Happy Holidays and weird movies….

Well, I have a follow-up post to the cryptography one of a few weeks ago, but it will have to wait until I get around to plucking a picture off my digital camera (it’s of a genuine ten franc note!). Anyway, Happy Chrismahannukwanstice and New Year, and sorry for the break in posts (those handful of you who actually read this).

As a note, apparently far more people actually read this than I would ever have guessed, but NO ONE POSTS!! So next time you’re on, leave me a note!

And, to usher out the old year and ring in the new, I was (for some unknown reason) possessed to give my top ten list of the weirdest movies of all time. I’m sure there are plenty I have missed and certain directors such as Bunuel, Fellini, and Cronenberg only appear once (since they could dominate the list if they wanted). So here’s my list. Comments welcome (especially if they pertain directly to any of these films).

1. Un Chien Andalou (The Andalousian Dog) (1929), directed by Luis Bunuel, screenplay by Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali. The writing credit says it all. Truly the single most bizarre film I have ever seen. I actually wrote a report on Bunuel in my high school film class.

2. Fellini – Satyricon (1969), directed by Federico Fellini, screenplay by Fellini, Petronius, Brunello Rondi, and Bernardino Zapponi. Both strange and unsettlingly creepy.

3. Pi (1998), directed by Darren Aronofsky, screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, and Eric Watson. Dark and disturbing, perhaps moreso because I am a mathematician.

4. Videodrome (1983), written and directed by David Cronenberg. There is nothing quite like watching James Woods grow a VHS receptacle in his stomach. Plus, we can watch Debbie Harry (of Blondie fame) do some acting.

5. Prospero’s Books (1991), directed by Peter Greenaway, screenplay by Greenaway based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This could have been higher on the list. Includes an old and buck naked John Gielgud plus an unnamed extra rivalling Dirk Diggler. Wherefore art thou good taste?

6. Delicatessen (1991), directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, screenplay by Gilles Adrien with Caro and Jeunet. 1991 was a good year for the bizarre. A post-apocolyptic cannibalistic feast.

7. Blue Velvet (1986), written and directed by David Lynch. Lynch had to be on this list somewhere and perhaps this isn’t his weirdest film (and I haven’t seen it in a long time), but I just remember it being really, really weird (supposedly his latest is weirder still). Not sure this should be this high, but hey…

8. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), written and directed by Peter Greenaway. So after saying Bunuel, Fellini, and Cronenberg (not to mention Lynch) couldn’t appear twice on this list, I’ve given Greenaway two nods. So shoot me.

9. The Sweet Hereafter (1997), directed by Atom Egoyan, screenplay by Egoyan based on the book by Russell Banks. This is the first film on this list that I consider to be watchable. It won several Academy Awards and was truly an excellent film, but I will never get the creepily weird portrayal of the bus driver out of my head. Incidentally, Egoyan’s Exotica could also have taken this spot on the list.

10. Memento (2000), directed by Christopher Nolan, screenplay by Nolan based on the short story Memento Mori by Jonathan Nolan. A fantastic film that has a pretty straight-forward plot except that it’s told backwards which is why it appears on this list. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

So those are my top 10. What are yours? Happy Holidays!

One-time cypher pads & spies

For all you crypto freaks out there, I’m reading Eric Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy in which the following cipher is mentioned:

A French ten-franc note has on its face side four groups of figures. There is the date of issue and a printing number batch. Then there are two serial numbers, one of five figures in the lower left-hand corner and one of ten figures in the centre below the words Banque de France. In all, there are at least twenty-five digits on every note, and no two of the notes are exactly alike. It had been Brand’s idea to use these notes as “one-time” cypher pads. Jost himself had devised the matrix. The method was crude, no doubt, but it worked and was as safe as such things could be: a ten-franc note in one airmail envelope, the encyphered message in another. The limitation was that you could only send short, simple messages.

The message which had brought him there had been short and simple:


I have no French ten-franc notes (they were replaced by coins sometime in the ’70’s or ’80’s). But perhaps someone else out there does and can reconstruct the matrix (or at least one of the possibilities) used by the characters Brand and Jost. I offer it up as an intriguing challenge.

Statistics, spin, and John Bell

After I recently posted an article deriving Bell’s inequalities from the fundamental assumption of statistical mechanics, a guy at Northeastern Illinois University contacted me about a paper he wrote a few years ago linking Bell’s inequalities to the spin-statistics theorem, something I had a strong sense must exist but had never proven.

It seems there is a strong statistical/thermodynamic interpretation of quantum information that is developing, considering work in the past decade by the likes of Oppenheim, the Horodeckis, Cerf & Adami, and others. It is my feeling that there is a definite path one can draw that covers the uncertainty principle, the second law of thermodynamics, the exclusion principle (and thus the spin-statistics theorem), and Bell’s inequalities. The exact order they would appear on this path (and whether it is linear or circular) is unclear but I have a feeling we’ll know sooner than later.

What medicine and physics can teach environmentalism

A colleague of mine listened to a talk yesterday by a guy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University on global warming. In a discussion with him this afternoon he pointed out a glaring problem with environmental science: it doesn’t know how to properly sell itself. And I mean that in an entirely scientific way. And let me also state, right from the start, that I have no doubt that global warming is real (it’s hard to refute the experiential evidence).

In particular, this guy who gave the talk mentioned that all the models suggest global temperatures will rise anywhere from 2.1 to 8.9 degrees in the coming half-century or so. This is taken to be conclusive evidence for global warming. The problem is that, as a physicist and mathematician, I look at that and immediately notice that the range including statistical error is larger than the sample itself! When my colleague pointed this out to the guy he was immediately vilified as a supporter of the current administration.

In a sense, then, these environmental scientists are doing the same thing that the disbelievers are doing – turning it into a black and white, “with me or against me” attitude, rather than shore up their own argument by responding to legitimate critical feedback.

Here’s where I think these people could learn a thing or two from medicine and physics. Look at an example from medicine. Studies have shown that chocolate can help reduce the chance of getting clogged arteries though the exact mechanism may not be known (actually it might, but I’m not sure). Nonetheless, when presented the doctors don’t say: “It’s an absolute fact! If you don’t believe me you’re an idiot!” What they say is: “Yeah, the studies definitely point to a correlation but we don’t know the exact mechanism yet. Nonetheless, it seems prudent to eat chocolate if you want to reduce the possibility of clogging your arteries.” Or something like that.

Why don’t environmental scientists argue this way? They’re clearly working with statistical correlations which certainly give very strong evidence about something, but do not always mark the be-all-end-all. They need to publicly admit that the full mechanism of what is going to happen due to global warming is not well understood yet. Present it like medical researchers do.

To that end, physicists (physics being the science of simplification), would (should or maybe even have) look for a way of simplifying the explanation for the public without diluting the reality of the problem. In particular, it’s pretty easy to show that increasing the parts-per-million count of CO2 in air will cause a given sample to heat up (you don’t even need sophisticated equipment to do it). Heck, astronomers have known for years what a runaway greenhouse effect will do on a scale the size of earth since it’s happened on Venus!

But no one ever argues these points. It ends up just being rhetorical politicizing which is very easily shot down – hence the fact that the debate still rages despite the fact that it should have ended long ago. And those of us who would like to see a more logical, thoughtful explanation that the public will actually buy into, are shot down as traitors even though we just as vehemently agree!

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