URLs du Jour

2008-03-06

  • Captchas are little tests meant to insure that a web form is not being gamed by a program. John M. Willis has a collection of what he deems the Top Ten Worst. Since I'm a geek, I liked this one:

    [Challenging Captcha]

    [It's been a long time since I did that kind of thing, but I think the answer's zero. The π/2 term shifts the sine curve to the right so it has a minimum at x=0, hence the derivative is zero there. Yes?]

  • Lore Sjöberg has the scoop on PowerBocks:
    Powerbocks are devices that you strap to your feet because you feel that it's been way too long since you fell down. They're like stilts, in that they make you a bit taller. They're like springs, in that they help you jump higher. And they're like replica swords, in that they prove you have more money than sense.
    There's video!

  • And in our occasional Aieee! We're all gonna die! series, we have this:
    A spectacular, rotating binary star system is a ticking time bomb, ready to throw out a searing beam of high-energy gamma rays — and Earth may be right in the line of fire.
    Fine. As long as it waits until after Star Trek comes out …


Last Modified 2012-10-13 6:46 AM EST

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

[Amazon Link]

This is the latest novel from Michael Chabon, a fantastically gifted storyteller and writer. It's been nominated for both an Edgar award (given to mysteries) and a Nebula award (given to science fiction). It's just a plain old good book, though, and Chabon should be honored to have both genres fighting over its ownership.

What makes it at least vaguely SF: it's set in an alternate history in which millions of Jews were accepted as refugees by the pre-WW2 US. Good news: the Holocaust "only" kills two million; bad news: the refugees settle in and around Sitka, Alaska, without full citizenship. When the novel opens in the roughly-present-day, America is about to take back even that stingy offer, and yet another Jewish diaspora is threatened.

What makes it a mystery: the hero is a down-on-his-luck police detective named Meyer Landsman. He lives in the downscale Hotel Zamenhof, where he "drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy." One night the manager summons him to the room of heroin addict "Emmanuel Lasker", who's been professionally shot in the back of the head. Meyer's intrigued by a chess set, poised in midgame. Even though (seemingly) nobody really cares about a dead junkie, Meyer's still a good detective and is soon enmeshed in a thicket of conspiracy, etc.

Chabon gives Meyer good wisecracking dialogue in the tradition of hardboiled fiction; he does a fantastic job of seasoning it with weary Jewish ruefulness.

Should you undertake this 400+ page reading project, it helps to pay attention to what initially seem to be colorful people and events that seem only to be adding atmosphere and character development; many turn out to be integral to the plot. (And you don't have to have a familiarity with Jewish custom and the Yiddish language to get through it, but it would probably help.)

The book's Wikipedia entry says there are plans in the way to make The Yiddish Policemen's Union into a movie, with the Coen brothers directing. That would be awesome. The article also summarizes what the book says (and sometimes only hints at) how the alternate history differs from ours. But—wait a minute—also be careful about reading the entry before you read the book since it summarizes the entire plot all the way to the end.


Last Modified 2012-10-13 6:17 AM EST

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

[Amazon Link] [2.5
stars] [IMDb Link]

This movie garnered good critical reviews, and was nominated for a couple Oscars: Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor, Casey Affleck. I don't understand what makes Affleck a "Supporting" actor here, since he plays the Coward Robert Ford, who is right there in the title.

And the movie is pretty well summed up by its title. It follows the mayhem around the last few months in Jesse James' life, with a small coda about what happened to the Coward Robert Ford.

Casey Affleck portrays the Coward Robert Ford as an obsessive creep, the Mark David Chapman of his day. Brad Pitt is Jesse James, who's charismatic and unstable. (But I'd recommend 12 Monkeys instead, if you want to see Brad Pitt being charismatic and unstable.)

The movie is very long, and pretentiously arty. I made two false starts in watching it, falling asleep both times. And I nodded off in a couple of places on my third try, but dutifully skipped back and powered through till the end.

Ironically, the movie's Jesse James is as big a coward as the Coward Robert Ford. Both characters' favorite mode of attack is from behind a helpless victim. This observation isn't particularly interesting, but it's the most interesting thing about the movie.


Last Modified 2012-10-13 6:16 AM EST