Archive for April, 2010

Tweeting my Posts

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

It worked! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s supposed to work. I noted moments ago in my last post that just before writing it, I had “tried to link my twitter and wordpress accounts so that each time I publish a post, an accompanying tweet will appear.” I wasn’t confident that it would work. I had spent ten minutes looking for such an option within my wordpress settings, then found a couple of third-party plug-ins that were designed to link the two accounts. I downloaded one, but couldn’t figure out how to install it. I signed up for the other, but couldn’t get it to work either. And then I found a simple box to check in my second search through wordpress settings that purported to send my posts to twitter. I checked it, was taken to a twitter page to give the wordpress application permission, and that was that. The thing is, how did twitter know who I was? When wordpress sent me over there, twitter didn’t ask me to identify myself. It just asked for my permission to tweet URL’s for my blog posts. That was the principal source of my skepticism.

Rather than think too deeply about this puzzle, I decided I should simply test the link. If it works, who cares why? I wrote a post, published it, and checked my twitter page. There it was, a new tweet — Nocera Returns: — consisting of the title of my post and an abbreviated URL for the post.

WordPress also provides the option, with another settings click, of having my posts appear as facebook updates. A number of my FB friends, whose blogs I already subscribe to, do that. But I’m not ready. I’ve been a passive facebook user, posting a status update only once, two Septembers ago, and deciding I had gone too far. I’m not ready to change just yet.

Categories: Technology

Nocera Returns

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The NYT business columnist Joe Nocera has been on a book-writing leave since last Halloween, when he wrote a piece about four topics he wished he could explore at greater length. I must have missed the piece — it would have appeared on the day that we traveled all day by train from Grenoble to Venice, changing in Chambéry and Turin — but I knew of the leave because he announced it as well on his blog.

I set up a twitter account fifteen months ago, sent three tweets out (despite having no followers), and promptly forgot about it until a few days ago, when I decided I should follow someone other than just Glenn Greenwald, whose tweets I hadn’t actually been reading. I added a couple of people to my follower list, then forgot about it again until this morning, when I decided to be more systematic about finding people to follow. Among the candidates, I thought of that NYT business columnist who disappeared last fall. What’s his name? Five minutes later, I picked up today’s NYT. Out of lingering Saturday habit, I looked at the front of the business section for his column, and there he was! Joe Nocera That was a surprise. He is indeed back, with a column on synthetic C.D.O.’s and the SEC’s charge yesterday that Goldman Sachs was involved in securities fraud.

I’m glad Nocera has returned to active duty. As for twitter, perhaps more on that later. I tweeted a few minutes ago for the first time since the day I signed up for my account. Just before writing this post, I tried to link my twitter and wordpress accounts so that each time I publish a post, an accompanying tweet will appear. Let’s see if it works.

Categories: Business, Journalism


April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Emma, one year ago

Earlier this week I mentioned the article in the current New York Review on Grigory Perelman, but failed to point out the issue’s two items of feline fun, having not yet stumbled (pounced?) on them. Let me fill in the gap. I’ll take the opportunity as well to add a few words about our resident feline.

Tim Flannery reviews four books on animal behavior. All four sound superb, but of particular interest for us here is Flannery’s discussion of Temple Grandin’s latest book (with Catherine Johnson), Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Commenting on the cat chapter, Flannery writes:

Cats are a big part of my life, so I read Grandin’s chapter on felines with unusual concentration. I was a little dismayed, therefore, to discover that “animal behaviorists and ethologists don’t know as much about cats and their emotions as we do about other domestic animals.” I thought I knew my cats pretty well, but Grandin surprised me by having much of great interest to say about these superbly sensual, mysterious creatures. One bare fact that had hitherto escaped me is that there are two basic cat personalities—bold and shy—which are associated with coat color. Black cats, it turns out, are usually laid-back, while tortoiseshells are the typical “scaredy cats.” I live with a black and a tortoiseshell cat (known respectively as the Captain and Bernadette), who could be models for this: the Captain is as solid as a rock, his aura of calm spreading far and wide, while Bernadette has been known to take fright at her own tail. Both, incidentally, had identical upbringings from kittenhood.

This hit home. Our own tortoiseshell, Emma, turns 14 next week. Her sister and fellow tortie, Goldie, who disappeared a few years ago, was the classic scaredy cat. However much she accepted us, however willing she might be to sit on our laps or flop for petting, if she were walking down the hall and saw or heard us coming, she’d run the other way. If company were around, she made herself invisible. But in her final years, her desire for chicken, beef, and fish overcame her fear. She would be drawn to the dining table, however many strangers were there, stopping at each chair to see if food were forthcoming.

Emma, though never as skittish, wouldn’t dream of coming to the dining table if strangers were about. She trusted no one, at least until a year ago, when she found an unexpectedly new level of calm. In response to our months-long remodel, she came to accept the constant comings and goings of assorted craftsmen, even allowing Bert, our carpenter/project-manager/friend, to pet her. However, since Joel’s return home in December, simultaneous with the end of the remodel, she has regressed. Initially, she didn’t quite trust that he was back for real. But by the end of January, after Gail and I came home from our third trip of the month, she had re-attached herself to him, like a barnacle to a ship. No longer does she come downstairs to the main floor in the morning to go outside when I get up. She’ll stay on Joel’s bed until he wakes up, and if he wakes up late enough, she might just stay on the bed for the day. The disturbing aspect of all this is that in treating Joel as a quasi-sibling, she has become a scaredy tortie cat.

The latest twist is that Joel took off two nights ago on a road trip — riding shotgun for his friend Michael on his drive back to Boston — and suddenly I’m back in Emma’s life. She woke me up this morning as the birds started tweeting. I ignored her, but an hour later I got up to let her out, and an hour after that she insisted on licking me for five minutes. I haven’t merited such treatment in months. Not that I missed it.

Enough about Emma. The current New York Review has another piece entirely about cats, Pounce, an essay by the late English writer Rebecca West that will appear next month in The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose. Unfortunately, the full article is not available to non-subscribers, but if you love cats, be sure to find it. Pounce came to live with West as a kitten during World War II. Here’s an excerpt:

Then suddenly a disquieting fact was brought to my notice. We lived on the top floor of the apartment house, and outside our windows a cornice ran round the four sides of the building. This Pounce used as a playground, to take the air and exercise his sense of power by ordering the pigeons he found there to take off into the empyrean, and we used to watch him complacently. But it now appeared that he had been using the cornice for other and odious purposes. He had been visiting a neighbor of ours. Not all our neighbors, only one. He had walked past the window of hosts who would have been glad to entertain him, who cried “Pussy, pussy,” as he went by, imagining him to be innocent and playful like themselves, and he went round two sides of the building to the apartment furthest from ours, to call on Mr. Gubbins: the one person among our neighbors who belonged to the same unhappy race as my mother, who feared cats.

The abominable genius of Pounce not only led him to this victim but indicated to him the moments when he was alone and most vulnerable. The poor man suffered from the fear of cats in an even more intense form than my mother. When he saw a cat he became paralyzed. Pounce used to visit him when he was having a bath. Mr. Gubbins was not favored by nature. He was an industrialist who looked like a Communist cartoonist’s victim of a wicked capitalist: a tall and flabby man, with pouches under his pale eyes and drooping cheeks and chins and paunch, and the unpleasant peculiarity that his wispy mustache and strands of hair combed across his bald scalp were bright gold like the yolk of an egg. When Pounce dropped into his bathroom and sat down on his haunches and looked at Mr. Gubbins the poor man’s deplorable and pendulous nakedness was then congealed. He could not get to his bath towel, to his bell, to his door, he could only utter loud wordless groans for help. If his door was locked, he had to stay where he was until his manservant crawled out on the cornice and released him. And Pounce had always left before the manservant arrived.

Categories: Cats, Writing

Antietam, Gettysburg, Books, Kindle

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ll be in DC the week after next for some business. Gail will join me at the end, and two weeks from tomorrow we will take our first Civil War battlefield trip. That Saturday, we’ll drive up to Antietam National Battlefield, where we hope to get a tour with a local battlefield guide. We’ll then continue on to Gettysburg, where we’ll be staying at a bed and breakfast for two nights. The next day we’ll spend visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, where again we hope to have the help of a local guide. (I called this morning for guides and may be too late for Antietam. I’m awaiting a call back on Gettysburg, which seems to have an army of guides, so I assume we will succeed in reserving a tour.) I’m excited. This is long overdue. Perhaps it will be the first of many such trips.

Yesterday afternoon I looked into books we might read in preparation. Many years ago, I read James McPherson’s mammoth Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. I could try re-reading it. It’s so physically large that it would be a candidate for buying again in its Kindle version, though the Kindle is a disaster when it comes to displaying maps and photographs. Instead, I looked for books focused specifically on the two battles. For Antietam, I found another of McPherson’s books, the slim Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: the Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War. And what do you know, he has an even slimmer book on Gettysburg, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, in the superb Crown Journeys series of travel books. (I wrote about another member of the series, Frank Conroy’s Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket, in one of the first posts for this blog.)

After a little more searching, I decided to buy McPherson’s two books. Now what? Buy the physical book or the electronic Kindle version? Or, maybe buy my first electronic books from the Apple store, for the iPad. Well, I eliminated the last possibility quickly — they aren’t available. But both were available for Kindle. Then I remembered that the Kindle is a map-viewing disaster, and surely I would want to study battlefield maps. On the other hand if I got the books on the Kindle, Gail and I could read them simultaneously. And I love the Crown Journeys series so much that maybe I would buy the Gettysburg book in both forms, one for maps and as a keepsake, the other for immediate access and simultaneous reading. As a starting point, I might as well get both for the Kindle, and that’s what I did.

I read the opening material of both and soon found myself looking at a map of Antietam. It was terrible. Useless. Ah, but the iPad has a free Kindle app, which I downloaded last week when I brought the iPad home. (Once one buys a Kindle book, one can download it to the Kindle itself or to the iPhone or the iPad). I downloaded the Antietam book, paged through it for the map, and it worked! I could do the usual two-finger expansion motion, as one would with photographs or webpages, getting the map to fill the screen, and it was entirely legible. A win for the iPad. On the other hand, the iPad is sufficiently heavier, and larger in size, that it’s not comfortable to hold with one hand, so for basic text reading I’m sure I will prefer the Kindle. If I’m willing to travel with both, I can use the Kindle for most reading, switching to the iPad version for maps and photos.

This may not be the best solution, but it will do. Another weakness of electronic reading, even if I’m satisfied with the quality of the graphics, is that it’s not as easy to return to reference items — maps, photos, family trees — as in a book. You can’t just flip back to a particular spot. You can mark a page. I’ll have to do that with the maps. But still, just turning to the desired page in a book seems a lot easier. Or maybe it’s just more familiar. Maybe I’ll get used to the electronic equivalent.

I didn’t mention it, but before I headed east at the beginning of March, I bought Kindle versions of two new travel books whose reviews convinced me that I had to have them: Peter Hassler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory and Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today . I thought they would be perfect reading on the trip. I got on the plane to Philadelphia to start the trip and immediately started reading Conover’s book. (One problem with electronic reading — when the plane’s doors shut, you have to shut the device until you’re 10,000 feet in the air. But there’s always the airline flight magazine.) I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I ordered the books. I just figured I could carry both on the trip easily, thanks to the Kindle, but I forgot about the map issue. Each chapter of Conover’s book recounts a different trip, opening with the tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin. As I began to read, I realized that a map would be useful. I then saw that the author helpfully provides one. But on the Kindle, forget it. Amazon is going to have to figure out a way to improve its graphics presentation. As a start, a higher-contrast touch screen would help, with the ability to zoom in and out by Apple-style pinching moves. No doubt this will appear in time.

Categories: Books, History, Technology, Travel


April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Tagliolini with truffles, butter, and truffle oil

[From the slide show that accompanies the review, with photographs by Daniel Krieger.]

It’s always fun to read a negative review by a good writer. Sam Sifton’s NYT review two days ago of Nello (on Madison between 62nd and 63rd) is a superb example of the genre. One sample:

Nello, which opened in 1992, is an ecosystem that is almost incomprehensible to those not a part of it. The food is not very good. Yet the restaurant’s customer base is built of the richest and most coddled people in the city, who love it for its elegance and, perhaps, simplicity.

It is a private club of sorts, where the dues are paid nightly. The meetings are unadvertised. Nello’s dining room can be crowded at 3 p.m. or midnight. It can also be empty at 1 p.m. or 9 p.m. Regular patrons respond to whistles mere customers cannot hear.

The table of four that night was made up of that latter group: New Yorkers relatively new to the restaurant, unknown to the management.

They ate crisp artichokes offered as carciofi alla giudia. These tasted of shirt cardboard. They ate sawdusty chicken livers lashed with balsamic. They sipped at lentil soup familiar to anyone who owns a can opener and shared too-salty saffron risotto, correctly yellow, of no particular flavor.

The patrons come in for as much ridicule as the restaurant itself.

One night at dinner, there was a very tall woman in elegant clothes, with skin stretched tight over her face in unnatural ways and glasses the size of salad plates to magnify that. She was eating with a small red-faced fellow with dark hair in a center part, who was wearing an ascot and green Tyrolean coat. A cartoonist might render them as an awkward French giraffe and a mischievous Austrian chimp.

The overall rating is “Fair”, which is a level below one star. The summary judgment on atmosphere is “oligarchic chic”; the sound level is “a low buzz of self-satisfaction [that] rises into occasional peals of self-delighted laughter.” I don’t know how fair the review of the restaurant is, but it’s surely overly harsh on the clientele. Anyway, have a look. And if you dine there, let me know how it is.

Categories: Restaurants, Writing

Seattle Times Pulitzer Prize

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

How about that? Our lone local daily newspaper received a Pulitzer Prize today in the category of Breaking News Reporting. Sadly, the breaking news was the horrific murders last November of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers.

The citation reads:

Awarded to The Seattle Times Staff for its comprehensive coverage, in print and online, of the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee house and the 40-hour manhunt for the suspect.

Here is the Seattle Times’ own coverage (with an AP assist) of its award.

The Times has its faults, ones I’m usually happy to describe. But it has strengths too, its mere existence being one of them. We would be far poorer without a serious, independent local newspaper covering the events of the city, region, and state. I am pleased to support it as a subscriber and to congratulate it on today’s recognition.

Categories: Journalism

Opening Day at Safeco

April 12, 2010 1 comment

Opening Day, 2010

[Dean Rutz, Seattle Times]

The Seattle Mariners’ home opener is underway, in the 6th inning. Not the best baseball weather, cloudy and cool. When I saw the photo above at the Seattle Times website, I couldn’t resist posting it. As you can see, several Mariners from the good old days were back, with Randy Johnson receiving the honor of throwing out the first pitch. (See Larry Stone’s weekly Sunday column yesterday on Randy in retirement.)

In case you’re not sure, that’s Jay Buhner on the left, Dan Wilson next to him, Randy Johnson towering over his ex-teammates, Edgar Martinez next, and still-active Ken Griffey, Jr. on the right. If you’re in a nostalgic mood, check out this box score of a game featuring all five. Not just any game, of course. This one was kind of important. And we were there: Gail, Gail’s Dad, Joel, me.

Categories: Baseball

Taibbi on Brooks

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Matt Taibbi

It’s hard to take NYT columnist David Brooks seriously, especially when he falls into the pontifical mode in which he vastly expands or misstates the applicability of some scientific study in order to draw his desired, unwarranted conclusion. Mark Liberman at Language Log has posted regularly on this proclivity. (See for instance here and here.

The NYT has an online weekly feature, The Conversation, in which David Brooks and fellow NYT columnist Gail Collins discuss some topic. Last week’s topic was Redefining What It Means to Work Hard. You may wish to read it, but even better, read Matt Taibbi’s dissection of it two days ago at his blog. Taibbi, who writes for Rolling Stone, has a way with words, a tendency toward hyperbole, and a seeming inability to resist cuteness, cleverness, and coarseness, but he never leaves you in the dark about what he thinks.

A taste of Taibbi is below. Read it all; it’s well, if coarsely, done.

I had to read this thing twice before it registered that Brooks was actually saying that he was rooting for the rich against the poor. If he keeps this up, he’s going to make his way into the Guinness Book for having extended his tongue at least a foot and a half farther up the ass of the Times’s Upper East Side readership than any previous pundit in journalistic history. But then you come to this last line of his, in which he claims that “for the first time in history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people,” and you find yourself almost speechless. . . .

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers. . . .

Then again, maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective. Would I rather clean army latrines with my tongue, or would I rather do what Brooks does for a living, working as a professional groveler and flatterer who three times a week has to come up with new ways to elucidate for his rich readers how cosmically just their lifestyles are? If sucking up to upper-crust yabos was my actual job and I had to do it to keep the electricity on in my house, then yes, I might look at that as work.

But it strikes me that David Brooks actually enjoys his chosen profession. In fact, he strikes me as the kind of person who even in his spare time would pay a Leona Helmsley lookalike a thousand dollars to take a shit on his back. And here he is saying that the reason the poor and the middle classes are struggling is because they don’t work hard enough. Is this guy the best, or what? Does it get any better than this?

Categories: Journalism, Politics

Grigory Perelman

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Henri Poincaré

In my last post, on a Wall Street Journal article about Martin Gardner, I noted that it’s “a rare day when any major newspaper has an article with mathematical content.” I didn’t want to let the moment pass, so I wrote about the article. Now the latest New York Review of Books has arrived, with yet more mathematical content, a review by John Allen Paulos of Masha Gessen’s biography of Gregory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who proved the Poincaré Conjecture in 2002.

The conjecture, made by the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré in a 1904 paper, was one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics. Every mathematics graduate student learned about it when studying topology. It’s so easily stated, yet it resisted the efforts of mathematicians for a century, even as analogues were proven in dimensions 5 and higher by Stephen Smale, John Stallings, and E.C. Zeeman in the 1960s and in dimension 4 by Michael Freedman in 1982. Smale and Freedman were awarded Fields Medals for their work.

Perelman posted three papers in 2002 purporting to prove the conjecture, but the papers did not provide complete proofs. This led to a complex sequence of events that I won’t try to recount, with other mathematicians studying the approach he laid out, filling in details, and publishing their own papers verifying that he had indeed proved the conjecture. A 2006 New Yorker article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber that received a lot of attention gives an account of some of the controversy that ensued. Perelman was himself awarded a Fields Medal in 2006, but declined it. He was in the news again just two weeks ago when he declined the million-dollar prize awarded him on March 18 by the Clay Mathematics Institute for solving one of their seven Millennium Prize Problems. (Learn more by reading the Clay Institute’s short press release and full press release.

You can learn more about Perelman from the New Yorker article of 2006, Paulos’s review of the Gessen biography, or Jascha Hoffman’s NYT review of the biography last December. Hoffman notes in closing that Gessen “has written something rare: an accessible book about an unreachable man.”

Categories: Math

Gathering For Gardner

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote two days ago about buying an iPad, mentioning in passing that one of the apps I had downloaded for it was the WSJ app. Yesterday I explored how it works. It’s really good. What it does is download and keep on the iPad the last seven days of the paper. The next day — if you bring up the app the next day — it deletes the oldest of the seven days and downloads the current day. You select the day you want, choose the section of the paper you want, and then start reading. In one mode, all the articles of that section are listed in a column on the right. When you tap on one of the articles, it comes up, with the column still there on the right so that you can go straight to any other article you wish. To continue reading a multi-page article, or to go back a page, you do the standard horizontal swipe.

Of course, this isn’t free. I don’t know what it costs to subscribe anew. As a print/online subscriber, I get iPad access, for now, at no additional cost. Apparently the WSJ will soon charge print subscribers.

Anyway, since we were back in New York a week ago, we didn’t get last Friday’s paper. As I explored the iPad edition of the WSJ yesterday, I realized I could look at Friday’s missed paper with just a tap. So I did, heading straight to the Weekend Journal, where I happily discovered an article on Martin Gardner that I would otherwise have missed. It’s a rare day when any major newspaper has an article with mathematical content. I’m glad I found this one.

Though not himself a mathematician, Gardner is one of history’s great popularizers of mathematics, through his long-running “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He is as well one of the great debunkers of pseudo-science. The WSJ article describes the 9th annual conference in honor of Gardner, held two weeks ago in Atlanta. From the article:

. . . a four-day conference in honor of Martin Gardner, 95, a public intellectual whose most famous pulpit was “Mathematical Games,” written for Scientific American between 1956 and 1981. Mr. Gardner’s column illuminated the beauty of math and logic in discussions of fractals, origami, optical illusions, puzzles and pseudoscience. It challenged readers to discover how finely math and logic are interwoven through the world.

. . .

Puzzles are instructive, Mr. Gardner found, for they teach us to appreciate hidden structures of the world that are not owned by any particular discipline and are potentially useful to all. He saw the world as resembling not a magazine, where the subject of each section bears little relation to that of the next, but a well-written novel, where ideas introduced in one chapter are apt to reappear—transformed, modulated and extended—in others. He taught his readers to see the world in the same way, inculcating in them an openness and alertness to the often surprising possibilities of the world, and the desire to seek them out.

Categories: Math, Newspapers, Technology