Monthly Archives: July 2007

Dallas Kwik-E-Mart

I saw The Simpsons Movie today and found it quite enjoyable. Meanwhile, you may have heard that 7-11 had converted 12 of their stores into Kwik-E-Marts to coincide with the movie’s release. One of them is just down the street from my parents’ house in Dallas, and we stopped by on the way to the airport. I’ve posted a few photos here.
who needs the kwik-e-mart?

Simpsons reviews analyzed

So, the Simpsons movie is out this weekend. Most critics are saying it’s good, but some dissent. Who to believe? Luckily, some reviewers are naming their favorite episodes in their reviews, from which we can get a sense of where their tastes lie. I’ve seen a number of different episodes mentioned, but two in particular were named multiple times. I am going to claim (based on very little evidence) that we can use this to weed out the inaccurate reviews. Consider the two episodes in question:
“Lisa the Vegetarian”
Cited by: A.O. Scott (NYTimes), Jake Coyle (Associated Press)
Reviewers’ opinions of the movie: Mixed. Scott is generally positive but says “‘The Simpsons,’ for all its mischief and iconoclasm, has become an institution, and that status has kept this film from taking too many chances,” and declares it only as good as an average episode. Coyle is somewhat harsher, calling it “too much a caricature of itself” and giving it an overall score of 2.5 stars.
Analysis: Appearing in season 7, just after the show’s golden age, this uneven and heavy-handed episode is a strange choice. The episode showcases Lisa at her most irritatingly preachy, and the jokes too often seem smug or self-righteous. There are some great moments in this episode, but its flaws keep it from reaching the top tier. Clearly, any critic who prefers “Lisa the Vegetarian” is not to be trusted.
“Marge vs. the Monorail”
Cited by: Kyle Smith (NY Post), Chris Vognar (Dallas Morning News) [this review now seems to have been edited for print, with the monorail reference trimmed out, but it was in the version originally posted online]
Reviewers’ opinions of the movie: Positive. Smith awards it three stars and Vognar gives it a B+. Neither critic puts at it at the level of the best Simpsons episodes, but they seem to have enjoyed it.
Analysis: Any true fan of The Simpsons will immediately break into song at the very mention of the word “monorail”. (I recall one Fark thread in which the news article had something to do with a monorail, and the first twenty comments consisted of various commenters reciting lines to the song, in order.) This Conan O’Brien-penned spoof of The Music Man is a classic episode from the peak of the series, with the right mix of absurdity, subtle commentary, and pop-culture synthesis. Plus, Leonard Nimoy! These critics have made a solid choice, indicating they can be relied upon to review the movie from an appropriate perspective.
Conclusion: The Simpsons Movie, as per the trustworthy reviews, will be highly entertaining but won’t rise to the brilliance of the TV show at its height. (Wait, I think I knew that already.)
Weekend discussion thread: What is the best Simpsons episode ever? (Hint: it’s “Treehouse of Horror IV”.)

Squid invasion in Monterey

Squid are pretty awesome, but like T-Rex I start to worry when they move in next door:

A mysterious sea creature, up to 7 feet long, weighing up to 100 pounds. It hunts in packs of hundreds, flying through the water at 25 mph, changing color.
With a parrot-like beak and arms covered with thousands of sharp barbs, it attacks and tries to eat nearly anything it sees, including fish, scuba divers, even its own kind.
But it’s not a creature of Hollywood. It’s real. And it’s reached the Monterey Bay. The Humboldt squid, also known as the giant squid or jumbo squid, traditionally has lived in warm waters off South America and Mexico, where fishermen call it “diablo rojo,” or “red devil.”

HELLO T-REX
(Via Boing Boing)

Quantifying neighborhood walkability

Here’s a site (via Lifehacker) that calculates a walkability score for a given address. I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t appreciate the convenience of being able to walk everywhere until I moved into my current apartment (which scores 82 out of 100). I’ve come to like it so much that, when I next move, I will try to look exclusively at walkable neighborhoods.
One sees walkability being increasingly advocated as a goal in urban planning policy, often for the environmental benefits. Indeed, it’s almost certainly true that I have a much lower carbon footprint than I used to—on a typical week I only make one or two trips by car, and most of the time I don’t need mass transit either. To me personally (rather than on a policy level), however, this is a secondary benefit. (Although the gasoline savings are nice.) The reasons I prefer walkability are more tangible:

  • Accessibility and convenience: if I need something from the grocery store or the pharmacy I can get it and be back within ten minutes.

  • Social connectedness: while out walking I frequently run into friends and neighbors (and, once, a long-lost friend from high school, although I embarrassingly failed to recognize her).
  • Exercise and fresh air: my baseline level of fitness (i.e. when I’m not running regularly) is much higher than it was when I used to drive everywhere. And walking around is just a nicer experience than being in a car (especially in sunny California).

I don’t mean to claim that everyone should immediately move to a walkable neighborhood—there’s something to be said for the personal space and privacy that comes with suburban living. But I was surprised at how much walkability improved my own quality of life, and I think it’s definitely something policymakers should place an increasing importance on.
I calculated the Walk Score of some of my past addresses to get a sense of how the scale works; here they are by city (but calculated for the specific address I lived at):

  • Berkeley, CA (current address): 82

  • El Cerrito, CA: 63
  • Kensington, CA: 45
  • Pasadena, CA: 63
  • New Canaan, CT: 0

Calculate your own score, and let me know if you’re in a particularly walkable neighborhood—I may want to move there.

Obligatory Harry Potter Post

(It is apparently Internet Law that these posts have titles of the form “Harry Potter and the [adjective] [noun]”, but that annoys me so I’m not going to do it.)
If I’m going to post about Harry Potter before the new book comes out, I guess I’d better do it now. The truth is that I’ve never been excited enough about the series to stay current with it, and am generally one or two books behind (I still haven’t read the sixth volume). I read the first four while studying at Cambridge, which was a nice combination, and found them to be enjoyable light reading, but nothing extraordinary. So I never got pulled into the cultural phenomenon, and won’t be attending any midnight release parties.
However, there has been one recurring question throughout the series that’s intrigued me, and I was pleased to find (via Brad DeLong) that someone has written a blog post about it:

One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape’s motives and disposition.

Now, I had actually thought (based on spoilers I heard) that this issue was settled in the sixth book, so I am pleased to learn that this is not the case. Throughout the first five books there’s mutual loathing and suspicion between Harry and Snape, and the reader is often meant to think that Snape is behind the villainy-of-the-day, but it always turns out that he’s one of the good guys. This made him one of the more interesting characters in the series, and suggested two possibilities: Rowling could be saving Snape to be a major villain later (which is what I thought had happened in book six), or she could be writing a more interesting story of redemption, in which Snape had truly left behind his dark past with Voldemort.
There’s a passage in Plato’s Republic about how the true test of morality is whether a person can be good even if everyone is convinced he’s evil. That’s the sort of position Snape’s in (if he’s actually good), and so it’s the ultimate test of his rejection of Voldemort. And as the essay I linked above mentions, it’s a point about the transparency of evil. One of the complaints raised against The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out was that good is associated with beauty and evil with ugliness—you can tell who’s evil just by looking. In Harry Potter, it’s not so easy: people you hate, even justifiably (Snape really is kind of an asshole), are not necessarily evil, and may even be on your side.
So, as should be obvious by now, I’m in the “Trust Snape” camp, and I may have to read the last two books just to find out how it goes.

Running against the wind

Stuff I’ve enjoyed recently:

  • Even the filler strips at Dresden Codak are wonderful. The latest (for which a permalink doesn’t seem to exist yet, but it’s on the main page) is a bit xkcd-esque, but with a healthy dose of surrealism.

  • “Don’t Make Me a Target” is my favorite song off the new Spoon album. The rest of the CD is really good too; other favorites are “Rhthm and Soul”, and “The Underdog”, for which there’s a video:

  • This post at 3 Quarks Daily is equal parts geeky, silly, and poetic: “Among the inert gases lowest on the Periodic Table of Elements is love”

Fashion blues

While traveling with my Chinese satchel, I learned that Cameron Diaz apparently has the same bag. Which is fine—I was into Communist chic before it was cool. However, then she went and used it to spark an international incident, Peru being understandably touchy about their Maoist guerrillas. So now I find myself having conversations with TSA agents while they search my (other) luggage about how, yes, this is the same bag Cameron Diaz had to apologize to an entire nation for. Luckily they did not infer from this any membership in the Shining Path; otherwise my trip home might have been rather delayed.
I will console myself by imagining that I made the bag trendy by wearing it to Coachella, even if it was probably mistaken for a Rage Against the Machine bag.

Strategies in wedding schedules

If this post has gone up as scheduled, I am currently en route to Kansas City for a wedding. (UPDATE: The scheduled post didn’t go up for some reason, and I’m back now.) It turns out that Saturday is quite a popular day for weddings due to the numerological alignment of 7/7/07. I’m just disappointed that I missed the chance to get married on 6/6/06. Maybe next century.
At first I wondered why a couple might pick that day, knowing that it’s a popular day for weddings. After all, this means that some number of people will be unable to attend due to a conflict with some other wedding. Even I got invited to two different weddings on Saturday, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly. But then I realized that this might be a feature rather than a bug. For one thing, the people who decline the invitations to go to another wedding are likely to be not as close to the couple than those who attend, so that the people actually in attendance are going to be a closer group of friends and relatives. This also allows the guest list to be larger than it would be on another day without increasing the expense of the wedding.
But, there’s a counter-counter-argument: the people most likely to have conflicts are the ones who know people likely to get married. I may not be a social butterfly, but I am at an age when a lot of people get married, so it’s not so surprising that a lot of my friends are getting married lately. What this means for young couples is that their friends on the guest list are going to be the ones with conflicts, whereas the old geezers you’ve never met that the future in-laws insisted on inviting are certainly going to be there. Luckily this effect should occur in parallel with the one above, so that the attendees will quickly separate into a group of close friends and a group of random people who will be hanging out with your parents.
Anyway, I’m fairly pleased to be taking this trip; from my perspective, it’s a big party where I hang out with some friends I haven’t seen for a while. (I do occasionally show an extroverted side, even if it’s stymied by shyness.) This, in fact, is the brilliant concept underlying weddings: you get your friends to come from all over the country and spend an evening drinking and dancing. What’s not to like? Well, you might have to spend some time in church first, and I hear the whole experience of getting married is mind-altering enough to make the party afterwards into a blur. Lame! If only you could have the party without all the marriage stuff to get in the way! If only there were some other life-changing event that would make a good excuse for a wedding-scale party!
Like, for example, getting a PhD. Somehow I doubt my more distantly-located friends will attend my undoubtedly massive and glorious graduation party, but they should. Because they’ll have to wait 99 more years to attend my wedding: I’m waiting for 6/6/06 to come around again.

Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy

Will I be able to post one long-form review per week? Almost certainly not, but it’s a good target to aim for.
The choice of subject for this installment reveals how far behind the times I am; the last volume in the trilogy was published ten years ago. However, I now have only four more books to go before I catch up to the ones that my friend helpfully lent to me (numbers 8 and 9 in the overall continuity).
Robin Hobb: The Farseer Trilogy
(Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest)



Judging from the titles I had expected some hardboiled story of an amoral antihero, some high fantasy equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie. This was a misconception; Robin Hobb instead performs the more delicate task of writing an assassin who is nevertheless a sympathetic, conflicted, and often heroic character. The series is thus less Kill Bill and more Die Hard: protagonist FitzChivalry finds himself caught up in some larger plot, fights it primarily for his own survival, and after undergoing an astonishing amount of physical injury manages a victory, or at least an escape. (He then spends sizable chunks of the second and third books recuperating from his previous ordeals.)
The trilogy follows a very standard pattern: book one introduces all the major characters and conflicts, and traces the overall plot arc on a smaller scale; book two builds up to a very dark ending in which all seems lost; and in book three the heroes come back to save the day. Each book is also written in a slightly different mode, as the titles suggest: Apprentice is the origin story, describing FitzChivalry’s childhood and training; Royal Assassin is a book of court intrigue; and Quest is, well, the quest, traveling through unmapped forests and magical cities in search of a way to Save the Kingdom.
So far this all sounds very generic; what makes this more than boilerplate fantasy are the characters. It’s a distressingly common trend in epic fantasy to introduce a vast cast of characters, most of which the reader can’t keep track of and the author doesn’t have time to develop. Hobb takes the opposite approach and focuses tightly on a small number of characters personally connected to the protagonist, giving them three-dimensional personalities and interesting story arcs of their own. (She has a slightly annoying tendency of making nearly all female characters smarter and more perceptive than the males, but maybe this should be excused since the reverse is regrettably often true in this historically male-dominated genre.)
One structural choice that undoubtedly contributed to this focus is to use first-person narration from FitzChivalry’s perspective throughout the series. FitzChivalry is frequently an unreliable narrator, and this is sometimes employed in an interesting way, such as when the reader can infer a (magical or chemical) change in his state of mind from changes in the narrative quality. Other times it’s simply frustrating: it took me a long time to get started in the first book, largely due to the fact that 6-year-old Fitz has no idea what’s going on. And the reader can generally look forward to figuring out any plot development at least a paragraph and sometimes whole chapters before Fitz does, as he is the most clueless of the Clueless Males in the story. If you’re the type of person who yells advice at the screen when watching horror movies, consider yourself warned.
Overall I thought it was a strong entry into the genre, despite a few annoying quirks. I found it enjoyable enough to move on to the next trilogy in the same setting, which appears to replace the ninjas with pirates. (Ok, the assassins of the first trilogy were nothing like ninjas. But still, pirates!)
Assassin’s Apprentice: Amazon
Royal Assassin: Amazon
Assassin’s Quest: Amazon
Further discussion will require spoilers, so I’ve put it below the fold. If you’re reading this on RSS you might not see the break, so be warned: spoilers ahead.

Continue reading

Mac vs. PC Flamewar Thread

Friday night my laptop abruptly died. (“I don’t remember turning it off… uh oh.”) Luckily the hard drive is undamaged so I was able to recover the data (and I had a sorta-recent backup). Thus, it’s not a disaster, but I do want to replace it. I’m finding myself very indecisive at the moment, so any advice is welcome.
In descending order of priority, the new computer will primarily be used for:

  1. Thesis writing: text processing in LaTeX and vector graphics manipulation for figures.

  2. Data processing, likely in Mathematica.
  3. Photo editing
  4. Blogging

(That’s for the next six months, after that it may or may not get pressed into a whole new set of tasks depending on what sort of job I end up taking.)
The old computer was a Dell Latitude D600.
Here are some options (mainly driven by what I can get at a discount through UCB):
Apple Macbook Pro
Pro: Visually appealing, OS X seems nifty (but I haven’t used it enough to know for sure), Apple still the lesser evil as far as business practices.
Con: Expensive, all my current software is for Windows.
Dell Latitude
Pro: Familiar, customizable.
Con: My previous Latitude had three motherboard failures, for a lifetime of about 15 months, which does not give me confidence in their reliability. (The extended warranty was terrific, but I wish I didn’t have to use it so much.)
Dell Inspiron
Pro: Inexpensive, can get Ubuntu preinstalled (but will probably want a Windows partition as well).
Con: Reliability concerns as with the Latitude.
Lenovo Thinkpad
Pro: Good reputation.
Con: Visually unappealing.
I’m leaning towards the Macbook Pro, but since I can’t get one instantly (they’re backordered). I have a few days to think about it. What other factors should I be considering? What other options have I overlooked?