Archive for June, 2011


June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Unagi in cucumber sheaths

[Ramsay de Give for The New York Times]

When I opened the NYT this morning, I turned straight to Ben Brantley’s review of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Had Bono and the Edge salvaged the show since Julie Taymor’s dismissal or was it still a hopeless mess?

You can read Ben’s thoughts yourself and find out. Turning to the weekly dining section, I found myself captivated by a different review, that of famed New York Sushi restaurant Masa by Sam Sifton. Sifton is a fine writer. Even though I’m never going to eat at Masa, when his subject is one of New York’s great restaurants, I pay attention.

Frank Bruni, Sifton’s predecessor, had given Masa the highest and rarest of ratings — four stars — a year after its 2004 opening. Over the course of the past year, Sifton visited and re-visited Masa before deciding to award it three stars. Sifton loves the food, writing of spending his time there “in a fog of pleasure, sitting dumbfounded on the shores of excess.” However, he finds the service wanting.

But extraordinary food alone does not an extraordinary restaurant make. The experience of eating at Masa can clash, sometimes greatly, with the grace, simplicity and excellence of the cuisine on display.

One night I entered the 26-seat restaurant five minutes before my reservation time, arriving before my three guests. The room was empty, save for servers and one occupied table in the dining room. The woman at the restaurant’s front checked my (fake) name off a short list of reservations on a piece of paper on a block of wood in front of her. She took my briefcase and placed it in a closet.

Then: “You may wait outside,” she said. “When you return with your guests, please have your cellphone turned off or on silent.”


There are other wrinkles in Masa’s fine silk. At the sushi bar it is not uncommon for the prepared dishes served at the start of a meal, which are brought to the bar by servers, to be placed before customers with no explanation whatsoever. In the dining room it is possible for the same lapse to occur with the arrival of the sushi. It is unsettling, given the luxury of the food, and the question of its cost.

Some will take issue with the fact that Masa serves an enormous amount of bluefin tuna, a fish that some say hovers on the brink of collapse as a species. (The reason is presumably simple: its taste.) Others will cavil at the manner in which Mr. Takayama caters to some guests in the restaurant while ignoring others, in seemingly direct proportion to the amount of money they are spending.


Finally, meals at the restaurant end with a clank: you are given a dessert and it throws a switch. Everyone turns away and you will have little contact with the staff until you find someone to give you the bill. Guests stare at one another awkwardly: What do we do now?

Read the full review. And check out the accompanying slide show.

Categories: Journalism, Restaurants

Change We Can Believe In, XIX

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: It’s My Party, and I’ll Bomb Who I Want To

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll get the reference. If not, well, there was this nice Jewish girl named Leslie Sue Goldstein who recorded It’s My Party under the name Lesley Gore. As she turned 17 in the spring of 1963, it became the #1 song in the country, a hit for both her and producer Quincy Jones. The words of its immortal refrain were on all our tongues that summer: “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.”

This morning I was dumbfounded as I read online the NYT article by Charlie Savage and Mark Landler, to appear in tomorrow’s paper, in which White House explains why the fighting in Libya is not a war. This was the basis for concluding that the War Powers Act doesn’t apply, so that President Obama need not ask Congress for authorization for continued fighting in Libya.

In contending that the limited American role did not oblige the administration to ask for authorization under the War Powers Resolution, the report asserted that “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.”


“We are acting lawfully,” said Harold H. Koh, the State Department legal adviser, who expanded on the administration’s reasoning in a joint interview with the White House counsel, Robert Bauer.

The two senior administration lawyers contended that American forces had not been in “hostilities” at least since early April, when NATO took over the responsibility for the no-fly zone and the United States shifted to primarily a supporting role — providing refueling and surveillance to allied warplanes, although remotely piloted drones operated by the United States periodically fire missiles, too.

They argued that United States forces are at little risk because there are no troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange fire with them meaningfully. And they said the military mission was constrained by a United Nations Security Council resolution, which authorized air power for the purpose of defending civilians.

“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” said Mr. Koh, a former Yale Law School dean and outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s expansive theories of executive power. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”

If I understand this correctly, we’re not at war because even though we get to fire missiles, Libyan forces can’t fire back.

Is this a great country or what? I love the rule of law. Okay, so the president is constrained by law to get Congressional approval to fight wars. But if we want to bomb the crap out of a country, as long as we keep them at arm’s length so they can’t return fire, we’re not at war.

Sorry, Congress. You don’t matter. It’s my party, and I’ll bomb who I want to.

Categories: Government, Law, War

One with Everything

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I saw the video above first thing this morning and intended to write a post around it, but by now I’m a little late. The video has been picked up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and I suppose on just about every other major aggregating site in the English-speaking world by now. So you’ve probably seen it already. But in case you haven’t, click on the play button above to watch host Karl Stefanovic of Australia’s Today show tell the Dalai Lama a joke. Stefanovic’s willingness to make a complete fool of himself is adorable.

I initially stumbled on the video in a Language Log post by linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who uses it as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of humor:

Stefanovic is surely not the only person who has discovered to his cost how easy it is to underestimate the quantity of cultural and linguistic background needed if you are to reliably get the jokes that people tell. For this one, (i) you must have encountered the Buddhist idea of merging or unifying with the universe, expressed using the idiom become one with (which in other contexts is not common); and (ii) you must have encountered pizza in the American style, with loads of different topping choices, ordered using a preposition phrase headed by with (as in with pepperoni and mushroom); and (iii) you must have been in a pizzeria that has as one of the choices on its menu the indecisive glutton’s non-choice consisting of a megacombo of all available toppings (by no means all pizza restaurants give you that option), so that everything is a possible topping choice.

When you put it that way, no wonder the Dalai Lama was so clueless. As Pullum concludes, “it’s a wonder most jokes don’t [die a quietly horrible public death], considering the complex web of previously encountered phrases and cultural references that jokes typically rely on.”

Pacific Northwest Hockey

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Tonight the Boston Bruins return to Vancouver, BC, for the seventh and final game of the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Canucks. It’s been a wild series, as all hockey fans know, with the Canucks winning three painfully close games in Vancouver (1-0 with the goal scored in the final seconds, 3-2 in overtime, 1-0), while the Bruins have won three blowouts in Boston (8-1, 4-0, 5-2 and not as close as that suggests).

It’s not that often that the hockey world focuses its attention on this part of the continent. But there was a time when the world did so routinely. Before attention shifts again, let me recall those days of Pacific Northwest hockey glory.

We’re talking about 1915 to 1922, when the Stanley Cup was a competition between the champion of the Pacific Coast Hockey League and the champion of the National Hockey Association (which in 1918 became the National Hockey League). Under this arrangement, a team here in the northwest played for the Cup every year.

Reviewing the data, which you can find here, we see that Vancouver was the Stanley Cup champion in 1915. That would be the Vancouver Millionaires, who defeated the Ottawa Senators. The Portland Rosebuds lost the next year to Montreal, and then in 1917 our very own Seattle Metropolitans beat Montreal for the cup, bringing the cup to the US for the first time. We missed out in 1918, when Vancouver lost to Toronto, but we were back in the cup competition in 1919. Alas, the series was cancelled midway through because of the flu epidemic, with Seattle and Montreal tied. A year later, we were in it again, but lost to Ottawa.

That’s three cup appearances in four years for Seattle!

Then it was Vancouver’s turn, losing in successive years to Ottawa and to Toronto. By this point, a third league had entered the fray, the Western Canada Hockey League, soon to become the Western Hockey League. Soon thereafter, the PCHA folded, with the WHL absorbing the Vancouver and Victoria teams. In 1925, the Victoria team, the Cougars, beat the Montreal Canadiens for the Cup, and in 1926, they lost it to the Montreal Maroons.

With that, the WHL folded, bringing Pacific Northwest Stanley Cup hockey to an end, at least until the NHL added the Vancouver Canucks in 1970. Since 1927, the Stanley Cup has been an NHL-only competition.

Will the Cup return to the northwest? We’ll soon know. But how about returning a team to Seattle? It’s a continuing joke that the NHL has teams in some of the most unlikely southern outposts, but none in this historic hockey hotbed. We’re ready and willing. And imagine the rivalry with Vancouver.

Categories: History, Hockey

Today’s Crossword Delight

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Swiss 10-franc banknote

I had a happy surprise last night when I did today’s NYT crossword. (If you haven’t done it yet but anticipate getting to it later, read no further until you’re done.)  The clue for 5-across is “Subject with limits and functions, informally,” with the not-so interesting answer ‘calc’.  But this set up up 45-across:  “Swiss 5-across pioneer,”  the answer (of course) being my favorite mathematician, Euler.  How can I not love a crossword with Euler in it?

It’s a continuing source of wonder and sadness to us mathematicians that geniuses such as Euler are largely unknown.  If he were a composer, he would be Bach. If he were a baseball player, he would be Cobb.  But he’s a mathematician, and a cipher, except at least in Switzerland, where he is a familiar figure.  (See above.)

This short biography gives some sense of his greatness. Have a look. And next time you see mention in a crossword of a Swiss mathematician, remember Euler.

Categories: Crosswords, Math

Normalizing the National Surveillance State

June 13, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a post I started three weeks ago, in the wake of Jane Mayer’s widely discussed New Yorker article on the US Justice Department’s prosecution of Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency employee accused of disclosing top-secret defense documents. Events have overtaken me, most notably the government’s abandonment of its overblown case and agreement to a plea bargain with Drake.

Mayer’s article is still very much to the point in its depiction of the Obama administration’s over-reach in its zeal to bring whistleblowers to their knees. It’s essential reading. For now, let me settle on making just one point, by quoting from Mayer’s article her own quote of Yale law professor Jack Balkin:

Jack Balkin, a liberal law professor at Yale, agrees that the increase in leak prosecutions is part of a larger transformation. “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” he says. In his view, zealous leak prosecutions are consonant with other political shifts since 9/11: the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy, in which at least two and a half million people hold confidential, secret, or top-secret clearances; huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it; and corporate partnerships with the government that have transformed the counterterrorism industry into a powerful lobbying force. Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.”

There is little more troubling about the Obama administration than its continuation of Bush’s national security state. At least in the Bush years we could see what he was doing as an aberration and anticipate that his successor would return us to the rule of law. Had McCain been elected and continued these policies, we might still view them as an aberration. But for Obama, who spoke out against these measures as a senator and campaigned against them, to not just continue them but vigorously argue for their necessity indeed enshrines them as bipartisan national policy. (See the cartoon at the top of this post for Tom Tomorrow’s take on this issue.)

Which brings us to Charlie Savage’s front-page article in today’s NYT, whose title speaks for itself: “F.B.I. Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.

The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity.


Some of the most notable changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” The category, created in December 2008, allows agents to look into people and organizations “proactively” and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.

Under current rules, agents must open such an inquiry before they can search for information about a person in a commercial or law enforcement database. Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without making a record about their decision.

In other words, the FBI can spy on us for just about any reason, or no reason at all.

I feel safer already.

Categories: Government, Law

Bruni on Seattle Restaurants

June 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The travel section of this Sunday’s NYT will have a lengthy piece by former NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni on Seattle. It’s on-line now. I saw the link at the NYT home page earlier today and wasted no time having a look. The more I read, the more I thought Seattle sounds like a great place to live. I didn’t entirely recognize it. Obviously I need to get out more.

Bruni opens with an encounter at The Walrus and the Carpenter, which leads into the paeanful passage below:

To eat in and around Seattle, which I did recently and recommend heartily, isn’t merely to eat well. It is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place.

I’m hard-pressed to think of another corner or patch of the United States where the locavore sensibilities of the moment are on such florid (and often sweetly funny) display, or where they pay richer dividends, at least if you’re a lover of fish. You could, I guess, make a case for the southern stretch of the Pacific Northwest around Portland, Ore., a city honored by its own cable television show, “Portlandia,” which pokes fun at its artisanal obsessions, epicurean and otherwise. But Portland isn’t as connected to and intimate with the sea and tides as Seattle. It’s not as wondrously watery.

In greater Seattle and the San Juan Islands you get a lineup and caliber of local oysters that aren’t easily matched, in addition to superb spot prawns, salmon, black cod and halibut.

Did I mention Dungeness crab? The region is lousy with Dungeness crab. It came at me in more ways than I could keep track of. At Seatown, an enticing new restaurant near the Pike Place Market, it formed a snowy layer in a colorful, carefully molded puck with pale green avocado and glittering orange tobiko, which is flying fish roe. Seatown further used it with bacon in an unconventional B.L.T. For its part, the restaurant Madison Park Conservatory, an excellent recent arrival to the shores of Lake Washington, served Dungeness crab deviled eggs at brunch. Somewhere around Seattle, I’m certain, Dungeness crab gelato is being made. I simply didn’t have the good (or ill?) fortune to find it.

The region provides a natural theater for this feast that’s just as inimitable, a thrilling topography of steeply pitched hills and gently sloped mountains. Snowcaps shimmer on the horizon. Evergreens are everywhere — gargantuan and piney and so very, very pointy. The tree line has jags, edges. It looks as if it’s serrated.

The Madison Park Conservatory, mentioned above in passing, is in our neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to say we have yet to eat there. On the other hand, it’s still new, and we did eat in the restaurants that preceded it on the same site. Indeed, Gail and I had our second date there when it was Crêpe de Paris.

See also the slideshow that accompanies Bruni’s article.

Categories: Restaurants