Thursday, January 06, 2005

Short Attention Span Theater

I wanted to blog something, but nothing has occured to me for a few days so i decided to just brain dump. Injure eternity, as our friend Thoreau might say.

Part I, Alias

I managed to sit through all of the Alias season premiere last night, mostly because it followed Lost, which i truly enjoy because it's basically Gilligan's Island for slightly more grown-up people. I've not followed Alias before, so i don't grok what the hell was going on; but one very, very important fact caught my attention: Angela Basset was on this show. Has Angela Basset always been on this show? Because i really, really like Angela Basset. It's hard to believe that Jennifer Garner could be the second most attractive woman on this show. I'd advocate as many Angela Basset-related story lines as possible.

I thought the show was exciting and well-paced, but these are some pretty lame super-spies. I'm pretty sure that i and a few of my friends could have pulled off the sword-stealing episode more neatly. That whole scene with Jennifer Garner trying to divert the attention of the Russian nuclear scientist was inane (though forgiveable, since it was also hot). The fighting bits were average. They use the same trick as most TV shows: they have close-ups of some slow, ineffective strike employed by the star that miraculously connects with the bad guy, then they cut away to a long view for a more impressive sequence that's obviously done by a double. Note to TV producers: if you're gonna make a character on a show be a super bad-ass fighter at least make sure that he can hit the heavy bag convincingly. This is the third show i've seen where one of the characters was hitting the bag with about the same intensity that you'd use to clear cobwebs.

Part II, Benford's Law

Have you ever heard of Benford's Law? I read about this in Mario Livio's book The Golden Ratio. The basic concept is that lists of numbers that seem like they are random often do not actually have a uniform distribution of digits. Rather the digit "1" occurs as the first digit with a much higher frequency than expected (around 30% as opposed to the expected value of around 11%). As unexpected as this is, it can be explained mathematically (see the link above). This phenomenon can be used to identify fraudulent tax returns and such because when fabricating data people tend to make up numbers with digits that are more uniformly distributed.

Part III, Music For a Ten Year Old

My older son Nathan got an MP3 player for Christmas so we've been experimenting with downloading and playlisting, etc. I struggle with how much i want to limit what he can listen to. I have no illusions that i can prevent his eventual exposure to all manner of strange and unsavory things, but that's not to say that i want to encourage it. So far his musical tastes haven't caused any major dilemmas. He likes the Gary Jules album "Trading Snake Oil for Wolf Tickets", mostly because of the cover of Tears for Fears' Mad World. I find that a bit puzzling given the bleak message of the song, but i can hardly fault him for a melancholy streak. We also got the latest Jimmy Eat World album "Futures". Nothing much offensive there, and it's a pretty good record i think.

Part IV, Alan Furst

I've mentioned my fondness for Alan Furst's books here before. I finally finished Dark Star yesterday, after a long hiatus to finish Imperial Hubris. Furst's novels are a combination of historical novel and spy novel, but really they're just very good novels. The setting for most of his books is the 1930s, generally during WWII. Furst apparently does a lot of research, and his evocation of 1930s Europe is incredibly rich. The protagonists of his books are complex characters with interesting motivations, instincts, and shortcomings. I think i also prefer the fact that they're not Americans. Good stuff.

Part V, Modulus Arithmetic

Somebody at work discovered that the modulus operator gives different results for negative numbers depending on the language used. The particular example was -3 mod 2. Some languages give -1, other 1. Apparently this is because of the way that remainders are treated in these languages. If you calculate the remainder as "subtract the number from the nearest multiple that's less, you get -3 - (-4) = 1. If you calculate it as "subtract the number from the nearest multiple with the smallest absolute value, you get (-3) -(-2) = -1. I think the first is more correct, but i'm not sure.

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