Saturday, October 1, 2011


Apparently I never posted about the worthy but aborted TV IC series “Rubicon”.  But the new Showtime series “Homeland”, which piloted to rave reviews, has been compared to that effort.  It debuts tomorrow night;  just a heads-up.   I watched the pilot online;  it is quite good.

For background, here are some emails I sent to friends about the earlier series.


Here's an über-nerd response to the premier of "Rubicon" (about cryppies & über-IAs):

In the first shot, we see the central character -- a rumpled nerd -- come in to work and lay down the light reading he'd been doing at home.  The title is: "String Theory".

(A) At the most elementary level, for a general audience, this says:  "Theory, huh.  Guy's smart."
(B) At the next level, for those more clued-in, there is more of a shock:  the guy must be *really* smart.  For, string theory is notoriously the most mathematical part of physics -- the only Fields medal (math equivalent of the Nobel) ever awarded to a 'non-mathematician' was awarded to the physicist who powered string theory.
(C)  But at the next level -- the thing is ridiculous.  String theory, though hegemonic on campuses, has painted itself into a corner, and is provoking a reaction.  Notoriously, it has found *no* applications in the real world.  Hence, if you are an IA/cryppie nerd, you wouldn't go near it:  no-one but a virtually fulltime string-theorist understands string theory; as someone who (the show contends) must know everything about everything (including, crucially, Latin, in this episode) you certainly wouldn't waste your precious braincells on *that*.  (Contrast basic quantum mechanics, which has serious applications in quantum cryptography.)

There was an even more absurd moment when one of the supposed geniuses says, "Maybe it's a syllable-cipher" (re a set of...*four* objects).

BTW... despite the brainy sheen, judging by the tenor of the ads, the show is really aimed at audience (A).
Okay, it's not exactly good, but I've got to watch something, and it just got a little bit better.
Bonus: The moderately intelligent show  elicits some quite intelligent commentary:,44856/

Also, Mystery-Science-Theater-style, commentary funnier than the show:

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am J. v. Neumann, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

The Rise of Popcult

Not the spread, note: the rise -- in quality and aspirations.  As witness -- Rubicon.

Scene:  the mostly darkened offices of a key intelligence facility. It is late at night; alone, one dedicated analyst sits in a tiny office, monitoring a live feed  from half a world away.
Suddenly he startles -- leaps to his feat -- exits the room in alarm.  The viewers are confused:  Has he heard possible assassins breaking into the building?  It is unclear, as he gazelles up the stairways from floor to floor, shouting to see if anyone is there.   At last, from the back of a little library, a small voice pipes up.   It turns out that what our analyst desperately instantly needs is -- a linguist!  (Ever happen to you?)
“Do you speak Urdu?” he asks breathlessly. -- She looks at him quizzically.  “Doesn’t everyone?”  -- Together they go to the little room.  Her mastery of Urdu is immensely attractive;  our analyst is smitten.
And in the course of their monitoring the feed (of a wedding in Pakistan), our analyst refers -- and of course the linguist understands -- to the “walima”.
Now, this is a standard Arabic word (maybe Urdu too), but not all that common;  I tried it flat-out on some colleagues and they were not sure.  It means ‘feast’ (here, a wedding feast).   And the writers of “Rubicon” felt they could casually toss such a word into the script.  (“Doesn’t everyone?”)

[Fn:  A horrible alternative is that, rather than this little-known word, the actor was butchering the pronunciation of a word common enough to have been borrowed into English:   ulema.  But this possibility we put far from our mind.]

Sines of the Times

A note re the allusion to String Theory as a sort of fashion accessory in the TV show “Rubicon”, which pitches itself (and is publicised by others), as a brainy thriller for smart people (though it sadly falls short).

And now the current issue of The Economist features a fullpage fullcolor ad displaying a hip young fellow (who could almost be the Uberanalyst Will on AMC, with his ever-present messenger-bag) sporting (beneath a dark woollen sports coat)  a black T with the message:

            I  [icon] String theory

The roundish icon is in the syntactic place of the stylized heart that has come to represent the verb ‘love’ in slogans (sometimes retro-rendered as ‘heart’ in prose);  connoisseurs will recognize the illustration which appeared here and there in the more rarified press a while ago, being a simplified stab at depicting, or rather alluding to, the celebrated Lie group and polytope “E8”, a truly wiggy object found in (mathematical) nature, and which many string theorists identify as being found in physical nature as well, in that its Cartesian product with itself serves as -- well, I scarcely need to remind you all of this, but in the homely words of Wiki,

the gauge group of one of the two types of heterotic string and is one of two anomaly-free gauge groups that can be coupled to the N = 1 supergravity in 10 dimensions. E8 is the U-duality group of supergravity on an eight-torus (in its split form).

But of course, you knew that.

So -- what is the ad for?  The TV show?   T-shirts?  Messenger bags?  Save-the-environment?  Ph.D. programs in geometrical physics?    --   None of the above.  But rather for a new sub-website run by the Financial Times  -- which, note, is not actually identified in the ad, save by its acronym FT (which for me has long connoted First Things, another serious publication, but not one for fashionable twentyshomethings):

“Smart”.  Right.  Now I’ve got no bone to pick with Smart, save as a slogan -- recalling “Bright”, the suggested euphemism for “Atheist”, aggressively pushed by the impossible Richard Dawkins.  And I was just about to pen one of my patented Cato-the-Elder O-tempora rants, when I thought -- wait.  Smart.  What if?  We could use some smart.  And, atremble with anticipation, I typed in the URL.

[…. time passes…]

And this is what you’ll find, on that Smart Site:

Exclusive this week:

Lucy Kellaway talks to Elle Macpherson  about bras and brands and being The Body.

O tempora, O garbage bag.

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