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February 2003 Archives

Explanations are not excuses

I've been struggling with procrastination for a while now, and I think I have a bit more insight into the mattter now.

I just finished reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. It's an overview of what we know about the workings of the mind so far. The parts I found most interesting were about looking at human emotions from an evolutionary psychology perspective.

At one point, Pinker discusses the different attitudes men and women have toward sex. Men are more promiscuously minded because they lose little and gain much by impregnating as many women as possible. On the other hand, child-bearing is a big investment for women, so they are picky about finding a man who is willing to help raise the child. These are the instincts that evolution gave our foraging ancestors over the course of millions of years.

This sort of research is often controversial, as you might imagine. Pinker thus repeatedly points out the importance of separating science and morality. If something turns out to be "natural", that does not necessarily mean it's good. We should not use science to justify morality, and we should not use morality to deny scientific results.

That's a really important lesson, I think. For instance, just because men have a tendency to want sex with many different women doesn't mean we should necessarily give in to those impulses. Likewise, just because the tendency has negative consequences doesn't make it unnatural, and it doesn't mean the researchers are misogynists trying to justify their sexism. The whole point is that the explanation is not an excuse in the first place.

If it's not to excuse male piggishness, then what is the purpose of the research? Well, apart from pure scientific curiosity, I think that better understanding of our nature can show us where we need to double our efforts. If a married man has a wandering eye, he may now have a better idea of what to fight against.

When two groups of people have conflicting interests, violence is a very "natural" way of resolving things. Again, that doesn't mean it's right, but it does mean we can use what we understand about game theory and group conflict psychology to struggle for peace. As Pinker points out, telling people to "smile on your brother" just isn't enough. Peace does not come naturally.

(Tania is doing exactly this kind of research in Northern Ireland. She's studying the interaction of Catholic and Protestant children over Internet chatrooms to better understand the nature of intergroup conflict.)

And then he talks about something very personal to me. Pinker discusses our tendency to seek immediate gratification when we know that patience would benefit us in the long run. His explanation is that our ancestors' lives were shorter, and the future was less predictable. Thus, immediate gratification often was the better gamble.

So what does this mean? It means that we all have this tendency, so I might perhaps have a slightly overdeveloped sense of immediate gratification, causing me to procrastinate more. Of course, I shouldn't just call myself "naturally weak-willed" and give up. Nor should I nebulously "try harder" to "just work". What it means is that there is a specific psychological mechanism that I'm fighting, and I need to be smart about fighting it. If my brain is seeing delayed gratification as a sucker's bet, then I need to artificially manipulate the game. I need to find ways of convincing my brain to do the right thing.

Pinker may have explained my procrastination, but he hasn't excused it. Now it's up to me to put that explanation to good use.

It's a terrible day in the neighborhood...

Fred "Mister" Rogers died of stomach cancer today. [AP] [AICN]

Ari Fleischer laughed off the stage

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was fielding questions about whether the US has been giving Mexico and other countries incentives for their support in the war on Iraq. Eventually, he said, "...think about the implications of what you're saying. You're saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable. And that is not an acceptable proposition." At that point, the journalists started laughing at him. He quickly said, "Thank you," and left the room.

Paul showed me the story from this blog. Even better is the C-SPAN footage in RealVideo format.

All-electronic paper

So I have a Citibank credit card, and I use their All-Electronic feature, meaning I handle all my bills and notifications via email and web. No paper. It's worked great so far.

I recently received this letter through the mail. "This notification is part of the All-Electronic feature you enrolled in to stop receiving your statements in the mail."


Menaces of the Dark

First: From Paul comes a link to this delightfully quixotic adventure. The page sometimes takes a while to load, but trust me: It's worth it.

Second: Three mysterious ships have been sailing around the oceans. They get resupplied out at sea, and they've been maintaining radio silence in violation of international maritime law. Our gov't suspects that they contain Iraqi weapons, but they don't dare try to board lest the crews scuttle their ships, possibly contaminating the water. This just sounds so Hollywood to me. I mean, can you picture it?


Storm clouds are gathering. In the distance, the silhouettes of three LARGE CARGO SHIPS sail in formation. SUDDENLY, a periscope rises from the waves, followed by the conning tower of a jet-black NUCLEAR SUBMARINE. The hatch opens, and JAMES BOND 007 emerges, in full scuba gear. Ten-foot waves pound the side of the vessel. CLOSEUP on BOND as he adjusts his facemask and prepares to jump.

SEXY RUSSIAN SPY (V.O. via radio)

Return safe, James. You also have biological weapon I must inspect!

BOND pauses for a moment of contemplation. He then dives into the water, and the SUBMARINE descends into the depths of the ocean. The waves roll unimpeded once more as the CARGO SHIPS drift alone. Heavy rain begins to fall. The storm has arrived.

Shut up and keep quiet

As you may know, right after Powell's speech to the Security Council, ten Central and Eastern European countries released a statement in support of the US. At an EU meeting on the 18th, French President Jacques Chirac complained about their support in general and this statement in particular. He was harsh enough to say that they had "missed a good opportunity to shut up." But then I noticed that a different website quoted him as, "...they missed a good opporutnity to keep quiet." Hm!

So they were obviously independent translations from French, but which was right? At first I thought this was another example of biased journalism, but just as I was about to look into which sites used which translation, I noticed that the BBC was carrying one article with "shut up" and another article with "keep quiet". So I decided it was probably just a very ambiguous term to translate. I asked Sarah, one of Nile's bridesmaids, for help. She's currently living in Paris. Here was her response:

So, here is the quotation, in French.

"Donc je crois qu'ils ont manqué une bonne occasion de se taire", a dit le président français. (From Le Monde newspaper, 18/02/03)

Literally, I would translate it as "they missed a good opportunity to not say anything". However, there isn't really a polite, politician way of saying "shut up" in French. So, depending on the tone, I would say either translation stands. Given the context of the speech, I would say that it was probably more on the "shut up" level. That's the problem with these subtle languages!

So, there you go.

Here's a Le Monde article I found, btw. I still don't know French, but I just searched for "de se taire". :)

Translation is so fun, even when I don't know one of the languages! I guess it didn't matter much in this case, since "they missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" is still quite the insult anyway, but I can definitely see this sort of thing subtly shaping public opinion. Of course, some "newspapers" aren't so subtle.

NASA proposes 4+ passenger orbital space plane

How on Earth did I manage to miss this story?! [Space.com] [BBC News] NASA is proposing an orbital space plane for "at least 4" astronauts, with relatively little cargo space. They'd use it as a ferry to and from the ISS. They're aiming for a smaller craft than the 6 or 7 passengers of the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. I totally think using a small passenger vehicle and a separate expendable cargo-only vehicle is the way to go.

Korean Counterfactuals

So I was just reading about North Korea threatening to pull out of the armistice. It worries me that Kim Jong Il might just be nutty enough to actually launch a preemptive strike. I thought to myself, "I'm glad I don't live in Seoul." And then I thought, "Hm. Well, I suppose I'm even more glad I don't live in North Korea," given that life pretty much really sucks there.

In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter talks about the issue of "counterfactuals". We tend to view some hypothetical events as "more likely" than others. For instance, if a football player misses a pass, we are likely to say, "If only the quarterback threw the ball a tad bit lighter!" We aren't as likely to say, "If only it were raining, causing the runner to run slower, and making the quarterback be more careful about his throw!" We are even less likely to say, "If only the Earth had more mass, making gravity stronger, and thus causing the pass to travel a bit less far!" In a sense, all of those simply aren't true, and it's pointless to argue which is "more likely". But of course intuitive sense that some things require a smaller mental adjustment than others does make a lot of sense.

So why did I think of being in Seoul first? I'm not actually considering living in either country, so the odds of both are virtually nil. In fact, I was born in a Communist country, so I could easily have thought in those terms; I could have decided that I was "more likely" to have been born in Pyongyang than in Seoul. But I didn't. This is probably because South Korea is a "modern Westernized" society; it's on that basis that I could much more easily picture myself living there than in North Korea. It means that I saw capitalist Westernism as a bigger part of me than Communism.

This is hardly an Earth-shattering revelation, of course, but I found it kind of interesting to do a little analysis rather than just take it for granted. Besides, the issues about counterfactuals that Hofstadter discusses are what inspired me to call my site subjunctive.net in the first place. :)

Movie: About Schmidt

[ IMDb Entry ] [ Rating Key ]

Toast Toast Toast

This is a story about "a sad man", as one character calls him. Warren Schmidt, very quietly played by Jack Nicholson, has just retired, but he hasn't really accomplished anything his entire life. Some young guy easily takes over the his job of 40 years at an insurance company. He doesn't have much of a relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his daughter is worse. He has good intentions, but he is nonetheless a failure. As James Berardinelli says in his review, Warren Schmidt is "the kind of man that we often meet in real life, but rarely see on screen."

About Schmidt isn't the full-fledged farce that the wonderful Election (director Alexander Payne's previous film) was, but it can be very darkly funny at times. Still, despite the humor, and despite the nominally happy ending, this is a tragic story about a lonely man. It's all the more sad because the tragedy is not cataclysmic; it's utterly ordinary. The story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we go through life on autopilot. Warren Schmidt has always thought that must be doing the right thing if he has a job, a wife, and a child. When he loses them, one by one, it might be too late to finally start thinking things through.

No review of About Schmidt would be complete without a mention of Nicholson's performance. He's known for being flamboyant and full of life. Here, he is subdued and pathetic. The flamboyance in this film belongs to Roberta (Kathy Bates), the polar opposite of Warren Schmidt. Whether she's displaying joy or anger, Roberta is frighteningly enthusiastic. Kathy Bates is just never boring.

I was surprised by the emotional effect this movie had on me. I think it's partly because the lessons can apply just as much to those of us experiencing "quarter-life crises" and partly because I fear that it applies all too directly to certain people who are close to me.

Movie: Daredevil

[ IMDb Entry ] [ Rating Key ]

Toast Toast Toast and a half

I'm so happy that comic book movies are finally being done right. Not only that, but I think Daredevil was better than both X-Men and Spider-Man. What's amazing is that Daredevil achieves this through focusing on the characters, rather than through special effects.

I've never despised Ben Affleck like some people have. I guess it's probably because I saw him first in Chasing Amy, where he was quite good, and then when Good Will Hunting came out, well, he grew up in the Boston area, and that movie was partially filmed at MIT. I know I'm not really a native Cantabrigian, but I still think of him as "one of our boys" or something, maybe. (One of Tania's friends recently told me that Ben Affleck's mom was his landlord for a while when he was living in Cambridge. "My son is an actor," she told him when he moved in, and he didn't think much of it till later!) In any case, even those who hate him have had to admit that he does a great job as Matt Murdock in this movie.

Matt Murdock lost his sight as a kid, but in exchange his other senses (especially sound) were heightened to the point where it could almost double as vision. This "sonar vision" was the movie's most important special effect, and it served the plot. It looks just like what you imagine the world might look like if we could "see" sound. There were some technincal nits I could pick, but the effect was clearly made by people who wanted it to make some sense, and that pleases geeks like me very much. The director never overuses it, though. The effects in this movie rarely feel gratuitious. In fact, they often assist key emotional moments. Without spoiling the movie, I have to mention that the bit with the umbrella was brilliant.

The movie is primarily about Matt Murdock coming to terms with his anger over his father's death. (What superhero movie isn't?) The plot is developed with a reasonable amount of convincing emotion, but it's not going to win any Oscars any time soon. The same is true for his love story with Elektra. Jennifer Garner, whom you may know from Alias, is becoming a major star. She's attractive, she can kick ass, and she can even act! The chemistry between the leads is decent, but it's the use of Murdock's sonar vision to further the relationship that make it really interesting.

Another rising star, Colin Farrell, was absolutely delightful to watch as the henchman Bullseye. Bullseye is an artist of his craft, throwing things with perfect accuracy, but he's an insecure artist. He's nervous and twitchy, not unlike Barry Egan from last review, actually. Bullseye is the best "supervillain" I've seen on screen in a while, and he achieves that with character, not flashy effects!

The enormous Michael Clarke Duncan plays the head villain, Kingpin, with what can only be called an amazing presence. I'll bet every other review of this movie uses those exact words, but I just can't deny it. He's in charge of all the crime in New York City. He knows it. We can believe it. And that's that.

This is a character-focused superhero movie where every major character is played by a great actor. (You know, it just occured to me that the kid who plays the young Matt Murdock, Scott Terra, was also pretty darn good.) Both Ben Affleck and the director, Mark Steven Johnson, are fans of the comic, and it shows. The plot could be a bit more interesting, and the villains could be developed a bit more; I'm still waiting for the perfect superhero movie. But in the meantime, this will do.

Movie: Punch-Drunk Love

[ IMDb Entry ] [ Rating Key ]

Toast Toast Toast

This is an Adam Sandler art film. I'll let that sink in for a bit. Yes, it stars Adam Sandler, but it's directed by P.T. Anderson, of Boogie Nights and Magnolia fame. A very strange combination, but it works amazingly well. The result is a movie that is a comedy but that can also can very disturbing.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a small business owner with seven sisters who lives in a sense of perpetual nervousness. His sisters call him every few minutes at work and make fun of him when they think he's not listening. Then they just get pissed off when he freaks out now and then and smashes windows or furniture. Anderson takes the same polite yet violent Adam Sander you know from his comedies and shows you the disturbing situations that might have led to such a personality.

The most amazing thing about the movie is the deep sense of uneasiness to projects. There's a scene when Barry is trying to figure out a tough situation at work while his sisters nag him, and a forklift in his warehouse randomly crashes in the background. With the help of a drum-beat soundtrack, the director manages to instill in the viewer a sense of dread, of anxiety, and of being overwhelmed. It makes us vicerally relate to how Barry must be feeling.

I think one ingenious way he achieves the effect is through all the little accidents that happen. Note the way one character randomly falls from his chair. It's complete irrelevant to the plot, but little things like that give us the feeling that we never know what's going to happen next; they add to our anxiety.

My description probably doesn't do the effect justice; it's an emotional experience I have not seen from any other director. I have experienced it once before, though, in Anderson's own Boogie Nights. Those of you who've seen that may recall a scene near the end when a couple of the main characters are sitting in the home of a drug dealer while this Chinese guy in the room keeps setting off very loud firecrackers. Again, Anderson used this device of making the viewers anticipate unimportant but violent events to make us deeply uncomfortable. That scene remains the most memorable scene in Boogie Nights for me. In Punch Drunk Love, he uses the effect throughout the entire film.

And here I haven't even mentioned the love story with one of my favorite actresses, Emily Watson. She does great with what she has here, especially in a very unconventional pillow-talking scene, but I was left very unsatisfied with her interest in Barry. There were some hints at why she liked him, but I wish they could have expanded on that a bit more.

Likewise, there was a subplot involving people who wanted to physically hurt Barry. I felt that the sense of anticipation was enough without threat of actual violence. That felt cheap somehow, but I guess it wasn't a big deal.

The ending also felt a bit too easy, a bit lacking, but this film is so unique that I'd definitely recommend seeing it, if only to experience something that you probably didn't think a movie could make you feel before.

Movie: The Transporter

[ IMDb Entry ] [ Rating Key ]

Toast Toast

This is pretty much the epitome of a dumb action movie. It stars Jason Statham, who's pumped a whole lot of iron since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It's set in Europe, where Statham's character is a no-questions-asked courier for unsavory types. One of his packages turns out to be Shu Qi, though. He thinks she's cute, and so action ensues. Those of you who know she's starred in Asian softporn shouldn't get too excited. She's cute, but this movie is very PG-13. (That's pretty much all she's in this movie for, btw, to stand around and be cute.)

There's really not that much to say about the plot. In a characteristic scene, the bad guys get away in their trucks, and the hero commandeers an airplane to catch up to them. The problem: He had no way of knowing where they were going!

I also had a nitpick about the fighting: There are scenes where Statham does high-kicks and knocks bad guys out... and you can clearly see that all he does is tap them lightly on the forehead while they fly back. Aside from the European setting, there's really not much to set this movie apart from any of a number of other action flicks. Still, I was in just the mood to watch something like this when I watched it a couple of months ago, which is pretty much the only reason it's getting 2 stars instead of less. So if you're in the kind of mood where you just want to see lots of bullets, explosions, and choreographed fighting, with some occasional humor and a cute girl, then you'll probably want to tune in when this shows up on cable.

404: Weapons Not Found

This link appears to be broken.

HTML in comments

The latest version of Movable Type has HTML tag filtering support, so I've enabled some HTML tags in the comments now:

a href, b, i, tt, big, small, sub, sup, and del.

Linebreaks will still be added automatically, as before, so you don't have to worry about paragraph tags.

The one regression is that URLs are no longer automatically turned into links. If you put a link in the comments, please use an "a href" tag on appropriate text.

Oh yeah.. I should add that the article titles are now (somewhat hidden) permament links to the articles (same as the link on the post date). I learned this trick from Ars Technica.

Bitter Valentine's Day, everybody!

Okay, so I'm actually in a pretty decent mood today, but I'm probably expected to act bitter, so I'll play the part. Thus, I shall point you to this Area337 Valentine's Day card from two years ago. Area 337 is a pretty fun strip, btw.

Age of the Universe and other fun measurements!

NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has determined that the age of the Universe is 13.7 billion years, with only 1% margin of error. Here is a NASA article about the discoveries, and a more detailed (but still for the general public) WMAP mission results page. The latter contains many nifty graphics, including a snail-like alien with rayguns!

Other results:

  • The Universe is 4% atoms, 23% dark matter, and 73% dark energy, which means that its geometry is pretty much Euclidean.
  • The Universe will expand forever.
  • An all-sky picture of Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (which is left over from the Big Bang itself).
  • The first stars ignited 200 million years after the Big Bang, sooner than was expected.
  • And finally, miscellaneous new data that strengthen the Big Bang and Inflationary Theory (which I've yet to intuitively grok).

Nothing of these results are Earth-shattering, as they're mostly refinements, and there's still debate about the accuracy of some of this stuff, but it's still a fun-filled bag of goodies. :)

Update (Feb-13): Here's a slightly more technical article on the results.

When becoming sane is insane

A federal appeals court ruled 6-5 that the state of Arkansas can forcibly give medication to an insane inmate to make him sane enough to execute. (Federal law prohibits execution of the mentally ill, you see.)

It seems to me that this violates the whole spirit of amnesty for the insane. Shouldn't the deciding factor be whether they were insane at the time of the murder, and not whether they're sane now? I mean, why on Earth should their current sanity affect whether or not they're executed? It just all seems pretty insane to me.

MacFootball and the Meaning of Life

[MacFootball Screenshot] So I've found myself playing MacFootball a lot lately. For the uninitiated, it's this football game originally written for the old 9" screen black and white Macs. The version I have has color support, but it dates way back to 1988! And it still runs today!

In this game, you get a choice of 9 running/passing plays, and you can also punt and whatnot. Unlike more modern football games, it doesn't show you new-fangled eye-candy like "players". Kids these days! In MacFootball, when you choose a play, it just prints out what happens and then slides this little football-shaped position mark down the field to your new position. Brilliant in its simplicity! :) This is also probably why it still runs 15 years later. :P

Anyway, despite the simplicity, I've found that it makes for a nice distraction. Playing a whole game only takes 10-15 minutes. In that span, I get all the ups and downs of anticipation, good fortune, relief, and frustration. There is some skill involved in the game with regard to the best play at any given time, but there is enough of a random factor that I still only manage to win just over half the time. And that's the key, I think.

You see, with many computer games, I either get good enough so that it's no longer a challenge, or I just can't master it... With MacFootball, I manage to win often enough not to be discouraged, but I lose often enough that the victories feel like they mean something. Okay, they don't really mean a whole hell of a lot, obviously, but the emotional thrill of winning a game is still there, especially when it's a close call.

So my point is, we need occasional failure in order to value success. It's a concept I've been thinking about a lot lately. Does that mean you shouldn't mind your failures, because they're necessary for success? Well, I don't think that's true either. If I didn't feel at least a bit let down whenever I lose a game at MacFootball, then I likely wouldn't care as much when I win, either. Maybe that's one reason why we sometimes wallow in sadness; it's a way of masochistically "enjoying" the agony of defeat without actually liking it enough to dampen the thrill of victory.

Long live MacFootball!

[Oh, and for those of you with any Mac released after 1987, here is the game itself. The application is only 38K, and this StuffIt archive is less than 18K!]

It's not just CNN...

Back in 1998, UN chief weapons inspector Richard Butler pulled his inspection team out of Iraq, upon word of an impending US attack. (He was also frustrated by Iraq's lack of cooperation.) News agencies all reported that just fine.

This past fall, however, as a new round of inspections were about to begin, nearly every major US news agency casually referred to inspectors as having been "kicked out" or "expelled" in 1998. This list of quotes from then and now is really quite striking, especially since it's not just CNN that's guilty, but the other networks, the major newspapers, and NPR, as well.

In accordance with Hanlon's Razor, I'm guessing someone in the gov't said "expelled" first, and the media just didn't do their research and went along with it. Still very sloppy journalism at best.

"Arafat gets asinine plea from PETA"

So I saw this headline: "Arafat gets asinine plea from PETA on intefadeh", and I thought to myself, "This has got to be good." :)

Telling on the government

Channel 4 (one of five national broadcast TV stations in the UK) has reported that the recent UK gov't dossier on Iraq is plagarized from various sources, include a California grad student's paper. And that's copy and pasting, mind you, complete with typos! According to the BBC report on the incident, the government's response was: "As the report itself makes clear, it was drawn from a number of sources, including intelligence material. It does not identify or credit any sources, but nor does it claim any exclusivity of authorship. We consider the text as published to be accurate." Sheesh!

Now why can't mainstream US media take such a healthy adverserial stance against the gov't? :) I mean, hell, even the Democrats sit in the corner and shut up when the White House says something. Sheesh!

Now that I've said that, though, I feel compelled to complain about people who don't believe that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, people who say they "don't trust" Bush but apparently trust Saddam Hussein. I mean, it's one thing to say more evidence is needed to justify a war, but to be so anti-Bush as to think that Iraq is clean? All I can say is: Sheesh!

Distributed digital investigation

I think this is a pretty interesting sign of the times: Anyone who has video or photos of the shuttle disaster in digital form can upload them to a NASA server to help the investigation.

Their lives for science

[The STS-107 Crew] This may sound trite, but I don't care. Let's forget about politics for a moment. Forget about how the crash will affect future NASA funding. Forget about the Cold War motivations for the original space race. Forget about the diplomatic goals of international cooperation in space and whatnot, about what countries the astronauts were from. The human space program is still in large part about scientific discovery and about inspiring us to reach for distant goals.

Now, each shuttle mission requires the work of thousands, and sometimes it may seem like the astronauts get all the fun and glory. But space flight is an inherently risky business. Atmospheric re-entry in particular is pretty crazy stuff, when you think about it. Unlike most contributors to the space program, the astronauts risk their very lives in service of science, in service of human progress.

Sure, despite the risks, NASA is in no shortage of people who want to be astronauts, but that doesn't make it any less noble a sacrifice. To astronauts Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark, Husband, McCool, and Ramon, and to all other astronauts and cosmonauts past and present: Thank you.

About February 2003

This page contains all entries posted to the klog in February 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2003 is the previous archive.

March 2003 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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