Archive for May, 2011

Sentence of the Week

May 15, 2011 1 comment

Usually, my sentences of the week are bad ones. This one’s a good one.

Earlier this afternoon, one of Roger Angell’s occasional baseball posts appeared at the New Yorker blog site. In writing about New York Yankee Jorge Posada, who at 39 is having a bad season and chose not to play yesterday, Angell added a variation to his decades-long theme that baseball is just darned hard:

For this fan, one of the compelling traits about baseball at its top level is its insatiable difficulty, which shows itself most ferociously to arriving rookies and to older players, no matter how celebrated, on their way out.

Of course, occasionally a player has a stretch that fools you into thinking it’s easy. Like Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Alas, it didn’t last.

Categories: Baseball, Writing

Domestic Drones

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been a little quiet on the political front lately. I apologize. It’s so hard to keep up with all the developments. The killing of Osama. Obama’s subsequent announcements that he is ending US military engagement in Afghanistan, closing Guantánamo, and initiating a truth-finding inquiry into Bush administration torture enhanced interrogation. Where to begin?

What? I was dreaming? All of it? Not quite? Oh. So we killed Osama, then days later shot missiles from a drone over Yemen in an assassination attempt on Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen yet to be tried or convicted of any crime? Got it.

Gotta love those drones. Are they cool or what? On Monday, emptywheel reported on the provision in the House Armed Services Committee Mark-Up for next year’s Defense Authorization including “funds to build drone hangars at four bases in the Continental US.”

This follows the news she reported last month that

a bunch of people claiming to be interested in jobs inserted an amendment into the FAA bill requiring the FAA to allow for drones in US airspace. … Aside from jobs, what’s remarkable about the push for drones is how amorphous the purpose of the drones are. Here’s Candice Miller, one of the sponsors of the amendment, describing the need:

My amendment is designed to help expedite and to improve the process by which FAA works with government agencies to incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs as they’re commonly called, into the National Airspace System. Currently, Mr. Chairman, law enforcement agencies across the country, from Customs and Border Protection to local police departments, et cetera, are ready to embrace the new technology and to start utilizing UAVs in the pursuit of enforcing the law and protecting our border as well.

However, the FAA has been very hesitant to give authorization to these UAVs due to limited air space and restrictions that they have. I certainly can appreciate those concerns; but when we’re talking about Customs and Border Protection or the FBI, what have you, we are talking about missions of national security. And certainly there’s nothing more important than that. It was a very, very lengthy exercise to get the FAA to authorize the use of UAVs on the southern border. While they’re finally being utilized down there, we are certainly a long way from fully utilizing these technologies.

That is, we’re talking about CPB (which has used the drones for some years), but also the FBI, local police departments, and “et cetera” using the drones.

You know me. I’m no conspiracy theorist. But I’m no fool either. If they’re not watching us yet, they will be soon. Count on it.

Categories: Politics, War

Pull = Latin America

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is also a regular contributor to the Language Log blog. A recurring theme in his posts is his unraveling of the possible sequence of events leading to a particularly bizarre occurrence of Chinglish, especially as found in printed English translations of Chinese on signs.

Today’s example, the first in a Mair post in some time, is as good as they come. Look closely at the sign above and you’ll see the English words Latin America on the hotel shower door.

What in the world is going on here? One big Chinese character and all those Roman letters beneath it:


All right, let’s go through this methodically. La 拉 simply means “pull,” and that is what the sign is telling the person who is about to enter the shower. If you want to get into the shower, PULL the door. Simple enough.

So how did the injunction to “Latin America” come into the picture? Some oaf who was charged with making the sign managed to find lā 拉 in their dictionary and must have been overwhelmed by the plethora of English glosses: pull, drag, draw, haul, help out, implicate, play (a stringed instrument), chat, a verbal suffix, and so forth. Bewildered, they would have spotted near the end of the entry for lā 拉 that it is also an abbreviation for Lāměi 拉美, which is in turn a short form of Lādīng měizhōu 拉丁美洲, which means “Latin America”.

Why didn’t the oaf choose the first and simplest definition, “pull”? I suppose that they thought that the English (Roman letter) part of the sign is for foreigners, so it might be smart (!!) to use the only obviously foreign definition in the dictionary: Latin America. That’s the best defense I can give on behalf of the individual who made this sign. Actually, it’s not really a defense, merely one possible explanation for this mind-boggling choice. I suppose it’s also possible that they didn’t understand any of the English glosses, and simply felt that the longest one must be the most informative.

Be sure to look at past Mair posts on Chinglish. They are always fascinating. For instance, here’s another one.

Categories: Language, Translation

Pipes and Drums

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned in my last post the painfully premature death last Friday of our cousin Jeffrey Birt. His funeral was yesterday. I don’t intend to recount it here. I’ll just say that I now know who I would like to make an appearance at my funeral. The Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums. Yesterday’s service was moving enough as it was, but the effect of their rendition of Going Home as they marched in to open the service and Amazing Grace to conclude it was beyond words.

Categories: Music, Obituary

Jeffrey Birt

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

One more obit, this one a little closer to home. Jeffrey Birt, Gail’s cousin’s son, died last Friday at the age of 36, leaving behind his wife and three young children, as well as a large extended family who loved him. Here’s his Seattle Times obituary. And here’s something at the Seattle Fire Department facebook page.

He will be buried tomorrow. A huge and incomprehensible loss.

Categories: Family, Obituary

Seve Ballesteros

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Seve Ballesteros, one of the great golfers of the twentieth century, died last Saturday. As so many have noted, his greatness goes far beyond his golfing record. The record alone doesn’t hint at his inventive genius from bunkers or chipping or on the green. Nor does it hint at the transformative role he played in restoring European golf to greatness and making the game the international success it is today, as best manifested in the Ryder Cup mania we now take for granted.

With all that has been written about Seve, and all the videos of him shown on TV, there’s little I can add. The best stories are the ones about the awe his fellow competitors held him in, their eagerness to watch him play. I wish I could quote one I heard on the PGA Tour Network on satellite radio yesterday, but it went by too fast as I was driving to school. The gist of it was that the narrator — I came in in the middle and never heard who he was — found himself playing with Seve and Arnold Palmer, many years ago. Seve hit two impossible shots during the round, one from just behind a rock, right over it and onto the green, another out of a plugged lie in a greenside bunker to within two feet of the hole. Each time, Arnie looked over to the narrator to ask, have you ever seen such a shot before?

Here’s more, from John Huggan, writing in The Scotsman.

Still, for all his success and obvious desire to succeed, for Seve a round of golf was always more about the journey than the destination. So it is not for mere victories that he will be remembered with such affection by those he played with and against over the course of a 33-year professional career. Everyone has a Seve story that begins, “you won’t believe what he did”.

Even Nicklaus has been impressed. The 3-wood Seve struck from a cavernous fairway bunker to the edge of the final green at PGA National in Florida during the 1983 Ryder Cup remains the greatest shot the game’s greatest-ever player ever saw. Beat that for an accolade.

Such feats of extraordinary brilliance were commonplace though, mere extensions of an artistic temperament ideally suited to the creation rather than the mere striking of shots. Seve learned those skills on the vast beach at Pedrena, the tiny fishing village on Spain’s windswept northern coast where he was born and where he died, early yesterday morning, at the tragically early age of 54. Armed with only a rusty old 3-iron, the pre-teen manufactured all kinds of shots: high, low, slice and hook and everything in between.

“Never when you are a child do you think you are especially gifted for something,” he said. “What you do notice is passion – because you feel it. Passion makes you devote yourself to what you really like.


“When I was paired with Seve in the 2000 Volvo Masters at Montecastillo I was so excited,” recalls former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “As a youngster I used to watch tapes of all the majors and my favourite was the 1988 Open at Lytham.

“Seve shot a beautiful 65 on the final day to win by two strokes from Nick Price. But two things stand out: the chip shot he hit on the last hole – the prettiest I ever saw – and his smile and how much fun he made it all look. I must have watched that chip 1,000 times.

“Anyway, when we played together, his best game was already well behind him. But for the first and maybe the last time, I played a whole round more interested in the shots hit by my playing partner than in anything I did myself.

“He was still intoxicating to watch on all the little shots that required creativity. He hit one, a short iron from rough over water to a front pin, to ten feet or so. It was a shot I had thought impossible. Amazing. With as many rounds as we play on tour I am sure to forget most of them. But I will never forget the day I played with Seve.”

Categories: Golf, Obituary

Daniel Quillen

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the greatest mathematicians I’ve had the privilege to know — Daniel Quillen — died ten days ago. He was on the faculty at MIT when I was a graduate student there, and did some of his most famous work at the time.

It’s a funny thing about mathematicians. If Quillen were a physicist, say, or a composer, or a writer, his death would have been the lead obituary of the day. Perhaps the NYT will eventually get around to taking note of his death. In the meantime, I’ll refer you to a blog post a week ago by Steve Landsburg, the economist, some-time mathematician, and popular economics writer, whom I happened to hang out with thirty years ago when we were both at the University of Chicago. Steve writes:

I met Quillen only once, and very briefly, but great mathematicians, like great poets, reveal so much of themselves in their work that one comes to feel a certain intimacy just by studying them. In that sense, Quillen was my close companion many a year.

Dan Quillen died this week at the age of 70, after a five year battle with Alzheimer’s. Scouring the web for obituaries and other recent mentions, I found very little besides a brief article from a Gainesville newspaper about an Alzheimer’s patient named Daniel Gray Quillen who had gone briefly missing in June, 2010. Followup stories identify the missing man as “a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s”.

“A senior citizen”?!?!?! Part of me wants to scream: “Dammit, this is no generic senior citizen! This is Daniel Fucking Quillen, Fields Medalist, Cole Prize Winner, architect of higher K-theory, conqueror of the Serre conjecture, and one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century!”

Categories: Math, Obituary

Geographic Ignorance

May 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Like many a native New Yorker, I grew up with the idea that Washington State was frontier territory. Maybe back then it was. However, after moving here thirty years ago, I quickly adjusted, and quickly tired of some of the odd ideas people in the northeast had about us. Such as imagining that we’re next to the Canadian Rockies. Or Alaska.

As Seattle and the state have grown, as Microsoft, Starbucks, and Costco have joined Boeing and Weyerhaueser in putting us in the nation’s business news, I had the notion that maybe we were a little better understood.

Until this morning, when I read Catherine Lutz’s review in today’s NYT of Janny Scott’s just-published biography A Singular Woman:
The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
. In the second paragraph, I learned that

Ann Dunham … followed her peripatetic parents — a mother in banking and a father in furniture sales — through several states, to an island off Washington State, and finally on to Hawaii, where she met two husbands and got her B.A. and eventually her Ph.D. in anthropology.

Mention of “an island off Washington State” brought me to a stop. For a moment I was puzzled about whether islands “off” Washington are part of Washington. Would we say that Nantucket is off Massachusetts or Catalina is off California or the Keys are off Florida? That seemed odd. Maybe Nantucket is off the Massachusetts coast, and so on. But the larger puzzle was that I couldn’t think of any islands off the Washington coast. Sure, there must be the odd speck or two, but no one visits or lives on them. There are lots of islands within Puget Sound and the adjacent protected salt water inlets of the state. Bainbridge Island. Vashon Island. Whidbey Island. The San Juan Islands. Some are Seattle suburbs. Others are closer to Canada. But they are all some distance from the Pacific, not what one would call “off Washington State.”

Which of these islands, I wondered, did Ann Dunham live on? I suppose I must have read about it before, but I couldn’t remember. i went to the computer, looked her up, and my jaw dropped. Mercer Island! You see, the thing is, Mercer Island is not off the coast. Mercer Island is not in the state’s interior saltwater by-ways. Mercer Island is in freshwater Lake Washington, the lake that runs north-south along the eastern edge of Seattle, with such cities and suburbs as Bellevue, Kirkland, Medina (Bill Gates’ home), and Redmond to the east. (On the map above, you can see Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, with Mercer Island the pink blob in the southern end of the lake.)

Two bridges cross the lake. One is just a stone’s throw or two from our house. (Okay, maybe three or four, and maybe with Aaron Rodgers doing the throwing.) The other is the I-90 bridge. Interstate 90 starts on the south edge of downtown, by Safeco Field, and ends 3000 miles later a little past Fenway Park in Boston. A long trip. But its first stop heading east out of Seattle is Mercer Island, just three miles away.

What this means is that Mercer Island is closer to downtown Seattle than any other suburb, and closer to downtown than most Seattle neighborhoods. In what universe, or what terminology, does that put Ann Dunham on “an island off Washington State”? Please, Professor Lutz, look at a map!

Note: I was so flabbergasted this morning that I wrote a letter to the NYT editor. I’ll spare you its text. This is essentially an expanded version.

Categories: Geography, Journalism

Life of a War Criminal

May 1, 2011 Leave a comment

[Robyn Twomey for The New York Times]

Ah, the life of a war criminal in 2011 America. Start wars based on manufactured evidence. Torture people. Then leave office and rake in the money with public appearances in front of idolizing crowds. Plus all those network TV cameos at major sporting events.

If you rank high enough in our country’s government, this is what awaits you. President will do. Vice-president. Secretary of Defense. And Secretary of State.

Condoleezza, life is good. And today you get to be the featured interviewee in the NYT Sunday magazine, with Andrew Goldman asking the tough questions.

I’ve read that people consider you almost incapable of admitting a mistake. What do you consider to be the biggest of your career?
You know, I’ve done pretty well. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past that way.

You can’t think of just one?
I’m certain I can find many. It’s just not a very fruitful exercise.

Of course, Obama set the tone on this three weeks into his presidency when he declared, “My view is also that nobody’s above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”

Bipartisanship at its best.

Categories: Politics, Torture

A Change in Plans

May 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Ian Frazier reviews John Darnton’s Almost a Family: A Memoir in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Ron’s View readers will know that I’m a big fan of Frazier. I read all his books, his short pieces in The New Yorker, and his New York Review pieces. But Joel got to this one before I did. He was thus able to pass on to me the warning contained in the review’s opening sentences:

An important thing to know about memoirs is that although there are a lot of them already, there will soon be more. Seventy-six million baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Many of us own computers, and we find ourselves fascinating.

Joel didn’t have to explain why he thought this passage was relevant. He recognized me, I knew he recognized me, and he knew I would recognize myself. At least he was reassuring. When I rued that I was too late, he urged me to hurry up and get in ahead of the tide.

As for Frazier, he saw this coming long ago. He’s my age. We were college classmates. And he had the prescience to publish his memoir in 1994.

Now what will I do when I retire?

Categories: Life, Writing