Archive for February, 2010

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


February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This morning, I read Sam Sifton’s review in yesterday’s NYT of the Manhattan restaurant Novitá. Boy was I tempted to head to the airport, get on a plane, and dine there tonight. I’ll have to wait a little longer, but I’ll be thinking about it.

Sifton describes Novitá in the opening sentences as “a perfect neighborhood trattoria” with “excellent pasta.” That sounds good already, but only abstractly. Then come the details. For instance:

A plate of gramigna alla carbonara, for instance, thin strands of curled pasta with eggs, pecorino romano, guanciale and black pepper, arrives on the table as a riot of simplicity, a four-member noise band. It is outstanding, firm and pliant, salty and sweet, slick and sticky and rich.


You might try a bright and floral pesto over the long cavatelli pasta known as strozzapreti, or priest chokers, studded with pine nuts and salted with Parmesan. Or a plain penne with roasted tomatoes, basil and mozzarella that tastes of triangular perfection, summer on a midwinter plate. Black spaghettini with mixed seafood and a spicy tomato sauce is worth a mini-fad in itself, with pasta that is toothsome and a sauce made rich with lobster.

Three more: little ears of orecchiette with spicy sausage and broccoli rabe in tomato sauce; papparadelle with lamb ragù and earthy porcini mushrooms; rigatoni with seared tuna, black olives, tomatoes and oregano. These are like postcards from an Italy of the mind, color swatches to recolor your world.

If there’s room after the pasta, I could move on to

a splendid veal Milanese with rucola and tomates, crisp and juicy, the sort of dish you could eat once a week, and a rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach and prosciutto that revives confidence in both chicken breasts and stuffing them.

Maybe I’ll take JetBlue’s redeye tonight.

Categories: Restaurants

DC Dining: Alsace x 2

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve already written a bit about our time in Washington, D.C., from which we returned last weekend. (See, for instance, here and here.) Let me bring this series to a close with a few comments on the restaurants where we ate on Thursday and Friday nights.
Read more…

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

From Duccio to Vermeer

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Duccio, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, 1308/1311

On Wednesday last week, Gail and I took the train down to Washington from New York. I discussed our first DC evening in my last post, where I also explained that I was there on business Thursday and Friday at the National Science Foundation, so I wasn’t anticipating getting to do very much in DC. However, some good fortune came my way when we managed to make good progress on our work Thursday. We thought we might be done by mid morning Friday, or noon at the latest. As it turned out, we didn’t finish until 12:45 Friday afternoon, after which I had lunch with my old friend Zongzhu, who is on leave at NSF. I already knew the one place I planned to go if I had free time — the National Gallery of Art — and I knew they were open until 5:00, so I figured I could both see Zongzhu and get over there. Gail was spending the afternoon with her cousin’s daughter Liz (yes, I know, that makes Liz a cousin too), who is in law school at Georgetown. I could eat with Zongzhu, get on the Metro orange line at the Ballston stop in Arlington, get off at Metro Center, walk the two blocks back to the Willard, drop my briefcase, and then walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gallery.

That was my plan anyway, and it’s pretty much what I did. I wanted to be at the hotel by 2:30 and the gallery by 3:00. The only thing that went wrong is that as I stood at the hotel elevators on the 9th floor, waiting to go down and walk to the gallery, I heard two women talking on a rising elevator, and when its doors opened, off walked Gail and Liz. I could have just passed them without a word and descended, but instead I headed back to the hotel room with them and we caught up on what we were doing. They had walked for hours, gone up and down the Washington Monument, and were taking a break prior to going back out for a late lunch and a visit to Liz’s apartment. I knew Gail would ordinarily have wished to go to the gallery too, especially considering that we hadn’t been there since 1988, but she was there to spend time with Liz, so we split up again and I headed out.

It was, by the way, pretty cold. Mid 20s or so. I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing assorted important buildings along the way, such as the Justice Department headquarters and the National Archives. If I had more time, I would have gone into the Archives to make sure the constitution was still there, but art beckoned. I knew exactly what I wanted to do — start with the oldest paintings of the permanent collection, Italian art of the 13th century, take my time, and get as far as I could. I arrived at the north entrance on the lower level around 3:15, checked my coat (despite the cold, I had bundled up too much, and was way too hot when I arrived), grabbed a map of the galleries, and headed up to the first floor.

I had just enough time, as it turned out, to start in room 1 and finish in rooms 50ABC. As you can see, this means I started with 13th century Italian art; went through later Italian, Spanish, and French art; then Netherlandish and German; and finally 17th century Dutch and Flemish. In other words, Duccio to Vermeer. I was disappointed not to get to the British or American, but I didn’t want to rush, and I saw so many treasures as it was. Plus, I wanted to continue our post-Italy theme of revisiting museums (The Louvre, The Met, now The National Gallery) with a focus on their Italian art, in order to complement and add to all that we saw and learned in Italy in November. I must say, it was a thrill to have so many rooms virtually to myself, with at most one or two others sharing some of the rooms at any given time. Often, I was by myself.

It all starts with a bang, in gallery 1, with two Duccios and a Giotto. I included a picture of the Giotto in an earlier post. The Duccio pictured at the top of this post, as described at the gallery website, “was one of the rear panels of Duccio’s magnificent Maestà in Siena cathedral. With more than fifty individual scenes, the altarpiece was about fourteen feet wide and towered to gabled pinnacles some seventeen feet over the main altar. It was installed in June 1311 after a triumphant procession through the streets of Siena. Priests, city officials, and citizens were followed by women and children ringing bells for joy. Shops were closed all day and alms were given to the poor. Completed in less than three years, the Maestà was a huge undertaking for which Duccio received 3,000 gold florins—more than any artist had ever commanded. Nevertheless, Duccio, like all artists of his time, was regarded as a craftsman and was often called on to paint ceiling coffers, parade shields, and the like. Not until the middle and later fourteenth century did the status of artists rise.”

My visit ended with a bang too, thanks to the three Vermeers in gallery 50A. Not surprisingly, given Vermeer’s immense popularity, this tiny gallery was the most crowded of the ones I visited. I had to wait for people to move on, but ultimately I had the room to myself.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

I never get to have enough time in the National Gallery. I suppose I need to spend a week in DC some time, so I can go to the gallery a little bit every morning and have the afternoons free to go to other museums. Some day. Or rather, some week.

Categories: Art, Travel

The View out our Window

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

[Photo from Washington Monument website

After our short visit to New York last week, parts of which I wrote about here and here, we took Amtrak’s Acela down to Washington on Wednesday afternoon (nine days ago), arriving around 5:00 PM. We haven’t been to Washington all that many times. Our last family visit was in August 1996, as part of our train trip across the country, when we made stops in Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, then flying home after a visit to my family. Our time in DC on that trip was limited, as we had to get up to Baltimore to see the Orioles at Camden Yards and the Cézanne exhibit at the Philadephia Museum of Art.

This time, I had business on Thursday and Friday at the National Science Foundation, so I wasn’t expecting to see much of anything. Gail, in contrast, would be free to see some sights. Thus, I had to enjoy what limited sense of place I could get. It was thus a piece of good fortune that when we checked into our hotel, we were brought up to a room facing directly out on the Washington Monument. That would give me plenty sense of place. The Willard is where we stay when we’re in DC. We stumbled on it in 1988, near the end of my sabbatical year in Princeton, when we were planning a three-day trip down to DC. Established in 1816, it has had a rich history, but it closed in 1968. As part of the re-development of Pennsylvania Avenue, it was renovated, with the addition of an office building, and re-opened in 1986. We happily stayed there two years later, and again in 1996. We didn’t have to think too hard to decide to stay there again.

The Willard sits right where Pennsylvania Avenue, as it runs northwest from the Capitol to the White House, converges with and switches places with E Street, at their intersection with 14th. Another block west, on the far side of 15th Street, is the Treasury Building, and just west of that is the White House. The front of the building faces south-southwest, looking right out at the Washington Monument, maybe a quarter mile away. Most of the building runs to the north, towards F Street, with just a narrow facade facing south, and that’s the facade that our room was on, nine floors up. As a result, we could look straight at the monument, and the Potomac and Arlington beyond. To the right was a good view of the Lincoln Memorial. We could catch the barest of glimpses of the Treasury Building way to the right, with the White House hidden beyond, and the view of the Capitol straight to the left hidden as well.

I had work to do the night we arrived, so I suggested we take a walk around the neighborhood first before settling in for room service dinner and my work. We headed out the back door onto F Street, west to the Treasury, north and west around the Treasury, and over to the north side of the White House, from which Gail took the photo below. (The time on the photo, of course, is PST, not EST.) I haven’t mentioned yet that this was the evening of the State of the Union Address, leading us to imagine President Obama inside making his final preparations.

Between our hotel on 14th and Treasury on the far side of 15th is the W Hotel between 14th and 15th. On our way back, we stopped in there, entering on the west side from 15th, so we could be sure we knew where J&G Steakhouse was, as we were to eat dinner there the next night with my old friend Sim and his wife Martha. (More on that in a separate post.) Then, back to our hotel room, where we ordered dinner, I got to work, and while eating, we enjoyed our wonderful view of the Washington Monument.

Around 8:24 PM, just after we finished eating, things got a bit wild out there. Sirens and sirens and more sirens. Gail looked out, called me over, and I saw motorcycles, police cars, vans, limos, vans, police cars, motorcycles, maybe 25 or 30 vehicles in all. It took just a moment to realize that this was the presidential motorcade, making its way from the White House to the Capitol for the State of the Union address. I realize residents get used to this sort of thing, but we couldn’t help being excited by the spectacle, and the realization that the address wasn’t just some distant event we would watch on TV. Rather, it was all but taking place in front of our eyes. Of course, it seems a little crazy that traffic has to stop every time the president wants to wander over to the Capitol to have a chat. One might wish for a simpler time, when the president could simply stroll over, ride a horse, take a bike, take the Metro. Still, it was fun to see. Shortly thereafter, Gail watched the SOTU address while I did my homework for NSF. And then we got to watch the motorcade return.

Now we’re spoiled. Next time we will need to insist on a room in the front.

Categories: Travel