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Mirror Earth

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, which I was only partway into. I finished it Tuesday night. What a puzzling marvel of a book, bubbling over with stories and ideas, narrated polyphonically (by design, though it takes a while to catch on, as characters are introduced briefly, then dropped for 50 pages, only to return more boldly). I was tempted to start in next on Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, his 2004 study of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. On further reflection, I decided I need a break.

What next? I looked over my growing backlog of novels, the most recent addition being Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. And my history backlog. I tried out Amazon samples of a few books. Last night, on seeing Amanda Foreman’s review of the new J.K. Rowling novel in tomorrow’s edition of the NYT Sunday book review, I was reminded that I’ve been wanting to read Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which the NYT had on its list of ten best books of 2011. Foreman is apparently quite the storyteller. But it’s such a long book.

From there I went over to the online version of today’s WSJ and came upon astronomer Mike Brown’s review of Michael Lemonick’s new book, Mirror Earth: The Search for our Planet’s Twin. I hadn’t imagined I was in the market for a popular science book, but Brown made me curious.

Mr. Lemonick has collected nearly all of the leading astronomers involved in the search for extrasolar planets—more than a dozen “exoplaneteers,” as he calls them—following them to mountain tops, lakeside lodges, roofs of buildings, and scattered offices around the country, to get them to explain what they’re doing and why. “Why” is particularly interesting, and most admit to the same basic motivation: finding life. Bill Borucki, the head of NASA’s planet-finding Kepler mission, wanted to “solve the problem of whether there’s life in the galaxy.” David Charbonneau, who is searching for tiny planets around tiny stars, desperately wants to know if there are “examples of life that arose independently from the life on the Earth.” Matt Holman, however, who finds multiple planets by their subtle gravitational interactions with one another, charmingly admits that he’s “motivated by precision”: With planetary dynamics, “you can make very careful, detailed predictions and detailed measurements and you can write down the equations of motion and I like that.”

Mr. Lemonick’s interactions with these scientists is the overwhelming strength of this very human story, but he also clearly explains the diverse tactics astronomers are using to try to find Earth twins. Some stare at 100,000 stars all at once hoping to pick out a fleeting dip in brightness as a perfectly aligned planet passes in front of its host star. Others carefully monitor individual stars for the minuscule push and pull that an Earthlike planet would exert. A few shift the entire focus to stars much smaller than the sun, where the visible effects of a planet would be correspondingly larger.

I read the free Amazon sample. I bought the book. I continued reading, and by early this morning, I was two-fifths through.

It’s easy reading. And fascinating. Plus, I even know two of the featured astronomers. I’ll soon have to decide whether to tackle A World on Fire. Or maybe Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. Meanwhile, I’m having fun exploring the universe with Lemonick.

Categories: Books, Science

Dumplings

October 27, 2012 1 comment

The NYT food section three days ago had an article on some of the options for dumpling lovers in the city, along with a slideshow and the video I’ve embedded above. If you missed the video, I recommend you click on it and watch. It features the work of Joe Ng at RedFarm in the West Village and Dale Talde at Talde in Park Slope. (The slideshow is worth a look too.)

From the article:

In Park Slope, Dale Talde has engineered one of the most hunted-down bar snacks of 2012, a beer-friendly, street-cart collision known as the “pretzel dumpling.”

Inside, there’s some slightly cured pork. Outside, a process of boiling, brushing, pan-searing and baking creates a skin with the crust and chew of a hot pretzel. The dipping sauce echoes what you might get at a deli, or in a bag full of Chinese takeout: strong mustard.

For Mr. Talde, who grew up in Chicago and comes from a Filipino background, the goal was to summon a dish that represented a spirited take on what’s Asian and what’s American. “For us, it was a perfect way of blending the two,” he said.

If any place embodies the city’s neo-dumpling ethos, though, it’s RedFarm, whose West Village location has already spawned a forthcoming Upper West Side spinoff. At RedFarm, there are dumplings fashioned to look like Pac-Man characters and horseshoe crabs. There’s also an egg roll stuffed with pastrami.

“I call them whimsical,” said Ed Schoenfeld, the veteran restaurateur behind RedFarm. Spend an afternoon touring the kitchen, and Mr. Schoenfeld will rhapsodize about the artistry of the chef, Joe Ng. Those batter-crusted crabs might look like a cute gag, but there’s culinary precision (and greenmarket produce) inside them.

Pete Wells reviewed RedFarm back in March, giving it high praise and two stars.

It won’t be easy. They have plaintive black sesame-seed eyes, the dumplings at RedFarm, giving them the appearance of strange, adorable characters in a Miyazaki film. These flat-bellied duck and crab dumplings look like a school of wide-mouthed catfish; the pale-green ones, filled with shrimp and snow-pea leaves, like moon-faced tadpoles. Over here are Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, spectral shrimp dumplings in blue, pink, yellow and white, chasing a Pac-Man made of sweet potato tempura with a blueberry for an eye.

Ignore their plaintive stares, and stare at them instead. Look how rounded they are, how their fillings weigh against their glossy wrappers like the summer juice pressing against the skin of a plum. They look firm, ripe, ready. You can tell that they’re going to be good.

But you don’t know how good they really are, and how good RedFarm can be, until you try one. And then, plaintive stares or no, you begin devouring these bundles of delight one by one.

RedFarm, in the West Village, is a collaboration between one of New York’s greatest Chinese chefs, Joe Ng, and one of its greatest Chinese restaurateurs, Ed Schoenfeld. Only one, Mr. Ng, is Chinese by birth. Mr. Schoenfeld is Chinese by calling, a Brooklyn-born Jew who long ago heard an inner voice urging him to bring better kung pao chicken to the people of Manhattan.

They have several clever ideas at RedFarm. First, the menu has been tailored for a Western palate, with none of the bland and slippery specialties that non-Chinese eaters find so enigmatic. It also seems designed for the age of Yelp, when the entire world can be split into either Nothing Special or OMG. RedFarm’s cooking runs hard toward OMG.

[snip]

For sensations like this, people have stood in line, and stood and stood, since the restaurant opened last August. RedFarm belongs to that post-Momofuku generation of restaurants made possible by the discovery that people will wait in line, open their wallets and put up with a reasonable amount of discomfort if the cooking consistently vaults above usual levels of intensity. No reservations are taken, except for large parties.

The décor, to stretch a definition, is provided mostly by potted plants and by Mr. Schoenfeld’s owlish eyeglasses, color-coordinated with his sweaters. Cartons of beer and liquor are stowed above the tables on raw-lumber platforms. (What design budget there was seems to have gone into buying one of those highly accomplished Japanese toilets.)

In exchange, all the flavors have been turned up as high as they can go. The dishes can be salty, or sweet, or rich. Often they are all three at once. At RedFarm, the food goes to 11.

The review has a slideshow too, also worth study.

We’ll be in New York in just days, but with limited time, so that part about waiting in line may mean we won’t get down to RedFarm. Next time.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Headline of the Day

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

[Tony Gentile/Reuters]

I was scanning the home page of the Sports Illustrated home page yesterday when I noticed the headline:

AC Milan owner sentenced to four years in prison

I should have known immediately who the AC Milan owner is. (I did know that AC Milan is one of the historic soccer powers in Europe.) But I didn’t, so I clicked on the link to learn more. The linked article had a slightly more informative headline:

AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi sentenced to four years in prison

Yes, of course. Berlusconi. Somehow, when I think of him, “AC Milan owner” is not the first description that comes to mind.

The article was brief. It opened, “AC Milan owner and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to 4 years in jail on tax fraud charges, European news agency are reporting.” This was followed by a quote from another source, then the closing sentence, “Berlusconi’s decision not to run for a fourth term as prime minister and legal problems have come in AC Milan’s worst start in 71 years, leaving the club tied for 15th place and in danger of relegation.”

Talk about a narrow focus. I know. This is Sports Illustrated, not the New York Times. But still.

In contrast, the NYT coverage made no mention of AC Milan. Its opening: “A court in Milan convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of tax fraud on Friday and sentenced him to four years in prison. Mr. Berlusconi is also currently on trial over charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute. He has denied the accusation.”

Categories: Journalism

What Mathematics Is

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Lloyd Shapley

[AP]

Last week the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley for “the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design.” Catherine Rampell wrote in the NYT:

Two Americans, Alvin E. Roth and Lloyd S. Shapley, were awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science on Monday for their work on market design and matching theory, which relate to how people and companies find and select one another in everything from marriage to school choice to jobs to organ donations.

Their work primarily applies to markets that do not have prices, or at least have strict constraints on prices. The laureates’ breakthroughs involve figuring out how to properly assign people and things to stable matches when prices are not available to help buyers and sellers pair up.

[snip]

Mr. Shapley, 89, a mathematician long associated with game theory, is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He made some of the earliest theoretical contributions to research on market design and matching, in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a paper with David Gale in 1962, Mr. Shapley explained how individuals could be paired together in a stable match even when they disagreed about what qualities made the right match. The paper focused on designing an ideal, perfectly stable marriage market: having mates find one another in a fair way, so that no one who is already married would want (and be able) to break off and pair up with someone else who is already married.

I wish to say more about the 1962 Shapley-Gale paper. First, more background, from David Henderson’s WSJ article on the award.

Matching theory can be applied to many aspects of life in which matches need to be made—in marriages, for instance, or the job market, or student placement in colleges. In 1962, Mr. Shapley and co-author David Gale published a short but pathbreaking article titled “College Admissions and the Stability of Marriage” in a mathematical journal.

The article presented what is now called the “Gale-Shapley deferred choice algorithm.” The key word is “deferred.” They showed that if each “girl” (yes, people wrote differently then) rejects all but her favorite of the “boys” who propose, but leaves her favorite hanging to allow for someone even better to come along later—and if each boy who is rejected proceeds to his second choice—then letting this process play out yields stability.

What is stability? It means that there is no boy-girl pair who would both rather be married to each other than to the person they did marry.

Of course, letting that algorithm run is unrealistic. Many girls will accept the boy who is good enough rather than wait until a long sorting-out process is over. But other uses for matching theory make more sense. It turns out that doctors had been using the algorithm to allocate residents to hospitals even before the Gale-Shapley article came along.

You can find the article in Volume 69 of the American Mathematical Monthly, the January 1962 issue. (There’s a link here.) It’s quite readable for such an influential paper, in the sense that no specific mathematical background is required. Gale and Shapley begin by describing a general matching problem, the one that arises in college admissions. They then turn to a special case, the marriage problem. After giving a solution to this simpler problem, they return to the general situation and solve it.

You may enjoy looking at their their treatment of the marriage problem. It’s section 3 of the paper. They pose the problem as follows:

A certain community consists of n men and n women. Each person ranks those of the opposite sex in accordance with his or her preferences for a marriage partner. We seek a satisfactory way of marrying off all members of the community. Imitating our earlier definition, we call a a set of marriages unstable … if under it there are a man and a woman who are not married to each other but prefer each other to their actual mates.

Question: For any pattern of preferences is it possible to find a stable set of marriages.

We don’t ask that everyone is married to his or her first choice. That’s not going to happen except in the most contrived of examples. We simply ask that no male-female pair is stuck in marriages they prefer less than a marriage to each other. Gale and Shipley proceed to show, in everyday English, how to set up an algorithm that provides a solution.

In the paper’s “concluding remarks,” they reflect on the fact that their theorem and its proof are, in principle, understandable to any reader, with no need for numbers, geometry, calculus, or what people might typically imagine are the tools of a mathematician:

Finally, we call attention to one additional aspect of the preceding analysis which may be of interest to teachers of mathematics. This is the fact that our result provides a handy counterexample to some of the stereotypes which non-mathematicians believe mathematics to be concerned with.

Most mathematicians at one time or another have probably found themselves in the position of trying to refute the notion that they are people with “a head for figures, “or that they “know a lot of formulas.” At such times it may be convenient to have an illustration at hand to show that mathematics need not be concerned with figures, either numerical or geometrical. For this purpose we recommend the statement and proof of our Theorem 1. The argument is carried out not in mathematical symbols but in ordinary English; there are no obscure or technical terms. Knowledge of calculus is not presupposed. In fact, one hardly needs to know how to count. Yet any mathematician will immediately recognize the argument as mathematical, while people without mathematical training will probably find difficulty in following the argument,though not because of unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

What, then, to raise the old question once more, is mathematics? The answer, it appears, is that any argument which is carried out with sufficient precision is mathematical, and the reason that your friends and ours cannot understand mathematics is not because they have no head for figures,but because they are unable to achieve the degree of concentration required to follow a moderately involved sequence of inferences. This observation will hardly be news to those engaged in the teaching of mathematics, but it may not be so readily accepted by people outside of the profession. For them the foregoing may serve as a useful illustration.

Fifty years later, their message still rings true (though one might prefer to rewrite some of the harsh-sounding bits). If only I had read it years ago. Now I’ll be prepared for the next party, when someone asks what I do.

Categories: Economics, Math

George McGovern

October 21, 2012 2 comments

George McGovern died today. The first year I was old enough to vote for president was 1972, thanks to the 26th amendment to the constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18 and enfranchised many of us for the first time. I voted for McGovern. Forty years later, I am glad I did, and wish I could have voted for him again.

Nixon won 49 states. McGovern won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The greatest landslide in history. Since then, McGovern has been regarded by Republicans as something of a joke. And by many Democrats as well, eager to run the other way. Their loss. He was a good man. An honest man. And he was right about many issues, the Vietnam War most notably. While Nixon was busy committing war crimes and lying to the country, McGovern spoke the truth.

Here we are again, with a Republican presidential nominee who is incapable of telling the truth and with a Democrat, I’m sorry to say, who seems to have learned more from Nixon than from McGovern, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. (But hey, Nixon’s parter in war crime, Henry Kissinger, won the prize too, for ending the Vietnam War. Words fail.)

Nixon didn’t much like whistleblowers, but at least he brought Daniel Ellsberg to trial. Under Obama, Bradley Manning still languishes, indefinitely. Obama could have taught Nixon a thing or two.

May we honor George McGovern with greater honesty in our political discourse, starting with the third presidential debate tomorrow night.

Categories: Obituary, Politics

Our Latest Stryker Wine

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I have written before about Stryker Sonoma Winery in Geyserville, California (actually, a short distance outside Healdsburg on the way to Geyserville), which we visited on our Healdsburg trip four years ago. Tim Hardin, their winemaker, describes their style as

guided by a youthful enthusiasm and tireless dedication to the pursuit of quality and pleasure. We are a fun-loving group with a slightly irreverent attitude with respect to the traditional methods of producing and marketing wine. We go to considerable expense to grow and produce pure, balanced wines that are fully extracted, rich in complexity and exude depth of character. These wines are enjoyable in their youth, but also reward those with patience.

The wines of Stryker Sonoma are truly handcrafted, making use of both old-world traditional methods and the judicious integration of modern tools designed to allow for gentler handling of both fruit and wine. Our approach is sometimes risky, but the resulting bold, forward style is what we like to drink and we have found a growing following that also appreciates these wines.

The focus of our winemaking efforts is centered around the Cabernet family of varietals. Nonetheless, we also have a keen interest in Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Our annual production is roughly 7,000 cases, consisting of many small lots averaging in size from 200 to 400 cases each. Most of our annual production is sold directly to consumers from the winery’s tasting room and through our mailing list and website.

Of the wines we shipped home from the many wineries we visited during our 2008, our favorite was Stryker’s 2003 E1K. It has long been sold out, but the webpage still works. We learn there that “this Bordeaux-style wine represents our signature release. The concept behind this program is to showcase the incredible character of Sonoma County’s mountain grown grapes. All of the fruit used in this blend is sourced from vineyards located at elevations of one thousand feet or higher, hence the nickname ‘E 1 K.'”

A couple of years ago, we ordered a few more bottles of E1K, drinking the last for Joel’s birthday a few months ago. We also joined Stryker’s wine club, receiving our first shipment last March. I wrote about it at the time.

This week we received our second shipment, two bottles each of three different wines. Along with the wine comes a newsletter in which Tim Hardin describes each wine. Here’s what we got, with excerpts from Tim’s notes.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma County: 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of our Estate & Winery. During the 2002 harvest, I brought in an exceptional crop from Monte Rosso Vineyard and decided that we would age 50 cases … for our Club Members. I’ve released this library selection exactly 10 years to the month. This wine shows us just how age-worthy our wines have become.

2010 Merlot Estate Alexander Valley: It’s been four years since we’ve produced an Estate Merlot. When it comes to selecting grapes for our Estate wines, I have specific criteria in mind for the harvest in order for a wine to qualify for our Estate program. 2010 far exceeded my expectations. … A young Merlot, yes, but worth opening. Enjoy now or hold until 2017.

2007 Cab Sauvignon Estate Alexander Valley: I found this wine needed a good hour of decanting to allow the aromas and flavors to be fully realized. … An excellent wine today, and an exceptional bottle in a few year’s time. Enjoy now or hold.

The 2004 E1K is sold out too, except in magnum and double magnum sizes, but the 2005 E1K has just been released. We added two bottles to our club shipment.

We will hold the merlot for a while, and perhaps the 2007 cab as well. We are eager to try the 2002 cab and the latest E1K. If you’re down that way, I highly recommend a visit to the winery.

Categories: Wine

Pet Idea

October 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Okay, maybe not. But watch the video of Mit, the orphaned baby walrus now in residence at the New York Aquarium, and see if you’re not tempted to adopt him yourself.

For more information, read this story from the NYT ten days ago and today’s update (which links to the video above). From the update:

A team of 15 is caring for him around the clock. His favorite toy is a plastic bucket. He has taken swimmingly to a large pool. And on Friday, he had his first taste of solid food — surf clams.

[snip]

He was describing Mitik, or Mit for short, one of two walrus calves separated from a herd in the Artic Ocean and orphaned in Alaska in July. The Alaska SeaLife Center took them in and found new homes for each. (The other walrus, Pakak, went to the Indianapolis Zoo.) The New York Aquarium, eager for a young companion for its two older walruses, stepped up, flying a staff member, Martha Hiatt, to Alaska to work with Mit for a month.

[snip]

With his curious, playful personality and expressive eyes, it is tempting, aquarium officials say, to think of Mit as a big, slippery toddler. (The giant bottle of formula does not help.) He still needs — and receives — a lot of human contact. “He likes us to be physical, grab his flippers and roll him over,” Ms. Hiatt said. “And he still really loves to snuggle in close.”

But the veterinarian technicians and keepers caring for Mit are trying to dial that physicality back a bit, both for their safety and his own good. For one thing, he now weighs 242 pounds, a size that could start to pose risks for staff members. More important, Mit must begin to identify with his own species, in preparation for his eventual debut in the walrus exhibit.

“We want to make sure that we don’t give him so much contact that the day he actually meets his buddies he’s more interested in us than the other walruses,” Ms. Hiatt said. “He needs to know he’s a walrus.”

The NYT has a Kids Draw the News program in which parents are invited “to submit drawings their kids have created depicting events in the local news.” Kids were asked to read the initial walrus story and “illustrate any part of the story you wish.” A slide show of eleven drawings can be seen here. Below is six-year-old Roberto’s depiction of his family visiting Mit.

Categories: Animals, Video