Monthly Archives: August 2008

My friend the delegate


Friend-of-the-blog Monica Youn was a delegate at the Democratic convention. In Slate, she reports on her four days in Denver:

“The yellow-vests have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and the convention floor has devolved to a state of nature in which only brute force prevails. Transverse movement has slowed to the point that it’s only by referring to external landmarks that you can tell, for instance, that the guy in the Uncle Sam hat has progressed eight feet in the last 20 minutes. From my vantage point, a few rows back from the floor, it’s like watching a slow-motion feed of the LaBrea, Calif., tar pits, observing once mighty creatures—Secret Service agents, EMTs, cameramen, Chuck Schumer—struggling with increasingly feeble gestures, then succumbing, brought down by the sheer weight of inertia.”

Based on the photo, Monica is in no position to be making fun of other people’s hats.

Here’s a poem of Monica’s, recently published in Guernica:

Ignatz Oasis

When you have left me
the sky drains of color

like the skin of a tightening fist.

The sun begins
its gold prowl

swatting at tinsel streamers
on the electric fan.

Crouching I hide
in the coolness I had stolen

from the brass rods of your bed.

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Public opinion, 1935-1946

Working in Memorial Library again today. Today’s interesting book picked off the shelf is Public Opinion, 1935-1946, a 1200-page compendium of public opinion polls conducted around the world on every topic imaginable. And it looks like the full text is online!

A few nuggets:

  • In January 1937, 70% of Americans thought it had been a mistake for the U.S. to enter World War I. In November 1940, only 39% thought so.
  • In May 1940, voters were asked “Would you like to see the Republicans nominate Roosevelt for President if the Democrats would agree to accept the choice of the Republicans for Vice-President?” Now that’s a piece of stunt nomination the likes of which we’d never see today. Also, in July 1940, we have this note on a national election poll: “Southern Negroes were omitted in this tabulation because their franchise is largely ineffective.”
  • In April 1941, U.S. opinion was strongly against entering the war: 21% in favor, 79% opposed. But there were very big differences between states — in Wisconsin (home, then and now, of a substantial German population) only 14% favored war, while in Florida 35% wanted in.
  • In March 1938, Americans favored the right of teachers to spank kids in school by 53%-44%. By August 1946, it had flipped to 35% in favor and 61% opposed. Parents who had themselves been spanked as kids were only a little more pro-spanking; 41% supported spanking in school, 56% opposed.
  • In March 1938, 82% of Americans supported amending the Constitution to prohibit child labor. It turns out that The Child Labor Amendment is still outstanding and would be adopted if ratified by just 10 more states. Who knew?
  • In March 1942, 66% of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted” and 25% disagreed. (I couldn’t resist looking up more recent numbers: by 1964 trust was ahead 77-21, but in 1983 just 57% thought most people could be trusted, with 40% saying no.)
  • In June 1937, 63% of Americans favored taxing chain stores at a higher rate than independent stores.
  • In November 1945, 58% of Americans felt that “Jewish people in the United States have too much influence in the business world,” up from 50% in January 1943.
  • In March 1944, 27% of Americans had raised chickens during the previous year.
  • When asked in 1946 which President was greatest: FDR, Washington, Lincoln, or Wilson, Americans gave Roosevelt 39%, putting him ahead of Lincoln (37%), Washington (15%), and Wilson (5%).
  • In April 1946, 67% of Germans disagreed with the statement “The experience of enduring bombing and shellfire steels a man’s character.”
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Engine Summer and Godel’s Theorem

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, but somehow managed to miss out on John Crowley until this year. I started with the Hugo-winning Little Big, which is beloved by both Harold Bloom and Crooked Timber; that must say something. It’s a beautifully written and grand fantasia about fairies, architecture, and (I think) the decay of urban America in the early 1980s, when it was written. Around page 400 I started wondering how Crowley was possibly going to wrap up all the mysteries and stories in a satisfying way; and he didn’t, quite. When I complained to Steve about this, he told me that I should have read Engine Summer instead, because it’s small and perfect. So I did — and it is!

There’s some lesson here about short novels. Many of the ideas in Engine Summer reappear in Little, Big, and you can see why; in the earlier book things are done so gracefully, so concisely, and with so much left unmentioned that Crowley must have felt he hadn’t exhausted the material. And he hadn’t; there’s lots of terrific stuff in Little, Big that the shorter book doesn’t have room for. But grace, concision, and the presence of the unmentioned are serious virtues, not to be lightly discarded. This might be even more true in science fiction than elsewhere.

Here’s a quote — this doesn’t show off Crowley at anything like his best, but I wanted to point out that it appears to be a reference to the work of Godel, not something you find in every novel.

She came and sat by me again. “The gossips know, now, after many years of searching, that it can’t be read past Gate, not packed all together; and if Great Knot Unraveled is the whole set, then Great Knot Unraveled can never be read.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that it’s no longer any use? Since you know that? It doesn’t, does it?”

“Oh no,” she said. “No, no. It will be a long time before we have learned everything there is to learn even from Little Knot. But.. well. It seemed, when the System was first being truly searched, in St. Olive’s time, it seemed that .. it seemed there was a promise, that one day it would be seen all together, and answer all questions. Now we know it won’t, not ever. When that was first understood, there were gossips who broke up their Systems, and some who left Belaire; that was a sad time.”

If you want Steve’s thoughts on SF unmediated through me, he assesses Philip K. Dick in the July 2008 London Review of Books.

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Blueberry ricotta crepes and the mighty Thr-Ian’s

Don’t miss the superb blueberries currently on offer from Flyte Family Farm, available at the Saturday market on the corner of Mifflin and Pinckney. Yesterday night I had two fresh pints of these and no idea what to make for dinner. But I also have this little crepe pan I’ve been learning to use since I accidentally left my nonstick skillet empty on the stove and bubbled half the coating off it. So: I made some crepes (using this recipe) and filled them with blueberries and sheep’s milk ricotta from Butler Farms.

Delicious! But labor-intensive to put together, especially since my little pan makes just one crepe at a time. So here’s a question, pancake fans: what if I’d just mixed the ricotta and blueberries into the batter and fried it like a pancake? Would that have been just as tasty? And if I do mix the cheese in the batter and fry it, would something simple and cheap like cottage cheese be as good as fresh ricotta?

The crepes were a success, but the food victory of the week obviously belongs to Adam B. Hirsch, who recently became the first person to eat at all three Ian’s Pizza locations (two in Madison, one in Chicago) in a single day. Cue Olympic theme!

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New Zealand rock named after group-theoretic entities

Douglas‘s label Dark Beloved Cloud put out a great record by the Magick Heads called Transvection. You and I think a transvection is a unipotent element of the symplectic group, but it turns out it also means — well, let Douglas explain it:

DBC222 The Magick Heads’ Transvection CD

“Transvection” is the act of riding through the air on a stick or a broom, and The Magick Heads’ glorious ride spanned almost a decade. Natives of Dunedin, New Zealand, driven by the songwriting prowess of Robert Scott (of the Bats and the Clean) and the throbbingly gorgeous singing of Jane Sinnott, they released two exquisite albums on Flying Nun and a couple of EPs. Before they called it a day, they assembled this collection of levitational performances from their entire career: studio recordings, live tracks, radio sessions and 4-track demos–13 never-heard songs and three radically different versions of Magick Heads classics. Delicious he sang/she sang harmonies, the savory friction of acoustic guitars against electrics, backing by members of the 3Ds–it’s all here, and it’s all exquisite. $10 ppd.

The record is just as great as Douglas says. It reminds me a little of an amazing old Boston band, Prickly; Collin Oberndorf’s clear, high, hollow-sounding vocals cut through the haphazardly layered guitar on that record much as Sinnott’s does here. Here’s the Magick Heads, “Standing on the Edge,” courtesy of Flowering Toilet:

“Standing on the Edge,” the Magick Heads

I have “The Lonely Passion of Joey Heatherton,” Prickly’s finest song, only on cassette — but Shumai, featuring some of the same personnel, does an almost-as-good version:

“The Lonely Passion of Joey Heatherton,” Shumai

Back to New Zealand: if I could post my own .mp3s on the blog, I’d put up Prickly’s great cover of “Death and the Maiden,” by NZ’s Verlaines. And the Magick Heads, via Robert Scott, are related to the Clean, whose song “Odditty” is the greatest pop monument New Zealand ever produced. Tom would probably accord that honor to “Not Given Lightly”:

At the very least, this song is tied with “Stand” and “Chinese Bones” for best use of the open E (and is the uncontested champion in the “not played by Peter Buck” division)

More group theory: the Pin group is not just a double cover of the orthogonal group, but an early NZ post-punk outfit. The Pin Group was that rare thing, a band that sounds a lot like Joy Division without being second-rate parody. Here’s their 1981 single “Ambivalence,” (via The Walrus):

“Ambivalence,” The Pin Group

I have this single in my collection only because it’s part of The Greatest Mix Ever Made, which is to say the 13-disc, 411-song box set “1981”, consisting entirely of songs released in that year. It’s one of my prize posessions, and I am eternally in awe of and debt to its compiler, the musical encyclopedist known as Soundslike. Who it turns out makes his own music, and it’s kind of great! Surprisingly easy-going and gentle, given the vast amount of aggressive post-punk he’s brought into my life. Here’s a standout track:

“Complicity”

If you liked that, his albums are all available for free download here.

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Pink helmet

CJ is, in many ways, in compliance with conventional expectations about little boys; he likes construction sites, vehicles of all kinds, dinosaurs, and roughhousing. But he breaks those rules, too. One of his favorite games is to cook in his toy kitchen (though note that cooking is Daddy’s job in our house.) Based on his loose understanding of human reproduction, he sometimes tells us that he has a baby in his tummy and he’s going to take care of it. And when I recently took him down to Budget Bicycle Center to buy a helmet, he chose the pink one with hearts all over it above the blue helmet with cars, the black helmet with trains, and many other more boy-coded options.

When I was a kid, my favorite color was pink. OK, I’ll admit it, hot pink. (It was the 70s!) And I liked all decorations to be as floral as possible. My parents brought me to the department store when I was 4 or 5 to pick out wallpaper for my room, and I chose a print of pink roses, which created some consternation; my parents felt, possibly correctly, that at 7 I’d feel it wrong to have my room done up in pink roses, so they bribed me with the offer of a giant cork board to accept a more gender-neutral wallpaper. It was a kind of blobby orange-and-brown plaid. Did I remember to mention it was the 70s?

Anyway: should I maintain a rigid neutrality about all such matters? Or is it all right that I feel a little pride in CJ’s pink helmet?

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Good things about the last-place Orioles

Who’d have thought that the year the Orioles look to be heading for a last-place finish, their first since 1988, would be such a pleasure to watch? We are bad — yes. But we’re running last in the strongest AL East in memory, which with the current unbalanced schedule means we’re playing the hardest schedule in memory. And even so, we’re closer to .500 than we’ve been in ten years. We’ve scored just two fewer runs than we’ve allowed. We’re carrying a legitimate young star in Nick Markakis, and (though no one outside Baltimore has noticed yet) one of the 10 best pitchers in the league, in Jeremy Guthrie. We get to watch surprsingly great slugging from Aubrey Huff and Luke Scott, though they’re not part of the team’s future. And surpringly great set-up work from Jim Johnson, who might be. We shucked off old, expensive Miguel Tejada and middle-aged, expensive Erik Bedard, and, for once, we got legitimate talent in return.

The Bedard trade, to be sure, should have been completed by trading George Sherrill for something we need, like an unembarrassing shortshop; turning Bedard into Adam Jones and a major-league shortstop would be a real coup. And there must be something about Huff’s contract I don’t understand, because it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a contending team willing to trade something valuable for a DH with the 7th-best OPS in the AL. Huff, Roberts, Sherrill, and Scott are all probably as valuable as they’re going to be — I like watching them play, I like that they’re Orioles, and I’d like to see them gone as soon as possible.

Some miscellaneous Orioles links I’ve been meaning to post:

Mike Pagliarulo gives insider dish on the 1993 Orioles, one of my favorite squads. Here’s what I wrote in Rain Taxi about that team a few years back:

1993 was the year Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Orioles. Valenzuela, when he was 21, already had a Cy Young award and was going to be the pitcher of our time, but by 1993 he was seven years past his last winning season. For some reason he came to Baltimore, and he had another losing season. But he brought a bit of noble twilight to the team, a team which was, all in all, a perfect mix of nobly twilit old guys (Valenzuela, Rick Sutcliffe, Harold Baines), young guys who hadn’t found themselves (Mike Mussina, Arthur Lee Rhodes, Jeffrey Hammonds), and, maybe most importantly, middle-aged, middle-talented guys who picked that year to have great seasons which they must have known they would never again equal (Chris Hoiles and the incomparable Jack Voigt). It was somewhat shocking to me to look up the statistics and see that the Orioles were actually pretty good that year, and finished in a tie for third. My memory of that team is Valenzuela losing in the late afternoon.

Also, the Orioles are bike commuters. I give you Jeremy Guthrie:

“I hate cars, I hate driving, I hate doing something I don’t have to do. For me to drive downtown is a waste of gas; it’s a waste of my time. I can ride faster than I can drive.”

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One more Mexican restaurant — Taqueria Guadalajara

On the advice of some of my commenters I took CJ to Taqueria Guadalajara tonight. Moral: believe everything you read in the comments! This homey place served me the first really satisfying torta I’ve eaten in Madison — with properly soft bread and a good balance of fillings. The meat has to assert itself without dominating, as in a successful patty burger. Guadalajara brings it off. The gordita and horchata looked and smelled very good, too, but CJ didn’t let me have any.

The dining room is pretty small, service at rush time is slow, and the atmosphere not particularly charming, unless you’ve been looking for a chance to catch up on El Gordo y La Flaca. They’re clearly doing a brisk takeout business; that might be the way to go.

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Down with the Perfect 10

In today’s Slate, I praise the new scoring system for gymnastics.

I was happy I managed to include a few words about one of my favorite Olympic athletes, the great French figure skater Surya Bonaly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to work in a quote from this March 2005 Gazeta interview with Bonaly. “NS” is Nikolay Sadovsky of Gazeta. Note that I took this transcript from a blog and don’t vouch for its authenticity, or the correctness of the translation.

NS- In general, if I am not mistaken, judges somewhat disliked your skating. And you decided to say “farewell” to them in an original way: you did not land many triples at the Olympics in Nagano and, having lost all chances for a medal, you directly in front of the judges suddenly made a somersault in your free program…
SB – You answered your own question. First, figure skating is a conservative kind of sports which hardly changes. I was the innovator. I do not understand why the back-flip till now is forbidden: probably, because of fear that the sportsman can be traumatized. But I consider that this question is necessary to resolve – let the sportsmen choose if it is necessary for them or not. In general, judges did not love me for innovation. And that story at Nagano, here you in fact remember this moment, which means that I was right, having decided to include it in the program. So, spontaneously, I included and did it. Yes, I was punished for it. I took tenth or eleventh place. But it is unimportant, what is important is the memory of the spectators, rather than of the judges. Who now will remember those judges? But I am still remembered and loved.

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The worst Mexican restaurant in Madison, and a few others

Last week we had dinner at Pedro’s, the worst Mexican restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, surely the worst in Madison, and quite possibly the worst in the state. I ordered the chile relleno combination platter, whose only virtue was that, unlike most dishes served under that name, it was actually served on a platter. Everything on the plate was the color of a burnt sienna crayon. It also tasted like a burnt sienna crayon, if you rubbed the burnt sienna crayon with grease and then coated it in as much chili powder as would stick.

CJ’s kid’s meal was an enchilada filled with a gummy yellow cheese of which he said, “This is not my favorite kind of cheese.”

I suppose one must admire la chutzpah of billing the contents of the seafood enchiladas as “imitation Alaskan crab meat.”

But let us speak of nicer things. Let’s say you’re in Madison, hankering for Mexican, and your plans don’t include ingesting 1500 calories of greasy crayon. I do have some suggestions. Our favorite place in town is El Pastor, on South Park Street, just inside the Beltline. Simple favorites done well in a pleasant setting, plus some items not on every menu in town — I like the tampiqueña. A somewhat fancier option is La Mestiza, which emphasizes seafood and moles over burritos and tacos. We joined Eating in Madison A to Z there in February. Back to burritos and tacos: when it’s just me and CJ, we often hit Mi Cocina on the west side, where there’s a toddler at almost every table and they bring you crayons along with the chips. The food is standard and competent. I’ve never been to far-south Taqueria Miramar, but there’s a sorority on campus that sometimes buys their tamales and sells them in Ingraham Hall, and it’s always a good day when that sorority shows up. Pasqual’s serves a California/New Mexico-style menu, lighter and more vegetarian-friendly than most places in town; always pleasant, seldom spectacular.

The rest of the field: I stopped at Casa de Lara on State Street once and had an indifferent torta, old-tasting bread and too heavy on the beans. Tex Tubb’s on University somehow suggests that it’s going to be an above average, slightly inventive Mexican a la Pasqual’s, but ends up being just ordinary and a little expensive. Taqueria del Lago, inside Memorial Union, is exactly like Chipotle, and if you like Chipotle, you’ll like it. I do not.

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