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Milestone, IV

December 29, 2012 Leave a comment

five

Ron’s View regulars know that when December 29 comes around, it’s time for my annual post on the number of miles I’ve driven my car in the past year, with additional analysis of the monthly/annual driving averages since I brought it home six years ago tomorrow. As I observed last year, “I don’t imagine anyone besides me finds this all that interesting. Nonetheless, I enjoy doing the analysis, and writing a post about it allows me to record the data in a convenient place.”

In my first milestone post, three years ago, I found that I had driven a total of 11,640 miles, for an average of 3880 miles per year or 323 1/3 miles per month.

Two years ago, I had driven only an additional 3268 miles, for a total of 14,908 miles, bringing the annual and monthly averages down to 3727 miles and 310 1/2.

Last year, I had added 3693 miles to my total, yielding an odometer reading of 18,601. If we forget that extra mile, we find that my cumulative averages were 3720 miles per year and 310 miles per month.

Now for the latest news. This past year, I have driven 3634 miles, which represents a monthly average of 302 5/6 miles. The current odometer reading is 22,235. My cumulative annual average is down to 3705 5/6, with a monthly average of 308 5/6.

I often note in these posts that one particular trip during the given year distorts the numbers. This year is no different, thanks to our late July wine trip to Walla Walla (described here and here). The drive each way is about 270 miles. Adding local driving in Walla Walla, I probably did about 570 miles of driving. Subtract that from 3634 and we find that I’ve driven just 3064 miles this year, or 255 1/3 miles per month.

If I owned an electric car, the Walla Walla trip would surely have been the only one this year that I couldn’t have made, though then we could have substituted Gail’s. Once again, I find that I’m a prime candidate for an all-electric car. However, as I concluded last year, at the rate that I’m driving, my car may outlast me. It’s hard to make the case for letting go.

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Categories: Automobiles

The Idea Factory

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

ideafactory

In writing about George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe last weekend, I mentioned that my earlier resistance to reading it was weakened by Marc Levinson’s WSJ survey of the best business books of 2012. As I explained, I had enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger and trusted him as a guide. However, as I also noted, Levinson confused matters by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Moreover, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012, having reviewed it last March. She wrote then:

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

[snip]

Mr. Gertner’s portraits of … talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

I’m just over 200 pages into the book now. It’s an exciting story. I’m especially enjoying the “spirited portraits” of these intellectual giants: Claude Shannon, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, John Pierce. The wonderful anecdotes make me wish for more.

What I also wish for more of is the science and the math. I realize this isn’t a technical book, but I think there would have been room for Gertner to expand on his treatment of the physics and chemistry of transistors, or the mathematics of information theory, without offending the reader. I’m departing here from Kakutani, who admires his ability “to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible.” As the daughter of a famous mathematician, she surely has a sense of what mathematical comprehensibility looks like. And Gertner is eminently comprehensible, as far as he goes. I just think he could have pushed on a little further, especially with Shannon. What are error correcting codes? A single example would have made all the difference in revealing what the subject is about.

Well, it’s Gertner’s book to write, not mine. He had to make decisions about its focus and its level, which he did. I’m grateful for the result.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

Wright Dozen

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

wrightmanchanda

Yesterday, we went down to the Wright Exhibition Space* to see their latest show, a rose is a rose is a rose, curated by the Seattle Art Museum‘s curator for modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda. I wrote about Manchanda earlier this month, after we had the good fortune to tour the Elles: Pompidou exhibition at SAM with her as our guide. This time, though not present, she was our guide once again, having been invited by Virginia Wright to mount a show with whatever works she liked from the Wright collection. Manchanda chose just a dozen, the dozen you see above.

*I have explained in previous posts on the Wright Exhibition Space—for instance, this one—that it “is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.”

The gallery is a single large space, as its name suggests, but divided into one larger central segment and two smaller segments by a pair of walls. Moments after descending the steps into the central segment, we were met by Sylvia, the docent, who had just ushered another visitor out. She would spend the next 45 minutes walking us through the exhibition. Pointing out how few works were presented, she offered this as an opportunity to focus on the architecture of the building, a former flower wholesale seller. She then explained how Virginia Wright had given Manchanda carte blanche to select whatever works she pleased, and how surprising it was that Manchanda chose just the dozen. As we visited each work, Sylvia discussed with us not just each in isolation, but also how they related to each other and what Manchanda had in mind.

Besides Sylvia, we were armed with a pamphlet that had the image above on the back and Manchanda’s own text inside. There were no signs on the walls identifying or giving background on the works. The pamphlet served that purpose.

We began, as the pamphlet does, with Warhol, which was hung in the segmented room to the left, on the far wall, not visible from the entry. We never did read the pamphlet as we walked, relying on Sylvia instead. Had we taken a look, we would have learned this:

Like canonical and apocryphal versions of the Bible, art history has its official and its less official interpretations. Take Andy Warhol for example. Although heavily researched, a large part of art historical writing focuses on his early pop icons: the Campbell soup cans, Coke bottles, movie stars and other items of mass production and consumption. As a result, the critique of abstract expressionist painting, the clash of high and low, the readymade and reproduction, are some of the perennial cornerstones of Warhol interpretation. Sex appeal and Warhol’s fascination with the aura of glamour and death, which also loom large, are most often discussed in view of his celebrity portraits. But these themes also extend to a person’s production of an aura in front of the film or video camera and Warhol’s often cruel fascination with the psychological unraveling of his subjects. His enormous compendium of films and videos is not nearly as well-known as his silkscreens, in part because some of the subject matter is of the X-rated kind, or so long that it tries the patience of his most ardent admirers.

Late in his career, Warhol produced a series of Rorschach paintings, named after the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who invented an ink blot test–a psychological projective test of personality, based on responses to 10 abstract designs. The Rorschach is a mirror image simply achieved by putting wet blots of paint on one half of a paper and folding it over, resulting in an abstract design when reopened. The test was conceived to assess a person’s emotional and intellectual functioning and integration and it is telling that Warhol, who never supplied interpretations of his works, puts the viewer again in the position of finding his or her own. One way to look at the Rorschach paintings is in relation to the history of abstraction, as yet another gesture of opposing immediacy and grand inspiration. But what of the psychological suggestiveness and how the Rorschach speaks of the body?

Manchanda next explains what she had in mind in putting the show together.

In the famous line from Gertrude Stein’s poem, the meaning of the thing, that romantic rose, starts to change through the triple repetition. A rose is a rose is a tautology that flattens and empties it of romantic association, but the third time around, the word acquires new meaning. And every time you reread the line, you might place the emphasis differently and think in new ways about its meaning. Similarly, this selection from the Wright collection is brought together with the intention of a deeper second and third look. It is, admittedly, a highly subjective grouping that plays on the synergy between artworks and how that relationship between objects changes the way we perceive them individually and as a group. All of the works that are brought together here play with more subliminal messages and reference or allude in one way or another to the human body, or contain an aspect of yearning. While each object stands in relationship to the others in the gallery, each piece is also part of a continuum and echoes with other works made by the same artist, resulting in a web of cross-references.

From Warhol, we turned right and looked at the Mapplethorpe plate. The Warhol, about 13 feet tall, filled its wall. The Mapplethorpe, which is indeed just a plate, sat sparely toward the right side of its wall. Manchanda again:

On its own, Mapplethorpe’s orchid, which here appears on a plate, is just a pretty flower, but if you know how Mapplethorpe moves back and forth between beautiful flowers and depictions of sensuous bodies, the orchid starts conjuring associations with more intimate parts of the body. Adjacent to Andy Warhol’s Rorschach, the shared sexual orientation of both men, not to mention the psychologically charged associations of Warhol’s image, adds another dimension.

The third piece in the left segment of the gallery is Sugimoto’s photograph. “The portrait of Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry the VIII is a photograph of a wax figure, which was modeled after a painting. In its sumptuous details, the photograph might read as a different articulation of desire.”

Back in the central space, we zig-zagged among the six pieces, visiting in order the urinal and skates of Gober, Fritsch’s vases, Lichtenstein’s still life, Hawkin’s pilgrim, and Oldenburg’s wingnut. The pilgrim stands about 7 feet high, the drippings consisting of white athletic socks connected together. The wick too is a sock, a purple one. Nothing about the photo gives any sense of what the piece is like, in texture, scale, or color. Of course, this is true of all the works, but perhaps especially of this one. Manchanda comments only on the urinal.

The works in the central gallery speak more obliquely about the body and create a web of associations. The most overt bodily form is Robert Gober’s Urinal, which is not only heavily encoded with references to Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous bathroom fixture, Fountain of 1917. But unlike Duchamp’s famous readymade, Gober’s object is handmade and in its display there is an intimacy in the way it addresses itself to the viewer. The textured surface of the Urinal brings memories of his sculpted body parts protruding from a wall that extends to other works in the room.

I was fond of the Fritsch kitsch-like vases, which I would have happily taken home. (At least they would fit in the house comfortably.) Well, the Lichtenstein would fit too. Sylvia made it a point to contrast the two, with their similar blue shade and disparate art-market value.

The segmented space to the right had just two works, Wesselmann’s nude and Salle’s four-part canvas. We spent quite a bit of time discussing these with Sylvia.

The final gallery, with paintings by Tom Wesselmann and David Salle grandly stage the female figure. Wesselmann’s painting from the Pop era shows the reclining nude as surface, devoid of emotion or erotic appeal, while Salle’s dramatic presentation of the dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage, crowned by a suggestive braid of bread and a small image with a group of onlookers reasserts sensuality.

That braid of bread looked like a perfectly edible challah. The portion of the Wesselmann nude depicted above is the smallest of fragments, giving no sense of the painting as a whole. All the more reason why, if you’re in the neighborhood, you really should drop in and see the show.

One work remained, the Jasper Johns, a small work back in the hallway, positioned so you look right at it as you leave the gallery space. “As you exit, Jasper Johns’ thermometer takes the temperature.”

The hallway connects the small entry area of the building to the right with the room to the left that was Bagley Wright’s office, the Johns hanging just by the office doorway. (Wright died two summers ago.) A rope hangs in the doorway, keeping the public out. After we looked at the Johns painting, Sylvia asked if we had seen the office before. No, other than peering in from outside. She removed the rope, brought us in, and continued the tour by telling us about the works of art on the walls, a happy bonus.

It was a splendid outing. The Wright Exhibition Space is a gem, its shows not to be missed. Thanks to Virginia Wright for her ongoing generosity in opening up her collection to the public.

Categories: Art, Museums

Christmas on the Ronald Reagan

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment

110210-N-IC111-106

[USS Ronald Reagan, U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray]

The USS Ronald Reagan is the ninth of ten Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest US Navy ships. Commissioned in 2003, it saw its first deployment in 2006, in the Persian Gulf. It is normally based in San Diego, but has spent the last year up this way at Naval Base Kitsap* being refurbished. In another month, it is due to return to San Diego.

*Naval Base Kitsap is the union of the Puget Sound naval shipyard in Bremerton and the submarine base in Bangor. Both are on Kitsap Peninsula, which lies west of Seattle across Puget Sound, with the Bangor base ten miles due north of Bremerton. But they are on entirely distinct bodies of water: an inlet of Puget Sound for Bremerton, Hood Canal for Bangor. And they serve entirely different purposes, Bremerton home to large ships and Bangor the Pacific home of the Trident nuclear-missile-equipped submarines. Nonetheless, they are now a single entity.

What does this have to do with us? Well, Jessica’s boyfriend serves on the Reagan, and we were invited aboard to join him for Christmas dinner. On a visit three months ago, we got a quick overview of the base, including a look from a short distance away at the Reagan in dry dock. It is now in the water, moored near the dry dock. This time we got a full tour.

We took the 12:35 PM ferry from Seattle to Bremerton, drove off around 1:30, and followed Bryan onto the base. Once parked, we had a five-minute walk to an area of higher security, where we passed through a gate and were given visitor badges. Signs forbade cameras, with a helpful explanation that anything that can take photos is a camera. Yes, that includes cell phones, which Bryan had instructed us to leave in the car. And that’s why I can’t illustrate this post with all the cool photos I had anticipated taking.

We approached the carrier from the bow, starboard side (which is to say, heading to the left of the front as pictured above). As you may know, below the flight deck is a deck that is one large hangar bay for storage of the planes. The Reagan has four elevators to lift the planes to the flight deck, three on starboard and one in the rear on the port side. The fore and aft starboard elevators were lowered, but the central elevator was raised. We entered by a ramp leading to the hangar deck below this elevator.

It’s difficult to get a proper sense of scale. The Reagan is just short of 1100 feet long, bow to stern. 3 2/3 football fields, or a modest par 4. The hangar deck ceiling is so far above that the deck length is not immediately apparent. Not to mention that with various items piled up (not planes—no planes are based on the carrier while it is being worked on), you can’t really see from one end to the other.

Dinner was served from 2:30 to 4:30. Or rather 14:30 to 16:30. We were in no hurry to eat, instead following Bryan around for an hour. Up and down stairs, fore and aft and fore again, in and out of dozens of nooks and crannies. His office. His colleagues’ offices. Fire safety equipment. Messes. Lounges. And everywhere, Ronald Reagan watching over us. Photos. Sculpture. Hollywood memorabilia.

About that fire safety equipment. The carrier is so fascinating a piece of design and engineering, one can momentarily forget that it is an instrument of war. Especially when it is not in active service, without its full complement of 3200 people running the ship and another 2400 for the airplanes. Fire can break out anywhere, for any number of reasons, including flight accidents (as occurred in the initial deployment). Safety is paramount. Everyone has fire training, oxygen, etc.

We wandered from compartment to compartment, pausing at 14:30 when the chaplain’s voice came over the ship PA system to pray for Christmas dinner. Then came the moment I was looking forward to, as we climbed up four flights and came out on the flight deck. Pretty spectacular view. No planes of course. Just maintenance equipment. Looking down at the elevators was exciting. And off the stern.

As we walked, Bryan bent down to pick up a small piece of garbage, then explained that it is daily protocol to line up the crew in lines on the deck, walking its length looking for stray debris to pick up. Even the tiniest item can damage a landing airplane.

We headed back down, and soon arrived at the aft mess deck to get on line for dinner. Here’s the menu.

reaganmenu

The person just ahead of me on line got a few last turkey scraps, after which the server (whose face was hidden from view by the barrier that keeps diners from leaning over the food) spent a lot of time scraping and pulling more bits off the turkey carcass. It soon became clear that he was done serving until another turkey was brought over, so I moved on to the prime rib station and was served a couple of slices. A mashed potato tray arrived, just in time. I took that, sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, and a cheese biscuit. We reached the dessert display and moments later a tray filled with cheesecake servings was brought in. I took one of them.

What I didn’t yet understand was that once we got to the dining area, we could choose from additional eating options that surrounded the dining tables. A salad and fruit bar on one side. A station where egg nog and punch were being served, with the assorted nuts and candy spread out on the table. In the far corner, the ice cream bar. On the way there, another table with a giant rectangular cake, some pieces having been cut and put on plates, like at a wedding.

Our trays were full in any case. We grabbed silverware, water, looked for seats. The basic dining room furniture is a table with four attached chairs in opposing pairs. If free standing, it would allow each diner to take a seat from the outside edge. But the table-chair units were lined up side-to-side in long rows, making access from the outside edge of a given unit impossible if someone was sitting at the adjoining unit table. We found one empty table and an empty seat to one side. To the other side, was a family of four, a Navy person, his wife, their two daughters. I tried to take my seat next to him, soon discovering that entering into an empty seat from the middle, with the metalworks getting in the way of my feet, required a level of flexibility that I apparently lacked. On my third effort, I squeezed in, but I had to lean right so as not to be right up against my neighbor. Joel sat next to me, Gail opposite me, Jessica opposite Joel, and Bryan on her far side. Next to Joel (across from Bryan) was a young woman, another Navy person.

Once I ate everything, quite happily I should add, I contemplated what would be involved in getting back on line for turkey. Or getting a salad. Or some fruit. I was prepared to skip the ice cream. But I wouldn’t have minded just a little taste of the turkey supplemented by fruit and salad. Plus, where was that cornbread everyone seemed to have on their trays? That looked good.

The dilemma: was it worth trying to unfold myself from the table to get food, only to have to figure out once again how to squeeze back in? And none of the rest of the family was making any moves for more.

Curiosity got the best of me. And I discovered that I could climb right over the back of my seat. Getting out was easy. I toured the mess, bringing back samples from my forays. Carrots, cucumbers, chow mein noodles, and jalapeños from the salad bar; melon, pineapple, and grapes from the fruit bar; a piece of that wedding cake; a roll. I never did see the potato salad or cornbread.

I squeezed back in, with greater confidence this time, and resumed eating. Joel had struck up a conversation with the young woman next to him. During a lull, I leaned over and asked the basics. Where is she from, how long has she been in the Navy? Tennessee, near Nashville, second year. I don’t really know the etiquette, whether Navy people want to be pestered by random civilians who happen to be sharing Christmas dinner with them.

Once done, we headed out along with the Tennessean. Scraped the plates clean in garbage bins under the eye of two Naval personnel, turned plates in at one window, silverware and trays at another.

Time for more touring, starting with a male berthing compartment. Crew members sleep in bunks three high, each with a light above and a locker. And we saw a head. Then we moved forward to a large compartment in the bow where the anchor chains are stored and let out. That’s quite a sight. Those are big chains. And the clamps that keep the chains from sliding are impressive too.

Off to starboard was one of the ropes that was in use holding the ship in place. It exited out a huge hole in the side and ran downward to the dock. As Jessica observed, one could fall right out that hole. To which I noted that there are many ways to accidentally kill oneself on the ship, Bryan pointing out that getting caught up in the rope would be bad. There’s good reason to drill, drill, drill. It’s a dangerous workplace.

We came back out to the hangar deck, saw the Ronald Reagan statue, peered in at the (closed) ship museum, wandered around the deck some more, then headed down the ramp to shore. As we walked toward the bow, sunset came. Taps was played through the ship, the flag on the bow of the flight deck was lowered, and the exterior lights came on.

Parallel to the ship’s bay is the dry dock. Bryan, Joel, and I wandered in that direction. As we peered down at the current dry dock occupant, a Navy police van came racing over, lights flashing. Out jumped two women, telling us we needed to leave, then a man explaining that we needed to stay by our ship. Oops. I’ll say no more about what I saw.

We turned in our guest badges, left the secure area, walked back in the light rain to the car, said our thanks and farewells to Bryan, drove off the base, and back to the ferry terminal nearby in downtown Bremerton. Forty minutes later, we drove on board a much smaller ship and sailed toward Seattle.

A memorable Christmas outing.

Categories: Big Ships, Family, Food

Pork and Pinot

December 26, 2012 Leave a comment

porkbeet

A week ago, with Joel home for the holidays, we had Burgundy at home night. Gail cooked beef bourguignon and we opened a bottle of 2000 Burgundy (Morey-Saint-Denis premier cru from the Monts-Luisants vineyard). Tonight Gail made another feast, pictured above. The dish is pork with beets, apples, kale, onion, and garlic—additional flavoring courtesy of chardonnay, fresh rosemary, and fresh thyme—served over pasta.

Accompanying the food was a bottle of Porter Creek Winery‘s 2009 reserve pinot noir. I had planned for weeks that once Joel got home, we would drink our bottle of Morey-Saint-Denis with one meal and one of our Porter Creek pinots with another. Tonight was the night for Porter Creek.

porterpinot

I have written about Porter Creek before, starting with our 2008 visit. I won’t repeat myself. See this link, for instance, describing our wine club shipment last April, or the link I included there to a 2009 NYT column by Eric Asimov on California pinots. Well, let me quote Asimov once again:

For me, wine’s place is with food, and that’s why I had begun to despair of so many California pinot noirs. Their power and sense of sweetness were overwhelming at the table. But it turns out that more than a few California producers share my feeling, like Ehren Jordan of Failla and Thomas Brown of Rivers-Marie, Joe Davis of Arcadian and Alex Davis of Porter Creek. Almost to a person, they make no secret of being inspired by the wines of Burgundy.

See also this short note in the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago on Alex Davis. Here is his description of tonight’s wine.

Our 2009 reserve is a special selection originating from the steepest parts of the Fiona Hill Vineyard. It was vinified with one third whole cluster fermention and 40% new French oak barrels. The result is bolder, broader-shouldered wine with serious aging potential.

The wine was both delicious and a perfect complement to tonight’s meal. We have another bottle of the reserve, so we do have the option of waiting to discover its aging potential. I don’t know if we have the patience though. My bet is that the next time Gail makes beef bourguignon, we’ll be opening it. If only we had ordered more while it was still available.

Categories: Family, Food, Wine

Turing’s Cathedral

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

turingcathedral

When Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, George Dyson’s history of the famous computer built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the late 1940s, was published last March, I resisted it.

I’m a sucker for Institute history. And, of course, for mathematicians. What could be better? On the other hand, could there be a story in the book that I hadn’t read three or four or five times? I feel like I grew up with these characters. Johnny von Neumann (the star of the book, its title notwithstanding). Alan Turing. Stan Ulam. J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Or, from the Institute’s early history, the Bambergers, who acquired a fortune by selling their department store to Macy’s and set out to do good with it by founding a medical school in greater Newark. Abraham Flexner—fresh from revolutionizing medical education in the US—whom they turned to for advice and who proposed an institute for abstract research instead. Oswald Veblen, the Princeton mathematician who helped Flexner with the conception of the Institute. Einstein, one of the founding faculty. Marston Morse. Kurt Gödel. Reading another book about these people and the Institute would be redundant.

But reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 earlier this month put me in a New Jersey frame of mind. Among his topics is the Battle of Princeton, which took place on what is now Institute and neighboring grounds. And then, two Fridays ago, as I was nearing the book’s end, the Wall Street Journal printed Marc Levinson’s survey of the best business books of 2012. Having enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, I trusted him as a guide. My resistance to Turing’s Cathedral weakened when I read:

The Institute for Advanced Study is at once prestigious and obscure. Endowed in 1930 by the Bamberger family, which had owned the eponymous department store in Newark, N.J., the institute grew into an intellectual paradise where selected scholars came to think great thoughts. For a few years after World War II, its bucolic campus in Princeton was an improbable technological hotbed as a group of mathematicians and engineers built one of the first electronic computers and developed the concept of directing the machine’s actions by electronic instructions—what we now call software—rather than by repeated rewiring. In “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson combines careful documentary research with oral history to uncover the story of how the programmable computer came to be.

Levinson confused matters, though, by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Three days later, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012. Maybe I could quench my thirst for New Jersey history with this and skip Dyson.

A few days ago, I downloaded the free opening portions of both books and started them. Gertner’s book was tempting, but reminded me of a book I had never finished and always intended to return to, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, with its overlapping history of the transistor. This tipped the scales in favor of Dyson, whose book I am now five-sixths of the way through.

Turing’s Cathedral turns out to be nothing like what I imagined. For one, it is not a chronological history of the IAS computer. The story jumps back and forth in fits and starts, often starting a chapter with a new character and following that character’s story forward, which may entail taking the story of the computer backward. For another, Dyson emphasizes the role played by the building of the atomic and thermonuclear bombs in spurring the development of electronic computing. The close link between scientists and engineers at Los Alamos and the Institute is a recurring theme. Hardly news, what with Oppenheimer leaving Los Alamos and taking over as IAS director in 1947. But more notable is von Neumann, leaving Hungary behind in the ’30s to come to the Institute as a pure mathematician, passing through Los Alamos during the war, and returning to the Institute as a committed bomb builder.

Whatever else the Institute computer might do, its raison d’être was the calculations necessary for the development of a hydrogen bomb. Humans and calculating machines in tandem could perform the work at Los Alamos for the A-bomb. Greater speed and programmable flexibility were needed for the H-bomb. Thus, military funding came to the Institute. The famous split among Institute faculty for and against the project was not simply a matter of pure and abstract (in math or physics or history) versus applied and concrete. It was the freedom to do research unencumbered by external goals and pressures versus the need to achieve explicit benchmarks to meet external needs.

There’s more than bomb calculations. We learn about the start of meteorological forecasting via computer modeling. Of evolutionary modeling. And there are many interesting characters beyond the famous Institute mathematicians and physicists, such as computer engineer Julian Bigelow, meteorologist Jule Charney, and pioneering computational geneticist Nils Barricelli (who would later spend a few years here at the University of Washington).

Dyson tempts us with glimpses of von Neumann’s two wives, Mariette and Klára. The story of his courtship of Klára, divorce of Mariette, arrangements to get Klára out of Hungary to the US in 1938, and their marriage is stirring. But one wishes for more, especially on learning of Klára’s role as an early, self-taught computer programmer. As for von Neumann himself, here’s a quote about him that Dyson includes from a draft computer history written by electrical engineer Jack Rosenberg.

Johnny used to meet with each of us individually about once a week, asking what we had built, how it worked, what problems we had, what symptoms we observed, what causes we diagnosed. Each question was precisely the best one based on the information he had uncovered so far. His logic was faultless—he never asked a question that was irrelevant or erroneous. His questions came in rapid-fire order, revealing a mind that was lightning-fast and error-free. In about an hour he led each of us to understand what we had done, what we had encountered, and where to search for the problem’s cause. It was like looking into a very accurate mirror with all unnecessary images eliminated, only the important details left.

Judging from Francis Spufford’s review last March in The Guardian, the best awaits me. He begins:

At first sight – and it’s a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book’s 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text – Turing’s Cathedral appears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form. Ostensibly the story of the building of one of the earliest computers at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 50s, it keeps digressing wildly. The Institute for Advanced Study’s MANIAC gets under construction over and over, in chapter after chapter, only for Dyson to veer off again into the biographical backstories of the constructors, and a myriad of alternative intellectual hinterlands, from hydrogen bomb design to game theory to weather prediction, by way of the café society of interwar Budapest. It’s not that these aren’t relevant. They are; but they aren’t introduced in the cumulative, surreptitiously spoon-feeding way in which good pop-sci writing usually coaxes a linear narrative out of complex material.

If this is a cathedral, it doesn’t have anything as geometrical as a nave. It’s a mass of separate structures joined by spiders’ webs of coloured string. But it isn’t a failure. It isn’t one thing at all. It’s three successes: three separate and different and differently impressive books Dyson might have written, all bizarrely shredded and mixed into a heap whose sorting is left as an exercise for the reader. Some of it is a painstaking oral history of MANIAC, built on an archivist’s certainty that everything is worth rescuing from entropy that can possibly be known about the dawn of the digital computer. …

Some of it is an intellectual biography of MANIAC’s chief architect John Von Neumann and the circle around him, determined to do justice to the polymathic range of his genius, and therefore dipping into everything he contributed to, from bomb design to game theory to robotics. … in comes the third separate thing the book is, a speculative, even visionary account of the philosophy of programming.

This last, marvellous element dominates the end of the book.

I am now getting into this third part. Spufford continues.

Is it worth persisting? Absolutely. Let me give you, appropriately enough, three reasons why.

One: no other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time; of creating originally, and without a template, the pattern of organisation which has since become absolutely routine, and been etched on silicon at ever smaller micron-distances in chip foundries. …

Two: no other book has engaged so intelligently and disconcertingly with the digital age’s relationship to nuclear weapons research, not just as a moral quandary to do with funding, but as an indispensable developmental influence, producing the conceptual tools that would unlock the intellectual power of the computer. …

Three: no other book – this is where we get visionary – makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.

High praise. Had I read that to begin with, I never would have imagined that the book might be redundant.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning somewhere along the way that the author is the son of retired IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson, an outstanding physicist and mathematician in his own right. Having grown up there, George writes about Institute life with authority.*

*And, for what it’s worth, I write with a tiny bit of authority myself. Really tiny, having been an IAS member twenty-five years ago, living with my family in Institute housing on von Neumann Drive. And having an office for half of my year there in the ECP (Electronic Computer Project) building, the very structure built (with military funds, as I now know, the IAS chipping in to cover the cost of the brick facade) to house von Neumann’s computer. When visiting the Institute, von Neumann’s daughter Marina would stay in the vacant apartment below ours and we would say hi.

One more thing. Below is the video of a lengthy conversation with Dyson about the book last March at the Computer History Museum.

Categories: Books, Computing, History

ART Restaurant

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

ART

Three days ago, my cousin John and wife Joan flew in from New York. He proposed an early dinner, preferably near the Pike Place Market, where they would be staying. I knew that as a lover of food, with the restaurants of New York at his fingertips, he would want something distinctive, representative in some way of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. That presented a bit of a challenge.

Right in the market is Il Bistro, a Seattle institution that Gail and Joel independently thought might be worth a shot, all the more since we had never eaten there. But it’s Italian. John might do better in New York. Not to mention that he and Joan just got back last month from their latest exploration of the food of Italy. Superstorm Sandy may have delayed their departure, but it didn’t stop them.

Then I thought of ART, just a block down from the market. Yet another famed Seattle restaurant that we had never been to, though not as old as Il Bistro. It opened only in 2010, along with the new Four Seasons Hotel of which it is a part, just across from the Seattle Art Museum.

We decided to go to both. We met John and Joan in front of Il Bistro just before 5:00. It opens at 5:00, not a second earlier as we discovered, so we stood around for a few minutes before being let in. We also learned that our mutual cousin’s daughter-in-law Kim was in town on a consulting gig. John had reached her and she would join us for part one of the evening. Twenty minutes after we were seated, she arrived.

We spent an hour and a half at Il Bistro, sharing dishes off the happy hour menu: crostini, ravioli, prawns, pizza. I selected a glass of wine from Puglia from the wine menu only to be told that it was in fact the same wine listed on the happy hour menu as a primitivo without further identification, at about one-third the price. Good deal. I took it. Everything they served was good, convincing us that we need to return for dinner.

We got our coats and umbrellas, walked the block down to the Four Seasons (where Gail, Joel and I had begun the evening by leaving our car), said goodbye to Kim, and were seated in ART. Here’s the restaurant self-description:

ART provides exquisite views of Elliott Bay through floor to ceiling windows from: the main dining room, the perfect spot for a business lunch or dinner with friends; ART Lounge, the city’s hottest spot for happy hour and inventive cocktails; the Private Dining Room, an intimate dining experience and The Communal Table, a 13 foot Douglas Fir table set in front of the 12-foot wine wall.

The chefs at ART Restaurant are committed to a Market-to-Table philosophy. We have nurtured relationships with our region’s finest farmers, foragers and our neighbors, the vendors of Pike Place Market. Dishes are inspired by the highest quality, market-driven ingredients of the Pacific Northwest and served in a welcoming and lively atmosphere. Order from the 250 bottles of wine or try a TV Tray, four courses, served at once.

And more, about the chef.

Executive Chef Kerry Sear’s culinary experience includes 15 years with Four Seasons in Vancouver and Toronto, as well as with Four Seasons Olympic in Seattle. For the last 10 years, Kerry has owned and operated Cascadia, an award-winning downtown Seattle restaurant.

In his signature style, Sear will highlight fresh, seasonal ingredients from a wide variety of regional farmers, ranchers and markets, incorporating culinary influences gathered from around the world into his creations.

We ate at the Olympic’s Georgian Room years back when Sear was in charge—it’s an anniversary regular for us, since we were married in the hotel—but we never made it to Cascadia.

Along the north-south wall on the restaurant’s east side, across from the windowed west side that looks out over the waterfront, is a banquette with a series of two-tops that can be slid together as needed for long runs. Six or so were adjoined to accommodate a large group of women. Another three were adjoined for us, giving us lots of space but also stretching us out a bit. As soon as we sat down, small white paper bags were placed on the table with hot potato chips, lightly spiced with curry and salt.

We would spend the next 4 1/2 hours there. The room was unexpectedly relaxing. Despite the large group just down the banquette from us, we never had a sense of noise. The setting was peaceful, comfortable, even a little enchanting. Or maybe I’m confusing the atmosphere with the company.

I spent most of the time facing the banquette and west wall, but after dessert, I moved over to the banquette so I could look out into the room. Nearby was a counter gently lit in a continually changing set of colors. Out the window, steam rose from a plant just below. The giant waterfront ferris wheel on Elliott Bay that opened earlier this year showed off its white lights as it turned, with ferries coming and going on the water beyond.

You can see a sample dinner menu here. The details differed on Wednesday, but the layout was the same. Atop the front side is a message about eating local and relationships with “the region’s finest farmers, foragers and the vendors of the Pike Place Market.” Below are six sections, titled Farm, Share, Coast, Ocean, Ranch, and Land. At the bottom is a selection of side dishes. And on the rear is a list of ART’s vendors, each name followed by the items they provide.

To start, Joan took the arugula and artichoke salad, Gail the crazy salad mix (which the server explained is mixed greens, varying from day to day), John and Joel the caesar salad and anchovies, me the potato gnocchi. All a delight.

For entrees, Joan had a salmon and Gail a seared char that aren’t on the online menu. Listed on that menu is Lamb 3 ways: Uli’s sausage, rib, chop. John had the variant listed that evening: lamb shank and sausage. Joel took the shellfish and spaghetti dish, which came with clams, mussels, some scallops. I was torn between the fish and the lamb, but everyone having ordered ahead of me and chosen those, I changed to the New York strip, once the server commented that it’s really good, with Painted Hills beef (from Oregon). We added three side dishes: the Doolie’s hot sauce broccolini, brussels sprouts, and chickpea fries.

Accompanying all this was a bottle of the McCrea Cellars 2006 Sirocco. McCrea is a Washington State winery that specializes in southern Rhone style wines, the Sirocco being a blend of mourvèdre, grenache, syrah, and small amounts of counoise and cinsault.

ARTwine

Everything was superb. My steak came on a bed of carrots and, oh gosh, I don’t remember. Something else. The broccolini surprised us with its heat, despite the server’s warning. (See yesterday’s post for more on Doolie’s hot hot sauce.) The Brussels sprouts were mixed with small pancetta cubes. The chickpea fries were fantastic. Only five, unfortunately, one apiece, served with a small bottle of ketchup that, like the hot sauce, is produced by an unfamiliar company. I wish I wrote down the name so I could look it up. The rolls were great too.

We didn’t study the dessert menu, being plenty full after the meal and the first round at Il Bistro. When our server came to see if we wanted anything, I took note of one dish, named “There are Holes in my Bucket,” with additional words explaining that it’s “vanilla bean dusted donut holes.” I asked how many holes were in an order, she said 12, and that sounded like an easily shareable little treat, so we ordered it and gave back our menus. I realized as we did so that I would have enjoyed taking the time to read one in full. All the dessert items have clever or silly names.

Best of all, of course, was getting to hang out with John and Joan. The combination of family, food, and setting was unbeatable. I sure hope we don’t let too much time pass before getting back to ART. Or before seeing John and Joan again.

Categories: Family, Restaurants