Archive for August, 2009

Bureaucratic Play

August 21, 2009 Leave a comment
French consulate regions

French consulate regions

It’s hardly news that bureaucratic functionaries love to toy with people. Who can blame them? One has to have some fun in one’s life. As a result, I’ve been anxious for months about Joel’s need to get a student visa for his time in France this fall. It’s required for any stay of over 90 days, and Joel will be studying in Grenoble from early September through December 19. The rules are that you need to show up in person at the consulate to which your home region is assigned, do so at least two weeks ahead of departure, and bring a long list of documents.

My first worry was, is Joel eligible to submit the application at the Boston consulate? If they insisted that Seattle is his home address, he would have to go down to San Francisco. (There seems to be no way around showing up in person at one of the ten consulates around the country. See the map here, also copied above. Notice that Louisiana gets its own consulate, which I suppose makes historical sense. So does Florida. I can’t imagine why.)

My second worry was that Joel would get around to it too late, especially if he showed up for his appointment in Boston and was told they can’t do it, he has to go to SF. My third worry was that he’d have failed to comply with some paperwork requirement, as interpreted by the fonctionnaire. And my fourth worry was simply that they’d screw him, just for the heck of it, like a cat toying with a mouse.

So anyway, Joel flies out of Boston a week from Sunday, nine days from now, to London and then Paris. That means to meet the two-week-prior requirement, he should have been to the consulate by last Friday at the latest. It didn’t work out that way. When he got around to making an appointment, the best he could do was three days ago, Tuesday morning of this week. In Boston. He had other things on his mind, like finishing up his summer half-term classes a week ago. This would be the week to deal with visa and apartment. Gail flew to Boston Monday, arriving that night, and got up way early (Seattle time) Tuesday morning so she could accompany him to the consulate. One of the paperwork requirements was a document attesting that your parents could provide for you financially, so what better way was there to do that than to have a parent present?

I wasn’t there, so I’m not the one to tell the consulate story. The main point is that the consulate official, noting that Joel had not met the two-week requirement, said that the best she could do is get the visa sent to us at the end of next week. Next Friday. It could be sent FedEx. Indeed, that’s the only option, and one of the items you need to bring is a prepaid FedEx mailer, which fortunately Joel arranged to get on Monday afternoon. That night I gave him our account number so it could be charged to us. Now, the thing is, it would be sent Friday to Seattle and Joel would be flying Sunday to France. That doesn’t quite work. Unless we pay extra for FedEx Saturday delivery, which we agreed to do. And even that doesn’t work very well. It means Joel can’t fly from Seattle back to Boston that Saturday morning, and flying out Sunday morning wouldn’t allow him to catch the 6:00PM flight from Boston to London. Well, there’s always overnight, and that’s what I booked him on, once we had all the information. The plan, then, was: visa sent Friday, visa arrives Saturday, Joel takes off Saturday night, arrives in Boston Sunday morning, kills 10 hours, takes off for London Sunday night.

I could say more, but again I wasn’t there. Like, there was the mother and daughter who cut in front of Joel and two other parties, all having 10AM appointments at the consulate. There is no first-come, first served apparently. Some fonctionnaire, ready to take the next case, asked for a 10AM appointment, and this mother jumped. But the galling thing is that they got their visa immediately, because there wasn’t enough time to send it, whereas Joel couldn’t even have his shipped a day sooner to simplify life.

Okay, so here’s the punch line. The visa came. An hour ago. The doorbell rang, I saw a FedEx truck out the window, I ran like hell to the front door so I wouldn’t miss him. I took the envelope from him, opened it up, and there was Joel’s passport, with visa glued to a page.

Let’s review. The consulate got his application Tuesday. They processed it Wednesday. They shipped it Thursday. It arrived Friday. No big deal. But we were told they wouldn’t ship it until next Friday. Our mild effort to ask if it could be sent sooner was met with the observation that we were late in getting there. Tough luck. We would have to pay the FedEx Saturday delivery fee, and if something went wrong, Joel wouldn’t be making his flights. Plus, because of the anticipated Saturday delivery, I had to book Joel on an overnight flight to Boston through JFK.

It’s here. We can relax. That’s the important thing. But what was the point of all the toying with us? Oh, I guess I already answered that at the beginning. Just because. One has to have some fun.

Further good news is that Gail and Joel have succeeded, as of 2 hours ago, in emptying Joel’s apartment, turning in the key, getting rid of the rental car, and checking out of the hotel room. Three days of hard work. Now they just have to wait for tonight’s flight, already scheduled over an hour late, with an arrival time in Seattle after 1:00 AM local time. It’s going to be a long day.

Categories: Culture, Family, Government, Travel

Disingenuous Gingrich

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment


It’s hardly news that Newt Gingrich is disingenuous. Well, let’s just call him a liar. But I don’t know why the NYT feels an obligation to print his lies in when he writes a letter to them. Paul Krugman, in a column last week on the health care “debate,” wrote:

Right now, the charge that’s gaining the most traction is the claim that health care reform will create “death panels” (in Sarah Palin’s words) that will shuffle the elderly and others off to an early grave. It’s a complete fabrication, of course. The provision requiring that Medicare pay for voluntary end-of-life counseling was introduced by Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican — yes, Republican — of Georgia, who says that it’s “nuts” to claim that it has anything to do with euthanasia.

And not long ago, some of the most enthusiastic peddlers of the euthanasia smear, including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, and Mrs. Palin herself, were all for “advance directives” for medical care in the event that you are incapacitated or comatose. That’s exactly what was being proposed — and has now, in the face of all the hysteria, been dropped from the bill.

Yet the smear continues to spread. And as the example of Mr. Gingrich shows, it’s not a fringe phenomenon: Senior G.O.P. figures, including so-called moderates, have endorsed the lie.

In a letter to the editor dated August 14 (the day of Krugman’s column) but printed today, Gingrich responds, in part:

I have always been a vocal proponent of proper end-of-life planning — and an equally vocal opponent of government intervention in the most sacred of moments.

Gundersen Lutheran Health System in Wisconsin gets it right. Ninety-plus percent of patients complete advance directives with their doctors, nurses and families. Gundersen offers this because it is good for patients, not because of a government directive.

Government intervention in the most sacred of moments? Government directive? What the hell is he talking about? How does a provision in a bill that would have Medicare cover voluntary consultations between individuals and their doctors about end of life care, including a discussion of living wills, qualify as either? The very features Gingrich praises at Gundersen would be funded, if the individual chooses. How can that not be good? But of course this isn’t about what’s good. It’s about doing whatever it takes to poison the political atmosphere and ensure that no bill passes. Like lying.

Categories: Lies, Politics, Today's News


August 20, 2009 Leave a comment


Usain Bolt did it again. On Sunday, at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, he obliterated his 100 meter record set at the Beijing Olympics a year ago, lowering it from 9.69 to 9.58. Today, in winning the 200 meter race, he lowered his record, also set a year ago at the Olympics, from 19.30 to 19.19. This may be more shocking.

Recall that in 1996, the great sprinter Michael Johnson lowered Pietro Mennea’s 200m record, a record that had stood for 17 years, from 19.72 to 19.66 at the US Olympic Trials. Then he surprised the world later that summer at the Olympics in Atlanta by running 19.32. In the years that followed, no one came close, until Bolt ran 19.30 in Beijing. And no one had been close in the last year, including Bolt, until today. His run suggests that the day of an under-19-second 200 meter may not be far off. It also seems plausible, given how far back everyone else was, that no one else will produce times like this for another decade.

I’ve been watching the coverage of the World Championships on Versus each evening, time shifted on the DVR. But today I wanted to see the 200m live, so I stayed home and watched it as it happened. Shortly after the 200m, there was another great race, the men’s 110 meter hurdles. It was almost a three-way tie, and none of the three leaders knew who won for a while. Ryan Brathwaite, a 19-year-old from Barbados, won in 13.14, with Americans Terrence Trammell and David Payne just behind at 13.15. Trammell was awarded second over Payne, but it was impossible to see any separation on the replays. And they never showed the decisive photos on the TV coverage. Maybe they didn’t have access. I don’t know. I just know that the TV production is wanting in many ways.

I’ll mention two items that have annoyed me about the coverage, though I should note first of all that I’m just pleased that the final 2 or 2 1/2 hours of each night’s activity from Berlin is shown live here. Better that with coverage that lapses at times than no live coverage at all.

1. It’s a given that in US coverage of any race over 1500m, we will not be allowed to watch the entire race uninterrupted. The shortest men’s race above 1500m is the 3000m steeplechase, whose winning times are on the order of 8 minutes. Kenyans almost always win the major steeplechase races. We were told early on that the Kenyans might sweep the three medal positions. Then, just as the race was developing, we broke away for coverage of some field event, women’s high jump preliminary round perhaps. Worth watching. I would have liked to see more. But after the race, please. When they returned, it had become a four-man race. But the announcer never really made clear who was who among the three Kenyans, perhaps because he couldn’t differentiate them himself, and as far as I could tell, he got the call wrong. A Frenchman mixed it up with the three Kenyans in the final lap, ultimately finishing third, but the announcer seemed to say that Mateelong fell back to 4th, even though as far as I could tell, Mateelong finished 2nd. (Kemboi first, Mateelong second, the Frenchman Tahri third, Koech fourth, in times ranging from 8:00.43 to 8:01.26.)

2. The women’s 800 meter final last night was as great a race as one will ever see. The 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya simply ran away from the field, winning by almost 2 1/2 seconds over the Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei — defending world championi from two years ago and Olympic silver medalist from a year ago, and Jepkosgei just barely held off the charging British runner Jennifer Meadows. Semenya’s time was 1:55.45. She looked like she was out for a training run. Jepkosgei ran 1:57.90, Meadows 1:57.93, and the Ukrainian Yuliya Krevsun was just behind in 4th at 1:58.00. They were all struggling. It’s like Semenya was from another planet. Or another sex, which it turns out has in fact been a matter of investigation, but the announcers didn’t see fit to let us know about this until after she won. It’s been big news today, so I needn’t review the matter. (See for instance the NYT article here.) The investigation was begun three weeks ago and is ongoing.

Three more days. Be sure to watch.

Categories: Sports

Reading Julia Child

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment


I mentioned in early July reading the New Yorker piece on Nora Ephron — which gave a lot of attention to the not-yet-released movie Julie and Julia — and then ordering Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France, only to discover that Gail had bought it when it came out in 2006. So we have two copies, one hardcover and one paperback. I started it a few days ago, reading just a few pages each night, but finished it in a rush last night as I got swept along by the question of how her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (written with co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), would ever get published.

It’s an extraordinary story, a story of discovery, both of self and of the science of cooking, as Julia Child (and Beck — Bertholle soon disappears) works to master recipes, to understand what makes them work, and to develop a writing style that effectively communicates her discoveries. The cookbook they ultimately write has “art” in its title (a story in its own right, given due attention in the book), but what becomes clear is how much of the spirit of a scientist Child brings to the endeavor. I was reminded of James Watson’s recounting in The Double Helix of his discovery with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA. Or, closer to home for me, the story of Andrew Wiles’ efforts to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, told for instance by Simon Singh in Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem. Like them, Child was obsessed. And confident, a confidence that grows in front of the reader’s eyes as the memoir progresses.

I won’t give details. If you don’t know the story, you will enjoy reading about it, and I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say that Child understood early on the importance of her work, and its uniqueness, and was not about to be deterred by responses of less comprehending editors.

A second theme in the memoir is the importance of people, Child’s husband most of all, but friends, chefs, providers of food as well. Yet, Child reveals — at least in my reading — that as important as they were, other than her husband, no one was going to get in the way of her work. She was driven, she had a vision, and she would realize that vision. Extraordinary.

Categories: Books, Food


August 17, 2009 Leave a comment

The greatest 100m race in history took place at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin last night. I’m just glad I remembered to watch. (And if you didn’t, see the video embedded above.) As you recall, the top US sprinter Tyson Gay won the 100m and 200m races in the 2007 World Championships. But Gay injured himself at the US Olympic Trials a year ago. In the trials, he ran a wind-aided 9.68 100m, the fastest time ever but not a record because of the wind. Then, in 200m races, he had a hamstring injury, so he didn’t qualify for the Olympic 200m. And because of his injury, Gay didn’t qualify in the Olympics for the 100m final. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt had established himself in the leadup to the Olympics as the surprise 100m favorite after setting a new world record of 9.72 at the end of May (2008) in New York.

At the Olympics last August, Bolt shocked the world by winning the 100m with still another world record, 9.69, even though he celebrated with about 20m to go and didn’t even run all out to the line. That set the stage for yesterday’s race, with Tyson Gay back in top form, along with Asafa Powell, Bolt’s fellow Jamaican, whose 2007 world record of 9.74 is what Bolt broke last year.

So what happened? Bolt ran 9.58, totally blowing away his old record. Gay was close, so I knew at the finish that either Bolt didn’t run a great time or Gay ran the race of his life. It was the latter. Gay’s time of 9.69 has been bettered (among official, non-wind-aided times) only by Bolt’s two incredible runs. Powell was third in 9.84.

I’m just glad I remembered to watch it. Track and field gets so little coverage in the US — except during the Olympics — that even the World Championships (held in odd-numbered years) get lost amid all the other parochial sporting goings on. And this past weekend, my sports attention was almost entirely given to the PGA. I watched a little golf coverage on Thursday, hours on Friday as Tiger finished his round to take a seemingly commanding lead, and many hours more on Saturday and Sunday.

But I did catch some of NBC’s track coverage on Saturday — men’s shot put and qualifying for the men’s 100m. Yesterday Gail and I were glued to the golf coverage, but at around noon our time I started checking on track and field. We stumbled on a dramatic moment whose context we didn’t understand at the time. It was the final event of the women’s heptathlon, the 800m run, and German Jennifer Oeser, in position for the event’s silver medal, had fallen. When we switched from the golf, she had just gotten up and was zooming up towards the front of the pack. She did well enough to hold onto the silver, behind Englishwoman Jessica Ennis. But we didn’t learn this at the time. Once the race ended, we returned to the golf. And when we came back to track at 12:35, the intended start time of the men’s 100m, there was a delay because the heptathlon medalists were jogging around the stadium to the cheers of the crowd. The officials finally had to get the women off the track so the men’s race could start, which it did at least 10 minutes late. Tearing ourselves away from the golf was hard, but I’m thankful that we did.

I’ll say something about the golf in another post. Painful afternoon.

Categories: Sports

Geneva at 60

August 14, 2009 Leave a comment

[From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Yanker Poster Collection]

Wednesday (August 12th) marked the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Scott Horton had a piece in The Guardian to mark the occasion. We needn’t review all the ways in which the Bush-Cheney administration made a mockery of the Conventions, though Horton touches on this. Let’s just keep in mind that the Obama administration still has much work to do to demonstrates that the US abides by them. Horton:

Even as Gitmo winds down, the US continues to operate large-scale detention facilities in Iraq, and it is actually ramping up its prison capacity in Afghanistan. While the conditions in those facilities have certainly improved since 2004, the long-term “security” detentions in these facilities cannot be squared with international law. The US should be doing what Geneva and other international law instruments expect – its foreign prisons must conform with the law of the host country, and prisoners held in them must have the rights that local laws and international agreements, including the Geneva conventions, guarantee them.

The Bush administration’s attempted coup de grace to international humanitarian law came when former state department lawyer John Bellinger argued that the entirety of the convention against torture did not apply in wartime. As Condoleezza Rice’s lawyer on the national security council, Bellinger played a role in the authorisation of waterboarding, so he clearly has a personal stake in the issue. He argued that the laws of armed conflict as lex specialis simply displaced human rights law, including the prohibition on torture. Obama has yet to discard this view, which is as essential a part of the Bush torture edifice as the notorious memoranda of justice department lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury.

On the 60th anniversary of the rebirth of the Geneva conventions, there are some easy steps that President Obama could take to demonstrate that his administration takes its obligations under the conventions seriously. He could submit the two additional protocols to the Senate for ratification.

He could legalise his defence department’s extraordinary detentions system. Or he could just give meaning to his repudiation of torture by ending force-feeding at Guantánamo and accepting that the ban on torture applies even in wartime. Any of these steps would at this point be more welcome that his wonderful – but increasingly unconvincing rhetoric. The Bush team dealt the Geneva conventions a grave wound. Healing that wound requires actions that give meaning to the Obama administration’s words.

Categories: Torture

Les Paul

August 14, 2009 Leave a comment

[Photo taken by Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times]

Les Paul, genius. ‘Nuff said? He died yesterday at 94. You can read the NYT obit, if you haven’t already, but even better, watch the video that’s embedded in the obituary webpage. It’s 15 minutes, but worth the time. He was interviewed a year ago, and in the video you can listen as he reviews the highlights of his career as musician, electric guitar inventor, and recording technology innovator. Plus, you get to hear him play — in his 90s. Amazing.

Categories: Music, Technology