirs of a Geisha. I actually saw all the films nominated for this category (the first of these on the list). I was tempted to pick King Kong.

Best Costume Design: Pride and Prejudice. Honorable mention for Memoirs of a Geisha. Walk the Line was nominated, but there were a couple things in there that I actually noticed during the movie of seeming anachronistic. Charlie & The Chocolate Factory got nominated here.

Best Music: Memoirs of a Geisha; this is from John Williams, who has again been nominated more than once this year in this category (maybe he'll win for Munich?).

Best Original Song: It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp from Hustle & Flow just because of the name (note the double entendre). Only three songs were nominated (this must be the "Blame Canada" rule or something, although I actually really like that song).

Best Makeup: The Chronicles of Narnia.

Best Sound: Walk the Line. (I've seen all of these movies too.) I guess I shouldn't predict their award based on the music, but I'm going to do it anyway.

Best Sound Editing: War of the Worlds. I really have no idea. The other choices are King Kong and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Best Visual Effects: King Kong.

Best animated film: Howl's Moving Castle; although if the choice were mine, I would pick Corpse Bride.

Best foreign film: Paradise Now; I've never heard of any of these films, so I'm just going to pick this one because it came out of Palestine.

Best documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I still haven't seen this and I really need to. The nephews of one of my collaborators once got nominated in this category for their documentary on blind musician Paul Pena and his visit to Tuva (yes, there are Caltech references throughout the film; I especially loved the native who wore the Caltech sweatshirt and the 'say hello to Feynman for me' comment when they were leaving because apparently everybody from the US knows him, especially when he's been dead for 15 years), but they didn't win. Also, shouldn't The Aristocrats been among the nominees? (I'd also add Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, but that isn't really a documentary.)

Best Short Documentary: God Sleeps in Rwanda.

Best Short Animated Cartoon: Badgered. I haven't heard of any of these, so I'm picking on essentially at random.

Best Short Live Action Film: Six Shooter. Again, I'm pulling one out of my ass because I've never heard of any of these movies.

I'll revisit this after the winners are announced. Let's see how I do.

Caltech sports teams and their losing streaks

Here is a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about the Caltech men's basketball team and its incredibly long losing streak in conference games. (The Cubs don't have anything on us!)

I love the following quote from one of the players (who is correct, by the way): "And when we do [win], as great as it is for us, it's going to be more embarrassing for the team we beat. And all those teams know it."

State of the Union drinking game

Courtesy Arcane Gazebo, here is a link to this year's State of the Union drinking game that some of you may wish to employ tonight. That's probably about the only way to make this whole thing palatable, and Bush's address might be enough to drive a teetotaler like me to drink. (We have driving to drink and then drinking & driving. Go figure.)

The Monkey Police

An article recently came out in Nature about policing in monkeys. It's been receiving press in the media, although I didn't catch anything until today. Here is the abstract for the article:

All organisms interact with their environment, and in doing so shape it, modifying resource availability. Termed niche construction, this process has been studied primarily at the ecological level with an emphasis on the consequences of construction across generations1. We focus on the behavioural process of construction within a single generation, identifying the role a robustness mechanism2—conflict management—has in promoting interactions that build social resource networks or social niches. Using 'knockout' experiments on a large, captive group of pigtailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina), we show that a policing function, performed infrequently by a small subset of individuals3, significantly contributes to maintaining stable resource networks in the face of chronic perturbations that arise through conflict. When policing is absent, social niches destabilize, with group members building smaller, less diverse, and less integrated grooming, play, proximity and contact-sitting networks. Instability is quantified in terms of reduced mean degree, increased clustering, reduced reach, and increased assortativity. Policing not only controls conflict3, 4, 5, we find it significantly influences the structure of networks that constitute essential social resources in gregarious primate societies. The structure of such networks plays a critical role in infant survivorship6, emergence and spread of cooperative behaviour7, social learning and cultural traditions8.

Given that the second author of this paper is a friend of mine from grad school, let me also list the paper's authors: Jessica C. Flack, Michelle Girvan, Frans B. M. de Waal and David C. Krakauer. The first, second, and third authors are at Santa Fe Institute, which I am supposed to be visiting at some point. My friend is apparently working very close with observationalists now (her thesis was in network theory and one of the papers that came out of it has become quite seminal).

D & D scheduling for weekend of 2/3

I should be free all weekend. Just let me know when we're playing.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Woody Allen's "Strung Out"

In 2003, Woody Allen wrote a hilarious article in The New Yorker called "Strung Out", which was later reprinted with permission in APS News in their 'Lighter Side of Physics' column. This caused quite a fuss because of the article's sexual content and APS News even ended up apologizing for printing it. Personally, they should have stood behind it. The article is damn funny, and some people just need to get a grip. Seriously, how can one dis any article that includes the following sentence: "All I knew was that I wanted to wrap my weak-gauge bosons around her gluons, slip through a wormhole, and do some quantum tunnelling."


Somebody's trying to get an Ig Nobel

Here's a headline from today's New York Times: Scientists Find Gene That Controls Type of Earwax in People.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Earwax comes in two types, wet and dry. The wet form predominates in Africa and Europe, where 97 percent or more of people have it, and the dry form among East Asians. The populations of South and Central Asia are roughly half and half. By comparing the DNA of Japanese with each type, the researchers were able to identify the gene that controls which type a person has, they report in today's issue of Nature Genetics.

"They then found that the switch of a single DNA unit in the gene determines whether a person has wet or dry earwax. The gene's role seems to be to export substances out of the cells that secrete earwax. The single DNA change deactivates the gene and, without its contribution, a person has dry earwax."

Towards the end of the article, we have the following sentence:

"They write that earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, while the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have more body odor."

Isn't science wonderful? Anyway, I think we may have a winner here.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Saving Fish From Drowning

A couple weeks ago, I finished this new book by Amy Tan, which just came out a little while ago. I saw it for the first time in mid November and immediately bought it because of my past enjoyment of her novels. I discovered her when we had to read The Joy Luck Club for Academic Decathlon and I enjoyed it so much that I kept reading her novels (well, not the children's stuff she wrote).

This particular book was quite a departure from her previous ones, and I'm unhappy to say that it wasn't a good novel. I finished only because I'm anal and believe in finishing every book I start. Tan dropped the mostly light-hearted tone of her previous books, although there were occasionally snippets of humor here and decided to write about an ill-fated trip to Burma (based on real events) rather than on the experiences of Chinese-American families which drew very well on her own background (presumably, some of that stuff had some very loose basis in episodes from her life and those of people she knos) and were all quite enjoyable. This book, on the other hand, was tedious and I never got into it at all. The characters were all fake, and it wasn't just that they had flaws but were still likable. They were reminiscent of the type of fake person I saw all the time growing up in Beverly Hills, and I really can't sympathize with such people. Many of Tan's characters in her other novels were as insecure as the ones here, but somehow they could be likable and Tan didn't endeavor to take things too seriously the way she seemed to here.

Here is a link to the Amazon page for the novel, which I am including because of the reviews it contains. Apparently, I am not the only one who was grievously disappointed by this book.

Before this book, I automatically bought new fiction by Amy Tan (except for the stuff written for children) when it came out, but now I'm definitely going to check things out before I make the purchase. This novel was a complete dud. (Now I'm reading the third book in the Death Gate cycle, which is much better and is helping me wash the bad taste from my mouth.)

One more comment on last night's play

I completely forgot to mention that we had dinner in Old Pas after the play in a restaurant located in the building (at 35 South Raymond) in which I believe the playhouse where we saw the play last night was originally housed. Isn't it ironic, dontcha' think?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

"Arsenic and Old Lace"

This evening, I saw "Arsenic and Old Lace" with fellow CPA members at the Knightsbridge Theatre in Los Angeles. (Going to plays in small venues can be pretty cool.) This play was performed in its traditional manner (as opposed to being updated for the 00s). The movie of the same name was based on it.

Anyway, the play was an enjoyable dark comedy, which definitely was the right kind of play for my current mood. I like dark comedies anyway (though when I'm in certain mood, I seek them out even more than usual), and morbidity was the order of the day. A couple Loreena McKennitt songs were playing while we were in the waiting room, although as it turns out they were accompanying some ad being played by DVD that was on infinite repeat. (Still, when I enter a play and I hear Loreena, I take it as a positive sign.)

A couple of the play's actors have been in commercials or had (very) brief roles in movies (like as a dancer in the background of one scene). One person's bio advertised how he had played a transexual on the 100th episode of CSI.

There were a couple characters who had the Tom Lehreresque opinion that poisoning people is ok but fibbing is a sin (although this play was written before Lehrer sang "The Irish Ballad", which was an 'ancient' Irish ballad that was written a few years before he started singing it). These were a pair of giggling old sisters, who were giggling like schoolgirls throughout the entire play (the teeheeing got on my nerves a bit; to borrow some words from Harlan Ellison, it was so saccharine that I thought I might get diabetes from listening to it) even when they were talking about their murdered victims, whom they always gave proper Christian burials as they buried them in their cellar.

Anyway, I enjoyed the play a lot.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Today's fortunes

This is reminiscent of a series of e-mails I used to send to The Usual Bastards back when we were still regularly in touch. (Alas, most of us drifted apart. Sigh... This is what is so impressive about The Three Musketeers, to resurrect an old name that most of you probably never heard. You guys succeeded where we failed. I do still keep in touch to some degree with some of the old gang, but sometimes one thinks something is "forever" when it turns out to be all too short.)

Anyway, on to happier things---by which I mean fortunes!

Only one of mine tonight was really good, although I'll share all of them anyway. Here's the one I really like:

"A thrilling time ahead; be in your guard." (And it even rhymes! Damn, that's awesome!)

"You will have no problem in your home."

"You will take a chance in something in the near future."

"In love you could shine as a brilliant star." (And this last fortune duplicated something I only remember catching once before: Many fortunes in the US include suggested lottery numbers. This one has the usual six numbers, except that two of them are 43. Oops.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why hasn't he been eaten by a grue yet?

Courtesy Justin Howell, here is Defective Yeti's Infocom (text adventure) version of the Iraqi invasion. It's awesome, so enjoy!

Celtic Woman's cover of "Orinoco Flow"

I've been enjoying this song so much that it deserves its own post.

This cover of "Orinoco Flow" (my favorite Enya song) was released in 2005 as part of the self-titled album by Celtic Woman. (Despite the album title, there are several women in the group, so it's really an ensemble.) I didn't actually hear the song until this year, so it's the early leading contender for 2006's song of the year.

While I really like a few of the Ladytron songs to which I've recently been introduced ("Beauty*2", in particular), this version of "Orinoco Flow" is an exceptionally good reinterpretation of the song. (One of the reasons I love this song so much is that it took a song I love in the first place and reinterpreted into something I also love. That is worlds better than an awesome cover that doesn't do any reinterpretation and [obviously] kicks the living crap out of a bad or mediocre cover.) Having an ensemble sing this song is really cool where one has one person (with a beautiful voice) singing some of the lyrics and then the whole group answers her.

Anyway, the concise way to express myself is that this song just makes me happy when I hear. It's that awesome.

Summary of "Town Hall" Meeting

One of the students writing a SURF proposal to work with me this summer kindly provided the link to a summary of the 1/25 Town Hall Meeting that one of his friends wrote. You can find that here. Apparently, a video of this will also be posted eventually.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Caltech's Town Hall Meeting (today)

I had read previously in The Tech that there was going to be a Town Hall Meeting on campus today with some Admins to discuss some of the undergrad concerns with them (and likely to give them bs, but that wouldn't be new). This morning, I received an e-mail (that was sent to the entire Caltech community, although I actually know the sender from my ping pong class---one of the few undergrads I know) asking that other members of the Caltech community show up to support the undergrads.

While I'll admit I'm tempted to show up, I also don't think it's my place to show up---I think that showing up would go perilously close to attempts to recapture my Caltech childhood which I promised myself I wouldn't try to recapture. (This was part of the reason I felt it was better that I go somewhere else for grad school, and my decision between Cornell and Caltech back then came down to the very last day.)

What I what like to do here is to offer my support to the current generation of undergrads in their attempts to fight The Man (aka, The Administration). While I don't agree with everything they wrote and feel that some components of this morning's message lacked perspective (among other things, the message is written as if such things haven't happened before), I do support them on general principles. (There is also one thing that comes to mind where I don't agree that they're getting screwed over, but there are some where I definitely agree with them---the very expensive board program going to 7 days is the one that particularly comes to mind.) So while I don't feel comfortable going to today's Town Hall Meeting, I am offering this message in support of the current undergrads' fight to prevent the inevitable (I'm ever the optimist, huh?).

I don't have the e-mail anymore that apparently has a url where the undergrads have listed their grievances. I couldn't find the url, so if anybody still has that e-mail and can give me the URL, I would like to link to it here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dynamics of 'the wave'

Just posted on the arXiv (the second author is definitely well-known in the complex systems community and the I've seen the first one's name at least a few times as well) is a paper on the dynamics of 'the wave', that insidious thing that people do in baseball stadiums instead of actually watching the game. Here is the abstract:

An interesting example for collective decision making is the so-called Mexican wave during which the spectators in a stadium leap to their feet with their arms up and then sit down again following those to their left (right) with a small delay. Here we use a simple, but realistic model to explain how the combination of the local and global interactions of the spectators produces a breaking of the symmetry resulting in the replacement of the symmetric solution -- containing two propagating waves -- by a single wave moving in one of the two possible directions. Our model is based on and compared to the extensive observations of volunteers filling out the related questionnaire we have posted on the Internet. We find that, as a function of the parameter controlling the strength of the global interactions, the transition to the single wave solution has features reminiscent of discontinuous transitions. After the spontaneous symmetry breaking the two directions of propagation are still statistically equivalent. We investigate also how this remaining symmetry is broken in real stadia by a small asymmetrical term in the perception of spectators.

I've never seen this called the "Mexican" wave before. It's interesting that they decided to present this as a spontaneous symmetry-breaking phenomenon, as that way of looking at this situation has occurred to me before. Alas, I have been beaten to the punch as far as actually doing the work is concerned.

The question to ask now is which journal will be publishing this study. The one saying who is the center of the Marvel Comics universe appeared in PRE and the one on the community structure of rappers has now been accepted by Journal of Statistical Mechanics.

Mmm... vampires

I saw Underworld: Evolution with a friend today. I had been waiting for this movie eagerly ever since I found out about the early 06 release date a few months ago. Actually, I had heard a while back that there was going to be a sequel to Underworld, which I enjoyed immensely. The second movie is extremely good, but I like the first one better---essentially, this is a novelty issue. They left a ton of room for a third movie, and back in the day (when the first one was in theatres), I remember reading that this was supposed to be a trilogy from the beginning. (I just looked it up on the IMDB entry for the first movie, and it looks like that is supposed to be a prequel.) This time, I thankfully had a chance to see the film in the theatre rather than on video. (I was really busy and it flew in and out of the Atlanta theatres before I could see it.)

The movie could certainly be gory at times. Jaws, heads, etc. were ripped off and there was even a death by being skewered by one's own appendage (just a smidgeon before the helicopter blades finish the job). The boss characters died too easily, and the mythos they have has some holes in it. (They seem to be a bit confused as to what occurred when at times.) The most amusing inconsistency (though a very minor one) starts when the main vampiress Selene remarks about having exhiled someone to a monastary (now serving as a prison) 300 years earlier and that she and Michael would likely be the first people that person has seen since then. They arrive at the place, and Selene says something like 'I don't remember that chain-link fence being there before.' (This was not said in a sarcastic manner. She said it like she was there recently and the fence just popped up, as opposed to there being 300 years for that to happen.)

Anyway, the flick is very cool. White Wolf still isn't being acknowledged anywhere. Here is their original press release over their lawsuit after the first movie came out. The wikipedia entry doesn't indicate any resolution for the lawsuit, so I guess this part of the story remains to be unfolded.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Legend of the Porno Master is alive and well...

Thanks to Justin Howell for pointing this out, as I hadn't yet gotten a chance to read this week's issue of The Tech.

Anyway, a bunch of people have been writing some opinion pieces over the past few weeks. Their title hurts their cause, but in the last couple weeks, they have started to progress from rantings to more logical essays. Their point this week is that Lloyd controls the ASCIT BoD and the BoC, which (as Justin correctly points out) has always been true at least dating back to when I came to Tech and likely dating back longer. Maria Satterwhite '98 was (very amusingly) once called "The BoC Queen" in The Tech. I'm not sure the current studies realize how long this has been true, but that's beside the point.

Here I quote the article: "The seniors do pass down myths of a time when Lloyd-grade referred to the finest product available rather than a type of feminine hygiene product and of the ancient Lloydies, such as Nate Lewis, Tim Elling, and Mason Porter, but no evidence of that once thriving civilization remains."

I knew my legendary status outlasted my (first) time at Tech, but I didn't know that Tim had become a legend too! It's worth mentioning, that all three of us are currently on campus, so I imagine that helps spur or restart stories. How can they discuss Lloyd legends without mentioning Slayer (who almost won or at least got a lot of votes for a couple ASCIT offices via write-in votes several years after he left)? The Lloyd-grade stuff is pretty old at this point---it predates me, so it's really ancient history (it's from the 70s, I believe).

Another thing to mention here is the wikipedia entry on Lloyd House, which mentions both Slayer and the Porno Master as famous Lloydies.

March Meeting abstract

I'll copy Gazebo and show my March Meeting abstract:

Session V33: Focus Session: Social Networks
11:15 AM–2:03 PM, Thursday, March 16, 2006
Baltimore Convention Center - 336

Sponsoring Unit: GSNP
Chair: Alessandro Vespignani, Indiana University

Abstract: V33.00006 : A Network Analysis of Committees in the United States House of Representatives
12:39 PM–12:51 PM

Author: Mason Porter (Caltech)

Network theory provides a powerful tool for the representation and analysis of complex systems of interacting agents. Here we investigate the networks of committee and subcommittee assignments in the United States House of Representatives from the 101st--108th Congresses, with committees connected according to ``interlocks'' or common membership. We examine the House's community structure using several algorithms and reveal strong links between different committees as well as the intrinsic hierarchical structure within the House as a whole. We show additionally that structural changes, including a tighter community structure, resulted from the 1994 elections, in which the Republican party earned majority status in the House for the first time in more than forty years. In this work, we combine our network theory approach with analysis of roll call votes using singular value decomposition and successfully uncover political and organizational correlations between committees in the House without the need to incorporate other political information. This is joint work with A.J. Friend, Peter Mucha, Mark Newman, and Casey Warmbrand.

The chair of the session is actually somebody well-known in the field who it would be extremely good for me to meet. There are also plenty of other relevant people who will be at the meeting and likely at this session, so this should be quite productive. (I think many of them have actually heard about our first paper on this topic, but the conversations will still be very important.)

Because of lack of time, I won't actually be saying much about the so-called "Republican Revolution" of 1994 (this is pretty much for the official name of it at this point; we're stuck here; I think Newt coined the phrase), but one can see mathematically that there were changes and one can even track certain trends over time for each subsequent Republican-controlled Congress. You can see the short version of this paper here. We hope to submit the archival sequel to this short paper soon (perhaps as early as this month); we are in the final drafting stages.

D & D scheduling for weekend of 1/27

I am available Friday night, Sunday, and Monday.

Saturday is ok late after I get back from a play I am seeing, which should mean after something like 9pm. (Hence, it's really better for me to play on one of the other days.)

My proposal is the following: We play D & D (Tim's campaign, I assume) either Friday or Sunday and we have a more general gaming day at my crib on Monday (as it's an Institute holiday, we might as well game). I haven't played Apples to Apples for a while, and I want to play the game Mike got again. There are also other games I'd like to try, etc.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mathematics Awareness Month (April 2006)

I just saw a notice for the theme of this year's Mathematics Awareness Month, which concerns Internet Security.

In 2004, the theme was the 'mathematics of networks', which was a good theme that actually includes much of the stuff from the current year. I think the more general 'mathematics and the internet' (forget the security bit) would be better. This is just too specific an application.

A couple of the theme essays concern worm propagation on networks. They were written by a couple people I know: Georgia Tech associate professor of EE Chuanyi Ji and her graduate student Zesheng Chen. I have had discussions with them in the past about collaborating, although thus far nothing major has come out of these discussions. I haven't e-mailed Chuanyi in a couple months, so I wonder if Zesheng was able to find anything interesting with the stuff we've discussed (which pertains to worm propagation on networks of various topologies)?

Amusing quote

Chris Stockman, the designer of the game "Saint's Row" for XBOX 360, said the following about his upcoming game: "We're not trying to encourage kids to do it, but we do have liquor and weed in the game as healing items." In conclusion art does imitate life.

(So says the person who doesn't drink at all and has never even tried any drugs...excluding caffeine, of course, because caffeine is manna from Heaven and should never be dissed.)

"Looking for Comedy... In the Muslim World?"

The quote above is from the trailer to Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which I just saw (as I wait impatiently for my Monday outing to see Underworld: Evolution...). This quote was one of the amusing one-liners from the trailers (the other ones from the trailer are really funny), and there were a few others that they left for the rest of the movie. There were some nice moments---especially the random snippets of calls from customer help (being answered locally in India, of course) for various American companies that we overhear as Albert Brooks (another fellow Beverly High grad) and company are working through the building towards their office ("Did you try rebooting? [pause] Well, try rebooting again.")---and the concept for the movie was excellent, but the movie is only pretty good. The movie had a few of the obligatory jokes of a Jew spending time in the Muslim world, although the best one of those was revealed partly in the trailer.

Anyway, the movie has its moments and can be entertaining, but it definitely disappoints in comparison to what it could have been.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hans Bethe 100th anniversary seminar on 1/23/06

On Monday 1/23, Caltech his hosting (for the Caltech community, not for the public) a seminar commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe (1906-2005). (Bethe used to visit Caltech annually.)

Besides his numerous scientific (and other) accomplishments, Bethe is often credited with building Cornell's physics department into a research powerhouse. I saw him give a talk once, and the professor (Persis Drell, daughter of Sidney) of a QM course I was auditing tried to get him to come to dinner with the class at the end of the semester. (She was able to get David Mermin to come, but Bethe apparently couldn't make it. Mermin can be a highly amusing person, by the way, but he can be overly pholosophical at times.)

Rings of Fire

I just came back from seeing Walk the Line, and it indeed is as good as advertised. (I really wanted to see Underworld: Evolution, which came out today, but I need to wait because I'm supposed to see it with a friend. However, using the extra slot to see something I should have seen earlier is definitely a very good use of my time.) The acting was excellent, and I enjoyed most of the music. (The most impressive thing to me about the acting here is that the actors actually sang those songs. They did a fantastic job with the singing!) The movie even had a fishing minigame, just like Zelda.

By the way, a couple of interesting versions of Ring of Fire are those by Social Distortion (which is awesome!) and Stan Ridgeway (which is decent). I imagine at least some of you are familiar with Social D's style, so you can probably imagine how that version sounds. For the latter, recall that Stan Ridgeway was the main guy in the band Wall of Voodoo, whose big song was "Mexican Radio".

Thursday, January 19, 2006

More welcome news

An article in today's New York Times discusses an article in the Vatican's official newspaper regarding the Dover decision:

The official Vatican newspaper published an article this
week labeling as "correct" the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania
that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to

"If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should
search for another," Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology
at the University of Bologna, wrote in the Jan. 16-17 edition of the paper,
L'Osservatore Romano.

"But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the
field of science while pretending to do science," he wrote, calling
intelligent design unscientific. "It only creates confusion between the
scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious."

The article continues from there. Anyway, while I won't be surprised see some some comments coming out in the other direction, I'm still very happy to see this. If these people would just look among the faculty, grad students, and postdocs at basically every instution, they would find scientists of all religious stripes... although I still think my own future might include being burned and/or drowned as a witch... :)

(Another) Contemporary Beverly High alum in the acting world

When one goes to Beverly High---I was in the class of 1994---this happens occasionally.

The person in question, Bahar Soomekh '93, has a familiar name, although I can't say I remember her. [Class of 93 puts her in the same year as Angelina Jolie (Voight, really), who left after sophomore year.] This week, she was profiled in the Beverly Hills's Weekly's 'Where are they now?' column. (Note: The BH Weekly still doesn't keep their archives online, so this link will only be good until next week's issue.) I was looking at her answer to the question of who she keeps in touch with, and around half the names or a little more are people I knew.

Here is her IMDB entry. Prominent movies/shows listed include M:I III, "24" (a guest appearance), Syriana, and Crash.

One thing with my high school is that I stood out like a sore thumb (I know, that's a shock), so there are a number of people who remember exactly who I am who I wouldn't be able to recognize for the life of me. Again, the name is familiar, but I can't figure out if this is somebody I actually knew.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mario question blocks

Courtesy Gazebo, here is a link to pictures of real-life Mario question blocks.

As long as no gay Hammer Bros are involved...

Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday (one day late)

Yesterday was the 300th anniversary of Ben Franklin's birth. The official tercentenary website is here.

Physics Today has a couple memorial articles in its January 2006 issue. I read a really neat article on the calming effects of oil on water. (A longer version of the article is apparently posted on the website above.) This had a long history among seamen before Franklin first noticed this on a ship (yielding much smoother wakes) as a result of the emptying of greasy water overboard. Franklin proceeded to do a bunch of influential scientific experiments on this phenomenon. The other article (which I haven't yet had a chance to read) concerns electricity.

Also in this issue of Physics Today is a very funny comic cell concerning Kansas. (I've posted this on the door of my office.) It's in their blurb about the victory for evolution in Pennsylvania and the setback in Kansas.

All of you who are institutionalized will be able to use your university's subscription. For the rest of you, there's always the Ben Franklin tercentenary site.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Golden Globe winners and nominees

These are posted here.

Among the nominees for drama, I saw The Constant Gardender (which was really bad and shouldn't be nominated for any positive award) and Good Night, and Good Luck (which deserved its nomination). The winners were the gay cowboys of Brokeback Mountain.

Walk the Line won for best musical or comedy. I still need to see this. Among the other nominees, I saw Pride & Prejudice (which I enjoyed). I'm sure The Producers is very good, but I saw the musical too recently and am not ready to see it again.

Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor (drama) for his role in Capote, another movie I've been meaning to see.

I've seen two of the movies with best actress (drama) nominees. Ziyi Zhang was nominated for Memoirs of a Geisha. I liked the movie, but I don't think she deserved this nomination. Gwyneth Paltrow was nominated for Proof, which makes a bit more sense.

Joaquin Phoenix won best actor (musical or comedy) for Walk the Line. Of note is that Johnny Depp was (deservedly) nominated for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nathan Lane's nomination for The Producers wasn't a surprise. (I saw the play with Jason Alexander playing Bialystock [sp?] and Martin Short playing Bloom. I prefer that combo to Lane/Broderick in general, though I'll need to see the new movie to address that in this specific context to any degree. By the way, I actually didn't like the original movie version of The Producers---except for Springtime for Hitler, of course.)

Reese Witherspoon won best actress (comedy or musical) for Walk the Line. I have heard from several sources that she was amazing in this movie and stole the show. In movies I've seen, her excellent performances in Election and Vanity Fair (in which she was perfectly cast) come to mind. She also did a very good job in Pleasantville, which I can't believe is from all the way back in 1998. Keira Knightley was nominated for her work in Pride & Prejudice. She did fine, but I'm not sure she deserved a nomination. Maybe she should have been nominated for her work in Domino instead?

I have a brief comment on the best supporting actress winner, which was Rachel Weisz of The Constant Gardender. Again, I beg to differ on this, because this movie grated on me a great deal. When I was in Cambridge, we had our banquet in Trinity Hall. The flyer for that college lists some famous graduates---Lord This, Lord That, blah, blah, blah, "and, more recently, actress Rachel Weisz." That was kind of funny to read because of the 10 or so names they listed, literally 7 or 8 of them were Lord something, and I think she's the only remotely recent graduate to be listed there. Also, Frances McDormand was nominated for her role in North Country, which isn't surprising given her past work in Fargo. However, people seemed to forget her role in Aeon Flux...

Skipping a few categories, Memoirs of a Geisha won for best score (John Williams). The score definitely did a great job setting the mood in this flick.

In Best Foreign Language Film, Kung Fu Hustle was nominated, but didn't win (it clearly should have!).

"Desperate Housewives" won for best TV series (musical or comedy). I've heard many good things about it (and know people who watch it religiously) but have never seen it. I'm annoyed that "My Name is Earl" was nominated in this category. I've tried watching a couple episodes on airplanes, and I find the whole thing to be annoying beyond belief.

For best TV actor (music or comedy), Steve Carrell won for "The Office". I should check this out. (Why are TV shows in quotes and movies in italics? How did that arise? Was this a historical accident?) Larry David was nominated for "Curb Your Enthusiasm". I've seen an episode or two of this in the past (in hotel rooms, because I don't get HBO at home) and it can be pretty funny. Unsurprisingly, the Seinfeld flavor is alive and well with that show. (Larry David produced or co-produced Seinfeld---or something like that.) "My Name is Earl" got another undeserved nomination here.

For Best Actress (musical or comedy), the four runners-up all came from "Desperate Housewives". There are a couple very familiar names there...

See you later at the Oscars (or at least when I see the new Underworld movie this weekend...).

UC Merced finally reimbursed me!

Last March, I interviewed with UC Merced (the new UC campus). Because of various issues --- they are understaffed, they experienced multiple staff changes, they lost my receipts, the fact that they apparently have to deal with all reimbursements through one of UCLA's financial departments, and a couple of the people there didn't return my e-mails or calls (the older staff members) --- it took a long time for them to reimburse me for my travel expenses. I actually am short about $20 because the only receipt to which I still had access was the one for my airfare. (They paid for the hotel and there were no ground transportation charges, but I'm losing a bit for my airport food. The reason that reached $20 is because a flight delay caused me to be stranded overnight in the Las Vegas airport, which some of you may remember.) I think I had copies of my food bills, but (if so) I lost them when I moved from Atlanta to Pasadena.

I should remark as well that this set a record. Reimbursements typically take around 6-8 weeks (kind of like typical DL stints in Major League Baseball after successful surgery), and the previous record for me was 3.5 months. In a record that will hopefully never be broken (or even approached!), Merced is weighing in at a full 10 months. (Technically, it's 10 months minus a little less than a week.)

I could have tried to get the $20, but the extra time waiting with minimal chance of success just wasn't worth it. Eating that paltry amount to get my several hundred $ ("Where's my 2 dollars?!?!") and be done with this mess was a far better option.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Math in Business (article)

The cover story in the new issue of BusinessWeek concerns the fact that more people with mathematical training are calling the shots in business. I haven't read the article yet (though I'll probably start it in a few minutes), but this seems like something worth pointing out.

Mathematics and Science in the Whedon universe

I just saw a short talk about this in a Mathematics and Popular Culture session. (The JMM has a lot of sessions along these lines in addition to the flurry of research talks. I spoke about my football ranking system in the Mathematics of Sports and Games section, for instance.) It was kind of amusing (although they don't seem to have any results at this point), and I wonder if they'll find anything interesting after they've had longer to work on it. There are a number of professors at liberal arts universities who work on projects like this. You can read the abstract here.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Exhibitors' Hall and its contents

The conference's Exhibitors' Hall opened up an hour and a half ago.

I may have mentioned this in the past, but this particular math conference does have it's version of Booth Babes. Now, who knows what will happen to one's lunch afterwards, but the analog exists nonetheless. [Actually, a lot of the publishing companies actively attempt to hire people who provide eye candy, although a couple of them have tastes that leave a lot to be desired. The key, I think, is to look for the people selling math books who don't actually know any math. :) I think it's similar to the March Meeting, but that conference has the advantage of volume (of the number of people, not the volume of individual people).]

I've got the wireless connection going in the Convention Center now, so it seems that all the 'Net stuff is now where it should be. My computer and other stuff is heavy and annoying to carry around, but I'll have a while to recover after the meeting is over. :) [I'll try and lighten my load tomorrow.]

I got a couple chotchkes from Exhibitors' Hall as well, although I didn't find anything too interesting yet. The computer screen brush might come in handy. I'm pretty bad about that stuff.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WTF: Raul Mondesi going into politics????

According to this article (it's in Spanish, by the way), Raul Mondesi is leaving his baseball career behind (he'd have trouble finding a job anyway, with his recent work) to pursue politics in his native Dominican Republic. My father met him once because he delivered one of his wife's children (several of whom are also named Raul, I believe) and he had the chance to talk to Mondesi a bit. My father's opinion of Mondesi's intelligence level wasn't complimentary, to say the least. I don't remember the exact words, but I get the impression that he found him memorably stupid, as opposed to just stupid.

There isn't any description about the politics, by the way, aside from the fact that that's apparently Mondesi's intent.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

What happens at the Joint Math Meetings stays at The Joint Math Meetings...

... although it might show up later on one of those top-selling Mathematicians Gone Wild! videos. I'll keep you posted.

Anyway, I'm flying off to San Antonio tomorrow. If one is going to visit Texas, January is definitely a good month to do it. My previous experiences there (aside from quick trips through airports) were for a conference in Austin (a week before their big music festival) and Dallas (for my interview with SMU, future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library---that was the straight line; you provide the joke).

There will be some Techers at the meeting, although it isn't anything like the March Meeting, which is O(6) times bigger. I'm speaking in a session that Melvin Leok '00 is organizing, but we have some overlapping research interests and go to several of the same conferences. (This one is a general math conference.) I will see a few compatriots from grad school (no surprise) and a metric ton of fellow Project NExTers. It should be fun---when I'm not working. :) I still have to finish preparing talks and then I'll be able to write up my character's background for Tim's game (not to mention figure out his stats). I am bringing my dice me as inspiration (even though I guess there's nothing left to role). Maybe I can convince people to play Apples to Apples? I never had a chance to try to get a game going at Dynamics Days.

I will attempt to duplicate last year's feat of getting booed during one of my talks. (This is the only time this has ever happened, and what I said wasn't actually that bad.) The faculty members in the audience from schools where I had interviews were duly impressed. I will be speaking about football, congress, and Bose-Einstein condensates, so I'll vote for Congress being the most likely one where this happens. (I'd say football, except that I am anti-USC on general grounds and that should help curry favor. I assume the San Antonio Campus of UT doesn't have a rivalry with Austin. If it does, I am changing my mind on this particular handicap.) Last year, I got booed during my BEC talk, but the circumstances have changed, so that should be safe this year.

Last year at this meeting, I also saw my old Math 5 prof (for the first time since sophomore year), who was a postdoc at Tech when he taught that class. He was probably the best teacher I had at Tech.

Don't forget to remember the Alamo (the event, not the movie).

Bruce Sutter elected to baseball's Hall of Fame

In a year filled with weak first-time candidates, Bruce Sutter was the only player elected to the Hall of Fame, becoming just the 4th relief pitcher (and the only one with 0 starts in the Majors) to be accorded this honor. Jim Rice was next (53 votes short) and Goose Gossage was just one vote behind Rice. Hopefully, they'll make it next year, but it will be difficult because of an extraordinarily strong cast of debut players on the ballot (the ballot will include Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire). Bert Blyleven got screwed by the voters again, damnit. I haven't yet seen the list of who got exactly how many votes, but the entire list should be posted reasonably soon.

Baseball's Misery Index (2006 edition)

ESPN.com's Jim Caple just posted the 2006 edition of his Baseball Misery Index, which jokingly quantifies which baseball fans have been the most miserable. The last time he did this was before the 2004 season, so that Red Sox and White Sox fans finished at the top. (Presumably, the Red Sox fans were first, but it's actually not obvious who should be. The Red Sox fans are just much louder about their pain.) Now, the top mantle falls to the Cubs (the obvious choice) and second place goes to the Indians (which makes sense). The Yankees come in dead last, as they should.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Alternative college rankings

I was trying to find a ranking of physics grad programs to see where Maryland ranks overall (maybe Caltech has a campus subscription to US News that I can use?) and I ran into a college ranking site, which has some non-traditional (well, the one I looked up actually is traditional---it's just not discussed in US News and World Report, which is clearly deficient) criteria. Apparently, I have chosen poorly in where I've been affiliated (at least as far as this metric is concerned---which is obviously not the metric I used in making my selections, but that's beside the point), having been at schools which obtained a C- (Caltech, Cornell), C (Berkeley--when I was at MSRI), and Georgia Tech (C+). Ouch. I did take summer courses at UCLA (A-), but that hardly counts and it's not like I ever did anything about it. The only places listed lower than Caltech are Carlton College (D+) and CMU (also a D+). CMU came in dead last, and it's not like anybody wants to live in Pittsburgh anyway. By the way, Caltech ranked right after MIT.

Pokemon causes cancer

That's what some newspaper headlines read anyway when a gene called "POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic" (first given the acronym Pokemon by a scientist in 2001) was revealed in 2005 to play a role in the development of cancer in humans.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article in Nature:

That led Pokémon USA to exert its legal right to the trademark, Nature has learned. "They threatened to sue us if we did not stop calling the gene Pokemon," says Pandolfi, "but the name and the gene have nothing to do with the cartoon." A spokeswoman for Pokémon USA told Nature that its image was at risk. "We don't want our image undermined by associating Pokémon with cancer," she said.

Maybe it would be OK if the American associated Pokemon with AIDS or herpes instead? (Not to mention seizures... although that particular episode wasn't aired here.)

In 1993, somebody had to use an alternate name for a gene called "Velcro". Thankfully, the fly-development Sonic Hedgehog gene appears to be safe from any name changes (thank Cthulhu).

Gaming for weekend of 1/13

I'm out of town until the morning of Monday 1/16, so I won't be involved in this.

However, would people be up for board- (and perhaps video-) gaming at my crib on Wednesday evening 1/18? This can be adjusted to Tuesday, Monday, or Friday as well but Thursday is out for me. Let me know and include your info for the weekend I'm gone because I assume something will be going on then.

Two of my talks at my conference on Friday th 13th, so I need to put appropriate things in my slides. :) Maybe I should bring Arkham Horror with me and I can try to convince people to play that night. More likely, Apples to Apples will be the one I bring, although I never had a chance to try to recruit people to play during this last conference.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

USC goes down

As I mentioned in responding to JSpur, the fact that a UT Austin touchdown with 19 seconds remaining (it was 19, right?) against USC caused the latter to lose the 2006 Rose Bowl by a 41-38 margin deserves its own entry. (You get props for finding a way to sneak it into my misguided prime number rant. 41 is indeed prime, but 42 is an inherantly cooler number.) I was planning on this entry anyway because I was born and bred to hate USC. All of my siblings and my parents are UCLA alums (I'm the only black sheep), and hating USC has just been part of me for so long. If Jim Healy were still alive and had his sports news radio broadcast, he would be playing the recording he has of the USC marching song dying in the middle of the song.

(Notice how I referred to their schools by their academic names rather than their sports team names? I am just used to doing that, although I have been known to, e.g., say UNC for the Chapel Hill campus as if the others didn't exist.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"The horror! The horror!" (Never mind---I apparently can't read.)

Here is an article about a new record in the ubiquitous prime number search. That's fine, but the newspaper article defined a prime number in the following manner:

A prime number is a positive number divisible by only itself and 1 - 2, 3, 5, 7 and so on.

Comment 1: Kill me now.

Comment 2: OK, so there was likely a missing portion of the sentence and they meant to use the listed numbers as examples. However, the does not excuse the fact that the article lists 1 as a prime number! (Grrrrrr.....)

Comment 3: Kill me now.

[Added on 1/5: I misparsed the sentence. Please ignore this entry, for I am stupid. Lanth correctly points out that the - is separating the thoughts, so the only fault I can find is that the sentence structure is suboptimal for tired people like me to read and parse correctly. This is a trivial fault rather than my thought that they were including 1 as a prime number. I'm going to go learn how to read carefully now.]

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What happens in Bethesda stays in Bethesda

My current destination isn't exactly as exciting as my last one, but the conference I'm attending (Dynamics Days) is one of my favorite ones. It is always in early January, so I typically end up having a flight this early in January (or even earlier) every year. This will be my first of three trips to Maryland in consecutive months. I will likely be sampling three local airports. (I am flying into Dulles today. My flight on 2/8 goes to Reagan airport, and I plan to go to Baltimore in March because that's where the conference is being held.) The last time I went to Maryland (for Dynamics Days 2002), I flew to the wrong airport and had to find a creative way to get to Baltimore without breaking the bank (I did), and I believe I arranged things correctly this time around.

I am prepared to freeze my butt off, and some of the recent weather here has already served as a bit of a trailer (not an accurate trailer, but a trailer nonetheless).

I will be speaking tomorrow about my congress project, and there's something heart-warming about doing this really close to the Beltway. (Also, it looks like we're on track to shortly submit for publication another paper on this topic. Hopefully, it will be ready at the end of this month.)

Tomorrow night, the plan is to meet up for dinner with one of my cousin's and dinner with one of my high school friends (who is finishing up at Hopkins) is also on the docket.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

D & D Scheduling for weekend of 1/6

I return the night of 1/7 from Maryland, so only Sunday 1/8 is going to be good for me.

One question I have is whether (Mike)^2 will return from England in time to play on 1/8. It seems pretty close to his ETA.

Another question I have (if yes on the first) is whether we're playing in Tim's game that weekend---more precisely, do I need to have a character ready for 1/8?

For fun with dwarves, I would like to not miss the next session (since it was necessary that I miss the last one) if that's at all possible.

The other reason I'd like to play on 1/8, by the way, is that I am gone for the entirety of the weekend after that. (Dec--Jan is a big conference season because more profs are off from teaching or the semesters haven't killed everybody yet. That's the main reason I've been gone a lot lately.)

Also, as an early warning, my schedule is going to continue to be nuts and (if things go well) will become more nuts. Why do I make this comment? Simple---things becoming more nuts means I'm getting more interviews for faculty positions; really, it's only good things that should cause my schedule to become more hectic. I'm flying back on a Saturday from the first (and so far only) scheduled interview, so at least I'll be around one day during the relevant weekend.

New Year's Eve in The Hood

First of all, Happy New Year!

I'm feeling pretty grumpy right now, but that's essentially due entirely to insufficient sleep. In the interest of getting me back to Pasadena before traffic became a nightmare, it was necessary to wake me up this morning before my body wanted. That was not a problem, but presumably my mother ought to understand that when somebody is half-asleep and walking around in a vaguely zombified state, they don't want to be engaged in conversation. Also, when fairly specific comments such as "I don't want to talk now." are ignored (at least with me), cross comments typically result. I am probably faster to get to those comments than most, but I do believe pretty firmly that unsubtle "hints" should not be ignored. (Distracting me with a question that can wait for a few minutes when I am engrossed with attempting to get my computer to work and I have already stated previously that I'm in the middle of something is also not a good thing to ignore---especially when I am already grumpy due to sleep deprivation and don't want a conversation to begin with.)

Last night, I went to a friends party in The Hood, by which I mean Beverly Hills of course. There were some people from my graduating class from Beverly High there, as well as other fellow Normans (our mascot) who were a few years young (mostly 4-5, I think). There were some other people from that crowd as well as a few other random people. I knew a few of them before.

In general, it was fun, but one person annoyed me by making a comment that I wasn't a good scientist. (I'll spare you the discussion that led up to this, but the guy told me that apparently I had nothing to substantiate whether I am a good scientist [I'm not sure if that's what he actually meant, but that's what it sounded like] so I wasn't a real scientist. My response was that he could go to my website and take a look at my research papers, because I wasn't inclined to be remotely tactful after that comment.) Thus already annoyed, this guy decided to bring up ID and follow-up on his claim that it should be taught in schools. Now, I can rant all year on this without any provocation, and keep in mind that I was already really annoyed when this was brought up. I started by saying ID was "complete bullshit" and went on from there. The guy talking to me isn't a bad guy, but I knew from prior experience that he's pretty dense when it comes to logical discussions, and this time he was dense and inebriated to some degree. I'm definitely not holding this thing against him in any long-term fashion, but I was pissed off last night. (I don't like blowing people off, but when I decided to try to avoid him and talk to other people, he kept trying to restart the conversation. This happened something like five or more times. Other people were noticing quite clearly that he wouldn't leave me alone. Part of me wanted just not to have that conversation anymore because I was annoyed, and part of me wanted to move away before I said something really mean.)

I did my usual bad job at mingling, but I did meet a couple people who seemed pretty nice.