Archive for March, 2011

Permanent War, II

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

President Obama Telling Us Why We're in Libya


It’s been two weeks since I wrote, on the eve of our entry into war in Libya, about the pending action and wondered what the point of the 2008 election was. I’ve been too discouraged by events since then to want to comment further. And now the lead story in tomorrow’s NYT is the report by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt that the

Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels battling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials.

While President Obama has insisted that no American military ground troops participate in the Libyan campaign, small groups of C.I.A. operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military, the officials said.

There was a time, many decades ago, when I was naive enough to picture the advisors that Kennedy was sending to South Vietnam as just that. Advisors. Showing the South Vietnamese the proper way to clean guns. Or something like that. I didn’t know exactly. But they weren’t in combat or anything. That didn’t enter my mind. I still may be naive, but come on. We’re at war now. Can’t we just say so? And debate it properly? And, you know, let Congress vote on it, though they’ll surely just rubber stamp our actions, as they did long ago with Tonkin Gulf and have done ever since.

As for Obama’s speech two nights ago, I’ll quote comments from two blog posts yesterday. First, an excerpt from Amy Davidson’s post at the New Yorker, which should be read in full:

[T]he suggestion that those with doubts about entering this war—without much of a plan, without real consultation with Congress—were arguing against ever doing anything “on behalf of what is right” is, to say the least, overly broad. Does Obama really think that the only morally steady position is one that endorses the current air campaign—that not agreeing with him means turning “a blind eye to atrocities,” and that anything short of close to two hundred cruise missiles “would have been a betrayal of who we are”?

Second, the closing remarks from one of Daniel Larison’s many eloquent and well-reasoned posts in recent days about the war:

Right now, if you’re a Libyan and you’re not on the side of the rebels, you have some good reasons to fear American planes overhead. Even anti-Gaddafi civilians in cities controlled by Gaddafi’s forces are going to have reason to be afraid of the gunships and tank-killers buzzing overhead. Restrictive rules of engagement, precision weapons, and training notwithstanding, all of the people living in Sirte and Tripoli have good reasons to be afraid. The ease with which humanitarian interventionists seem to forget that they are cheering on the deliberate killing of people who have done nothing to them and theirs is bad enough, but the notion that America is making great moral progress if it uses force to kill the right sorts of people for the right reasons, and especially when the conflict has nothing to do with us, is simply evil.


Categories: Politics, War

Nicklaus and Suzuki

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Above, Jack Nicklaus, winning the 1986 Masters at the age of 46. Below, Shinichi Suzuki with violin students. How are they connected? Read on.

The 1986 Masters ended on April 13, so I’m jumping the gun a bit on its 25th anniversary. But that’s because Geoff Shackelford is running a contest over at his golf blog, deadline tomorrow, in which readers are invited to tell “where you were, who you were with, or of course, your horror stories about missing out on the great day.” My story is one of the “missing out” ones. I want to be sure to enter it, so I will write it tonight for Ron’s View and submit it tomorrow to Shackelford. He has a 500 word limit, which will keep this short.

Gail and I were nine and a half months into our marriage. She was not yet the devoted Masters fan she would become. Indeed, she wasn’t much of a golf fan at all. Thus, when we realized that Masters Sunday was also annual Seattle-area-Suzuki-violin-student-mass-concert Sunday, which meant eight-year-old Jessica (Gail’s daughter, my new step-daughter) would be performing at the same time that the leaders played the final round’s back nine at Augusta, Gail wasn’t too concerned.

The concert was held at Meany Hall on campus. Back then, and until recently, the Masters didn’t let CBS start TV coverage too early, and there were no cameras on the front nine. I don’t remember the details, but I imagine we left for the concert shortly after coverage started.

Golf fans know that NIcklaus’s win was one of the great surprises in golf history. Six years past his last major championship, NIcklaus could still contend, but no one expected him to win a major again, except perhaps Nicklaus himself. Then, after shooting 35 on the front nine, he exploded for a 30 on the back nine and took the lead. I missed his entire back nine, of course. I was in Meany Hall at the concert.

Suzuki fans know that all Suzuki students learn the same repertoire in the same order, starting with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. In a carefully controlled progression, students advance from simple songs to Bach. The concert format has the most advanced student in attendance playing the latest piece he or she has mastered, then proceeds backwards through the repertoire, with students coming on stage as their latest pieces arrive, building to the climactic moment when all of the dozens or hundreds of area students are on stage playing Twinkle, Twinkle in unison. It’s wonderfully conceived, no?

Once I caught on to this conception and realized that Jessica, still a relatively new Suzukier, wouldn’t be playing for a while, I leaned over and suggested to Gail that I walk over to the HUB — the student union building — to see what was on in the TV room. It’s not that I wanted to leave the concert. The format was fun, and I enjoyed seeing students come on the stage in twos and threes. But, you know, there was golf to watch. So off I went to the HUB, and I was mighty relieved to find that the students in the TV room had indeed tuned the TV to the Masters.

It was difficult at first to make sense of what was happening. There was all this talk about Jack, but he was done playing. He was being interviewed, and he seemed pretty happy. Golfers were still on the course. Eventually I came to understand that only one golfer could still catch him: Greg Norman, who had entered the day in the lead but fallen back. Tom Kite must have finished already, one stroke back of Nicklaus. And Seve Ballesteros, two back. And Nick Price, three back. Whatever drama had taken place with these players in the hunt or falling back, however Nicklaus found himself atop the leaderboard, I knew none of it. I knew only that Norman had just birdied 17 to move into a tie with Nicklaus and was now on the 18th tee.

In fact, I probably didn’t even know that at first, but had to get caught up along the way as Norman played 18, learning of his falling out of the lead, Nicklaus’s tearing up the back nine to take the lead, Norman’s steadying himself to regain a piece of the lead, and now playing for a win or at least a playoff.

A good drive, an errant approach shot missing the green, a chip onto the green with 15 feet left for a par-saving, playoff-saving putt. A miss. Nicklaus had won! Norman was joint runner-up with Kite. What many consider the greatest golfing moment of the last 30 years was over, and I hardly knew what happened.

I returned to Meany Hall in time to see Jessica’s entrance. Just as with the golf, I missed a lot of the action on the back nine, but I did see the conclusion. And in contrast to Greg, Jessica didn’t bogey “Twinkle, Twinkle.” All went well. Except that I couldn’t get Gail to understand that I had missed history.

Categories: Family, Golf

Nick Cave SAM Exhibition

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Earlier this month, a new show opened at the Seattle Art Museum, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth. It consists entirely of work of the artist Nick Cave, faculty member and director of the fashion design department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We had intended to go to one of the opening events a few weeks ago, but it conflicted with two other activities, and we chose one of the others. Fortunately, we received an invitation to tour the exhibit this past Thursday with Derrick Cartwright, the director of the Seattle Art Museum.

We assembled with other invitees in the museum’s lobby, then were ushered up two flights to the threshold of the exhibit, where Derrick talked to us about the show and about Nick Cave, making sure we understood that this Nick Cave is not one and the same with the Australian musician Nick Cave. Evidently this has been a point of on-going confusion, and perhaps disappointment. He then brought us into the exhibit’s first room.

Cave’s principal works, as you can see above, are what he calls sound suits. The website for the show explains that “Nick Cave’s wildly improbable beings are made from unusual materials that don’t often get a second life: potholders, spinning tops, sequins, buttons and thrift store sweaters. View the work in the galleries to appreciate the exquisite detail of these opulent sculptures.” I had seen some of the pictures online, but they give no sense of how wonderfully joyous the soundsuits are, how colorful and creative, with such varied textures. The mosaic of sweaters that form the first work seen in the show, a towering polar bear, is simply marvelous.

Other than the polar bear, all the suits are made to be wearable — in particular by Cave himself. Trained as a dancer with Alvin Ailey, he doesn’t just wear them. He dances in them. In one room about halfway through the exhibit, several videos are projected on the walls showing him and others performing movement or dance in the suits and giving the viewer an entirely different sense of the suits viewed statically just before. As explained at SAM’s website, “SAM is partnering with students from the Cornish College of the Arts and dancers from Spectrum Dance Theatre to bring selected suits to life in scheduled on-site performances.” Derrick described the plan a little differently. These performances will break out in unexpected places, perhaps for instance during intermission at the opera, with hints given ahead of time at the website that may allow astute readers to guess where the performances will be.

The show runs through June 5. If you’re in the area, be sure to see it.

Categories: Art, Museums

The Low Road, Wisconsin Edition

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment

This is old news by now, and thoroughly written about elsewhere, so I won’t say much. William Cronon is a renowned historian at the University of Wisconsin, holder of the Frederick Jackson Turner professorship and the Vilas research professorship, and president-elect of the American Historical Association. As he explained in a long post at his blog Scholar as Citizen last Thursday:

Last week was quite a roller coaster for me. I spent the weekend of March 12-13 drafting an op-ed for the New York Times (published on March 22, and available at this link: about the several ways in which I believe that Scott Walker and the current leadership of the Republican Party in Wisconsin have departed not just from the longstanding culture of civility and good government in this state, but in fact from important traditions of their own party. In the course of writing that op-ed, I did some research trying to figure out where the current wave of conservative legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere might be coming from.

As a result, last Tuesday night, March 15, I launched my first-ever entry for a blog I had long been planning on the theme of “Scholar as Citizen,” about how thoughtful scholarship can contribute to better understandings of issues and debates in the public realm. In my first blog entry, I published a study guide exploring the question “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” I by no means had all the answers to this question, but I thought I had found enough useful leads that it was worth sharing them to help others investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council further. So I posted the link for the blog on Facebook and Twitter, sat back, and hoped that viral communication would bring the blog to people who might find it useful.

My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. …

What I did not anticipate—though I guess I should have seen it coming, given everything else that has happened in Wisconsin over the past couple months—was the communication that the University of Wisconsin-Madison received on Thursday afternoon, March 17—less than two days after I posted my blog—formally requesting under the state’s Open Records Law copies of all emails sent from or received by my University of Wisconsin—Madison email address pertaining to matters raised in my blog. (The acronym in many other states and in the Federal government for the laws under which such a request is usually made is “FOIA,” named for the federal Freedom of Information Act. …

Remarkably, the request was sent to the university’s legal office by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with no effort to obscure the political motivations behind it.

Josh Marshall wrote about Cronon’s story on Thursday at TPM, and then on Friday it spread across the blogosphere. I learned of it on waking up, when I turned to my RSS feed and found Jim Fallows sufficiently troubled to come out of blog hiatus and say a few words.

Cronon gives a … convincing argument about why this should be seen as a flat-out effort at personal intimidation, in the tradition of Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joe McCarthy. …

The reason this strikes me particularly hard at the moment: I am staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest. I don’t like that any better in Madison than I do in Beijing.

Paul Krugman weighed in a little later, and the NYT has an editorial posted online, evidently scheduled to appear tomorrow, that concludes:

This is a clear attempt to punish a critic and make other academics think twice before using the freedom of the American university to conduct legitimate research.

Professors are not just ordinary state employees. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a conservative federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, noted in a similar case, state university faculty members are “employed professionally to test ideas and propose solutions, to deepen knowledge and refresh perspectives.” A political fishing expedition through a professor’s files would make it substantially harder to conduct research and communicate openly with colleagues. And it makes the Republican Party appear both vengeful and ridiculous.

I won’t add on. I have nothing useful to add. But I do want to point out one welcome consequence of Krugman’s post. He starts: “Regular readers may recall my praise for William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a great book that had a big influence on my work in economic geography.” Indeed I did remember Krugman writing, at the end of January,

I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

I almost bought Cronon’s book after reading Krugman’s recommendation, then thought better of it. With all the other books I had in the queue, when would I read this one? I didn’t have to be convinced a second time though; I wasted no time downloading it Friday. I have set other books aside and am now reading it. So far so good, and I get to support Professor Cronon as I read.

Categories: Books, Politics

Labor Under Attack

March 25, 2011 Leave a comment

[All images and content copyright 1998-2010: Judy Taylor Fine Art, Mount Desert Island, Maine]

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire,

the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women; the youngest were two fourteen-year-old girls. Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

There have been many commemorations, including a reading of the names of the women who died that day. It is bitterly ironic that Maine governor Paul LePage chose this week to order “the removal of a 36-foot mural depicting Maine’s labor history from the lobby of the [state’s] Department of Labor.” Why?

According to LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, the administration felt the mural and the conference room monikers showed “one-sided decor” not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.

“The message from state agencies needs to be balanced,” said Demeritt, adding that the mural had sparked complaints from “some business owners” who complained it was hostile to business.

As the Sun Journal goes on to explain, the

mural was erected in 2008 following a jury selection by the Maine Arts Commission and a $60,000 federal grant. Judy Taylor, the artist from Seal Cove, said Tuesday that her piece was never meant to be political, simply a depiction of Maine’s labor history.

The 11-panel piece depicts several moments, including the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston, “Rosie the Riveter” at Bath Iron Works, and the paper mill workers’ strike of 1986 in Jay.

According to Taylor, the idea for the panels came from Charley Scontras, a labor historian at the University of Maine.

Taylor said the administration’s decision to remove the mural was “terrible.” She said her 2007 selection by the Maine Arts Commission was the “commission of a lifetime.”

Taylor said she’d never heard that her mural painted an unflattering picture of business.

“There was never any intention to be pro-labor or anti-labor,” she said. “It was a pure depiction of the facts.”

She said people had always reacted positively to the mural, even businesspeople who came to her studio.

You can study the mural at Judy Taylor’s website, which shows the eleven panels in miniature and provides links that expand the panels in threes or twos. At the top of this post are panels 7 through 9, with titles “The 1937 Strike”, “Francis Perkins”, and “Rosie the Riveter” and with the further descriptions:

The 1937 Strike : Scenes from an unsuccessful strike attempt to create better conditions for women workers.

Francis Perkins : FDR’s Labor Secretary, and untiring labor activist, a Maine Labor icon.

Rosie the Riveter : Maine’s version of WWII women workers participated as ship-builders.

Be sure to visit Taylor’s site and examine the other panels.

Is it not enough in this great recession for millions of working Americans to suffer? Must the history of labor be whitewashed? Must being pro-business mean turning a blind eye to the workers who make business function? What madness!

Categories: Labor, Politics

Abel Prize

March 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The ninth annual Abel Prize was awarded to John Milnor two days ago. As I explained in a post two years ago and again a year ago, the prize was established in 2001 by the Norwegian government to be the counterpart in mathematics to the Nobel Prizes in other disciplines. It has been awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters each year since 2003 to one or two outstanding mathematicians and honors the great, early-nineteenth-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel.

This year’s recipient is John Milnor. As explained at the Abel Prize website, his

profound ideas and fundamental discoveries have largely shaped the mathematical landscape of the second half of the 20th century. All of Milnor’s work display features of great research: profound insights, vivid imagination, striking surprises and supreme beauty. He receives the 2011 Abel Prize “for pioneering discoveries in topology, geometry and algebra,” to quote the Abel committee.

In the course of 60 years, John Milnor has made a deep mark on modern mathematics. Numerous mathematical concepts, results and conjectures are named after him. In the literature we find Milnor exotic spheres, Milnor fibration, Milnor number and many more. Yet the significance of Milnor’s work goes far beyond his own spectacular results. He has also written tremendously influential books, which are widely considered to be models of fine mathematical writing.

Milnor is indeed a fine mathematical writer. I own his beautiful Symmetric Bilinear Forms, a classic, and his tiny monograph Topology from the Differentiable Viewpoint.

Milnor spent much of his career in Princeton, as a student and faculty member at the university and later as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, before moving late in his career to Stony Brook. Between the university and the Institute, he was briefly at MIT. I overlapped with him twice, at MIT and then during my sabbatical year as a member of the Institute, but foolishly, I never talked with him.

Categories: Math

NCAA Bracket: Hockey Edition

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Every year at this time, Ron’s View turns its attention to college hockey, a great and greatly under-reported sport. We’ve been studying the bracket for the NCAA tournament, which starts on Friday, and searching the mainstream sports outlets in vain for analysis. Our own analysis suggests that it will be yet another exciting tournament.

Past readers of my hockey coverage will know that I have my favorites, starting with Harvard, which isn’t invited to the tournament this year. After Harvard, I have an attachment to its Beanpot brethren: BU, BC, and Northeastern. (And when Joel was at Northeastern, I was even rooting for them over Harvard.) And pre-dating Harvard in my hockey heart is Denver University, which my brother attended in the late 1960s, bringing home stories of their hockey prowess. And for good reason — they won back-to-back NCAA championships during his junior and senior years. More recently, I’ve developed an attachment to a new hockey power, Miami University, which lost the championship in such heartbreaking fashion two years ago when BU came back with two goals to tie in the final minute and a goal to win in overtime.

This year, three of my sentimental favorites are in the tournament: BC with the #3 overall seed, Miami at #4, and DU at #7. Then there’s Yale, the #1 seed, which I suppose I can regard as a substitute for Harvard, though back in my Boston days Yale may as well have been a Division III team for all the attention we paid them. And what do you know? These four schools are in four different brackets. It’s just possible that they will all skate into the Frozen Four.

Let’s take a closer look.

Yale gets not just the #1 seeding but a virtual home regional, down the shore a bit in Bridgeport. There they will host #16 Air Force on Friday, while #8 Union plays #9 Minnesota-Duluth. It’s a very favorable bracket for Yale. I don’t see anyone stopping them.

The #2 seed, North Dakota, meets RPI Saturday in Green Bay, the winner to play against #7 Denver or #10 Western Michigan. It’s hard to pick against UND and DU in the first round, but their second-round matchup could go either way. Denver might just get through.

BC, the #3 seed, is being shipped out to St. Louis to open against #13 Colorado College, while #5 Michigan plays #12 Nebraska-Omaha. I think, as with the previous region, that the two top seeds should win the opening games, but once again, the meeting between them is tough to call. Let’s go with BC.

That brings us to Manchester, New Hampshire, where #4 Miami has to travel to play — get this — #13 UNH. What kind of reward is that for a top-four seed? Why didn’t BC get placed in that region? Why does Miami have to play UNH in what is a virtual UNH home game? But wait. It gets worse. The other regional game is #6 Merrimack versus #11 Notre Dame. If Miami beats UNH, they could find themselves playing Merrimack next, and Merrimack, though across the state line in Massachusetts, is even closer to Manchester than UNH is. I have a feeling that second-round matchup won’t take place. I’m going with Miami and Notre Dame in the first round, setting up a regional final between the two CCHA rivals, with Miami advancing.

There you have it — a Frozen Foursome of Yale, UND/Denver, BC, and Miami. The draw would then have Miami meeting Yale in the semi-finals and BC playing, oh, let’s just say Denver. Might we have an all New England final? I would like to see Miami win it all, but I won’t bet against this.

Check back in a week.

Categories: Hockey

Asian Art at the Met

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Equestrian Portrait of a Noble, attributed to Bakhta, ca. 1775

With James C. Y. Watt soon to step down as head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art department, the NYT devoted a long article last Thursday to his successor, Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s longtime curator of Chinese art. As some readers know, I have a certain interest in Asian art, and so I read the article closely. Holland Cotter summarizes well the enormous expansion in the Met’s collections that have moved it from an Asian art backwater to a major center.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art galleries are some of the most reposeful spaces in New York City. It’s hard to imagine that they were banged into place, room by room, from practically nothing over the last 40 years, though they were. Or that they continue to mirror changing times, a changing museum and a changing Asia, though they do.

. . . [Watt and Hearn] witnessed and participated in an astonishing phenomenon: a catch-up act of acquisition, construction and exhibition-making on a grand scale.

From the early 1970s to the late ’90s, under the direction of the art historian Wen Fong, who was Mr. Hearn’s mentor, a room of sculpture gradually and laboriously turned into 50 galleries. Thanks to the beneficence of a generation of gift-giving New York collectors, a bunch of pots became many thousands of objects representing every major Asian culture. And thanks to the prestige its new Asian wing brought, the Met got some huge Asian loan shows.

Both Mr. Hearn and Mr. Watt refer to the period as a golden age. And both acknowledge that it is over.

Private collections of the kind that came to the Met can no longer be assembled in the West. China and India, now economic colossi, have a corner on the market. Museum loans from Asia are increasingly tricky to negotiate, and to pay for, now that the Met, like most museums, is economically pinched. And while Asia is constantly in the news, Asian art remains a hard sell. Foot traffic in the Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Southeast Asian galleries remains light.

Clearly, Mr. Hearn, in his new job as curator in charge of the Asian department, has confounding issues to contemplate when he takes over in July.

In describing the growth of the Met’s Asian art collections, Cotter mentions the role played by John Crawford:

John M. Crawford Jr., who in the 1950s had formed what Mr. Hearn called the most important private ensemble of Chinese painting and calligraphy in the West, lived virtually across the street from the museum, but had never exhibited his art there.

“When the Crawford collection was shown in New York in 1962,” Mr. Hearn said, “it was at the Morgan Library. That’s how out of it the Met was.”

When the museum’s Chinese painting galleries were finally finished in 1991, Mr. Crawford was invited to take a look. “At last you have a space big enough to hold my collection,” he said, and gave the Met everything.

Attractive though this story may be, the timing is a little off, what with Mr. Crawford having died in 1988. A few years before he died, I had the good fortune to visit Mr. Crawford in his apartment, which was not so much “virtually across the street from the museum” as a few blocks down, and to see some of his collection. I’ve long cherished the memory of that day.

I recommend that in addition to reading the article, you have a look at the charming video that accompanies it, in which Mr. Hearn sits down at a table with a 14th-century Chinese painting and proceeds to scroll through it (it is, in fact, a scroll), explaining both the art and the text within.

Cotter closes by quoting both Watt and Hearn on how far the Met’s Asian collection has come:

One by one, the galleries that now form the Asian wing — China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia, Korea — were carved out and built in what Mr. Watt refers to as “the last major event in the development of the museum.” Mr. Hearn, despite time out for language and graduate school, was there for every step.

“It took 27 years,” he said. “Now we have the most comprehensive collection of Asian art anywhere.”

Categories: Art, Museums

Coffee Ritual

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Gary Wills reviews Hubert Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, and what a review it is! Wills wastes no time getting to the point, describing the book as ” inept and shallow.” Wills explains that

The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event.

Not having read the book, I don’t have a clue how fair or accurate Wills is in his depiction of it. But the part of the review I really love is the passage near the end, which includes a quote from the book itself.

They argue for the calmer joys of craftsmanship. They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion. The liturgy takes patient experiment and rapt devotion:

If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself.

This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best. These skills are manifold: the skill for knowing how to pick exactly the right coffee, exactly the right cup, exactly the right place to drink it, and to cultivate exactly the right companions to drink it with. When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and of one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.

Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar.

As someone who has never drunk coffee, yet must accommodate to the coffee needs of those around me, I couldn’t help but enjoy this passage. Maybe I should learn from it, but instead I feel blessed that I’m free of the ritual, and pleased that I can continue to bask in righteous superiority.

Categories: Books, Philosophy

Airplane Etiquette

March 22, 2011 1 comment

The WSJ’s weekly The Middle Seat feature last week focused on airplane etiquette, and just in time, as we prepare to head off on a trip next month. The article focused on six situations with which we are all familiar:

1. You’re in the middle seat, between two strangers. Who gets the armrests?

2. A tall man sits down and his knees jut out wide, encroaching on your space.

3. You’re in the window seat and two strangers in the middle and aisle seats are asleep. You have to go to the bathroom.

4. On a long flight on a full plane, some kids are getting restless, speaking loudly, and kicking seatbacks.

5. Your seatmate brings a smelly meal on board and loudly starts munching.

6. Do you recline your seat?

Assorted experts offer responses, from which we discover, as experience already suggests, that we are far from consensus on how these situations should be handled, besides the obvious approach of not flying.

As for the last question, I’d go with one of the experts, frequent traveler Richard Wishner, whose solution is to “Put your knee in the back of his seat.” Alas, I’ve found this to be better in conception than in execution. Maybe my knees aren’t strong enough.

Categories: Flying