Crypto Cat

Although the National Security Agency is incredibly secretive and could probably care less what you think, it does have an interest in helping our kids become great mathematicians. The NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the country, so, the agency explains, it is "critically dependent on the continuing development of first-class American mathematicians."

Enter the CryptoKids, the NSA's band of codemaking and codebreaking cartoon characters. There's Cyndi, one half of the CyberTwins, a cat with braces, two-tone hair, and what may be Google Glass. Her advice for online-savvy kids: "Mom says that once something is out on the Internet, it will be there forever, and 'might come back to haunt us one day.'" Her brother Cy, a malware victim, also values his digital privacy and security: "The stuff on my computer is really important to me, and I don't want anyone getting in and messing it up again!"

The CryptoKids. NSA

Brit Marling (left), Alexander Skarsgård (center), and Ellen Page.

The East
Fox Searchlight Pictures
116 minutes

The East, a new thriller directed by relative newcomer Zal Batmanglij, follows an eco-terrorist collective that finds elaborate ways to punish CEOs and pharmaceutical companies for committing "worldwide terrorism." The eco-terrorists, who call themselves The East, are infiltrated by Sarah Moss (played by Brit Marling), a former fed who works as an undercover operative for a private intel firm that looks out for rich polluters. A morally conflicted Sarah quickly comes to sympathize with East members including Izzy (Ellen Page), and grows increasingly attracted to their ringleader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård, of True Blood vamp fame). Bullets fly, sex in the woods occurs, and alliances are tested.

This political thriller is technically based on a true story. But the real-world inspiration for the script didn't involve any shoot-out or corporate espionage; it started with a rather unusual summer road trip.

Herman Cain, left, and Herbert Love (played by actor Terry Crews).

The new season of Arrested Development has a sharp political edge that should feel familiar to fans of the show. The series' original three-season run on Fox, which aired between 2003 and 2006, contained some of the richest TV satire of the Iraq War and Bush years (bad WMD intel, "Mission Accomplished," "preemptive strike," Abu Ghraib, CIA dysfunction, war protests, and so on). The fourth season, which debuted on Netflix in late May, depicts the infamous Bluth family in the context of a new political era, one defined by the American housing crisis, economic collapse, and out-of-control drone warfare. But of all the political elements of this long-awaited season, arguably the most important—or at least most visible—real-world inspiration for this new batch of episodes is Herman Cain, the one-time 2012 GOP presidential front-runner and former pizza baron.

One of the fourth season's central story arcs involves an illicit sexual relationship between Lindsay Bluth Fünke (played by Portia de Rossi) and Herbert Love (played by Arrested newcomer Terry Crews), a charismatic, philandering California Republican congressional candidate explicitly modeled after Cain. Both are black, bespectacled, and intensely conservative and anti-Obama, and Love's "low-high" economic prescription sounds an awful lot like Cain's widely blasted 9-9-9 tax plan. (Furthermore, both men use Krista Branch's song "I Am America" in their campaigns, and Love's campaign manager looks, acts, and smokes like Cain's 2012 chief of staff Mark Block.)

Cain is well aware of this satirical, comic rendering of his 2012 "Cain Train"—he just couldn't care less about it. "I heard about it, haven't seen it, and I'm unfazed by it," Cain said in a statement sent to Mother Jones. "In the vernacular of my grandfather, 'I does not care.'"

While high school math teachers go to great lengths to explain why their class is useful, college math professors don't even try. That because college-level math isn't useful—to me, at least. Once math progressed from numbers to letters to Greek letters, I no longer had any hope of applying it to my everyday problems. So I was a little surprised when my college linear algebra class came in handy here at work.

As a fact-checker at Mother Jones, I get to be very precise and a bit too literal and sometimes annoying. That's why, when we started plotting political scandals and Major League Baseball owners in the style of New York magazine's Approval Matrix, I started feeling uncomfortable. Okay, I'm just going to come out and say it: This is not a matrix. It's a Cartesian coordinate plane!

(P.S.: Here are those brilliant, lowbrow Game of Thrones attack ads it mentions.)

This is not a matrix either…

Nor is this…

(I helped produce this last graphic and actually wrote "matrix" into the slug, so I'm not coming off clean here.)

So, if you remember back to your own algebra class, matrices are an array of mathematical elements such as numbers, expression, or symbols. They look something like this:

Both our and New York's "matrices" are actually Cartesian coordinate planes, which you may also remember from algebra. The x and y axes represent different values that increase as you move away from the center. Simple, really.

But don't take it from me. Linear algebra is the reason I spent hours drawing matrices back in the day, so I decided to email my college professor. Once the youngest tenured professor at Harvard, Noam Elkies is a pretty brilliant mathematician. (Far too brilliant to be teaching the standard linear algebra class I took for my major.) He confirmed that, yes, this was certainly not a matrix you'd encounter in linear algebra, and could more accurately be called Cartesian. However, he added, "You can think of it as a mathematical matrix in the trivial bookkeeping sense that any spreadsheet is a matrix, even though hardly any of the mathematical structure of matrices is relevant. It hardly seems worth making a fuss over this."

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura
Desire Lines

Scotland's Tracyanne Campbell has a voice that could break your heart. Sad, sweet and serene at once, she's in peak form on the enthralling Desire Lines, Camera Obscura's fifth album and first in four years.

While her elegant pop melodies could be repurposed as '60s girl-group sounds or '50s doo-wop, Campbell's deceptively complex lyrics offer a more nuanced look at relationships than traditional mainstream melodramas usually provide. "You say honesty has made me cruel," she sings gently in the tender "William’s Heart," adding, "I say you're soft and made of wool." On "This Is Love (Feels Alright)" Campbell exclaims, "When I found your girlfriend crying / I could have slapped you in the face," in sharp contrast to the song's comforting textures.

For those who care about such things, Neko Case and My Morning Jacket's Jim James show support by adding backing vocals, but Desire Lines is its own nonguilty pleasure, soaked in romanticism—yet bracingly smart.