For the thinking redneck geek who’s not satisfied with a simple potato cannon – this guy has rifled barrels, “bolt action spudguns,” and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really understand, not really being a “gun person.” Intense!

Who’d have thought there was even such a thing as a “coaxial, breach loading combustion spudgun”?
Web link of note: SpudTech
(At http://www.spudtech.com/)

Yerba Mate

I was at some friends’ place a while ago and I saw this thing on their coffee table which looked like a tiny hookah, or a really fancy bong. It was made from an ornately-decorated gourd, with a thin metal shaft sticking out of it … upon closer inspection it looked like a metal spoon with a bunch of holes in it. I asked what it was, and they told me it was for yerba maté.

It’s this tea beverage that looks like bunch of green tobacco- dried, flat light-green leaves all ground up. You add hot water and directly to a cup almost entirely full of the leaves- then you sip the water with a special filtered straw called a bombilla (bom-bee-ya).

So back to the thing on the coffee table- did you guys just finish drinking some or something? No, it’s just there for decoration. “Yerba maté tastes like grass, I can’t stand it.”

At work I found this enormous sack of this stuff. To my surprise, we also had the paraphernalia (a small wood cup with the bombilla) in the cupboard. Whoda thought. One of my coworkers walked Anthony and me through the preparation and consumption of the stuff.

Anyway, they were right. It does taste like grass. Or straw maybe.

Incidentally, you don’t need this fancy stuff to drink yerba maté- it just looks cool and adds to the ritual.

Something else that is really funny- some people online insist that yerba maté does not contain caffeine, instead containing the active ingredient “mateine.” I’m not sure what their motivation is; perhaps they think it’s less bad for you if you have this mateine in lieu of caffeine. Predictably, there is no distinct substance “mateine”- it’s the same stuff as caffeine. If it’s any consolation, in the early days of organic chemistry, people thought there was something called “teaine.” That is, the active ingredient in tea. Don’t get too excited; it was still caffeine.

There is a lot of opportunity to get yerba maté, in bay area grocery stores, or online if you live away from civilization- the most interesting one to me is Guayakí‘s Mate Chai Latté- it might have a milder flavor I can deal with. Although when it comes to that, what is the point?

Clive Barker and the Ethiopian Gap

A few nights ago I visited Samir and we watched Hellbound and Lord of Illusions, both Clive Barker movies.

Samir was staying in a room he was subletting in the Marina- a very nice neighborhood about a block from the bay. The guy who normally lived there had left all his things, including some of his eclectic selection of art he had hung about his room.

The thing that interested me the most was a canvas painting I recognized as an Ethiopian piece, one of those Christian works which describe one of the tales of the saints or something from the Old Testament- I couldn’t read the captions. It’s fascinating to me how similar this genre of painting is to modern comic books- sequential art from hundreds of years ago! The characters even have the big googly eyes. Something else which is interesting- there is surprisingly little information on this genre of painting on the internet. One of those gaps in the web that I’m sure someday will be filled.

I hadn’t seen Lord of Illusions before… it’s a pretty brilliantly flawed film.

The movie starts with a cult scene in the Arizona desert – a “magician” and his depraved followers wallowing in blood and torture. Some of the followers stage a coup- they bolt a metal mask onto his head and bury him deep in the desert.

About twenty minutes in, all the characters are abandoned. Now we are in a hastily-established noir, set in New York with Scott Bacula as the Private Investigator. What is odd is, the story and the dialog are written to support a noir, yet Barker doesn’t use any of the visual cues that go with that genre.

We follow the PI to California. Why didn’t we start in CA? After all, Dashiell Hammet’s stories were always based in San Francisco. We didn’t even get to see anything in NYC. Anyway… he is on the case, following what amounts to a skip trace, and chases his quarry into a warehouse. The man leaves the way he came, panicked- but instead of following his target, the PI goes inside the building. This sets up a trend of Scott Bacula as the PI with ADD- rather than do the logical thing and stick to a give case, he tends to get sidetracked by random clues which turn out to be parts of complete other plot lines.

Eventually we get back to the cultists. Insane. What is really odd is there seems to be an attempt to establish that this is some kind of alternate world where demonic possession, magic powers, etc are commonplace, yet the script doesn’t really back this up at all. We hear that Scott was involved in solving an Exorcism, but if three lines were cut from the script, this can be entirely edited out of the movie! And actually, there is no plot reason the PI is in the story at all. You may have a problem when your protagonist can be edited out of the story and the plot remains intact.

Another thing that makes this movie funny is the blatantly homosexual bent of the director- the women are frumpy and used; even Famke Janssen looks like an insect. The camera spends a lot of time on mostly-naked men, oiled up and muscular. The men aren’t even built to appeal to heterosexual women; they mostly look like gym queens. This would be a good drinking game!

Of course, I love Hellraiser II. Blah. The music is “big” as Samir says. Something we realized- a possible reason this one is so coherent is they kept Clive away from his own movie. While he wrote the story and was a producer, it’s written and directed by two other people. They avoided the George Lucas problem!

Story of my Life

No, not the song by Social Distortion- the book by Jay McInerney. I’m reading it as part of my ramp-up to re-read American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Here are my notes:

Slightly more developed than Bright Lights, Big City, this one follows the party girl Alison Poole, who grew up rich but now scams her way through acting school, nightly cocaine binges, and a string of men.

Alison is rigorously shallow.

Like in Bright Lights, Big City, the book’s “voice” is fairly odd- this time, it’s written as if it’s the stream of consciousness of Alison, written in the first person, without any quotation marks, and with the kind of run-on narrative you might write if you were recording your dreams, or even writing a blog entry.

Also as in McInerney’s other book, the reader is meant to assume that all this carousing and debauchery is motivated by a deeply wounded soul, trying to avoid a horrible truth or memory. In Alison’s case, there are plenty of references to this –

  • She compulsively has sex with men she hates.
  • She has tantrums in her acting class during exercises.
  • She’s throwing up for no reason.
  • the name of the horse she bets on is “Demons Begone.”

As before, we are slowly given hints as to the nature of this-

  • her dad and Skip comparisons (young girls)
  • her dad’s guy tried to rape her – abuse prior to Alex
  • horses with drugs
  • unsupportive family (dad, Becca, mom)
  • rape jokes
  • Miss Mary Mack
  • Three Lies
  • the horse – Dangerous Dan

Structurally, it is similar to Bright Lights, Big City as well – around page 140-150 she’s questioning her lifestyle… by 170 it’s completely falling apart.

A feminist theme: men project their fantasy on the girl… then blame her for making them irresponsible.

Alison kind of pulls a Miss Marple by only telling us a piece of the mystery after it’s happened- she DDN’T tell us something she did in between two things she narrated- kind of cheating.



Hello Hello

I just saw Vertigo for the first time- I know, for a supposed film buff, this is inexcusable. I love the “Hitchcock shot.”

DIANE: Uno dos tres catorce!

Kim Novak is hot, but in a 1950s way- her platinum blonde hair and eyebrows plucked to the center of her eyes made her look patrician in the 1950s, but combined with her overbite and wide face makes her look old by today’s fashions. When her character gives her age as 26, I couldn’t believe it- I thought she was much older.

Looking it up, it turns out she was actually 25 at the time. I think if you if you were making a period film for the 1950’s you could analyse her face and how it differs from modern starlets to come up with a good measure of how fashion in women’s faces has changed. I know it’s less marketable, but it seems to me that when you make a movie set in a different era, a different place, you should make an effort to match the tastes of that setting. You could could have rich Mayan girls with foreheads compressed from birth, or Japanese courtesans with blackened teeth and eyebrows painted inches above the natural line of their brow. Yeah like anyone is going to go through the trouble to do that!

We had fun placing the locations in different neighborhoods in San Francisco… Also, the scenes in San Juan Batista were fun, because we were looking for the wooden shack on display in the background… in real life this shack was on my grandfather’s farm. At some point some historians arrived and told him they wanted it; they ended up lifting it whole and loading it on a truck or something. It was constructed by settlers, without nails. Grandpa was using it as a tool shed at the time. I’m not sure it was at San Juan Batista in 1958 however.

In the tower, we see the Hitchcock Shot twice… not nearly as dramatic as the way it’s used now. And what happens next is so fast and anticlimactic… Diane insisted that since Barbara Bel Geddes was in Dallas, it must have been “all a dream,” completing a “circle of Dallas.” They even refer to oil wells at one point.

Speaking of anticlimactic – Scotty’s friend Elster’s final speech in the courtroom is so quick and he’s out of the picture so quickly that it reeks of a character being written out of a soap opera. Kind of weird. There are other artifacts of this kind of writing too- like in the Legion of Honor, when Scotty gets the booklet. Can I have this? Yes. Poof! The guy is gone. Maybe that is intentional, to set up this later scene with Elster.

ELSTER: Don’t blame yourself Scotty- we both know who killed Madeline.
DIANE: Yeah! Bono did!

Did I mention we were drinking while we watched this movie? While I’m free associating, the beginning of the dream sequence is like the Beatles Yellow Submarine. And have I bagged on Jimmy Stewart yet? Boy is he Mr 1950s. What a sap. Golden Age my butt.

BRIAN: This is the Mission? Wow it looks much less crappy than I remember.

One more thing: Hitchcock is very consistent with movements between cuts. Jimmy reaches out his hand; in the next shot it’s in exactly the same position. Movement is never started or stopped across cuts- when Madeline drifts towards the ocean, Scotty stands there like a gaping mullet in a reaction shot, THEN walks over the next time we see him. It’s one of the things that dates this movie. On the other hand, the use of backgrounds is still great- you are always aware that the scene is set in San Francisco. When Scotty’s driving you can see the street; when the scene is in an apartment you can see the view of the skyline.

I hadn’t realized how much of Basic Instinct was a reference to this movie- even down to her hairstyle. The notion of the look-alikes, the stepped-on Barbara’s “Betty” to Kim’s “Veronica”… Except in that movie Verhoeven / Eszterhas have purposely made the characters more perverse… The money now belongs to Catherine (Sharon Stone), Scotty now is still a cop, but just as much of an obsessive asshole. Making him masochistic is just extra funny. The husband character is elminated; all the power now rests with Madeline/Catherine, made into a lesbian for extra edginess. The ruse is still there, ambigously with either the same number of people, with more, or with less. If you’ve seen both movies, hopfully you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Actually come to think of it, it’s entirely necessary that he’s a masochist, because the lust interest is now the antagonist. The Betty is now the identity swapper as well. Catherine’s girlfriend, if you think about it from a structure persepctive, is now mostly superfluous. I read an analysis once which said that Basic Instinct fails because it tries to combine a Detective/Cop story with a Noir – but in a Noir everything is futile, and a Cop story ends in success for Law. While I agree with that, I don’t think that’s what makes Basic Instinct weird; I think it’s the jumbled roles of Catherine. I don’t want to sell that movie short, even though it’s sort of clumsy. It’s not entirely a rip-off of Vertigo. But it’s pretty similar!

Incidentally, on the other Vertigo, Bono says “1, 2, 3, 14” because How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is their 14th album.


The Eternity Puzzle

There was this jigsaw puzzle called Eternity which had a prize of 1 million pounds for solving it. That’s about 1.8 million US dollars.

The puzzle was designed by a guy named Christopher Monckton, and consists of a bunch of angular shapes which fit together on a giant gridlike board. As the Guardian said, “less of a jigsaw, more of a mosaic.” Because the various pieces fit together in so many different ways, finding a solution which fit all 209 pieces was next to impossible. Monckton offered the cash prize, awardable after a few months of the puzzle’s launch. The first solution to be received would get Monckton’s money.

Enter the puzzle geeks. The second this puzzle was announced, a huge effort formed around trying to solve it. A message board was formed, with a mailing list, full of geeks with computers who quickly reduced the pieces to simpler data representations and started working on algorithms to solve what is essentially a really crazy 2D “bin-packing problem.” Monckton estimated it would take about 4 years to solve, likely earning him more than the 1 million pound prize.

They cracked it in 16 months, twice. The award money went to the first solution, a team of two guys ( Alex Selby and Oliver Riordan ), although another man ( Guenter Stertenbrink ) solved it independently, with a different solution.

Obviously Monckton wasn’t planning on Eternity being solved so quickly. It was supposed to have taken over 4 years- he had planned to release “hint pieces,” pictures of the board with progressively more pieces on it. Ironically, complexity analyses have shown that this would have made the puzzle harder! At any rate, he had to sell his mansion (“Crimonmogate House in Aberdeenshire”) to pay out the prize money.

But the really funny thing is, it turns out Christopher Monckton is a big Nazi asshole. One of the reasons we barely heard about this puzzle, I mean aside from people not making a big deal about puzzles in general, and the prize money evaporating right after its launch, is that Monckton publicly said that everyone with HIV should be put in quarantine camps . Needless to say, his distributors didn’t want to be associated with his hateful bullshit.

Google for “Christopher Monckton AIDS” for more details on the incident… After this incident, I’ve seen him referred to as “British right-wing commentator Christopher Monckton.” Turns out he was an advisor to Thatcher.

Anyway, back to the puzzle:

Something that is interesting to me was the collaborative yet competitive nature of these message boards. To the puzzle enthusiasts, this was a bunch of money which they each considered their own. The Eternity puzzle would be solved eventually, but they had this stiff competition, spread thinly all over the world! However, these competitors were all fellow puzzle nerds.

Reading the boards is funny. The motivation to share solving techniques and hints is complex- there is the usual “look how smart I am to have thought of this,” as well as an altruistic desire to add to the “community.” But given the mercenary nature of this particular puzzle, there is also the hope that someone else will share their tidbit that hadn’t yet occurred to the first poster.

The puzzle itself is grossly complicated and tedious to solve. It’s made of a giant (hexagonal) grid of equilateral triangles which can be tiled with larger triangles… but each of those larger triangles is potentially cut in half (into a 30-60-90) on a random axis, and is not necessarily aligned with the tilings of other larger triangles. It makes more sense if you look at pictures of the puzzle.

Monckton planned to release “solution pieces” every so often after the first year, showing the board with one of the pieces placed correctly. The puzzle was solved too early for these to help- but ironically, these solution pieces would have made it harder. After a thorough analysis of the puzzle, the puzzle geeks determined that the puzzle was generated such that solution space was not as sparse as it could have been- not surprising, since calculating the puzzle to have exactly one solution would be an equivalent problem to solving an unknown puzzle in the first place! I’m assuming that the two solutions presented didn’t have any pieces in common with the “official” solution.

The architecture of solution approaches are fairly uniform- as you might imagine, a bit of dynamic programming (like the knapsack problem solution) is used- the tricky bit seems to be choosing the order of the pieces to add to the incremental solution. The winning approaches used a “goodness” of the piece to be added as a heuristic- amongst other things, the number of broken edges (the square edge of a 30-60-90 triangle) exposed to the perimeter of the piece would contribute to its “badness.”

Something that seemed obvious to me but I didn’t see thoroughly explored- representing the profiles of piece perimeters, thus enabling piece-piece interactions. What I mean is- most approaches I read simply tried to add a piece to a given tiling… instead of trying to add pieces together into larger and larger constructs. Sort of a reversed approach – the tricky part would then to grow the tiled area in a way which is “good”, that is making a tiled area which is mostly convex and similar in shape to the goal board shape. It would probably end up using a hill climbing approach to allow for temporary “bad” board shapes (to allow for new shapes being added).

But, whatever, the contest is over now, and I never did anything on it.

Links to solution sites:

Dishwasher at Work

We have a dishwasher at work. Which is cool, because we use a lot of dishes… however there is a serious problem of people not loading the dishwasher, instead leaving their dishes in the sink. If you don’t want to work somewhere which smells like a frathouse, you have no choice but to put the dishes in the machine yourself…

Minor I know, but still annoying. The protocol should be very simple:

  • Rinse your dirty dish, put it in the dishwashing machine

  • If the machine is running, you can leave it in the sink. Come back later though!
  • If you are taking a clean dish from the dishwasher, you have to unload the rest of the clean dishes.
  • If the machine is full and not running, whether you are picking up or dropping off, unload the dishes before taking or leaving a glass

Today I got in and found that someone had apparently tried to wash the dishes with yogurt. A long smear of white goo, possibly a detergent which we hadn’t previously stocked; possibly not detergent at all, was running down the inside of the machine.

Gah. Need more coffee.