Aug 202007
Last night I rented and watched Taboo, or Gohatto if you use the original Japanese title. I don’t think I would have found it on my own, but the Netflix recommendation algorithm spat it out and I gave it a try. Taboo is a fascinating, well-acted gay samurai mystery art film, and you cannot be any more surprised by reading that than I was by writing it.

The conceit of the film is that an exceptionally pretty boy named Kano Sozaburo joins a samurai military unit towards the end of the Shogunate (the politics of this era play a minor, but substantive role in the story). Many of the men become infatuated with him, and their jealousy starts to tear the unit apart until a bloody episode that ends the film. Beat Takeshi stars as the unit’s second-in-command Hijikata Toshizo, who is the one that has to deal with the problems Kano creates. These are many, as Kano seems to catch absolutely everyone’s eye, including the commander, at least one lieutenant, and even perhaps Hijikata himself.

This is not the best movie I’ve ever seen by any standard. The plot seems to come and go at times, and the tension builds only unevenly towards the final confrontation. While the movie centers on Kano little is done to give the viewer a real handle on his character. He blows hot and cold, and Matsuda Ryuhei at times just doesn’t seem equal to his task. Takeshi does more with less; Hijikata is much easier to grasp, even though he has his own set of unresolved questions. In the end the viewer is left to resolve most of the movie’s central mysteries.

The directing is very interesting. Oshima Nagisa’s camera tries to let action speak for itself, which works splendidly in some scenes (Kano’s embarrassing kendo bout against his lover) and not so well in others (an extended entrance by a geisha). As is often the case, color features prominently in the film (Kano’s frequent wearing of white against the black of the militia’s livery), but it bears thinking about what the colors mean in the cultural context.

Some cultural context may also be needed for westerners watching the film. An American might find it strange that all these men are attracted to Kano, who seems by our standards pale and rather pinched. The seeming lack of romance in the love scenes (there is one sex scene, but barely anything is shown) may also seem a little odd. These aren’t flaws but rather important components of the historical and cultural setting, ultimately helping to build a fairly accurate picture of this world.

Taboo isn’t easy to understand and just isn’t for some people. I don’t mean this pejoratively; you aren’t a better person if it is for you. It’s the strangest case ever made against gays in the military — beware, all the straight men might become infatuated! And yet, though some of the plot seems totally alien, it works, even the slightly strained ending. Beat Takeshi is to be credited for this, as he grounds a film that could have easily flown off into space. Sakagami Jiro, Takeda Shinji, and a few others in the supporting cast also do great work, propping up (in my opinion) Matsuda, who just doesn’t seem to have quite enough poison in his eyes for this role. If you think a gay samurai mystery art film might be for you, then try to get your hands on it, at least for a rental.

I also watched Hot Fuzz; all you need to know about this film is that it is very funny and you should rent it.


 sports  Comments Off on Leverage
Aug 182007
Man, there is a lot of chatter about Mike Vick these days. I used to think he wasn’t quite as big a punk as his brother, but apparently family ties run deep. The talking heads all seem to expect a 1-year sentence at minimum, but I’m not so sure. Yeah, the Feds could give Vick all that jail time and make an example of him, but to me that seems like squandering their advantage. The sports guys have it right when they say that Vick’s career can’t really take even a year off — he’s an athletic freak, not a football mind, and without the constant exposure to field conditions his already-deficient technique could take an irreparable hit. If he spends a year in jail, that means he’ll miss at least two seasons, and if that happens he may have no choice other than to come back as a running back. So basically the Feds have him over a barrel. If they hit him with even a fairly light sentence, his career might well be over.

But all that gets the Feds is Bad Newz Kennels. Wouldn’t it make more sense to slap his wrist in exchange for having him roll over on all those guys his dogs fought against? There was a lot of talk early on in the investigation about how Mike Vick was a major player in the dogfighting world. The Feds can use that knowledge — after all, the world of dogfighting has been notoriously difficult to breach — and I think they might dangle a big fat carrot in front of Vick to get it. I think that maybe his plea deal will involve a 6-month sentence at Club Fed, with another 3-month commitment in front of a grand jury. Now if only somebody would throw Pacman Jones in jail…


 boo, equipment problem, nmr  Comments Off on HDTV
Aug 142007
This story begins back in March, when I got an amazingly crappy hetNOE spectrum from our 500 MHz spectrometer. The hetNOE is always a low-sensitivity spectrum, but for a 1 mM sample the signal I got was simply unacceptable. At first, I didn’t think much of this, for the simple reason that I thought the HX probe was in, and I’m used to getting poor signal-to-noise from that thing.

Except… except that everyone else was getting low-quality spectra too, no matter what probe was in. Finally one day Chris and Janice got almost no signal at all from an HSQC of a 1 mM monomeric protein, and that was the end. We had Sara test the magnet, and she found we had a four-fold reduction in signal to noise. To put things into perspective, we would have to take 16 times as many scans as before in order to achieve the same signal under these conditions. For a 1-hour HSQC, this is marginally acceptable. For a 2-day triple-resonance sequence, it is not. The new noise, strangely enough, came and went at odd times.

Al, because he knows all, immediately suspected a television signal, which he attributed to a rogue broadcaster somewhere out on Bear Hill. You see, an NMR spectrometer is really two things. It is a giant magnet, yes. But it is also a radiofrequency transmitter and receiver. The RF pulses induce a signal that the transmitter/receiver coil picks up. For our 500 MHz spectrometer, the primary signal we pick up is the proton signal at 499.75 MHz. This frequency is in a TV band.

Al was deflated, however, when Wlad tried to check the spectral band on his TV and found nothing. The search for the cause continued, with suspects ranging from the Brandeis student radio station to the construction crew radios to various parts of the magnet to secret government transmissions.

In the end, Al turned out to be right, and Wlad turned out to have a cheap TV. There was a channel broadcasting in this frequency range, but it was HDTV channel 18, a signal Wlad’s cheap TV cannot decode. Our spectrometer can’t decode it either, but we can sure see it. It knocks our signal down to an unrecoverable level. You can lose 75% of your signal for a small molecule and still be OK, but with proteins it’s a different story. The spectrometer is essentially useless to us in this condition.

And the worst part, the very worst part about this is that it’s a terrible channel! WMFP digital channel 18, broadcasting in the 494-500 MHz band, airs infomercials and “Gems TV”! Yes, that’s right, our scientific research has been derailed by a display of cubic zirconium jewelry in glorious high definition. Their antenna is located just south of us and we’re right in one of their strongest broadcast regions. Natural cures and cash-at-closing real estate ads are screwing us badly.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to boost the spectrometer’s frequency out of the channel 18 broadcast band to something like 500.13 MHz. However, there’s a Channel 19 (WGBH) broadcasting in the 500-506 MHz band as well; the spectrum analyzer shows a little gap between them that we can hopefully hit, and the WGBH signal is only half as strong as WMFP. Still, we may be screwed even if we boost the frequency. And there’s no way to shield the magnet, except maybe in the basement, but we’ll need to renovate the basement area in order to do that. So basically, we are screwed.

Sorely tempted

 technology, video games  Comments Off on Sorely tempted
Aug 082007

For the first time I really have an urge to get an XBox. It’s a very curious thought, since the ‘feel’ of the XBox library doesn’t much coincide with my gaming interests. A console where the highest-profile exclusive offerings come in the form of FPS, racers, and Western-style RPGs generally doesn’t appeal to me. But it seems now like the XBox is catching some of the quirky RPGs that more suit my style. I’m specifically talking about Eternal Sonata, a new cel-shaded RPG set in the mind of Frederic Chopin shortly before his death of tuberculosis. The concept alone — and the idea of music informing the RPG mechanics — is pretty intriguing, but I’ve also been very drawn by the game art I’ve seen so far and the descriptions of the combat system. Ultimately it’s not quite enough to convince me to blow hundreds of dollars on a system that still doesn’t have much that I want. That said, if the XBox continues to get more of this kind of game, a sort that used to be more or less the exclusive province of the PS2, the case for it will get stronger and stronger in my mind.

Aug 062007

And ends with me, as far as I’m concerned. My trip down to Charleston was a comic travesty of airline mismanagement. I don’t mean to say that it was the worst flying experience ever, or even that it was my worst flying experience ever. It was just a classic example of the pathetic failures of modern airlines.

The trip began with a 5AM phone call telling me my flight out of Boston had been cancelled, but that I had been put on another flight an hour later. At the gate, it became clear that the 12:30 had also been cancelled, and that the (I imagine) sparse occupancy of three different planes had been crammed together to make one very full 11:30 flight to Philly. Of course, it was also worth noting that the plane looked like it was falling apart on the inside – a large number of the overhead panels (with the lights and air nozzles) were pushed out of line with each other, or tilted about 3 degrees relative to the luggage compartments.

The flight from there to Charleston was unremarkable (although my cousin Eleanor was not so lucky and her luggage disappeared when she took the same flight a day later). We all had a good time with the Warner clan, and most of the Lyons and Heinsohn branches were also represented (though cousin Frank couldn’t make it). Eleanor disappeared for an hour and a half and freaked out her parents, and I ate way too much of Aunt Peggy’s shrimp salad.

On my way back to Boston, my flight out of Charleston got cancelled, supposedly for a mechanical problem. The clerk said the usual spiel about how it was better that they stopped the flight than flew with a bad plane, but this misses the point. In a competent company, the plane doesn’t have a mechanical problem in the first place. Planes get serviced, and unservicable planes get removed from the fleet. At the very least, the company should have spares available regionally to pick up the slack. My own suspicion, however, is that the plane was fine except for not being full enough to make the flight profitable. Thus, people were shunted onto alternate routes. I ended up flying to LaGuardia rather than Charlotte and got home 3 hours late. My bags arrived on time, however; they took the 1 PM LGA-BOS flight while I had to wait till the 2 o’clock. This fact was announced only after the later flight’s bags had rolled around on the conveyor belt — a paltry 20 or so bags for a nearly-full flight. I found my bag sitting in front of the luggage office and ran while I still could.

Was anything really awful about this? No. But it’s not really awful experiences that convince me to stay away from something. Truly terrible experiences, like wonderful ones, tend to be statistical anomalies and shouldn’t be focused on unless they recur. It’s the grating, repetitive march of insensitive and unprofessional behavior that really puts me off air travel in general, and now US Airways in particular. I’ll probably have to fly with them in the future, but dang if I don’t hope to avoid it.