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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