Thursday, May 30, 2002


I wasn't writing this weblog in 1999 when I went to Winnipeg for a conference. But I was going through some old files and came across some notes I made on the city. I thought I'd share them here.

Winnipeg is a fairly dull city compared to, say, Toronto, but on the other hand it's exciting when compared to...Minneapolis. Their primary attraction seems to be "The Forks" which is an Inner Harbor-style tourist trap. It can probably be skipped unless you like overpriced, mediocre food.

For something better, get in your car and drive to Alycia's for some really good Ukranian food. Winnipeg is apparently a hotbed of Ukranian food, and this was an excellent place to sample some.

As far as tourist attractions go, the Canadian Mint was pretty interesting. The most interesting thing I learned is that they make coins for other countries under contract. I suppose it makes sense...and if the US ever offered to do that, the countries would probably worry that every time someone in Congress got upset, we'd cut off their coins.

The biggest complaint I have about Winnpeg is how much everybody smoked. As a Marylander, I almost fainted when I saw people smoking in the hotel lobby. Also, the non-smoking section in restaurants is about 4 tables shoved at the end.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Contraction Tour, Part One

Last week in Montreal several of us number theorists went to Olympic Stadium to watch the Expos play the Braves. The Expos won in extra innings. I don't know if I've ever been to an extra-inning game before. I went to an overtime Canadian Football League game once...

The stadium was nice enough, but they spent over $1 billion on it. (Even Canadian, that's big money.) They should have gotten more for that. The announcements were all in French, which was sort of a waste, since I think most of the people there were the few remaining Anglophones in Montreal. Actually, that and people who had come up to root for the Braves. I saw plenty of signs from people wanting to get on TBS, but of course none from people wanting on Montreal TV -- the Expos don't have a TV contract. I considered a sign that said "DC Loves the Expos" -- but then realized I might run afoul of the language laws. So I considered "DC L'Expos". But then I didn't want to get thrown out of the stadium -- well, to tell you the truth, I was just too lazy.

Anyway, it was fun. The Metro went right to the stadium -- we didn't even have to go outside. We gathered our meal at "Monsieur Smoked Meat" and headed to our seats -- around $26 Canadian, which weren't bad for lower deck seats between home and third. The game, as often happens with MLB these days, went on too long -- by the end even some of the Braves partisans were hoping the Expos would score and get the game over with. And the attendance was, of course, pitifully low -- in the 5,000 range. Here's hoping I see the Expos again soon -- in DC.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

A Concise History of Australia

During my trip to Montreal, I finished reading Stuart MacIntyre's A Concise History of Australia. I had earlier read The Fatal Shore, and Christina is currently reading Syndey: The Story of a City, in preparation for our upcoming trip.

A Concise History of Australia is exactly what the title advertises, and exactly what I was looking for. It seems to be a very modern telling of the country's history. It acknowledges that the continent's human history goes back tens of thousands of years, not hundreds. But at the same time it recognizes that non-Aboriginal history is all we've got records of and concentrates on that. In general, where there's an attempt to dip into revisionist history, it mentions the new interpretations while recognizing the traditional view. One thing that I found interesting was the idea that as Australia becomes more diverse through immigration, its people are turning to Aboriginal history as a unifying factor to replace the Imperial history that is meaningful mostly just to the shrinking Anglo-Australian portion of the population. I recommend the book for anybody wanting a historical background before traveling to Australia (or for those who are just curious about the land Down Under).

It even finds time to mention the "dingo ate my baby" story.

Friday, May 24, 2002

Back to Canada?

Having just returned from Canada, would I go back? Of course! In fact, I'm scheduled to give a talk at a conference in Banff next May.

Guess I'll have to figure out something to talk about.

Thursday, May 23, 2002


Christina has a new post on freelancing, identity theft and other topics.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Pavillon Principal

The meeting that I'm up here for has been held in the Pavillon Principal of the University of Montreal. Oh, excuse me, the Université de Montréal. Anyway, the Pavillon (shown above) is this monstrous building. My theory is they decided that students shouldn't have to go outside during the winter, so they'd put all the classes in one building. Of course, these things never work, so there are other buildings, but the great mass of the university is in this one. Of course, that's just a theory I have.

There are many weird things about this building.

  • As you enter from the Metro, you have to travel up to the building. You do so via a moving ramp. Like an escalator, but without the stairs. You know, so if you fall, you keep tumbling to the bottom. I'm amazed they're able to get away with this. Their lawyers must not be as good as American lawyers. Especially with college students around, that seems like the type of thing that gets turned into a ride.
  • As noted above, the corridors are labeled A-Z. Except O, Q and W. I don't know why those letters got left out.
  • I wish there were a 3-dimensional model of the place available, but not all the corridors go on all the levels, and some are blocked off, so it's difficult to get around.
  • The rooms aren't numbered; the doors are. So E-315 and E-325 might lead to the same room. Which can be annoying, I suppose, if you have a class in room E-315, because on the first day nobody will use door E-325, because nobody will know where that goes. Somebody suggested to me that it's so they don't have to renumber the doors if they reconfigure the space the doors lead to. I don't know what sort of university prides itself on not having to renumber its doors, but maybe this one does.
  • In one of the rooms where talks were held, the talks would be interrupted periodically by the distinctive sounds of birds chirping. Loudly.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Phone Cards

In preparation for this week's trip to Canada, Christina got me a Sam's Club phone card. While they offer a $0.035/minute rate within the US, between Canada and the US, the rate jumps to $0.14. According to the instructions. Now, this isn't great, but it's a far sight better than the $1/minute and up you can pay if you're not careful. So I packed the phone card and tried to call Christina when I got in. Following the instructions (Call 1-800-CALL-ATT, then call the Sam's Club AT&T number, then enter my card number, then dial the number I wanted) didn't work -- I got a busy signal when I tried to dial the Sam's Club number. Dialing that (toll-free) number directly, however, worked like a charm. Moreover, I got the $0.035/minute rate, just as if I were in the US. So that's all-in-all a good deal.

I had ordered AT&T International One Rate service on my home phone as a back-up so Christina could reach me. Unfortunately, I had ordered it last Friday, and it looks like the service won't be on there until after I got back. This, combined with the low rate I was getting on the phone card, made me start to wonder why I was paying AT&T a $7/month fee to get $0.05/minute long distance. So I dropped that back to $0.10/minute during the day and $0.05/minute at night for no monthly fee (but a $5/month minimum). I figure for any excessive long distance usage, I'll use the phone card (or my cell phone).

Anyway, the lesson of this is that these Sam's Club cards are a really good deal. Check with the hotel to make sure that you aren't incurring excessively charges if you use them from your room (and if you are, use a payphone).

Saturday, May 18, 2002

I Have a Canadian Stamp in My Passport

It's always disappointed me in the past that when I've entered Canada, they've neglected to stamp my passport. I flew to Ottawa in 1996, Toronto in 1999 and Winnipeg in 1999, and each time the immigration control canuks just looked at my passport and handed it back to me. I've even tried asking them to stamp it, but to no avail. I mean, if a passport doesn't tell you where you've been, what fun is it? (I've had equal luck when driving across the border.)

Well, I'm in Montreal now, and on the way in, they stamped my passport with a nice red stamp. They joined the UK in disregarding the "arrival" and "depature" columns and sticking the stamp in the departure column. (At least they didn't stamp it in the middle of the page, like the Brits sometimes do.)

I checked into my hotel and wandered around until I found an ATM and this place. It's some sort of Internet cafe, which seems mostly to be populated by Asian individuals playing shooting games. Except for the guy next to me, who is using his PC to listen to Asian pop music.

Anyway, I probably won't stay too long -- it hasn't been that long since I was in the good ol' USA checking my e-mail. But I thought I'd use this opportunity to send e-mail to people letting them know I got in safely and post this entry. I'll probably have access at the conference tomorrow, but just in case I get a jonesin' for a 3-AM Internet session, I know where this place is. Now if I can only remember where my hotel is...

Paint Your Wagon

Christina and I watched Paint Your Wagon last night, at her recommendation. While I did not enjoy it as much as she did, it still made for an evening's viewing.

It's an odd movie -- a western musical farce. Sort of a cross between "Blazing Saddles" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." With singing. By Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. It's the story of a California mining boomtown, two of its founders and their wife. Yes, I said "their wife" -- remember the farce part? It's a silly story that takes delight in poking fun at many of the conventions of the western -- the lonely pioneer, the rowdy saloon, the bawdy house of ill repute. It does so with some amount of cynicism (which put me in mind of "McCabe"); there are no gunslinging heroes in this movie. At the same time, however, the story follows the basic pattern of the Western -- the rough-and-tumble days are drifting away as respectable folks move into the area.

Either 3 or 3 1/2 stars; I can't decide.

The Phantom Menace

In preparation for Thursday's opening of Attack of the Clones, I re-watched Episode I, The Phantom Menace this week.

Three years later, I was struck by a few things. First of all, it wasn't as bad as many are making it out to be. It wasn't the best Star Wars movie (in fact, it was the worst -- which is sort of the opposite of "damning with faint praise"), but it was very watchable. Jar-Jar was, in fact, annoying (mostly because of the inescapable conclusion that even if he wasn't intended as a racial stereotype, he ended up that way, and somebody should have changed the character on that basis). But I didn't find him incredibly annoying -- he didn't make "Wesley Crusher" on my scale.

The main problem I had with the movie was that it was very flat. I didn't find myself engaged by the characters. Qui-Gon? Let's see, you have a Jedi on a negotiation mission. That's about all you get about him. Queen Amidala? Bo-ring. By design, I suppose, and Padme's the interesting one, but that gets obscured for most of the movie. Anakin? Look, I know it's a movie for kids, but does it have to be a movie about kids? The original was the first without the second. Anakin in this movie doesn't provide the requisite "cool character" you need. Your Han Solo, your Chewie, your Princess Leia.

Well, I take that back. There is Obi-Wan. Ewan McGregor does his best Alec Guiness, and the story from A New Hope helps bring his character to life. The first heart-pounding moment I had re-watching this -- the kind of moment I expect from Star Wars movies -- was during the light-saber battle with Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. After Darth Maul takes out Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan has to wait for that weird force field to let him at D.M., the tension is just palpable.

I must admit, however, after seeing Clones, I can see more what Lucas was trying to do with Menace. I'll probably see it even more when I watch the DVD with the director's commentary. I don't think that will entirely redeem the movie for me, though.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Tom Benson, Makin' Stuff Up

The Washington Post is reporting that many NFL owners oppose putting a Super Bowl in DC. That's fine. It would be nice to have one here, but I understand some people don't want to have the game played in messy weather. I don't agree, but I understand.

This quote from Saints owner Tom Benson, however, caught my eye:

"It's the weather. Why would you go to a place where people couldn't walk around those cities in nice weather, temperatures like we have here today [sunshine and mid-seventies]? I personally do not think the votes are there. Everyone would like to go to New York or Washington . . . in August, not January."

First of all, the site selection has nothing to do with "walk[ing] around those cities in nice weather." If it did Detroit wouldn't be getting the 2006 Super Bowl. I don't know that a lot of people want to walk around Detroit in good weather, but you're not going to have much of that in January (well, actually February).

And second, nobody wants to walk around DC in August. I mean, maybe compared to New Orleans, it's not a sauna, but please.

If you want to make the argument that the Super Bowl should only be held in warm weather cities, go ahead. (I think that's what he's getting at.) But don't conspire with dome-cities like Detroit to deny DC a Super Bowl if you're only going to turn against them later. That's as lame as naming yourself general manager of the team.

Sunday, May 12, 2002

What's News?

I am sort of a news junkie. I read wire stories, check CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times frequently, listen to news radio and NPR. But I've found I end up scanning the headlines, but reading very few of the actual stories.

Why? After years of paying attention to the news, I've become a bit jaded about what actually matters. Most stories are repetitions of what I've already heard, stories that most people knew were coming, or variations on the same theme.

Let's look at the current Reuters headlines.

I guess my point is that none of these stories gives me a more complete understanding of the universe around me -- a tall order, but that's why I pay attention to the news these days. What I'm really looking for is the unexpected -- Israelis and Palestinians making peace, Finns and Swedes fighting a war, a cure for cancer...

Often times, though, these stories aren't on the front page. Perhaps the most interesting story I read today was on page A17 of today's Post. "Egyptian Radicals Veering Away From Violence." "Egyptian Radicals Denounce America" makes the catchier story, but this is more compelling. If we don't want things to get really ugly, we need to see a trend towards moderation in the Middle East. As I type that, I realize how obvious it sounds. Good; that means it's probably true. So it's worth watching this to see if it's a trend -- from the article, "veering" seems a bit of an exaggeration, but this is about a trend that could make a difference.

While finding the link for that article, I ran across several others from the Post that bear reading. There's an article about fears of "belt-bombers" in the US -- that'll keep me up tonight. There's an article about an arrest in the US that may be related to the Sept. 9 slaying of Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance -- kind of freaky that an American postal worker may be involved, but it's heartening that investigators are making progress. That's one of the reasons I, and a lot of others, I'm sure, turn on the news these days -- to see if the good guys are catching the bad guys. Keep your fingers crossed. The article about people upset about DC's new Grand Prix race is pretty interesting too. It brings together a few things that I keep an eye on -- attempts to revitalize the DC economy, the high-handedness of these attempts toward local citizens, the general whininess of local citizens...

I guess as I get bombarded with 24-hour news, the what, when and where is so easily available that I barely need to read the stories. What I really am looking for is the whys and what ifs.

Saturday, May 11, 2002

Auction Fever

Well, my laptop is fixed, so I'm posting again from the comfort of the couch.

Christina and I went to an auction today with Martin and Jeanene. Martin's boss had suggested it as a good place to get furniture deals. Martin and Jeanene need furniture for the house they're planning to purchase, and Christina likes a good auction. Me? I thought it would be fun to take the excursion.

Christina required more convincing to go along that I expected. After a very confusing conversation, we determined that I had forwarded her a message that contained two very different discussions. Martin's message about the auction was preceded by a note from Ben lamenting the departure of Ron Wilson, hockey coach. If you read the message without context (as Christina did), it sounded a lot like we were heading to Ron Wilson's estate sale. Christina was less than enthused about bidding on a bunch of sports memorabilia. Once we cleared that up, she was 100% on board.

We met Martin and Jeanene this morning at Dunkin' Donuts and followed them to Northern Virginia, where the auction house was located. There was a brief preview period where we wandered around and looked at stuff before the auction proper began. I was a little surprised to hear the traditional auctioneer 200-word-a-minute style used, but after a while I got used to it.

The strategy they used here was to auction off only furniture (to make room for more stuff) or items people requested to bid on (which made sure that nothing went without bids). Martin and Jeanene ended up with a 1920s-era bedroom suite and a grandfather-type clock. Christina asked for bidding on some carnival glass and a nice wooden box, but bidding on that quickly went beyond what she was willing to pay (although she said the winning bidders still got very good deals). I had the honor of having my request be the last item of the auction -- once the auction assistant realized that I was asking to bid on some old beer bottles, not trying to order a beer from him. The auctioneer held up the beer, asked for a $1 bid, got mine, and then yelled "sold" without taking any more bids. Well, I'm happy.

Martin and Jeanene needed a couple of trips to get all their new furniture home. We helped by transporting a nightstand (or end table or something), which Martin'll pick up later. I put it away in my dining room. Christina put a towel over it to protect it -- ostensibly from spills, but actually if it sits there too long, I might get used to how nice it looks.

Friday, May 10, 2002


Christina and I went to see Spider-Man on opening night last Friday. It was a very enjoyable movie. Only once the movie had started did I realize just how familiar I was with the Spider-Man "myth". Because of this familiarity, I was particularly sensitive to the "liberties" taken in the making of the movie. First of all, having Spider-Man's web shooters be organic rather than mechanical was clearly a bad idea. I mean what's the point about making a big deal of Peter Parker's scientific brilliance if you're not going to have him use said genius to construct web-shooters? "Gee, I'm a science whiz. I think I'll get a job as a news photographer."

Beyond that, though, I can't complain too much. In the movie, he's at Columbia University when he gets bitten by the genetically-engineered spider. Looking through an old comic book history I forgot I had, I discovered he was on a field trip at some weird corporation when he got bitten by the radioactive spider. The venue wasn't important, and the switch in type of spider was probably a smart updating. Interestingly, in Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel's updating of the legend, he gets bitten in an Osborn Industries lab. I've read the first 20 issues of the new book on-line, and it's very well done.

So I guess what felt the most awkward about the movie was other "updating" -- stuff that seemed done to make it seem "hip". For example, Peter Parker is early on seen hanging out in a mall food court. It seemed to make Spider-Man seem "2002" (or, frankly, "1992"), rather than the timeless legend I had in my mind.

Well, as I mentioned, I had this history of Spider-Man (c. 1991) upstairs. Boy, did that disabuse me of the notion that Spider-Man was ever timeless. In the original comic book, at one point Harry Osborn gets strung out on LSD. At another point, one of Peter Parker's buddies comes back from 'Nam and starts having flashbacks. Comic books have always struggled to stay relevant to modern youth. In the old comic book, Uncle Ben lived through the Depression. In the new one, he met Aunt May after spending time on a commune. Times change, the details change, but the movie (and comic book) show that the story endures, and endures well. I'll be looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Separate but Equal

So the Bush administration is making it easier for public schools to segregate students by gender. Arrgh.

I might be able to buy the rationale that the federal government shouldn't be prohibiting the local governments from determining the form of education that they provide. But if you think federalism is the motivating principle for this administration, I hope you're enjoying your medical marijuana. After all, if it's not the federal government's business to encourage or discourage this sort of thing, why are they offering $3 million for pilot programs? Oh, that's right, to encourage it.

So that leaves the real justification:

Advocates, supported by a growing body of research, say encouraging single-sex schools offers the promise of benefiting both boys and girls, some of whom do better in such settings.

First, the obligatory inflammatory racial analogy. If research showed that segregating students by race raised their test scores, should we do it? Of course not.

Dividing up students by gender (or by race) encourages them to think of students in the other school as "the other". OK, great, the boys aren't causing trouble in class to impress the girls. (This is what I heard someone on NPR give as justification for single-sex classes.) So when they eventually encounter the opposite sex outside of class -- after school, in college, in the workplace -- they will act with dignity and restraint? Of course not. They'll be even worse, because they have little experience handling themselves in mixed company. These educators are following the current public school fad of making sure that problems happen on somebody else's watch.

When I was in college, I made sure to end up on a co-ed floor in the dorm. Why? Increased opportunities for debauchery? Not really. In fact, the all-male floors frequently had visits by women -- especially during the drunken weekend parties. Strangely enough, the co-ed floors had a lower incidence of that sort of immaturity.

Look, I realize that many people have had positive experiences in single-sex educational situations. I don't propose that the government step in and prevent private or parochial schools from operating that way. But when the government itself starts dividing people up by gender, it sets an ugly precedent. What's next? If the boys are distracted by the girls -- well, that would only be true of the straight boys and girls, right? Wouldn't the gay boys be twice as distracted in an all-boys school. Follow the logic and you end up with Arundel High School for Lesbians. (OK, maybe not. But doesn't that sound like it could be on Cinemax?)

I've lost track of my main point here, which is that separate schools for boys and girls may be slightly better at teaching math and reading (though I have my doubts). But implicitly they're going to be worse at preparing them for a gender-integrated society.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

A Moment on the Earth

The low posting output lately is due to a glitch with posting to my web hosting service (hopefully, that'll get fixed, I'll get a work-around, or I'll change providers) and the fact that my laptop is in the shop.

I recently finished A Moment on the Earth, by Gregg Easterbrook. This is a long book, but I'm glad I made it through. Easterbrook's main thesis is that the environment is in good shape, but that this is a result of environmental regulation, so we should be interested in more of it. It's somewhat counter-intuitive -- or rather, it shows how counter-intuitive the two main poles in environmental debate are -- "The sky is falling, despite all the environmental legislation that's passed," or, "Everything we've done to clean up the planet has been enough. Let's just leave it at that."

I mention the thesis partially because a simple web search turned up some severe misunderstandings. For example, from this page,

His central thesis is: "...even for all their failings, market forces and a self-interest stake in forests are the best system for assuring responsible behavior, as they confer voluntary reasons to protect the land." (403) By implication, there is no longer any role for governmental regulation?

Hmm, well, most authors don't state their thesis on page 403. Reading the first part of the book, I noticed that Easterbrook expressed his general like of government regulation. In fact, he thought the good example government regulation set by getting results on environmental cleanup could be used to push government regulation in other spheres. The quote above has to do with the superiority of government regulations that make it worth people's while to comply. For example (mine, not Easterbrook's), littering is illegal pretty much everywhere. And, most places, the roadsides are strewn with bottles and cans. But when I lived in Michigan, I hardly ever saw litter of that type. Why? The 10-cent bottle deposit (made famous by Seinfeld).

I also found this page:

He denies such obvious truths as the fact that insects are becoming resistant to pesticides, asserts that "nothing Carson forecast in Silent Spring has come to pass," and boasts of the increase in raptors without noting that this was due to the banning of DDT.

Wow. Let's see. He mentions that insects are becoming resistant to pesticides, and mentions that the increase in raptors happened after DDT was banned.

I'm not quite sure what about the book provokes such strong reactions from people who clearly haven't read it all the way through. I found it to be a level-headed examination of the state of the environment. I didn't always agree with it, but it made a lot more sense than doomsday predictions or the let-'em-pollute crowd.