Archive for May, 2013

In the Queue

May 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Edsel Ford, detail from Diego Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932.

Edsel Ford, detail from Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932.

Limited posting lately. Sorry about that. It’s not just that there are things to do at work. Also, our house is a disaster area, as we’ve emptied out the kitchen and assorted other rooms for remodeling, and Gail is at it almost full time, going through decades of collected stuff. When not at work, I should be helping, not sitting here writing posts. Hence, I haven’t written about the following topics (and more):

1. Our experience in the Diamond Club at Safeco Field last Saturday. I wrote about the Mariners game only in the context of getting a Felix Hernandez bobblehead doll. But much more happened.

2. The two books I thought I would read once I finished Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (only to read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers instead), the two books I decided to read on finishing The Flamethrowers, and the book that I surprised myself by turning to two nights ago after watching the first episode of the TV series Breaking Bad.

3. The new train from Boston to the Cape, a photo of Michael Dukakis walking off the train, and some thoughts.

4. Guantánamo and Obama. Words and actions.

5. A fabulous new result in number theory, the rare mathematical theorem that gets coverage in the national press (NYT, NPR). I don’t usually write about mathematics, but this story is too wonderful to pass up. If I ever get to it.

6. The selling of Detroit. News that Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager of Detroit put in place in March by Governor Rick Snyder, is considering selling off the multibillion-dollar collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7. The Masters. It may seem that I abandoned the plan for a second post on attending the Masters golf tournament last month. In my first post, I talked about everything but the course and the golf. I reserved that, and photos, for the second. I hope still to write it.

8. The NYT Sunday Vows feature and brilliant commentary on it that Russ introduced me to and that I’ve meant to write about for months.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Life

Felix Hernandez Bobblehead

May 26, 2013 Leave a comment


According to this history of bobblehead dolls,

the bobble head doll seemed to be deemed a 20th century relic by the turn of the century, but Major League Baseball again brought back the bobble head doll from pop culture oblivion. The San Francisco Giants presented the Willie Mays bobble head doll on May 9, 1999 to 20,000 visitors to their ballpark celebrating the 40th anniversary of Candlestick Park, which was the last year of the Giants playing at that stadium by the bay. That ushered in a whole new era of bobble head madness. Baseball teams throughout the United States began to offer the bobble head doll as a promotional item for their fans and bobble head dolls were one of the most popular and eagerly sold items in the early days of eBay along with Pez.

Here in Seattle, the first bobblehead giveaway was at a 2001 baseball game and featured then-rookie breakout star Ichiro. In the years since, I’ve never attended a Mariners gave during a bobblehead giveaway night.

Until last night. We weren’t aiming to get a Felix bobblehead. We just wanted to see Felix pitch. When our friend Judy suggested that we join her for a game this weekend, we agreed to choose the game that Felix would start. As a bonus, it was Felix Hernandez Perfect Game Bobblehead night.

I’ve never seen such a crowd two hours before game time. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know when I’ve ever arrived two hours before game time. We did last night, though not because of the bobblehead promotion. (More on our early arrival and special evening in a separate post.) There were huge lines to get in early, since only the first 20,000 people would get their own Felix.

I have no idea why last night was designated as the giveaway night. It boosted attendance, but didn’t relate in any way to when Felix pitched his perfect game, which was last August 15. The box itself is a souvenir. Below is the front side.


And here’s the back side, listing every batter Felix faced in the perfect game and the result.


I should explain what a perfect game is. It’s one in which no batter reaches base, whether by a hit, a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch. Nine innings pitched, three batters an inning, twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. Well, more innings if needed until the pitcher’s own team finally wins the game. (There’s the famous 1959 game in which Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings, but his Pirates team didn’t score. He lost it in the thirteenth. That, alas, doesn’t count as a perfect game.)

Perfect games are rare. Years go by without any. Felix’s was the last one, though it was one of three pitched last year. You can see the complete list here.

Anyway, this post isn’t about perfect games. It’s about Felix bobblehead dolls, two of which we are now pleased to own. Other proud owners include Gail’s sister Tamara, husband Jim, and son DJ. It was a big night for the family.

And perhaps last night also marks the start of a collection. I just checked. There’s one more bobblehead night this year, on August 10. It will be Ken Griffey Jr. “Mariners Hall of Fame” Bobblehead Night, in honor of his induction into the team’s hall of fame. Gail, should we get tickets?

Categories: Art, Baseball

Bridge Fear

May 26, 2013 Leave a comment
Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Tomorrow’s NYT has an article on the fear induced in drivers by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which runs for a little over four miles from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to a point on the west side just outside Annapolis. Of particular interest is the service provided by Kent Island Express, which described itself as “the Preferred Bay Bridge Drive-Over Company. Nervous about crossing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? If so, you’re not alone. Our Bay Bridge Drive-Over Help will let you relax and enjoy the ride and the view!”

As Trip Gabriel explains in the NYT article, some clients aren’t so interested in enjoying the view.

Construction workers have been known to ride in the back seat of their pickup trucks, hats pulled over their eyes and their ears plugged. A woman once rode with a blanket over her head. A man asked to be put in his trunk, an offer that was refused.

In the spring of 1988, during the year we spent in Princeton, we took a trip to Annapolis. I decided it would be fun to cross the bridge, so we got off I-95 in Delaware, headed south a ways, then west on 301 and over the bridge. A great way to arrive in Annapolis. I have no memory of the crossing being scary.

No surprise, perhaps, for a Long Island boy who grew up crossing the Triborough, Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges regularly, the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges less regularly. (The bridges between Manhattan and Brooklyn? Not so much.)

Yet, I did experience bridge fear once, on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. It was Thanksgiving weekend, November 1995, and we were down for a family event. My parents and my brother’s family came out from New York and we all stayed at a hotel on Coronado. (No, not the famous one, though I did stay there briefly in the summer of 1966, and we did drive over in 1995 to wander around in it.) After the rest of the family left, we stayed in southern California for an extra few days, eventually getting up to Disneyland. Our first morning on our own, we departed from Coronado to head up to the Wild Animal Park in Escondido.

I approached the bridge without any concerns. But then a weird thing happened. As it curved left to change direction from the approach to the eastern crossing of San Diego Bay, I wasn’t convinced the car would go left with it. Of course, that was under my control. And I didn’t exactly panic. But I got mighty anxious.

Here, see for yourself:

Coronado Bridge

Coronado Bridge

You’re looking north at Coronado. I was driving from the north onto the approach and you can see the curve I was navigating. Up, up, up. Left, left, left. It just didn’t look promising. I can’t explain the feeling. I just knew I wasn’t enjoying the experience. Where was the Coronado equivalent of Kent Island Express? Worse, we’d be returning in the evening and I would have to make the drive one more time the next day.

The NYT article on the Chesapeake crossing has a link to a Travel and Leisure article from October 2010 on the world’s scariest bridges. It’s a slide show with each page featuring photos and text about a particular bridge. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is on page 9. Have a look. And go to page 15 too, for Washington State’s famous Deception Pass Bridge.

Deception Pass Bridge

Deception Pass Bridge

As the Travel and Leisure text explains about this one,

if the drive over this foggy strait in the Puget Sound isn’t particularly scary to you, try walking over the narrow pedestrian lane at the edge of the bridge. That’s where you’ll find especially hair-raising views of the rushing water directly below.

Yup. Even if I don’t usually get anxious driving over bridges, walking is something different altogether. I well remember the first time I visited this bridge, in the fall of 1981. I parked in the south side lot and began to walk northward. I didn’t get far.

Check out the other bridges. It’s fun to work through the slides and imagine crossing each one.

Categories: Architecture, Automobiles


May 26, 2013 1 comment


A month ago, I wrote about Emma’s seventeenth birthday. I thought at the time that she had retired from active duty. But with warmer weather and longer days, she’s been resuming some of her outdoor ways, including a return to sentinel duty this afternoon outside the front door. She had been keeping a keen eye on passersby until I appeared in the doorway to take the photo above.

A few evenings ago, she performed similar duty at her more familiar post in the backyard. Thanks, Emma. Good to have you back.

Categories: Cats, Family

Book of the Week

May 26, 2013 Leave a comment


I can’t pass up mention of a new book, Beyond the Quadratic Formula, which appeared for sale just three days ago at the eBooks Store of the Mathematical Association of America. I understand that a print version will be available in July. Here’s the blurb:

The quadratic formula for the solution of quadratic equations was discovered independently by scholars in many ancient cultures and is familiar to everyone. Less well known are formulas for solutions of cubic and quartic equations whose discovery was the high point of 16th century mathematics. Their study forms the heart of this book, as part of the broader theme that a polynomial’s coefficients can be used to obtain detailed information on its roots. A closing chapter offers glimpses into the theory of higher-degree polynomials, concluding with a proof of the fundamental theorem of algebra. The book also includes historical sections designed to reveal key discoveries in the study of polynomial equations as milestones in intellectual history across cultures.

Also, there are links to the Contents and the Preface.

Could be interesting. I might buy a copy or two.

Categories: Books, Math

A World on Fire, 3

May 21, 2013 Leave a comment


I finished Amanda Foreman’s long history A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War two Fridays ago. I had started it back in March, when I wrote my initial post. Then I proceeded to read in spurts, stopping to read other books, until with 300 pages to go, it finally got hold of me and I stayed with it to the end (writing this post two weeks ago).

I have already quoted Rick Hertzberg’s comment in his detailed New Yorker review, in which he described the book as

an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.

I largely agree, but somehow I had to read hundreds of pages before fully succumbing. Not that the pages didn’t fly. When reading, I had a hard time putting it aside. But once aside, the book seemed almost a burden to return to, knowing I had barely made a dent in it and had so much else I wanted to read.

In any case, three closing thoughts.

1. One of Foreman’s recurring themes in her account of US-British relations during the war is the practice of crimping—the kidnapping and illegal conscription of British subjects. I’ll quote from some of her discussions, as doing so will give a sense of how she conveys relations between the US and UK through the testimony of people large and small.

Among those crimped is

twenty-one-year-old Edward Sewell from Ipswich, who had arrived in 1862 to work as a mechanic for a New York firm. He had been kidnapped in May while riding on the train to work: “I sat by myself in the corner and believe I began to doze [wrote Sewell]. About three or four in the afternoon I woke up and found myself on board a steam-packet on its way to Hart’s Island… . I found that I was in uniform as a soldier, and had been robbed of my money, jewels, and clothes except a ring on my finger.

Foreman explains elsewhere that Richard Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington, “suspected that forced enlistments in the Federal army would continue until the War Department ceased to regard the practice as a necessary evil to make up for the shortfalls in the draft,” then quotes General Isaac Wistar, who writes General John Dix in New York to object to the practice after “watching the execution of two such victims for attempting to desert”:

Nearly all are foreigners, mostly sailors both ignorant of and indifferent to the objects of the war in which they thus suddenly find themselves involved. Two men were shot here this morning for desertion; and over thirty more are now awaiting trial or execution. These examples are essential as we all understand but, it occurred to me, General, that you would pardon me for thus calling your attention to the great crime committed in New York of kidnapping these men into positions where, to their ignorance desertion must seem like a vindication of their rights and liberty.

2. Foreman brings the war to a close with great economy, yet surprising power, as Lee decides to surrender to Grant at Appomattox. And then, suddenly, Lincoln is dead, a tale told with equal economy and power. Foreman follows with a fascinating description of Jefferson Davis’s path from Richmond, Virginia, to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he is captured a month after Lee’s surrender. Much of this is reported by British artist and war correspondent Frank Vizetelly, who appears throughout the book both as a character and through a selection of his drawings.

Vizetelly’s final sketch showed Davis in Washington, Georgia, on May 4, shaking hands with the officers of his guard. “It was here that President Davis determined to continue his flight almost alone,” wrote Vizetelly. “With tears in his eyes he begged them to seek their own safety and leave him to meet his fate.”

Davis, now realizing the extreme folly of attracting attention, made up a new identity as a Texas politician on his way home. Vizetelly’s continued presence only endangered the party, and the journalist accepted that it was time for him to leave. Just before he rode away some time on or shortly after May 5, Vizetelly pressed a £50 note into Davis’s hand, which would be enough to pay for the entire family to sail to England, third class.

The next time Vizetelly had a report of the president’s progress was from the news wires, announcing Davis’s capture on May 10.

3. In an epilogue, Foreman tells us what awaited the British characters featured throughout the book. Then, in her penultimate paragraph, Foreman explains the premise of the book.

The histories of the British participants in what is and always will be an American story bring the sharper focus that often comes with distance. Though united by language and a shared heritage, The Britons in America were nevertheless strangers who found themselves, for a variety of reasons, in the midst of great events. Their simultaneous involvement and detachment (even when their observations turned out to be misleading or mistaken) provide a special perspective on the war, one that by definition was not possible for native-born Americans. There were also many instances when the intimate access granted to British observers meant they were the only independent witnesses to record a particular event—such as William Howard Russell on President Lincoln’s first White House dinner, or Frank Vizetelly on the flight of Jefferson Davis after the fall of Richmond. For this reason their accounts remain not only fascinating but invaluable relics of the Civil War.

By this point, one can only agree.

Categories: Books, History

The Flamethrowers 2

May 20, 2013 Leave a comment
Art Arfons and his Green Monster

Art Arfons and his Green Monster

I went to a great lecture earlier this month. Richard Tapia, a renowned mathematician at Rice University, spoke on “Math at top speed: exploring and breaking myths in the drag racing folklore.” The abstract:

In this talk the speaker will identify elementary mathematical frameworks for the study of old and new drag racing beliefs. In this manner some myths are validated, while others are destroyed. The first part of the talk will be a historical account of the development of drag racing and will include several lively videos and pictures depicting the speaker’s involvement in the early days of the sport.

It turns out that Tapia and his brother Bobby were drag racing pioneers half a century ago. Bobby would beat the great Art Arfons in a match race in 1959, set records in the 1960s, and be inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Richard would focus on math and receive honors of his own, including the 2010 National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Engineering (the first Hispanic so elected). He is a national leader in preparing women and underrepresented minorities for PhDs in science, math, and engineering. And, at heart, still a drag racer.

I didn’t grow up following drag racing, but I did follow the quest for the land speed record, which received lots of coverage in the 1960s. Arfons and Craig Breedlove were regularly in the news, with their latest efforts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I wrote a few days ago about having started Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers. I’m now just past the halfway point, and was pleasantly surprised to find that in Kushner’s tale, the narrator arrives at the salt flats to participate in some speed racing herself.

It’s the 1970s. The narrator has graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, and moved to New York, where she has met an older artist who is a member of the Italian Valera family, maker of motorcycles and tires. I don’t want to describe too much of the plot. Suffice to say that there is a marvelous scene in which she has arrived in Utah in time to watch the Valera team prepare for its latest assault on the land speed record, with famed driver Didi Bombonato at the wheel.

With that as background, I can give an example of Kushner’s fabulous prose, a single paragraph in which our narrator describes Didi:

Each morning, I watched Didi out the window of the trailer as he put on his driving gloves and stretched his fingers, open and fisted, open and fisted, as if he were communicating some kind of cryptic message in units of ten. After his hand stretches, a crew member brought him a little thimble of espresso, which he took between deerskin-gloved finger and thumb, tilted his head back, and drank. He had pocked, sunken cheeks, thin bluish lips, and eyes like raisins, which made him seem angry and also a little dimwitted. Not everyone can be a great beauty, and I’m not exactly a conventional beauty myself. But there was a special tragedy to Didi’s looks: his hair, which was lustrous and full, feathered into elaborate croissant layers. Somehow the glamorous hair brought his homeliness into relief, like those dogs with hair like a woman’s. There was that advertisement on television where you saw a man and a woman from behind, racing along in an open car. The driver and his companion, her blond hair flying on the wind, the American freedom of a big convertible on the open highway, and so forth. The camera moves up alongside. The passenger, it turns out, is not a woman. It’s one of those dogs with long feathery hair, whatever breed that is. Didi’s breed. After drinking his espresso, Didi would flip his hair forward and then resettle it with his fingers, never mind that he was about to mash it under a helmet. It would have been better to skip the vanity and primping and instead use his face as a kind of dare, or weapon: I’m ugly and famous and I drive a rocket-fueled cycle. I’m Didi Bombonato.

She can write. And the salt flats scene ends with a wonderful surprise, which I leave for you to discover when you read the novel.

Categories: Books, Math