Archive for August, 2009

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

Eleven Madison Park

August 11, 2009 Leave a comment


Four-star restaurant reviews in the NYT are sufficiently rare that when one appears, I pay attention, even if I’m not likely to get there. Tomorrow’s NYT has one of those rare occurrences, a four-star review by Frank Bruni of Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park, which opened in 1998, now ranks among the most alluring and impressive restaurants in New York. It has reached this pinnacle because its principal owner, the indefatigable Danny Meyer, made a key move in 2006, bringing aboard the chef Daniel Humm, and because together they decided — out of pride, it seems to me, more than any commercial calculation — that this restaurant could and should shine as brightly as any other.

Whether you read the review or not, don’t miss the accompanying audio slide show, which depicts some of the dishes discussed in the review. There is the “five-piece row of single-bite amuse bouches, one with foie gras, another with salmon and another with sweetbreads nestled in a crunchy cornet.” And also the “lavender honey-glazed duck for two” that Bruni admits to being “crazy for.” And also the “Hawaiian prawn roulade” that Bruni is “crazier still for.” It is “an appetizer that tastes like a repurposed California roll with all of the glory and none of the gunk. Poached prawns are dressed with crème fraîche, diced green apple and lime juice and then molded into a thin horizontal column surfaced with thinly sliced, vivid avocado.”

As for dessert, “Mr. Humm supervises the sweets in addition to what precedes them, and with most he finds the right middle ground between hyper-imaginative artistry and molten chocolate pandering. Accessorizing the gooey chocolate centerpiece of one dessert with both caramel popcorn and a popcorn-flavored ice cream did that trick nicely.” This popcorn dessert is also in the slide show (and above).

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Tour de France Wrap-up

August 11, 2009 Leave a comment


Yes, I know, it ended over two weeks ago. My trip to New York coincided with the final four days of the Tour de France, thereby interrupting both my morning ritual of watching the coverage and my almost-daily reports. By the time I returned to Seattle and caught up with all the coverage on the DVR, it was a bit late to discuss what I missed. Yet, I can’t seem to let go, and it is getting in the way of my writing about other subjects, so I will write one last post about this year’s Tour, to the extent that I can even remember it.

Timely? No. Interesting? Probably not. But I have to do it. Please be patient. Or move on to other posts. Read more…

Categories: Cycling

Whither Career RBIs?

August 11, 2009 Leave a comment

With the advent of modern statistical measurements, the significance of RBI (runs batted in) has been questioned. I have no interest in joining the debate. I will accept the RBI as a valuable measure. It remains one of the three standard numbers attached to any batter, along with batting average and home runs. My interest in this post is in the question of why the number of RBIs a batter accumulates in a season is closely watched, but little attention is paid to one’s career RBI total. In contrast, career home runs are an obsession among fans and career batting average is another of the key statistics used to measure a batter’s career. Any serious fan and many casual fans can name the top 3 or 5 home run hitters of all time, along with their totals. Many can name the top career batting averages and who has them. But RBIs? Why are they such significant seasonal measures but little discussed as career measures? Read more…

Categories: Baseball

Hobbesian Calculus

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


Harper’s Magazine has an excellent recurring feature that takes the following form: each piece begins with a painting accompanied by a quote by some historical figure. The quote is then discussed by some Harper’s writer, related perhaps to some contemporary issue, and then links are given to music contemporaneous with and perhaps of interest to the historical figure. One recent example is built around a quote from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The quote is taken from The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1650) and the accompanying painting is a portrait of Hobbes from 1660 by the painter John Michael Wright.

Harper’s Scott Horton provides commentary. Hobbes’ quote and Horton’s comments are worth reading closely and in full. Let me give a taste:

… the last seven years have been a period of Hobbesian triumphalism in America. Dick Cheney’s political perspectives, we are told, were strongly shaped by his college encounter with Hobbes, his favorite political philosopher. The domestic policies of the Bush Administration–from the color-coded warning charts to endless reminders about 9/11–could be explained by reference to the works of Hobbes. …

Fear of chaos and violence, [Hobbes] reasons, leads men to cede power and authority to their ruler. That belongs to the Classic Comics version of Hobbes, of course. A key but less appreciated aspect of Hobbes theory is, however, what we might call the temporal element. Man is, he offers, an inherently conservative creature in that he seeks to preserve what he has and in so doing he is driven by his experience. In this sense, he suggests, man is a captive of his past—for out of his understanding of the past, he fashions for himself a future. Man is motivated by fear in this process. His fears are informed by historical experience. But the focus of his fears is the future: the prospect that horrible events of the past will recur. Hobbes’s prescription for would-be rulers is simple: to establish and sustain your mastery over men, understand how to manipulate the fears that drive them. Wield those fears to your own advantage.

For the past seven years, America has lived a Hobbesian moment. To be more precise, it has lived under political figures who sought to secure their hold on power through the use of a Hobbesian calculus. They believed that the traumatic experience of 9/11 could be used to gain ever more power and free themselves from the burdens of democratic accountability. This passage suggests how the process works: the experience of 9/11 coupled with fear of the prospect of its recurrence are manipulated to fashion a new future. This is what Hobbes means when he speaks of men fashioning a future from their perceptions of the past.

Horton next suggests that Cheney has mis-read Hobbes and offering a corrective:

But is it really proper to say that Hobbes is focused on “fear” of the future? That’s certainly the Cheney take on Hobbes. But it might not be the best reading. What Hobbes has in mind may really be something a tad milder—not fear, but anxiety. Hobbes feels that concern about the future should drive man to be cautious, conservative and prudent—to avoid unnecessary risk-taking and to carefully calculate his interests and act to protect them. Anxiety should lead man to collective action and to minimize the recourse to state violence because of the very unpredictability of the consequences of war. He puts an emphasis on the controlled and directed force of reason. He does not mean the sort of fear that provokes panic and leads to unreasoned reflex. Hobbes does not contemplate fear that spurs rash decisions formed on the basis of preconceptions, ignoring evidence that disproved them. Can it be that America’s Hobbesian moment was based on a misreading of Hobbes? As I note in “Hobbes on the Euphrates,” the manner in which the would-be Hobbesians of the Bush era pursued the conquest and occupation of Iraq displayed an astonishing ignorance of the basic concepts of human interaction that Hobbes elucidates in the early chapters of the Leviathan. It’s clear that Thomas Hobbes was a far more insightful and thoughtful man than his self-styled disciples of the Bush era.

I read Leviathan some 38 or 39 years ago and remember little. Perhaps I would benefit from re-reading it. Just last month there was a piece by Blair Worden in the New York Review of Books on Quentin Skinner’s recent book Hobbes and Republican Liberty that also had me thinking of reading Hobbes again.

Categories: History, Law, Politics


August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


Digby, guest-blogging at Glenn Greenwald’s site today, has a post on police overuse of tasers. It addresses some concerns I have had of late, especially in light of last week’s widely reported incident in which
Mobile, Alabama, police officers, responding to a complaint about a man who had locked himself in a store bathroom for more than an hour, used a tire iron to crack open the door, sprayed pepper spray through the crack to subdue him, and tasered him when they got inside. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, but a magistrate refused to issue a warrant. It turns out that the man was deaf, mentally disabled, and understandably scared to death.

Digby addresses this incident and more. Here are excerpts:

In our apparent acceptance of torture as a legal method of interrogation, the bar of civilized official behavior has been lowered to the point where we are accepting torture in everyday life as if it’s nothing. Indeed, we are using it as a form of entertainment.

I’m speaking of the ever more common use of the Taser, an electrical device used by police and other authorities to drop its victims to the ground and coerce instant compliance. The videos of various incidents make the rounds on the internet and you can see by the comments at the YouTube site that a large number of Americans find tasering to be a sort of slapstick comedy, the equivalent of someone slipping on a banana peel, with a touch of that authoritarian cruelty that always seems to amuse a certain kind of person. “Don’t tase me bro” is a national catch phrase.

Tasers aren’t benign however. They kill people. … . As awful as the possibility of death is, tasers would be a blight on any free people even if they weren’t so often deadly. Tasers were sold to the public as a tool for law enforcement to be used in lieu of deadly force. Presumably, this means situations in which officers would have previously had to use their firearms. It’s hard to argue with that, and I can’t think of a single civil libertarian who would say that this would be a truly civilized advance in policing. Nobody wants to see more death and if police have a weapon they can employ instead of a gun, in self defense or to stop someone from hurting others, I think we all can agree that’s a good thing.

But that’s not what’s happening. Tasers are routinely used by police to torture innocent people who have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their “orders.” There is ample evidence that police often take no more than 30 seconds to talk to citizens before employing the taser, they use them while people are already handcuffed and thus present no danger, and are used often against the mentally ill and handicapped. It is becoming a barbaric tool of authoritarian, social control. …

Representatives of the government torture innocent citizens into unconsciousness, on camera, in United States courtrooms with tasers. They use them on prisoners and on motorists and on political protesters and bicycle riders, on mentally ill and handicapped people and on children. And it’s happening with nary a peep of protest.

America’s torture problem is much bigger than Gitmo or the CIA or the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The government is torturing people every day and killing some of them. Then videos of the torture wind up on Youtube where sadists laugh and jeer at the victims. It’s the sign of profound cultural illness.

Categories: Culture, Law

Wink Wink

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment


When I read the story a couple of week’s back about the use of a gay slur by University of Hawaii football coach Greb McMackin at a press conference, I didn’t think too much about it. Business as usual. Coach makes remark he shouldn’t have, apologizes for it, says he didn’t mean it, of course he meant it, will be punished, won’t do it again. For some reason, the word he used is so sensitive that newspapers can’t even print it, which leaves us guessing (though it’s not hard to guess) just what he did say and doesn’t advance the cause of serious discussion of the issues.

But then I heard his remarks (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), which you too can listen to, here, and I discovered how much worse his remarks were. The thing is, he didn’t just describe the Notre Dame chant before last year’s Hawaii Bowl game between Notre Dame and Hawaii as a faggot [yes, that’s the word] dance — eliciting laughter from some of the audience. A minute later, after talking about the game against ND, McMackin went on to ask the press to cover for him and not repeat his faggot dance comment, saying it in a sneering tone and eliciting still more laughter. Hearing the actual words makes it difficult to take his subsequent apology with any seriousness at all. (See an AP story here for coverage of his apology and the penalty the university is imposing on him.)

ESPN senior writer Jeff MacGregor had an excellent piece last week on the incident. An excerpt:

Let’s be clear before we go on that this word, “f*****,” is a slur, is a crude blunt instrument of language used to hurt, and is, in and of itself, undeniably hateful. Whether or not it’s the gender equivalent of “n*****” I can’t say. There’s no consensus on the matter. It certainly seems so. Especially insofar as its power and its ugliness and its use as a kind of rhetorical jiujitsu within the very community it is most often used to denigrate. But as Chris Rock asks, is it OK for a white person to use the word “n*****?” Not really. Is it OK, therefore, for a straight person to use the word “f******?” Not really.

Now take a breath.

Think of it this way:

If Mr. McMackin had used the word “n*****” instead of the word “f*****”, he’d have been fired before he stepped away from the podium.

So, yes, I feel bad for Greg McMackin, undone in public by his own clueless ignorance and insensitivity.

But the bone-deep homophobia of the football locker room is well known to anyone who’s ever walked into one, from Pop Warner to the pros, so none of this should come as a surprise.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. McMackin is a very nice man who meant no hurt to anyone. But Mr. McMackin is also the perfect product of his lifetime environment, a genial boob in the moral and cultural vacuum of football who can’t imagine a world in which the word “f*****” used as an adjective would ever trouble anyone.

And see also an earlier piece by MacGregor’s ESPN colleague LC Granderson on the significance of the reaction by the media in the room to McMackin’s remarks.

Categories: Culture, Language, Sports