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We Are All Snobs Now

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve tried to keep the idiocy of the Republican presidential campaign out of Ron’s View, but Rick Santorum has pushed me over the edge with his remarks over the weekend that President Obama is a snob for wanting people to go to college. See for yourself, in the opening 12 seconds of the video above, as Santorum sneers, “What a snob!”

I hardly know what to say about this arrant demagoguery and dishonesty. I mean here’s a fellow who got a Bachelor’s degree from Penn State, an MBA from Pitt, and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law (Penn State). Yet in the interests of phony class warfare, he’s prepared to argue that others shouldn’t want to be educated. If holding out the promise that everyone who wishes to can receive an education is snobbery, I will happily join the club. (I know, you may wish to argue that I joined the snob club long ago. If so, I’ll extend my membership.)

Santorum goes on to explain that the real harm of a university education is the presence of “liberal college professors that try to indoctrinate them.” Another club I seem to be a member of. The liberal college professor club, that is, not the indoctrinator club. Unless we’re talking about indoctrination into the pleasures of logic and reasoning, the beauty of mathematical truth.

Rick, next time you’re in Washington State, please drop by and sit in on my class. You’ll find a room filled with young adults eager to learn and to better their lives.

Categories: Education, Politics

Hajj at The British Museum

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m always keenly aware of major exhibitions in New York museums that I won’t get to see. But for the most part I’m happily unaware of what I’m missing in London. Today is an exception. Malise Ruthven wrote a piece at the New York Review of Books blog on The British Museum‘s exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Mecca. Ruthven explains:

Over the next two months the great domed interior of what used to be the British Museum’s reading room, where Marx researched Das Kapital and Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula) was a reader, is host to Hajj, a remarkable exhibition that celebrates the most sacred event in the Islamic calendar, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The exhibition seems more than a cultural event—a milestone, perhaps, in the public recognition and acceptance of Islam at the heart of British life. Conceived by British Museum director Neil MacGregor and the museum’s Islamic art curator Venetia Porter with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, it is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works.

The British Museum press release provides the following description:

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will be the first major exhibition dedicated to the Hajj; the pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is central to the Muslim faith. The exhibition will examine the significance of the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, exploring its importance for Muslims and looking at how this spiritual journey has evolved throughout history. It will bring together a wealth of objects from a number of different collections including important historic pieces as well as new contemporary art works which reveal the enduring impact of Hajj across the globe and across the centuries. The exhibition which has been organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh will examine three key strands: the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East); the Hajj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to the pilgrim; and Mecca, the destination of Hajj, its origins and importance.

[snip]

A wide variety of objects will be lent to the exhibition. Loans include significant material from Saudi Arabia including a seetanah which covers the door of the Ka’ba as well as other historic and contemporary artefacts from key museums in the Kingdom. Other objects have come from major public and private collections in the UK and around the world, among them the British Library and the Khalili Family Trust. Together these objects will evoke and document the long and perilous journey associated with the pilgrimage, gifts offered to the sanctuary as acts of devotion and the souvenirs that are brought back from Hajj. They include archaeological material, manuscripts, textiles, historic photographs and contemporary art. The Hajj has a deep emotional and spiritual significance for Muslims, and continues to inspire a wide range of personal, literary and artistic responses, many of which will be explored throughout the exhibition.

We haven’t been to London since July 2004, following ten days in Glasgow, where we visited friends and commuted down to Troon to attend The Open Championship on five of the days. During our day and a half in London, we made The British Museum our first stop, once we checked into our hotel and had lunch. The next day, my sister, her husband, and her son took the train over from Paris to meet us. We headed to the Tate Modern, had lunch, and by late afternoon found ourselves again at The British Museum. Somewhere in there, we squeezed in a visit to The National Gallery too, plus nightly dinners at Indian restaurants. Pretty full visit. Unfortunately, I don’t see us getting back by April 15, when the Hajj show ends.

Categories: Museums, Religion

The Quantum Story

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve read many accounts of the early days of quantum mechanics. Einstein and Planck, Bohr and Born, de Broglie and Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger. A familiar tale, for good reason. I wouldn’t think we’re in need of another account.

But a year ago, another one appeared, Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and last April, Jeremy Bernstein reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal. This passage suggested that another account may well be needed, and this may be the one:

I have never come across a book quite like Jim Baggott’s “The Quantum Story.” He has done something that I would have thought impossible in a popular book. He manages to present the full ambit of the theory, starting with the introduction of the quantum—the basic unit of energy—by the German physicist Max Planck in the beginning of the 20th century, and ending with the search for the Higgs particle at the collider at CERN in Geneva. In doing this Mr. Baggott navigates successfully between the Scylla of mathematical rigor and the Charybdis of popular nonsense. He also manages to get the people right. I know this because for many of the scenes he describes I was there.

That Baggott brings the tale to the present day, an unexpectedly ambitious undertaking, was reason enough for me to consider the book. And consider it I’ve done, off and on for months, whenever I cast about for what to read next. But I have resisted.

Two nights ago, with Pelecanos’s What It Was behind me, it was casting time again. I turned first to another book on my list, Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History. Its day will come, and soon, but Friday I decided I wasn’t ready. Next I considered Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon’s 1983 study that, I believe, evolved from his PhD thesis. Since reading his brilliant Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West last April, I have been eager to return to this earlier work. The Kindle edition is inexpensive, so I downloaded it and read the Preface, only to decide again that the time wasn’t right.

What else? Well, maybe The Quantum Story. I had downloaded the free Kindle sample before. This time I moved beyond that, took the plunge, bought and downloaded it. I’m about a sixth of the way into it, in the midst of moment number nine. The year is 1926, and sure enough, the usual characters are doing the usual things. Nonetheless, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Baggott is a good storyteller. And he manages to perform a neat trick at the start of each moment, continuing the previous chapter’s tale for a few paragraphs in a way that effectively sets the stage for the next one.

Not that the explanations of the quantum mechanics are easy to follow. Bernstein warns in concluding his WSJ review that “the problem is not the mathematics. There is almost none. The problem is that physics is hard. Quantum mechanics is hard. Like a good wine, you cannot take this book in gulps. Take it in sips. It is well worth it.” I might actually prefer more mathematics rather than vague mathematical talk. Not to complain. So far so good. And I still have the Crimean War to look forward to.

Categories: Books

What It Was

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I mentioned two months ago that I had given up reading George Pelecanos’s DC-based crime novels. Back in September, Marilyn Stasio featured his latest, The Cut, in her NYT Sunday Book Review crime roundup. Looking for books to read that coming week in Nantucket, I ignored it, but was inspired by her briefer remarks about the third in Martin Walker’s series about Bruno, the Dorgogne police chief. That led, as I wrote regularly throughout the fall, to my reading the first Bruno novel while in Nantucket, then in quick succession the second and third, and finally the fourth (not yet available in the US, so I ordered it in hardcover from UK Amazon).

I mentioned in the same December post that in Stasio’s survey of notable crime books of 2011, she included The Cut under the heading “Favorite New Sleuth.” I ignored it once again, this time being inspired by her listing of Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing — reviewed with Pelecanos’s and Walker’s books in that very same Labor Day roundup — as both her favorite debut novel and favorite action thriller.

But my Pelecanos resistance was broken down at last, and for the silliest of reasons — cost. In the NYT a month ago, Janet Maslin reviewed a still newer Pelecanos novel, What It Was. I was surprised he had released another less than half a year after the last one. What especially got my attention was this:

Mr. Pelecanos writes a lot of books. His publisher seems particularly intent on finding readers for this one. It is available in an unusual array of formats: $35 hardcover (a handsome boxed edition decorated with an Afro pick); eye-catching $9.99 paperback with a big red Fury on its cover; an e-book with the bargain price of 99 cents, a first for Little, Brown (though it will rise to $4.99 a month after publication); and the usual audio-book CDs.

Ninety-nine cents? I may not care much for Pelecanos anymore, but you never know. In case I have a change of heart, I may as well grab it before the price increase. I resisted for a couple of weeks, until Stasio, in yet another Sunday NYT crime roundup, once again led off with Pelecanos. It wasn’t clear if she was enthusiastic, and anyway I didn’t want to read the details and learn too much of the plot, but she seemed positive. So I downloaded it.

Last Monday, a holiday for me, I had spent the morning finishing Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (which I wrote about here). Wondering what to read next, I found myself drawn to What It Was, perhaps because it’s short. Thursday night, I finished it.

Is it worth 99 cents? Sure. I mean, that’s really cheap. Of course it is. And it’s still available at that price.

The book takes us back to the spring and summer of 1972, the early days in the private detective business for Derek Strange, one of Pelecanos’s strongest recurring characters. As Stasio explains, “Pelecanos is crazy for details, so all these particulars — the colorful names, the flashy clothes, the sexy cars and soulful music — add to the big picture he’s continually drawing of crucial moments in America’s changing history, as viewed from the streets.”

There’s a lot of music, on LPS, 45s, and AM radio, and a great scene at an outdoor Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway concert. I hadn’t remembered, but Flack’s version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was released that March and hit #1 in April, staying there through the time of the book. Like some of the characters who find themselves at the concert, I wasn’t much of a fan of it.

Well, things could be worse, and let me assure you, soon enough they were. For, soon enough, there was Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), the song I identify with the summer of 1972, the hottest summer of my life. A story for another day, perhaps. The short version is that I spent much of the summer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with no air-conditioning in either the dorm I lived in or the car I was driving, a car equipped with AM only. I can’t think of New Brunswick without hearing the song, played incessantly as I drove along the Raritan River, or on the Jersey Turnpike on my weekly trips back home to Long Island. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was torture. Here, hear for yourself:

I’m losing the thread here. What can I say? There’s better Pelecanos, but What It Was is entertaining. And 99 cents. Plus, if you’re a Derek Strange fan, you won’t want to miss it.

Categories: Books

Shake Shack

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Shake Shack burger

[Evan Sung for The New York Times]

I have yet to eat at a Shake Shack. But I’ve wanted to know more, so I was delighted to see this morning, as I was going through the week’s NYT and about to toss Wednesday’s food section, that Pete Wells devoted his weekly restaurant review to them. Though his findings are mixed, he still finds Shake Shack worthy of a star, which I take to be strong praise. As Wells explains,

It is not every hamburger stand that achieves the prominent spot in the city’s consciousness held by Shake Shack. There are 14 of them now, uptown, downtown and out of town (Miami, Washington, Kuwait City). One respectable writer has spoken of the burger as life-changing.

From its origins as a hot-dog cart that the restaurateur Danny Meyer set up as a kind of art project in 2001, Shake Shack has become one of the most influential restaurants of the last decade, studied and copied around the country. Its legacy can be seen not just in the stampede of good, cheap burgers, but in the growing recognition that certain fine-dining values, like caring service and premium ingredients, can be profitably applied outside fine dining all the way down the scale to the most debased restaurant genre of all, the fast-food outlet.

Yet, Wells finds the burgers inconsistent, and the fries worse:

You can get better fries just about anywhere. Considered as décor, the crinkle-cut fries are exactly right, calling up images of the milkshake-with-two-straws past that is at the core of Shake Shack’s appeal. Considered as food, though, they are pretty awful. Freezing turns them mealy, and no amount of oil or salt can make them taste like the fresh-cut potatoes that are standard issue at some burger joints now.

The eponymous shakes are a different story, “smooth, not crunchy with ice crystals, and drinkable, not so stiff that they fight the straw. And the flavors are true.” And Wells lavishes praise on the hot dogs (from Chicago’s Vienna Beef, whose dogs we have ordered direct on occasion) and the “Bird Dog, a smoked chicken and apple bratwurst from Usinger’s of Milwaukee.”

Read the full review, and be sure to watch the slideshow, where you can see photos of the burgers, shakes, and dogs. Plus, Wells has an accompanying blog post in which he compares burgers from seven other restaurants. The Steak ‘n Shake signature gets the prize.

The first New York location of the Indianapolis-based chain offers an organic “Signature Steakburger,” and it’s fantastic, with a reliably browned surface and a fully rounded flavor. (Off topic but still important: The fries, fresh cut from russet potatoes, beat the pants off the ones at Shake Shack.)

I knew there were no Shake Shacks out this way, but I hadn’t heard of Steak ‘n Shake, so I just looked it up. Alas, no. They aren’t out west either. On the other hand, they’re in North Carolina, the subject of my last post, in which I described possible trip plans for April. Not in Chapel Hill, where we will be based, but Greensboro, the destination of the outing I described. I suppose we could make a detour. Then again, I was kind of looking forward to eating some local southern food, not chain hamburgers, no matter how good they are. It’s not like good burgers are unavailable here. We have Dick’s. We have Red Mill. And this is one case where I do believe there’s no place like home.

As for Shake Shack, Joel, if you do go up to DC next week, you might try it out for us. Pity is, we would have passed right by their upper east side location last September, on 86th between Lex and 3rd. We could have taken out. Next time.

Categories: Restaurants

Saxapahaw-Greensboro Daytrip

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment

The former Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina

Back in early December, I wrote that with Joel in North Carolina, we might take a trip in the spring, timed so that we can see a UNC home lacrosse game against one of its traditional rivals. I had checked periodically through the fall for UNC’s schedule to be posted. When it was, I was delighted to see that they would be playing defending national champion Virginia at home on April 7. Without checking with Joel (and without realizing that that weekend also happens to bring two Passover Seders, Easter, and the Masters), I decided we would be there. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what we’ll do when not at the lacrosse game. I now have a great day trip planned, to Saxapahaw and Greensboro.

Regarding Greensboro, let me go back to a trip Gail and I made two springs ago. I had some business in DC, at the end of which Gail flew out to meet me for a little Civil War outing: two-and-a-half days in Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg. We got back to DC in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel, returned the rental car, and dashed back to the museum closest to our hotel, the National Museum of American History. Our time was limited, so we grabbed a handout at the front desk with a list of highlights that included the one exhibit Gail wanted to see, Julia Child’s kitchen, dashed off to the kitchen, caught our breaths, and spent some time touring it.

After that, we examined the highlight list and selected a few other exhibits to see before the museum closed. (See my post written at the time for a fuller discussion of our visit.) One of our choices was the Woolworth’s lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina. As the museum webpage explains:

The landmark object for the 2nd floor east wing will be the Greensboro lunch counter, famous for its significance to the civil rights movement.

Racial segregation was still legal in the United States on February 1, 1960, when four African American college students sat down at this Woolworth counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Politely asking for service at this “whites only” counter, their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their sit-in drew national attention and helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge inequality throughout the South.

In Greensboro, hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community joined in a six-month-long protest. Their commitment ultimately led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960.

Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond were students enrolled at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College when they began their protest.

Protests such as this led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations.

The closing of the Greensboro Woolworth’s in 1993 presented Museum curators with the opportunity to acquire this historic artifact. After extensive negotiations with Woolworth’s executives and representatives of the local community, a small section of the lunch counter was donated to the Smithsonian.

With the memory of that small section of lunch counter in mind, I suggested to Gail two months ago that we seek out the rest of the counter while we’re in North Carolina. Greensboro is only 50 miles away. A short internet search led me to Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The website explains that it is “devoted to the international struggle for civil and human rights. The Museum celebrates the nonviolent protests of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins that served as a catalyst in the civil rights movement [and] is located in the historic 1929 F.W. Woolworth building in Greensboro, N.C.” Included in the museum is the “original lunch counter and stools where the Greensboro Four (Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond) began their protest on Feb. 1, 1960.”

Perfect!

The next piece of the plan fell into place when I looked at the NYT Sunday travel section four weeks ago. It had a short note with the headline, Saxapahaw, N.C., Middle of Somewhere, Becomes a Draw. I had no idea where Saxapahaw was, but I was intrigued, so I read on.

I was polishing off a steaming bowl of coconut curry soup when a server appeared bearing a plate of plump pan-seared diver scallops atop creamy applewood-bacon succotash and braised asparagus. The food was befitting a candlelit restaurant, but I had a view of gas pumps outside and, a few steps from my table, fluorescent-lighted aisles packed with workaday necessities — toilet paper, motor oil, sauerkraut juice (aids digestion, according to the label).

This jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere is part of the appeal of the place where I was dining: the Saxapahaw General Store, a no-frills convenience store and restaurant that has sparked a revival in the former mill town of Saxapahaw in central North Carolina.

Saxapahaw General Store, from their home page

I still had no idea where Saxapahaw was, but this sounded promising. And when I looked it up on the map, I discovered the best possible news: it’s just 16 miles west of Chapel Hill, on the way to Greensboro. We could stop for a late breakfast, or perhaps on our return to Chapel Hill for dinner. The plan was complete.

Further confirmation that the Greensboro museum would be a worthy destination came yesterday. For a brief time, the NYT home page featured at its top an article from today’s paper on civil rights museums. Seeing it, I wondered if the Greensboro museum was mentioned. Sure enough, it’s in the second sentence: “A visitor can peer into the motel room in Memphis where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was shot or stand near the lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where four young men began a sit-in that helped end segregation.” And two of the nine photos in the accompanying slide show highlight it. (See the lunch counter here.)

I’m thinking we have a pretty good day planned. Unless we’d rather just stay in our Chapel Hill hotel room and watch the Masters.

Categories: Museums, Restaurants, Travel

Dwight Evans

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

1986 Topps baseball card

Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans is one of my heroes. Of course, everyone on the 1975 Red Sox is one of my heroes, so that’s not saying much. But I was always impressed with how Dewey, regarded by all Sox fans as the greatest defensive right fielder of the time, turned himself into a great hitter too. In 1983, at the age of 31, despite winning a gold glove, he had a terrible year at the plate, with a batting average was .238, OBP of .338, slugging .436, with 22 homers and 58 RBIs. (See here for stats.) I thought he would only get worse. Instead, he got better. Four years later, an all-star year, his numbers were .305/.417/.569, with 34 homers, 123 RBIs, and a league-leading 106 walks.

You can study the numbers. Indeed you should, because what we’re talking about is a player with a Hall of Fame level career who has never gotten his due. Fortunately, Bill James has now made the case, in a persuasive piece published a week ago at Grantland titled An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans. (Hat tip: Joe Posnanski, without whom I would have missed this.) With James on the case, I needn’t say more. I’ll turn it over to him, quoting just the opening of his extended argument:

I hope you understand that I would never sacrifice my reputation by arguing that a player belongs in the Hall of Fame if I did not sincerely believe this to be true. Yes, Dwight Evans works for the Red Sox, and I work for the Red Sox, and I’m not saying this is not relevant to why I am writing, but … I wouldn’t argue that Dwight Evans had a Hall of Fame quality career if the kinds of analysis that I do all the time did not show this to be true. It’s not really that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I’ve spent years explaining to the public every step I take in evaluating a player. If I didn’t follow those steps, the people who have read my stuff over the years would know immediately that I wasn’t playing by the rules, and they would tear me a newbie over it right away.

Let us start with the proposition that Dwight Evans is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. There are certain things that make players underrated. The most important of these is that a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works. We absorb simple concepts more readily than complex ones. If a player hits .325, if he hits 40 homers, if he steals 70 bases, we get that immediately. If a player does many things well but no one thing spectacularly well, he may have equal value but it takes longer for the public to catch on.

Dwight Evans was a player who did many things very well — hitting almost 400 home runs, drawing a lot of walks, winning a long string of Gold Gloves, and even registering pretty decent batting averages, .290 or better five times in eight years. His batting average, however, was not his specialty, particularly early in his career, and given that batting average was at that time regarded as the center of the baseball universe, so to speak, this also caused him to be underrated.

On-base percentage is much more closely tied to scoring runs (and to winning games) than is batting average, and in the 21st century all baseball people know this. But in the 1970s very few people knew it, so Dwight Evans was evaluated by the baseball writers of his time more based on his batting averages, which were OK, than on his on-base percentages, which were outstanding.

Then there is the problem of first impressions, that when the place of a player is settled in the public’s mind, it is difficult for him to change how he is seen. The public image of Dwight Evans — as for every player — was formed by his first few years in the major leagues, and in those years he was not a great player; he was a good player, but not yet a great one. Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

James closes with the claim that “Dwight Evans is a Hall of Famer.” Amen.

Categories: Baseball

Louis Boroson

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

My 11th grade math teacher, Louis Boroson, died last November. I just learned of his death, thanks to a posting of the obituary notice on Facebook by one of my classmates. Reading the obit, I was reminded yet again of how little we know about the adults who mattered to us. We see them as one-dimensional, not appreciating the complex, multi-faceted lives they lead, nor how much we miss as we pass through our self-absorbed youth.

Mr. Boroson (as he was known to me) is described in the obituary as “labor union organizer, math teacher and longtime activist for social justice.” I knew him only in the second capacity, and even then, I wasn’t convinced he was all that knowledgeable a teacher, though his decency and concern for others shined through.

We were not the best match. I, talented at math from a young age and deciding at 8 that I would be a mathematician; Mr. Boroson, as the obit explains, becoming the entire math department of a small school in his first position, having to teach “himself the curriculum every night before teaching it to students.” Our high school, now widely recognized as among the best in New York State with a vast array of offerings, had few options for accelerated students at the time. And through an unfortunate set of circumstance, owing to an experiment with the math curriculum in 9th grade for those of us in the accelerated or honors track that apparently was deemed a failure, we were basically covering much the same ground in 11th grade. It was a lost year for me. I would take my math at a local college the next year, but that year I just bided my time. Class was deathly boring and Mr. Boroson wasn’t equipped to offer me any alternatives.

One consequence was that for the only time in my years at school, I became something of a nuisance. I was always a good boy, never talking out of turn, never causing any behavioral problems, doing everything asked of me. But not in Mr. Boroson’s class. I was unhappy, he was unhappy, no solution presented itself. Later in the year he would suggest, on occasion, that I help other students who were having difficulty. I can’t remember how that worked out.

The memory that stands out, though, is of an entirely different nature. Spring of that year was the spring of 1968. War. Assassination. And locally, protests at Columbia University culminating in the student takeover of the president’s office in Low Library. That events of the real world could enter our high school classroom was beyond my imagination, until Mr. Boroson brought them in. On April 30th, the New York City police forcibly removed the occupiers. The next day, Mr. Boroson put math aside and led a discussion of the Columbia protest.

This is the Mr. Boroson I remember with respect, warmth, and admiration, one whose “commitment to his students went well beyond the math curriculum.” The obituary goes on to explain that “he was committed to helping students think critically about the political environment, and was particularly devoted to supporting students who seemed adrift. He began every math class by hosting a discussion on current events, encouraging friendly debate among his students.” No daily current events discussions back then, but the seeds were there.

The obituary quotes Barbara Murphy, my 10th grade English teacher, describing him as “a generous, progressive, open-minded man who willingly and wholeheartedly gave to his students, to his colleagues, to the world at-large with an optimism and spirit that encouraged the best in those he touched.” A good man. I wish I had the opportunity to renew our acquaintance later.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Moby-Duck

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I mentioned a week ago that I had just downloaded and begun reading Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Janet Maslin’s weekday NYT review, which appeared a year ago this week, got me interested. The Sunday review by Elizabeth Royte two weeks later inspired me to download and read the free opening portion. But I wasn’t inspired to read further at the time. I simply added the title to my list of books to go back to some day.

Three months ago, Maslin placed Moby-Duck on her list of ten recommended books for 2011, re-kindling my interest. I re-read the reviews last weekend and took the plunge. Here, for instance, is a portion of Royte’s enthusiastic review:

“Hast seen the white whale?” a Melville-loving officer aboard a research vessel asks Donovan Hohn, in his dazzling “Moby-Duck,” whenever they pass in the ship’s corridor.

“Hast seen the yellow duck?” Hohn cheerfully responds.

The answer is always no, but this hardly dampens Hohn’s enthusiasm for his Moby — a load of bath toys that plummeted off a storm-wracked container ship in the northern Pacific in 1992. The maritime misfortune was exciting for beachcombers, who would find the toys on North American coastlines for years to come, and it provided data for scientists who study ocean currents. It also spurred the map-loving Hohn, a dozen years on, to give up his Manhattan teaching gig and embark upon what could have been a fairly straightforward investigation. Where did the ducks come from, where did they drift, and why?

… The duck’s world is large, it turns out, and the desire to chart it puts Hohn on seagoing vessels of varying sizes and seaworthiness with captains courageous and cranky. … As the ducks drift, so drifts Hohn, from the China-based toy industry to the depths of polymer chemistry; from a history of childhood to Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie” and the role of animals in art; from early Arctic exploration to modern maritime disasters and the study of hydrography. Hohn is game to learn as much as he can, and his scholarship is impressive. But his real interests are far more abstract: the nature of quests, the line between fable and fact, the distinction between the natural and the man-made worlds, and the impossibility of fully understanding one’s place — to say nothing of a toy duck’s — in relation to the universe.

[snip]

“Moby-Duck” succeeds as harebrained adventure, as a cautionary environmental tale, as a deconstruction of consumer demand, and as a meditation on wilderness and imagination. Hohn moves easily between the micro and the macro, weaving personal histories into science and industry as he roams. … Hohn seems to have it all: deep intelligence, a strikingly original voice, humility and a hunger to suss out everything a yellow duck may literally or metaphorically touch. Naturally, he can’t, but the chase is, after all, the thing.

Sounds great. But Hohn’s deep intelligence and strikingly original voice have eluded me. Through the first fourth or so of the book, I considered abandoning ship. Friday night I read a big chunk, today another fourth, bringing me three-fourths of the way through, and now I’m committed to seeing the book to its conclusion.

The book is organized around a sequence of trips, each exploring some facet of beachcombing, garbage, the environment, plastics, manufacturing in China, container shipping. We’ve been to southern Alaska by Sitka, farther north Alaska along the Kenai Peninsula, south of Hawaii’s Big Island, Hong Kong and southeast China, a container ship sailing from Pusan to Seattle, and now an oceanographic cruise from Woods Hole to Greenland aboard a famous research vessel, the Knorr.

I have learned some interesting tidbits about ocean currents and weather, the risks of a career on container ships, though I hunger for more detail. It’s been fun to meet the characters Hohn sails with, though again I wish he told us more. I have come to appreciate the fascinating lives led by oceanographers — academic and non-academic. (Russ, you’ll have to tell me more. Are you fascinating too?) But when Hohn meditates on the deeper meaning of toys, or the sea, or whatever topic he probes in greater depth — or when he connects what he learns to his own life — I lose interest.

Back to the North Atlantic. I’m enjoying this part.

Categories: Books

The Joys of Grading

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Perhaps this post should be blank. That would pretty well exhaust the topic.

But actually, I’m not here to write about the joys of grading. Rather, I bring you the explanation of why Ron’s View has gone dark in recent days: I have exams to grade. The peculiar logic of the situation dictates that if I’m not grading, I better be doing something important. Like eating. Or sleeping. Or maybe watching CBS’s closing coverage of golf at Pebble Beach, as Phil charged to victory. But not blogging. At least not until I’m too tired to grade fairly. And that time has arrived for the day, so even as I think of sleep, I’ve turned on the lights at Ron’s View for a moment.

I have several topics I’m hoping to write about once grading is done:

1. Reading. I finished Mat Johnson’s novel Pym yesterday. (I know, I should have been grading.) I thought that what initially seemed like cleverness began to veer towards silliness. Not that that is necessarily bad, but the book didn’t fulfill its early promise, for me anyway. Next up, Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them, which I downloaded and began last night (but haven’t touched today because, you know, I’m grading).

2. Copyediting: the lost art. As evidenced by the opening paragraph of the feature article in today’s NYT travel section. (See for yourself.)

3. Foldit. I went to a lecture Friday afternoon by UW biochemist David Baker in which he talked about protein folding. One of the most intriguing aspect of his research is the game he and UW computer scientist Zoran Popović have created — Foldit — that allows amateur gamers world-wide with no knowledge of biochemistry to participate in determining the low-energy positions of proteins. Their efforts can contribute to the discovery of medical treatments for diseases. It’s really quite a story. And a day later, yesterday, the work was featured in a short piece by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal.

4. Madison Square Garden: Going to the dogs. This topic has several strands, and I’ve been wanting to write the appropriate post for days. I hope to get to it.

That’s all for now.

Categories: Life
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