Archive for October, 2012

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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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

Reinventing Bach

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Last weekend I finished Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. In my post about it, I observed that

Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. And just two weeks ago, his second book appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Both books appear to be worthy additions to my reading list, with the second a perfect complement to my recently finished Mozart book.)

Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.

I downloaded the book and have slowly been progressing through it. From what I’ve read (a little more than one-fifth in), Bargreen’s opening summary of the book is apt:

Paul Elie’s new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that’s hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach’s interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time.

None of these descriptions does justice to Elie’s “Reinventing Bach,” which is written like a great piece of music — with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity.

I am ambivalent so far about those spectacular flourishes. Some work well. Others I find overwrought.

Yesterday I started the book’s second part, on Pablo Casals. As was the case in Part I, on Albert Schweitzer, Elie alternates passages about the interpreter under discussion with an account of Bach’s career. I love Elie’s treatment of Bach. These passages are fabulous.

In parallel, Elie is telling us about Casals’s discovery of Bach’s cello suites, the impact they had on his musicianship and life, and his recording of them decades later, in the 1930s. Here is an example of Elie’s verbal dexterity.

“Cultivate a singing style in playing” Bach liked to say, and nobody has done it better than Casals did with the cello suites. …

You can hear their equipoise in Casals’s recordings: in the balance between fast and slow, delight and struggle, and in the serenity of his playing even in passages of outward agitation. But balance and serenity are not what you hear first of all. What you hear is a voice. At first, it is the voice of the cello itself: the sound of wood carved, glued, polished, strung, and tuned in ways so as to replicate the tubes and chambers of a creature’s innards.

It is an animal sound, all furred and tendoned. In the slow passages, it is elephantine, or older–a dinosaur’s cry. In the fast ones it is equine, a steeplechase run in stop-motion. But before long, the sound of this music, played this way, is a human sound. The instrument sighs. It grunts. It swallows. It inhales and exhales. Sometimes the sound is dry and nasal. Sometimes it is a chesty honk, a double lungful of sound. Sometimes it is glottal, the tongue enunciating against the roof of the mouth. Sometimes, as the bow is pulled across the strings as across a row of teeth, it is a shout. But it is a voice, no question about it. Like a voice, it seems to come from a source at the center of the body. And like a voice, it seems an inherent trait, given to the performer, not striven for.

And this, a couple of pages later.

Casals’s cello suites are records of life during wartime, anchored in the exploits of a man who discovered the suites and then, blood-soaked, discovered them again. But how did he do it? How, exactly, does the sound of people killing one another in the plain air get behind closed doors, into the cello, in between the lines of Bach’s music, and onto the steel-cut disc that is the master recording? Did he play the suites the way he did in the late thirties because of the state of the world, or in spite of it? And is it right to suppose that music is somehow more human when it is made while there is a war on?

Those are the questions running through his recordings of them, in cogitation counterpoint to their armature of wood and wire.

How’s that for writing? Okay, one more, this time about Bach. Elie is discussing an early cantata, one in which Bach “dramatizes a chorale Luther wrote on the episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ, while `in the thrall of death’ on the cross, descends to the underworld to consider the souls damned there.”

In this cantata he is not, in the main, expressing himself with his music. He is trying to devise a structure that will make Hell seem truly hellish and the Harrowing of Hell really harrowing. His kin are Mercator, with his drafting tools, Hooke with his springs and gears, and Leeuwenhoek with his microscopes–men in small rooms trying to see the world whole and steady, mastering phenomena with precision instruments by the pale northern light.

I like that one.

By the way, the first classical music I ever bought was a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. (Here it is, decades later. A 1990 digital version in two parts, with I imagine miserable sound quality, available from Amazon.) New to live classical recordings, I was taken aback partway through the second concerto by the distinct sound of someone sighing. I’ve always imagined it was Casals. Thanks to Elie, I now realize that it was Casals’s cello, inhaling and exhaling.

Have a look at Tommasini’s NYT review. It takes exception to some of Elie’s argument in ways that I suspect I will agree with as I work my way through the book.

And since the New Yorker’s brief review is behind the paywall, I’ll quote its first and last sentences.

Elie examines how the age of recording has changed the way we listen to Bach’s music. … The book, structured in short sections intended to mimic Bach’s polyphony, is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately impressive testimony to Bach’s power to speak to successive generations.

In closing, I’ll note that as I write this, I am listening to János Starker’s recording of Bach’s sixth cello suite through my computer’s built-in speakers. I have always thought that listening to the Bach suites this way, rather than on our high-end audio system (or better yet, live), is absurd. Apparently Elie will convince me that it’s just right.

Categories: Books, Music

VP Debate

October 13, 2012 Leave a comment


Gail was out two nights ago and I was on my own for dinner. I left the office around 6:15, missing the opening of the vice-presidential debate, but catching part of it in the car as I drove to our fine local dining institution, Teriyaki Bowl, to take out General Tso’s chicken for dinner. Once home, I continued to listen on the radio as I ate, working my way to a TV for the last couple of questions.

I found the debate a discouraging event, yet another example of the low level of serious political discourse in this country. I suppose I could cheer Joe Biden’s takedowns of Paul Ryan, but mostly, as I listened, I despaired at example after example of the bizarre consensus on framing of major issues that underlay the debate.

Three examples:

1. As I was approaching T-Bowl, I was dumbfounded when I heard debate moderator Martha Raddatz raise the topic of Iran with the remark that there’s no bigger national security issue. Really? I realize Romney has said as much, sensing an opportunity to attack Obama for … for what? Not starting yet another war? Not doing the bidding of the extremist leader of another country? (Bibi Netanyahu, that is.) And for the most part, Obama and other Democratic leaders have accepted this premise. There was Biden arguing that we’re destroying the country with sanctions, isn’t that good enough? And Raddatz seemingly questioning whether Biden was taking the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons sufficiently seriously. But the question’s premise was never explored.

2. While I tried to enjoy my dinner at the kitchen table, Raddatz brought up the question I least wanted to hear, referring to Medicare and Social Security as going broke and taking a larger share of the budget, then asking what benefits will have to change for the programs to survive. Darn, Martha! You’re boxing them into a corner, aren’t you? A corner I was guessing they would be happy to squeeze into, but I didn’t want to watch them do it, so I shut off the radio.

I’m no economist. But I do read intelligent economists, and I understand a few things that I read. As far as I can tell, the anticipated growth of health care costs is a problem. But Social Security? It just isn’t. That’s a myth, if not an absolute lie. Yet Obama is as prepared as any Republican to cut benefits and raise retirement age.

Let’s see. Here’s an article by Jeff Madrick in the November issue of Harper’s, which showed up in the mail today. He writes,

Contrary to warnings by politicians of both parties and by almost all of the mainstream press, America’s biggest fiscal problem is not spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; it is our almost complete unwillingness to tax ourselves sufficiently to maintain a modern state. Today’s deficit–now at about $1.1 trillion–was caused not by social spending but by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Iraq war, and the recent recession. …

It should not surprise that such right-wing groups as the Heritage Foundation insist that entitlement spending will eventually soak up all federal revenue. But they aren’t the only ones leading this disinformation effort. The Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization, notes that spending on entitlements has been growing while public investment in infrastructure, education, and so forth has been falling. “Entitlements are squeezing out public investments,” they conclude. But there is no causal relationship to be found here. … Meanwhile, military spending has somehow not been squeezed by entitlements.

This is just a tiny excerpt. Unfortunately, I can’t link to the article. The November issue isn’t online yet.

Later, Madrick observes that Social Security can be made solvent “with relatively little strain. Removing the payroll-tax cap, which limits withholding to incomes below $110,000, would almost entirely finance Social Security well into the future.”

Maybe you don’t think this should happen. Okay, fine. But let’s at least have an honest discussion of the crisis — or lack thereof — facing Social Security.

3. And then there was Raddatz’s bizarre request to the candidates, at the end, to explain their positions on abortion as influenced by their Catholic religion. Excuse me? Why would I care how their religion enters into it? Is this not a country of laws.

In a blog post yesterday morning, Jim Fallows made the point I wish had occurred to me the night before.

I thought the question itself was based on a premise that both candidates should have challenged: that it was in any way appropriate to grill them during an election on matters of personal faith. I know, you can’t please everybody — but it was almost as if a previous Catholic candidate for national office had never addressed this issue. …

Here is what another Catholic candidate said 52 years ago [linking to JFK’s famous speech reassuring the nation that he would not take orders from the pope]:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

Returning to example #2, David Roberts had a post yesterday that does a better job than I do at addressing what’s wrong with Raddatz’s question.

Then it was straight to “entitlements,” which, in case you weren’t aware of the Beltway CW, Raddatz introduced by saying, “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.” That is just absolutely, empirically false. Medicare is fine out to 2024 and easily fixable after that (it’s medical costs, not Medicare, that are the real problem). And Social Security quite literally cannot go broke. It too can be kept solvent for many decades with small tweaks. Neither is a problem until a decade from now.

Of all the requirements for a debate moderators, surely the very minimum is that he or she not introduce factual errors into the discussion. No?

I’ve included Roberts’ emphases and links. The link on why Social Security cannot go broke is worth clicking on.

Also, have a look at Glenn Greenwald’s piece on the debate in The Guardian yesterday, in which he places Raddatz’s questions in the context of the standard behavior and principles of establishment journalists in this country. One excerpt, without full context:

The US has Iran virtually encircled militarily. Even with the highly implausible fear-mongering claims earlier this year about Tehran’s planned increases in military spending, that nation’s total military expenditures is a tiny fraction of what the US spends. Iran has demonstrated no propensity to launch attacks on US soil, has no meaningful capability to do so, and would be instantly damaged, if not (as Hillary Clinton once put it) “totally obliterated” if they tried. Even the Israelis are clear that Iran has not even committed itself to building a nuclear weapon.

That Iran is some major national security issue for the US is a concoction of the bipartisan DC class that always needs a scary foreign enemy. The claim is frequently debunked in multiple venues. But because both political parties embrace this highly ideological claim, Raddatz does, too. Indeed, one of the most strictly enforced taboos in establishment journalism is the prohibition on aggressively challenging those views that are shared by the two parties. Doing that makes one fringe, unserious and radical: the opposite of solemn objectivity.

Most of Raddatz’s Iran questions were thus snugly within this bipartisan framework.

Greenwald captures exactly what I found so annoying Thursday.

Much as I would love to see Obama change tactics in the remaining presidential debates and call Romney out as the bald-faced liar that he is, I doubt I will watch. It’s likely to be more of the same.

Categories: Journalism, Politics

Seattle Art Museum: Elles Pompidou

October 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Venice Painting 82, Marthe Wéry, 1982. Oil on canvas, 58-piece installation.

A new exhibition opened at the Seattle Art Museum this week: Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris. On Tuesday evening, Gail and I attended the opening celebration.

Here is the description of the show offered by Marisa Sánchez, the museum’s associate curator for modern and contemporary art:

Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is a landmark exhibition of more than 130 works of art made by 75 women artists from 1907 to 2007. Organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne—the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe—this exhibition is an unforgettable visual experience that will challenge visitors’ assumptions about art of the past century. This survey of daring painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation by pioneering women artists offers a fresh perspective on a history of modern and contemporary art. With humor, disdain, sensuality and ambiguity, these women represent the major movements in modern art—from abstraction to contemporary concerns.

Artists include Sonia Delaunay, Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Atsuko Tanaka, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Tania Bruguera, among others.

An exhilarating exhibition that has already become a milestone in the history of exhibitions, Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris will excite the casual viewer as much as the hardboiled expert.

And here’s a link to the Centre Pompidou English-language website.

The museum has also reinstalled the permanent galleries to create a parallel show, Elles:SAM.

To expand on the Elles: Pompidou exhibition, SAM is also mounting Elles: SAM—Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists. This special exhibition of works by some 30 women artists is the first complete reconsideration of the Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries since the opening of the downtown museum in 2007. Elles: SAM at SAM Downtown will bring together exceptional loans and stunning treasures from SAM’s collection (including works never seen in the Northwest) and highlight some of the inspired, and hard-fought, achievements of 20th and 21st century women artists.

SAM is taking our celebration of women artists even further by featuring works by women at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and SAM Gallery as well.

The celebration followed the typical format, though with a later start time than usual, as a result of which we didn’t spend as much time seeing the art as we would have liked.

We arrived at 7:15, in time for the cocktail hour outside the museum’s auditorium. We took our seats at 7:45, the nominal program start time, but things didn’t get underway until just before 8:00. The program concluded at 8:45, by which time I was sufficiently tired that going home was an attractive option. We had to see some of the art, though, so up we went, three floors, to the temporary exhibition space and Elles: Pompidou, passing Elles: SAM along the way.

We hardly did the exhibition justice, so I won’t even try to offer any impressions just yet. We’ll go back, perhaps once for a curator-led tour and another time on our own. In the meantime, have a look at one piece, by Belgian painter Marthe Wéry, above and below.

After our brief time with the exhibition, we came down and sampled the food before heading out. Carrots and green beans, a polenta cake, and a bite of salmon on a skewer. I have to say, that polenta cake was amazing. Worth the drive downtown all by itself. I resisted taking more.

As for the program, usually there’s an introduction by the museum board chair or president, remarks by a dignitary or two, then the main feature: an overview of the exhibition by one of the curators. The format of this one was a little different, and longer.

Leading off was board chair Charlie Wright, who acknowledged donors and sponsors. He has a light touch, does it well, making it even a little entertaining. Next up was the museum’s new director, Kimerly Rorschach, making a special appearance before her official start on November 5. More thank yous. Then, François Delattre, the French ambassador to the US, in from Washington to tell us about the special relationship between our museum and the Pompidou Center, and implicitly the US and France. He made reference to the recent SAM Picasso and Gauguin exhibitions, which led into a little joke about his choosing to pronounce their names the French way — repeating his pronunciation of Gauguin and contrasting it with his imagined English pronunciation of the name. Charlie Wright returned and did him one better, offering more plausible English (mis)-pronunciations of Gauguin. They were having a good time.

Next up, Alain Seban, the president of Centre Pompidou. More thank yous. Then Alfred Pacquemant, the director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne within the center, and still more expressions of appreciation.

Finally, on came the curators: Cécile Debray, the curator of modern collections at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and the aforementioned Marisa Sánchez of SAM. This is what we were waiting for. After introductions and expressions of gratitude, Marisa explained that she would interview Cécile, which she proceeded to do, asking about the history of the original exhibition at Centre Pompidou, the reaction of other curators to the idea, and so on.

The celebration attracted quite a crowd. Those who chose to skip the program got first crack at the exhibitions and the polenta cakes. Perhaps that should have been our strategy. But then we would have missed the Gauguin joke.

We’ll return.

Categories: Art, Museums