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Forgotten Land

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

I wrote last night about how much I’ll miss the daily book review in the Wall Street Journal when the paper’s delivery finally ceases. A month ago it led me to Robert Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, the subject of last night’s post. Two and a half weeks ago, I was introduced by Andrew Stuttaford to Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. I’m now some 70 pages into Egremont’s book and thoroughly enjoying it.

Here is the opening of Stuttaford’s review:

In 1945, Stalin seized East Prussia, Germany’s venerable redoubt on the Baltic Sea, as a spoil of war. A portion went to the “People’s Republic” that the Soviets had just created in Poland. He kept the rest. The last surviving Germans were killed or deported. The cozy old Königsberg of the Teutonic Knights—the home, during the Enlightenment, of no less than Immanuel Kant—was transformed into Kaliningrad—a bleak Soviet place named after Mikhail Kalinin, the token peasant who was titular head of Stalin’s USSR.

Nearly 70 years later, the countries behind these borders have changed, but the frontiers have not, and will not. The Polish part is finally and truly Polish; the sliver of East Prussia given to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic is now a part of independent Lithuania; the rest of the old Soviet slice is a seedy Russian exclave surrounded by the European Union. The only Germans there are tourists, in search of an elusive land that lingers on in family lore and in the dreams of the dispossessed for a vanished, fondly imagined, past.

Max Egremont’s idiosyncratic, disjointed and beautifully written volume makes an ideal guide to this shifting, shadowy realm. In part a piecemeal history of the final half-century of German East Prussia, in part a travelogue through what was left behind, “Forgotten Land” is gently elegiac. Shifting constantly between present and a variety of pasts, it is as wistful as a flick-through of an old photo album, as melancholy as a rain-spattered northern autumn afternoon.

Immanuel Kant may be the most famous genius associated to Königsberg, but the one whom Königsberg brings to my mind is Kant’s near contemporary Leonhard Euler, the greatest mathematician of the eighteenth century. Euler, a Swiss native, did not actually live in Königsberg. He spent much of his career in St. Petersburg and Berlin. But he knew Königsberg’s layout, and one of his early successes was his 1735 solution of the Königsberg bridge problem.*

I learned as a child about the problem and Euler’s solution, prompting me to wonder where Königsberg was. I was puzzled on finding that it lay in the Soviet Union and was called Kaliningrad. In due course, I read some of the relevant history, but new puzzles were introduced, such as why Prussia had an outpost so far east, embedded in modern-day Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. On reading Stuttaford’s review, I realized that Egremont’s book offered me the opportunity, at last, to put the pieces in their proper places. Plus, I could wallow in elegiac, wistful melancholy. I wasted no time downloading and starting Forgotten Land.

*Perhaps a few words on the Königsberg bridge problem would be in order. Below you see a drawing of the seven bridges that crossed the Pregel River in Königsberg in Euler’s time. (I have taken this drawing from Wikipedia, where it was the picture of the month on the Mathematics Portal for September 2011 and credited to Bogdan Giuşcă.)

The problem is to find a route through the city that crosses each bridge exactly once. Euler proved that there is no way to do this. In so doing, he laid the foundation for the modern-day mathematical field known as graph theory.

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Categories: Books, History, Math

World in the Balance

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I explained last week that I was motivated to read Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography on my Chicago trip two weeks ago because I didn’t want to take a physical book on the plane with me (which is to say, The Crowded Grave or Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the two books I was intending to read next), so I grabbed my Kindle and turned to Agassi’s book, which I had downloaded and begun almost two years ago. On the flight to O’Hare and the return the next day, I devoured it.

One Wall Street Journal feature I will miss when delivery ends (I ceased paying, but it continues to show up at the door) is its daily book review. I don’t lack for book reviews. There’s the NYT daily and Sunday, the Sunday, Seattle Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books. Plus NPR. Yet, the WSJ manages to review books that fall through the others’ cracks. One such example is Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement. A month ago, Laura Snyder provided a review, describing the book as a

sweeping survey of the history of measurement and the search for universal and absolute standards, from ancient China up to practically yesterday.

The history of measurement, Mr. Crease makes clear, is the history of globalization and international scientific cooperation. In the past, every region had its own system of measurement. The author takes us on a whirlwind tour of ancient China, West Africa and feudal Europe, showing the confusing multiplicity of measurement methods. But within a period of only 200 years, he explains, “virtually all these systems became consolidated into one universal system of measurement, adopted by virtually every country on the planet.”

Before leaving for Chicago, I remembered Snyder’s review and downloaded World in the Balance so I would have another book ready on the Kindle in case I finished Open. Sure enough, on the return flight, I was ready for another book and began to read it as we began our descent into Seattle, continuing the next night. I got some ways into ancient China when the two books waiting for me at home, The Crowded Grave and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, beckoned and I put it aside.

They’re done now. In the meantime, two more books have jumped the queue. I’ll return to measurements soon enough, at which point I expect I’ll have more to say.

Categories: Books

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Five weeks ago, I wrote about starting Alexandra Fuller’s 2001 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. I had listened to an interview with her on NPR’s Fresh Air in which she talked about her new memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, asked my Zimbabwean friend Liz if she had read one or the other, and she called the first “the best.” As I mentioned, I read the opening at the Amazon website, was immediately swept up, and only kept myself from downloading the book onto my Kindle because Liz said she would lend me a physical copy.

In the ensuing weeks, I would read a few pages at a time, putting it aside first for Open, then for The Crowded Grave. Recall that the only reason I read Open first was that I didn’t want to carry a book to Chicago with me, so I switched to the Kindle and picked up Open where I had left off over a year ago. Meanwhile, I had downloaded another book for the Kindle, a book I’ll discuss in a separate post, and started it at the end of my flight home, but then switched to The Crowded Grave. And then I downloaded yet another book for the Kindle and started that one, again to be discussed separately.

Given the episodic nature of Fuller’s memoir, I was finding reasons to defer it in favor of whatever else came along, but that wasn’t doing it justice. So a week ago I decided to put the two newer books aside and return to the memoir. As I got further along, the chapters got longer, the stories became more extended, and I realized more focused attention was required. So it was that I read about 60 pages on Saturday and the last 165 pages yesterday, finally giving in to and being swept along by Fuller’s extraordinary tales.

What a vivid world Fuller depicts, and through the eyes of a child. Of course, Fuller writes two to three decades later, as an adult, but she does the most marvelous job of making you experience, or believe you are experiencing, war-torn Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, then Malawi, and finally Zambia, as the child and then teenage Fuller did: drought, family tragedy, heat, ants, rodents, dogs, tics, horses, even more intense heat, more dogs, more family tragedy. On and on and on, in the most matter-of-fact tone. The food. The drink. Her big sister Van. Her deeply pained but resolute Mum (the principal subject of the new memoir). Every page or two there’s a passage worth quoting, for the power of the prose, the story itself, the characters. Cephas, for example, an employee on their Rhodesian farm. (They are a white farming family, but not one of the wealthy ones. Rather, they are barely surviving on poor land near the Mozambique border, hardly a prize when war ends and the farm is taken away from them for re-distribution.)

Cephas has learned secrets from his father: he can track animals that have passed by days before. He can smell where terrorists have been, see from the shift in the landscape where they are camping. He can put his mind inside the mind of any other living thing and tell you where it has gone. He can touch the earth and know if an animal has passed that way. But he can’t tell you why.

A few pages later, Cephas employs his skills in a most unexpected way, tracking not an animal but a fellow ranch hand who has committed a horrific crime.

My friend Liz had it right. Fuller’s book is the best.

Categories: Books

What Are We Fighting For?

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Amid news today of NATO strikes that killed at least 25 Pakistani soldiers at Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan, one might well wonder what the goals are of our war in Afghanistan and our diplomatic efforts with both countries. Fortunately, there’s plenty to read on this topic.

To start, have a look at Franklin C. Spinney’s piece this week in CounterPunch (hat tip: Jim Fallows). Spinney opens by observing that

It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States. To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over “who lost the Afghan War.”

To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordersman’s most recent situation report on the AF-PAK War, THE AFGHANISTAN- PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011: Strategic Failure? Talk Without Hope? Tactical Success? Spend Not Build (And Then Stop Spending)? It was issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on November 15. Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it — at the very least, take a few minutes to read the executive summary.

You may be familiar with defense analyst Anthony Cordesman from his many appearances on TV. (I first became familiar with him during my high-end audio days through his pieces in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, signed simply AHC.) Following Spinney’s advice, I read Cordesman’s executive summary. Here’s the opening:

The US is on the thin edge of strategic failure in two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. This failure may never reach the point of outright defeat in either country. Iraq may never become hostile, revert to civil war, or come under anything approaching Iranian control. Afghanistan and Pakistan may never become major sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on the US and its allies.

Yet Iraq is already a grand strategic failure. The US went to war for the wrong reasons, let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories – if they last – did little more than put an end to a conflict it help create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

[snip]

The outcome in Afghanistan and Pakistan now seems unlikely to be any better. While any such judgments are subjective, the odds of meaningful strategic success have dropped from roughly even in 2009 to 4:1 to 6:1 against at the end of 2011. It is all very well for senior US officials to discuss “fight, talk, and build,” and for creating a successful transition before the US and ISAF allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops and make massive cuts in the flow of outside money to Afghanistan. The US, however, has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows the US and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War.

Trucks waiting to cross border from Pakistan into Afghanistan

[Qazi Rauf/Associated Press]

Also worth a look is Steve Coll’s Thanksgiving Day post at The New Yorker regarding an upcoming governmental National Intelligence Estimate on the war.

[T]he draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

Those generals and their aides have lately been talking up signs of progress, such as improved security in Kandahar and Helmand provinces and a reduction in self-reported statistics on violence, even though other statistics, published by the U.N., suggest that things are still getting worse. The draft, however, is said to raise doubts about the authenticity and durability of the gains the military commanders believe they have made since Obama’s troop surge began in 2009.

The findings also raise questions about the Administration’s strategy for leaving behind a stable Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai is due to step aside in 2014, at the end of his second term, as the Afghan constitution requires. The N.I.E., I was told, includes a forecast that the next generation of political leaders is likely to be—and to be seen by Afghans—as corrupt. The Estimate also raises doubts about the pillar of the Administration’s strategy, the training and equipping of about three hundred and fifty thousand Afghan military forces and police. The report notes that the projected cost of running an Afghan force of that size is about eight to ten billion dollars annually, a sum that may well outrun the will or the fiscal capacity of the United States. A withdrawal of American funds would leave the Afghan forces vulnerable to a crackup. (At the same time, those costs are only a tenth or less of what the U.S. currently spends each year on the war.)

Coll concludes with concern that the findings of the N.I.E. won’t be made public.

Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

The United States is about to elect its next President in the second decade of a distant, expensive Afghan war. The soldiers and Marines who risk life and limb on foot patrols in Lashkar Gah and Maiwand deserve, when they return to their Forward Operating Bases and watch Fox News while eating their starchy meals on Styrofoam trays, to hear an election-year debate in which no fact, no interpretation, and no question about the war is suppressed. We know amply what the generals think. Let us also hear from the spies.

An open debate about the real costs and benefits of war would certainly be a welcome change. For now, we must rely on the widely-ignored Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman among our presidential candidates (and I include President Obama on this list) to provide the lone voices of dissent to our forever war.

Country Joe asked the essential question long ago, about another war. Obama has yet to provide a satisfactory answer.

Categories: Politics, War

Letter of the Week

November 26, 2011 1 comment

[Mac W. Bishop/The New York Times]

The NYT had an article last week whose opening sentence captured the theme: “The gap between first class and coach has never been so wide.” There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%, thanks in large part to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but one doesn’t have to read very far into the article to recognize that international first class travel is not for the 1%; it’s for the .05%. There’s business class for most of the 1%, and perhaps for a few more percent on occasion, thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But international first class is a world of its own.

Just click on the video embedded in the article and you’ll see the difference. Check out the shot of the beds Lufthansa offers (also shown in the photo above). Not seats that flatten out to form beds, but beds next to the seats. You get both.

Lufthansa, for its part, has kept its first class on most flights but has removed half the seats to focus on a more intimate experience on board. In the new A380 aircraft, Lufthansa also installed a system that increases the humidity in the first-class cabin by 25 percent, which the airline says will help ease jetlag. It has also insulated the cabin with special soundproofing material.

“It is our premium product, and our customers were asking for more intimacy, more privacy,” said Jürgen Siebenrock, Lufthansa’s vice president for North and South America. “If you want to be competitive, you really need to upgrade your product.”

Earlier in the article, we learn that “the airlines have been engaged in a global battle for top executives and the superwealthy on their international routes. Though only a privileged few can afford to pay $15,000 to fly first class from New York to Singapore or Sydney, the airlines are betting that the image of luxury they project for the front helps attract passengers to the rest of the plane. That includes a growing business-class section with offerings once solely the preserve of first class.”

Today, the NYT published some letters responding to the article. The one that prompted this post is from Alan Weiss of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

I’m back one day from my first-class round trip to Sydney from Boston through Los Angeles, so your article was quite timely. I’ve recently flown first class in giant A380s on Air France and Qantas. On Qantas, I had a 25-to-30-square-foot, semiprivate cubicle with a complete bed and every amenity I needed. As the article points out, when I’m paying in excess of $20,000 for a ticket, I expect only the best.

The return on investment: A day after landing in Sydney, I embarked on a speaking tour in two cities, and on my return this week, here I am writing this letter and back to work as if I had never left. To my mind, it’s worth every penny, and believe me, it is better than business class. Qantas filled 14 first-class seats in each direction.

I don’t doubt for a moment that first class is better than business. But worth every penny? How does one make such a calculation? I suppose if you’re being paid enough for the speaking tour, the $20,000 ticket could be worth every penny. On the other hand, buying that seat (and bed) could mean losing money on the trip. Is that worth a good night’s sleep and arriving fresh? I might rather stay home.

Fascinating letter though. For more on the letter writer and what he does that makes first-class overseas travel both affordable and essential, see here. I might have a look at some of his books.

Categories: Economy, Flying

Pizza, Pizza

November 25, 2011 1 comment

[From the Via Tribunali website]

Joel flew back from North Carolina Wednesday. Despite a delay getting out of Atlanta that resulted in his flight arriving here 40 minutes late, he arrived in time for us to have dinner together. Of course, it was three hours later for him, but he was game to stop at a restaurant on the way home and voted for the Georgetown location of Neapolitan pizzeria Via Tribunali. I wrote about Via Tribunali three years ago, after we went there on the day after Christmas. That post focused more on the accident of our stumbling on it after choosing not to stop at Via Tribunali’s Capitol Hill location in favor of heading farther afield to the Georgetown restaurant Stellar, only to find Stellar closed and then find ourselves at the Georgetown Via Tribunali in our search for somewhere else to eat.

Joel was with us that time too and had been a veteran of the Capitol Hill branch, the original. He had frequently urged us to try it, and we were there at last. My verdict, from the post that day: “Everything was great. A superb meal, well worth driving to Georgetown for.”

Since then, whenever we eat at the better pizza places in Seattle, Gail holds up Via Tribunali as her model, even though we never got back to it. You’ll recall our latest experiment, dinner two months ago at Delancey with Robin and Brooke. We quite enjoyed it, but Gail was convinced it was no Via Tribunali. I didn’t presume to remember well enough.

So two nights ago we were there once again, with Joel and with Jessica as well. We arrived moments before the end of happy hour, so we hastily ordered wine and beer and Jessica, who wasn’t interested in the full range of offerings, ordered a small, happy-hour sized Margherita (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, grana padano, olive oil basil), which she declared the best pizza she ever had. Gail, Joel, and I bypassed the waning happy hour options, ordering two salads and two pizzas from the dinner menu.

To start, we had the Insalata di Caesar (romaine hearts, caesar dressing, anchovies, grana padana, croutons) and the Insalata della Casa (seasonal greens, fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olives, prosciutto cotto). Hmm. I’m getting these descriptions off the on-line menu, but I don’t remember getting croutons in the Caesar salad. What we had instead were small pieces of what I thought was pita. And we asked for the anchovies on the side, for Joel to eat. Both salads were excellent. I especially liked the prosciutto.

Then we had a Primavera pizza (cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, grana, basil) and a Salsiccia (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, grana padano, basil). Excellent once again. The primavera surprised me. I expected to like it, but to prefer the salsiccia. Instead, I enjoyed both equally, and found the primavera perhaps the more interesting of the two, probably because having sausage and basil on a pizza is common enough, but I don’t recall having a pizza covered with arugula. It turned out to be a great mix of ingredients: light but full of flavor.

For dessert, Gail and Joel shared a piece of tiramisu while Jessica had some chocolate ice cream. I tasted the ice cream. First rate.

Is Via Tribunali the best? Do I prefer it to Delancey or Tutta Bella or Cafe Lago? I can’t say. I enjoy them all. What I can say is that we shouldn’t wait another three years for a return visit. That would be a mistake.

Yesterday was a day off from pizza, what with Thanksgiving dinner and all. And tomorrow we have family plans that will prevent us from eating pizza. So if we were to get to Northlake Tavern and Pizza House while Joel was home, tonight had to be the night. Plus, it was the right night in any case, since Northlake is our Friday standby. Off we went, the same four of us, a few hours ago. Not much to report. We had our usual: salads with honey mustard dressing, the combo (sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives), vegetarian (mushrooms, peppers, onions, olives, tomatoes), and salty dog (secret ingredients; only those in the know have the privilege of ordering order this, since it’s not on the menu, and being in the know means knowing Russ, Northlake’s best customer, who conceived it).

There’s no point comparing Northlake to Via Tribunali. They reside in different food universes. That I have come to love Northlake is one of the great mysteries of my life. I can’t explain it. Nor will I try. What I know is, I’m fortunate that Gail introduced me to it decades ago, that it became smoke free a few years back, and that Russ turned us into regulars.

Oh, and the turkey last night was pretty darn good too, not to mention the fabulous squash soup and today’s lunchtime turkey hash. Thanks Gail.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

La Guardia Farewell

November 25, 2011 Leave a comment

[Port Authority of New York and New Jersey]

At the NYT City Room blog today, David Dunlap writes about the dismantling of all but the lowest portion of La Guardia Airport’s 1964 air control tower. As he notes, “Loved or hated, the old control tower was undeniably a traveler’s milestone.” When I grew up, and more so during the years that I lived in Boston, I flew into and out of La Guardia countless times. Less frequently since moving to Seattle, but still we pass through La Guardia on occasion, and indeed, the old control tower had come to be as distinctive a structure as any in New York. I am sad to realize it has disappeared.

We drove by La Guardia twice over Labor Day weekend, heading back and forth between JFK and Manhattan. I’m surprised I failed to notice the tower’s absence. There’s not a whole lot to like about La Guardia. Now it is missing my three favorite features: the tower, the rusted frame of the parking garage, and the temporary building that was home to the Eastern Shuttle. The garage was left unfinished in order to develop a patina — at least that was my understanding — and after decades of what looked like neglect, it was finally painted over.

As for the shuttle, that amazing service in which you lined up to fly to Boston or DC and boarded whichever plane showed up next, rather than a terminal, La Guardia had an over-sized shack you would pass through on the way to covered passageways with openings to head out to board the planes. No reservations, no tickets, no boarding passes. Just get on, and if the scheduled hourly flight filled up, they’d start filling another. Once the plane (one of a fleet of DC-9s) was in the air, the flight attendants would come down the aisle to take payment. On the Boston end, one would arrive at a regular terminal, Logan’s Eastern Air Lines terminal, pleasant enough, but without the charming seediness of La Guardia.

Alas, Eastern went downhill, then out of business, Delta and US Air took over shuttle service, the old shuttle shack was replaced by US Air’s and Delta’s new terminals, and before long, the iconic tower was the lone representative of my beloved trio. Now they’re all gone.

As for the NYT piece, Dunlap writes that spotting the tower

from the cabin of a Lockheed Electra or a Boeing 727 meant you were really back in New York. No other airport had anything quite like this porthole-pocked cynosure; a hometown creation by Wallace K. Harrison, the consummate New York establishment architect of the mid-20th century, who designed the Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 World’s Fair and went on to play an important role in Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center and the United Nations.

[snip]

Mr. Harrison’s reputation was resuscitated in the late 1970s. The sophistication of his curving designs was linked to the artistic tradition of Alexander Calder, Jean Arp and Fernand Léger. Yet the La Guardia control tower still seemed to escape respect. Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic of The Times, said in 1980 that the structure “with its plethora of portholes looks like a concrete piece of Swiss cheese.”

But the influential architect Rem Koolhaas paid oblique homage to the tower in his 1989 design for the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal in Belgium. In “Delirious New York” (1978), Mr. Koolhaas described the dialectic in Mr. Harrison’s work “between the rectangle and the kidney shape, between rigidity and freedom.” Ultimately, he wrote, the liberating impulse surrenders to the grid. “Only his curve remains as a fossil of the freer language.”

Categories: Architecture, Flying