30 September 2007

SNL is back!

I especially enjoyed two bits in last night's season premiere of Saturday Night Live.  Whenever "a new cartoon by Robert Smigel" is announced at the beginning of the show, I get my hopes up for a new episode of The Ambiguously Gay Duo.  Sure enough, Stephen Colbert (Ace), Steve Carell (Gary) and Smigel reunited after almost five years for a classic new episode.

Then there was the new SNL Digital Short.  It opens with Andy Samberg outside sitting at a grand piano repeatedly playing a fragment from avril 14th, a track from my favorite Aphex Twin album, and starting to rap a love song.  It quickly becomes clear that his object of affection is infamous Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (played by Fred Armisen).  Then the lead singer of Maroon 5 pops up to sing a chorus inspired by A Flock of Seagulls's '80s hit I Ran (So Far Away).  Some lyrical excerpts:

"I remember when it started / Saw you on the news / You were hatin' gays / I was eatin' food but I was feelin' you / And even though I disagreed with almost everything you said / You ain't wrong with me / So strong with me / You belong with me / Like a very hairy Jake Gyllenhaal with me"

"They call you weasel / They say your methods are medieval / You can play the Jews / I can be your Jim Caviezel"

"I know you say there's no gays in Iran / but you in New York now, baby"

Only the guys behind The Lonely Island could make such perfect comedy out of IDM, '80s new wave, '00s rap-pop and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's homophobia.  Don't miss Iran So Far on YouTube, and watch for a special cameo near the end.

24 September 2007

Baseball game theory, part 1

While with family in North Carolina I got my first chance to play a Wii, the newest Nintendo system.  It uses the motion-sensing Wiimote to translate your arm and hand movements into game movements, so, for example, you can swing the Wiimote like a tennis racket to have your game player swing his racket.  My brother and I played a game of Wii Sports baseball.  The game is vastly simplified compared to most baseball video games:  There are only three innings, it only allows you to bat and pitch (the computer takes care of the fielding and baserunning) and, most importantly, a pitch goes right down the middle of the strike zone no matter what arm motion you use, with only one exception that we found.  I guess this last property is a result of Nintendo trying to make the system too forgiving.

I quickly figured out that my most effective pitches were a fastball (down the middle) and a splitter in the dirt—the other two available pitches, a curveball and a screwball, were relatively easy to hit as they were slower and always ended up right down the middle anyway.  The fastball was most effective with a fast wrist snap; the splitter was only unhittable when thrown in the dirt with a slow wrist snap (it was the only way to throw a pitch that wasn't right down the middle).  The two were hard to tell apart on the screen until it was too late, so the pitcher and the batter were essentially trying to outguess the other.

The pitchers dominated, and the game was scoreless into the bottom of the third (and last) inning when my brother got a hit.  I sensed that he was reading my wrist speed to determine which pitch I was throwing, so after I got two strikes on him I tried to cross him up by throwing a fastball but with a slow wrist snap, effectively throwing him a changeup.  I expected him to take it for an unexpected third strike, but he outguessed me and hit a game-winning homer.  If only I'd thought ahead one more step and thrown a splitter in the dirt I might have had him.  (I also regret not trying a splitter with a faster wrist snap instead . . .)

My defeat got me thinking about applying game theory to baseball.  For example, consider the following situation:  The score is tied and the bases are loaded with two out and a full count in the bottom of the ninth.  For the sake of simplicity, let's assume the batter has two options, swing at or take the pitch, and the pitcher has two, throw a fastball for a strike or a splitter in the dirt.  The pitcher's splitter is so effective that the batter can't tell it from a fastball until it's too late.  A ball will walk in the winning run for the home team and a strike will send the game into extra innings, presumably giving each team a 50% chance of winning.  Let's further assume that if the batter swings at a fastball strike, he has a 50% chance of getting a hit and winning the game and a 50% chance of getting out.  Each player must decide what to do without knowing what the other will do.  So the resulting probabilities that the home team will win are


In this oversimplified situation, what should each of the two players decide to do?  If both players use their optimal strategies, what's the resulting probability that the home team will win?  (Hint:  It's somewhere between 50% and 75%.)

18 September 2007


Recently I bought the 2-disc Memento DVD and watched the movie in chronological order for the first time.  I don't buy many DVDs, but Memento is a nonlinear, twisty film that rewards multiple viewings.  It isn't hard to enjoy the first time as long as you're willing to watch intently and you don't mind feeling temporarily disoriented.  Leonard, the main character, has lost his ability to form new long-term memories, so the disorientation you feel from seeing many events in backwards order is much like his.  He doesn't remember much that's happened to him since the incident that caused his memory loss.  He doesn't know whom to trust, and he may not even be able to trust himself.

Many of Memento's plot points make more sense the second and third times you see it, and watching it in chronological order for the first time was even more enlightening than I expected.  Many minor details fell into place that I hadn't noticed at all before.  The big question that had never occurred to me is, What happens to Leonard next, after the first (chronologically last) scene of the movie?  I'd never thought to wonder about it before since you spend the whole movie figuring out how things got to that point; by the end of it, you've almost forgotten about the first scene and what immediately led up to it.

SPOILER WARNING.  Do not read further if you haven't seen the movie.  Go rent it!

My theory is that Natalie set him up by suggesting the abandoned building as a place to kill Teddy.  She found out the truth about Jimmy: she knew where he did his deals, so she'd probably look there when he went missing, and she knew Leonard had taken his car and his clothes.  I think she sends Leonard to the abandoned building and kills him there for revenge.

But what if Natalie never sees Leonard again, maybe because she sympathizes with him too much to kill him and sees him as too dangerous to try to keep using him?  Will Leonard again find a way to convince himself that he didn't just kill John G. and then get on someone else's trail?  How will he proceed without Teddy's "help"?  I love movies like this that make you think long after they're over.


The same director's earlier film Following was made for no more than a few thousand dollars but it's almost as effective as Memento as a brainy thiller.  I check it out from the Wash. U. library about every year and I have to watch it twice each time.  Its plot jumps around in time less regularly than Memento's, so you have to be at least as careful to pick up on clues such as different locations, clothing and even haircuts.  You may be surprised when you find out who's deceiving whom and how.  If you've seen Memento and liked it, don't miss Following.

06 September 2007

North Carolina

This last weekend I flew to North Carolina to meet up with some of my dad's side of the family.  I have a very small family on both sides and we're spread out all over, so it's rare that so many of us (12 in this case) can get together.  Attending were my two brothers, my dad, his sister, two first cousins (father's sister's daughter and son), two first cousins once removed (father's sister's daughter's son and father's father's sister's daughter), my great-aunt (father's father's sister) and two second cousins (father's father's sister's daughter's daughters).  I'd only met about half of them before, and even them I hadn't seen for over ten years.

I was especially glad to meet my 87-year-old great-aunt for the first time.  Her brother—my grandfather—was also known as Rob, a fact that delights both of us.  Seeing family has reawakened an interest in genealogy that I haven't really had since the late '80s.  Back then I corresponded with my great-aunt and she sent me the research that she had done, and she still remembered that!  I also enjoyed seeing the campus of my dad's alma mater, Wake Forest, for the first time.

There seem to be traditions of doctors and teachers in the family; I'll be both, at least if I succeed in finishing my dissertation this year.  The trip was a perfect break before this busy semester gets going.  For me, North Carolina means not NASCAR, tobacco or furniture but delicious pork barbecue, beautiful trees and family.