Archive for August, 2012

Bill Burger, 3

August 15, 2012 2 comments

A quick review, for those who haven’t been following this series of posts.

Two months ago, just before the start of the US Open golf championship at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, I wrote about the Bill Burger, invented by Bill Parish and served exclusively at the club. I quoted from Al Saracevic’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle:

For decades, famished golfers have stopped at a small, nondescript shack between the 9th and 10th holes at Olympic to devour what quite possibly could be the greatest burger known to mankind. It not only tastes great, but it looks funny, too.

You see, back in 1950, a guy named Bill Parrish opened a small burger stand outside the boundaries of Olympic, but close enough for golfers to run over and buy a burger or dog between holes. To save money, Bill decided to cut his burgers in half and serve them on hot dog rolls. That way he didn’t have to waste money on buying two kinds of buns.

The result is legendary. You can hold it one hand and wolf it down in no time. And did I mention it tastes fabulous? If you’ve ever played the famous Lake Course, you know what I’m talking about.

I then explained that Bill’s daughter now makes the burgers, using a mold to shape the ground beef and concluding that we need one of those molds.

Two weeks ago, I wrote with exciting news:

This morning, my pal Russ was kind enough to send me a link to the Kitchen Art Ham Dogger, available from Amazon for just $6.29. … I ordered one. It arrives tomorrow. Ham dogs this weekend. Hot dog!

No ham dogs that weekend, as it turns out. Alternative eating options arose. And then Gail went away for a few days. But patience is a virtue, and I’m virtuous, so I waited.

Last night I got my reward. Ham dogs! Or, Bill burgers! When I got home, Gail had already molded them into shape. Soon she had them on the grill, and when I took over, all I had to do is roll them. I suppose that was a first, rolling rather than flipping the burgers.

It turns out that putting cheese on a ham dog isn’t so easy. Something to do with dogs being curved, unlike burgers. If you slice the cheese flat, you will discover a problem.

The problem may look minor in the picture below. The cheese melts and curves after all. But it doesn’t adhere as tightly as flat cheese does on a flat burger.

Maybe you can see that better in the next picture. Take a close look at the second ham dog from the top.

Another problem: the fixings don’t see to rest inside the bun as well as in a burger bun. (See photo at top.) But maybe we didn’t buy the right hot dog buns. We need to experiment a little more.

No matter. They tasted good.

Which prompts the fundamental question. Why bother? Sure, they tasted good, but no better than if we shaped them like burgers and ate them on burger buns. Is there a point to this enterprise, other than to use the Kitchen Art Ham Dogger that we now have $6.29 (plus tax) invested in?

Yes, there is a point, as Gail reminded me, and it was Bill Parrish’s point as well, his source of inspiration. If you’re making both hamburgers and hot dogs, turning your hamburgers into Bill Burgers allows you to lay out one type of bun only. It simplifies shopping, minimizes waste, saves money. Kind of like growing melons shaped like cubes. The melons can travel in the same boxes used for other goods, saving space and money.

Now we must search for the perfect Bill Burger bun. And a melon mold.

Categories: Food

Walla Walla, 5

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Three weeks ago, we were on the wine tour in Walla Walla that I wrote about in my posts titled Walla Walla 1, 2, and 3. These covered our drive over there and our two days of winery touring. I never wrote Walla Walla 4, about our drive home. But, to the extent that a fourth post about the trip was needed, my friend Russ has now been kind enough to supply it, at his blog Stance and Balance.

Russ offers several valuable complements to my account, including a link to this charming story about our wine guide extraordinaire, Philippe Michel. Recall that Philippe owns Oak Tradition, purveyor to the industry of barrels and more.

Now that I’ve returned to the subject, I’ll fill you in on the last day of the trip.

We began it at the breakfast buffet in the dining room off the Walla Walla Hampton Inn lobby. Once again, we were surrounded by Little League baseball teams from suburban Seattle, in Walla Walla for a statewide tournament. On getting food and taking seats, I filled Gail in on some remedial reading I had done the night before about French wine regions, and my thoughts on where the Walla Walla wines fit into this picture. I then mentioned a winery we visited in north Sonoma County on our Healdsburg trip four years ago, Silver Oak, maker of high end Cabernets. I recalled that this is all they made, but Gail thought they made merlots too. We went back and forth on this, until a fellow sitting alone two tables away intervened, assuring us as a long-time Silver Oak customer that they make both. This was a special moment, one of those rare occasions when Gail could shut me up by appeal to a higher authority. She was very happy.

A few hours later, during our drive home, we told Cynthia the story and she compared it to the famous Annie Hall scene in which Marshall McLuhan appears from nowhere to tell a pompous blowhard that he understands nothing about McLuhan’s work. I, of course, was playing the blowhard role. Here, see for yourself:

As Gail drove, Cynthia and I did independent research on our phones, finding no evidence that Silver oak makes merlots. So there! I may be a pompous blowhard, but I also may be right!

After breakfast, we checked out and drove through town to Whitman College, which we had never seen before. From their website:

Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community. Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.”>Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community.

Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.

I didn’t know much about Whitman when I moved out this way a few decades ago. In fact, I probably knew nothing. But I learned quickly. One of my best and most engaging students that fall turned out to be an alumnus, having come all the way from Hawaii to attend it. Since then, I’ve met many alumni, and a colleague of mine moved there a few years ago to become the president. I wasn’t about to leave town without visiting.

On the other hand, we had a deadline. I needed to be back in Seattle and on campus by 5:00 PM. Thus, as much as I wanted to see the sights on our way home, we couldn’t linger anywhere. The result was that we drove around the edges of the campus, parked, wandered into a big grassy area surrounded by dorms and academic buildings, then returned to the car and headed out of town on Highway 12.

The other site I had long anticipated seeing if I ever got to Walla Walla was the National Park Service’s Whitman Mission National Historic Site, which is just off the highway about seven miles west of town. The NPS website doesn’t seem to do a good job of summarizing the history. Here’s a bit of it, from wikipedia:

Whitman Mission National Historic Site is a United States National Historic Site located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at the site of the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. On November 29, 1847, the family of Dr. Marcus Whitman and others were massacred by Native Americans of the Cayuse. The site commemorates Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, the role they played in establishing the Oregon Trail, and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet.

In 1836, a small group of Presbyterian missionaries traveled with the annual fur trapper’s caravan into “Oregon Country”. Among the group, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding became the first white women to travel across the continent. Differences in culture led to growing tensions between the native Cayuse people and the Whitmans. Their mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail, and passing immigrants added to the tension. A measles outbreak in 1847 killed half the local Cayuse. Some of the Cayuse blamed these deaths on Dr. Whitman. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were killed along with eleven others; Forty-seven other mission residents were taken hostage. The deaths of the Whitmans shocked the country, prompting Congress to make Oregon a U.S. territory, and precipitated the Cayuse War. In more recent times, the site has been excavated for important artifacts, and then reburied. A memorial obelisk, erected fifty years after the event, stands on a nearby hill. The historic site was established in 1936 as Whitman National Monument and was redesignated a National Historic Site on January 1, 1963.

The site has a park building with a small museum and an auditorium. Out back, a hundred yards behind the building, is the mission grounds, with the shape of each mission structure outlined in stone where it actually stood. A walkway loops around, with signs explaining what’s what. For instance, as you look at the plan of the Whitman home, you can see where Marcus was shot, and where he died after running outside. There’s a path leading back to the hill and the memorial obelisk.

Our friend Julie had told us the day before that one of the really cool things at the site is the Oregon Trail wagon wheel tracks. Gail mentioned these to the ranger when we first arrived, and she quickly disabused us of the notion that they’re real. After talking with the rangers, we split up, Gail and Cynthia checking out the exhibits while I watched the ten-minute video. I thought the video gave a good overview, so I urged them to see the next showing, during which I visited the exhibits. Then we headed out back, looked at a stagecoach that’s on display, went farther back to the mission site, and took the loop. We had been lucky with the weather the previous two days, but this was going to be a hot one, and it was already hot and humid. Between that and my hurry to get back to Seattle, we didn’t linger. We will next time.

Back on Highway 12, we reversed our route of three days earlier that I described in my first Walla Walla post. West to meet the Columbia River at the Wallula Gap, northwest and west along the Columbia to the Tri-Cities, through Pasco (with Kennewick on the other side of the river), over the river into Richland, then a climb out of the Columbia River Valley and on to the Yakima Valley.

Once in Prosser, the easternmost Yakima Valley town and a major wine center in its own right, we stopped for lunch. Had I not been in a hurry, we could have visited — among others — Hogue Cellars, Desert Wind Winery, or Kestrel Vintners. Instead, we filled the car with gas, then went looking for a restaurant where we could get excellent food with minimal wait. And you know what? We found just what we needed, right at the corner of Merlot Drive and Chardonnay Avenue. A place called Subway. It’s pretty cool. You go in, choose your bread, choose your meats and cheese, choose whether or not to have the sandwich toasted, then you get to select all these vegetables: lettuce, tomato, onion, olive, pickle, several kinds of peppers. And what an assortment of spreads! Different mustards, mayo, oil and vinegar. Bottles and bottles filled with options. Plus, it’s really good! The staff is friendly. The lighting is warm. They have — get this — wallpaper with New York City subway maps. It’s great fun. I’m going to have to see if there’s any place like it around here.

We left filled and happy. Soon we were nearing Yakima, and the cherry stand Tobae had discovered through an internet search the night before. We pulled off. They had four varieties of cherries, plus peaches and assorted other fruit. Everything looked and tasted good. We bought several pounds of cherries, then continued our journey.

In Ellensburg, we switched drivers, Gail taking us the final 110 miles into Seattle. There was traffic on I-90 once we got into Bellevue, slow going across Mercer Island and through Seattle, then we got off onto local roads for the final stretch. Home at 4:45 PM, just in time for me to unload our wine from the car and head to work.

Categories: History, Travel, Wine

The Devil’s Cave

August 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Last September, I got a little carried away with the crime novels whose hero is Bruno, the chief of police of Martin Walker’s fictional Dordogne town, St. Denis. I first learned about Bruno from Marilyn Stasio’s crime novel roundup in the NYT Sunday book review last Labor Day weekend, in which she wrote about the third Bruno novel. We were in NY at the time, heading to Nantucket. A few days later, when I was ready for a new book, I downloaded the first one, the eponymous Bruno, Chief of Police.

I wrote at the time that it was pretty slow going at first, and never did speed up much, but I was hooked. As I would continue to read more Bruno books, I would keep coming back to the realization that Bruno is good company. Like any hero of a crime series, he is smarter than he lets on, has a complicated past, and misses nothing. What makes Bruno distinctive is the way he has adapted to, and fallen in love with, the daily rhythms and people of the Dordogne, as the reader inevitably does too. Especially tantalizing are the local food and wine. Bruno’s friends supply the finest ingredients, and Bruno cooks with aplomb. Yes, there are crimes to be solved, and women to become entangled with, but however complex life becomes, there’s always the pleasure of the table. And the companionship of the finest dogs and horses. Why would one move to Paris in search of a big-time career when one is already surrounded by the world’s riches? Even art. Cave art.

On finishing Bruno, Chief of Police, I moved on to the second and third Bruno novels, The Dark Vineyard and Black Diamond, which I wrote about here and here. How long would I have to wait for Bruno 4? As I reported soon after, not long at all.

Black Diamond having been published just in August, I anticipated a long wait for Bruno 4. But I wasn’t thinking straight, what with Martin Walker being British and these being British books. Once I came out of my stupor and looked on the Amazon UK site, I discovered that I wouldn’t have to wait long at all for the British publication of Bruno 4. In fact, it was out already. The Crowded Grave, just out, the end of September. Unfortunately, I couldn’t download the Kindle version, that being unavailable here until US publication of the hardcover. I ordered the UK hardcover.

I didn’t get around to reading The Crowded Grave until mid-November. Looking back at my post of the time, I see that what I had to say is similar to what I wrote above:

Bruno is marvelous company. He has found a welcoming home in St. Denis, cradle of early humans, home of the best food and wine that France has to offer. He can’t leave, even if love might call him elsewhere. It’s not going to happen. And who can blame him? Who, indeed, doesn’t want to join him?

The Crowded Grave was published in the US just a month ago. Which means that over in the UK, it must be time for Bruno 5. And indeed it is. The Devil’s Cave was published on August 2. My copy arrived this past Tuesday, courtesy of UK Amazon, and I’m now 200 pages in.

Slow is certainly the word for this one. But Bruno is still good company. In the chapter I just finished, he ponders what he can prepare on short notice for a dinner with the national police officer, down from Paris on business for the weekend, who is also his ex-girlfriend.

Bruno [was] thinking what was available in his store cupboard and freezer that could be quickly prepared. He had onions and bread and cheese and some good venison stock, so a hearty onion soup would be a good way to start. … He had spaghetti, but he never thought of it as a main course, so he’d make a risotto instead, with some dried cèpe mushrooms and lardons. There was still some mâche in the garden for a salad.

I’m hoping I’ll get an invite.

Categories: Books

London Olympics Videos

August 11, 2012 2 comments

The Olympics end tomorrow. Whenever possible over the last week, I’ve spent lunchtime watching the live internet feed of the track and field finals. With that done on any given day, I didn’t have much reason to tune to the NBC primetime production. I had no stomach for their endless teases and dragging out of events.

One unintended consequence of my viewing pattern has been that I’ve hardly seen any Olympic events other than track lately. What I know about them comes mostly from reading. Fortunately, some of the gaps in my viewing have been filled by excellent videos at the websites of The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. If you have gaps too, I highly recommend their work.

The full list of Guardian videos can be found here. I was particularly pleased to see their coverage of the weightlifting final for the highest weight class. And, having missed so much of the rowing during week one, I was able to catch up on the men’s coxless four final, a thrilling matchup of Great Britain and Australia (above). Another highlight in their series is the men’s track 100 meter race:

The WSJ has their own compelling series of Homemade Highlights, including the women’s beach volleyball final:

One can never watch the transcendent Usain Bolt too often. Here is the WSJ’s coverage of his 200 meter victory.

Finally, moving outside the arenas, I can’t resist including the video from opening day that made Londoner Rachel Onasanwo an unexpected Olympics star.

Categories: Animation, Sports, Video

Heavenly Match: Romney-Ryan

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

I realized today that Mitt Romney isn’t running for president. He’s preparing for a Yankee tryout as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop. Jeter isn’t so good at moving to his right anymore; Romney is. With his selection of Paul Ryan as running mate, he has fielded a ball all the way over in foul territory.

The adoration of Ryan over the last year as a man of seriousness, depth, and courage illustrates the bankruptcy of the mainstream press. But Ryan matches them with his own bankruptcy. I’ll save myself the trouble of explaining, since Esquire’s Charles Pierce does such a fine job. Read his piece in full. Here are excerpts:

In his decision to make Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Wisconsin, his running mate, Romney finally surrendered the tattered remnants of his soul not only to the extreme base of his party, but also to extremist economic policies, and to an extremist view of the country he seeks to lead.


Paul Ryan is an authentically dangerous zealot. He does not want to reform entitlements. He wants to eliminate them. He wants to eliminate them because he doesn’t believe they are a legitimate function of government. He is a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live. This now is an argument not over what kind of political commonwealth we will have, but rather whether or not we will have one at all, because Paul Ryan does not believe in the most primary institution of that commonwealth: our government. The first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution make a lie out of every speech he’s ever given. He looks at the country and sees its government as something alien that is holding down the individual entrepreneurial genius of 200 million people, and not as their creation, and the vehicle through which that genius can be channelled for the general welfare.


… get him out of his comfort zone of being thought an intellectual by the likes of Louie Gohmert, and of being thought of as a bold thinker by half the buffet-grazers in the Beltway media, and he really is quite the political coward. (In this way, he is a perfect match for the man who picked him.) He does not have the raw balls to explain to the country that, no, he does not believe in government — not the federal government, anyway, and not as it was originally conceived, as the fundamental expression of a political commonwealth. He’s grandfathered his plan to chloroform Medicare so that, despite the deficit that he considers such an urgent problem, nobody alive today who might vote against him will be affected by it. For the same reason, he will not specify the cuts that he will make or the tax “loopholes” —coughMortgageInterestDeductioncough — that he will close. In any way that will come to matter to the people whose lives his policies will make harder and more miserable, Paul Ryan is still the high-school kid living off Social Security survivor benefits and reading Ayn Rand by flashlight under the sheets. Instead, he’s a guy pretending to be something he’s not, and doing so back in Janesville in a very swell Georgian mansion, which just happens to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Which, among other things, means that Paul Ryan, who lies awake at night worrying that The Deficit will come and eat our grandchildren, lives in a house overseen by the National Park Service, which means that he qualifies for a 20-percent investment tax credit for the house he lives in. Of course, his “budget” would largely decimate the NPS, but that would be only those parts of it enjoyed by other people. Yes, Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver, has done very well by the federal government that he seeks to dismantle. Come to think of it, so has Willard Romney, although we may never know exactly how well he’s done by it. It turns out this is a match made in heaven, after all.

Categories: Politics

Aaron-Bonds Ladder

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, 2004

[AP Photo/James Finley]

The NYT crossword three days ago puzzled me. A typical Wednesday crossword has a theme built around several clues with long answers, ones that run at least half and perhaps the full width of the frame. This one, in contrast, had six starred clues, all with solutions that were five letters long. Even after I had filled in words for five of the six starred clues, I didn’t see what they had in common.

What’s a word ladder? I managed to get through a good part of my life without knowing. Then, on a trip to Colorado with Gail and Joel fifteen Augusts ago, I invented them (as no doubt many thousands of others have). We were staying for a few days in Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, before going down to Denver to see the Mariners play the Rockies at Coors Field. That was the first year of interleague play, and the Rockies and Mariners were the biggest hitting teams, if not the most successful, in the National and American Leagues. This series was getting a lot of attention, and we were thrilled to be there. But first, Rocky Mountain National Park and word ladders.

One morning, we headed to one of the park visitor centers near Estes Park. The Moraine Park Visitor Center I would guess, as I look over a map. There was a gigantic parking lot, beyond which was a small lake surrounded by a paved path. You could grab a little brochure and take a self-guided nature tour around the lake, stopping at each numbered sign to learn about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Which we did, along with many hundreds. As we returned to our starting point, Gail headed toward the parking lot. In surprise and dismay, I suggested that we hadn’t come all the way here just to walk on pavement with the masses. We needed to get a ways into the woods. Joel would have been 10 years old then. I don’t recall how he voted, but off we went, with packed lunches, up a bit of a hill, then onto a relatively flat trail through the woods. A couple of miles in, we reached a pond, sat on some pondside logs, and had lunch.

The word ladder came into play because we needed a way to keep Joel occupied, and so I threw out a four-letter word, challenging him to come up with a new one by changing a single letter. Then Gail did the same, then me, and so on. At some point, we decided that the loser would be the one who couldn’t come up with a new word when his or her turn came.

This game would prove to be a great discovery. Over the next year, it was our game of choice when we needed to pass time. Some years later, I learned that what we were doing was constructing word ladders, the point usually being not to produce ladders for as long as possible but to get from a known start to a known end, perhaps with a ladder of minimal length. Now I see, in the wikipedia entry, that Lewis Carroll is credited with inventing them.

When we played our game, we didn’t allow proper names, but one might wish to make proper names the starting and end points of a ladder. For example, let’s choose the two baseball greats Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. How can we get from Mays to Ruth in minimal length? Here’s one way: mays-rays-rats-ruts-ruth. See? It’s easy. And fun.

Back to Wednesday’s crossword. (Read no further if you wish to try it yourself.)

The six starred clues were:

Brother of Moses
Von Richthofen, e.g.
Element in the cleanser 20 Mule Team
Bklyn., Queens and others
Sonny and Chaz

The solutions:


I got these, but I was puzzled. Enlightenment came in three stages:

1. I realized that they formed a word ladder.

2. I realized that the two ends were intended to be Hank Aaron and Bobby Bonds.

3. Two days later, by chance, I read that the fifth anniversary of Bonds’ breaking Aaron’s career home run record had just taken place.

Now I understood the puzzle’s point. Five years ago, on August 7, Bonds hit his 756th career home run. A little obscure, no? Not that one needs to know that to solve the puzzle. One doesn’t even need to know who Aaron and Bonds are. But really, did anyone solving this puzzle recognize that it fell on the anniversary of the record?

Categories: Baseball, Crosswords

What Money Can’t Buy

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote a post last Saturday, Skyboxification, taking off from a review by Jeremy Waldron of Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. On finishing the post, I thought that maybe I should read the book. Sunday I downloaded it and today I finished it. Not hard to do, given how short the book is. It reads more like an extended essay.

As Waldron pointed out, the book is loaded with examples in which money and markets have been introduced (or intrude) into parts of life that might better be kept free of them. This is what motivated me to turn to the book itself. Waldron discussed a handful of examples, all intriguing, and I was curious to see more.

One family of examples has to do with fines becoming fees. A particular case to which Sandel returns from time to time is a daycare in Israel that decided to fine parents who were late to pick up their children. The surprise effect? Tardy pickups increased. Without fines, parents felt properly guilty about keeping the daycare staff at work after hours. With the introduction of fines, tardiness was monetized and parents stopped feeling guilty. They could simply pay for being late — or so one imagines they reasoned, consciously or unconsciously — and they were happy to do so. How the staff felt is another matter.

Or what about gift cards? Giving someone a gift shows thought, interest, a connection. Sandel reviews arguments from economists that giving cash would be better, since the recipient can make better use of the money. But this doesn’t feel right to many. Are gift cards different? Apparently so. The gift card business has been booming. What’s up with that?

Sandel doesn’t so much offer answers to every situation. Rather, he describes the monetization of a traditionally non-economic behavior, discusses what may feel wrong about it, and often analyzes it in the twin contexts of fairness and corruption. For example, in discussing college admissions, he writes:

The idea of selling admission is open to two objections. One is about fairness; the other is about corruption. The fairness objection says that admitting children of wealthy donors in exchange for a handsome donation to the college fund is unfair to applicants who lacked the good judgment to be born to affluent parents. This objection views a college education as a source of opportunity and access, and worries that giving an edge to children of the wealthy perpetuates social and economic inequality.

The corruption argument is about institutional integrity. This objection points out that higher education not only equips students for remunerative jobs; it also embodies certain ideals — the pursuit of truth, the promotion of scholarly and scientific excellence, the advancement of humane teaching and learning, the cultivation of civic virtue. … allowing fund-raising needs to predominate runs the risk of distorting these ends and corrupting the norms that give universities their reason for being.

This is one case where perhaps the appeal to fairness is more compelling than the appeal to corruption. But what about developing a futures market on terrorism: a gambling site where people can place bets on terrorist attacks on certain targets? The logic for suggesting this, as the Defense department’s research organization DARPA did a few years ago, is that such a market would provide useful intelligence. Yet, betting on death makes many people queasy. Sandel devotes an entire chapter to death bets, with numerous examples, including basic life insurance, which was outlawed in many cultures for centuries.

A final chapter addresses naming rights: sports stadiums, schools, police cars, and many more. This happens to connect to the subject of a post I intended to write two falls ago. Perhaps I still will, so let me not try to produce a version of it here. The starting point was to be the line with which Waldron opens his review of Sandel’s book, “Pecunia non olet,” or “Money doesn’t stink.” Let’s turn to wikipedia for a quick review of the meaning:

The phrase is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE). Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.

The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked, whether he felt offended by smell. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”

The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins.

My never-finished post was inspired in part* by a NYT article on the transformation of MIT’s campus by top architects. Working my way through an accompanying slide show, I came upon the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Yes, that David Koch, the libertarian multibillionaire whose political contributions have propped up the Tea Party movement and had a corrosive effect on our politics. (See Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article from two years ago for background on the Koch brothers.) Koch’s name is also on the former New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, home to the New York City Ballet.

*I need to credit my son, Joel, for further inspiration for the still-to-be-written post. He introduced me to the Latin phrase in a different context.

Which gets us back to naming rights. A deal with the devil? Dirty money? Or just good economic sense? I’m not talking specifically about the MIT and Lincoln Center buildings to which Koch has contributed generously. Rather, I’m raising the question in general.

You must have your favorite example of a building you wish had its traditional name, or at least some name that wasn’t changing every few years as companies go out of business, are sold, or fail to keep their end of a naming deal. (Remember Enron Field, the original name of the Houston Astros’ home when it opened in 2000? No doubt millions of people first heard of Enron thanks to this naming deal. The name didn’t last. The field is now Minute Maid Park.) Sandel asks us not to decry this trend, or applaud it, but instead to think through what a suitable basis would be for objecting to monetization. He offers guidance, leaving us to engage in the process ourselves.

In closing, Sandel returns to sports stadiums, which have not only commercial names attached, but also skyboxes and frightful ticket prices. Like him, I remember the days just a few decades ago when all tickets were affordable. He writes about the modest pricing of tickets for Minnesota Twins baseball games. In the early 1970s, when I was a student, I would buy Celtics tickets just before game time at Boston’s North Station. They never sold out. You could just walk up to the counter a few minutes before the game, next to the train ticket windows, and pay $2, $3, $4, $5, or $6. (I sure wish I splurged for those $6 tickets just once.) Now that seems like a dream.

Sandel concludes that we

need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. … commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Polo Grounds, New York, 1922

Whether you agree or not, you will find it a worthwhile exercise to work through Sandel’s examples. We learn in the Acknowledgments that Sandel has himself tested them in joint classes with economists who argue the other side. Those would be rewarding discussions to listen in on.**

**But why must Sandel make it a point to tell us that all these people are his friends? For example, he co-taught a course at Harvard with Larry Summers in 2005, and they were “joined for some sessions by my friend Thomas Friedman,” Summers having already been described in the text as a friend. And on occasion, “my friend Richard Posner … has joined me … for debates about the moral limits of markets.” Should I point out that I was once friends with Summers’ future wife? Really, I was. But so what?

Compromise and Corruption

August 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The thriller writer Barry Eisler had a thoughtful post yesterday about the process by which journalists find themselves “compromised, corroded, and lost.” Eisler’s starting point is an interview of Chris Hayes by Glenn Greenwald. Hayes, an editor at The Nation and host at MSNBC, is also the author of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which appeared two months ago. Greenwald writes about (and links to) the interview here, asking at one point how Hayes avoids “cognitive capture”:

In the book, Hayes described how American elite culture is so insulated that it “produce[s] cognitive capture,” meaning that even those who enter it with hostility to its orthodoxies end up shaped by — succumbing to — its warped belief system and corrupt practices. Given that Hayes pronounces this “cognitive capture” to be “an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion” in that world, I asked him what steps he is personally taking to inoculate himself against being infected now that he’s a highly rewarded TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations.

Suggesting his own answer, Eisler offers ten warning signs of assimilation. For instance:

As the compromises accumulate, you’ll need a larger, more all-purpose rationalization to explain them away. I suspect the most common of these boils down to, “Okay, this isn’t my proudest moment, but overall I do more good with my journalism than I do bad. Plus, if I left this position, it would be filled by someone with (even) greater capacity for compromise, and less capacity for doing good. So on balance, I have to do this small bad thing in the service of the larger good I do.”


Do you find yourself identifying more with the public figures you’re supposed to hold to account than with the readers and viewers you’re supposed to serve? This identification can take many forms. Do you worry about whether they’ll think you’re a “good guy” or otherwise about their good opinion of you? About whether they’ll grant you various forms of access? About whether they’ll invite you to prestige events and speak well of you to their friends?

Near the end, Eisler points out the broader applicability of his warning:

And obviously, the principles we’re dealing with here apply to professions and situations beyond just journalism. … when you enter an enormous, shifting system single-mindedly dedicated to beguiling you into surrendering your values and assimilating you, you have to do more than assure yourself you’ll practice good journalism. You have to take the threat seriously, consider how many people have succumbed to it before you, and armor up accordingly. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance.

This got my attention. Thinking beyond journalism, I re-read Eisler’s post with my years as a university administrator in mind. Working through his ten warning signs of assimilation and testing them against my administrative experience was enormously instructive.

I don’t have any conclusions that I wish to share just yet. But I recommend performing this exercise, replacing journalism by your favorite context.

Categories: Education, Journalism

Usain Bolt and His Predecessors

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

I was glued to my computer mid-day today, watching the men’s 100 meter Olympic semi-finals and then, two hours later, the final. The semi-final performances suggested this would be a four-man race, and so it was: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the US’s Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

Despite difficulties over the last two years, Bolt confirmed his greatness today by pulling ahead at about the 50-meter mark, steadily opening up a gap on the field, and winning in the second fastest 100 meter in history. Only his extraordinary world-record time at the 2009 World Championships was faster (though we’ll never know how fast he might have run the year before at the Beijing Olympics, where he set an earlier world record while slowing down at the finish).

However, today’s race, great though it was, is not the point of this post. If you want to know more about it, you can read the coverage. For instance, see Richard Williams’ piece at The Guardian, accompanied by the photo below, which shows Bolt crossing the finish line with Blake, Gatlin, and Gay behind.

[Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images]

Instead, I want to draw your attention to a fabulous graphic at the NYT website. I can’t embed it, so you’ll need to go here. In fact, do so right now. Click on the link — here it is again — and watch the 2 3/4 minute video. It puts Bolt’s performance in the context of the medalists’ times for all Olympic 100-meter races since 1896.

I’ll admit, I’m not convinced that the information conveyed by the video is all that interesting. Times have gotten steadily better over the last 116 years.* If there’s a deeper message, it eluded me. But the graphics are brilliantly done, and that’s why I’m recommending that you have a look.

*Then again, if one wants to find out about improvements in Olympic times, the 100 meter is the race to study. The competitors can’t mess around. They have to run their best, and generally they do. No room for tactics, such as those that occur in the 1500, 5000, or 10,000, with concomitant slow times. The 100 meter consistently produces record or near-record times, as it did today.

Categories: Design, Track

Curiosity: Two Hours to Touchdown

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Curiosity — NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory — is due to land in Mars’ Gale Crater in two hours. The new scientific knowledge the rover will provide is sufficient cause for excitement, but the design of the landing process is pretty cool in its own right. (And, of course, if there’s not a successful landing, there will be no science at all.) Be sure to watch the video above, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to see what I’m talking about.

Also, from the website:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted.

Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight (about 1:31 a.m. Aug. 6, EDT).

“Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft,” said Mission Manager Brian Portock of JPL. “It’s natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared.”

Descent from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission. These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for this mission of discovery. The same innovations advance NASA toward capabilities needed for human missions to Mars.


At the critical moment of Curiosity’s touchdown, controllers and the rest of the world will be relying on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to provide immediate confirmation of a successful landing. Odyssey will turn to point in the right direction beforehand to listen to Curiosity during the landing. If for any reason that turn maneuver does not work, a successful landing cannot be confirmed until more than two hours later.

The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.

Good luck, Curiosity.

Categories: Science, Technology