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Mexican Delights

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

This morning, I picked up the current issue of The New York Review of Books and discovered Alma Guillermoprieto’s The High Art of the Tamale, as fine a piece of food writing as one could ask for. In reviewing Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy , Guillermoprieto tempts the reader to book flights southward immediately, out of excitement for the described delights.

[Kennedy] was coming from the drab kitchens of postwar England, and in Mexico City just a short walk through any neighborhood market was enough to make her swoon: armfuls of blossoms the color of gold, the smoky perfume of dried chiles gusting through the corridors, the racket of a dozen vendors vying for her attention, waist-high pyramids of unheard-of vegetables, pumpkins of every description, gourds, melons, purple amaranth plants, shocking-pink cactus fruit, blood-red hibiscus flowers, and, above the general din, the metallic cries of the vendors…¡cómpreme, marchantita! Buy here! Buy here!

And then to huddle at a market stall and wait for an industrious woman in braids to chop up some barbacoa and onion and cilantro and spoon it all over a tortilla and hand the steaming morsel into her eager hands…Heaven.

And Guillermoprieto tempts the reader to book flights southward immediately, also, in fear that these delights won’t last long.

. . . the ecological and cultural devastation Mexico has been undergoing. I could go on at some length about our garbage-lined highways, the almost daily loss of native species, the forests logged by lumber black marketeers, drug traffickers, and landless settlers, the slow attrition of our beautiful markets thanks to the likes of Wal-Mart, and the takeover in local Wal-Marts of everything fresh by everything processed—for one small example, the replacement of locally grown raisins by imported dried cranberries—but I won’t.

Read it all. And book your flights.

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Categories: Culture, Food, Writing

Deliberate Practice

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to a post two days ago Geoff Shackelford’s golf blog , I learned two days ago about Golfer in Training Dan McLaughlin and The Dan Plan. Shackelford linked to an article by Michael Kruse three weeks ago in the St. Petersburg Times. As Kruse explains:

On his 30th birthday, June 27, 2009, Dan had decided to quit his job to become a professional golfer.

He had almost no experience and even less interest in the sport.

What he really wanted to do was test the 10,000-hour theory he read about in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Outliers. That, Gladwell wrote, is the amount of time it takes to get really good at anything — “the magic number of greatness.”

The idea appealed to Dan. His 9-to-5 job as a commercial photographer had become unfulfilling. He didn’t want just to pay his bills. He wanted to make a change.

Could he stop being one thing and start being another? Could he, an average man, 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, become a pro golfer, just by trying? Dan’s not doing an experiment. He is the experiment.

The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now.

Dan spent last month in St. Petersburg because winters are winters in the Pacific Northwest. “If I could become a professional golfer,” he said one afternoon, “the world is literally open to any options for anybody.”

According to Dan, “talent has little to do with success.” He elaborates at his website:

According to research conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, “Elite performers engage in ‘deliberate practice’–an effortful activity designed to improve target performance.” Dr. Ericsson’s studies, made popular through Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, have found that in order to excel in a field, roughly 10,000 hours of “stretching yourself beyond what you can currently do” is required. “I think you’re the right astronaut for this mission,” Dr. Ericsson said about The Dan Plan.

I once enjoyed Gladwell’s articles in The New Yorker. He is, after all, such a talented writer. But I’ve tired more recently of his continuing quest to find explanations for assorted phenomena that are simultaneously novel and all-encompassing. I haven’t read Ericsson’s work, but I can’t imagine he intended for it to be applied, as Gladwell does, to explain Bill Gates’ success as resulting from the 10,000 hours he spent programming computers while in high school.

Nonetheless, I love the Dan Plan. Dan expects to “hit the 10,000 hour milestone by November of 2015. During this time, Dan plans to develop his skills through deliberate practice, eventually winning amateur events and obtaining his PGA Tour card through a successful appearance in the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School, or ‘Q-School’. I’ll be watching.

In the meantime, I have my own plan to attend to. This is blog post number 792. Just 9208 more before I hit my own 10,000 milestone and become a professional writer. Watch out, Malcolm. The New Yorker may not have room for both of us.

Categories: Golf, Life, Writing

Nature’s Metropolis

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I explained three weeks ago how political developments in Wisconsin led me to download and start reading William Cronon‘s 1992 study Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. As I mentioned then, Paul Krugman wrote a post at the end of January in which he spoke of rereading the book, adding that

everyone with any interest in economics should read [Cronon’s] 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.

I almost bought Cronon’s book at the time. With his appearance in the news last month as a victim of the McCarthy-style tactics of Wisconsin’s Republican party, I delayed no longer. Four days ago, I finished it.

Reading the book was a thrilling experience. It is the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine. You will surely realize that I don’t exactly read a lot of history, geography, economics, or ecology. Perhaps my assessment shouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But let me say this. Find the book, read Part II, and tell me if you disagree.

The book has three parts. The first introduces some of the book’s themes, with a focus on how water, then rails, gave Chicago its central role in the economy of the west over the nineteenth century. Just a few miles up the Chicago River, one reaches a high point whose other side drains into the Illinois River and on into the Mississippi. Thus, Chicago lies virtually at the divide between waterways that take you, in one direction, via the lakes and the Erie Canal, to New York City (or via the lakes to the St. Lawrence, Montreal, and beyond to the Atlantic), and in the other direction, via rivers, to St. Louis, New Orleans, and the Gulf. No sooner did Chicago begin to benefit from this prime location than railways changed everything. But yet again — and Cronon takes pains to point out that this was not inevitable — Chicago found itself in the key location between railways that supplied and brought goods from the great west and railways that sent the west’s produce to the major cities of the east while shipping the east’s manufactured goods back west.

Part II, building on this, is the heart of the book, and a must-read. Titled Nature to Market, it has three chapters: Pricing the Future: Grain, The Wealth of Nature: Lumber, and Annihilating Space: Meat. Each is a gem. I can think of no better microeconomics primer, as we watch capitalism take root and transform the western regions of the country along with the way of life of its population and the land itself. Prairie makes way for farming, the white pine of the north woods makes way to fence the prairie and house its inhabitants, and plains buffalo make way for cattle range land. People’s lives improve, but at a cost, which Cronon always keeps in our field of view.

Part III zooms out a bit, with a broader look at what has been gained and lost. It contains yet another gem, the chapter The Busy Hive, in which we watch Montgomery Ward become a retail force much like Wal-Mart or Costco today. But really, the entire book is a gem.

Categories: Books, Economics, History

From the Book Front

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve fallen over two months behind in writing about the books I’ve been reading. This has had the unfortunate effect, whenever I’ve been tempted to write about the book I’m reading at a given moment, that I’ve not allowed myself to do so, since I think to myself that I have to write about other books first. Worse still, as I move on to each new book, I no longer remember the specific details that so excited me about previous books. As a result, my remarks about these books will be regrettably cursory. But by getting the backlog cleared, perhaps I will be able to do a better job with upcoming books.

Just after last Christmas, I wrote my third post about Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which I had finished so that I would be ready for Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which I anticipated receiving as a present. I did get it, and I began to read it, getting introduced to the three principal characters Wilkerson would track in their journey as part of the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the industrial cities of the north. Wilkerson’s book was every bit as wonderful as I expected. However, I was making slow progress on it, and soon Robert Crais’s new crime novel The Sentry, which I had pre-ordered from Amazon, would arrive. Once it did, I put Wilkerson aside and devoured it, writing about it here. Alas, Wilkerson got put aside yet again, because next up was yet another Amazon pre-order, Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, which I also devoured, and wrote about.

At that point, rather than return to Wilkerson, I decided to finish two books that had come out in February 2010 and that I had bought at the time. One, Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World, describes six independent journeys in different parts of the world, and I had read one and a half of them a year earlier. How I stopped at the time is a mystery to me. It’s quite an engrossing book, and I made quick work of it on resuming, as described here. The other was Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, which I wrote about in early February after reading the first of its three parts. I promised to say more when I finished it. Two weeks later, by which time I was already on to the next book, I made a list of the items I be writing posts about, including my promised second installment on Country Driving as well as the book I was then reading, but neither happened.

Now I’m ready to pick up the trail.

1. The pity about my not writing more on Hessler’s Country Driving two months ago is that the second and third parts of the book were so different from, and more satisfying than, the first, and now I don’t have much to say. The first part described Hessler’s drive along the Great Wall and some of the people he encountered. The second focused on a rural mountain village a couple of hours outside Beijing where Hessler rented a weekend home. Over several years, he became almost a member of the family who rented the house to him, years during which the village underwent great change as roads were built that drew it closer to Beijing. Hessler would, for instance, routinely drive up to the village on Fridays, picking up their young son from the boarding school he attended in a larger town down the mountain, taking the boy back to school at the end of the weekend. We are able to appreciate the great changes families even in peripheral areas undergo during this period of rapid development through the experiences of this particular family. The third part features life in a newly built factory town in the south of China, as Hessler spends time with the owners of a new factory and with a family of workers who move to the new town to find work. Hessler is a sympathetic listener and insightful storyteller.

2. I might have felt, after traveling in Siberia, all over the world, and China with Frazier, Conover, and Hessler that it was time to put such books aside, but I had one more to go, Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. When it was published last August, the weekly and Sunday reviews days apart in the NYT tempted me, and I downloaded the small sample for my Kindle. This didn’t get me much past the Prologue — or maybe it was only the Prologue — giving me little sense of the book as a whole. But in February, I decided to take my chances and download (buy) the full book for the Kindle.

The book is built around the organizing principle that the eponymous tenth parallel of latitude forms a dividing line between Christianity and Islam, a line Griswold proceeds to visit in six African and Asian countries. Griswold justifies the significance of this line in her chapters on Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia, based on climate and geography, but to the extent that it serves as a dividing line in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, this seems to be more a function of circumstance than of any fundamental feature. Nonetheless, the conflict is real, and is vividly displayed in Griswold’s background passages, conversations with participants, and direct experience. The book is extraordinary, and as Mark Oppenheimer observes in opening his NYT review, “The most impressive thing about ‘The Tenth Parallel’ is that Eliza Griswold lived to write it.”

One theme that emerges is the role European and American missionary or evangelical groups have played in some locales in fostering Christian political or terrorist groups every bit as inflexible as their Muslim opponents. Griswold brings to these conflicts her background as the daughter of Frank Griswold, an Episcopal priest who served as Bishop of Chicago for nearly a decade and then as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

3. After this sequence of books, I was way overdue for a novel. The problem at this point was, I already had the novel picked out, but couldn’t start it yet. As I explained in a Kindle post last month, I’ve been eager for some time to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I had been warned by an Amazon review that it was not suitable reading on a Kindle because of a lengthy portion of the book, set as a Powerpoint presentation whose slides were unreadable. I would have simply ordered the hardcover, except that the paperback was due out in another two weeks, and at a price lower than the Kindle price. I decided to pre-order the paperback and wait for it.

This might have been a good time to return to Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons. Instead, with the new golf season in full swing and the Masters approaching, I decided to go back to a book I had ordered for my Kindle two falls ago, when the Kindle first came. At the time, I was looking to load books on that would cover a range of interests and thereby be sure to keep me engaged during our then-upcoming trip to Europe. To complement my novel and my Venetian history book, I chose James Dodson’s lengthy biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. I’ve read so much about the period from late 1930s to mid 1950s during which Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson dominated the US golf tour. I had never, however, developed a coherent understanding of those years. In particular, I knew of Ben Hogan’s near-fatal car crash in 1949 and his miraculous return to golf in 1950 (he wasn’t even expected to walk again), culminating in his US Open victory that year at Merion. And I knew of his amazing 1953 season, winning the Masters, the US Open, then heading over to Scotland to appear for the lone time in his career at the British Open, winning at Carnoustie. But the details had eluded me. Now was my chance to learn more.

Dodson’s book is the ultimate in breeziness, a style of writing to which I needed to adjust. Especially when I stumbled into errors such as the one early in the book in which Herbert Hoover is described, “during the long hot days of 1921” as “Cal Coolidge’s new secretary of commerce.” Surely I’m not the only reader who knows that Coolidge was the vice-president in 1921, not the president. Warren Harding (War Harding?) would have had to do the appointing.

No matter. Dodson has quite a story to tell, and he’s quite a storyteller. We can breeze on by such errors (Dodson also has FDR serving as president in 1932) when there’s so much else to hold our interest. If I were still reading the book rather than having finished it four weeks ago, I would have so many incidents to retell. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s a rich tale, with highlights such as Hogan’s Texas forebears, his early relationship with Byron Nelson at the club where they were both caddies, his marriage, his multiple narrow losses in major golf tournaments in the mid 1940s, his victories, the crushing playoff loss to Jack Fleck at the 1955 US Open, his battle with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the great 1960 US Open, his later years. And in the background, the story of the growth of Fort Worth during the twentieth century.

4. I finished the Hogan biography on a Sunday, with Egan’s novel due to arrive two days later. It did, and I jumped right in. But I wasn’t far along when I read of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s request under the state’s Open Records Law for the emails of University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, as I recounted here. I was so upset by the McCarthy-esque effort at intimidation that I was inspired to read his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, as I explained in that same post. I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began immediately, finishing late Wednesday night. I will devote a separate post to Cronon’s book, which I urge all of you to read.

5. What next? I suppose A Visit from the Goon Squad, and then The Warmth of Other Suns. But I have a feeling other books will intervene.

Categories: Books

Mountaintop Removal Mining

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

Categories: Business, Environment

Masters 2012?

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Augusta's 12th hole (of course)

I have this dream that some year, in early April, I will find myself in Augusta, Georgia, attending the Masters. Preferably accompanied by Gail. We’ve been to a PGA Championship together — the 1998 PGA at Sahalee in nearby Sammamish. We’ve been to a US Open together — the 2002 Open at Bethpage Black near where I grew up. And we’ve been to a British Open together — the 2004 Open Championship at Royal Troon near where our friends the Browns grew up. The Masters is overdue.

There are obstacles. One is that getting away in April is harder than getting away in June, July, or August. But the principal obstacle is the unavailability of tickets. The Masters famously limits the number of tickets sold, and those they do sell are permanently taken. Like season tickets for a football team, they are renewable year-to-year, and from what I understand, they can be passed down, at least within a family. Masters officials strongly discourage resale of tickets, claiming that scalped tickets will not be honored and the sellers will lose their rights. But this must not be enforced in any serious way, since tickets are always available — at a price. They may be the most sought after scalped sports tickets in the US, or perhaps second only to the Super Bowl. I investigated last year, when I was on sabbatical and our getting away in early April seemed plausible. But the prices discouraged me, along with my fear that I’d pay a thousand bucks or more for invalid or fraudulent tickets.

Actual Masters tickets are not just rare, but modestly priced, as is everything at the Masters, from the famous pimento cheese sandwiches to the souvenirs. This makes the huge cost of tickets in the secondary market all the more cruel, in contrast, say, to Super Bowl tickets. I have come to accept that some day I’ll accept the cruelty, pay the price, and go.

But maybe not! The lords of the Masters have taken pity on us. As patrons have allowed their subscriptions to lapse, a pool of tickets has been built up, and last week those lords announced that they will be made available by a random selection process, starting next year. This morning I applied.

It’s not the best arrangement. Only single-day passes are available. If I understood the wording correctly, you can’t do better than getting a pass for a single practice day (Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday) and, I gather in a separate random process, a pass for a single tournament day (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday). The series passes remain unavailable. Would it be worth the effort to fly to Georgia just for a single day of golf?

Well, we can decide that later. First we have to be chosen. This morning, I filled out the application. One can request up to 4 passes for the practice days and up to 2 passes for the tournament days. I requested 2 passes for each category.

When Gail got home, I excitedly told her that we were entered in the lottery, but once I explained the conditions, she didn’t share the excitement. She wasn’t too keen to make the trip just to get on the course for a single day. She suggested I go with someone else, such as our friend and fellow golf fan John. Again, we can work that out later. First we have to be chosen. And we can work out later whether we’ll actually be free to travel in April.

For now, I will dream.

Categories: Golf

The Masters, 2011 Edition

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Charl Schwartzel sinking putt on 18 to win Masters

[Photo by Zachary Boyden-Holmes/Augusta Chronicle]

I have to say something, don’t I? My favorite sport. One of the year’s four major men’s tournaments. The one whose televised production is the best of all golf tournaments. (Few ads, no network promos, great camera work.) Almost eight months since the previous major. The beautiful course.

There truly is nothing like Masters Sunday. Whatever happens, I’m going to be watching, and I’m going to love it, as one champion emerges amid all the heartbreak.

Sure enough, this is how yesterday went, except that it was even better than anyone could have imagined. If you saw it, I need say no more. If you didn’t, I can’t possibly capture the drama. Eight players led or were tied for the lead coming home. As many as six were tied simultaneously, as players kept reaching a cumulative score of -10 and falling back. Finally, Tiger made it into the clubhouse at -10, after a glorious front nine that set high expectations and a flat back nine that gave him a piece of the lead. Then Geoff Ogilvy joined him at -10, thanks to a back nine stretch of five straight birdies. But too many players were even with them or just behind, with holes still to play. Finally, Adam Scott moved to -11. And then came Jason Day, also at -11. And then they moved to -12. It became clear that -10 wasn’t going to do it.

And finally, what will never be forgotten by golf fans, Charl Schwartzel’s glorious final four holes. He had opened with wondrous a chip in birdie from off the green on one and a hole in from the fairway for an eagle on three to jump from -8 to -11, only to fall back with a bogey on four. Then came ten straight pars, keeping him at that seemingly magical score of -10. And then: a birdie on the par five 15th brought him to -11, as Scott and day ahead of him were making their moves. A birdie on the par three 16th put him at -12. A birdie at the par four 17th and he was in the lead at -13. Safely on the green in two on the par four 18th, all he needed was two putts from 18 feet to win. But the way he was putting, you just sensed that he was going to go for it. He did, the ball dropped in, he had his fourth straight birdie, he was at -14, and the Masters was his.

Boy oh boy. A great start, a historic finish, those ten straight pars in the middle. What a round! What a tournament!

Categories: Golf