Archive for October, 2013

Bernadette Peters with Seattle Symphony

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment
Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

[Photographed by Joan Marcus]

I’ve written about Stephen Sondheim many times (maybe most recently here). Invariably, when I think of Sondheim, I think of Sunday in the Park with George. “Our musical.” We don’t have a movie. Or a song. But we do have a musical. And invariably, when I think of Sunday in the Park, I think of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, that musical’s great stars.

Not that we saw them in it. We were too late for that when we finally did make it to the original Broadway production during our honeymoon, in the summer of 1985. But we’ve listened to them on the cast recording so often that their voices are embedded in our minds. So when we learned that Bernadette Peters would be appearing in concert with the Seattle Symphony this fall, we prepared to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. Which we did. Two nights ago she came.

The program consisted of the orchestra playing alone for a very short first-half program, then Peters after the intermission. That first-half program consisted of three great overtures, popular pieces for an evening of popular music: Mozart/The Marriage of Figaro, Mendelssohn/A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Strauss/Die Fledermaus. Our seats were dead center in row P, which I would imagine is close to ideal acoustic location. Maybe so, maybe not. All I know is that the strings sounded a bit muted, not as vibrant as I would have expected. But the music is great. What’s not to like?

During intermission, the stage was rearranged to accommodate what was in effect Peters’ personal band. The symphony’s associate conductor, Stilian Kirov, had led the first half. The second half would be conducted by Marvin Laird, Peters’ long-time collaborator as conductor, piano accompanist, and music director. As explained here,

Behind every great diva there’s a hard-working, often brilliant musical director.

For Bernadette Peters, that man is Marvin Laird. The two first worked together in 1961. He was the assistant conductor and she was a Hollywood Blonde in a national touring production of Gypsy.

“Bernadette was clearly the one on stage with talent,” Laird says on the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I didn’t stay with the whole tour, but I knew our paths would cross again. You know when you meet certain people. We worked together again in New York when Bernadette auditioned to replace Kay Cole in Best Foot Forward. Then she got Dames at Sea, which necessitated a lot of TV stuff for her, so we started seeing each other a lot.”

Long story short: Laird, who moved from Broadway into the endlessly fascinating world of 1970s variety television, helped Peters craft a nightclub act, and they’ve been an inseparable duo ever since.

Also joining Peters on stage was Cubby O’Brien on drums and Kevin Axt on bass. O’Brien is famous in his own right, an original Mouseketeer, drummer for The Carpenters on tour (when Karen would sing rather than drum), and drummer to many other stars as well.

As the symphony players filed back in near the end of intermission, we had the happy surprise of seeing prominent local harpist John Carrington take the stage. A childhood family friend of Gail’s, he’s not the symphony’s regular harpist, but does appear from time to time. And today he posted a photo on Facebook of himself backstage with Peters.

The lights dimmed, Laird walked on in flowing white hair and tails, we applauded, and the music started up. It was in effect another overture. After about three minutes, the house announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bernadette Peters,” she strode in from the right, and the crowd went wild. I never saw anything like this at the symphony. For that matter, I couldn’t remember seeing anything quite like it anywhere.

I had the feeling that this is what it must be like in Las Vegas. I haven’t been there since I was 14—more than a few years ago—and never went to a show. I can only guess what it’s like seeing the Liza Minellis of the world. But now, when I guess, I’ll recall Peters. Her magnetism. Her control of herself and the audience. Her relaxed comfort with stardom and the knowledge that we would follow where she led.

She made the obligatory opening remarks about how much she loved Seattle. I don’t know why we need to be patronized like this, but people seem to enjoy it. And then the music. Lots of Sondheim. A little Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maybe 60%/20%. And a few other songs. Some with full orchestral backing. Some with the band alone, or (in one case) with Laird and the principal cellist. Loud. Soft. Full sound. Intimate sound. Ballads. Anthems. A little of everything.

From South Pacific, the song There is Nothing Like a Dame–usually sung by a men’s chorus but in her hands a vehicle to emphasize her own dameness. From Follies, whose revival at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway she starred in two years ago, In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing My Mind. (I own have been listening frequently to the cast recording of this revival, with Peters singing these two songs.) From Carousel, an unlikely choice perhaps, but one that offered a change of pace, When I Marry Mister Snow. From Into the Woods, a song I associate with her, though she pointed out (and I knew) that she didn’t actually sing it in the original production on Broadway, No One is Alone.

Here, watch her perform it below, from a concert in London a few years ago. You’ll see that this is the song arranged with just piano and cello. Marvin Laird stands and bows in the closing seconds.

Maybe there’s not much point listing all these songs. I’ll just mention three more Sondheim standards that were highlights: Being Alive from Company, Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, and Ladies Who Lunch, again from Company.

Peters was on for about an hour and a quarter. She went off to thunderous applause, returning to do a single encore, her own composition, Kramer’s Song. I don’t know what to make of the phenomenon of stars writing children’s books. (Do they really write them? And would these books ever get published if written by anyone else?) But whether or not I approve, she writes them, and she wrote this song for one of them.

Gail and I were convinced that she was saving up any of several possible Sunday in the Park songs for the end or the encores. She wasn’t. Just the lullaby. And then she was off, as Laird led the orchestra and band in a postlude that left us all hungry for more. I didn’t see anyone leaving until the music stopped and the lights came up.

Which reminds me, in contrast to any other orchestral concert I’ve been to, in this one lighting was a feature. A fitting feature, as one would expect in a Broadway show, but another reason I felt more in Las Vegas than in Benaroya Hall.

So that’s that. I don’t know when we’ll see her again. She gives the impression that she’s not slowing down, though maybe her voice is. I know many of these songs well enough to recognize when a high note is coming, and I could see her pause as she prepared for each one. She would get close, not always hit them, then drop down a bit once she got there in a way that sounded perfectly musical, even if not accurate. It worked. And anyway, she is so expressive that none of this matters. We couldn’t have been happier.

Well, except maybe if she had sung We Do Not Belong Together.

Categories: Music


October 27, 2013 Leave a comment


This post is two weeks overdue. I’ll be brief, the details having faded, but I did want to mention our dinner two weeks ago at Szmania’s.

Szmania’s has been a fixture in the Seattle neighborhood of Magnolia for over two decades and is one of the best German restaurants in the city. (There aren’t many.) Magnolia is sufficiently far away that we don’t tend to drive there just to eat. And when we do find ourselves there, we head to El Ranchon, the Mexican restaurant where Gail dined on a weekly basis when she worked in Magnolia years ago. We drive down the main street, park, I stare longingly at Szmania’s, and off we go to El Ranchon.

That changed three Thanksgiving weekends ago, though not by choice. It was Thanksgiving Friday, we weren’t far, so Gail suggested we swing by El Ranchon, which we did. Only thing is, they were closed for the weekend for a kitchen renovation. We had no choice but to go elsewhere. Szmania’s at last. Joel was with us and we had an excellent meal. Almost three years later—two weeks ago—we ate at Szmania’s again, this time with Tricia, Dwight, and their daughters plus Laura and Bill to celebrate the life of Tricia’s late mother.

Before leaving my office that afternoon to get Gail at home and drive over, I learned from Rose that Szmania’s was no longer a German restaurant. It had become a steakhouse. That was disappointing. And also, as it turns out, not quite true, at least not during October. All month long, they have a special Oktoberfest menu. From the website:


Celebration of all things Germany!

It’s Chef Ludger’s favorite time of year to prepare all his favorite dishes from his homeland– Sauerbraten, Schnitzel, Schweinshaxe, Sauerkraut, Suppe, Salat and Wursts galore. Two liter bottles of Altenmünster Festbier are available–perfect to split with Ludger’s Haus Platte dinners. Half liters of Radeburger on tap along with many Bavarian beers are in stock to raise the German spirit!

Friday, Oct. 11th & 25th
Two special three-course Bierfest Dinners are scheduled with traditional Bavarian delights including Dortmunder Beet Salat, Münchener Gulash, Wiener Schnitzel, Rinderrouladen, and Black Forest Cake—optional wine or beer pairings.
Make your reservations early!
Fun guaranteed… lederhosen welcome.

Embrace your inner German.

And we were there on the 11th, so we had not just the full Oktoberfest menu from which to choose but also the three-course dinner with beer pairing. I should have ordered it. I was scared off by the appetizer choice, two soups that I didn’t think I would want, even though I did want the offered Wiener Schnitzel and Black Forest Cake. Big mistake on my part, especially as I got to watch Laura—sitting immediately to my left—enjoying her Bierfest dinner.

But before we got to that, the table shared two appetizers: the Westfalischer Schinken (westphalian prosciutto, soft pretzel, gruyère fondue, house–pickled vegetables) and the Reibekuchen mit frischem Apfelmus (traditional potato pancakes, fresh apple sauce). Boy were they good. That’s as fine a soft pretzel as I ever ate. As for the potato pancakes, well, I’ll never eat any that compare to those my father used to make, but for restaurant pancakes, these were among the best.

When I decided not to go with the three-course dinner, I was choosing the Autumn Field Greens (roasted pear, caramelized walnuts, goat cheese and merlot vinaigrette) over the sauerkraut soup, in the belief that I’m not a sauerkraut fan. Maybe not, but Laura’s soup looked far more interesting than my salad. Then came the Wiener Schnitzel (pasture–raised veal cutlet with fresh lemon and capers, sautéed potatoes and fall vegetables), which was everything I hoped for.

Dessert was another mistake. I had assumed that the black forest cake on the Bierfest menu was also on the regular menu. It isn’t. Instead, there’s Black Forest Trifle (Chocolate Mousse with Kirsch-macerated Cherries, Chocolate Cake & Chantilly Cream). Pretty darn good, maybe even better than the black forest cake, but I really wanted the cake.

What did Gail have? Let’s see. She had a salad too. It must have been the Ruby Beet Salad (marinated with sweet onions, served on field greens with feta cheese), though I don’t remember any feta. And then the Schweinshaxe (braised pork shank in red wine, roasted root vegetables and fingerling potatoes). She was happy.

All in all, a fine meal, with great company. I hope we don’t have to wait years to go again.

Oh, I forgot one thing. The spätzle. No way I’m going to a German restaurant and not eating spätzle. My dish came with potatoes. Superb potatoes as it turned out. But not spätzle. I ordered a side dish for us to share. It seems I did most of the sharing.

Categories: Restaurants

Bill Mazer

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment


[From the Daily News]

Bill Mazer died on Wednesday. When I saw the obituary online in the NYT, I was transported back to my days as a passionate fan of New York sporting teams, and to one of the great sports conversationalists. I’m not a listener of talk radio, but I suddenly remembered that I was once, thanks to Bill, a pioneer who deserved a wider platform for his intelligence.

From the NYT:

Bill Mazer, who was a voice and face of sports coverage in New York for decades, pioneering sports-talk radio and becoming a television fixture while earning the nickname the Amazin’ for his encyclopedic recall of sports facts and figures, died on Wednesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 92. …

When Mr. Mazer retired in 2009, he had spent more than 60 years in broadcasting — 20 of them as a nightly sports anchor and the host of the weekend roundup “Sports Extra” on WNEW-TV, Channel 5. Before then he had been a host of sports-talk radio when the very idea of the format was new.

He ranged beyond sports occasionally in radio interview programs with figures from all walks of life, but sports was his passion and had been since he was growing up in Brooklyn.

For a time, though, while attending a yeshiva, he envisioned becoming a rabbi.

But he also played punchball and made Ebbets Field his second home. Sports won out. As he put it long afterward, unearthing the memory of a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher of the 1930s with a terrific fastball and a musical name: “I was paying more attention to Van Lingle Mungo than I was to Moses.”

Mr. Mazer had been covering sports at radio and TV stations in Buffalo for 16 years when he was hired by WNBC-AM in March 1964. It was unveiling an innovative talk format.

“Here, Go Nag WNBC!” the station said in a March 1964 advertisement. “Listen to the Newest Sound in New York — your own voice and your neighbor’s — on WNBC Radio, 660 on the dial.”

The station invited listeners to pick up their phones and “talk sports with Bill Mazer from 4:30-6 p.m.”

Mr. Mazer held down the sports call-in spot while others, including Brad Crandall, Long John Nebel and Big Wilson, fielded calls on just about anything else.


He was born Morris Mazer on Nov. 2, 1920, in what is now Izyaslav, Ukraine, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was an infant. His father worked in a kosher poultry market. His mother took the boy and his friends to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers and occasionally to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants. But his father, like many new immigrants, regarded sports as a time-wasting frivolity.

As Mr. Mazer related it in “Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book” (1990), written with Stan and Shirley Fischler, “When I brought my baseball talk back home, my father invariably reacted as if I were discussing the manufacture of plutonium.”

And from Neil Best in Newsday:

Bill Mazer often lamented that he did not make it bigger, never quite breaking through as a nationally known figure rather than primarily as a New York-area sports broadcaster.

But he missed the point. Amazin’, who died Wednesday two weeks shy of turning 93, was the right guy at the right time in the right place, becoming in his own very New York way an important figure in sports media history.

Mazer was born in Ukraine but grew up in Depression-era New York, rooting for the Dodgers — especially pitcher Van Lingle Mungo — before settling after World War II in Buffalo, a job he landed through a guy he met in the South Pacific named Marty Glickman.

Sixteen years later, he was back where he belonged, on WNBC, where in 1964 he began a talk show — perhaps not the very first to host a sports call-in program but the first to use his kibitzing skills to popularize and perfect the art.

Naturally, Mazer claimed to be the very first, as would any self-respecting New York character with a healthy self-promotional streak,


Mazer’s legacy lacks the historical weight of his contemporary Glickman, a world-class athlete turned influential announcer who mentored a long list of broadcasting stars and who, by the way, preceded Mazer in talking sports on the radio.

But no matter. Mazer helped make and keep sports fun and connected in particular with a generation of teenage boys now turned men in their 60s with fond memories of calling WNBC on late afternoons and having their opinions taken seriously.

I never called in, but I was part of that generation.

Categories: Obituary, Sports

Integrity in Decision Making

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment


[Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press]

Above we see Bill Hancock, executive director of college football’s Bowl Championship Series, announcing Condoleezza Rice’s selection last Wednesday as a member of the College Football Playoff committee. From the AP article:

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Archie Manning are among the 13 people who will be part of the College Football Playoff selection committee in 2014.

The committee members were officially unveiled Wednesday, though the names had been reported last week by The Associated Press and other media outlets. Earlier this week, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was announced as the chairman of the first selection committee for the new postseason system that replaces the Bowl Championship Series next year.

The committee will choose four teams to play in the national semifinals and seed them. The winners of those games, played on a rotating basis at six bowl sites, will meet a week later for the national championship.

Long and BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock, who will assume the same position in the new postseason format, announced the committee members at a news conference at the College Football Playoff offices in Irving, Texas. The panel is made up of current athletic directors, former players and coaches and college administrators, and a former member of the media.

“Our work will be difficult, but rewarding at the same time,” Long said. “We have important judgments to make during that process. We realize we represent all of college football.”

Word spread days earlier that Rice would be on the committee, prompting both criticism and praise—criticism that she isn’t a football expert, praise that, well, beats me. There’s this, from Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg, intent on fighting back against the sexism of the criticism. But he never does say what her virtues are.

And then there’s this glorifying piece by Greg Bishop to appear in tomorrow’s NYT. It reaches its low point near the end.

Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pacific-12 Conference, first broached to Rice the idea of her fit on the selection committee. “Why me?” was her initial reaction. He told her that the conference commissioners wanted a variety of backgrounds, integrity in decision making, not just insiders but also others who understood the game.

“I thought it would be amazing to get someone of that caliber that is a really serious sports fan involved,” Scott said last week in an interview. “It takes the caliber of the committee to a whole different level.”

Rice plans to draw on her diplomatic background. She is, after all, familiar with the collaborative process: seek data, refine data, question data, argue data, come to some sort of consensus. She is pleased that strength of schedule will be heavily considered. Her father would have liked that.

So if you want integrity in decision making, you choose Condoleezza Rice? What am I missing here?

Let’s review. We can start with the report on torture released last April, about which NYT reporter. Scott Shane writes:

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

I do believe Ms. Rice was our country’s National Security Advisor at the time, a high official and top advisor. That’s all the review I need.

Why does she continue to be the subject of admiration and recipient of honors. She’s a simple war criminal.

Categories: Football, Torture

Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment


[Photo: Daniel Giannoni]

A new exhibition, Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, opened this week at the Seattle Art Museum. A description from the website:

Discover the mysteries of Machu Picchu, treasures from royal tombs and archeological wonders from one of the cradles of civilization in Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon. More than 3,000 years of artistic history reveal a land of rich complexity and startling beauty.

This unusually wide-ranging exhibition covers archeology, ancient rituals, royal ceremonies, conquest and colonization, the formation of the republic and the emergence of a new national identity. Experience the unfolding of culture through the creative achievements of Peru, from gold funerary masks to modern folk art.

The Seattle Art Museum is proud to be the only U.S. venue presenting this spectacular exhibition of more than 300 works, including national treasures never before seen outside of Peru.

And also this:

Discover Peru, land of hidden treasures, home to the first city in the Americas, a country of beauty and mystery. Travel back 3,000 years through the pottery, textiles, and stunning gold work of cultures that developed in isolation before the Inca ever built Machu Picchu. Trace the incorporation of indigenous motifs into European-style paintings and religious objects during colonization, and watch a new national identity emerge after independence.

Each work has a place in history, and together, they provide an expansive view of the deep and complex artistic heritage of Peru.

As is our custom, we went to the opening celebration, which took place Tuesday night. All four of the usual components were available: a program in the auditorium, food and drink, entertainment, and the exhibition itself. We arrived shortly before the 6:30 start time for the program. After grabbing drinks (water for me, white wine for Gail, no red wine allowed in the auditorium), we took our seats.

The program began at 6:45 with remarks by the board president, Winnie Stratton. She was followed by museum director Kim Rorschach, who played the essential role of listing all the sponsors. Then came Harold Forsyth, the Peruvian ambassador to the US, who offered a high-level speech about the significance of the show, the role of Peru, and US-Peru relations, the details of which completely escape me now. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters followed. He is currently a government official, the Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony and Cultural Industries, but also an archaeologist and scholar. Thus, he could talk knowledgeably about the significance of the exhibition itself, which he did, rather than operating at the platitudinous level.

The exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose director, Nathalie Bondil, spoke next. She was the star of the show, a charming, light-hearted Frenchwoman who quickly confessed her lack of expertise and ordered her Curator of Pre-Columbian Art (and exhibition organizer) Victor Pimentel to join her onstage. They proceeded to work through a series of slides of exhibition objects, with Nathalie giving some of the background then, on occasion, dragging Victor by the sleeve to the microphone to pinch hit.

At 7:50, we were released to see the objects for ourselves. Not having eaten dinner, we decided to join the long line in the lobby for food. The line moved fast, and soon we were at the buffet table, prepared by in-house restaurant Taste. A spicy potato dish, a spinach pastry of some sort, a bean dish, and steak skewers, all excellent. While we ate, we listened to a local Andean folk music group, Hanumanta, with the Sonia Porras Dance Company performing.

With such good food and festive atmosphere, it was easy to forget why we were at the museum. But there was the exhibition to see, and so we did. We made an unfortunate error, relying on habit to pass from the opening room to a second one in a clockwise direction, not realizing that this time the natural route was counter-clockwise. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings were evidence something was amiss, but maybe objects were grouped by medium, not chronologically. Plus, the exhibition showpiece—the forehead ornament featured at the top of the post—was in a neighboring space. (Forehead ornament with feline head and octopus tentacles ending in catfish heads, 100-800, Peruvian, Mochica, North Coast, possibly La Mina, gold, chrysocolla, shells, 11 1/4 x 16 5/16 x 1 3/4 in., Museo de la Nación, Lima.) So maybe there wasn’t a strict chronological order.

Off we went, room to room, evidence mounting that we were walking backwards. I should note that we weren’t alone in this choice, the people moving in both directions adding to the confusion. Well, no matter. We saw many extraordinary objects. And we can go counter-clockwise on our next visit.

What did we see? I’ll offer some examples from the website. You can go there to see and read more. (Click “Art”.)

First we have a feathered hanging from 700-1200: Peruvian, Huari, South Coast, possibly Rio Grande Valley, cotton, feathers, 25 7/8 × 85 1/16 in., The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is “one of 90 identical works found in the 1940s in a burial cache on Peru’s south coast. The Inca also made offerings at this site, suggesting it was a sacred place in the landscape over a long period of time.”


[Photo: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Denis Farley]

Perhaps my biggest surprise was finding a wall of photos by Irving Penn.

In December 1948, after completing a photo shoot for Vogue in Lima, the fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917–2009), did not immediately return to New York with his colleagues, but went to Cuzco, where he stayed for several days. He rented a local photographer’s studio.

“By incredible providence, there in the center of town was a daylight studio! A Victorian leftover, one broad wall of light to the north, a stone floor, a painted cloth backdrop—a dream come true. I hired the use of the studio for the next three days, sending the proprietor away to spend Christmas with his family, and set myself up as town photographer. When subjects arrived to be photographed they found me instead of him. Instead of them paying me, I paid them for posing, a very confusing affair.”

Here is one of the photos, “Cuzco: Three Sitting Men in Masks.”


[The Irving Penn Foundation, New York]

Going back in time, here’s the back of a litter, dated from 750-1375: Peruvian, Lambayeque, North Coast, wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, feathers, 22 13/16 × 44 7/8 × 1 15/16 in., Museos “Oro del Perú” – “Armas del Mundo”.

While they lived, the rulers of ancient Peru traveled on litters, or platforms carried by servants. In death, their mummified bodies were also placed on litters, and carried to their tombs in great ceremonial parades. This remarkable backrest from a Lambayeque litter is inlaid with gold, silver, turquoise, cinnabar, shells, and feathers. The carving is an image of a funerary procession and features an audience of ancestors who await the leader in the afterlife.


[Photo: Joaquín Rubio]

Next, an altarpiece from around 1970 by Joaquín López Antay, Peruvian, 1897-1981: Painted wood, polychrome paste, 36 7/16 × 46 7/16 × 5 1/2 in., Colección Museo de Arte de Lima.

Retablos are small three-dimensional altars featuring tiny figures arranged in scenes, usually telling an important religious story. The first retablos were placed behind the altars of Catholic churches in Spain, and carried by soldiers worshipping far from home during the Crusades against non-Christians in the Near East, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

In Peru, they were used to proselytize the native peoples during the colonial period. Peruvian folk artists then adopted the form to tell their own stories. While this retablo shows scenes from Catholic teachings on the top tiers, the lower tiers depict daily life in south-central Peru: the harvest of the prickly pear cactus, a celebration with music and dancing.


There’s an article in ARTnews from last March about the Montreal exhibition that has some excellent photos. I will close with one depicting an Inca noblewoman: Gran Nusta Mama Occollo, Cuzco, Peru, early 1800s, oil on canvas mounted on board, Denver Art Museum.


The exhibition closes January 5. If you can, see it.

Categories: Art, Museums

Better Out Than In

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

The British street artist Banksy has taken up residence in New York City this month, producing a new work daily. You can follow the works of the Better Out Than In residency at the associated website, if you haven’t already been doing so.

The work depicted in the video above, Sirens of the Lambs, is part of his October 11 project, Meatpacking District. Two days later, in Central Park, he “set up a stall in the park selling 100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases. For $60 each.” The accompanying video captured highlights of the day.

I recommend spending some time at the website. While there, you’ll find it helpful to click on the audio guides.

Categories: Art

The Story of Ain’t

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment


The paperback reissue last month of David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published prompted Language Log’s Mark Liberman to write an enthusiastic post.

Next Tuesday, David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I’m happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.

I wondered why I hadn’t remembered an equally enthusiastic recommendation when the book appeared a year ago. In the next paragraph, Mark explained,

I began a similarly enthusiastic recommendation back when the book was originally published, in the fall of 2012. As usual for me, I framed the post around some quotations from the text — but every time I made a selection, I recalled an even better section a bit later, or realized that the full impact of the passage that I’d chosen required some background from an earlier chapter. So my post never got posted.


Last summer I taught a course at the LSA Institute in Ann Arbor, and I brought my copy of The Story of Ain’t with me, in the hopes of resolving my dilemma and finally posting a recommendation. One afternoon, my roommate Pieter Muysken happened to pick this book off my desk and sat on the living room couch to skim it.

For the next hour or so, Pieter regaled me with a series of variously commented passages: “Listen to this…”, “Oh, this is funny…”, “This man can write…”, punctuated with bursts of laughter, grunts of appreciation, and dramatic readings of selected sentences, paragraphs, or pages.

My sentiments exactly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!

I did, downloading it after just a moment’s pause. The reason for my pause—and I must say, this is a continuing annoyance with regard to Kindle editions—was the realization that despite the existence of a new epilog, my only option was to download the original version. I have yet to see a Kindleization updated upon the publication of a paperback with new material.

I started the book that day, but it’s been slow going since. I keep getting distracted by various duties, our never-ending remodel, travel plans, and even another book. I hope to get more focused soon.

Here is part of David Skinner description at the book’s website of its origins.

Webster’s Second was puritanical and uncontroversial, created for the living room and the classroom. Its pronunciations represented “formal platform speech,” and its pages contained almost no dirty words. It labored to stay on the right side of schoolmarms and grammarians.

Webster’s Third was scientific in method and, at the same time, surprisingly current on popular culture. It contained almost all the dirty words and among its quotations were such linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane. It had not been designed for either the living room or the classroom. It did not play nice with what Gove called “artifical notions of correctness.” Many people—including a fair number of journalists and literary figures—hated it.

Shortly after Webster’s Third was published, the New York Times called on Merriam to take it back and start over. Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker compared it to the end of civilization. The Editorial Board of the American Scholar didn’t even bother reading it before deputizing Jacques Barzun to denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” Meanwhile, James Parton and the American Heritage Company sought to use the controversy to win a controlling position among Merriam stockholders and take over America’s most venerable dictionary brand.

The Story of Ain’t is about the people who made Webster’s Third and the people who loathed it, and all that was going on in the language and in linguistics in the years leading up to 1961. It is a detective story, but it is also a cultural history with an amazing set of characters. I wrote it in order to understand what led to the controversy and why it remains a singular episode in the history of dictionaries and the history of America culture. And I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to sit back and watch the fireworks of a great intellectual controversy.

Categories: Books, Language

A Short Bright Flash, 2

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment


After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.

Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

[Photo by me, September 2011]

A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”

In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.

The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.

Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which

stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:

The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …

Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.

Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”

I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.

Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.

With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

Low Unpopularity

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment


[Gallup Poll]

I rarely enjoy listening to NPR Morning Edition’s host Steve Inskeep conducting interviews on political issues. More often than not, when I turn on the radio during breakfast and discover him engaged in such activity, I switch to something else. But yesterday I didn’t, and I was rewarded with an astonishing English language construction.

The segment was called Reason For Optimism? Two Sides Talking On Debt Ceiling, and it found Steve talking with NPR’s national political correspondent Mara Liasson about the government shutdown.

Three questions in, Inskeep asks, “What prompted Republicans to change course?” Liasson replies:

They were losing. They were just getting battered politically. And here’s a pretty good example of what was happening to the Republican political position. This is a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. By a 22 point margin the public thinks the Republican Party is more to blame for the shutdown than President Obama. That’s a bigger margin of blame than the Republicans received during the last shutdown in 1995.

The Republican Party is now at record low levels of unpopularity. Only 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. The Democrats aren’t doing much better, but at least they have a 39 percent favorable rating and they’re not dropping like the Republicans. And here’s the other thing. The president’s approval rating actually went up in this poll.

Read the opening of that second paragraph again. Yes, Mara said that the Republican Party is at record low levels of unpopularity.

I thought, oh my gosh, I have to post this. But I delayed. This morning I wrote to Language Log co-founder Mark Liberman to offer the quote as an addition to the mis-negation files that he maintains. Tonight, I sat down to write my post, only to discover that Mark was already on the case.

Categories: Language, Logic

The Good Old Days

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

A.W. Tucker

A.W. Tucker

[From AMS, courtesy of Alan Tucker]

I received my copy of the latest American Mathematical Monthly today. The Monthly is a publication of the Mathematical Association of America, which describes itself as “the largest professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level.” (They complement the American Mathematical Society, whose mission is to “further the interests of mathematical research and scholarship.”)

An article in the new Monthly caught my eye, Alan Tucker’s “The History of the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics in the United States.” This is not likely to interest you as much as me, so you may not be too disappointed to learn that for non-members it sits behind a pay wall, available at JSTOR for $12. Thus you’re likely to miss out on the following paragraph:

In the early 1950s faculty at many leading research departments still saw teaching as their primary mission. Even senior administrators often taught two courses per semester. When my father, A. W. Tucker, was chair of the Princeton mathematics department in the 1950s, not only did he have the same teaching load as other senior faculty, but every other semester he was also in charge of the freshman calculus course taken by almost all students. When I questioned him years later why he took on this huge extra obligation, he responded, “The most important thing that the Princeton Mathematics Department did was teach freshman calculus and so it was obvious that as chair, I should lead that effort.”

Just as well. I wouldn’t want you to get any crazy ideas.

(It may be useful to explain that at many large research universities, including mine, the math department chair has no teaching obligations.)

Categories: Math, Teaching