January 29, 2005

Why, Tom Hanks, why?

Last night I watched "The Terminal". It was, um, terrible. If the quality of a movie was judged relative to its potential (e.g. interesting basic premise, directorial and acting talent), this could be one of the worst movies ever made. Incredibly, Mr. Cranky only gave it two bombs ("Consistently annoying"), whereas I would have applied, with neither hesitation nor mercy, his "dynamite" rating:

"So godawful that it ruptured the very fabric of space and time with the sheer overpowering force of its mediocrity."

It's hard to tell what was worse: the fact that they took an interesting and contemporary premise and mauled it savagely, the amateurish writing, the over-the-top acting, or the way they horribly botched both love stories by making one "too Hollywood"[*] and the other "not Hollywood enough"[**]. Here's how I imagine a movie like this gets made. Somebody has a half-decent idea ("let's make a movie about getting stuck in immigration-administrative limbo in a U.S. airport"). They then go to their mortal enemy who wants nothing more than to ruin their career and tell them their idea and ask them to help.

Here are the kinds of, er, important lessons you can learn from The Terminal:

  • People who work in immigration for the Department of Homeland Security are savagely inept and, in some cases, randomly vindictive.
  • The best way to communicate "your government has been overthrown by a coup" to someone who can't speak your language is to smash a bag of potato chips with an apple.
  • Among the few elementary words a foreigner who can't carry on a simple conversation with immigration officials will have at his disposal are "shark", "ghost", and "Dracula."
  • You can leave the U.S. with Canadian-bought drugs (naturally) for your sick goat but not for your dying father.
  • A massive airliner can stop on a dime to avoid running someone over on the tarmac.
  • You can't trust a sex-crazed flight attendant with poorly-made heels.

Here's the question I have at the end of it all: after being in this movie, did Tom Hanks have his agent killed, or did he just fire him? I'm just asking.

[*] Boy woos girl through intermediary; boy proposes to girl via intermediary; girl says yes without ever having met boy; boy and girl drive airport cart through airport on wedding day.

[**] Good boy meets bad girl; boy and girl mutually woo; boy and girl throw away pagers in moment of romance and wild abandon; girl cruelly dumps boy for adulterer who's really good in bed.

Posted by anatole at 11:17 PM | Comments (3)

January 26, 2005

There are no 7-11s on Titan

Note: This entry has been updated.

So, Titan:

Photo: ESA"You can't be there -- but you are. You're seeing the pictures through an artificial eye made for humans by humans. The eye belongs to a probe called Huygens, which landed on Titan over the weekend. It took pictures in ultra-freezing temperatures and sent them 40,000 miles through space to a satellite, which relayed them across the solar system to Earth.

To give you some idea of the distance involved, we're about 93 million miles from the sun. Mars is about 140 million miles from the sun. Titan is about 900 million miles from the sun. In basketball terms, the difference between landing a rover on Mars and landing a probe on Titan is the difference between a layup and a full-court heave.

Actually, we didn't send Huygens directly to Titan. We put it on the back of the satellite, Cassini. We made Cassini fly to Saturn. We threaded it through a tiny crack in Saturn's perilous rings. We put Cassini into a perfect orbit around Saturn, passing this moon, then that, then another, taking pictures the whole time. Just before Christmas, Cassini launched Huygens on a 2.5 million-mile trip to Titan. Huygens survived atmospheric entry and opened three parachutes in sequence, ejecting its heat shields and slowing from 12,000 mph to a gentle landing.

Can you imagine that? A machine that can fly a billion miles, sneak through a hole in Saturn's rings, dance around its moons, fire a 700-pound bullseye from a distance of 2.5 million miles, and retrieve pictures from the ground? What could be more amazing?


We didn't send Cassini straight to Saturn. Given its weight, that was impossible. So we invented a shortcut: We made its route longer. Yes, longer. We sent Cassini around the sun and past Venus for a velocity-boosting "gravity assist" (derived from being slung around the planet) in 1998. Then we sent it around again for two more assists from Venus and Earth in 1999. That gave it enough speed to get to Jupiter for a final gravity assist in 2000, which propelled it to Saturn four years later. The trip required a perfect symphony of projections over seven years, so that Cassini would barely miss each orbiting planet. Total distance: 2.2 billion miles."

Excerpt from Lords of the Rings (Slate.com); Photo: ESA

I mean, damn! The ESA web site has more on Cassini-Huygens, of course -- including sound!

UPDATE: George asked about the low-res quality of the images. The ESA website actually has an impressive volume of information on the Cassini-Huygens instruments. The details there lead me to believe the images are actually that quality -- it doesn't seem that the ESA is downgrading them for any reason. The DISR imager which apparently took the images being posted on the ESA website is discussed here. If you take the table of data at face value, Huygens' highest quality imager has a 176x256 pixel format.

There's a whole website on the DISR at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, which is listed as a partner with the ESA, NASA, and the JPL for the images on the ESA website. The information on this website seems to back up the idea that these images are actually that low-res. Again, the amount of information is pretty incredible. Check out the cameras page and the test images. The LPL website does say that the images have to be processed before they'll look like they're supposed to. Obviously this won't increase the resolution, but judging by the test images, presumably there will be less noise so they'll look sharper. Also:

"Each of the cameras in the imaging system takes a picture of Titan's surface in a different direction and at a different resolution to produce a "triplet" collection of three images which may be combined with other triplets to create a mosaic of the surface."

Interestingly, according to the LPL website, "Huygens' batteries will allow DISR to collect data for twenty minutes on the surface if the probe survives impact." Talk about time being precious.

Posted by anatole at 10:58 PM | Comments (4)

January 19, 2005

Write First ... Think Later?

If you want to read a pretty crummy article, check this out -- Slate's Daniel Gross writes about a Global Market Institute poll of European and Canadian feelings about various American brands. Here are some of the things Mr. Gross had to say:

"GMI reached a surprising conclusion: Some American companies are more American than others."

You're joking right? This is a "surprising conclusion"? I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this is sarcasm, but the text doesn't really bear that out. And this guy writes "daily commentary about business and finance." O.k., soldiering on ...

Interesting points, all. But I don't think a simple algorithm of Americanness adequately explains the results. Take a look at the safe quadrant. It seems that Europe, the metrosexual continent, is willing to overlook national biases when it comes to personal grooming and pampering. Personal hygiene companies Gillette, Kleenex, Colgate, and Procter & Gamble all avoid trouble. So do apparel companies Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Estée Lauder. (Maybe the French think Estée is français?)

What? It's not a simple algorithm? Brilliant work, Sherlock. Of course it's not. Nobody actually said branding and Americanness involved a simple algorithm. In fact, GMI's Ken Pick, who is quoted by Daniel Gross, serves up several different explanations for different cases. He no doubt could have explained the nuance for the personal hygiene and clothing companies (e.g. not only are they in some way "localized", as he describes for MasterCard vs. American Express, but toothpaste brands don't shout out their country affiliation like many flagship beer brands do). But wait ... there's more!

In the end, however, some of the rankings defy rational inquiry. How is that Jack Daniels, with its u-r-American name, is considered less American than German-sounding Budweiser?

"Defy rational inquiry"? Just because you don't get it doesn't mean it defies rational inquiry. Daniel Gross seems to vascillate between barely understanding GMI's allegedly "suprising conclusion" and not knowing a corporate brand from a cow-tagging implement.

Does he seriously think that we should compare Jack Daniels' and Budweiser's Americanness solely based on their names? Come on!

And don't get me started on how he spends the entire article referring only to Europe and Europeans. Did Canada join the EU in that last round?

I'm generally a big Slate fan, but slipshod "analysis" like this makes me retch.

Posted by anatole at 10:32 PM | Comments (2)

January 16, 2005

Gone skating

Shadows on snow

Heading to the canal for a skate late in the day in early January.

Posted by anatole at 03:26 PM | Comments (1)

January 09, 2005

What do you want first? The good news or the bad news?



Posted by anatole at 09:35 PM | Comments (2)

January 06, 2005

Bye-bye, bowtie.

Jon Stewart 1, Tucker Carlson 0.

As if it wasn't embarassing enough for Tucker Carlson when he and CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala were on the receiving end of a full-on dress-down from the Daily Show's Jon Stewart in November, the bowtie-sporting conservative pundit has been let go by the TV network (sorry, "out of respect for him and his talent [they] thought it would be best to let him explore opportunities elsewhere") as they allegedly try turn over a new leaf (or re-turn over an old leaf?) in news television. Driving in the knife was CNN CEO Jonathan Klein, who actually evoked Jon Stewart in explaining the move. From the Globe and Mail:

"I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp," Mr. Klein said.

He said all of the cable networks, including CNN, have overdosed on programming devoted to arguing over issues. Mr. Klein said he wants more substantive programming that is still compelling.

"I doubt that when the President sits down with his advisers they scream at him to bring him up to date on all of the issues," he said. "I don't know why we don't treat the audience with the same respect."

The New York Times reports more "it's not you, it's us" mollifying (Dana Stevens writes in Slate: "One natural disaster, and suddenly it's all about dignity at CNN") as well as further Jon Stewart-affirmation by CNN's CEO:

Mr. Klein said the decisions to part company with Mr. Carlson and to end "Crossfire" were not specifically related, because he had decided to drop "Crossfire" regardless of whether Mr. Carlson wanted to stay on.

Mr. Klein said, "We just determined there was not a role here in the way Tucker wanted his career to go. He wanted to host a prime-time show in which he would put on live guests and have spirited debate. That's not the kind of show CNN is going to be doing."

Instead, Mr. Klein said, CNN wants to do "roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling," and he said that was not a role he saw for Mr. Carlson. "There are outlets for the kind of show Tucker wants to do and CNN isn't going to be one of them," he said.

Mr. Klein said he wanted to move CNN away from what he called "head-butting debate shows," which have become the staple of much of all-news television in the prime-time hours, especially at the top-rated Fox News Channel.

"CNN is a different animal," Mr. Klein said. "We report the news. Fox talks about the news. They're very good at what they do and we're very good at what we do."

Mr. Klein specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at "Crossfire" when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign. Mr. Stewart said that ranting partisan political shows on cable were "hurting America."

Mr. Klein said last night, "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise." He said he believed that especially after the terror attacks on 9/11, viewers are interested in information, not opinion."

Whatever the motives and nature of CNN's positioning, the network sure didn't take long to purge Carlson's existence from their website.

Carlson came under Canadian (cross)fire in early December after this Crossfire episode and this one and an interview, hosted by Wolf Blitzer, in which Carlson somehow managed to be more obnoxious than ex-Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish (who had a relatively quiet day). Wolf Blitzer quaintly described Carlson's antics as "tongue in cheek."

For the full dose, check out "duelling banjos" Carlson and the always-offensive Ann Coulter in this clip.

While Carlson may qualify for some sort of "last laugh" if he lands a prime time slot at MSNBC, it's hard to get past the "ouch" factor of his exit from CNN.

Posted by anatole at 09:30 PM | Comments (1)

Tsunami Survivor 2

The Associated Press reports another case of alleged "sixth sense" tsunami survival, this time of five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar islands.

"Government officials and anthropologists believe that ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar islands from the tsunami that hit the Asian coastline Dec. 26. [...]

It appears that many tribesman fled the shores well before the waves hit the coast, where they would typically be fishing at this time of year. [...]

After the tsunami, local officials spotted 41 Great Andamanese, out of 43 in a 2001 Indian census, who had fled the submerged portion of their Strait Island. They also reported seeing 73 Onges, out of 98 in the census, who fled to highland forests in Dugong Creek on the Little Andaman island, or Hut Bay, a government anthropologist said.

This news coverage may be jumping the gun a bit, it seems, since only 1 3/4 tribes are accounted for.

That said, assuming the explanandum is correct, what's with all the faux-exoticism "sixth sense" talk?

""They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we don't possess," said Ashish Roy, a local environmentalist and lawyer who has called on the courts to protect the tribes by preventing their contact with the outside world."

Ah yes, the mysterious sixth sense of "smell and touch". The feat may be impressive, yes, but it's not some sort of mystic otherworldly power. Come on!

Posted by anatole at 08:52 PM | Comments (1)

January 05, 2005

The Heart Attack Special

It starts at around 11:00 p.m., as a nagging sensation in your head. Your brain is firmly in control, but something's not right. Something is missing. In less than an hour, though, what started as a fleeting thought has become a clear and raging demand further south -- no, not that far south ... your stomach has taken over. Should you? Probably not. But you do anyway.

You head to the Elgin Street Diner for a poutine and chocolate milkshake - the artery-clogger I like to call "the heart attack special."

Having researched the phenomenon extensively (a few pant sizes too extensively, no doubt...), I present to you the 10 stages of reckoning with this explosive meal.

  1. Desire: "I need poutine. I need a milkshake so thick it could stop a bullet. Need."
  2. Doubt: "But wait! Do I really need so many cheese curds? At this time of night?"
  3. Confidence/self-assuredness: "Damn right I do! Besides, I deserve a treat. And it's fun to go out late at night once in a while. The ESD's an institution!"
  4. Resignation: "Well, I ordered it. There's no turning back now."
  5. Panic: "Wow, this sure is a lot of food. I'm already feeling full after just a few bites. Better eat faster."
  6. Fulfillment: "Pooouuu-tine. Miiiiiilk-shake."
  7. Regret: "I feel so ill. I can't believe I just did that. What the hell was I thinking?"
  8. Critique: "O.k., so that was totally ridiculous. Why do I keep doing this? I've got to learn to control myself. Right. Mental note to self: never do that again. Ever."
  9. Amnesia: "What's that tingling sensation? The juxtaposition of chocolate and gravy is addling my synapses ... must be affecting ... memories fading ..."
  10. Repeat: "I need poutine. I need the milkshake so thick it could stop a bullet. Need."

Posted by anatole at 10:21 PM | Comments (1)

January 04, 2005

Animals Gone Wild

Speaking of tsunami-surviving animals, kind of, is it just me or was there a spike in shark stories towards the end of 2004?

First there was the classic story of the pod of bottlenose dolphins that saved four people from a great white shark off the coast of New Zealand in late October. The only adult in the group of four, a lifeguard, sat on the story for several weeks before going to the media and offering this explanation for his change of heart:

"I didn't want anyone to get chomped [by the shark], so I couldn't be accused of not having made people aware there was a shark out there".

Good thing he waited a few weeks.

Then there were a few shark attacks that didn't go so well for the victims. The most recent that was a "big story," in mid-December, had another great white (or possibly two, according to witnesses) take the life of an 18-year old lifeguard off the coast of South Australia near Adelaide. The death sparked an outpouring of emotional responses, pitting those who wanted the shark (and others like it) hunted down and killed against those, including the victim's family, who felt no ill will against the shark:

"We acknowledge that the sea is, in fact, the shark's domain [...] "We don't, and I certainly personally don't, advocate the indiscriminate killing of any shark. They are to be admired, appreciated and respected, and Nick knew that."

Victim Nick Peterson's father, Philip Peterson, in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Dec. 18, 2004)

The South Australia government authorized the killing of dangerous sharks, although no one expected authorities to definitively track down the great white that killed Nick Peterson:

"The Government's view is that a large shark in close proximity to the beaches that is posing a direct threat to human life should be destroyed."

Acting South Australia Premier Kevin Foley in the Herald Sun (Melbourne, Dec. 18, 2004)

To feed my likely-unfounded suspicions, the Ottawa Citizen's year-end "weird in the transportation world" review included this totally mad story from much earlier in the year (thanks to my parents for the tip!):

Australian welder Luke Tresoglavic, 22, is snorkelling off a beach near Sydney when a wobbegong shark, known as "the pit bull of the ocean," bites into his left leg. Shark attached, Mr. Tresoglavic swims 300 yards to shore. Sunbathers there can't loosen it, so he climbs into his car, wedges the shark against the gearshift and drives one-handed to a surf club a mile away. "He basically asked the question, 'Can you help me get it off?' " says lifeguard Michael Jones, who helped flush the shark's gills with fresh water to force it to let go. "There's nothing in our procedure manual for that type of thing."

Incredibly, as other articles relate, Mr. Tresoglavic then put the shark in his car and drove himself to the hospital.

The Ottawa Citizen ran the heading "Guy and a Shark Walk Into a Bar" ... but I wonder whether "Wobbegong Shark, Woebegone Welder" (a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?) might have worked too.

Posted by anatole at 09:13 PM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2005

Grape Prices of Wrath

Price of Australian grapes at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market in the middle of the Southern Hemispheric summer: $1/kg

Price of Chilean grapes at grocery store "Herb and Spice" in downtown Ottawa in the dead of the Northern Hemispheric winter: $10.98/kg

Grape-sized tears streaming down Anatole's face: priceless

Posted by anatole at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

January 01, 2005

Going nowhere fast

Chateau Laurier locks, Ottawa

The freeze is on at the locks by the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa.

Posted by anatole at 09:13 PM | Comments (0)