Archive for October, 2010

Posey Poke

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

I take time off from watching the fourth game of the World Series to write about Buster Posey’s peg to second base to throw out Josh Hamilton, then head back to watch more, only to see him head into the dugout after hitting a home run over Hamilton’s head. He’s something.

Categories: Baseball

Simon on Sondheim

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen Sondheim (and I know some aren’t, but I don’t understand how that’s possible), you may enjoy today’s NYT review of his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s the Sunday featured review, for which the editors called on Paul Simon. I read it, and write this, as I listen to the cast album from the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

I just love the photo above of Sondheim at the piano in the mid-1930s, drawn from the book and reprinted in the NYT review. Speaking of which, here’s a review excerpt:

“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an auto biographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.

To be fair to Sondheim’s critics, the heart/mind dilemma is a constant for many songwriters, myself included. If a writer composes a lyric with a complex thought or vivid image and fails to say it well, then the lines seem pretentious. If the songwriter goes for the heart and misses, then it’s sentimental. Sondheim is the farthest thing from a sentimental songwriter that I know, but his songs of the heart are shaded with rueful sorrow (“Send In the Clowns”) and translucent compassion.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Posey Peg

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

I should be watching the fourth World Series game rather than writing about it, but I just have to say — did you see that throw Buster Posey made to throw out Josh Hamilton attempting to steal second and end the 4th inning? It was perfect. Stunning.

Posey’s only 23, and he looks even younger. He’s had a sensational rookie year. I look forward to watching him for many years to come.

Categories: Baseball

Halloween Miscalculation

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

We seem to be a popular house on Halloween. Gail buys full-sized candy bars to hand out, and judging by the response of the trick-or-treaters, this makes us special. We were handing out a hundred or more a few years ago. But more recently, two and three years ago, we began to have leftovers.* So this year Gail bought less. We had about 70 available. Two little girls came around 5:40, then no one for a while, and then between 6:00 and 6:40 the candy mostly disappeared.

I took a moment at that point to count what was left — 13 bars. The doorbell rang again, I opened it, two swarms appeared in quick succession, and the 13 were gone.

We’ll buy more next year.

*Last year, we were away. Halloween is the day that we left Grenoble first thing in the morning, took three trains, and arrived in Venice around 7:30 at night. It was fun to take the vaporetto from Ferrovia (the train station) to our hotel, watching Halloween celebrants get on and off at each stop.

Categories: Holidays

Social Security Crisis?

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote some 20 months ago about Jeff Madrick’s book The Case for Big Government. Yesterday he had a useful post at the New York Review’s blog on social security.

We all know that the deficit is increasing, the population is aging, and we are headed for a social security crisis. Along with Obama, we await the report of his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, due in a month and sure to include recommendations to cut social security benefits while raising the eligibility age for receiving them. Republicans tell us we must cut spending while continuing to fight two wars, or maybe three. Oh, and spend more on protecting our borders and spying on each other. And cut taxes too.

Perhaps the only item on which Democrats and Republicans will agree, once the election is over and a new Congress is seated, is that social security must be cut. This is the context in which Madrick’s post is worth reading.

In view of all the rhetoric, voters may be surprised to find out how little Social Security will actually contribute to the future budget gap. In fact, most would probably be stunned.

The Congressional Budget Office, which produces dry, cautious budget projections, recently reminded Congress that Social Security as a percent of GDP will rise from 5 to 6 percent in 2035 and simply stay at that level for the foreseeable future. In other words, the much decried shortfall amounts to only 1 percent of GDP over three decades. And this may be exaggerated. As some observe, much will depend on the flow of young immigrant workers to America. The more workers contributing to Social Security, the smaller any future deficit will be. And the CBO projections tend to make overly conservative estimates about such immigration in the decades to come.

No matter. I have little doubt that Social Security benefits will be cut. And the wars will continue. I don’t see Obama rocking the boat and taking any stances counter to conventional wisdom until after the 2012 election, if ever. As Madrick says, “This is no way to run a government.”

Categories: Economy, Politics

Morgan Library

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The restored East Room

Next Saturday will mark three years since we last visited the Morgan Library & Museum. We were in New York to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday, and the next day we had to head back to midtown to return the tuxes Joel and I had rented. (I had realized a few weeks earlier that rather than bringing clothing from Seattle (me) and Boston (Joel), we could instead go to local branches of some national chain, get fitted, then do the pick up and return at a Manhattan branch.)

Joel had flown back to Boston that morning. Gail and I lugged the clothing down to the tux place, then I suggested we walk from there over to the Morgan, just a few blocks away. If I were blogging in those days, I would have reported on the wonders we saw, as well as the still new Renzo Piano addition. (See Nicolai Ouroussoff’s NYT review of the addition, a year earlier, here.) There are the glories of the permanent collection, of course. There was a special exhibition of some illuminated manuscripts, maybe from Turkey or thereabouts. And there was another special exhibition, of letters from Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard, complemented by paintings and drawings mentioned in the letters. Oh, here — a link to the show.

Anyway, it’s time to go back. Today the historic 1906 building that Charles McKim designed to serve as J.P. Morgan’s office and library reopened after a restoration. Here is the Morgan’s description of the project:

n 2010 the Morgan restored the interior of the 1906 library to its original grandeur. A new lighting system was installed to illuminate the extraordinary murals and decor of the four historic rooms. Intricate marble surfaces and applied ornamentation were cleaned, period furniture was reupholstered, and original fixtures—including three chandeliers removed decades ago—were restored and reinstalled. A late-nineteenth-century Persian rug (similar to the one originally there) was laid in the grand East Room. The ornate ceiling of the librarian’s office, or North Room, was cleaned, and visitors are able to enter the refurbished space—now a gallery—for the first time. New, beautifully crafted display cases throughout the 1906 library feature selections from the Morgan’s collection of great works of art and literature from the ancient world to modern times.

See also Holland Cotter’s account in yesterday’s NYT and the accompanying slide show.

Categories: Architecture

The Moral Ambiguity of War

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I read Anne Applebaum’s review in the current New York Review of Books earlier this evening of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I started the article while watching game two of the World Series, but soon muted the TV in order to give her my full attention. There’s much of interest, but let me draw your attention to this passage just before the end:

Finally, the arguments of Bloodlands also complicate the modern notion of memory—memory, that is, as opposed to history. . . .

For different reasons, the American popular memory of World War II is also due for some revision. In the past, we have sometimes described this as the “good war,” at least when contrasted to the morally ambiguous wars that followed. At some level this is understandable: we did fight for human rights in Germany and Japan, we did leave democratic German and Japanese regimes in our wake, and we should be proud of having done so. But it is also true that while we were fighting for democracy and human rights in the lands of Western Europe, we ignored and then forgot what happened further east.

As a result, we liberated one half of Europe at the cost of enslaving the other half for fifty years. We really did win the war against one genocidal dictator with the help of another. There was a happy end for us, but not for everybody. This does not make us bad—there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.

If only there were room for moral ambiguity in contemporary political discourse.

Categories: Books, History

Richards vs. Mantle

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Tough choice. Which book do I read? The Keith Richards autobiography Life that comes out tomorrow or Jane Leavy’s biography The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood that came out two weeks ago? Two of my heroes, though I fell for Mick earlier and he therefore has a larger claim on my heart. Yet he has gotten less interesting to me as the years have gone by, whatever thrills he gave me in my childhood, while my awe of Keith continues to grow.

I just read Michiko Katutani’s enthusiastic review of Life, to appear in tomorrow’s NYT, and it’s enough to make me want to download it on my Kindle tonight.

But “Life” — which was written with the veteran journalist James Fox — is way more than a revealing showbiz memoir. It is also a high-def, high-velocity portrait of the era when rock ’n’ roll came of age, a raw report from deep inside the counterculture maelstrom of how that music swept like a tsunami over Britain and the United States. It’s an eye-opening all-nighter in the studio with a master craftsman disclosing the alchemical secrets of his art. And it’s the intimate and moving story of one man’s long strange trip over the decades, told in dead-on, visceral prose without any of the pretense, caution or self-consciousness that usually attend great artists sitting for their self-portraits.

The book isn’t available for download until tomorrow, so I can’t succumb to temptation just yet, and by tomorrow I’ll recognize that I don’t really want to read a 564-page book about his life just now, however riveting. For that matter, I don’t know that I’m ready to tackle a 456-page bio of Mantle either. (See Keith Olbermann’s review in the NYT Sunday book review a week ago.)

What I think I’ll do is download the Kindle sample of each and let that suffice. By the way, Amazon’s price for the Mantle book is $11.99. Its price for the Kindle edition? $12.99. That’s a shock.

One other Kindle dilemma. Two months ago I wrote about Ian Frazier’s upcoming book Travels in Siberia, which came out two weeks ago. I haven’t bought it yet. I’ve been thinking of downloading the Kindle version, but if I do, how will Frazier sign it at his Seattle appearance this Sunday? (He will be at the Seattle Public Library.) Do I have him sign a piece of paper then tape it to my Kindle or iPad? Maybe I could scan the paper, make a pdf file, and download it onto them. Or I could just bring along my copies of Great Plains, Family, and On the Rez for him to sign.

Categories: Books

Academic Accountability, Texas Style

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal expanded their Saturday arts and culture coverage earlier in the month, splitting the old weekend section in two. Review has a vastly-enlarged pullout books section plus coverage of science, commerce, politics, language, technology, art, and ideas. Off Duty treats food and wine, travel, fashion and design. Yesterday’s Review section led off with a two-page cover story on measuring accountability of faculty members at public universities. Texas is leading the way.

Carol Johnson took the podium of a lecture hall one recent morning to walk 79 students enrolled in an introductory biology course through diffusion, osmosis and the phospholipid bilayer of cell membranes.

A senior lecturer, Ms. Johnson has taught this class for years. Only recently, though, have administrators sought to quantify whether she is giving the taxpayers of Texas their money’s worth.

Chester Dunning, a history professor, has won several teaching awards. According to a report by the chancellor, he also loses money for the university, though his department is in the black overall.

A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

Ms. Johnson came out very much in the black; in the period analyzed—fiscal year 2009—she netted the public university $279,617. Some of her colleagues weren’t nearly so profitable. Newly hired assistant professor Charles Criscione, for instance, spent much of the year setting up a lab to research parasite genetics and ended up $45,305 in the red.

This is extraordinary, attaching a dollar amount to each faculty member in order to measure the member’s worth. As noted in the next sentence, faculty members called the sheet “misleading, simplistic and crass.” That sounds about right. Yet, as further discussed in the article, there has for years been a growing insistence by state legislators and other constituencies that public universities account for their productivity, in parallel with shrinkage of support for state universities, as measured either in real dollars or, more dramatically, in percentage of state expenditures.

Any effort at numerical measurement of faculty worth is inevitably going to be misleading and simplistic. On the teaching side, how does one measure a faculty member’s impact on students in the long term? Student teaching evaluations have many failings, but at the least, they are short term, not allowing students to look back and recognize the strength or weakness of a course based on how it helped them with later courses, careers, or well lived lives. In the context of a major research university such as mine, it is tempting to measure research productivity in terms of grant funds received. This has some value, but it has the weakness of putting the cart before the horse. Measuring research by the funds generated is like measuring a restaurant by how expensive its food is. Well, that may not be the best analogy, but the underlying point is that you can’t measure quality by cost alone. I don’t deny that some attempt must be made to measure quality. A single number isn’t likely to do it though.

In any case, if one were to measure research quality by grant funds, one would have to take into account disciplinary norms, and university administrators do exactly that. Which is fine for subjects with significant research funding, such as physical and biological sciences. At the other extreme, how does one measure the quality and impact of creative work in arts and humanities? Some people won’t have a problem answering this: to them, it’s a waste, not worth support from state (or federal) governments. I would happily argue against this view, but not here. Instead, let me conclude with the closing paragraphs of the WSJ article.

The concept of a productivity spreadsheet came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that Gov. Rick Perry invited to a state university summit in May 2008. The group suggested several reforms with a common theme: Let taxpayers see what’s going on at every public institution—and let them decide what’s worth subsidizing.

Bill Peacock, a vice president at the foundation, acknowledges that this approach could mean a radical reshaping of academia, with far more emphasis on filling students with practical information and less on intellectual pursuits, especially in the liberal arts.

That’s OK by him. “Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Mr. Peacock says, should decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”

When the choice is put that bluntly, Chester Dunning, a history professor at Texas A&M, wonders if he’d pass muster. Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

Categories: Business, Education

Smith Tower Penthouse

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The NYT Home section on Thursday featured an unexpected look into the long-mysterious penthouse apartment of Seattle’s Smith Tower. When opened in 1914, the Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the MIssissippi, and remained so for decades. As you can see in the photo above, at its top is a pyramid. And in that pyramid is a residential apartment, the subject of the NYT piece. As interesting as the article itself is, even better is the accompanying slide show. You really must have a look. After that, read the article if you wish. It opens as follows:

To get to the top of the world, Petra Franklin Lahaie ushers her two young daughters and their girly bikes through a set of heavy bronze doors, greets the 24-hour elevator operator in the Prussian blue uniform, rides up 35 stories past mostly vacant office suites, debarks next to an observation deck and Chinese-themed banquet room, passes through a portal marked “private residence,” climbs two stories into a neo-gothic pyramid and enters a penthouse apartment.

To my embarrassment, despite living here almost 30 years, I’ve never gone up to the observation deck or the Chinese Room. We missed our big chance in August 1988, when our friend Paul got married there. We were in Princeton at the time, near the end of my sabbatical year, returning to Seattle just a week later. Somehow, in the 22 years since, no one has invited us back. Nor have we simply gone down on our own and gotten on the famous elevators.

Maybe next weekend.

Categories: Architecture