This charming movie looks at the crossword puzzle culture in the United States through the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held at the Marriott hotel in Stamford Connecticut. For someone like me who can spend the better part of a day working on the Sunday New York Times puzzle (not even the toughest one of the week), it was a bit alarming to see people racing through these puzzles in a matter of minutes. The competition itself reminded me of my days playing the Star Trek Customizable Card Game in several ways. The first similarity is the mere existence of such a tournament, though I admit a crossword puzzle tournament is probably less surprising to most people than a Star Trek Customizable Card Game tournament. Second was the impressive dedication of the top contenders to being scarily good at the game (or puzzle solving). A third similarity is the occasional agonizing mistake ruining a top contender’s chances. The charm of the movie is built on the shared passion of a wide variety of people for something as simple but devilishly complicated as a crossword puzzle. Jon Stewart is hilarious as a New York Times crossword puzzle addict. In one scene, we see Stewart, Bill Clinton, and the Indigo Girls working on the same puzzle, and we sense the thrill of the coded connection between the puzzle author and his victims – er, audience.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 184 user reviews.

In his first interview with the media since the World Cup final, French soccer hero Zinedine Zidane told Canal Plus that he wanted to apologize to children and those who teach them because “il y a des choses il faut pas faire” (there are things that shouldn’t be done). Presumably his apology was because he didn’t want children to think they should do as he did and physically attack a player who had verbally assaulted him. But when pressed on the question of his own personal regret, he said he did not regret it because “that would mean he (Matarazzi) had the right to say what he said”. Of course, Matarazzi did have the right to say what he said, although maybe it would have been a foul if an official had heard it. Furthermore, not head-butting someone who says something offensive does not mean endorsement of the offensive words. If Zizou really wants children to not do things “il faut pas faire” then he should admit that he shouldn’t have done it. Period. Sadly, it seems that the French media does not want him to regret what he did, because that would place all the responsibility on their national hero and remove it from the Italian trash-talker. The French interviewer portrayed it as a pre-meditated act to restore his family’s honor. To me it looked like someone successfully goaded into losing his temper.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 218 user reviews.

Bryan Singer brings Superman back to the big screen with a shiny new movie that tips its hat to the Christopher Reeve Superman of the seventies. Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent is uncannily reminiscent of Reeve. “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” has been replaced by “Truth, Justice, all that stuff” – a recognition, perhaps, that these days the “American Way” would be regarded by the rest of the world as starting wars and torturing prisoners. The movie has a number of nice set pieces. The opening airplane disaster is gripping in spite of its absurdity. (But what’s the meaning of the remark that only one network is covering the launch of a new sub-orbital commercial space plane? The comment has no function in the movie, so it must be a commentary on something, but I can’t figure out what.) Kevin Spacey brings a nice mix of humor, evil, and egomania to Lex Luthor. Sadly, the script does not give Lex much intelligence. His evil plan is stupid. Destructive, yes, but it’s hard to imagine how it would do him much good, even if it worked out. This lessens the impact of the final third of the movie.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 202 user reviews.

One of the cool things I’ve done with data from Cassini is analyze self-gravity wakes in Saturn’s rings. These are long, finger-likeshaped clumps of particles in the rings (a few tens of meters across and perhaps 100 or more meters long) that are the result of the particles running into each other and trying to accrete through gravity, but getting pulled apart by tides from Saturn. We published a paper earlier this year (Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 33, L07201, doi:10.1029/2005GL025163 for those interested in the gory details) using our first measurements of Saturn’s A ring to derive the size and shape of the clumps in the ring. I have used that model to predict what we will see with our next measurement on July 25, 2006. You can see the prediction (purple curve) here. The other curves on the plot show the range of values from different measurements to date. Once I get the data I will post a comparison of the observation with the prediction. This is a fun opportunity to see the scientific method in action:

1. Observations by Cassini led to a theorymodel (the theory was proposed more than 30 years ago and has been developed by a number of researchers since then; we developed a particular mathematical model based on that theory and applied it to Cassini data;) of self-gravity wakes;
2. Application of that theorymodel to the data produced a prediction for a future observation;
3. July 25 comes the test of the theorymodel which will either confirm or refute the theory.

My guess is that there will be good, but not perfect, agreement between prediction and observation. This would then lead to some modification of the self-gravity wake parameters that I have previously calculated. We will be back at step 1 with an improved model of the ring. Check out the prediction and check back in a couple of weeks to see how well I did.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 244 user reviews.

Following on the “fragmentation” post, can you come up with words that, like fragmentation, segmentation, documentation, and regimentation get the extra “ta” but do not have roots ending in “ment” (like fragment, document, etc.)? Post them here as comments. I have thought of two so far.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 203 user reviews.

As a planetary scientist studying the formation of the planets and the evolution of planetary ring systems, the following terms referring to how a swarm of colliding objects (like ring particles, or asteroids, for example) evolves:
Accretion
Aggregation
Coagulation
Compaction
Fragmentation

At a meeting today of the Cassini UVIS science team, when this list of words appeared on the screen I was distracted from the subject by what appears to be an extra syllable. You see it, don’t you? It’s taunting us, or should I say “ta”unting us, there in the middle of “fragmentation”. Examining the rest of the list we see that accrete becomes accretion, aggregate becomes aggregation, coagulate becomes coagulation, compact becomes compaction, so why can we not have a fragmention? Is it unspeakable, or simply unmentionable? What is wrong with a frag? For that matter, how about segs? We have segmentation, but never is a seg mentioned.

So before the termination of this post I’d like to mention not only a frag and a seg, but also an imple, a regi, and a docu; those poor neglected prefixes that never get a mention.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 257 user reviews.

As the husband of a French woman, and a frequent visitor to Europe, I have had many conversations with lifelong fans of football (soccer). I have been met with a uniform wall of resistance to the idea that the game needs any changes. Yet it seems obvious to me and to many American friends that there is a fundamental flaw in the game: it is too hard to score. This is not some simpleminded American desire for offensive fireworks. This is a matter of statistics. A typical scoring action in soccer takes less than a minute. This includes offensive development that leads to a corner kick, for example. This means on average that a team has about 50 chances to score. But, in the World Cup at least, on average a team scores once. An offensive powerhouse might score twice. When it is this difficult to score, the merit of the winning team becomes increasingly less important and chance becomes more important. A single mistake or bad call can seal the fate of the game.

If purity of the game is a concern, consider that while the game has not changed, the players have changed dramatically. People are taller, faster, and more fit. World records in track regularly fall as even the level of elite athletes improves each decade. This has had a disproportionate benefit to defense in soccer. A survey of the average goals per game in the World Cup shows that scoring has fallen from 4.41 goals per game prior to 1960 to 2.63 goals per game since. This is a 40 per cent drop in scoring. If the game was perfect fifty years ago, it no longer is. Let the game evolve with the athletes. Make the goal larger. Or relax the offsides rule. When only 2.3 goals are scored per game, as in the 2006 World Cup, the average score is a tie, and that’s no way to decide a championship.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 285 user reviews.

There was a lot of great soccer in the final match between Italy and France, with Italy looking stronger and attacking more in the first half and France dominating the second half and overtime. So it’s disappointing to see the match decided by penalty kicks, which are a poor measure of the quality of the team and the quality of play. Doubly disappointing to see Zidane inexcusably lose control and cast an ugly pall over the final. The 1-1 score is indicative of what I believe is a fundamental problem with soccer. Look for more on that later.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 288 user reviews.

This was the closest I’ve ever come to leaving a theater in the middle of a film because it was making me physically ill. The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom, depicts the ordeal of three British men captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for two years. They were released without ever having any charges filed against them. Most likely the only thing they are guilty of is incredibly poor judgment in deciding to enter Afghanistan at the start of the U.S.-led attack on the Taliban government. In addition to the cruel and degrading treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo, the greater affront is that hundreds of people are being held prisoner without being charged with anything, without access to legal counsel, and without many of the rights that we Americans so pride ourselves on guaranteeing. Furthermore, can anyone possibly believe anything that a prisoner utters after years of physical and mental abuse? What sort of person can actually be satisfied that he has captured a real criminal or menace based on a confession coerced by the torment inflicted on these detainess? It serves only to diminish us, both in reality, and in the eyes of the world.

My criticism of the movie is that it is not clear until the end credits how much of the movie is a re-enactment (100%). While some of it is presented in documentary-style interviews, those interviews are with the actors portraying the “Tipton Three” prisoners. The movie would be more effective if the ground rules were explained at the beginning, outlining the sources of the information for what is portrayed and making it clear that it is a re-enactment.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 211 user reviews.

If you haven’t already seen it, “An Inconvenient Truth” is a powerful and compelling movie. Everyone should see it. While there is uncertainty about the magnitude of future temperature changes due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere, there is virtually no uncertainty that we are forcing the climate into a new regime. Because our ecosystem has adapted to our current environment, any change is bad news. Climate change of any sort means moving from a system to which all species have adapted to one for which they are not adapted. It took hundreds of millions of years for the biotic Carbon to be stored in fossil fuels that are now being burned to release that Carbon in the form of CO2 back into the atmosphere in only a few centuries. The Carbon cycle is therefore being dramatically perturbed and putting us into uncharted territory. I urge everyone to go to climatecrisis.net and carbonfund.org to see what can be done to sequester some of that Carbon instead of dumping eons of natural Carbon sequestration back into the atmosphere all at once.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 229 user reviews.