Archive for December, 2008

I Read Books

December 30, 2008 Leave a comment


Warning: This is likely to be a long and boring post (a tartine) in which I ramble on about the books I’ve read over the last nine months.

Let’s start our tale with Karl Rove. There are many good reasons to read the Wall Street Journal. How can one not love their daily feature articles on the bottom of the front page, or their culture coverage on Fridays and Saturdays? But watch out for Karl Rove’s weekly column. Whenever I accidentally stumble on it, I turn the page as quickly as I can. As a result, I missed Rove’s column last Friday. I went back to it the next day, after reading about it elsewhere. It’s the column in which he tells us about George Bush, Book Lover, and their 2006 competition to see who could read more books:
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Categories: Books, Family, Travel

Christmas Eve

December 26, 2008 Leave a comment

In my post Gravy: A Thanksgiving Tale, I described my Thanksgiving experience helping Gail in the kitchen of the residential treatment center for women where she cooks on Wednesdays and Thursdays. This past Wednesday, Christmas Eve, she cooked lunch and dinner as usual. We — Gail, me, Jessica, and Joel — then met at a nearby Mexican restaurant in Seattle for our Christmas Eve dinner so that we could be back at the residential center in time for an evening program the director had asked Gail to run.

In preparation for the program, separate from the regular meal preparation, Gail had baked four cakes at home the night before: two yellow cakes with chocolate icing and two chocolate cakes with white icing. She also heated a giant pot of apple cider with cinnamon and spice. On her return and our arrival at the center, we cut the cake and did the final organizing for the program, which began at 7:00 PM. About half the residents showed up in the dining/meeting room for the program, along with about a half-dozen young children and another couple of babies. (The residents are all either mothers of young children or pregnant. Part of the center’s purpose is to provide them with skills to be effective parents.)


Gail designed the program to be simple, ecumenical, and brief, acknowledging the day and the season but not prolonging the occasion. There were three parts: a Chanukah observation, a Christmas Eve celebration, and social time with the serving of the cake and cider. For Chanukah, Gail had brought in one of our menorahs. She told the story of the Maccabean revolt against Syrian rule in Judea in the second century BCE, culminating in the Chanukah miracle — the oil in the temple lasting for 8 days — which leads to the observation of the 8 days of Chanukah and the lighting of the candles. We then lit the candles representing the fourth day of Chanukah as I sang the two candle-lighting blessings. In the background, Chanukah songs played on a little boombox, from a holiday mix CD that Gail had prepared the night before.


Next up was the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ, with Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem for the census and Mary giving birth. After Gail told the story, we distributed candles for everyone to hold, formed a circle, turned off the lights, and lit the candles counterclockwise around the circle while Silent Night played on the boombox and those who wished to sang along. Gail made brief but poignant remarks about the women having come to the center to change their lives, to choose life, for themselves and their children. We then turned the lights back on, blew out the candles, and let the music play on as cake and cider were served.

It was an evening of strong and mixed emotions, or at least that was my sense. As I wrote in my earlier post in the context of Thanksgiving, clearly this is not the Christmas of any resident’s dreams. Yet it may be better than the alternative. And it is Christmas within a community that addresses their needs. I felt privileged to be part of it.

Categories: Family, Life

FedEx At Last

December 26, 2008 Leave a comment


In Still More Snow, I wrote about FedEx’s inability to get a package to the house by this past Wednesday (Christmas Eve) that had arrived in Seattle last Friday evening. But wait, there’s more. That was just my package, with presents for Gail and Joel. It turns out that Gail was waiting for two more packages from FedEx, with presents for me. And I had ordered yet another package, with food I hoped we would have for Christmas, but I never got a tracking number with notification of shipment, so I didn’t know whether it had shipped or who the shipper would be.

With three, or possibly four, packages buried in the belly of FedEx, I called their customer service number this morning (the day after Christmas) to see if we might go to their Seattle facility to pick up the packages. The woman I reached said yes, FedEx hadn’t delivered anything in Seattle all week. I gave her the three tracking numbers, she confirmed that all three items were here in Seattle, and she said she would send a message asking them to hold the packages. I also called the food company to see if they had shipped our food, with the thought that I could get the fourth tracking number if the shipper was FedEx and pick their package up too. But no one answered. I might have called too soon, at 8:59 AM.

I was excited by the prospect of taking control of the situation, getting the packages once and for all, and not having to worry about FedEx’s problems. Plus, as a bonus, I realized that the FedEx facility, on Alaska Street just off Airport Way in Georgetown, was near Stellar Pizza.
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Categories: Family, Food, House


December 26, 2008 Leave a comment


Vice President Cheney’s recent interviews have once again brought his defense of waterboarding into the news. In a post at the beginning of the month, I expressed my dissatisfaction with a lot of mainstream press coverage that doesn’t call torture torture. Here is an example from yesterday’s NYT, in which Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that

Mr. Cheney, by contrast, is unbowed, defiant to the end. He called the Supreme Court “wrong” for overturning Bush policies on detainees at Guantánamo Bay; criticized his successor, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.; and defended the harsh interrogation technique called waterboarding, considered by many legal authorities to be torture.

How can we still be debating whether waterboarding is torture? If one wishes to debate whether our military or CIA should engage in torture, let’s have that discussion. But let’s not refer to outright torture as a “harsh interrogation technique.”

Let’s review, if we must. From Wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing a person on their back with the head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. In contrast to merely submerging the head face-forward, waterboarding almost immediately elicits the gag reflex. Although waterboarding does not always cause lasting physical damage, it carries the risks of extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, physical injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, psychological injury, and, ultimately, death, which may be caused by one of the many possible conditions—not only drowning—that are triggered by this behavior. The physical effects of waterboarding can come on even months after the event, and the psychological effects on the victims can last for years.

Mind you, what we’re talking about is a variant of a form of torture used by the Spanish Inquisition:

A form of torture similar to waterboarding called toca, and more recently “Spanish water torture”, to differentiate it from the better known Chinese water torture, along with garrucha (or strappado) and the most frequently used potro (or the rack), was used infrequently during the trial portion of the Spanish Inquisition process. “The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had the impression of drowning”. [Scott, George Ryley, The History of Torture Throughout the Ages, p.172, Columbia University Press (2003)]

See also the discussion of waterboarding and torture at

The NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof is in Cambodia with his family this week. He wrote a blog post this morning entitled What do the Bushies and the Khmer Rouge share?
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Categories: Politics, Today's News

My Chalabi Number

December 24, 2008 Leave a comment
Erdős Number 1

Erdős Number 1

Just a few days ago, I wrote about my discovery that I’m connected mathematically to the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, ending with the thought that I might even have attended conferences with him. My pal Sándor Kovács has kindly pointed out to me in an email that one can quantify just how close Chalabi and I are.

The relevant measure of distance is one that has been used by mathematicians for decades in measuring their level of connectedness to the late, prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. Erdős has an Erdős number of 0. If you wrote a joint paper with Erdős, your Erdős number is 1. If you didn’t, but you wrote a joint paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős, your Erdős number is 2. And so on. A widely known movie industry counterpart to this involves measuring how closely connected a movie actor is to Kevin Bacon by calculating the actor’s Bacon number. It is 1 if the actor appeared in a movie with Bacon, 2 if the actor didn’t appear with Bacon but appeared with someone who appeared in some other movie with Bacon, and so on. (See Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for more on Kevin Bacon, here for a discussion of Erdős number, and here for a discussion of six degrees of separation. You’ll find more links at these sites.)

With this notion of measure in hand, what is my Chalabi number? In other words, what is the length of the shortest path from me to Ahmed Chalabi? Five. MathSciNet has a handy tool that lets you type in the names of two authors, and it then finds a shortest path from one to the other. (Shortest in terms of the data in its database. Shorter paths may exist via links, or papers, it doesn’t know about.) The path from me to Chalabi that MathSciNet provides is: Irving-Small-Goldie-Chatters-Khuri-Chalabi, with each successive pair having written a paper together.

Lance Small is my old friend and co-author at UCSD. Alfred Goldie was one of the giants of ring theory, a fascinating man whose obituary in The Independent from three years ago is worth reading. Chatters is another English ring-theorist, whose book Rings with Chain Conditions, written with C.R. Hajarnavis, I used to use all the time. As we get farther down the path, my connection weakens. I was familiar with Soumaya Khuri’s work, but I don’t recall whether I met her or not. And of course that brings us to Chalabi himself, whose connection to me is still more remote. Did I meet him? The best bet, if I did, is that he would have been in Antwerp with me in August 1978 at a large ring theory conference. This is about the time he would have been working on the paper with Khuri, his paper that represents his largest foray into ring theory. (One thing about that conference. We spent lots of time in the lobby of the modern Antwerp hotel where the conference organizers put us, a hotel located on the edge of a ring highway, halfway between the university campus and the wonderful central city, but near neither. One of our pastimes was to play with the prototype of a funny device created by the brother of one of the mathematicians, a cube, parts of which one could rotate in different directions until one managed to line up the colors, one color per side. Little did we know that two years later it would be an international sensation.)

What’s my Erdős number? It’s 4. There are lots of length 4 paths from me to Erdős.

How does Hank Aaron manage to have Erdős number 1? You see, he and Erdős jointly autographed a baseball when they received honorary degrees from Emory University.

Categories: Culture, Math, Politics


December 24, 2008 Leave a comment


I have been reading Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire off and on over the last two and a half months, mostly on since finishing Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War a few days ago. (And soon it might be off again, since maybe, just maybe, I’ll be getting the new biography of V.S. Naipaul that I discussed in an earlier post as a present tomorrow. Then again, given the difficulty FedEx is having getting packages to us, it may be a while before I see the Naipaul book.)

I found out about Byzantium from Glen Bowersock’s review in the New York Review of Books in September. I’m about one-third of the way through it now, in the midst of a chapter on iconoclasm, and I’m learning a lot. The book isn’t a straight history. Rather, it moves back and forth across time while examining different facets of Byzantine history and culture, such as icons, the law, Christian theology, government, war, and architecture. One can hardly help making connections on every page with our own culture and politics. But how could it be otherwise? After all, we’re talking about a millennium of history, including the evolution of Christianity, the rise of Islam, and developments from France and Spain across the Mediterranean to the Arabian peninsula and beyond, all centered of course on Constantinople.

We have three I’s we’re supposed to travel to: Ireland, Italy, and Israel. We’ll have to add a fourth: Istanbul.

Categories: Books, Culture, History

Christmas in Paris

December 24, 2008 Leave a comment


Twenty-five years ago this minute we were flying to Paris on the Concorde for a memorable Christmas. (And a memorable flight too!) My sister married a Frenchman in August 1980 and lived with him in Clermont-Ferrand for three years. My niece Joëlle was born in October 1982. The family moved to Paris in August 1983. (I showed up in Paris right after they moved there, after attending a conference in Antwerp and spending a couple of days in Amsterdam to pass the time until they got settled.) A few months later, my father decided we may as well all go to see them, with the holidays serving as a convenient time to get away. So off we went.

Well, first I had to get to New York. It was my third year in Seattle, and I had just gotten to know Gail in the preceding months. She took me to the airport, we said goodbye, and I flew off to New York a few days before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we headed to Paris, arriving around 11:00 PM local time. We headed into town and arrived at our hotel, which is the hotel my parents regularly used when they were in Paris, the Hotel Plaza Athénée. It’s a gorgeous hotel, on Avenue Montaigne between the Seine and the Champs-Elysées. And Christmas morning was beautiful.

My sister and her family were down in Nice to see her sister-in-law (Jacques’ sister) and her family, due to fly back to Paris around noon on Christmas. I had been given the task of heading over to their apartment early on Christmas morning to attend to the parakeet. Avenue Montaigne leads to the Pont de l’Alma, which happened to be the bridge over the Seine that itself led to my sister’s apartment, just a few blocks off the river on the other side. I didn’t sleep long, and by 6:00 AM on Christmas morning, I headed over. It was so peaceful. Fog. Almost no cars. Quiet. The walk over the bridge was dreamlike. And I got to do it six times, three in each direction, because something went wrong with the plan for getting into my sister’s apartment. I don’t remember the details. Presumably the concierge was supposed to let me into the building. Oh, I know. I had a code to punch in to get through the main door, but it wasn’t working, so I got there, tried and tried, then headed back to the hotel, and then repeated the process. On the third time, maybe it worked, or maybe the concierge did let me in. I must have had a key for the apartment once I was in the building. Maybe it was left with the hotel concierge. Anyway, I performed my bird duty, and as a bonus I had those wonderful walks over the Pont de l’Alma.

There are many stories to tell from the trip. But I’ll leave it at this, except to mention two other highlights, dinners at two famous Paris restaurants: La Tour d’Argent and Lucas Carton. The dinner at La Tour d’Argent was our major family holiday dinner. The Lucas Carton dinner was just for the four of us — my brother, sister, her husband, and me. And what I remember most about that was how tiny the portions were. It might have been the first time I had been at an elegant and expensive place that seemed to put as much emphasis on presentation as on food. I’m sure it was the first restaurant I went to where the food was brought out with fancy silver covers over the plates, and with the waitstaff dramatically lifting the covers all at once when the plates were all in place. I would have traded that in for a couple more lamb chops. Now, of course, I know better. Eating less is good. Presentation is good. But I couldn’t get over how little food there was, and how much empty space there was on the plate. (This reflects yet again my cultural illiteracy when in France, as described in one of my first blog posts.)

Time flies, if I may make an original observation. I can hardly believe this dinner was twenty-five years ago. Merry Christmas for those who celebrate. Happy Holidays for all.

Categories: Family, Travel

Still More Snow

December 24, 2008 3 comments


See that arrow built into the ‘E’ and the ‘x’ in the FedEx logo above? (I hadn’t noticed it until Joel pointed it out to me last summer.) It seems to have the wrong shape. It should be circular. But I’ll get to that.

We woke up to snow again today, as predicted. It was due to turn to rain by noon, and it has done so even sooner, after some icy, sleety, snowy interlude. I anticipate getting my car out later this afternoon — its first outing in a week — so we can meet up after Gail’s workday for Christmas Eve dinner. (I better get out, or we won’t be having dinner together.) But I’m here to complain. Two annoyances:

1. FedEx can’t get here. UPS has made it. They came in the snow on Thursday. They came in the aftermath of the snow yesterday. USPS has made it. Well, not on Monday, but otherwise they have. FedEx, though, is not up to the task. They’ve had an Amazon shipment in Seattle since Friday evening, due for delivery Monday. It didn’t go out at all on Monday. It went out yesterday (Tuesday), but didn’t get far. Their tracking data includes the entry at 3:27 PM yesterday: “Delay in delivery due to external factors.” At 5:52 PM it was home safe at Fedex. And that’s the last item. They seem not to have even tried to get it out today. The current status is “shipment delayed.” No big deal. It only has assorted presents for tomorrow. At least we’re all here. But still, their competitors made it. Why didn’t they?

2. The garbage and recycling people can’t get here. Indeed, according to today’s news release at the Seattle Public Utilities website, no residential garbage or recycling has been picked up since the snow started last Thursday. A week of no service. Our recycling bin is filled to the brim, and tomorrow we will have lots of new recycling. Oh, nevermind. We won’t. We won’t have any presents to give out because FedEx can’t get here. No problem. Our garbage can is filled too, but at least it will be picked up in a week. The recycling will have to sit around for two weeks.

How can a few days of not particularly huge snowfall bring everything to a standstill?

Categories: Family, House

More Snow in Seattle

December 22, 2008 Leave a comment
The View from our House

The View from our Backyard

On Saturday morning, I wrote about the snow we had in Seattle on Thursday, with photos of the two buses that slid down a hill and almost went over a retaining wall onto the freeway. We have since had two more snowstorms. We got out Saturday afternoon to do some essential shopping, getting home before the second round of snow. It started around 4 PM and fell until around midnight, with about 5-6 inches accumulating around our house. I awoke yesterday (Sunday) morning anticipating doing some shoveling, but before I could begin, it was snowing again. The snow fell from around 10 AM to 11 PM. I would guess another 5-6 inches fell, so we had something close to 15 inches of snow in the last four days. Not unheard of, but not very common either. More typical when we have freezing or near freezing temperatures is that Seattle escapes large snowfalls. The outlying areas, at higher elevation or without the additional moderating influence of Lake Washington, can get such accumulations, but we, at a low elevation near the lake, will typically have just a little.

I got out this morning and started shoveling the driveway. The norm around here seems to be to just blast out of the garage with the four-wheel drive vehicle. The roads aren’t plowed, so why worry about a driveway full of snow? But I like to clear it just the same. Partly, shoveling gives me a sense of continuity with my childhood. And it’s good exercise, as long as I don’t overdo it. I took a break in the middle of the shoveling and used my flip HD mini camcorder to record the view. As I explained in my post when I got the Flip, I set up a youtube account that night in order to post videos, but until today I hadn’t posted any. Here’s one:

The narration is a little stupid, but I figured there’s supposed to be sound when you make a video, so I spoke.

I took a break and came in for a late breakfast just before noon, by which time Joel was awake. After eating, I went out again and took some photos in the back, including the photo at the top of this post. Go here for a slideshow with a few more.

I should explain, for readers who don’t know where we live, Read more…

Categories: Family, House

Ahmed Chalabi and Me

December 20, 2008 Leave a comment
Ahmed Chalabi

Ahmed Chalabi

No, I don’t actually know Ahmed Chalabi. But we do have a professional connection, as I discovered only yesterday. (Oh, should I remind you of who Chalabi is? He became prominent in US news coverage of Iraq in the run-up to the US invasion, as an Iraqi in exile in London who was friends with many neocons in the government and was a leading source of (false) information on the existence of WMDs in Iraq. He was also imagined as a possible leader of the Iraqi government once Saddam Hussein was deposed. And indeed he was on the Iraqi governing council after the invasion, later serving as deputy prime minister. You can read more here.)

I wrote last week that I was reading Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. I finished it last night, and let me say once again that it is a painful but essential book to read regarding the US war effort in Iraq and how the US was perceived (2003-2006) by Iraqis of various sorts. Just before dinner, I read a portion of the book in which Filkins meets with Chalabi, a fascinating passage, and at its start Filkins notes that Chalabi is an MIT- and Chicago-trained mathematician. I must have seen this fact many times before, but never focused on it. The problem is, I’ve often read about one person or another being a mathematician of some sort, and usually the person turns out to do something else, like physics or finance. So if I read before that Chalabi is a mathematician, I probably ignored it. But this time, with the mention of MIT and Chicago, I got curious and decided to look Chalabi up to see what he really did.

Well, what do you know? He’s a mathematician! An algebraist, just like me!
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Categories: Math, Politics