Archive

Archive for January, 2013

What It Takes, 2

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment

whatittakes

Two weeks ago, I unveiled my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. A few days later, I described one of my techniques for achieving this: read a 1050-page book. Namely, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

I quoted a brief description of What It Takes from the NYT obituary of Cramer: “The book uses exhaustive research and vigorous, detailed reporting to delve into the passions, idiosyncrasies and flaws of George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Joseph Biden and other candidates as they fought for the presidency in 1988.” I was 150 pages in when I wrote the post, just 5 pages short of the end of the first part, which is devoted to Bush and Dole. I wrote at the time:

You might think you don’t care about Bush and Dole. … But read the 50 pages that Amazon offers for free and you’ll care. Cramer is that compelling a storyteller. Bush and Dole are that compelling as people.

Twelve days later, I’m on page 544, just past the halfway point. Only 500 pages to go! We’ve moved on from Bush and Dole to Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Biden, and Dukakis.

It turns out that the book’s real hero (well, for now anyway) is Biden. Two days ago, the NYT had a loving portrait of Biden. “In a few short months, the motor-tongued, muscle-car-loving heartbeat-away hell raiser has been transformed from gaffe-prone amusement to someone whose star shines as brightly as his teeth.” If you really want to understand Biden’s appeal, read what Cramer has to say about him. Yes, it was written twenty years ago. Much has changed. But Biden’s magic hasn’t. Whatever you think of his politics, or his gaffes, you’ll love him.

Cramer interweaves tales of the 1988 campaign with the family backgrounds and biographies of his six subjects. The campaign portions jerk ahead in fits and starts. The book starts in October 1986 with Cramer’s brilliant treatment of Bush’s appearance at the opening of the National League Championship Series between the Astros and Mets in Houston. Now, I’m into August 1987, the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and Biden’s preparation for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Bork. In the chapter I just read, Biden has delivered the speech to the ABA convention in San Francisco in which he quoted from British Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s speech a few months earlier, but forgot to credit Kinnock. Poor Joe. He would pay a huge price for this. But as you read along with Cramer, you are swept up in Biden’s excitement and can see how he might forget.

Indeed, Cramer succeeds in viewing each character as sympathetic. His treatment of Gary Hart’s fall from grace, when Miami Herald reporters found him together with Donna Rice in DC while Lee Hart was back in Colorado, is especially complex. However one may view Hart’s behavior—and listening to Lee, one thinks maybe he wasn’t so bad after all—Cramer tells the tale in a way that places national political reporters in a poor light.

Back to Biden. What a family story! His father’s rise in business, the collapse of it all, moving back to Scranton and into the home of Joe’s mother’s family, breaking free at last (Joe’s father, this is), moving the wife and kids to Delaware to get away and try to make it on his own, only to have his wife’s family come join him one by one in the years to come, as well as the business partner of years past who had brought him down. This alone would be the basis of a riveting book. And speaking of riveting family stories, there’s that of Dukakis’s parents, coming separately from Greece and finding their ways.

As Cramer alternates between the past and the present (circa 1987), he has so far taken the early Biden story up through Biden’s courtship of his first wife Neilia, their marriage, their starting of a family, and the beginning of his political career. The 1987 passages take second wife Jill’s presence for granted, as if she were always there. Neilia is front and center in some chapters, Jill in others, with no mention of what changes. I don’t think I can bear what lies ahead, Cramer recounting of the death of Neilia and their daughter.

And then there’s Bush, only an occasional figure since the first part, but front and center when Cramer turns to the story of his attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough as one of the two US senators from Texas. Cramer has a way of treating Bush with sympathy while revealing Bush’s utter lack of any sort of political principle. Befriend every Republican leader in the state, try to bring them together, win. Bush begins as chairman of the Republican Party in Harris County, having moved to Houston from Midland a few years earlier. He decides it’s time to put business aside in favor of politics and public service. But what faces him is a weak and divided party, with right wing John Birchers on one side of the fault line, mainstream Republicans on the other, each contemptuous of the other. Or, as Cramer tells it:

The GOP was growing in Houston—in fact, it was on the rise all over Texas. …

But the problem was how the Party was growing. The GOP had papered the state with its new slogan, “Conservatives Unite!” Of course, no one dreamed what that might mean. They had pried the right wing loose from the Democrats. The Party meetings were bigger than ever, but those new Republican voters—they were extreme, on the fringe, they were … well, they were Birchers!

These … these nuts! The were coming out of the woodwork! (Actually, they came out of a couple of fringy churches in the working-class suburb of Pasadena.) These people talked about blowing up the UN, about armed revolt against the income tax. They had their guns loaded at home, in case commies should appear in the night. … Well, you can imagine how upsetting it was to decent Republicans—that is, to the lime-green pants crowd, who’d organized the GOP in Texas about the same time they’d founded their country clubs.

Almost fifty years later, we know exactly what happened to the party, and not just in Texas. Those nuts did more than come out of the woodwork. They took the party over altogether. Why? Vast books have been written on that. I have nothing to add. But Cramer shows us a younger George Bush moving right to accommodate them, as he would twenty-four years later in his race against Dukakis. Nice guy though he is, he helped lead the way to the disintegration of a once meaningful party.

Well, enough said on that. Let me conclude by entreating you to read the book. I know, it’s 1050 pages. It will take a while. And there are other books to read, other things to do. But this book is worth it.

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics

Augusta National, 1934

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I know next to nothing about video games. Thanks to the kids, I played versions of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong on early Nintendo game consoles years ago. That’s about it, other than occasionally looking in on what Joel’s doing when he’s home. But now a game is coming out that I can get excited about. In March, EA Sports will release the latest edition of their golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14.

Video golf allows you to play on representations of real golf courses, famous ones from around the world. What’s exciting about Tiger Woods 14 is that it will feature Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament. Not today’s course. The 1934 course! That’s the year of the first Masters. From the press release two weeks ago:

For the first time ever, users will experience Augusta National Golf Club as it was when the course played host to the very first Masters Tournament — what was known in 1934 as the Inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament.

The development of this exclusive feature was researched with meticulous detail in an effort to re-create the original 1931 design of world-renowned golf course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie and legendary golfer Bobby Jones.

[snip]

Game play will place players in a 1934 environment, which takes into account everything from the clothing to the equipment. On the golf course, users will discover a new way to enjoy the timeless layout, and as it would have played when the first Tournament field competed in the Club’s inaugural invitational. This includes everything from the golf course’s nines being reversed to its original green contours and speeds.

Spend a minute watching the video at the top and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store. How about that 12th hole (starting at the 32 second mark)? Beautiful as always.

Hat tip to golf writer and architect Geoff Shackelford for alerting his readers to the new release and the video, about which he writes, “for those of us fascinated by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones’ original Augusta National design, the attention to detail looks amazing.”

Categories: Games, Golf, History

787: Outsourcing and Coordination

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment
United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

[Photo from Boeing]

For years, my best insights on (mis)management at Boeing have come during Stan and Judy’s Passover Seders. Stan, a physicist, worked at Boeing for twenty years and was part of the bargaining team for SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) during the 1999-2000 negotiations that led to a strike. Soon after, he joined SPEEA full-time.

No longer do you need to attend Stan’s seder to find out what’s going on at Boeing. You can read Stan’s column, which appears in the Huffington Post. Stan has omitted his characteristic humor and you-are-there anecdotes, but in their place are deeper truths about business, labor, and management.

For instance, a few days ago, Stan wrote about what went wrong with the development of Boeing’s 787. The context is the FAA’s grounding of all US carrier 787 flights two Wednesdays ago, followed a day later by grounding of 787s around the world. From the NYT coverage:

The decisions are a result of incidents involving a 787 that was parked in Boston on Jan. 7 and another in Japan that had to make an emergency landing Wednesday morning after an alarm warning of smoke in the cockpit.

[snip]

The grounding — an unusual action for a new plane — focuses on one of the more risky design choices made by Boeing, namely to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries aboard its airplanes for the first time.

Until now, much of the attention on the 787 was focused on its lighter composite materials and more efficient engines, meant to usher in a new era of more fuel-efficient travel, particularly over long distances. The batteries are part of an electrical system that replaces many mechanical and hydraulic ones that are common in previous jets.

The 787’s problems could jeopardize one of its major features, its ability to fly long distances at a lower cost. The plane is certified to fly 180 minutes from an airport. The U.S. government is unlikely to extend that to 330 minutes, as Boeing has promised, until all problems with the plane have been resolved.

For Boeing, “it’s crucial to get it right,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “They’ve got a brief and closing window in which they can convince the public and their flying customers that this is not a problem child.”

What went wrong? Some have raised the issue of outsourcing.

From the same article: “Boeing has said that it outsourced too much of the work on the 787 to suppliers who were willing, collectively, to cover billions of dollars of the development costs, and that many parts needed reworking.” See also Brad Plumer in the Washington Post, or Mark Lacter:

Still no word on what caused the battery fires that grounded the next-generation plane – and no indication when it might start flying again. But did you know that more than 30 percent of the components came from overseas suppliers, compared with 5 percent with the Boeing 747?

Stan’s latest piece offers a more thoughtful analysis, beginning with the observation that substantial outsourcing isn’t new to the 787, after which he identifies the key issue: coordination.

True, the 787 is heavily outsourced. However, Boeing’s previous airplane, the 777, was also heavily outsourced.

The lesson I learn starts with the large investment Boeing made on the 777 program to integrate all the key stakeholders into design and manufacturing teams, so we could react promptly when problems came up. In business school, that’s known as a coordination cost.

[snip]

The 777 program leaders built in, from the beginning, the engineering problem-solving culture we used successfully on decades of previous programs. Technical leaders could capitalize on trust built through teamwork to allocate sacrifice to some stakeholders, and focus extra resources elsewhere, optimizing on the program overall. This is best done upstream in the course of a program — assuming you have the decision-making authority, which was intrinsic to the 777 business model.

It’s much harder to solve problems downstream, and harder still, if, like on the 787, you have weak decision-making authority and poor understanding of what other stakeholders are doing.

The 777 was built on schedule and delivered on time; it qualified for long-range operations over water at entry into service; it had great dispatch reliability from the beginning; it is currently making customers happy; and is making money for shareholders.

In contrast, the business culture on the 787 program was structured, from the beginning, to skip all those coordination costs. The 787 business model relies much more on suppliers for design and manufacturing. Coordination and problem-solving are relatively weak. Program leaders seem paralyzed when problems come up, because authority for fixing problems is also diffused into the supply chain.

Have a look at Stan’s article in full. And follow him. He’s worth reading.

Categories: Business, Labor, Technology

Elles: SAM

January 26, 2013 Leave a comment
Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

I’ve written twice about the Elles: Pompidou exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, in October after we attended the opening and in December after we took a tour with SAM curator of modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda. Featuring more than 130 works by women drawn from the permanent collection of the Pompidou Center in Paris, it closed a couple of weeks ago.

In parallel with Elles: Pompidou, the museum mounted an exhibition called Elles: SAM, which runs until February 17. We had the pleasure of visiting it two days ago under the guidance of Patricia Junker, SAM’s curator of American art. More on our visit in a moment, but first here are excerpts from the Elles: SAM description drawn from the exhibition webpage and written by Manchanda.

To expand on the Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris survey on the Fourth Floor of SAM Downtown, the curators at SAM have organized a series of exhibitions in the Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries on the Third Floor that build and react to each other. Through diverse media, these installations and exhibitions offer a glimpse of the startling innovations attained and a reminder that these achievements were often hard fought for in a cultural landscape that was not always welcoming to women. Fully aware that many artists question or reject the label “woman artist,” we focus on them as a group not to segregate but to recognize them as seminal artists whose contributions collectively yield a whole greater than its parts.

Nine interrelated shows and installations in the Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries constitute Elles: SAM and highlight some of the connections and breaks in artistic developments during the last 50 years.

The installations begin with a look at key works by Georgia O’Keeffe and her spiritual kinship with photographer Imogen Cunningham. A room of paintings by the female founders of the American Abstract Artists Group follows.

Yayoi Kusama: A Total Vision brings together drawings, paintings and sculptures from key moments of the artist’s career. This will be the first museum exhibition in Seattle of the radical and mesmerizing works by Kusama, celebrated today as an art world superstar.

Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler features three American heavyweights who work in the context and aftermath of Abstract Expressionism. Exhilarating and tough, these soaring paintings from Seattle collections pay homage to three visionary painters who developed distinctive painterly styles. Celebratory and ironic, “modern masters” bestows this much-deserved designation upon them, in recognition of their hard-won accomplishments in what was a male-defined domain.

Abstract Currents and Countercurrents shows the constant push and pull between abstraction and figuration with surprising visual affinities among artists of different generations. Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray, Agnes Martin, Ellen Gallagher, Ghada Amer and others are shown here in an intense dialogue.

The curatorial tour we took Thursday is one in a series that typically draws twenty guests. This one drew only six, with a seventh arriving late, making for an unusually intimate experience. There were us, a couple back in Seattle from a year abroad, a woman who lives in our daughter’s building and has been on several of these tours with us, and an older man who—based on the curator’s enthusiasm on seeing him—is prominent in the local arts community. Plus two museum staff members to keep us organized, not difficult with such a small group.

Patti led us up the escalator to the threshold of the show, then gave us an overview: mounting of Elles: Pompidou, the decision to organize a parallel show of US women artists drawn from local collectors, the joint efforts of Catharina Manchanda and Patti in preparing it, Patti’s own expertise in US art history, the consequence that on this walk she would emphasize what she knew, a contrast drawn with Catherina, who would give a very different tour.

Then we entered a gallery with a large canvas in view on the far wall, a cow skull against an abstract background of, perhaps, a cross. Patti asked us who the most famous American female artist of the twentieth century is. Gosh, I don’t know. The first one to come to mind (without benefit of the text above) was Helen Frankenthaler. No, that’s probably not who Patti was aiming for. Oh, I know. Santa Fe. Photographer husband. Um. Um. I’ll get it. The one with a museum to herself. The museum that we didn’t get to visit, because when we were in Santa Fe in 2008, we managed to put it off to Tuesday morning, only to find that that’s the day each week that the museum is closed. Her. Her.

Well, before I pulled the name out of memory, Patti said Georgia O’Keeffe. And we have the good fortune, Patti explained, to have here in Seattle this extraordinary example of O’Keeffe’s work, owned by a local collector, a work unseen publicly in at least two generations, lent for this show. Anonymous collector, I should add, no name being listed on the identifying wall card. Off to the left, another O’Keeffe, this owned by Barney Ebsworth, prominent collector of American modern art, O’Keeffe friend, and SAM trustee (who spoke with Patti about his friend Georgia at a museum event in November).

We spent quite a bit of time in that room, learning about O’Keeffe, then about some photographers. Imogen Cunningham, of course. A northwest native, she attended the University of Washington, where she studied the chemistry behind photography, then went on to work with Edward Curtis at his Seattle studio. And Ella McBride, who also worked with Curtis, and whose handful of photos exhibited in the show are breathtaking. But, as explained in the piece about her at HistoryLink, and as Patti related to us to our horror:

Following her death and the closing of the McBride & Anderson studio, her archive of negatives, dating from 1916 through the 1950s, were stored at 6303 Roosevelt Way NE and then to 1752 NW Market in Ballard. In 1972, the photography studio holding the negatives offered to donate the entire collection to any interested institution.

Unfortunately, all declined except for a selection retained by Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. The remaining tens of thousands of negatives, which essentially documented the important social and cultural events of that period in Seattle’s history, were destroyed.

On to the next room, featuring work of women who painted on the side—unable to sustain careers as artists—while pursuing other careers. Women Patti suggested we were unlikely to have heard of, as artists anyway. Esphyr Slobodkina. Wait. You’ve heard of Esphyr Slobodkina? Yes, she is the author of the children’s literature classic Caps for Sale. Suzy Frelinghuysen. A prominent soprano in New York after World War II, descended from nineteenth-century Frelinghuysens that included a New Jersey senator and a US secretary of State. Patti talked about the artists in this room, their work, their plight as women artists.

Back out to the third floor’s extended open gallery. Jutting into the entrance hall below, it serves as a comfortable home for the large canvases of Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. Next, a gallery with less familiar artists. At this point, I realize that my memory is failing me, in terms of which artists were in this room and which in the second room we saw. Perhaps this is where we saw works of Charmion Von Wiegand and Alice Trumbull Mason. Mason for sure, with Patti pointing out the genetic implausibility of a descendant of John Trumbull painting such abstract works.

Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull, 1819

Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull, 1819

Patti ended our walkaround with the work of Yayoi Kusama, which fills the large northwest gallery space. Polka dots and more polka dots. Patti was clearly a fan, and made fans of us as well. On moving to the US from Japan, Kusama spent her first year in Seattle. From the SAM website, we learn:

Beginning in the 1950s, the largely self-taught Japanese artist created a startling visual universe. Her early drawings suggest microscopic cell structures or clusters of stars in exuberant colors, whereas her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s adopted an all-over matrix that covers a canvas like a tight web. Kusama had her very first solo exhibition in December 1957, at Zoe Dusanne’s Gallery in Seattle. Only a few years later an ARTnews review called her work “stunning and quietly overwhelming,” a description that remains appropriate to this day. Kusama’s work has an obsessive intensity that sets her apart. She gained early recognition in New York where she moved in the late 1950s but also came to the attention of the European avant-gardes.

In the early 1960s, Kusama developed a radically new approach to sculpture. She began to cover household objects—pots, pans, shoes, chairs, sofas, and increasingly larger objects—with phallic protrusions as though some foreign organism had taken over. These works opened the door for a new and more psychologically charged conversation about the body and the self. Kusama grew up in hard times in Japan during World War II. Her outrageous nude performances in New York in the 1960s, which sometimes included examples of her sculptures as props, must have been an enormous leap for the artist who grew up in a society where adherence to the norm—especially as a woman—was paramount.

Plagued with hallucinations since childhood, she has repeatedly stated that painting pictures has been an inspiration and a form of therapy for her. Over the last six decades Kusama has turned these psychological challenges, the push and pull between self and outside world, or what she might term the threat of self-obliteration, into a dizzying, limitless vision that is as exhilarating as it is unsettling.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

After discussing Kusama, Patti thanked us for our time and left us to explore on our own.

Gail and I wandered around the Kusama room, taking a closer look at some of the works. Then Gail led me back to a room Patti had passed over, in order to show me a work she had enjoyed on a previous visit. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who the artist was. Also on the unfortunate front, as you have noticed, I didn’t take any photos, so I have nothing with which to illustrate this post other than what I’ve taken off the SAM website.

If you live in the area, be sure to get to the show before it closes on February 17. By then, SAM’s newest show, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, will have opened. I’ll report on that next month.

Categories: Art, Museums

Jack Reacher

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

cruisereacher

I’ve devoted many a post to Jack Reacher, the hero of seventeen (so far) Lee Child thrillers. I came to him in June 2008 with #12, Nothing to Lose, a book I found silly but couldn’t put down. A year later I read #13, Gone Tomorrow, and was hooked.

Not wanting to wait another year for a new novel, I decided to explore the backlist. Based on an old review of #9, One Shot, I ordered and read it a few weeks later. It was the best so far. Then I decided my remedial reading should be more systematic. That September, new Kindle in hand, I downloaded and read #1 and #2 in close succession.

For fear of overdoing it, I have slowed down the remedial program, getting to #3 only two years later. Meanwhile, Child keeps writing and I keep reading, taking me through last September’s A Wanted Man, #17. Not his best, but that’s forgivable after the peak of its predecessor, The Affair.

Which brings me to the first ever Reacher movie, still in theaters, the eponymous Jack Reacher. One can’t tell from the title, but it is adapted from One Shot.

Any fan of the books knows that their strength can’t be captured in a movie. Child is a master of plotting and suspense. A movie can duplicate that. But Child has also succeeded in creating a unique character, a mix of brains and brawn whose brains grow on you the more you follow his exploits. Reacher sees more than other people. He reasons better. And it’s a privilege to listen in on his thoughts. Which is the problem with putting him on the screen. He is likely to become just another action hero.

Plus, Tom Cruise? No Reacher lover wants Tom Cruise in the role.

On this basis, I was not going to see the film. But, things happen, and for reasons we need not go into here, I found myself celebrating MLK Day yesterday by heading downtown with Gail to meet and Jessica and Bryan for Jack Reacher‘s lone daytime showing.

It was okay. The less I thought of it as bringing Jack Reacher to life, the more I enjoyed it. I reminded myself that it was just another crime thriller—a violent one at that—but your basic thriller, reasonably acted. Except for Cruise, whom I didn’t find particularly convincing, and I don’t mean as Reacher, just as the hero who needs to hold the story together. He had a few lines that hinted at Reacher’s extraordinary reasoning skills, and enough fights to exhibit Reacher’s formidable physical gifts. But overall the character wasn’t fully formed. A.O. Scott was less kind in his NYT review last month: “The self-confident, supercompetent Reacher is a character Mr. Cruise could play in his sleep, which is pretty much what he does.”

The cast has two treats: Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog. (Yes, that Werner Herzog.) Herzog dominates one particularly gruesome but powerful scene.

The best news is that I’m in no danger of conjuring Tom Cruise when I read more Reacher novels. The world of the movie will remain disjoint from that of the books, whose enjoyment will be unspoiled. And if there’s a movie sequel, I might just pass it up. Unless Bryan and Jessica invite us again.

Categories: Books, Movies

Obama and the South

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

It has been oft observed that the special vitriol reserved for Obama by the Republican right over the four years of his first term is at least in part due to race. Some, politicians among them, seem unable to accept his legitimacy as president, despite his winning two elections. I hesitate to press this theory too strongly, since there’s two decades of evidence that some of these politicians don’t accept the legitimacy of any Democratic president. (See Clinton, William under impeachment, just for example.) Still, to take just one example, what does one make of South Carolina representative Joe Wilson shouting “You lie” at Obama during his healthcare speech in September 2009? Wilson later apologized, but what moved him to breach etiquette?

I can’t answer that, but I can recommend Gary Wills’ short post at the New York Review of Books website today. In it, he reflects on the South: its writers, his visits to family there in his youth, its political state today. I don’t want to quote too much from it. You should read it in full. Here’s one passage.

Once, when [my grandmother] took me to Mass, she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. “It is the dignity—I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.”

Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency. It is the dignity. That a black should have not merely rights but prominence, authority, and even awe—that is what many Southerners cannot stomach. They would let him ride on the bus, or get into Ivy League schools. But he must be kept from the altar; he cannot perform the secular equivalent of taking the Lord in his hands. It is the dignity.

Maybe that’s what got to Joe Wilson.

Categories: Politics

Cat Appeal

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment
Emma

Emma

The NYT published an article yesterday about Holly, the 4-year-old tortie who made it home to West Palm Beach two months after being separated from the couple she lives with when they were together at an RV rally two hundred miles away. Scientists can’t explain how she did it.

“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”

There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.

I mention this story not because of its intrinsic interest, but because of my surprise on seeing last night that it had made its way to the top of the NYT list of most e-mailed articles. Tonight, it remains #1, and #4 under “Most Viewed.” Much as I enjoyed the story, I didn’t expect this. Are there really so many cat lovers out there, eager to spread the word about the wonders of the species?

Speaking of wondrous cats, our resident 16-3/4-year-old tortie Emma has not been doing well. At her annual physical 3 1/2 weeks ago, we were stunned to learn that her weight had fallen to six pounds, and her blood test suggested weakening kidneys. We’ve been experimenting with a variety of new foods since then. Last week she became listless, spending Thursday and Friday on her new heating mat without getting up to eat or drink. We brought her to the vet Saturday morning and she was down to five-and-a-half pounds. The vet recommended keeping her for the day so she could be hydrated, tested, and observed.

Tests showed that Emma’s white blood cell count was high, indicating an infection, perhaps a kidney infection, so she is now on antibiotics. We didn’t see any signs of improvement when she got home Saturday, or most of yesterday, but since last night she’s been eating again, moving around, behaving a bit like her usual self.

It looks like Emma has made it through. We have to continue with the antibiotics for another two weeks. Her nightly torture. They’re in liquid form, mixed with tuna juice by the pharmacist to make them more palatable. That’s the theory anyway. I’m not sure Emma got the message. At least she doesn’t claw us. In her prime, she would have made us pay. Now she’s much more tolerant of our ways.

Categories: Cats, Journalism

Stan Musial

January 19, 2013 Leave a comment

St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial died today. I was too young to see him play at his peak. And when I began to go to baseball games, New York lacked a National league team, so the Cardinals didn’t come to town. But I saw him on TV, and I grew up understanding what a giant he was.

What made him a giant? The start of an answer lies in his stats, which you can examine here. Or, you can watch the excerpt above from a 1990 documentary, which shows his final at bats in 1963.

In the NYT obituary, Richard Goldstein offers this summary:

Musial won seven batting championships, hit 475 home runs and amassed 3,630 hits. His brilliance lay in his consistency. He had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs and scored 1,949 runs. And his power could be explosive: he set a major league record, equaled only once, when he hit five home runs in a doubleheader.

“There is only one way to pitch to Musial — under the plate,” Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant teams that Musial often victimized, once said.

[snip]

Musial played on three World Series championship teams, won three Most Valuable Player awards, had a career batting average of .331 while playing in the outfield and at first base, and was the fourth player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

He was the most cherished Cardinal of them all in a city that witnessed the exploits of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols.

I especially recommend Joe Posnanski’s blog post some time back, which he updated two months ago. Though brief, it is full of great tales. I’ll get you started with the first paragraph.

Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game.

Read the rest.

Categories: Baseball, Obituary

What It Takes

January 17, 2013 Leave a comment

whatittakes

Last Sunday I unveiled my lone 2013 new year’s resolution: read fewer books. In a post later in the day, I described a strategy that has been working so far: read a book that is beautifully written, but on a subject you aren’t greatly interested in. The beauty keeps you going from day to day; the lack of interest allows you to put it aside after 10 or 15 pages.

The book to which I was applying this strategy was Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, in which I had reached page 115. But then an alternative strategy emerged. Read a book that is 1050 pages long. I’ve put Elie aside temporarily in order to pursue this approach. The book? Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

I can say with confidence that I’m not the only one immersed in What It Takes right now. Cramer’s unexpected death ten days ago (NYT obituary here) prompted numerous appreciations, all emphasizing the book’s greatness.

From the obituary:

At 1,047 pages, the book uses exhaustive research and vigorous, detailed reporting to delve into the passions, idiosyncrasies and flaws of George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Joseph Biden and other candidates as they fought for the presidency in 1988.

As he reported for the book, Mr. Cramer spent time with the candidates’ relatives, college roommates and sometimes even their elementary-school teachers. He grew close to the candidates themselves and in some cases formed friendships that endured after the election. Mr. Biden later gave him tips on fixing up an old farmhouse that he purchased in Maryland, Mr. Cramer said.

“He made no bones about the fact that he became friendly with the people he reported on,” said Mr. Cramer’s longtime friend Stuart Seidel, an editor at NPR. “He liked Joe Biden and Bob Dole and both Bushes. He did not feel compromised by allowing himself to get close to them. He did not see himself in a confrontational reportorial role — he was telling a story.”

From Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker:

I first encountered “What It Takes,” Cramer’s magisterial account of the 1988 campaign, as a college student. It was a dangerous book to read so early in one’s career—like falling in love with the idea of becoming a novelist after reading “Finnegans Wake.” Cramer did not really write about politics. He wrote about people who happened to be involved in politics. It was a revelation to learn that campaigns could be covered through deeply reported studies of the characters who inhabited the campaign trail. Though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer’s did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction—immersive reporting and expert storytelling—could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama.

From Tom Junod at Esquire:

Listen to the first sentence of the greatest magazine profile ever published by Esquire and, not incidentally, the greatest magazine profile ever written:

“Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.”

Now, I’ve read that sentence, and that story, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” at least twenty-five times, and I’ll never be able to do justice to what makes it so great except to say it’s a handshake of a sentence — brisk, warm, offhand, relaxed, firm, honest, and man-to-man, the kind that accompanies a promise. It’s the sentence of a writer who is himself about to try for the best ever, and is willing both to let you in on what he’s going for and to do whatever’s necessary to make good.

[snip]

But if “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” was a promise, it was still just a magazine story, and not long after it was done, Richard Ben Cramer began the long process of keeping it, in a book. Few men try for the best ever? Damned right — and he was about to show us why. He began following all the men who were running for president in in 1988, in order to define what it took to be president, in a book timed for the election of 1992. He called it What It Takes, and it was a title that bore the same relation to his 1,047-page endeavor as the first sentence of “Ted Williams” bore to what was to follow — it was a title that announced the nature of his project and set the height of the bar. When he was writing it, there were rumors of what it took him to write it, rumors of lost money, lost health, and even lost teeth. He would keep his promise, or die trying, and the book he wrote was not just the best-ever about a political campaign, it was one of best ever about men trying to be the best ever: about ambition and its costs both small and large, which he curated with an exacting and infinitely forbearing eye.

From Joe Posnanski:

Then I read this amazing book about the 1988 Presidental Election, called “What It Takes” — I read all 1,051 pages and I wanted it to last so much longer. I read parts of it again. And again. Every few weeks, even now, I read a section or two. I just pulled down my paperback version of the book, and it’s dogeared and underlined and warped in some weird way. Every page of it courses with ambition and crackles with joy — parentheses everywhere, exclamation points, nicknames, purposeful misspellings, ellipses, star breaks, it’s a big and sprawling Scorsese movie, no, five big sprawling Scorsese movies cut into one.

I was shocked when I learned that there were critics who did not love his writing. I mean that sincerely — shocked. Yes, of course, writing is utterly subjective, and what’s great to some is unreadable to others, but Richard’s writing felt universal to me. How could you not love it? He was hilarious. He was furious. He was, most of all, constantly surprising. I just cracked open “What It Takes”and re-read the opening scene of George H.W. Bush at the Astrodome, throwing out the first pitch, how it is a political mortal lock and how it is also a political disaster in the making, and no matter how many times I read it I find myself slightly unsure how it will end and thrilled when I get to that end.

You can see why I thought to give What It Takes a try.

The beauty of 1050-page books is that when you download the free sample from Amazon, you get fifty pages. Fifty pages will get you through the 28-page opening chapter on Bush at the Astrodome and well into the second chapter, on Bob Dole back in DC the same day, October 8, 1986.

You might think you don’t care about Bush and Dole. You might know you don’t care about the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis photographed in the tank. Willie Horton. George Bush selling his soul by giving Lee Atwater free rein to take the campaign into the gutter. That about covers it, no?

But read the 50 pages that Amazon offers for free and you’ll care. Cramer is that compelling a storyteller. Bush and Dole are that compelling as people.

I’m just five pages short of finishing Book I, 156 pages devoted entirely to the pair. We’ve gotten from October 1986 to December 1986, with Cramer filling in their family histories and their war experiences. It’s no secret that Bush’s plane was shot down over the Pacific in 1944 and Dole was severely wounded in Italy in 1945. Cramer’s depiction of these events is utterly gripping. Dole’s slow and unexpected recovery is a wonder. You find yourself caring about them deeply.

I haven’t even addressed Cramer’s extraordinary writing style. I could quote gems from any page. Then again, you can just read the opening pages at Amazon, and you should. Go to the webpage, click on the image of the book, start reading.

Okay, I’ll give you a sample, about Bush.

The thing that was neat about Air Force Two was the way it helped him make friends. He’d be doing a state, so he’d get the Congressmen, State Party Chairman, or State Treasurer, even a County Chairman or two, and ferry them along to the next event. They loved it. They’d talk about it for the next year. That was one beautiful plane!

Actually, it wasn’t just one: any plane he rode was called Air Force Two. In the bad old seventies, when Mondale was Veep, and the government still worried about things like fuel and noise, the Vice President flew on small, efficient DC-9s. But now, in the age of Reagan, Bush mostly flew a big old 707, the Stratoliner, a Cadillac-with-tailfins kind of plane, so heavy, noisy, and greedy for fuel that no commercial airline would be permitted to land one at an American airport. The Air Force had enough of the behemoths to keep two on call for Reagan, maybe send another overseas with a Cabinet Secretary, and still give one (or one and a backup) to Bush, to ease his travels. On most trips, he got Number 86-6970, which was the first jet a President ever flew. It was delivered for Ike, at the end of his term, and it was JFK’s number-one plane. Sometimes Bush got Number 26000, the plane that flew LBJ back to Washington after Kennedy’s assassination, on which he took his oath of office in the nation’s darkest hour. Of course, by the time a guest learned any of that, he felt like he was riding a shrine.

This is one hard book to put down. Even so, at 1050 pages, it’s going to take a while. My new year’s resolution is in good hands.

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics

Olive Garden Return

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

olivegarden

From time to time here at Ron’s View, I ask, “Why do people eat at Olive Garden?” With so many good Italian restaurants around, what is its appeal? I ask this question sincerely, and with affection, an affection shared by one-time Wall Street Journal food columnist Raymond Sokolov, who four years ago wrote a great piece comparing Olive Garden to famed Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. I followed up at the time with my first Olive Garden post, marveling at their Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where chefs and managers learn the trade. And don’t forget Marilyn Hagerty’s classic review of Olive Garden last March in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald. (See my discussion here.)

It has been a year and a half since we undertook our last Olive Garden research. On that outing, Gail and I both ordered the Tour of Italy, OG’s over-the-top entree option for those who want it all. As I wrote at the time,

The Tour of Italy is not a coherent meal. It’s really three meals in one. Are you thinking of that old standby, the chicken parm? Or maybe lasagna? Wait, I know. Fettucini alfredo. Well, think no more. You can have it all. Yup, on your tour you will have a piece of chicken parm, a block of lasagna, and some fettucini alfredo. I can never choose, and now I didn’t have to.

We were not happy. I blame myself as much as OG. There’s no way this greedy selection can work out. I committed myself to choosing a simpler meal the next time.

Last Saturday, the next time arrived. It was Jessica’s birthday. We needed to select a restaurant in the northern suburbs, accessible to all nine celebrants and pleasing to a wide variety of tastes. Olive Garden to the rescue.

One thing about OG: they don’t take reservations. We couldn’t go too early, because we had to wait for Bryan to get over to the downtown ferry terminal from Bremerton, then up to Lynnwood. We set 6:30 as dinner time.

Another thing about OG: if you go on a Saturday night at 6:30, you’ll be at the hottest spot in town. In case you’re wondering where everyone is, wonder no longer. Just head over to your closest OG. They’re there.

What a scene! Dozens of people sitting, standing, waiting, wandering around with their electronic buzzers waiting to be buzzed. Stand out of the way of the woman exiting from the ladies’ room and you’ll be knocked over by one of the team of OG hosts ushering a party to their table. If you’re a party of nine, bring some entertainment, especially if they think you’re a party of seven and call you prematurely, only to leave you waiting another half hour once their mistake is brought to their attention. At 7:20, we were led to our seats.

A signature of Olive Garden is their unlimited breadsticks and salad. To quote from the menu, “Garden-Fresh Salad: Our famous house salad, tossed with our signature Italian dressing. (Unlimited refills!)” You can order the salad a la carte, or get it for free if you order an entree. Five minutes after we sat, a party of 12 took the table parallel to ours. While we were still examining the menus, their breadsticks and salad arrived. We wouldn’t see ours for another 20 minutes. Drink orders first. Drinks. Long delay. Food order, after which our servers knew how many salad eaters there were amongst us. Then breadsticks and salad. What did we do wrong? Can one ask for sticks and salad on being seated?

We were served by a duo. The model of efficiency, I thought at first, but not when they are alternately taking care of other, small-group tables, so that whenever one is free, the other is busy. After the drinks came, I wondered if we would ever order. Finally, the guy said he’d start us. Then the woman, a charming, beautifully accented Brazilian, joined him to finish taking our order. A few minutes later, they emerged with a flourish to put down three breadstick baskets and three salad bowls from which we served ourselves.

It was pushing 8:00 by now. I happily ate the sticks and salad. Was this a reflection of their high quality or my hunger? Hard to know. I did take three helpings of salad. Iceberg lettuce, red onion, olives, some hot peppers, parmesan. What’s not to like? Do I get better salad at home? Of course. But it was tasty.

In selecting my entree, I decided to restrict myself to the menu section called “Cucina Classica (Classic Recipes).” Cute, that. And what’s more classic than Spaghetti & Meatballs or Chicken Parmigiana? The “Leggeri (Lighter Fare)” section might have served me well, with temptations like Venetian Apricot Chicken. Or the “Carne (Beef & Pork)” section, with Braised Beef & Tortelloni, or Parmesan Crusted Bistecca. I would have enjoyed sampling that bistecca: “Grilled 8 oz center cut sirloin topped with parmesan-herb breading, baked golden brown. Served with garlic parmesan mashed potatoes and asparagus drizzled with balsamic glaze.” But I stuck with the classics, choosing the chicken parm.

How was it? This is the Olive Garden mystery. I’ve had better. But it was an honest and decent effort, thoroughly enjoyable. Plus, even if I’ve had better, not at places with such a menu selection. I could eat there every night for a month and find something different to enjoy each night. With sticks, salad, and parm, I was full and content. So full that dessert was unimaginable.

This was a birthday party, though. Dessert had to be ordered. One option is the “Dolcini: Piccoli Dolci, ‘little dessert treats’, layered with cake, mousse, pastry creams and berries. Choose from: Chocolate Mousse, Limoncello Mousse, Strawberry & White Chocolate, Amaretto Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate Caramel Cream.” I wasn’t paying attention when several in our party ordered a selection of these. Gail ordered the “Zeppoli: Soft, traditional Italian doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar, served with chocolate sauce for dipping.”

Yet another thing about OG: it’s here where I developed my law about birthdays and restaurant quality. Many years ago, when Jessica was a teenager, we took her and a group of friends to this very same OG for her birthday party. Dessert came along with eight OG servers, who lined up and sang happy birthday. My law: the quality of a restaurant is inversely proportional to the number of servers who sing happy birthday to you.

If the law still holds, this is good news for Olive Garden. This time around, years later, our Brazilian server didn’t even bother coming over to help out. We had just our lone male server, who placed one of the dolcini in front of Jessica with a lit candle. He stood, but didn’t sing. Tamara took him to task for it, to which he responded that he didn’t want to get in the way, waiting to see what we wanted to do. We had gone from eight singers to a reluctant one. According to my law, Olive Garden has risen high up the quality scale.

Oh, dessert itself. Gail’s zeppoli were first rate. I didn’t try the dolcini.

It was well past 9:00 now. The crowds had moved on to wherever Lynnwood crowds move on to on a Saturday night. Olive Garden was peaceful. I’ve learned yet another Olive Garden truth. Want to eat there on a Saturday night? Arrive at 9:00.

What can I say? I love the place. We may wait another year and a half before our next research outing. We don’t exactly lack closer alternatives. Why drive 15 miles when just 4 miles away is Tom Douglas’s Cuoco, a superior restaurant about which I wrote last month.

But Olive Garden has an irresistible charm, the explanation of which continues to elude me. We’ll continue our research until I figure it out.

Categories: Restaurants