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Open

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Four weeks ago, I wrote about having to decide which of three books to read, Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a decade ago, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, or Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh crime novel, The Impossible Dead, which had just arrived in the mail. Plus, a third book was on its way from UK Amazon, Martin Walker’s latest in his Bruno, Chief of Police series, The Crowded Grave.

After reading a little further into Fuller’s memoir, I switched to the Rankin book, which I wrote about two weeks ago. The Bruno book then arrived, providing a new dilemma. Worse, I would soon be off to Chicago (on the trip I have written about here and here) and I don’t travel with physical books. What’s the point of owning a Kindle if you carry books with you? And what happens if you finish a book on the plane? That meant I would have to delay reading Fuller and Walker in favor of a book on my Kindle.

What to choose? There was that Agassi autobiography I kept putting off, Open: An Autobiography. Maybe its time had come.

I had read all about it when it came out two years ago, but wasn’t motivated to read it until my friend Werner urged it on me a short time later. That evening, taking advantage of Amazon’s sample option, I downloaded a short bit from the beginning. Agassi opens his book with what turns out to be a riveting account of his famous 2006 five-set US Open match with Marcos Baghdatis. The sample ended before the match did, forcing me to buy and download the full book just so I could get to the end of the match. Then I put the book aside for another day. With the Chicago trip, another day had come.

Following the opening chapter, Agassi gets down to chronological business, starting at age seven. A week and a half ago, I began with the age-seven chapter, to make sure this was a book I would want to take on the trip. To my surprise, I immediately realized that “riveting” wasn’t just a characteristic of Agassi-Baghdatis match, or of the opening chapter. The entire book is riveting. I read Agassi’s description of hitting balls shot at him by the machine his father designed, learned of his father’s background, and knew I was hooked. If I wasn’t careful, I would finish the book before I even got on the plane.

Well, I was careful. That didn’t happen. But I spent all my time on both flights reading Open, until finishing it with an hour to go before our Seattle landing. (To be more precise, I spent all my time reading except when we were below 10,000 feet and not allowed to use electronics, which, as anyone who flies with a Kindle knows, is yet another absurd rule forced on passengers by the inane, insane airplane travel gods.) So many great tales. There are the matches themselves, which only get to be a bit tiresome near the end. But best are the relationships.

There’s Brooke Shields of course. Their marriage. Her guest appearances on Friends. The divorce. Barbra Streisand and Agassi’s brief interlude with her. Stefanie (her preferred name, as we learn) Graf, the love of his life. The hints, in his mind, that he was meant to be with her. The irony of Brooke Shields putting a photo of Graf on the refrigerator as the model of what she wanted her body to look like as she planned their wedding. And the men in Agassi’s life too, most notably his father, but also the three people who were such an important part of his career: his brother, one of his childhood friends, and his trainer Gil Reyes. Anyone who watched Agassi over the years at the majors would always see Reyes in the stands and hear about their bond. The book explains it.

I know, that doesn’t make the book sound so interesting. A big-time tennis pro, his women, and his pals. That’s pretty much it. But really, the book is much richer than that would suggest, and more entertaining too. It’s worth reading just to get to the part where the Agassi and Graf fathers meet for the first time.

And it’s an especially good choice for passing the time on two flights.

Categories: Books

Return from Chicago

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

[WSJ interactive graphic (click on it)]

A week ago now, I was flying from Seattle to O’Hare for an overnight stay at the O’Hare Hilton and a meeting the next day. Thanks to the mileage I have accumulated in United’s Mileage Plus program and the rarity of our flying on United, when I do book with them, I always try to use up some mileage with an upgrade to first class. This trip to O’Hare is an annual one, and I have learned from experience that I can expect to get an upgrade on the flight there but not on the return. This year was no different. And for the second consecutive year, I got a lesson in what makes everyone hate flying.

The trip there was so pleasant. Through security in a snap. First on the plane. Comfortable seat. Read a book. Had some lunch. Nothing special, but edible. Pleasant flight crew, attentive service. And before I was ready to put my book aside, we were taxiing to the gate. I got off the plane 22 hours before the return flight, which meant I could already check in for the return. Rather than waiting to do so on my computer, I got out of security down by the baggage claim carousels and went straight to a United kiosk. Once I swiped my credit card and the kiosk recognized me, I saw that I still hadn’t been upgraded to first class. A couple of weeks earlier, when I booked my seats, I was presented as seating options for the return a handful of middle seats in the rear of the plane. Or, I could pay $64 to buy one of United’s “extra legroom” seats. My choice was still limited, but I could get an aisle seat in one of the exit rows plus 5 inches of extra legroom. I decided to take it. The kiosk readout showed that was still my assigned seat. I confirmed it, indicated that I would have no bags to check in, then was offered for $44 the option of fast check-in (but I didn’t need it, I was checking in at that moment), fast security line, and boarding with the first group.

Was it worth it? Well, I’d already spent $64. I couldn’t bear the thought of another $44. On the other hand, I would be cutting things close the next day, as my flight would depart as the meeting I was attending would end, which meant I would have to leave the meeting early, and that meant I would try to make some calculation about how late I could stay and still make it through security and to my plane. That $44 might buy me another 15-20 minutes at the meeting, or if not that, at least more peace of mind.

No, I couldn’t do it. I would take my chances.

Monday, I left the meeting room in the O’Hare Hilton at 2:55 for my 3:15 flight. Down I went to the Hilton basement, off I headed to the main underground passageway that connects the United Terminal with the hotel, the parking garage, and the train to the Loop. Despite making this trip for years, I was surprised at how long it took me to get through the passageway, up the escalator, and into the lower level of United’s terminal. At least I knew the route to the escalator up to the departure level. Boarding pass already in hand, I went past the check-in counters to the security line. It was 2:05, the plane would board starting at 2:45. I should make it easily.

And I did, but not until going through 45 minutes that was the promised reminder of why flying sucks. I say nothing new here, but it’s all about submission to authority. Keep your mouth shut, obey orders, be treated like dirt, and you might just get on your plane.

There were two TSA agents checking IDs and boarding passes and two short lines to get to them. But the lines were barely moving, and it soon emerged that the reason was that our lines were continuations of long and backed-up lines to the conveyer belts and scanners. I chose the line to the nearer belt, which in principle made it shorter, but also made it the line of choice for waves of employees and wheelchair passengers who zipped (or were zipped) past us to the front. We would go 2-3 minutes with no motion, then have some progress. As we got still closer, I could see that once our bags were on the belts, we were being fed, along with the other conveyor belt line, into a single line of passengers being prepared for the rape scanners. The TSA official monitoring the line would, every so often, signal for someone to bypass the rape scanner and go through the traditional scanning device, but most people were rape scanned.

I got to the belt at last. Out came my laptop, my Kindle, my iPhone, my quart bag of liquids. Off came my shoes, my belt. I never remove my belt for regular scanning, but I knew I would need to for the rapescanner, so I dutifully did. And then I got onto the rapescan line. The TSA guy asked if I had anything in my pockets. No. He said to hold my boarding pass in front of me when I entered. Then I remembered my wallet, called out to him that I had it. Take it out and raise it above your head when you’re in the scanner. Okay. In another minute, I headed in for my rape scanning. Above my head I held the wallet and boarding pass. Out I went, standing in that idiotic holding area with the mats with feet drawn so you know what position to be in. I was released, headed to my bags and belt and shoes and quart bag of liquids and laptop and Kindle and iPhone.

Once I was properly assembled, it was past 2:30. I was in United’s B terminal, had to go through that underground tunnel to get over to C. I once loved the tunnel, when I first went through it in 1989, when it was new, with the music and the light show. It’s never been the same since they had to obliterate the music with announcements about watching your step when you get off the moving walkways. And it was crowded. And I wanted to get the heck over to the other end and up to my gate. Another thing about United at O’Hare. I also once loved those terminals. So much light, with the high ceilings and the windows. But that’s if you’re not consigned to the hell of the terminal ends, where they crowd what must be about 9 gates in an area with a dropped ceiling and inadequate ventilation. Gate C-25 is one of them.

By the time I got there, there were only 10 minutes before boarding, and it was a mob scene, with our Seattle gate and an adjacent SF gate boarding almost simultaneously. I checked the screens to see if my status had changed. I had to wait for the listing of the 40+ standby passengers. Then came the screen saying first class was fully checked in, then the list of people waitlisted for it. I was #34. That wasn’t going to happen. Off I went to find a restroom, then back to find that I was now #35 out of 39. Using mileage gives you pretty low upgrade priority.

And now boarding began. Group 1 was first class and everyone with various categories of United and Continental frequent flyer elite status. I was group 4. I was hoping maybe there were 8 or 9 groups, having forgotten United’s system. Then group 2 was called. All window passengers. Oh. Four groups then, fancy-window-middle-aisle. I would be last. It might be tight in the overhead bins, the great battleground of our country. I got on the phone with Gail to complain as group 3 was called. And then our gate agent announced that all group 4 boarders with roller bags would have to check them at the gate.

What to do? Hide? Sneak it on? Could I? Would they catch me? Within seconds, she was at my side shouting out for group 4 roller baggers. I reluctantly raised my hand. Without looking at me or saying anything to me, she examined my boarding pass, wrote some data on a baggage tag, tore off the top portion and handed it to me. I saw that she had written 309 for the flight number. I tapped her shoulder as she worked on the bag of the woman near me and asked why it said 309 when I’m on 929. Oh, she said, as she crossed out 309 and wrote 929, that was the last flight she worked.

I was not happy. I was near the gate, likely to be one of the first group 4 boarders, and suspected there would be space for my bag. As the group 3 line thinned, the woman near me, my group 4 partner, joined the line. Moments later, we were all invited to board, and I got on right behind her, among the first of the group 4 boarders. I got to the end of the jetway and saw no one prepared to take my bag. Just then, a baggage guy popped in from outdoors, saw my bag, and grabbed it. Darn.

I stepped on the plane and found yesterday’s first class flight attendant looking at me. We both recognized each other. She welcomed me back and I explained that I would be in coach this time. As I headed to the exit row, I saw with some odd satisfaction that the bins were all full. Until I got to my seat. Right above me was a space that would easily accommodate my bag. Across the aisle was space for 2 bags. And as people continued to board, some had bags with them that they filled the space with.

Why was I forced to check my bag? Why couldn’t a more intelligent system be used? I was hopping mad. I mean, I understood the idea that a simple uniform rule was easier to enforce than waiting for bins to fill up and people to pile into the aisles with bags that would need checking. But there must be a better way. I was already paying $64 extra for my seat. Couldn’t I get some benefit from that without being expected to pay another $42 for group 1 boarding?

I know, what’s the big deal? The cost of having my bag taken away was that I would have to wait 20 minutes at baggage claim. Not the end of the world. Would I pay $42 to save 20 minutes? Well, obviously, I answered that question. I didn’t pay. But I had all the extra aggravation, and I got home to a later dinner, and had less time at home that evening to get caught up on some work. And to read the blogs. And to do two days of NYT crossword puzzles.

I was reminded of the Wall Street Journal’s recent article in their The Middle Seat weekly feature, with the graphic at the top of this post. The opening paragraphs pretty much tell the story.

An airline ticket gets you a seat on a plane. But which seat, now that’s a different story.

Gary Zeune, a white-collar crime expert from Powell, Ohio, went online to check in for his Frontier Airlines flight from Denver to Dayton. The only seats available were middle seats in the back of the plane. Unhappy with the options, he decided to pay $25 extra for a “Stretch” seat with extra legroom.

When he boarded the plane, he found several empty rows behind the Stretch seats. Window and aisle seats he would have happily sat in were empty. Frontier blocked them when he checked online because he was on a low-fare ticket.

“They are lying to you and making it look like there are no seats,” said Mr. Zeune. “I’m not going to complain about the $25 itself. It’s the manipulation.”

Seat fees are the latest iteration of the airline industry’s new normal. Carriers are blocking more seats from advance-seat selection, especially for low-fare passengers. More crowded planes also make it tougher to get a desirable seat. As a result, more travelers are feeling pressured to pay a fee and reserve a seat rather settle for an assigned one—which could be a middle seat or not located next to their family members. Worse, those without assigned seats stand a higher chance of getting bumped from a flight.

I was thinking that maybe instead of paying a seat-choice fee, a fast security and early boarding fee, a food fee, a baggage fee, and so on, all while hoping to get a first class upgrade with my mileage, I should just be able to pay one large fee and get to ride first class to begin with. That would simplify things. Then I remembered that there is such a fee. I think it’s what they call a first class ticket, and it’s priced so high that the sum of all the other fees never comes close.

I suppose I should just suck it up. Pay the price or suffer. And spare others the complaints when I do suffer. No one wants to hear about it.

Categories: Travel

Our Militarized Police

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Police in Chapel Hill, November 13, 2011

[Katelyn Ferral, kferral@newsobserver.com]

I got home from Chicago Monday night and woke up Tuesday to the news of Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City police clearing out Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Streeters. Then I read a reference to Chapel Hill and stumbled on the photo above, accompanying an article in Raleigh’s News & Observer about Chapel Hill police clearing Occupy Chapel Hill protesters from a vacant car dealership on Sunday afternoon. I’m tempted to say the photo speaks for itself and leave it at that. But in case more needs to be said — really, is this what it has come to? Has the militarization of our country reached the point where small-town police forces operate like domestic armies? Are there not more benign ways to clear unarmed people from a space, assuming there’s good reason to clear them?

From News & Observer reporters Katelyn Ferral and Mark Schultz we learn that

Officers brandishing guns and semi-automatic rifles rushed the building at about 4:30 p.m. They pointed weapons at those standing outside, and ordered them to put their faces on the ground. They surrounded the building and cleared out those who were inside.

About 13 people, including a New & Observer staff writer covering the demonstration, were forced to the ground and hand-cuffed.

Those who had been outside of the building at the time of the arrests – including N&O staffer Katelyn Ferral – were detained and then let go after their pictures were taken. Eight people inside the building were cuffed and put on a Chapel Hill Transit bus to be taken to the police station to be charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering.

“Along with facilitating citizens’ ability to exercise their constitutional rights, it is also a critical responsibility of all levels of government in a free society to respond when rights of others are being impinged upon,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said in a statement issued Sunday night.

“This weekend a group of protesters broke into and entered a privately owned building in downtown Chapel Hill. … The Town has an obligation to the property owners, and the Town will enforce those rights …”

Okay, go ahead. Enforce those rights. But with semi-automatic rifles?

The LA Times picked up the story Tuesday, with a link I might otherwise have missed to the statements of Chapel Hill’s mayor and police chief at a news conference Monday. Police Chief Chris Blue explained that the tactics used were “based on the known risks associated with anarchist groups.”

Those darn hippie anarchists. Meanwhile, the News & Observer requested an apology for the police behavior.

The News & Observer is seeking a public apology from the Town of Chapel Hill after one of its reporters was detained with protesters Sunday afternoon.

“She wasn’t doing anything illegal,” said John Drescher, N&O executive editor. “She was doing her job, and she identified herself as doing her job.”

Staff writer Katelyn Ferral arrived at the former Yates Motor Co. building at 419 W. Franklin St. about 4:30 p.m. to report on the occupation of the building.

Ferral was on the scene for approximately 15 minutes, interviewing people inside and walking around the site, when she heard demonstrators say police were gathering down the block.

When police approached the building, they ordered everyone to get on the ground, but they allowed Ferral to continue to shoot photographs. After a few more minutes they told Ferral to get on the ground as well.

Ferral told them she was a member of the media. She was wearing her press photo badge around her neck.

She remained face-down on the ground for about 15 minutes before she was cuffed with plastic zip ties and told to sit in a line with about 12 other people who had been detained.

After about 30 minutes police took her picture, took down her name, address, date of birth and drivers license number.

Ferral asked why she was being detained and was told that she was not on the bus with those charged with breaking and entering because she wasn’t inside the building.

Police told Ferral she would be arrested if she was caught on the premises again, Ferral said.

After she was released, Ferral was not allowed to take additional photographs and was told to go across the street.

During a press conference Monday, Police Chief Chris Blue said officers detained everyone that was either in the building or at the entrance. Ferral was treated like anyone else who was outside the front of the building, he said.

Meanwhile, back in New York … I was dumbfounded as I listened on Tuesday morning to the news of Zuccotti Park’s clearing at the matter of fact way NPR’s reporters gave the news. Is it really possible to talk about Mayor Bloomberg ordering the NYC police to empty the park without noting that Bloomberg is himself number 12 in Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in America? Look, Bloomberg has done many good things with his money. (As a mathematician and one-time member of the Institute for Advanced Study, I’m especially fond of this.) But, I’ll say it again. He’s the 12th richest person in the US. He’s worth $20 billion, give or take. He bought himself the mayoralty of New York. In his eighth year as mayor, when faced with term limits, he had the law changed and bought himself a third term.

Maybe Bloomberg was a better choice than the alternatives. That’s not my point. My point is, this is no ordinary mayor. I don’t understand how his actions with respect to Occupy Wall Street can be described without reference to his wealth and its source. I don’t know how to take a news report seriously that doesn’t provide this context. I don’t know how to take NPR seriously. Any regular reader of Gail Collins knows that whenever she mentions Mitt Romney in her NYT columns, she provides a reminder that he drove the family to Canada on vacation with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car. I take her motivation to be that you can’t understand anything about Romney without knowing this. Surely a similar rule should apply to Bloomberg. No story should be written about his actions, especially those related to Occupy Wall Street, without a reminder that he’s the twelfth richest person in America, and yes, that he made his fortune on Wall Street.

Categories: Journalism, Politics

Carmine’s

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

[From Il Terrazzo Carmine’s website]

I just finished a post about my current visit to O’Hare, mentioning in passing my fondness for the O’Hare Hilton’s Italian restaurant, Andiamo. Not the greatest, but comfortable. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out in contrast that two nights ago, we celebrated Gail’s birthday a day late at our favorite Italian restaurant in Seattle, Il Terrazzo Carmine. It is a continuing puzzle why we don’t eat there more often.

Sometimes we get there twice in a year, once for Gail’s birthday and once for mine. Sometimes just once. You may recall my post in March 2009 about our visit for my own birthday. (Well, non-birthday, since I didn’t have one that year, but I did get a year older, and that’s when we went.) That’s the time we had dinner in the bar, since we were too late to reserve a table, and Dale Chihuly dropped in to join the celebration.

This time Dale didn’t show. We had a good evening nonetheless. We always do. The menu never changes. But there’s always a risotto of the day, always yet another risotto served as a side dish with one of the dinner specials, always a soup of the day, a fish of the day, another three or four appetizer and main dish specials. Lots of variety. And the constant menu is plenty large. I’m invariably drawn to the cannelloni or rigatoni as an appetizer, to the rack of lamb or veal chop or pork chop or steak as a main dish. And then I hear the specials and want the soup, or the fish, or some other concoction. This time I went with the risotto special, with pancetta, and then the peppercorn steak with shoestring potatoes. Those potatoes are the greatest, one reason I can’t resist the steak.

For dessert, Gail was brought tiramisu with a candle in it. Then our (fabulous) waiter brought a tray with all the desserts to view. I resisted the profiteroles, difficult to do, and went with the pear tart, served with berries.

Let’s not forget the outstanding bottle of wine that accompanied the meal, a 2006 Brunello di Montalcino from Casanova di Neri.

I’m hoping this time we won’t wait another year for our next visit to Carmine’s.

Categories: Restaurants

Chicago Again

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m in Chicago now. Well, sort of, O’Hare being within the city limits though far from the city in any real sense. As some readers of Ron’s View know, I come to the O’Hare Hilton every November in order to attend the annual meeting of an organization whose secretary-treasurer I happen to be. We always have dinner at 7:30 on the Sunday evening before the meeting at Andiamo, the Hilton’s Italian restaurant, and a restaurant I have become oddly fond of, the odd part being that it isn’t exactly a great restaurant, but it’s now a familiar one, and a comfortable one, with pleasant wait staff. There’s also a sports bar attached, always filled with fans, or travelers with nothing better to do. Since it’s a Sunday in November, NFL football is featured. Hockey too.

This is the ninth year in succession that I’ve made this trip, and with a couple of other stops at the O’Hare Hilton along the way, I’ve come to feel very much at home here. The guest rooms. The furniture. The meeting rooms. The lobby. And best of all, the views, out toward the parking garage on one side and the terminals on the other. The last few years, I’ve had the parking garage view. This year, it’s the terminals. Either way, you get to watch planes land and take off, since we’re surrounded by runways.

It’s been warm and windy hereabouts. At dinner tonight I learned that those of us who flew in yesterday had a pretty bumpy go of it on the way down. We were warned on our flight to expect the same, but it didn’t seem so bad at all. We headed way east over Lake Michigan, then turned back over the city a little to the north of the Loop, this being around 4:20 or so this afternoon, with the sun low and glaring, making it difficult to pick out sights. I could see the Navy Pier and the Hancock Tower. I couldn’t make out Soldier Field to the south, where the Bears were hosting the Lions. A few minutes later we were down. Long taxi to the gate, off the plane, down the escalator, down another escalator to the basement tunnel system, under the road, over to the Hilton basement, up to the lobby. You gotta love it. No need for a coat. Not that there would have been one anyway, the temperature being close to 70 degrees, but when you’re here, you would never know. You have to force yourself to go out in order to get some fresh air, which I did after dinner, as I always make it a point to do, so I can stare at the parking garage and breathe in the jet fuel fumes for a bit.

What now? I suppose I’ll read. I caught the end of the Bears game before dinner. That’s another of my traditions here, imagining myself a Bears fan for an hour or so. I missed the highlight of the game, Devin Hester returning a punt for a touchdown for the 12th time in his career. I was on the phone with Joel when they replayed it and I voiced the thought that I should get a Hester Bears jersey tomorrow if I can find one. Once I get home, I would feel pretty foolish about getting it. I suppose I won’t.

Tomorrow I’ll need to get up early for the meeting, what with the time zone change, then I’ll head back over to the United terminal and be out of here less than 24 hours after arriving. Too bad Gail couldn’t come. Three years ago, she joined me. I must have written about it at the time. We came on a Friday, stayed two nights in the Loop, visited the Art Institute and other favorite places, then headed back out to O’Hare Sunday afternoon. Oh, and we saw Lang Lang at Orchestra Hall. Yes, I know I wrote about that. Two years ago she was here too, but only because we timed our return from France and Italy to coincide with the meeting, allowing me to fit it in as part of that trip rather than going to Seattle only to have to head back east a couple of days later. Last year she had her own trip at the same time. This year, um, I don’t know. Gail, why aren’t you here? She did point out this morning that she’s not that in love with hanging out at O’Hare and eating at Andiamo. That must be the reason.

Maybe next year though. That would be fun.

I thought I was done, but one more thing. There’s this great column in the NYT that I rarely remember to read — The Haggler. A couple of weeks ago, in it, David Segal made a plea for hotel room doors that don’t slam.

During a recent visit to the Omni Shoreham in Washington, the Haggler was awakened by the blast of a neighbor leaving his room at 6 a.m. And the racket never ceased, because at hotels — surprise! — people enter and exit rooms throughout the day and night.

A bit of research shows that hotel doors slam shut in part because they’re cheap to install and in part because of liability concerns. Owners worry that the doors won’t fully close, which could lead to thefts and other crimes, which could lead to lawsuits.

But, obviously, a mechanism exists that closes a door fully and quietly. The Haggler encountered it this summer at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque. The question is why these mechanisms aren’t far more common.

Amen to that. I gotta tell ya, the O’Hare Hilton is ground zero for hotel door slamming.

Categories: Travel

Joe Frazier

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

You know, of course, that Joe Frazier died last night. I write only to note my surprise at how moved I’ve been today by some of the pieces I’ve read about him, most notably David Remnick’s reflections at The New Yorker.

I so dislike the mere existence of boxing that I avert my eyes when I accidentally stumble on an article about it in the paper or at a website, turning the page or clicking away as quickly as possible. Yet, I grew up at a time when boxing still was part of mainstream culture. Indeed, heavyweight championship bouts were as big a part of the sporting calendar as the World Series, or as the Super Bowl is now. Surely the first Swede I knew of, or, to be more precise, the first person whose existence brought to my attention the notion that there were such things as Swedes, was Ingemar Johansson. (But then there’s that contemporaneous Swede, Dag_Hammarskjöld. I’m pretty sure I knew of Johansson first. Hammarskjöld would be Swede number two.) Johansson’s championship victory over Floyd Patterson, or maybe Patterson’s win in the re-match, would have been the first boxing match I knew of. And then Patterson lost to Sonny Liston, and then Liston lost to Muhammed Ali (still Cassius Clay), and so on, until we came to the two great Ali-Frazier matches, the first and third of three.

I can almost make myself believe, as I read today about the third one, the Thrilla in Manila, that I watched it live. Then I remember that that wasn’t an option. The major boxing matches would be shown on TV days later. For live action, one would have to be content with round-by-round summaries on the radio. I listened to those summaries. I actually cared.

Remnick, who knows a thing or two about Ali and Frazier, gives some sense in his remembrance of why one might care:

I’ve watched the fight more times than I can count. I rarely watch boxing much these days, mainly because it’s hard to countenance a sport that I would never let my kids take part in. And yet I can’t resist this spectacle of will. As Frazier sat on his stool after the fourteenth round, a round in which Ali had punched him so hard with a right hand that Frazier’s mouthpiece went flying into the seats, a round in which it became obvious that he could no longer defend himself, his manager Eddie Futch had to insist that it was over. He would not allow his man to die in the ring—which, if you watch the video, seems like a distinct possibility.

“Joe,” Futch said, “I’m going to stop it.”

“No, no, Eddie you can’t do that to me,” Frazier said softly.

“You couldn’t see in the last two rounds,” Futch said. “What makes you think ya gonna see in the fifteenth?”

“I want him, boss,” Frazier said.

“Sit down, son,” Futch said, placing a hand on his fighter’s shoulder. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Categories: Obituary, Sports

Passive Voice

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a regular reader of Language Log, and have written often about posts there. Last December, I wrote my own post about a language usage issue, inspired by a WSJ article that bugged me so much I wrote to Language Log co-founder Geoff Pullum about it. To my surprise, he responded to my note by building his own post around the WSJ article.

Today, once again, I am the source of a Pullum post. An on-going Pullum theme is the never-ending warnings by supposed language authorities to avoid “passive voice.” Invariably, he points out that the warnings come in articles in which the authors (a) use the passive themselves, and (b) mis-identify its occurrences in the examples they provide. Having stumbled on such a piece at the Harper’s blog over a week ago, I brought it to Pullum’s attention, and he has now done a better job than I can at dissecting its inanity. Have a look.

My own pet peeve regarding passive voice is Microsoft’s insistence on warning me whenever I use it while writing a Word document. Word’s presumption that it can write better than I can is a continuing annoyance. But specifically, can anyone possibly believe that every use of passive voice is a stylistic error in need of editing? Really? Stick to the layout. Let me do the writing. (Mind you, I only use Word for documents to be shared with others who insist on using Word. For myself, I never use it.)

Categories: Language, Writing

Full Circle Searching

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Three weeks ago, I wrote about Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh-based crime novel, The Impossible Dead, which had been released already in the UK and whose delivery I was eagerly awaiting. I explained that I had gotten into the habit a decade ago of ordering new Rankin books from amazon.co.uk rather than waiting for months for the US release. Downloads of the e-version in the US are not permitted before US publication, so the only way to get such books ahead of US publication is to order the print copy from the UK.

A week later, just as I had begun to read Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, The Impossible Dead arrived, prompting my post about the dilemma of what to read.

In case you’re wondering, I kept on with the memoir for a couple of days. With its wondrous tales and beautiful language, I was sure I would stay with it to the end. But then I remembered my discovery last month, when I first wrote about The Impossible Dead, that in contrast to previous Rankin titles, it would be released in the US with only the briefest of delays. It comes out November 21. I know this isn’t entirely rational, but I didn’t want to postpone my reading of the British edition until the US version appeared. In a panic, wanting to justify the extra expense of paying for overseas shipping, I set Alexandra Fuller aside and started in on Rankin.

I finished The Impossible Dead Wednesday night. How was it? Well, that’s not actually the point of this post, so let me just say that I quite enjoyed it. Though based in Edinburgh, the principal character, Malcolm Fox, in only the second novel Rankin has written around him, spends most of his time across the Firth of Forth in Fife. Both Rankin and his greatest character, John Rebus, are Fife natives. It’s not unusual for some action in any Rankin novel to take place across the way, but this time Fife is the center of the story, especially Kirkcaldy, which is essentially due north of Edinburgh across the firth. Fox makes daily crossings of the firth on the road bridge (you know, of course, that the Forth Railway Bridge is one of the world’s great, historic structures), even walking across it once, as he tries to unravel a mysterious death in the 1980s and its connections to violent Scottish nationalist groups of the time. The plotting is intricate, engrossing, and ultimately surprising.

David Stenhouse, in his Stotsman review, writes that

Fox is shaping up to be a formidable creation in his own right. The first few chapters of this novel are models of terse, compelling storybuilding.

[snip]

Intricately and ingeniously plotted, this novel builds to a compelling climax in a the Fife wood where Vernal’s body was discovered. A purist might complain that a few of the revelations strain credulity, but Rankin’s world is so meticulously created that this barely seems to matter.

Rankin shows again his unsparing eye for the contours and ironies of modern Scotland. The scope and political force of this novel recalls James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.

Reviews for the first Fox novel, The Complaints, were overshadowed by the absence of Rebus. The Impossible Dead should put to bed any doubts about Rankin’s new series. Unlike Conan Doyle, Rebus’s creator has shown that he can step out of the shadow of his most famous creation. This is the finest Ian Rankin novel for many years. You won’t miss Rebus once.

And now, at last, I get to the point. How did I find Stenhouse’s review? I did a google search, of course. But here’s the thing. After finishing the novel Wednesday night, I thought it would be interesting to see what the British critics thought of it. I entered “The Impossible Dead” in Google’s search field and didn’t find much on the first page of results. Several links to Amazon, UK and US. The Guardian’s review. Another review. Off I went to page two of the search results. Down the page I scrolled. And there it was, the eighth item. My own post from three weeks ago! Why would I want to find that? I wanted to know what other people’s thoughts, not mine. And I hadn’t even received the book at the time that I wrote the post.

It got me to wondering, would others have found my post that high up in the search results, or was Google somehow using data about me to rank it so high? I don’t know.

Tonight, in preparation for this post, I once again searched for “The Impossible Dead” and headed to page two. I wasn’t there anymore. Nor was I on page three, or four, or five, or six. I had disappeared. Just as well, though I wished I had taken a screenshot on Wednesday.

I looked back at the page one results, which I had skipped over, and what do you know? I’ve moved up to third place! The first two results are to US Amazon. I’m third, the publisher’s site is fourth, and the Guardian review is fifth. This time I took a screenshot. Here it is:

So what’s the deal? Why is my post ranked so high?

Categories: Books, Computing

Ninety-Four

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s number week here at Ron’s View. Two days ago, I wrote about Eleven. In this post, I’m giving 94 special billing, as you see. Why? Because today my father turned 94.

You know how you can buy birthday cards for all the multiples of 10 up to 90? (Or maybe 100. I never looked for one of them). And you can buy birthday cards for all the smaller brithdays, 1 through, I don’t know, 10 for sure, maybe 12 or 15 or 18? Well, if I had Mr. Hall‘s ear, here’s what I’d suggest. They should view the scale from 0 to 100 as symmetric about 50 and produce cards in the upper reaches that mirror the ones lower down. As an example, since there are cards for 5-year-olds, there should be cards for 95-year-olds. If there are cards for every age from 1 to 12, there should be cards for every age from 88 to 99. Don’t you think?

I’ll be keeping an eye out for that 95 card for next year. Happy Birthday, Dad.

Categories: Business, Family

La Côte Crêperie

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

[From their website]

Two Junes ago, I wrote briefly about La Côte Crêperie, a small restaurant in Madison Valley, about a mile from us. We’ve eaten a few times since, including just this past Saturday. Looking over what I wrote the first time, I don’t have much to add. But I love the place, and we had such a good meal the other day, so I want to highlight it again.

We ran some errands in mid-afternoon. Having not eaten any lunch, we decided to head down the street to the creperie for our day’s main meal. It’s small, with just a handful of tables. We figured eating in mid-afternoon would be a good strategy. To our surprise, the place was packed. We got the lone remaining open table. Who knew that heading over La Côte Crêperie is the thing to do at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon? Service is often slow, but we were in no hurry, so the pace suited us. And it had the additional benefit that by choosing to stay for dessert crepes, we had the place to ourselves. Just us, the proprietor, and the chef.

What did I eat? Well, I’m embarrassed to say I ate exactly what I did on our first visit, as I have learned by reviewing my old post. I started with the house salad: butter lettuce, shaved fennel, apple, shallot vinaigrette. Gail, who usually goes for the onion soup, chose instead the soup of the day, a creamy squash soup that the proprietor told us was from a recipe of his grandmother. Both were so good that we ended up sharing so we could each enjoy the two.

Gail next had the alpine crepe, with brie, yukon potatoes, bacon, and crème fraiche. The crepes are made from buckwheat, in the style of Brittany. I went off the crepe menu to get their version of a croque-madame (the classic croque-monsieur sandwich of ham and cheese with a fried egg on top). I tasted some of the bacon and potato that had spilled out of Gail’s crepe. A delight. And while Gail sampled a couple of their wines, I had the traditional drink of a Brittany creperie, cider. A couple of Breton ciders are available, poured into what look like giant coffee cups.

How could we pass up dessert? I had my favorite, La Belle-Hélène (pear, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce). Gail had La Martiniquaise (banana, chocolate sauce). And we chatted a bit with the proprietor.

It’s been 13 years since we were in Brittany, a trip I have written about before. It’s the one we took to visit my sister and her family in La Baule, then their customary August vacation spot, on the occasion of a major birthday celebration for my sister. One of my pleasures in eating at La Côte Crêperie is that it takes me back in some small way to that trip, and to the crêperie my sister took us to. As I wrote a year and a half ago, “One morning, we went over to the nearby walled town of Guérande — well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Within its lies what by my sister’s testimony — and I believe her — one of the great crêperies in France. It was a family favorite, and we were in for a treat. I can’t remember what I ordered, but I remember that as a matter of course, bottles of cider were put out for us all. I don’t think I did much more than taste it. I learned, though, that when in a crêperie, drink cider. And thanks to my pal Russ, I have learned to enjoy cider more.”

Indeed I have learned to enjoy cider more. I sure wish we could go back to that Guérande restaurant. As good as La Côte Crêperie is, I bet that one’s better. For now, I’ll content myself with this photo of Guérande.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel