Archive for October, 2008

Noonan: Obama and Grace

October 31, 2008 1 comment

In her weekly column in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan joins the list of conservative writers who argue for Obama. She doesn’t explicitly endorse him. She simply lays out the case. It’s well worth reading. Here is the opening passage:

He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.

A great moment: When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd “I have no comment,” or “We shouldn’t judge.” Instead he said, “My mother had me when she was 18,” which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn’t have to.

Categories: Politics, Today's News

Palin and the Phillies

October 31, 2008 Leave a comment

Yesterday, in Erie, Pennsylvania, Sarah Palin told the crowd, “I am thrilled to be here in the home state of the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies.” This is, of course, incredibly tone-deaf, if not outright stupid, given Erie’s greater proximity to Pittsburgh, and to Cleveland for that matter. Had the Dodgers won, would she speak enthusiastically in San Francisco about their victory? (Yes, I know, she would never find herself campaigning in San Francisco.)

But the real puzzle isn’t her thoughtlessness or lack of geographical-baseball knowledge. It’s how her campaign team could possibly insert that in a script for her. In that regard, Chris Mottram’s post at the Sporting News blog strikes me as overly harsh. Still, you gotta wonder. And what was she thinking as she smiled through all the boos?

Categories: Politics, Sports, Today's News

New York Roundup

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment

A few days ago I described in painstaking detail my flight from Seattle to New York last Saturday, my arrival at the Hotel Wales on 92nd and Madison, my room, the dinner downstairs at Joanna’s, and complementary breakfast on Sunday morning in the hotel. Here’s more on the trip, but with much less detail. Read more…

Categories: Food, Travel

Phillies Phinish

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I spent only 3 nights in New York, but those were the very nights of World Series games 3, 4, and 5. Between my having other things to do in the evenings and the absurd lateness of games in the eastern time zone, I saw neither the early nor the late innings of games 3 and 4. Game 5 was another matter. When I finally tuned in to see what was happening, I found myself watching local channel 5 news. It took a couple of minutes for me to learn that there was a rain delay (and another couple of hours to be awakened by the arrival in New York of the same heavy rains that led to what would be a 46 hour delay). I nearly missed the end, turning on the TV last night here at home with the Rays at bat in the top of the ninth. It took me a few moments to sort out the situation — one out, runner on first, Rays down 4-3, possibility of the game and series ending with a double play on the next pitch.

It didn’t end that way, but it did end quickly, with Zobrist lining out and Hinkse striking out. This led to a great celebratory scene. There’s much I dislike about Fox’s broadcasting of baseball, but they did a superb job of capturing the moment. Lidge kneeling at the mound, arms raised, Ruiz charging in from home plate, arms out, mouth open, bending down to meet Lidge at knee level for a hug, and then the best part, baby giant Ryan Howard rushing from first and flattening the embracing pair. What a hit! Fox was on top of it. They did two great things — they muted the broadcasters, allowing us to take in the celebration without commentary, and they had cameras directed at different players and the manager, so we could watch one by one as Lidge kneeled, Ruiz ran out, Howard tackled them, and then there was Victorino from center, Utley from 2nd, Rollins from short, Manuel in the dugout, with players and coaches in the dugout scattering in different directions, the Phillie Phanatic working his way around them to get to the field. Very sweet.

The only sour note was seeing staff handing out the souvenir caps and t-shirts to the players in the middle of the diamond, in mid-celebration. It was a distraction whose only urgency, as best I could determine, was the need to display to us viewers the very souvenirs that were offered in a TV ad about 15 minutes later. I’m happy with the Phillies hat I got during our 2003 visit to Veterans Stadium.

My Phillies cap

My Phillies cap

Categories: Sports

Parrot Speech Without Lips

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I love stories about our communication with animals as much as the next person. They’re irresistible. And maybe some of them are true. But my illusions about our success in communicating with our resident animal (our chosen resident animal anyway) are limited in scope. She has a few tools that she uses regularly, but she uses them indiscriminately to indicate different desires, such as her desire to go out, her desire for more water, her desire to come in, her desire to be rubbed, and her desire to get me to look at her rather than the computer monitor. (She’s not above sitting in front if it and blocking my view if all else fails.) Then again, maybe I’m just dense and her nuance is lost on me. I do know that if I fulfill her high-priority needs — opening the doors, replenishing her food and water bowls, and petting her — there’s a positive probability that she’ll calm down.

In any case, Geoffrey Pullum’s post on the Language Log yesterday was a useful antidote to the too-easy belief that the animals are really talking to us. You gotta love his opening:

No matter how hard I try to locate the world’s most stupid animal communication story, they keep outflanking me. I am always left behind. An even stupider one always comes along. All I can say as of this morning is that I never thought I would see a story as stupid as this in a respected news source, and right now I cannot imagine how it could be surpassed (though within a few weeks I suppose it probably will be).

This is with reference to the review in the current Economist of Irene Pepperberg’s book Alex & Me“:How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Pullum focuses on the idiocy of the review rather than the possible idiocy of the book itself. Here’s the part of the review that sends Pullum over the top:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparently mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

I quote part of Pullum’s analysis of this statement after the jump, including a fabulous sentence at the end. His note is a valuable reminder to read about animal communication with skepticism. Read more…

Categories: Language, Science

Offhand Condescension

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve had a post and a follow-up post that refer to the discussion at Language Log of Sarah Palin’s speaking style, including such topics as the significance of g-dropping, the extent to which she does so deliberately, and the press’s coverage of it. Today at Language Log, Geoff Nunberg continues the discussion in a post on Dissin’ Sarah, which he begins with the observation that “no one ever went broke overestimating the media’s capacity for offhand condescension.” This is with reference to ABC’s transcript of an interview of Palin by Elizabeth Vargas, in which Palin is quoted in print as saying such things as “I’m just … thinkin’ that it’s gonna go our way on Tuesday … .”

As Nunberg notes,

Now you wouldn’t expect the transcribers to photoshop Palin’s anacolutha and false starts (though I don’t think the public’s need for full information would be compromised if they cleaned up a repeated “the” here and there). But do they imagine that Palin is the only one of the candidates who drops a g now and again, much less says kinda for kind of or gonna for going to? And if you want to hear condescension compounded, listen to Wolf Blitzer having a Tina Fey moment as he reads from the Vargas interview transcript and dutifully drops Palin’s g’s where indicated.

It’s true that Palin works her g-dropping for effect, as I noted in an earlier post. But then so do Biden, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even McCain on occasion. And even if she’s more ostentatious about it than they, there’s no call for rendering it in transcriptions. It’s a device that suggests speech that’s uneducated or nonstandard, akin to eye-dialect (e.g., writing sez for says and wuz for was). And in its small way, it seems to confirm the right’s picture of elite media types who look down on ordinary Joes (Sixpack, Blow, or Plumber, as the case may be).

In this connection, Bill Labov has observed that our perception of variable processes like g-dropping is categorical: when people do it a little, we don’t perceive it; if they do it a bit more, they seem to be doing it all the time. Which may explain ABC’s heading for one video segment: “Palin: ‘Not Callin’ Out Obama.” As it happens, though, when you listen to the video, it turns out that Palin didn’t actually drop the g on calling.

Palin on Fruit Flies

October 27, 2008 Leave a comment

I have written about the anti-intellectual, anti-science appeals in McCain’s campaign in the context of his derisive comments on earmarks for research on bear DNA and the request for federal support of a new “overhead projector” for the Adler Planetarium. In both posts, I indicate or provide links to explanations of what’s really going on. Today, Slate posted an article by Christopher Hitchens about Sarah Palin’s War on Science. He describes her mocking last Friday of federal spending on fruit-fly research, notwithstanding the decades-long importance of fruit flies in genetic research because of their role as a “model organism.”

I suppose that if one doesn’t believe in evolution, it is natural to question genetic research or the value of model organisms. But presumably Palin is using fruit flies, like McCain’s bear DNA, as a self-evident object of derision, independent of the actual science being done.

In any case, see Hitchens’ article, which concludes as follows:

This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just “people of faith” but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

Categories: Politics, Science, Today's News

Seattle to New York

October 26, 2008 1 comment

Yesterday I flew from Seattle to JFK and went into Manhattan. I know one’s travel travails are never as interesting to others as they are to oneself, but here goes. It’s long, and maybe not too interesting. You’ve been warned. Go to the jump if you want more. Read more…

Categories: Travel

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics

October 24, 2008 Leave a comment

I received my copy of the new book The Princeton Companion to Mathematics a few days ago and I’ve been wanting to say something about it ever since, but I’ve been waiting until I’ve had a chance to read more of its 1014 two-columned pages. However, I won’t be making any additional progress on the book in the next few days, since I’m leaving early tomorrow morning for New York and I don’t plan to carry it on the plane with me, so I’ll make some preliminary comments now.

First, the book is beautiful. Despite its weight, it’s a joy to hold and to look at. And no matter where you open it, there’s something fascinating to read. The Table of Contents gives a good idea of the book’s layout and underlying conception. Part II, The Origins of Modern Mathematics, and Part VIII, Final Perspectives, are excellent starting points. I have not yet spent much time in Part VII, The Influence of Mathematics, but I’m eager to jump in. Part VI, Mathematicians, contains 96 short biographies of mathematicians, arranged chronologically by birth. The few I’ve read were superb, even given the severe space constraints. The first and last mathematicians treated are Pythagoras (born ca. 569 B.C.E.), about whose life nothing is known, and Bourbaki (1935), who didn’t even have a life. Two of the ninety-six are women: Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850) and Emmy Noether (1882).

So far, what I’ve enjoyed most are the Final Perspectives, especially the last section, Advice to a Young Mathematician (provided by Atiyah, Bollobas, Connes, McDuff, and Sarnak), and Michael Harris’s essay “‘Why Mathematics?’ You Might Ask.” I need to re-read Harris’s article. It’s filled with ideas, and very provocative. (Michael and I were colleagues decades ago, first in a summer undergraduate research program at Rutgers in 1972, between our junior and senior years, and then again for three years at Brandeis.)

Timothy Gowers is to be congratulated for his accomplishment as editor of the book. Order the book now.* And while you wait for your copy to arrive, have a look at his blog.

*Well, if you’re a mathematician, order the book now. If you’re not, be sure to borrow it from a mathematician or from the library.

Categories: Books, Math

Our Wasilla Trip

October 22, 2008 Leave a comment

Yup, we were there, on May 20, 2005. I had a meeting in Fairbanks the following week, so Gail and I decided to make our first trip to Alaska. We flew up to Anchorage on a Thursday afternoon (the 19th), spent the early evening exploring the city on foot, and returned to the Captain Cook Hotel for a 9:30 dinner, and then watched the sun set from our room. The photo below was taken at about 10:45 PM local time.

Anchorage sunset from Captain Cook Hotel

Anchorage sunset from Captain Cook Hotel

We were up early the next morning to catch the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star. In season, there is one train a day from Anchorage to Fairbanks and one a day from Fairbanks back. Our plan was to go as far as Denali National Park on Friday, arriving in the late afternoon, and to pick up the train the next day at the same time for Fairbanks, arriving Saturday night around 8:00. And that’s what we did. We were lucky with the timing. This was only the first week that the train was running and only the first week as well that Denali was open. We were also a little unlucky, because in that first week, the services in Denali are limited, so our tour options without a car were few.

Anyway, Friday morning we got ourselves to the Anchorage train station, boarded the Denali Star, and departed at 8:15 AM for Denali.

The Denali Star

The Denali Star

I imagined that once we got out of Anchorage, we wouldn’t be seeing much of “civilization” until Fairbanks. In particular, I never dreamed that I would see a Fred Meyer. After about an hour and a quarter, we slowed down, and there it was.

Fred Meyer, Wasilla, Alaska

Fred Meyer, Wasilla, Alaska

A Fred Meyer in the middle of nowhere. But we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. We were in Wasilla. And everything was up to date. Just around the bend, we passed a shopping center one of whose occupants was receiving deliveries by a Sysco truck.

Strip Mall, Wasilla, Alaska (and Sysco truck)

Strip Mall, Wasilla, Alaska

I was quite taken by our brief view of Wasilla. It seemed just like anywhere else, which I found surprising, and a little disappointing as well. We would have to wait a little longer for the wilderness.

Of course, it did come. Disappointment was short lived.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

And the next day, we had some company at Denali’s train station while we waited for the train to take us to Fairbanks.

Waiting at Denali Train Station

Waiting at Denali Train Station

Categories: Travel