Sunday, January 31, 2010

They only say it because he's black.

I was wandering around the Interwebs yesterday looking for a good picture for the tabloid story about drunken White House parties, and I found this lolz on several right wing websites.

I've been listening to the way conservatives have been trying to frame their distaste for Obama for well over a year, and they are all over the place. Of course, there are the Birthers who believe he isn't a citizen so the election is illegal. There are some who think he has to be a criminal because he's from Chicago. And there are those who insinuate that he's stupid. Their evidence is that he has made misstatements, the most famous being that once he claimed to have visited all 57 states, that he says "um" and "er" when speaking off the cuff, and that he's no good without a teleprompter.

This week, Barack Obama went in front of a group of House Republicans and had a dialogue with them for 82 minutes. Left wing websites will tell you Obama made them look bad, right wing websites will tell you they made Obama look bad. Here are two more telling responses. House Republican aides are now saying they should never have let it be televised, and Fox News broke off coverage about 20 minutes before it was over to give more time to a panel of Obama bashers.

It was a 100 against 1 battle, and the 100 were badly outclassed. Regardless of your political persuasion, you have to admit Obama did something no American politician has had the guts to do in over 50 years. It goes without saying that George W. Bush would have been eaten alive if the tables were turned, but nobody, not Clinton, not Reagan, not Nixon, LBJ or JFK ever even tried this. British politicians have to do it every week on Question Time. The vast majority of American politicians would fold like cheap lawn chairs if they had to do this, or they would just mouth the party line. Obama can think on his feet, and that isn't easy.

Conservatives have not come together in a single cohesive group to decide exactly what are the acceptable reasons to hate Barack Obama. You have the crazies who think he's a foreigner, you have the populists who think he's an elitist, you have a lot of people who don't know what socialism is who think he's a socialist and you have the racists who think he must be stupid because he is part black.

I've heard this kind of "speaking in code" before. Years ago, I used to play golf at the crack of dawn and the foursome would often have breakfast together afterwards. One of the guys had a deep hatred of Willie Brown and expressed it over eggs and hash browns one day. While Brown is a Democratic politician and allegedly liberal, I was not up to defending him against charges of being a crook, because he was and is a crook. But at the end of the rant, my golfing buddy called Brown "stupid". That I challenged. Whatever else Willie Brown is, he is shrewd and a gifted politician, not unlike other people I have a hard time defending like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The way my golfing partner sputtered when pressed on this point, I got the distinct impression that he only called Brown stupid because Brown is black.

I think part of the "Obama is stupid" crowd want to get back at the leftists who mocked George W. Bush and still mock Sarah Palin for being dull-witted. While the desire for tit-for-tat revenge is understandable, the problem is that Bush and Palin did show themselves to be stupid on many occasions. It's not just how well they did in school or the considerable number of gaffes they have made in public speaking. It's the times they were asked questions and had no cohesive answers, but still managed to babble for twenty seconds in some completely meaningless run-on sentence that they thought would fool the listener. When people are as intellectually challenged as Bush and Palin, being stupid is so deeply ingrained in them that they don't even realize they are stupid.

Barack Obama has his faults, as all of us do. But being stupid isn't one of them, and the right wing would do well to keep those who want to call him stupid as far away from microphones as possible.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tips for starting a blog.

I am now a month into putting up posts on my new blog It's News 2 Them™, which tracks the cover stories from the tabloids. The original idea was to stay with the stories that can later be confirmed or denied, but already the blog's mandate is suffering from mission creep. It was supposed to be about romantic break-ups and reports of celebrities near death, but I couldn't pass up some stories that added categories like the You So Crazy Alerts™ and the Enboobening Alerts™.

There are lots of places you can go to get advice about how to blog successfully. It's arguable whether we can call Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do a successful blog or not, but I get about 3,000 hits a week. This is slow and steady progress from how I was doing even a year ago.

There are long lists of advice about how to make a blog work, but for me one thing has worked better than anything else.

Blog regularly. It's not always easy, but it helps to have new material every day. There are more popular blogs than mine that take the weekend off, but I try to post something new at least seven times a week. I have the Random 10, which I first saw over at Padre Mickey's blog, so that is a day when I don't have to do much work. There's Wednesday Math, and now that I've done over 100 of them I'm starting to feel like I'm running out of material, but I almost always get an idea for something new every week. My fall back positions if I can't think of anything are lolz and videos from YouTube.

When I got the inspiration for the new blog, I figured the one post a day rule was going to be easy to keep, and that's certainly been true so far. I go to a local newsstand on Thursday or Friday, scribble down some notes from all the supermarket checkout magazines and tabloids and I have all the material I need for a week, parceling out the headlines at a rate of about two a day. Sometimes tabloid stories happen and get reported by the legitimate press, like Gary Coleman's arrest. These are easy bonus posts.

I went back to look at how the new blog is doing in terms of readership compared to this blog in its first month, and the pace of increase looks about the same, except for one huge week of viewership when I first started this blog. Back in 2007, people first noticed that Elizabeth Kucinich was a super fine honey, and I put a link to here up on the website BuzzFeed. Instead of about 200 readers that week, I had about 1,600. It was just a one week spike, but it gave me the idea of starting the Gigantic Child Bride feature, which gave me the courage to come out of the closet and become an ambassador for My People and Our Agenda.

Given my experience of nearly three years, I can distill what little I know about blogging into three pieces of advice.

1. Blog as regularly as you can, aiming for at least once a day.
2. Try to get some good linkage from bigger websites.
3. Pander.

You will notice that I had to make quite a stretch to include Elizabeth Kucinich in this post. I think you will also notice that very few readers will complain about this.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Random 10, 1/29/10

Ain't Misbehavin' Fats Waller
Everybody Plays The Fool The Main Ingredient
You Only Live Twice Nancy Sinatra
Flower's Grave Tom Waits
...Dust Elvis Costello
Little Red Corvette Prince
Ramon Laurie Anderson
Mississippi Bob Dylan
Don't Let Me Get Me Pink
No Thugs In Our House XTC

A Random 10 with my three favorite songwriters, with a "back-up" three songwriter team of Prince, Bob Dylan and Andy Partridge. You could do a lot worse. Throw in some Nancy Sinatra and Pink just to get everything all mixed up and random, and you have a pretty good list if I do say so myself.

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™!
Yay, Guyana!

This means the blog has now had visitors from every country on the Western Hemisphere mainland. Fun!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Advertisements for myself.

I'm not one to hide my light under a bushel, or whatever other odd metaphor I can scrounge up. I have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses.

I've been writing the other blog It's News 2 Them™ for a month and a day now, and this is my best post yet.

Seriously. It's comedy gold.

Two Lions In Winter.

In 1968, a movie was made of the James Goldman stage play The Lion In Winter. Goldman adapted his play to the screen and it garnered great reviews. It was sold as a two person tour de force, with Peter O'Toole as the English king Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine squabbling over nearly everything, but most importantly over who will be the next king. Discounting two small roles of a bishop and the captain of the guard, there are seven roles in the play, the king and queen, their three sons, the young king of France and a French princess who should be betrothed to the next king but is currently Henry's mistress. In the 1968 film, the younger roles were given to "up and coming" British stage actors, and many in the young cast went on to remarkably big careers. Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lion Hearted and Timothy Dalton as the French king Philip go on to be honest to goodness movie stars, and Nigel Terry who plays John later stars in Excalibur as Arthur. The other two actors, John Castle and Jane Merrow, go on to become TV actors, and you may recognize their faces from other parts they have played.

In 2003, Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., who have produced about a jillion made for TV movies over the past two decades, decided to remake The Lion In Winter with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close as Henry and Eleanor. Best known actors in the younger roles are Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as young King Philip of France and Rafe Spall, son of the actor Timothy Spall, as the awful, spotty prince John.

While the screenplay is almost exactly the same as the original, the new version adds a single scene in the beginning, a prologue from ten years before that answers two important questions. Why is Eleanor in jail? Why does powerful and clever Henry favor the weak and dull John over powerful Richard and clever Geoffrey?

The play never pretended to be historically accurate. The shifting alliances over succession did take place, but over the space of several years and not a single Christmas holiday. The biggest casting "mismatch" is Glenn Close stepping into the role in which Kate Hepburn won an Oscar, but instead, the baggage both actresses bring actually works to Ms. Close's advantage. Hepburn was used to playing strong female characters overcoming adversity, and the audience might naturally be rooting for her. Close often plays strong female villains, and it was easier to read the dark side of Eleanor's nature in her performance.

Another thing I found interesting was comparing the ages of the actors. The real Eleanor was ten years older than Henry, and in 1183, she would have been 60 and he would have been 50. Katherine Hepburn was 61 when she played the part and Glenn Close was 56. On the other hand, Peter O'Toole was a boozy 36 years old playing 50, while Patrick Stewart was a fit 63. In the original, the script played up that she was older than he was, in the remake, not so much.

While casting Hepburn and O'Toole made the age relationship between Eleanor and Henry clear, it made for a bit of a Ben and Adam Cartwright problem when it came to Henry's sons. Hopkins was 31 when he played Richard, who would have been 26 in 1183. Even as randy a bugger as Peter O'Toole would have been hard pressed to father a child at the age of five. In the new version, there is no question that the older cast members are old enough to be the parents of the younger cast.

If you like historical dramas with clever dialog, either version of The Lion In Winter is an entertaining choice. If you watch both, it's interesting to see differences in acting styles in 35 years. For me, the original is still a small cut above, but the new version has a different feeling because of the prologue and strong performances, especially from Glenn Close and Rafe Spall.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Robo-polls are useless.

Public Policy Polling has another poll that is making news. This time, it says that Fox News is the most trusted name in news, with a 49% positive rating to 37% negative rating, higher than any other organization.

It may be true and it may be false. The point I want to make is that Public Policy Polling (PPP) uses methods that CANNOT BE TRUSTED.

PPP does robo-polls. You are not talking to a real person, but instead a recording. Do you hang up automatically when you hear a recording at the other end? A lot of people do. If a large percentage of people fail to respond, the sample suffers from self-selection bias. The results could still be close to correct, but we cannot say there is a confidence interval, which is known to the general public as the margin of error. Any poll could be wrong, but if a sample is legitimately "random", the probability of a large mistake can be calculated and the larger the sample, the more likely the error will be minimal.

The famous example of self-selection bias is the Literary Digest Poll of 1936. The Literary Digest took a straw poll that showed overwhelming support for Alf Landon over incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, something like a 60%-40% landslide. There were four million responses, which would mean a tiny margin of error if the sample were truly random. The problem was that the four million responses came out of ten million questionnaires, so about 60% of the people asked simply threw the postcard away. It was in fact Roosevelt who won a 60%-40% landslide, with Landon carrying 2 out of 48 states in the Electoral College, Maine and Vermont.

I feel like a voice in the wilderness but I will keep screaming until someone notices. Don't trust robo-polls, which means don't trust PPP in particular. (There are others.)

Thank you for your kind attention. (Posted at the Smirking Chimp as well.)

Wednesday Math, Vol. 107: Inscribed Angles

You might well recall from a geometry class dimly shrouded in memory that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180° and a full circle is 360°. That means the angles of the big triangle whose vertices are all on the circle add up to ½ the sum of the angles A + B + C in the picture to the left. The big triangle's angles are called inscribed angles, and the triangle itself is an inscribed triangle. The angles A, B and C are measured from the center of the circle and are therefore called central angles.

If we have a central angle whose rays touch the circle at two points and an inscribed angle whose rays also touch the circle at the same two points from the same side, the measure of the inscribed angle will be one half the measure of the central angle. In this picture, if we think of the letters as the measure of the angles, we get these three equations.

a + b = ½C
b + c = ½A
c + a = ½B

This is the result. Now comes the proof, if you desire to continue.

Because each of the smaller triangles in the picture have two radii as sides, they must be isosceles, and that means there are two angles of equal measure. This is shown in the picture by each small triangle having a capital letter measure at the central angle and two equal lowercase letters at the two inscribed angles. This gives us the following equations.

A + 2a = 180°
B + 2b = 180°
C + 2c = 180°

Add any two of these together. Let's choose the first two.

A + B + 2a + 2b = 360°

We also have the fact about the central angles.

A + B + C = 360°

This means

2a + 2b = C.

Divide by two and we get

a + b = ½C.

The same can be done for the angles A and B by adding together different triangle pairs.

And as we say in Latin, Q.E.D., bitchez!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I love math...

but I never said it could solve every problem.

Nicked from the website, pointed out by my buddy Ken.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV

The match-up for the 43rd Super Bowl will star the top seeded teams from each conference, each lead by the quarterback who threw for the most touchdowns in his conference during the regular season. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts fell behind in the first half to the upstart New York Jets, but dominated the second half to win 30-17. Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints won a back-and-forth nail-biter against the Minnesota Vikings, intercepting a Brett Favre pass in the last two minutes when the Vikings were driving for the go-ahead score with seconds left, forcing overtime and winning on the opening drive of extra time with a field goal, 31-28.

If this season were all that mattered, that would be the end of the story, two high powered offenses facing off in the big game. But the histories of Manning and Brees could not be more different. Peyton Manning, now in his twelfth season, has four MVPs and has passed for over 50,000 yards, one of only four quarterbacks in NFL history to achieve that milestone. He is also one of those few athletes who successfully endorses non-sports products like Master Card, Sony and Oreo cookies. If there is a knock on Manning, it is that he has only one Super Bowl ring, while in the same era, Tom Brady of the Patriots has three and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers has two. If Manning and the Colts win this game, he adds a major achievement to a career that already deserves discussion when people rate the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Drew Brees, on the other hand, has a career marked by bad luck and setbacks. Manning came to Indianapolis as the one and only golden boy, while Brees started his career in San Diego, taking the job from the beloved Doug Flutie. After a few seasons marked by injuries, the Chargers decided they needed a new quarterback and Brees lost his job to Philip Rivers. Brees became a free agent and was signed by the New Orleans Saints. As a franchise, the Saints have often struggled during their 43 year history, and this will be the team's first trip to the Super Bowl. For much of that tenure, the Saints were the only pro team in New Orleans (there is currently an NBA team in New Orleans that used to be in Charlotte), and though the fans had some famous protests against the team's incompetence from time to time, including attending games en masse wearing paper bags over their heads, the city really does love their Who Dat Saints.

I don't have a strong emotional attachment for either team, but I definitely don't have a team I'm rooting against. I hope it's a good game two weeks from now, and whoever wins, it will be a well-deserved vindication.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Naming the proposed amendment.

Yesterday, I put a post here and on The Smirking Chimp regarding the idea of making a new constitutional amendment that will end the creeping nonsense that began way back in 1886 when a Supreme Court packed with former corporate lawyers decided that a corporation was an actual person and had the rights granted to persons under the Constitution, most notably the rights enumerated in the 14th Amendment. The modern day Supreme Court, packed with members of the right wing Federalist Society, now wants to make sure corporations have full use of their First Amendment rights, not only to say what they want politically but to spend as much money as they want to get the message out.

I gave my version of the proposed constitutional amendment the name The Definition Of Persons Amendment. My friend Larry wrote and said he liked the idea, but not the name. His point was that some might think the amendment will be about the definition of when a fetus becomes a person and has legal rights, and of course that is not what this is about at all.

I am throwing the question out to the readers. Do you have an idea for a name for this proposed amendment? I'd like to see a name that is short and has a positive connotation. I'd rather not call it the "anti-corporate personhood amendment". It's accurate, but it's negative and a little clumsy to say. While neither of them was successful, both The Equal Rights Amendment and the Defense Of Marriage Amendment had names that were short and positive. Both got shortened further to ERA and DOMA. The Definition of Persons Amendment would be DOPA, and that clearly doesn't work well.

Any ideas, gentle readers?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Definition Of Persons Amendment.

Here is the line in the sand where we should fight. Until it is made crystal clear in a new amendment to the Constitution, courts will continue to use the precedents which started in the 19th Century that gave corporations the rights of persons enumerated in the 14th Amendment that was designed to give citizenship to former slaves. The case that set this awful precedent was Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, passed unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1886. It is nowhere near as famous, but it should be reviled every bit as much as Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson.

If the battle were left vs. right or Democratic vs. Republican, there would be no chance to move forward, but this issue cuts across ideological and party lines. Both Olympia Snowe and John McCain decried the latest Supreme Court decision, and Main Street vs. Wall Street populism is found not only in Kucinich supporters but Ron Paul supporters and the Tea Party protesters.

The corporations will fight like hell to stop this. We should fully expect this. But even if it fails, make every member of Congress go on record, either as a friend of the people of the United States or a corporate whore.

Take the battle to them. It's the only way forward.

Also posted at The Smirking Chimp.

It would help if this post had a really good title.

I posted this clip from the deleted scenes of the movie In The Loop up on Facebook a while back, but was a little hesitant to put it up on the blog now that I'm avoiding obscenities as much as possible. If you can parse through the sentences of Jamie McDonald, the crossest man in Scotland, he has an excellent point. There Will Be Blood is a great title, if it delivers. Compared to many movies today, there really wasn't that much blood.

While There Will Be Blood is a very evocative phrase, the title In The Loop is vague, and I see this as a problem for movies and TV shows now. If you have a movie that's going to get saturation marketing, a vague title isn't a problem. Titles like Cloverfield and Avatar might not mean that much to people before the movie comes out, but with a jillion dollar ad campaign, everybody paying attention will know by the time the movie comes out that the first one is about a big Godzilla like creature attacking New York and the other is about blue aliens on another world.

The vague title problem can really hit a small budget movie very hard. It hurts even more if your movie A Serious Man is in the theatres at the same time A Single Man is playing. It's not your fault if you didn't hear about Let The Right One In or Infamous or Spartan, and if you didn't hear about them, you aren't going to be able to guess what they are about from the titles. (The new girl in town is a vampire, Truman Capote and a kidnapping, respectively.)

A good title is not a promise of good business. Joon Ho-Bong's Memories Of Murder has a great title and is an excellent film, but it didn't do very good business even in Korea. His movie Gwoemul means "monster" in Korean, and is the most successful Korean movie to date, though it had the more vague title The Host in English, and didn't do the business it deserved.

A vague title is also a problem on TV sometimes. Joss Whedon made a film and TV show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the title tells you a lot in four words. You're going to get a strong female heroine, there are going to be scary monsters and there will be a comedy element. On the other hand, Whedon made a show called Firefly, and when it spun off into a motion picture, that was titled Serenity. Both of those names take some 'splainin', and it's hard to say how much the movie increased the franchise's fan base beyond the hardcore fans of the cancelled show.

So just a word of warning to filmmakers. It's going to cost you millions of dollars to make even a cheap film these days, and you aren't doing yourself any favors giving these white elephants titles like Legion, Leap Year or Extraordinary Measures.

Just sayin'.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Random 10+1, 1/22/10 with added Indira Varma goodness

The Gold Digger's Song Fred Astaire
A Perfect Lie Jerry Harrison
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) The Jimi Hendrix Experience
I Can't Give You Anything But Love Fats Waller
There's A Place The Beatles
Strange Angels Laurie Anderson
Who Does Lisa Like? Rachel Sweet
A Wand'ring Minstrel I Kevin McKidd
For Your Eyes Only Sheena Easton
Let's Go Get Stoned Ray Charles
Bonus track:
Jimmy Jazz The Clash

A lot of good tunes from well known artists on the list today, but very little love from The You Tubes. I was thinking of making Who Does Lisa Like? the featured song of the day, but it isn't on YouTube, though a lot of other Rachel Sweet songs are. Then came the song from The Mikado sung by Nanki-Poo, so I looked up the movie Topsy Turvy on to find the role was played by Kevin McKidd! I have some trivia skillz, and usually I'm really good at the "Haven't I seen this guy before?" game, but when I saw him in Rome starring opposite the delicious Indira Varma, it never crossed my mind he was the romantic tenor in Topsy-Turvy, a movie I loved.

I added Jimmy Jazz to the list because it's The Clash (duh!) and I like to end with a song people can find on The You Tubes.

And since I mentioned the delicious Indira Varma, I will also include a picture of her deliciousness, just to make sure I keep up with the terms set out by the Internet Stalkers Guild.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Science fun, Vol. 3: r and K strategies

Back when I was in college in the 1970s, I took Principles of Evolutionary Biology for my science requirement. I very much enjoyed the class and I'm a little surprised at how much I remember. One concept which was relatively newly coined that made it into the textbooks quickly was the idea of r and K strategies for reproduction, first introduced in 1967 by Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson.

The idea is that different species have different strategies of reproduction. The letter r and K are from a differential equation defining the growth of populations, where r stands for the rate of growth and K stands for the maximum capacity of the ecological environment. The idea is that some species, usually smaller organisms with short lifespans, breed like crazy and do not expend much energy in raising their young, which is called an r strategy, sometimes referred to as the opportunistic strategy. K strategy is to have relatively few offspring and to invest time and energy in the raising and nurturing of the young. This is also known as the equilibrium strategy, and is often seen in larger organisms with long lifespans.

If I had to guess, I think the theory got a lot of early acceptance because there was a differential equation involved. It's the mathematician in me showing a little pride, but physics envy is a real phenomenon in the sciences. Physics uses math very well and is considered the hardest of the "hard sciences", and other sciences are given somewhat less respect because they can't point to nice equations that predict the outcomes of phenomenon.

While the ideas of r and K strategies started off as separate categories, soon enough people started talking about the r and K continuum. Take, for example, ants and other social insects. They are small and have short lifespans, so they are probably r strategy species. But compared to other bugs, they look like K strategists, because they limit their reproductive rate by having only one egg laying female, the queen, and by investing time and energy to ensure the young make it to adulthood by having a guarded nursery. As a result, ants do not breed as fast as beetles, bees do not breed like flies and termites do not breed like cockroaches. It may seem like there's a hell of a lot of them when we get an infestation in our homes, but for their size and lifespan, they fall on the K side of the spectrum.

Warm blooded creatures, mammals and birds, have little choice but to invest time in raising the young, because they are usually born unable to feed themselves and incapable of moving around the way the adults can, either moving quickly or flying, in the case of birds and bats. Even so, small mammals are usually thought of as r strategy species, breeding quickly with relatively little care shown to the raising of the young. A counterexample are meerkats, small but social critters. If you've watched Meerkat Manor, you know that the clan invests a lot of time in the raising of the young, and the hierarchy of dominance means a dominant female will attack any less dominant female who makes the mistake of getting pregnant when the dominant female is pregnant.

One of the controversies regarding the theory comes from the idea that humans are on the r and K continuum. In places and times when infant mortality is very high, many families will decide to have as many children as possible in hopes that some will survive to adulthood. In safer environments, couples will often have fewer children and invest more time in their children's care. The controversy usually arises when people claim these differences are racially based, with Africans being "natural r strategists" and Europeans and Asians being "natural K strategists".

While larger size and long lifespan are usually signs of K strategy species, this is not a hard and fast rule. Sea turtles live a long time and grow to be one of the largest creatures in their ecosystem, but as we know, they lay massive numbers of eggs in the sand, cover the eggs up and leave, investing no time in the raising of the young. For sea turtles, the question of infant mortality is not one of how many make it to one year old, but how many make it to a few minutes old by surviving the trip across the beach to the relative safety of the ocean.

Another set of large creatures with long life spans that use r strategy for the most part are sharks. For some species, though there is no time invested raising the young, which would argue an r strategy, an egg sack like the one shown at left will only produce one or two sharks, which looks more like a K strategy. What happens is the egg sack has many, many eggs, and as the sharks hatch, they learn to do what sharks do, eat anything and everything they can sink their teeth into, which in this small environment means their brothers and sisters. After a nice healthy first meal of cannibalistic fratricide, a single small but bad ass shark emerges from the egg sack, ready to prey on creatures from different species.

This is called The Boy Named Sue strategy.

Okay, I made the name up, but not 'splainin'. That really is a description of life in a shark egg sack.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday Math, Vol. 106: The Law Of Sines

Last week, the math post was about the Law of Cosines, so naturally this week is about the Law of Sines. The two names sound like the results should be very similar, but they are stated in very different ways. The Law of Cosines is the generalization of the Pythagorean Theorem, while the Law of Sines is about the relationships between side lengths and the sine function of the opposite angle in a triangle.

You may recall that the simplest formula for the area of a triangle is ½bh, one half the base times the height. If you only have the side lengths and don't know the height, it can be found as a formula involving the sine function of either the angle at the left side of the base or the angle at the right side of the base. Since h = a × sin C and h = c × sin A, we can set the two formulas equal to each other and get a × sin C = c × sin A, and by dividing we can get a ratio a/sin A = c/sin C. Since the choice of base is arbitrary and we could do this with any two angles in the triangle, we also get a/sin A = b/sinB = c/sin C.

Wandering around the web, I also found this proof on a Japanese website which involves inscribing a triangle inside a circle. Instead of finding the height of the triangle, this proof uses the fact that the measure of angle A is the same as any inscribed angle that also has lines that cross the circle at points B and C. The triangle with thin lines is a right triangle with hypotenuse equal to 2R, twice the radius, which could also be called D, the diameter. The definition of sine is a ratio between sides, so sin A = a/2R, and with a little algebraic manipulation we get 2R = a/sinA. We could do the same for sides b and c, and get the statement of the Law of Sines shown in the second illustration.

Next week, a little more about triangles and circles, shapes that have many surprising connections.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A letter from a friend in Massachusetts

My friend Jim from Massachusetts sent me a letter that he's asked me to print on the blog concerning today's special election.


In Massachusetts we are having an election today. A few weeks ago it wasn't that big of a deal. After all it was to fill a seat held by Ted Kennedy for 47 years. Of course we would elect a Democrat to fill that position, or would we?

While we are a typically blue state we did give the country Mitt Romney, something I still feel quite embarrassed about.

On Tuesday we will fill that famous senate seat. However the polls are very close between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley. (there is a libertarian candidate named Kennedy, no relation, who is in a distant third that it is not worth mentioning).

Anyway here is my rant, for what it's worth. Scott Brown is not presenting himself as a moderate but clearly on the right side of the party. He stands for the policies that created the mess we are in. While I am not pleased in general with everything the Democrats and Obama have done, going back to the party and policies that have brought us to the brink is clearly a bad idea.

We have not (so far) repeated the great depression, but the situation is still bad. Things haven't improved as quickly as we'd like, and in my opinion this is because the administration has held on to too many of the failed policies of the past and not moved forward with the promises they made.

I know the American collective memory is short, but you think they would remember at least a year and a half back.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In The Loop

Of all the movies I rented recently, my favorite by far is Armando Iannucci's political satire In The Loop. The movie came out last summer to brilliantly positive reviews and disappointingly weak box office. If you are one of the billions of people who did not see this movie when it came out, I heartily recommend that you rent it on DVD.

The story revolves around a war that has not yet been declared. The United States is considering invading an undisclosed Middle Eastern country and the United Kingdom are likely to follow suit. No president or prime minister is mentioned, but the viewer is likely to assume the time period is 2003 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The character who starts the plot rolling is a well meaning but easily flustered British minister, played by Tom Hollander (right). His chief of staff (Gina McKee) has no control over the minister's habit of sticking his foot in his mouth and their relationship is contentious. Enter a young new aide Toby (Chris Addison, left), who the minister sees as an ally against the chief of staff.

While all these characters are central to the story, it is the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, played brilliantly by Peter Capaldi, who moves the story forward. Based loosely on Tony Blair's spin doctor Alistair Campbell, Capaldi's character is short on patience, long on energy and an absolute master at inventing insulting nicknames and stringing together profanities. If this guy were real, Rahm Emanuel would ask him to turn it down a notch.

The action moves from Britain to the United States when both hawkish and dovish factions in the State Department take notice of the minister's clumsy statements and invite him to Washington D.C., each hoping to bolster their respective cases for and against invasion. While there are several important "grown-ups" in D.C., played brilliantly by James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche, the Brits are appalled at how much power in Washington is given to twentysomethings, another truth about the Bush administration that makes this work of fiction feel like a documentary from time to time.

The movie isn't about party politics as much as it is about office politics, and as someone who has worked in offices with factional squabbles, every little detail felt completely believable. While the critics loved the movie, it's not getting much Oscar buzz, though it might have a chance for nominations for best original screenplay and supporting actor for Capaldi.

Regardless of what awards it gets, I give it the Matty Boy Seal Of Approval. If the premise sounds even a little interesting to you, I definitely recommend you rent In The Loop.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Sarah Palin was on Glenn Beck's show for a full hour this week. The clip that got dissected the most was when he asked her for her favorite Founding Father and she answered "All of them." This reminded many of her answer to Katie Couric about what newspapers she read, but only because the answer was exactly the same.

"All of them."

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Jon Stewart on The Daily Show went after another clip, the start of the show when Beck read his journal entry from the night before to a visibly uncomfortable Palin.

"Tomorrow I meet Sarah Palin and family for the first time. I'm actually a little nervous, as she is one of the only people I can see that can possibly lead us out of where we are. I don't know yet if she's strong enough, if she's well enough advised, or if she knows she can no longer trust anyone. I don't if she can lead and not lose her soul."

The joke Stewart went with was that Palin was in danger from this weirdo, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs.

For me, Beck seemed more like a pathetic fanboy embarrassing himself on camera, not unlike the character Chris Farley used to play on the SNL skits called The Chris Farley Show, with him awkwardly interviewing celebrities.

Actually, since Beck isn't quite as incompetent as Farley's character, maybe it's more like folks at nerd conventions trying to entertain their heroes. Felicia Day is being a good sport about it, but I have to wonder what it's like for celebrities to go to these things and how they feel at the end of the day when they have time to come up for air. I got a small taste of this when I went to the Classic Gaming Expo a few years back, but people who star in science fiction shows get it a lot, and it must be exhausting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The decision making process. UPDATED

I'm now a few weeks into writing my new blog about the tabloids It's News 2 Them™, and already I am finding that mission creep is inevitable. I was going to make it about reporting on stuff on the covers of the checkout lane tabloids and magazine that could be verified one way or another, but there's just so much more on these covers that have nothing to do with facts that can be verified true or false.

Here, for instance, are two perfect examples. A few months back, Bristol Palin and her baby were on the cover of People, easily the tamest of the checkout mags, wearing her cap and gown and holding her baby. Even though the story was largely positive, the other stories on the cover were Jon and Kate just before the break-up went public and Brooke Shields dealing with her mom's dementia.

The message of these magazines is consistent and clear. Hey, you in the supermarket checkout line! Does your life suck? The lives of rich people suck, too!

With the Palins, it goes one step further. Do you have an unwed mother in your family graduating high school? Well, you have so much in common with Sarah and Todd and Bristol and Truck and Trick whatever other wacky names these people decide to give their offspring. They don't put on airs and pretend they are better than you are, because they aren't better than you are and we have proof.

This week, the cover of In Touch Weekly has Sarah and Bristol and the uncle and nephew born in the same calendar year, a nice little reminder that this family may have money now, but they are still trailer trash deep down where it counts. The picture is positive, the quote is positive, the teasers from the story are about people overcoming hardships because they are made of the right stuff.

But seriously, wtf? Who would want to be on this cover? You get to share it with the tabloids' least favorite celebrity Angelina Jolie and her dangerous pregnancy, Charlie Sheen explaining his violent rap sheet and a third rate celebrity Rachel Zoe who looks like she's dying of starvation and proud of it. The only other positive note is the mention of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, but they avoided having their picture included in this rogue's gallery. That was either a stroke of luck on the part of Faith and Tim or a really good publicist getting the job done.

I expect the Palins are tickled pink that their "Screw you, baby killers!" message is going to be seen in supermarkets across the nation for the next seven days. Sarah is such a narcissist, she might not even see that there's anyone else on the cover besides herself and her blood relations. That is the best spin I can put on this family's very odd decision making process.

UPDATE: If we are to believe the New York Post, the Palins were paid $100,000 to be on the cover. Well, that makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Random 10, 1/15/10

Fly On A Plane Christine Lavin
Got My Mind Set On You George Harrison
James K. Polk They Might Be Giants
Clowntime Is Over Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Careless Love Ray Charles
Goin' Out West Tom Waits
Hey Ya Outkast
Success Iggy Pop with David Bowie
Man Of Steel Frank Black
Waltz in E minor (Chopin, post.) Claudio Arrau

A nice selection this week, definitely random. I chose this picture to go with the set of songs because my favorite lyric in the bunch is from the Tom Waits tune.

I'm goin' out west where the wind blows tall,
'Cause Tony Franciosa used to date my ma.

The second best lyric in these songs also involves celebrities from a different era, evoked by Andre 3000.

Now all you Beyonces and Lucy Lius in baby dolls
Get out on the floor
You know what to do.

If we are looking for exact matches, there are only five of ten on The You Tubes this week, which is one of the worst showings in some time. While you cannot click on a link and listen to the great Claudio Arrau, I did want to put up a copy of the album cover, with Claudio looking so elegant in his white tie and matching handkerchief, holding a pocket watch.

'Cause he's cool like dat.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My two baby sisters.

I posted a picture of my older sister Kim last week because it was her birthday, and I post this picture of my younger sisters Karla and Jenny just because I want to. Karla found this one recently and put it up on Facebook, and it was always one of my favorite pictures from our childhood, so I'm glad it hasn't been lost.

Neither Karla or Jenny remember the picture being taken or how old they were exactly. They were born about a year apart, so I would guess they were no older than six and five, respectively.

Karla is amazed there is photographic evidence from this time where she was not covered in mud and band-aids, and Jenny believes that if she ever wants to determine what her true hair color is, this is the best starting reference.

They were super cuties, and they still are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bill O'Reilly, a.k.a. "The Tallest Midget In Texas."

Sarah Palin is continuing the "In It For The Money" tour and is now a Fox News contributor. If you think this means she will have her own show like Mike Huckabee or Oliver North, think again. That entails work, and Sarah The Quitter isn't crazy about work. She likes money, she adores adulation, but work... not so much.

Being a Fox News contributor means she is going to go on Fox News shows, say what she wants to say and GIT PAID! Her first appearance for pay was last night on Bill O'Reilly's show, where she complained about the treatment she got on 60 Minutes. According to Frazier Moore's piece from the Associated Press, O'Reilly told her she now has a forum with Fox News that allows her to "immediately neutralize '60 Minutes'" – he snapped his fingers – "like that."

Lemme 'splain some numbers. No, not law of sines and law of cosines, just the ideas of BIG and tiny. 60 Minutes is not as popular as it used to be, but it is still a top 20 show in the Neilsens year in and year out. On average, about 14.8 million people tune in to 60 Minutes every week. Bill O'Reilly, on the other hand, has the most popular show on Fox News when he isn't losing to Glenn Beck, and that means he has about 3.8 million viewers per show. This means that 60 Minutes is roughly four times the size of The O'Reilly Factor. To give a little visual aid, I made the 60 Minutes logo four times the size of the picture of Bill O'Reilly and wrote the word Big in 48 point font and the word tiny in 12 point font.

Having a show on cable is not the disadvantage it once was. If something people want to see is on regular cable, people will find it. For example, the Vikings and Bears played on Monday Night Football on ESPN last month and got 17 million viewers. The Bengals and Jets played on Sunday Night Football on NBC and had 16.3 million viewers.

To be the top show in cable news is like being the tallest midget in Texas. The top show on cable is usually WWE wrestling, with about 6 million viewers. No one claims that wrestling is as popular or as important as football. The top cable entertainment show is SpongeBob SquarePants. It can draw about 5 million viewers. No one claims that SpongeBob is bigger than The Simpsons, which got about 8.5 million viewers last week. But in terms of percentage, SpongeBob is closer to The Simpsons than O'Reilly is to 60 Minutes, and likewise wrestling is closer to pro football.

If there was a physical manifestation of this dominance, Lesley Stahl could squish Bill O'Reilly under her heel like he was an itty bitty bug.

If you are into that sort of thing. No judgments.

Wednesday Math, Vol. 105: The Law of Cosines.

Every time I have asked the question "What is the Pythagorean Theorem?" in a math class, I have always had at least one student answer "a² + b² = ". It's the easiest formula to remember in math. When I ask the next question, "What are a, b and c?", the answer is often slower to be stated. Sometimes it takes some coaxing of the class to get the meaning, and a student other than the person who correctly stated the formula will correctly state that those letters represent the lengths of the sides of a right triangle, where c is the long side, known as the hypotenuse.

It often happens that we learn a special case of a formula first and the general formula later. The Pythagorean Theorem is a special case of The Law Of Cosines, a rule we can use to find the length of the third side of a triangle if we know the lengths of two sides and the measure of the angle between them. In this picture, side lengths are lower case letters a, b and c, while the opposite angle measures are upper case A, B and C.

The square of the length of the third side is the sum of the squares of the first two sides plus a fudge factor of -2 times the product of the side lengths times the cosine of the angle between those two sides. The cosine function ranges between 1 and -1 as the angle ranges from 0° to 180°. At 90°, cosine is 0, so the fudge factor disappears and we have the nice clean Pythagorean Theorem. If the angle is 0° or 180°, the three sides don't form a triangle, but instead a line segment. At 0°, the third side is the difference of the two sides and at 180°, the third side is the sum. The law of cosines still works in these cases, sometimes called degenerate cases because we get to a situation where we aren't dealing with a legitimate example of the thing we have studied, in this case a triangle. What we get are the algebraic identities

(a - b)² = a² - 2ab + b²
(a + b)² = a² + 2ab + b²

The world is messy and math is clean, but math does a remarkable job of approximating how the world works. One of the reasons math works in the real world is that we understand triangles very well, no matter how they are defined. Problems in physics can often be broken down into parts that relate to the measure of triangles, and there are formulas that can answer nearly any question of measurement of a triangle, relating angles to lengths to areas using just a few elegant ideas.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Compare and contrast.

Every once in a while, two major motion pictures are released at about the same time dealing with almost the exact same material. Often, one movie becomes the "big hit" and the other is nearly ignored. One such example is 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, which nearly completely overshadowed 1989's Valmont, directed by Milos Forman and starring Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly. Another such pair is 1993's Tombstone and 1994's Wyatt Earp.

The relative strengths of the films often come down to one or two casting choices. For me, Valmont is better than Dangerous Liaisons because of the casting of the two young people the wicked marquise decides to ensnare in her net. In Valmont, they are played by Fairuza Balk and Henry Thomas, child stars from earlier films, both still looking barely post-pubescent and completely innocent. In Dangerous Liaisons, the roles were played by Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves. Of course Reeves was awful, but Thurman's looks worked against her. She may be playing a young shy girl destined for the convent, but damn, she looks like Uma Thurman. Any heterosexual male is going to want to hit that.

In Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp, it's Val Kilmer vs. Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, and quite simply, it's no contest.

Last night, I watched Infamous, the 2006 movie about Truman Capote that came out after Philip Seymour Hoffman had already won the Oscar for his work in Capote. The source material is different, Capote taken from Gerald Clarke's biography and Infamous taken from George Plimpton's. Almost no one saw Infamous, and that's too bad, because it has a lot to recommend it. But again, there is a casting choice that tipped the scales for me.

Capote has a cast set up in the standard way an independent film is cast these days. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best known actor in the troupe, and there are several actors the audience will know playing other important supporting roles. Catherine Keener plays Capote's childhood friend Harper Lee and Chris Cooper and Amy Ryan play the Kansas investigator and his wife. The other faces I recognized were Bob Balaban as William Shawn and Bruce Greenwood as Capote's lover Jack, but after that, the cast were relative unknowns, and that worked to the movie's advantage.

Clifton Collins Jr. played the sensitive murderer Perry Smith. Collins is an actor who has been working for about twenty years now, getting a lot of work in very small parts. Earlier in his career, his stage name was Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, and he got roles with names like Vato #2 or Townsman #1. I don't bring these minor roles up to insult him, but instead to praise the casting director who decided to choose him. Because he brings no baggage with him, the audience can buy into the performance at a much deeper level. It's not "This actor is playing the murderer", but instead "this guy is the murderer". Collins got his chance for a major role in a major motion picture, and he hit it out of the park.

In stark contrast to the bare bones cast of Capote, Infamous is star studded. The actor who plays Capote, the Englishman Toby Jones, does a bang up job and physically is much more like Truman Capote than Hoffman is, but he may be the least known actor at the top of the cast list. The movie splits time between Capote in Kansas and his life as the companion of choice to society ladies in New York. The actresses playing the grand dames include Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Juliet Stevenson and Isabella Rossellini. Sandra Bullock is cast as Harper Lee and Peter Bogdanovich plays Bennett Cerf. Gwyneth Paltrow gets the opening scene playing an unnamed torch singer at a New York nightclub and we never see her again.

Arguably the biggest star in the film is the actor asked to play Perry Smith, Daniel Craig. In an odd quirk of timing, Infamous opened the exact same day as Casino Royale, the first film in which Craig played 007. It's very hard for the audience to forget this and accept him in the role of the violent yet sensitive and doomed murderer when he is also playing a violent, insensitive and completely bulletproof murderer named James Bond in another movie at the same cineplex. Collins as Smith is the perfect tragic figure, a character we meet when things are bad and you know things are going to get worse. With Craig, even though I knew how the movie would end, part of me was wondering how he was going to make his inevitable escape.

I can recommend Infamous for the reason that it is very different from Capote. I have no idea which film is closer to the truth, and in some ways it hardly matters, because Capote himself so rarely told the truth, relying instead on his uncanny ability to improve the story. It's also worth renting the movie and/or reading the book In Cold Blood as the last part of the compare and contrast. These are four very different works of art that can all stand on their own merits, all of them based however loosely on the same real life events.

Monday, January 11, 2010

DVDs for nothing and your books for free.

Over the semester break, I finally decided to get a library card and not always rely on buying books at the used book store. The main branch of the Oakland Public Library is very close to where I live and it's just laziness that I didn't sign up for a library card before this.

The main impetus was a book recommendation from Mike Strickland to read the work of mystery novelist Michael Nava. Nava is a lawyer and now running for Superior Court in San Francisco, and the hero of his novels Henry Rios is, like Nava himself, a gay Hispanic lawyer. I went to the Oakland branch, picked up Nava's The Death Of Friends and read it last week. It's very well written and is a refreshing departure from most mystery novels, not just because many of the characters are gay, but because the legal details of someone being accused of murder are handled more realistically than usual. The novels are a natural extension of the genre in many ways, set in the corrupt and sunny modern day Los Angeles, not that different from the corrupt and sunny worlds of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy in decades gone by. There's just enough matter of fact reference to actual historical characters like the racist thug Darryl Gates who ran the L.A.P.D. for decades and events like the white cop backlash against Gates' black successor to make the corruption aspect feel more like documentary than novel.

Now that I've finished the Death of Friends, I'm on to another Nava mystery How Town. When you rely on a library, sometimes you can't get all an author's works, or can't read the stories in chronological order to follow the main character's arc. In any case, if you like detective fiction, I strongly recommend the work of Michael Nava.

When you have a library card, it's nearly mandatory to check out DVDs. It's a very different experience from being on Netflix, where any DVD you can think of will likely be available. Now it's like being at a modestly stocked video store with really excellent prices. I decided to give the first season of Hill Street Blues is a re-visit to see how well it would hold up.

Not well, it turns out.

I really intensely disliked the first two episodes of the first season. I wondered if I might be comparing it in my mind with The Wire, which is grotesquely unfair to nearly all television shows ever made.

Actually, Hill Street Blues does not compare well to Barney Miller. The first few shows reminded me just how buffoonish many of the characters are, more like an hour long sitcom with dead bodies than a drama with occasional humorous moments.

I don't want to blame the cast, though of the original line-up, most faded away and became TV actors that would show up for a single episode on later series. Some got lucky and got work on later Steven Bochco shows. Bochco may be a hack, but he is loyal. The great career success story from the original cast is Betty Thomas, who became a very successful director of hack films like The Brady Bunch Movie, I Spy and last year's Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Later cast additions would go on to more successful careers on TV, like Dennis Franz, Jeffrey Tambor and Peter Jurasik.

No, the problem is the writing. Characters, whether we are supposed to root for them or against them, are ridiculous cardboard cut-outs. We are supposed to like Sgt. Esterhaus, man who at the beginning of the series has left a 23 year marriage and is dating a girl who hasn't graduated high school yet. We are supposed to think the psychotically violent Mick Belker is a "good cop". The SWAT team leader is written as a pompous buffoon, but the negotiator Henry Goldblume is also just as badly delineated. The less said about the Barbara Bosson and her character as Furillo's ex-wife Fay the better. There is way too much "meet cute" stuff, where characters who don't hit it off later turn out to fall in love or become fast friends. And to top all this off, we get Trinidad Silva as the Hispanic gang leader channeling Harvey Lembeck as Erich Von Zipper.

It's definitely disappointing when a show you enjoyed when you were younger does not hold up well on later viewings. I suppose it's part of the experience of growing up, an experience regular readers of this blog will know I have worked very hard to avoid.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Art Clokey, 1921-2010

Art Clokey, best remembered as the creator of Gumby, has died this weekend at the age of 88 after a long illness. A younger generation might better remember Eddie Murphy's portrayal of Gumby as a cantankerous old Jewish man, with his trademark catch phrase, "I'm Gumby, damnit!" Asked about it by reporters, Mr. Clokey said he found the characterization very funny.

Personally, I found his second best known creation Davey And Goliath more memorable, much in the way nightmares are more memorable than pleasant dreams. I was not very religious as a child and was completely convinced that the devil was a human invention, but in my dreams, the voice of Goliath was clearly Satanic.

But, if God has a plan, let us stipulate that without Davey and Goliath as material, Dino Stamatopoulos would never have made Morel Orel, and this parody was funny enough to make up for a few sleepless nights I suffered through when I was a kid.

For the Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. Or maybe He doesn't exist and we just give mysterious motives to random events.

I'm not sure one way or the other. Just sayin'.