Archive for February, 2010


February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s hardly a surprise to anyone living in these parts that Seattle has stronger affinities with Vancouver than with any major US city (except maybe Portland, but Vancouver is closer, and is on the same inland body of water). Likewise for Washington State and British Columbia. Today, thanks to the Olympics and the resulting eye on our pretty little region, the NYT has an article discussing the cross-border region that some call Cascadia.

In the article, William Yardley light-heartedly notes the factionalism caused within Cascadia by the Olympics.

The northern constituency has startled some residents by draping itself in a foreign flag, alternately swaggering and fretting about “owning the podium” on behalf of something called Canada. Meanwhile, residents in the southern reaches now need passports just to get around. And when many want to catch the Games on television, the broadcasts are tape-delayed — even though the events are being played here in the homeland.

More seriously, Yardley discusses the strain the border crossing puts on the Cascadian dream. A cross-border shuttle van driver is quoted as saying, “It’s fear. Fear of the border.”

I can’t argue. Vancouver is so close — about 140 miles from our house to downtown – but the border makes it impossible to plan a trip reliably. It can take as few as 5 minutes to cross the border or as much as an hour, and you never know. And then there’s the obstacle of traffic as one approaches downtown Vancouver. I admire them for not building a highway straight in, but the result is a nuisance. Highway 99 feeds you into the Oak Street Bridge, which crosses the arm of the Fraser River that separates Richmond to the south from Vancouver to the north, and once you pass the bridge you get to drive a few miles north on Oak, zig-zagging a few blocks over to Granville at some point in order to get to the Granville Bridge, leading to downtown. The route passes through a beautiful residential area, with traffic lights every few blocks. People turn left from the left lane, blocking traffic. Busses stop frequently in the right lane, blocking traffic. You kind of have to stick to the middle lane. It’s slow.

On the other hand, so what? We’re talking about Vancouver, the most beautifully set city in North America. What’s a little traffic and a border crossing? I should jump in the car and drive up there rather than writing about it.

Well, maybe I’ll wait a couple of days. It’s a little busy up there right now.

Categories: Economy, Travel

Vincent on Surratt

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

In case you missed it, there was a lovely piece by Fay Vincent in the WSJ last Saturday about the former Negro League baseball player Slick Surratt. Surratt died the previous Monday at the age of 87 (see the obituary in the Kansas City Star) and Vincent, one-time commissioner of baseball, writes with great affection about him and the friendship that developed between them years after his playing days.

Have a look at the article. I’ll include just one excerpt:

Once I asked why he and his teammates played so hard to win. “Well, Commissioner, there are two answers to that question—the public one and then the real one. Which do you want?” I asked for both.

“The public one is we wanted to do our best and to play the game the right way. But then the real answer, Commissioner, is the winning team got the best girls.”

Categories: Baseball

If Things Don’t Pick Up

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Jason Smith, US Olympic curler

The US men’s Olympic curling team did not do well, tying with Denmark and China for the worst record among the ten teams in the round robin (2 wins, 7 losses) and not going on to the medal round. But they’re a charming group, and the NYT had a great article about them four days ago. (See too the accompanying video.) As the article explains, two of them — John Shuster and Jason Smith — grew up together in Chisholm, Minnesota, with teammate Jeff Isaacson growing up a little out of town. Chisholm, by the way, is near Hibbing, some 75-80 miles to the northwest of Duluth. That’s pretty far out there, in extreme weather country.

The three of them spent the last year together in an apartment in Duluth (along with Shuster’s fiancée), preparing for Olympic qualification and, as it worked out, the Olympics. You can learn more about them in the article and by watching the video. I mention them only because I love the wisdom and cliché avoidance of the article’s ending.

After the Olympics, they will split up. Shuster will marry, Isaacson has already moved out, Smith will go to Florida, his current home. Musing about their time together, Smith observes, “Probably the best couple years of our lives — if things don’t pick up, I guess.”

Categories: Life, Sports

Olympics Coverage

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t seem to have written about sports in a long time. Not for lack of paying attention. I’ll make up for it tonight. Rather than watching NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, I’ll blog.

One thing I haven’t wanted to blog about is the Olympics, since I can hardly think of anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Plus, I feel silly sitting here in Seattle when they’re taking place just a little bit to the north. If I’m going to pay attention, I should be there rather than reading and blogging about it. Then again, I was away for a few days last week, and now Gail’s away. It wouldn’t have worked out.

What would I say if I did write about the Olympics? I’d start, of course, by complaining about the coverage. Let me touch on the few essential points that come to mind.

1. Yes, NBC’s coverage is inane. But it’s always inane. Why would this time be different? One reason might be that with each passing Olympics, availability of information increases, so their penchant for tape delaying and dramatizing gets sillier and sillier. The real problem for us, though, is that our usual antidote to NBC is gone. When we got sick of it, we would just switch to CBC. We’d get to see the major events live. We’d get a little less drama, though they did follow the NBCs script (or, really, Roone Arledge’s ABC script from long ago, to give credit where it’s due) of up close and personal background stories. Alas, the CBC did not win the contract for Canadian television coverage for this Olympics. Cable network TSN did, and they’re not available as part of our cable package. We are reduced to watching on NBC or not watching at all.

2. Given that we’re stuck with tape delay, what I find most annoying is how little of the major events NBC shows. Even if I know the results ahead of time, I might still like to see an event unfold in some semblance of real time. Package it as you wish, give us little bios and mini-dramas, but at least let us see the action. Especially for alpine skiing! Especially for the downhill!! How hard can that be? How about a little respect — for us and for the sport itself? What could be simpler than showing us every run of the first 30 or so downhillers, men and women? I know, it would take too much time. So show it later on another NBC-owned channel, after the NBC package treatment, and let me record it.

3. Second in my list of annoyances is the tape delay of the tape delay. We west-coasters are disrespected twice over. The east coast sees NBC’s package starting at 8:00 PM, but we have to wait until 8:00 PM arrives in our time zone, which just happens to be the time zone that the Olympics are happening in. Some events take place in prime time in the east, so eastern and central viewers get to see them live. Imagine that. Not us though. We wait 3 hours, ensuring that we will see no action on NBC live. The figure skating is an example. It happens to be an example I’m not overly interested in, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it. The east coast is treated to skating as it happens. We wait three hours. Which is one reason I’m blogging now rather than watching the final six women in their silly costumes do their long programs. (I am, as it turns out, following the NYT live blog of the event. We seem to be down to Canadian Joannie Rochette and the genuine drama of how she’ll do in the wake of her mother’s death a few days ago.)

4. A variant of my last complaint: it’s bad enough that NBC is so east-coast-centric. But why must so many sports and media writers be as well? Whenever they write about NBC’s coverage and mention tape delay, they rarely point out the plight of the west coasters. Do they not realize that we see nothing live? Do they not care?

On the positive side, I love the NYT historical graphic in which one can follow the Winter Olympics from 1924 onwards, seeing how each country did in its medal count. Hit the play button. Or, better yet, use your mouse to click on the time bar, then use the left and right arrow keys to move through the years at your own pace. I fell in love with this feature two summers ago during the Beijing Olympics. (Hey, where did eighteen months go? Surely it was just the other day that I was studying Summer Olympics history.)

And speaking of history, at the top is my favorite Winter Olympics memory. Franz Klammer, the greatest skier of his time, skiing in his home country in the premier event of the Olympics, with enormous pressure, and winning. I went out to dinner that night on the way home from school. There was a department colloquium dinner that night, at the Chinese restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge that we often used for group math dinners. A modest place, but just a 15-minute walk from MIT, and especially convenient for me since my apartment was another 5 minutes down the road. After dinner, I headed home, turned on the TV, and watched the downhill coverage. Perhaps it’s an illusion, but I picture myself watching all the runs, just the way I wish I could now. Tape-delayed of course, but great nonetheless.

Categories: Sports, Television

Café Pacific

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Highland Park Village: The theater

I was back in Dallas last week. (Hence the lack of posts for over a week. See here, here, and here for posts on last month’s Dallas visit.) I flew in Wednesday afternoon and had dinner that night at a lovely restaurant, Café Pacific, located in Highland Park Village, a historic upscale mall a few miles north of downtown.

I would happily eat there again, if the opportunity were to arise, as there was much on the menu that I wanted to try. I started simply, with the soup of the day, a cream of asparagus, which was excellent, but I was tempted by the crab cakes on fresh greens, offered with a choice of remolaude [sic] or cocktail sauce. For my entree, I had the sole almondine, described as “Almond Crusted Atlantic Sole served with Red Bliss Potatoes, Seasonal Vegetables & Lemon Butter Sauce.” I would have liked to try as well the “Three Onion Crusted Sea Bass with Sweet Corn Risotto and Ancho Cream Sauce.” Or how about “Roasted Corn Snapper On Jasmine Rice with Avocado, Cherry Tomatoes and a Light Corn Sauce”? The sole, by the way, was superb.

I wasn’t too hungry after that, so I passed up some of the more enticing dessert options, such as the crème brulée and the pecan ball vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted pecans with fudge sauce, in favor of the simpler “Fresh Seasonal Fruit Served in a Crisp Almond Cookie Cup With Raspberry and Caramel.” Nope. Interesting idea, good presentation, but the fruit turned out to be berries, which didn’t have much flavor. I surely would have been happier with the crème brulée. (The restaurant struggles with French on the menu. The accent grave over the ‘e’ in crème was there, but not the accent aigu over the first ‘e’ in brulée.)

When I say that Highland Park Village, the mall in which Café Pacific is ensconsed, is upscale, I should make clear that I mean real upscale. During dinner at Café Pacific, whenever I looked out the window, the handbags in a display window would catch my eye. At some point, I realized they must be the work of Hermès, and sure enough, when we left, I confirmed that the adjacent store was an Hèrmes, and next to it was Harry Winston. Back in Seattle I learned more about the mall, and the community of Highland Park, at the Highland Park Village website. The town of Highland Park was developed by John Armstrong and his two sons-in-law, Hugh Prather and Edgar Flippen, in 1907, following the purchase in 1906 of land along an old cattle trail. Flippen and Prather used some of the land to establish the Dallas Country Club, the oldest country club in Texas, in 1912. Years later, Prather and Flippen decided to build a shopping center and traveled to Barcelona and Seville to study the architecture for inspiration. They hired architects Marion Fresenius Fooshee and James B. Cheek to design the center, which opened in 1931. The family sold the mall in 1966 and it began a long decline. As the site explains, “little attention was given to proper tenant mix, landscaping deteriorated, overhead wires began to criss-cross the property, inappropriate signage appeared, and tenants were permitted to make facade alterations that were not in keeping with the classical architecture of the Village. Spanish arches were covered up and newer materials that did not blend with the basic stone and stucco began to appear.” A new buyer, the son of an associate of Prather and Flippen, took over in 1976, and the mall began to be restored. In 2000, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

I mention all this because the mall really is unusually attractive, well worth visiting for its architecture and layout if you’re in the neighborhood. And you can stop by Café Pacific during the visit for a fine meal.

In Control Here

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment

[D. Gorton/The New York Times]

When I read on Saturday that Al Haig had died, I immediately thought of his famous line, uttered in the aftermath of the assassination attempt in 1981 on Ronald Reagan, that he was in control. The fact that as secretary of state he was fourth in line to succeed Reagan as president didn’t seem to get in the way of his assertion of power. I can’t think of Haig without thinking of that moment.

It turns out I’m not alone. Every obituary or remembrance that I saw led with this low point in his career. I especially enjoyed Tim Weiner’s clever lead-in to the incident in his NYT obituary. In case you missed it, here are the opening three paragraphs:

Alexander M. Haig Jr., the four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and a commanding White House chief of staff as the Nixon administration crumbled, died Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, according to a hospital spokesman. He was 85.

Mr. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan’s aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that “the third paragraph of his obit” would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.

That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. “The helm is right here,” he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” His words were taped by Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser.

As you see, Wiener had the good sense to fulfill Nofziger’s prophecy. The obituary continues:

His colleagues knew better. “There were three others ahead of Mr. Haig in the constitutional succession,” Mr. Allen wrote in 2001. “But Mr. Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”

Mr. Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” He raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions. His knuckles whitening, his arms shaking, Mr. Haig declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance.

Categories: History, Newspapers, Obituary

Book/Kindle Update, 3

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

On New Year’s Day, I wrote a post about a book I had just finished reading, William Langewiesche’s Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson. I also took the opportunity to discuss, again, my experience with the Kindle, as well as mentioning yet again the two books I had been eager to read for months, which I anticipated reading next, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, The Bankers Who Broke the World and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

In the following days, I began to read Lords of Finance, describing a few days later how I was alternating between reading the physical version and the Kindle version, depending on whether I was sitting up during the day or lying in bed at night, and wishing there were a way for the Kindle to know where I was in the physical book so it could jump ahead as needed.

Five weeks later, I regret to report that my reading of Lords of Finance stalled. Not because of lack of interest. I was thoroughly enjoying the book, and learning a lot about pre-depression economic issues in Europe and the US. Read more…

Categories: Books, Technology

Where Law Ends, Tyranny Begins

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my post last week on my visit two weeks ago to the National Gallery of Art, I mentioned in passing my walk on that extremely cold Washington, D.C. afternoon from our hotel down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gallery, noting that I passed the Justice Department headquarters along the way. The building was completed in 1935 and re-named after Robert Kennedy in 2001. It is imposing, like many of its neighbors, and handsome in a way. But the feature that caught my eye that afternoon was the famous saying etched onto the facade that gives this post its title.

(Who said it? William Pitt the Elder, twice British prime minister in the 1750s and 1760s. Or so it seems. But a century earlier, John Locke wrote in The Second Treatise of Civil Government that “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” I’ll leave it to others to sort out priorities here.)

Hmm, I wondered, what did John Ashcroft think when he read those words every day? Or Alberto Gonzales? Or for that matter, not to pick on Bush’s appointees only, what does Eric Holder think?

Two days after my stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue, the question of what Mr. Holder thinks was brought into sharper focus for me through a blog post Glenn Greenwald wrote on the Obama administration’s handling of civil liberties.
Read more…

Categories: Law, Politics

Odd Apology

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Two and a half weeks ago, when we flew on Alaska Airlines from here to Washington, D.C., I came across a sentence on our airplane breakfast menu that struck me as peculiar, so much so that I talked Gail’s ear off about it for 5 minutes and then made a note of it. I stumbled upon the note last night. Rather than let the sentence go to waste, I’ll share it with y’all.

Mind you, this isn’t really a big deal. Probably not worthy of a post. The sentence is grammatically correct. Its only problem is that it doesn’t really say what the writer, or the airline, intended for it to say. Not that there’s any difficulty unwinding their point.

I know. I need to present the sentence already. One more bit of background. There were two breakfast options, some all-in-one egg-meat-bread concoction and a more traditional omelette with sausage. The sentence followed the listing. Here it is:

We apologize if occasionally your choice is not available.

This doesn’t bug me so much now. It did then. The thing is, are they apologizing to all of us for the fact that sometimes some few of us won’t get what we want? That’s what they’re saying. Presumably, their intent is to apologize to the occasional poor schnook who doesn’t get his or her choice. I don’t see any elegant way to fix this in one sentence. Maybe you do. I would use two, stating the sad truth in the first one that sometimes the mix of breakfasts loaded on the plane does not match up well with the mix of passenger preferences and in the second one that if that happens on this flight and you’re one of the unfortunate few who doesn’t get what you want, we apologize.

It turns out that I was the designated schnook on this flight. When the flight attendant got to Gail and me, we were the last two. She offered Gail both options. Gail took the all-in-one. She then told me she highly recommended the omelette. I graciously accepted.

Categories: Language, Travel, Writing

Out on a Limb

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Today’s NYT has an interesting piece by Patricia Cohen about what John Lowe, an English professor at LSU, is quoted as calling “one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades.” It’s a mid-nineteenth-century diary of a Mississippi plantation owner whose great-grandson would be a childhood friend of William Faulkner, and as the article explains, it may be the document on which Faulkner modeled a ledger that plays a key role in his 1942 work Go Down, Moses.

Go Down, Moses, as it turns out, happens to be the first of Faulkner’s books that I read. I wasn’t exactly a mature enough reader or human being to be reading it at the time, but my camp counselor recommended it. The counselor, an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time, recognized me as a serious reader, told me about Faulkner, and lent me his copy of Go Down, Moses. If you’ve read the book, you may have some idea that it’s not the most accessible work for a twelve-year-old, or possibly even for an adult. I don’t think I made much sense of it. Yet, I was determined to read more, and a few years later, when I was 15, I returned to him. In my then-compulsive way, I read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Rievers. Probably another one. I still wasn’t mature enough, as reader or human, but that didn’t seem to deter me.

One thing I understood, even if I didn’t understand Faulkner, was that I was in the presence of a great writer. Which brings me to the point of this post. I was stunned myself when I read in the third paragraph of today’s NYT article that, “Specialists have been stunned and intrigued not only by this peephole into Faulkner’s working process, but also by material that may have inspired this Nobel-prize-winning author, considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.”

I know journalists are expected not to give their own opinions when reporting a straight news story, but really, isn’t Ms Cohen exercising a little too much restraint when she summarizes Faulkner’s stature by saying he is “considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century”? Can’t we all simply agree that he is one of the greatest? That doesn’t mean we have to like him. He just is.

Willie Mays? One of the greatest baseball players of the twentieth century. Paul Dirac? One of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. We needn’t qualify these judgments. They just are. Likewise with Faulkner.

(By the way, I didn’t choose Mays and Dirac by chance. They are both on my mind, thanks to recent biographies. James S. Hirsch’s Mays biography has been reviewed in many places recently, including yesterday’s NYT. Freeman Dyson’s thought-provoking review of the Dirac biography by Graham Farmelo is in the current New York Review of Books, but unfortunately not freely available.)

Categories: Books, Journalism