Archive for September, 2009


September 26, 2009 Leave a comment


In looking ahead, online, at tomorrow’s NYT Sunday Book Review, I came upon Jim Holt’s review of the graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. I read the review, looked at some sample pages available from the review’s webpage, went to the book’s website, realized that there will be a book reading here in Seattle in two weeks, and ordered it. I have a bit of a book backlog, as usual, but I knew I would want to read this eventually, so why not just get it?

As best I can tell, the book tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s decades-long failed effort to find a logical foundation for mathematics. Along the way, other famous logicians and mathematicians appear, including Gottlieb Frege, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, Russell’s co-author Alfred North Whitehead, and, of course, Kurt Gödel, the greatest of all logicians, hero to us all. Plus, various world events intervene. How could I resist?

Perhaps I’ll have more to say after I read it, or after I attend the book reading. If you’re skeptical that such a book might be interesting, I suggest that you read the NYT review and visit the book’s website. See too, among many choices, Rebecca Goldstein’s recent book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.

Categories: Biography, Books, History, Logic, Math

Football Overload

September 25, 2009 Leave a comment
Adam Dunn:  heading for 40?

Adam Dunn: heading for 40?

Football just isn’t my sport. I eventually come around. Like in December. But in September I’d rather do without. Hey, it’s still baseball season! Give me a break already! I mean, do I really care that South Carolina upset Ole Miss yesterday?* Must this be the lead sports story at the SI website this morning? And must the secondary stories be previews of tomorrow’s college games and Sunday’s NFL games? Must we really be wondering if Tom Brady is already over the hill? Okay, I don’t mind reading a few articles glorifying Adrian Peterson. Why not? He’s amazing. But otherwise, let’s give baseball its proper place at the top.

I realize there’s a bit of a problem. This year’s pennant races are all but over. Now that the Rockies have pulled away from the Giants, Braves, and Marlins with time running out, they have all but sewn up the last National League playoff spot. The three divisions will be won by the Phillies, Cards, and Dodgers, all of which have almost identical records. The Rockies will get the fourth spot. Over in the junior circuit, with the Rangers fading, the Red Sox have the wild card playoff spot to themselves. The Yankees and Angels will win their divisions. The only question is whether the resurgent Twins can catch the Tigers for the Central Division title and a playoff spot. Whichever team survives will have the worst regular season record among playoff teams, but that doesn’t mean anything once the playoffs start.

Okay, so maybe there’s not a lot of excitement. But still, respect must be paid. There’s still so much more to watch. Will Pujols hit 50 home runs? Will Adam Dunn hit two more home runs — no more, no less — giving him his sixth successive season of 40 home runs exactly? With 208 strikeouts already, just where will Mark Reynolds stop in this record season? What will Griffey’s final numbers be, if he retires after this season? And let’s hear more about Joe Mauer, who is having one of the greatest hitting seasons a catcher has ever had. Why isn’t this catching the imagination of the nation? Not to mention Zack Greinke’s pitching year for the ages. Also, just how many hits will Ichiro end up with in this ninth consecutive season of over 200?

I find all of this vastly more interesting than debates about the greatness of Mark Sanchez, or features on Jerry Jones and his gigantic new stadium. (I’ll admit, it’s kind of fun to see a review of the stadium by Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT architecture critic.)

So let’s hold off on all this football coverage for a while. Okay? One thing though. The morons who run baseball have arranged for the World Series to start this year on October 28. The fourth game will be on November 1. The fifth, sixth, and seventh games, if needed, will be on November 2, 4, and 5. This is insane. There shouldn’t be baseball in November. I won’t object if all coverage of baseball ceases on October 31 and attention shifts to football.

*By the way, what’s up with Ole Miss anyway? Can’t we just call them MIssissippi, or Miss for short? Whenever I see Ole Miss, I think of slavery, or James Meredith walking to class under the protection of federal marshalls. I must be missing something.

Categories: Baseball, Sports

The Complaints

September 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The Complaints HB CS1 rev.indd

I finished Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, The Complaints, last night. Rankin, the best-selling crime novelist in the UK, centered his work for twenty years on an Edinburgh detective named John Rebus. The fictional Rebus reached retirement age two years ago, and so Rankin wrote Exit Music, the final Rebus novel, revolving around Rebus’s approaching retirement. The Complaints, Rebus’s second post-rebus novel, is also about an Edinburgh detective, Malcolm Fox. Read more…

Categories: Books, Travel

Same As It Ever Was

September 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Last night, I wrote about Gary Wills’ piece in the current NY Review of Books describing the US’s permanent national security state and the challenges any president — Obama in particular — has in changing it. This morning Glenn Greenwald addressed a particular one of these challenges, changing US policy on preventive detention. His comments are in response to an article by Peter Baker in today’s NYT reporting that the “Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday. Instead, the administration will continue to hold the detainees without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the president to use force against forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.”

After discussing the specific issues, Greenwald observes that

when it comes to uprooting (“changing”) the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties — the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else — the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do. They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers. With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites — at a time when none was operating. They trumpeted the President’s order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used — at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn. They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo “inherent power” theories — while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is. They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo — while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram. Their “changes” exist solely in theory — which isn’t to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice: i.e., in reality.

Greenwald brings up Wills’ article later, noting that “Wills makes the point I’ve been emphasizing for some time: as long as we remain a nation in a permanent state of war, devoted to imperial ends, maintaining our National Security State ensures that the core assaults on civil liberties will never end; at best, we can tinker with them on the margins with the types of pretty words that the Obama administration adores, but it will persist and grow on its own accord.”

Pretty bleak. But seemingly true.

Categories: Government, Politics

Video Calls

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment


Albert Brooks’ Mother is high on the list of our favorite movies. After watching it years ago, we immediately added one of its phrases to our vocabulary: protective ice. This is the phrase that the Debbie Reynolds character — the mother — uses to describe the crystallized layer of ice on top of the ice cream in an old container that her son — the Albert Brooks character — takes out of her freezer. We remember with equal fondness her failed efforts to use a new video phone. Her performance would convince anyone that however the technology evolves, we won’t be making video calls in the future.

Then came Skype. And iChat. And a variety of other programs to make free video calls via computer — free, that is, once one has a computer and high-speed internet access. Who doesn’t make video calls now?

Well, we didn’t. Our two most likely skype partners, my sister (in Paris) and Joel (in Boston), weren’t too keen to do it. Gail skypes from time to time with our friend Carol in Edinburgh. But my sister and I still use the phone, or email, and Joel prefers regular phone calls or texting. He may figure that the less we see of him, the better.

But that has suddenly changed, now that Joel is in Grenoble. Given the cost of international calls on his iPhone, even after we added the international calling option with AT&T, it just makes more sense to use the internet. As a result, we have had two video conversations with him in the last ten days, using both Skype and Apple’s video iChat.

No big deal, I know. But what interested me in thinking about our chat yesterday was a completely natural occurrence that almost surely wouldn’t have happened in an audio-only call. Joel is living with a host family. Unlike in the standard host model, his family consists of just a single individual, a young man with a two-bedroom home. What happened during yesterday’s chat was that as we talked with Joel, the host’s girlfriend came in, and Joel asked her if she wanted to say hello. She walked closer to his computer and there we were, on screen, saying hi to her. She speaks French, of course. I said a few words in poor French that she may or may not have understood. Then they called her boyfriend (Joel’s host) in, and we met him too. We didn’t say much. They said goodbye after a few moments and left us with Joel.

Can you imagine how weird this would have been if we were on the phone with Joel? Had his host or the girlfriend come in, he wouldn’t have suggested that we say hello. The difference, no doubt, is that people are accustomed to casual hellos and goodbyes in person, with visual cues allowing introductions to be made while minimizing the need for any substantive verbal conversation. That’s how it felt yesterday. Just a normal introduction to new people. On the phone, in contrast, we would have had to rely on words alone, and even without the language barrier, that would have been awkward.

We look forward to seeing our new acquaintances in person next month, when we visit Joel in Grenoble.

Subway Yearbook

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment

In June I had a couple of posts (here and here) about the inspired work of Improv Everywhere. They hadn’t posted any new missions since then, until yesterday. The latest mission may lack the conceptual brilliance of the surprise wedding reception or the JFK welcome, but it more than compensates with its heartwarming results. You can watch the video above. (Go ahead. Stop reading and click the play button.) But then, after watching it, read more about the mission at Improv Everywhere’s website. The still photos of the mission are a good complement to the video. But best of all is the subway yearbook shot. I could say more, but just see for yourself.

There are many wonderful reasons to live in New York. (And, yes, some reasons not to.) But one reason to live there is to have the opportunity to participate, wittingly or not, in Improv Everywhere’s missions.

Categories: Arts, Culture, Transportation, Video

Change: Difficult, but Needed

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment
Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia

The current New York Review of Books has a short piece by Gary Wills describing the difficulties Obama (or any president) has in introducing policies that would move the US away from its permanent national security state. There may not be much that is original, but the article is still valuable in laying out the issues so succinctly and clearly. The opening is below. The article is short; read it all. (See also Jonathan Freedland’s review of David Vine’s Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, to both of which Wills refers.)

George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease—torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of laws by signing statements. Powers attributed to the president by the theory of the unitary executive should not be exercised. Judges who are willing to give the president any power he asks for should not be confirmed.

But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

Categories: Government, History, Politics