October 31, 2003

Someone Call A Fireman

This has been a right shitty week. So I left work early this afternoon to see a movie. Of course, when I showed up at the theater, the only non-Rocky-Horror movie playing in the coming hour was Mystic River. So I bought a ticket and saw it.

I don't know if anyone's ever written this down before, but let me make it clear: if you're already feeling crappy, don't go see a movie about child molestation, kidnapping, murder, vengeance, alienation, and multiple stab wounds.

But I couldn't just go home and week openly, because, as luck would have it, I'm on cat-sitting patrol in the suburbs (again). So I dropped by to refill the bowl, and the timing worked out such that I was at their place right in the middle of the prime trick-or-treating hour. So I grabbed bags of snickers and skittles and sat out on the porch to give candy to the kids. Which, it turns out, is what I should have done in the first place. Something about a giggling 3-year old dressed up like a ballerina is just about the perfect antidote to a lousy week. Butterflies, Nomar Garciaparra, Batman, and several Scream ghosts all stopped by for some sweets.

But the turning point came when a little 1-1/2-year-old fireman walked up, with mom and some of mom's girlfriends in tow.

Little Fireman: (Nothing)
Mom: (From behind) Say "trick or treat!"
Little Fireman: (Nothing)
Me: Happy Halloween! *puts candy in outstretched plastic pumpkin*
Mom: Say "thank you!"
Little kid: (Farts, really long and loud, and then smiles)

Have a Happy Halloween!

Posted by bpadams at 08:01 PM | Comments (5)

October 30, 2003


I will award a grand prize of One Dollar ($1USD) to anyone who can prove whether or not this site is meant as a joke.

(Thanks to Laura, who promises to update her blog more regularly, for sending it to me.)

Posted by bpadams at 01:57 PM | Comments (10)

October 29, 2003

Life Error Codes

My work life over the last couple of weeks has involved getting to know the Windows OS better. And, as you might expect, it's pretty frustrating. But there's one aspect that's so insanely useful, I can't help but wish it had a more universal application.

The function is called GetLastError(). Those open-close parentheses mean that it doesn't take any arguments, so you can just call it whenever the heck you feel like it without having to worry about any setup. It returns a number from this table that corresponds to whatever went wrong last. So, let's say you're trying to send some data over a socket, only the network you're trying to send the data over isn't working. In that case, your code can call GetLastError() and it will give you the number 10050, which corresponds to WSAENETDOWN ("Windows Socket API, Error, Net down"), which tells you that your network's down. This is great because you don't have to go scouring your code for some error, you just have to check your network connection. Pretty cool, right?

What I'm wondering is this: why can't I have a GetLastError() function in life? How many times have I screwed something up and wondered what the hell went wrong? If I just had this function and a list of more general error codes, I could do some serious debugging. Just to get things started, I've gone ahead and put together a preliminary list of error codes that I'd find useful. These can even tack right on to the end of the Windows codes. Bill, if you're reading this, let me know if you need my help putting this into Longhorn.

15001You've done something identifiably stupidLIFE_STUPID
15002That last beer at Cornwalls was probably one too manyLIFE_TOOMUCHDRINKY
15003Burritos are not the only food group, try eating something not wrapped in a tortilla for onceLIFE_TOILETCLOG
15004Once again, you've said something offensive and made people think you're a monster, you monsterLIFE_SMARTMOUTH
15005Keep your head down on your golf swingLIFE_PULLHEAD
15006Something you posted on your blog has been read by your mother and immediately forwarded on to your girlfriend.LIFE_RATTEDOUT
15007There's a dead groundhog in your lockerLIFE_DEADGROUNDHOG
15008Once again, try to eat something other than burritosLIFE_FART
15009Your head looks like a mushroomLIFE_MOMCUTHAIR
15010Your nose looks bigLIFE_MOMDIDNTCUTHAIR
15011Your girlfriend asked, "Do you like my new haircut?"LIFE_NOPOSSIBLEANSWER
15012You ordered something from the stupidest wine company everLIFE_GEERLINGWADE
15013Your friend, who you always assumed was straight, was watching Sex In the City when you dropped byLIFE_MATTYC
15014You've been at MIT for almost ten years and are a boring lunk because of itLIFE_DONTHAVEONE
15015Also, you still live in a fraternityLIFE_LOSER
Posted by bpadams at 03:23 PM | Comments (10)


From today's edition of Salon:

Blog reading for me is like going down to the cellar amid shelves and shelves of musty books that you're condemned to turn the pages of. Bad prose, endless reams of bad prose! There's a lack of discipline, a feeling that anything that crosses one's mind is important or interesting to others. People say that the best part about writing a blog is that there's no editing -- it's free speech without institutional control. Well, sure, but writing isn't masturbation -- you've got to self-edit. Camille Paglia, in an interview with Salon Magazine

Pretty harsh words from someone who logged a SIX-FRIGGING-PAGE interview on Salon (most of which I completely skimmed due to her lack of self-editing).

Posted by bpadams at 10:00 AM | Comments (5)

October 28, 2003

What My Eyes Tell My Brain

It's only fair to admit that I noticed her right away. I walked in for my 10am platelet donation appointment, said hi, started filling out my little "have you done anything to endanger your blood?" form when I looked up and there she was. Well, there it was is more like it.

An ass. Not just any ass, but a kind-of-nice ass. More specifically, it was a kind-of-nice ass that was encased in a pair of trendy but sheer white pants. I was more than a little amazed, because the Dana Farber Blood Donor Center is not the kind of place where people normally parade their erogenous zones around, and it's most certainly not the kind of place where you parade your ass around by repeatedly bending over to grab more pretzels from a box so they can be put into the canteen basket. It's more of a khakis-and-white-clogs-with-a-white-lab coat kind of place.

So I looked away. But I kept peeking back up at her, involuntarily. There's something about this kind of situation that requires you to look. Especially when she's also clearly wearing some sort of undergarment that's also not associated with the hospital (except for hospitals in those movies). So you play the games -- shift the paper so that it's almost in line with the unseeable object, you stretch your neck and look in a general loop that whoops includes the unseeable object, you stare intently at something in it's general vicinity while allowing your peripheral vision to gawk. You can't help yourself.

I actually have a whole theory about this that comes straight from biology. It's based on the paper What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain, by Jerome Y. Lettvin. Prof. Lettvin is weird -- shaped like a weebil-wobble with long white hair and an unidentifiable accent -- but this paper was brilliant. By recording the electrical impulses on the optic nerve, he demonstrated that the frog retina is constructed in such a way that it identifies parts of the visual scene that are important. For instance, the frog retina is very good at locating a black spot against slowly-moving background, because the frog needs to eat flies. It's also good at identifying dark looming objects, because the frog needs to avoids predators. It's pretty intuitive, when you think about it. Our eyes have become good at seeing the things that are important to our survival.

So what's important to a man's survival? Well, from a reproductive standpoint, finding a mate who will successfully bear his children. And what's the most obvious visual characteristic of a woman who will bear your children? Curves. Breast curves, hip curves, butt curves. So I believe that the human eye is specially designed to pick these curves out and make them easier to see. Just like the frog and the flies, my eye was just looking out for my well-being. It was identifying a conspecific who might bear my children.

Now, of course, other parts of my brain have to kick in, specifically the parts that remember that I have a nice little conspecific up in Montreal who, if I'm very nice for a long time, might eventually agree to bear my children. So I didn't stare, and I certainly didn't engage in any of the next-step mating rituals ("So ... do you unload pretzels here often?"). But I can't apologize for looking. It's in my nature.

Postscript: Later, while reading my book and having my bodily fluids removed, she walked by again. But this time, instead of her, I noticed the donor right across from me: an older guy who was swaddled in his blanket and sipping some orange juice. As she walked by, not only did his wizened old raisin-head turn, but he craned forward to get a better look as she walked down the hall. And if that's not stone cold proof, I don't know what is.

Posted by bpadams at 01:46 PM | Comments (11)

October 27, 2003

Kill Bill

I ran into a friend on the bus this morning, and we were making chit chat.

"I saw 'Kill Bill' this weekend," says me.

"Oh. You like that kind of movie?" says she.

I had to laugh out loud because that's actually a fairly accurate review. It's that kind of movie. You know, the one that you're supposed to really like. Because there are all these really goofy shots, like the one where you see the closeup of the gun firing the bullet. Because the dialog is really kitschy, like where Lucy says, "You didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?" and Uma says back, "You know, for a second there, yeah, I kind of did." Because it's completely off the wall, like the extended anime sequence. Or just because it's clever, like the cereal box that says Kaboom on it.

Or, most of all, because Roger liked it.

But I don't think I did like it. For starters, there was no story. I recognize that this movie wasn't about plot, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have one. I didn't expect a lengthy exposition about what was going on, but it would be nice to feel like it all makes sense in someone's head. I disagree with Roger here: he says that you get the sense that there's a parallel universe where it all makes sense. I didn't get that sense at all. I got the sense that I was supposed to get that sense without actually getting that sense itself, if that makes any sense.

I also felt like the dialog was a little overcooked. The swearing, in particular, was disappointing. Not because I don't like swears -- a quick perusal of this blog should convince you -- but because the swearing was not well done. It felt planned and scripted whereas the best swears come boiling out of a desperate need to say the word FUCK. Listen to the swears by Vivica in the kitchen scene. All the "well let's go, bitch" stuff sounds like a 13 year old, and she's supposed to be some violent killer, code name Copperhead. Contrast it with Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Every swear that comes out of his fucking mouth is perfect. Maybe it's because girls can't swear as well as guys, I don't know. It just didn't work for me.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like violent movies, and I thought the violence in this movie was pretty ok. I didn't get the wanna-get-up-and-punch-someone thrill that I usually associate with a great action flick, but it was ok. And I get QT's jokes -- he's very clever and self-referential (shift-F7, suggested word: vain). I like the part where Uma makes the square with her hand just like in Pulp Fiction. I like Daryl Hannah's fungible eye patch, like Christina Lindberg's from "They Call Her One Eye." The Yellow Bruce Lee Outfit. All very clever.

But that was it: I felt more appreciation for this movie than actual affection. I felt like, if I were a film professor, I would probably give this movie an A, but I wouldn't make a copy for my secret stash. And when it costs $10 to see a freaking movie, I better like it a whole lot more than that.

Posted by bpadams at 10:14 AM | Comments (13)

October 25, 2003

World Champion Florida Marlins

It just sounds wrong, doesn't it?

Posted by bpadams at 11:02 PM | Comments (4)

October 24, 2003

Ebert Review Review

Pieces of April / *** / ***1/2

Written by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert's work is instantly recognizable, and this review exemplifies why he's the best movie critic working today.

Staple Number One, demonstrated in the first section of this review, is his encyclopedic knowledge of movies, and his ability to cross-reference them. Because Pieces of April is a Thanksgiving movie, he proceeds not only to name the best, happiest and most depressing movies, but also the best line, and genre representative. Ebert does this in part, I believe, because he's a shameless academic -- he knows things and wants to tell you the things he knows. But he also does it because he has a love of the enormous body (no puns, please) of movies, and hates to see things discarded or forgotten about simply because every week contains a new deluge of movies. In some ways, this paragraph is a mini version of his "Overlooked Film Festival".

He goes on to examine the substance of the movie through a constructionist lens. Ebert will frequently slice a movie into parts and review them separately to allow the reader to weigh a film's strengths and weaknesses for himself. In this case, he splits off a single story about the main character's boyfriend (he pejoratively labels it a "half plot line" because of its thoughtless nature) and provides his general disapproval of it as offensive and not funny. He doesn't use this as a reason to trash the movie (his three-star rating indicates thumbs-up), nor does he ignore it completely or gloss over it. His unflinching ability to pick a bad part out of a movie (or, alternatively, to pick a single funny part out of an unfunny movie, as in his review of Krippendorf's Tribe) gives Ebert the freedom and flexibility to provide information about a film that you cannot find in other reviewers.

Of course, the review isn't without flaws. He's never been above stealing the best lines from the movie to make his own review funnier, a habit that I find annoying, but pervasive in the field. The problem with this technique is that it's cheap (humor is inserted into the review without having to think of anything funny) and effective (quoting dialog from a movie really does provide a sense of the movie's tone). However, when read before viewing a movie, this technique leaves you waiting for the funny lines instead of being surprised by them, often times reducing what would have been a legitimate laugh to something more akin to a rueful chuckle. Perhaps there's no way to convey the humor of a movie's jokes without retelling them, but I believe Ebert is good enough to try.

He ends with two additional classic Ebert devices: speculation about cause, and a prediction of greatness. The first, an insightful suggestion that this movie ran out of money and is therefore unfortunately truncated, provides a very specific sense that the ending is disappointing. But it's a specific kind of disappointing ending: it's not misguided, merely unintended. Ebert is obviously a movie industry insider, and it's worth noting he based an entire review on this kind of speculative knowledge, to great effect, in his review of Two Girls and a Guy. The second device, his prediction of great things from director Peter Hedges echos similar predictions he's made over time, most notably at the beginning of his review of Reservoir Dogs.

If you're looking for a place to jump into Ebert's reviews, this is a great place to start. As an example, it's fairly common, if well done -- a forgettable movie is carefully examined and found to be decent, but flawed. However, the richness of the review points to bigger cinematic ideas which are worthy of our attention. Ebert always finds a way to properly position a film in the constellation of movie history, and this review is no exception. For the deeper Ebertphile, his review reminds you of previous great Thanksgiving movies, and previous great Thanksgiving movie reviews, and the warm memories of both is his personal gift to you.

And even if you thought the review sucked, reading it it beats the hell out of actually working.

Posted by bpadams at 11:21 AM | Comments (5)

October 23, 2003

Something's Wrong

The minute I stepped outside this morning, I knew something was wrong.

It wasn't the foot tape. Before I go running in the mornings, I always have to tape up my pathologically flat feet. Among many other fun gifts like ear hair and a smart mouth, my dad has generously dipped into the gene pool and given me feet like a duck. So if I don't wear two pairs of socks and tape the outer pair to my shoe inserts, I get these quarter-sized blisters which, while fun for making scabs which can be assembled into little dolls I like to call Mrs. Scabby, don't contribute to my running fast.

It also wasn't the paper-clipped headphones. Every freaking pair of headphones I buy get worn out in about a week. But they don't completely break, allowing me to toss them into the trash with capitalist glee. They linger. One ear will stop playing unless I hold the wire just so. And, since I'm poor, I feel like I have to wring every last note I can out of every pair of headphones, so my time-tested strategy has been to find the offending section of wire, bend it into the maximal-conductivity position, paper clip it still, and then wrap the whole mess in electrical tape. Unfortunately, it makes my headphones look like they have a set of throbbing sores, but hey, it's not a fashion contest.

It's also not the Dik Sok (TM). I came up with the idea of the Dik Sok (TM) one day when I got back from running and found that little Bryan was so cold, he had turned blue. Nothing kick-starts the innovation process like a blue member, so I set about finding something that could keep him warm. It turns out that a brown dress sock, strategically placed and pulled down to cover the "frank" as well as the "beans" (pardon the medical jargon), does the trick. So, every morning, before I go running, I select one of a few specially-designated Dik Soks (TM) to serve as a sleeping bag for my one-eyed friend. I had done that this morning, so it wasn't that.

It was snow. Coming down in dark, wet sheets. On October Fucking Twenty-Third.

Welcome home, Old Man Winter. I've missed you so.

Posted by bpadams at 07:28 AM | Comments (20)

October 22, 2003

I'm With Myself

I got a really short haircut last week that I'm starting to regret. I was hoping it would grow on me over the weekend (rim shot), but so far, the results have been slightly off. I was going for this

but I think I ended up with this

Posted by bpadams at 02:33 PM | Comments (13)

October 21, 2003

Late Nite Crap

  • Seriously, I hate Derek Jeter so much.

  • Want to waste some time? Play this game. My high score is 11.

  • I don't know how, but rice krispie treats and bagels make a good dinner.

    Posted by bpadams at 10:52 PM | Comments (10)
  • Hit Me Baby One (Thousand) More Time(s)

    Yesterday, while I wasn't looking, this blog received its 10,000th visit. Those probably aren't all significant figures -- I know that sitemeter has broken for hours on end from time to time -- but it's significant enough to make me look back.

    The first impression of the blogging community (as seen through Matt) was one of an intellectual utopia. An author would post an idea or joke, and then a chorus of supporters would voice support or admiration through the comments. Everyone got to be their own Johnny Carson, and there was never any shortage of Ed McMahons around to hey-o your witty banter. Who doesn't want to be Johnny?

    So I joined in, and the experience has been good. Better than the tonight show, in fact, because you have to write your own material. And it's that process that I value the most -- the writing. I can't tell you how many times I've sat down to rant about something, only to have the act of writing it down cause me to either change my mind or abandon the idea altogether. And sometimes I try to write something funny and it comes out serious. That process -- thinking that you think one thing, when you actually find out that you believe something else -- is like growing a little plant in your mind. Completely unexpected, and completely wonderful.

    Every bit as unexpected and wonderful, though, is the community. When I look down through the blogroll, I remember something that literally everyone has said that has touched me, or made me laugh, or think, or grit my teeth, or whatever. I'm not a parent, but I've gotten some interesting perspectives on what it means to have kids. I'm not a lawyer, but I have another perspective on why I might want to be one. I'm not in PR, but Greg makes me laugh anyway. And it's all been valuable and irreplaceable. Seeing how others live their mental lives, especially when those mental lives correspond to very different real lives, is an experience that alone almost validates the giant porn network that we call the Internet.

    It hasn't all been great, of course. There have been days that I've struggled to write anything, and there have been long stretches where I hate every word of mine that I see. And I occasionally despair the time spent, both writing something extensive and reading so much stuff. More deeply, I sense that there's something dangerous in the self-affirmation of it all -- the blogging community is so relentlessly liberal, progressive, and supportive that I sometimes wonder if the true exchange of ideas is occasionally muted.

    (Of course, I say that, and yet my exchange with Gopi about voting a few weeks ago was the closest I ever came to wanting to just delete this site and everything associated with it. This is another one of those cases where reading what I just wrote makes me want to punch myself in the groin.)

    I imagine that I'll hang it up someday. I just won't have the time, or I'll screw up the software and never fix it, or it'll just pass out of vogue and I'll stop. But even if I quit today, I would be glad I started. So thanks to everyone who's taken the time to comment or email, and thanks to everyone who's taken the time to share something of themselves in their space.

    But, most of all, thanks to all the errant google searches who were looking for my stamp-picture-taking friend. I never could have reached 10,000 without you.

    Posted by bpadams at 10:30 AM | Comments (14)

    October 20, 2003


    Not buried in desert. The following is a trip summary of everything we did that didn't involve gambling, drinking, or women:

    Posted by bpadams at 02:33 PM | Comments (5)

    October 17, 2003

    Bright Light City Gonna Set My Soul

    I'm leaving this evening for Las Vegas. A frat brother's bachelor party, no less. I'm not sure what we'll be doing, but I'm looking forward to the early-bird brunch specials, a trip to the Hoover Dam, and perhaps a chance to see the new Celine Dion show.


    Anyway, I'm taking the red eye back Sunday night, so if I don't post on Monday, it's because I'm tired. Or buried in the desert with Joe Pesci's corpse. Either way, have a swell weekend.

    Posted by bpadams at 10:25 AM | Comments (7)

    Cowboy Over And Out

    Nobody likes an "I told you so," but ...

    Just a few random thoughts ...

  • I've never seen a crowd quite like the one after the game. It was large, subdued, and profane. You would walk along in silence until meeting eyes with someone, at which point you would utter "Aaron Fucking Boone." Weird.

  • If I ever consume something poisonous, you can easily induce vomiting by showing me a clip of Derek Jeter jumping in the air with that evil grin on his face. I hate Derek Jeter so much.

  • Honestly, tell me: Does anyone give a shit about this World Series?

  • I'll close with a quote that, for me, sums it all up:

    So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb. -- Dark Helmet

    Posted by bpadams at 01:36 AM | Comments (7)
  • October 16, 2003

    Career Update

    It appears I've gone from making crappy music to taking crappy photos that are turned into stamps.

    Posted by bpadams at 03:37 PM | Comments (5)

    Actual Quotes From the Last 24 Hours About the Red Sox

    "If you don't shut up, I'm going to fire you. I'm serious." -- Bar manager, to Yankee-loving employee

    "My wife and kids and in-laws were all so excited, and I said to myself, 'Wow, there's really something here ...'" -- MIT professor

    "Aaaaaaay!" *Thumbs up* -- Mail delivery guy

    "I can't wait for it to end. I just can't go on living like this." -- MIT Assistant Dean for Student Life

    "So who is this Cowboy Up person, exactly?" -- MIT Media Lab Postdoc

    "All this win did was set the stage for an even more cataclysmic choke tonight." -- Me

    Posted by bpadams at 11:38 AM | Comments (4)

    October 15, 2003

    Mood Ring

    There should be some kind of color-coded scheme for how rotten your life has become.

    Ochre: Several days of work ruined by the fact that Windows sockets are not true Win32 event handles.

    Cream: Overslept due to watching 1am showing of Road to Perdition.

    Beige: Red Sox, Cubs both about to choke away a chance at the greatest sporting event of our lives.

    Puce: "Please write a paragraph about the general response to your presentation at your recent conference, as well as your specific research achievements in the past month. If you could send it to me by the end of the day today, that would be great."

    Tan: Rain.

    Let's just say that this is how it's going for me.

    Posted by bpadams at 11:26 AM | Comments (8)

    October 14, 2003

    Head Hunting

    Pedro was wrong. But I know how he feels.

    For those of you who don't live in New England, Pedro Martinez, ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, has incurred the moral wrath of the general public for throwing a baseball at Karim Garcia's head a few days ago. He did it because he was losing, he wasn't pitching well, his team wasn't scoring runs, and he was getting frustrated.

    And I agree it was wrong. He could have hurt someone. But, boy oh boy, can I sympathize.

    I don't know how many people ever get that feeling -- not many, judging by how little sympathy Pedro's getting -- but it's strange. It's not your garden-variety frustration, like you might have with Republicans or traffic. In those cases, there's some asshole out there that desperately needs a punch in the mouth, and you're just frustrated that you can't deliver it. It's a focused, finite kind of frustration. Punch needs to be delivered and is not. End of story.

    This rage is like that, but you suspect that you're the asshole who needs the punch. Oh sure, others are making it worse and not cutting you slack and generally taking this opportunity to kick you while you're down. And you're pissed at them, no question. But, deep down, you know that you're the source of your problems. And, for physical and psychological reasons, you're simply not capable of punching yourself in the mouth.

    So you lash out. You give someone a non-proportional response when they wrong you. You then go to great lengths to defend your overreaction. You start to overreact to your critics, perhaps beginning to drag unrelated matters into the fray. Fuck it -- if we're going to talk about THIS, we might as well talk about THAT. And as more and more people start to point out how defensive and irrational you've become, you start to realize the truth -- everyone is against you. It's a goddamn conspiracy. They've been waiting to let you have it. Well now they have their chance. Ok, go ahead. You just better hope I don't get a chance to lash out at you as well. In fact, I should make a LIST of people I need to lash out at, just so I don't forget anyone.


    One of the drawbacks to being an out-of-the-closet blogger is that you can't always fully explain the facts behind your feelings. I've done some stupid stuff and I've had some stupid stuff done to me, and I'm fighting the urge to take the Pedro route. I know that all I can do is keep trying to throw that good fastball, concentrate on the hitter, trust my defense to make plays. If I step back, I can see it.

    But still. Over the next seven days, I'm going to make a point of not having anything baseball-sized in my hands. Because I can just feel myself really wanting to huck a baseball at someone's head.

    Posted by bpadams at 12:06 PM | Comments (5)

    October 13, 2003

    Time Off

    Second-best option: Get caught up on work, answer emails, do laundry, organize finances, return phone calls, wash car.

    Best option: Golf with the guys.

    Posted by bpadams at 09:04 PM | Comments (4)

    October 10, 2003

    I don't have much to

    I don't have much to say today, but the late Neil Postman does, so I'll leave it to him.

    The message [delivered by computers] is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous. In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people -- perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

    Posted by bpadams at 11:02 AM | Comments (4)

    October 09, 2003

    O'Reilly Is A Jerk

    If you have some free time, listen to Bill O'Reilly's interview on NPR. As Milhouse would say, "[He]'s got problems. Scaaaaaaary problems."

    Posted by bpadams at 04:16 PM | Comments (2)

    The Up Series

    The Red Sox, who were sort of pathetic losers a week ago, are now the hottest thing in Boston. And their slogan, "Cowboy Up," has become the "Who Let The Dogs Out?" of Fall, 2003. Roughly speaking, it refers to the idea that you've "fallen off your horse" and would like to "get back in the saddle," but your "ass hurts" and you'd kind of like to "find a career that doesn't involve riding angry animals." But instead of "giving up," you "Cowboy Up," and hop back on. There's also an optional head shaving component which has a more dubious connection to the metaphor.

    Anyway, it's the new black. I said it today at an MIT committee meeting, and it was greeted with grins and chuckles. So, in the few moments we have here before it gets merchandised and overexposed, I'd like to try to expand the idea. Cowboys aren't the only ones who overcome adversity, you know! Here are some other careers that could lend their solution methods to the popular lexicon:

    Grad Student Up
    Meaning: Take a painfully academic and impractical approach to solving your problem.
    Examples: NASA, Microsoft, Oakland Athletics
    Outlook: Poor

    President Up
    Meaning: Plow through your problems without regard for what anyone else says, thinks, or does.
    Examples: Keyser Soze, Jonathan Ogden, Bulldozers
    Outlook: Good

    Lawyer Up
    Meaning: Overcome your problems using legal remedies
    Examples: OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Winona Ryder
    Outlook: Very good.

    Strategy Consultant Up
    Meaning: Use powerpoint slides to explain away your problems
    Examples: Strategy Consultants, Professors
    Outlook: Lucrative

    Sanitation Worker Up
    Meaning: Toss your problems into a vehicle, where they are squashed up
    Examples: Mobsters, Pizza Delivery Guy, Parents on vacation with children
    Outlook: Mixed

    Posted by bpadams at 12:29 PM | Comments (3)

    October 08, 2003

    How To Make Your Vote Matter

    I feel sort of bad that I bitched about the voting process without adding anything to the conversation. So let me amend my ways and bore you with one more post about voting. Then I promise to go back to jokes about spam and whatnot.

    Bryan's Statistical Democracy Model

    If we truly accept the premise that our current voting machines provide a wildly inaccurate estimate of the public will, then why not try something different? Why not use the technology we have at our disposal? Why not put the math we've discovered to work. Specifically: why don't we use random sampling?

    Random sampling is a time-tested, mother-approved method of estimating really-hard-to-find-out numbers. Let's say you have a giant bag of marbles, some red, some blue. You want to know how many are red and how many are blue, but you don't want to spill them all out and count them. So you pull out, say, 100 at random. If 62 are red and 38 are blue, then you would estimate that 62% of the marbles are red and 38% are blue. And, depending on the size of the bag and how many more marbles you pull out, you can eventually say that you're 99% sure that your estimates are off by no more than 5% (the confidence and error rates, respectively).

    That's the basic theory behind this method. We have a giant bag of voters, and we'd like to know who they're voting for. So we pull a subgroup out of a bag, examine them, and use those results. But how would it really work? For example, how do we set the confidence and error parameters?

    Well, the error rate is fairly easy to set. We already have some idea about the lower bound on the amount of error we'll accept from the Florida fiasco. There were 6 million votes cast in Florida, and 170,000 of them were disqualified as over- or under-votes. Some undervotes may have been intentional, but I'm going to leave out the errors due to the butterfly ballots, so we'll call it even. That leaves us with an error rate of 2.83%.

    How do we set the confidence margin? This is a tricky one, because there's no real equivalent parameter in the current system. What's the likelihood that the error in measuring the will of the public falls outside our "acceptable" error rate? I have no idea, so let's set it really high -- 99%.

    So you plug those numbers into this web page, and you find out that, to estimate the will of Florida's typically-voting public, you'd have to poll just 2071 people. That's it! In fact, this number even works for much larger populations (even, say, the whole population of Florida), simply because the odds of 2071 randomly-chosen people not actually being random are astronomical.

    Of course, there are issues. You would need some way of choosing people that is truly random. But such methods exist -- there are entire subfields of mathematics dedicated to the study of random numbers. You'd also have to have a way of making sure that you got votes from the random voters chosen -- you don't want sample bias to creep in because some people are at work and other at home. But we already have a small army of people dedicated to election administration. In fact, this page says that there were 3500 people involved in election administration in Dade county alone. So you could send a small team of people to track down each random voter, find him/her at work, in the living room, at mom's house, wherever, and get his/her vote. In fact, it would probably be much cheaper than the current method.

    But perhaps the best byproduct of this new system will be that everyone gets a chance to participate. Instead of having the huge selection bias of "people who can take an hour from their day to tromp down the the local VFW," you'd be back to the bias of people who are registered. And because anyone who's registered is eligible to be called on, it might encourage people to study up and be ready. We could even televise the whole thing and put it on Fox. Imagine how much fun it would be! Who Wants to Elect The Next President?

    I suppose it's possible that someone who knows nothing will choose a candidate for a bad reason ... but, then again, California just elected Arnie as governor when 64% of the people said he didn't address the issues. So you tell me, what's the worst thing that could happen?

    Posted by bpadams at 01:08 PM | Comments (3)

    October 06, 2003


    If you had told me that the Red Sox were going to come back and beat the A's, I wouldn't have believed you. And yet -- they'll be playing the Yankees for the AL crown in a few days.

    I'm a considerate fan. I'm not technically a Sox fan, but I've lived in the heart of Red Sox Nation long enough to have more than a casual interest. Which is why I'm not going to start tossing phrases like "This is the year" around lightly, what with jinxes and curses and whatnot.

    But I am going to sit here quietly, with a wake-the-you-know-who-up-and-I'll-drill-him-in-the-ass look on my face.

    Posted by bpadams at 11:40 PM | Comments (0)

    The Thing About Love

    It always gets you just right where you're not looking. It's like it knows where you're headed, and it doesn't try to beat you there, it just changes where the finish line is. Or it's like you're trying to box with it, when suddenly it wants to arm wrestle. Or you're standing in, looking for the hard slider when it tosses you a frisbee. It's like all that and more.

    More concretely, here's what it's like. We're on one of our endless shop-a-thons, where Sonia needs to get material for her couch upholstery project. We're in that consumer trance where we're looking at merchandise that we would never in a million years consider buying and thinking, "Boy, I could really use a new condiment set." It's a nightmare. A shoe store leads directly to a denim store which requires a trip to the leather store and what the hell were we looking for again oh yeah batting for the couch oh hey look at this bookstore.

    So we're in a bookstore, in an altered state. Walking up and down the aisles, looking at books that, even if they were free, we would never read. The Culture Wars. Who Was Joe Fabeets? Religions of Indochina. My eyes are passing over the covers, the words are forming ideas in my mind, and my mind is writing the ideas down, crumpling them up, and throwing them away.

    And yet ... there's the bookstore ethos happening, where everyone's pretending like they're quietly discovering life's little secrets. You've got your hippie with a long grey pony tail reading about religion. The prim horn-rimmed spinster carefully mulling through the home and gardening section. A fat guy in self-help. You know. We all love the bookstore.

    Suddenly, Sonia turns around and pronounces loudly, "This bookstore is making me sleepy." Several eavesdroppers chuckle and I laugh out loud. "Yeah," I say, "This place sucks. Let's get out of here." So we went to the fabric store.

    Which is sort of the whole point. Normally, my intellectual ego would never let me just openly admit that that bookstore was boring. It's just not in my nature. Any even pseudo-intellectual pursuit gets the full-on "I'm smart enough to figure this out" treatment, even when a "Who the hell gives a flying copulation about this stupid bookstore?" would do. In swoops Sonia, who's every bit the intellectual I am, and she doesn't care about some stupid mental construct of the self as the thinker and says, "Hey! This place sucks, let's go somewhere else." And suddenly, I'm somewhere unexpected and wonderful, like the fabric store.

    She's done that a million times before, on a million different levels. I thought I wanted someone who'd match wits with me on political issues, and she mostly doesn't care. I thought I wanted someone who's old and wise, she's young and energetic. I thought I wanted someone who's into humanities, and she's into science. But every time, in every way, it turns out she knew what I wanted even before I did. It's an amazing experience to be spinning, spinning, spinning, and suddenly, then CHUNK! and you're actually going somewhere. It's like a bike chain that suddenly catches, and you go from a training wheels to Lance Armstrong. It's like getting a bad grade on a test, but then getting to peek at the solutions for your retest anyway. It's like making three wrong turns that suddenly get you going the right way.

    I don't think I can articulate how wonderful it feels, but let me try: It's fucking awesome.

    Posted by bpadams at 09:39 PM | Comments (9)

    October 03, 2003

    Friday Haiku

    It's so cold outside
    this morning, even the rats
    have little scarves on.

    I've had enough Rush
    this week to last a lifetime.
    Even his hair sucks.

    And what can be said
    about our struggling Sox?
    Except that they fuck up anything that's related to them in any way.

    Lab group meeting at
    three-thirty. I speed off for
    Montreal after.

    Vermont foliage,
    quaint little New England towns,
    I go eighty-five.

    Going to see the
    Montreal Alouettes, who
    ruined this stanza.

    What the hell is an
    Alouette? Maybe it's French
    for "Haiku Buster."

    Anyway, I wish
    a pleasant weekend to all.
    Except: Rush, A's, Yanks.

    Posted by bpadams at 10:38 AM | Comments (5)

    October 02, 2003


    Rush Limbaugh resigned. I suppose it's a good thing.

    But, I don't know. It bugs me that he can say "They [blacks] are 12% of the population. Who the hell cares?" on his show with complete impunity. That's fine. He's one of the most popular guys on the radio.

    But when he says he doesn't think Donovan McNabb is a good quarterback, suddenly there's an outcry? I fully realize that I'm implicating myself here, but why is it that we only seems to care about sensitivity to minorities who can run fast or throw things really hard? Why are we taking something said about sports more seriously than we take something said about our political system? Why does a slur about a black million-dollar quarterback get more media coverage than a slur about black kids singing for a charity?

    Sometimes, even a win feels like a loss.

    I need to clarify myself, since your insightful comments are pointing out how poorly the original post expresses my frustration. This will teach me to try to be brief ...

    My problem isn't that Rush was condemned in this venue -- I think that's right and appropriate. My problem is that he regularly gets away with saying much worse on his radio show and no one cares. It's tolerated, even by liberals like me, because we think he's some kind of radical, far-right-wing voice for a small group of nutcases.

    He's not. His national radio show has 12 million listeners, more than any regular television show. He's number one in 8 of the top 10 radio markets. And the proof is in the pudding -- his presence boosted the viewership of the ESPN's pregame show by 10%. To suggest that he isn't a mainstream personality defies the definition of mainstream.

    So, I guess what I'm saying is this: I don't actually feel all that great about my small part in helping knock him off the show. It hasn't changed anything. All it's done is allowed me to go back to pretending like there isn't a huge contingent of Americans who love him and his show.

    This outcome isn't a step forward -- it's a step back. Instead of using sports as a platform to address a serious racial issue, we've made sure that some racial issue doesn't get in the way of our enjoyment of football.

    But what can you do? Money talks and everything else walks. I'm just going to go back to muttering into my tea ...

    Posted by bpadams at 10:47 AM | Comments (13)

    October 01, 2003

    Frankenly Speaking

    I saw Al Franken speak two nights ago, and I bought his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Because one of my labmates used to work as his personal assistant, I got to sit very close, meet his wife, and rub elbows with TeamFranken, the dorkbutt Harvies who researched his book.

    Franken's a great speaker, and preaching liberalism in Massachusetts is kind of like singing hymns in church. Even if we know the words and music, it's nice to hear. The book is extremely interesting -- I've now read the first 220 pages (maybe 50 to go), and I will post something more thoughtful about it when I've had a chance to finish reading. But there's something first that just can't wait.

    What the hell is wrong with Rush Limbaugh? I mean, seriously. Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (really hilarious), was among the first to point out what a horrible, horrible man he is. Lambasting the poor when he took unemployment, impugning the patriotism of liberals when he didn't even register to vote until age 35, constantly preaching about the need for self-restraint and family values when he's a fat cow who's had three wives -- it's all in there.

    Now, as you've probably heard, he's on the ESPN NFL pregame show. And, in a shocking turn of events that were completely unforeseeable, he said something stupid. Talking about struggling Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, he said, "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."

    Anyone with a passing interest in either football or soup knows that Donovan McNabb is a great quarterback. He won a game last year on a broken leg. Two-time Pro Bowler (voted on by the players). The guy can throw the ball out of the stadium. He can run, and he's as big as a house. Is he the best quarterback in the league? No -- that's Michael Vick (who, by the way, is also black). But the bottom line is that 1, he's wrong, McNabb is great and 2, the issue of black quarterbacks has been dead ever since Doug Williams won the Super Bowl after spending his whole life as a black quarterback.

    So Limbaugh is stupid and a bad football commentator. No surprise. But when you type "African" into the search engine on his own site, you come up with this quote: "As I said to Marta, 'Do you know who is continuing all this [racial unrest]? It's not the mainstream population. It is these elected black leaders, the civil rights coalitions.' They're the ones that keep causing this racial divide. They're the ones that keep calling attention to all this. They're the ones that keep stirring this pot. They're the ones who don't want there to be any color-blind society. They're the ones who are agitated and trying to agitate others ..."

    Ok, Rush. Whatever you say. Why don't you go have another donut? I'm pegging you as a powdered sugar man ...

    Posted by bpadams at 10:36 AM | Comments (15)