Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Milwaukee Brewers: change we can believe in

As my beloved Orioles close out 2008 with a 4-19 undead September, my newly adopted NL team, the Brewers, are in the playoffs for the first time since they broke O’s fans’ hearts on the last day of the 1982 season to win the AL East title. And as in 1982, the Brewers seemed to have a playoff berth well in hand with a few weeks to go, then came this close to blowing it, then recovered just in time. Barack Obama must be watching, and hoping his story comes out the same. But he can’t be rooting for the Brewers too fervently; he’s a White Sox fan, and if Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes are at issue, a Chicago-Milwaukee World Series is close to his worst-case scenario. (If the polls stay as they are now, the damage in the Philadelphia suburbs from a White Sox – Phillies matchup is probably worse.)

But the World Series this election really deserves is Brewers – Red Sox. In the Brewers you have the young, exciting team from the side of the aisle that’s won only two of the last six series. And the Red Sox are the team with some experience in the big game, the team that it used to be cool and transgressive to like, before they turned into a carbon copy of their hyper-rich former rival now fallen on hard times.

Mark Attanasio, the Brewers’ owner, was at a multi-million dollar fundraiser for Obama in LA two weeks ago. John Henry, who owns the Red Sox, gave tens of thousands to the DNC in 2004 but according to Fundrace has stayed out of the 2008 campaign. Draw whatever conclusions you will.

I do think Obama’s going to win Wisconsin. And not just because he’s ahead in the polls, or because he reminds me of the Brewers. It’s because he rides a Trek.

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I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Triops forever

I got confused when John McCain said “When I look into Putin’s eyes, I see three letters — K, G, B.” What am I supposed to picture here? Is it KG in the right eye, and B in the left, or the other way around? Or is there a full “KGB” in each eye? Or is McCain actually saying that Putin has a chakra eye in the middle of his forehead with a G in it? Please be more specific, Senator, the American people deserve to know the full story.

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I was walked by a zombie

Everybody on the Orioles is playing like a shambling, reanimated corpse, but only Radhames Liz really looks the part. I went down to the Blue Moon Sunday night to see the Orioles play in the Yankee Stadium finale. The Packers were on, so I watched alone as I enjoyed my excellent cheese curds (rated by an acquiantance of mine as the best bar cheese curds in Madison, and she claimed to have tried them all.) The Orioles were — well, they were to baseball as the cheese curds were to bar food, except the exact opposite. They’ve now lost eight straight, four of those by a single run. They played Sunday night like a team who just wanted to pack it up and go home for the winter. Brandon Fahey, the worst offender, booted one ball and pulled a Little League style “I got it — no you get it!” on another, turning a close game into a laugher. As I write this, the Orioles look to be en route to another one-run loss to Tampa Bay, the team that used to be the comforting mattress separating us from last place. Radhames Liz did his part, blowing 5/6 of a 6-run lead, bellowing all the while for the raw brains of everyone else on the field. Hard to believe that just one month ago this team was fun to watch.

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Back from Boston

I spent the end of last week in Cambridge, where I gave a talk at MIT about the homology of Hurwitz spaces.

  • Good addition to Harvard Square: there’s now a used-book table on Mass Ave, like the ones I used to patronize on Broadway in Morningside Heights. I flipped through “Strike From Space,” a 1965 book by Phyllis Schlafly and Lester Ward, with the thesis that dopey Democrats were getting head-faked by the Soviets into escalating our commitment to Vietnam, which conflict was in fact not the firewall against an all-red Asia but a mere Soviet plot to distract us from an imminent nuclear first strike from orbit. Bad addition to Harvard Square: a Qdoba! I thought fast food was forbidden from Harvard Square by zoning laws, but apparently you can apply for an exemption — here’s Chipotle’s application to open a restaurant at One Brattle Square.
  • I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Putman and learning about a beautiful recent theorem of his; the moduli space of genus-g curves with full level N structure has the same second homology as M_g itself, for g at least 5. As a corollary, all these spaces have Picard number 1. I also learned a lot from Denis Auroux about mapping class group factorizations and symplectic Lefschetz fibrations — but more on this when I write a post or two on Hurwitz spaces.  Update: (25 Sep 08) Putman’s paper is now on the arXiv.
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Two good lines

  • Today in a bookstore, a couple brushes by me. Her to him: “I’m judging you so much right now.”
  • My friend Lauren had the singular honor of judging the M.I.T. Nerdy Pickup Line Contest. The winner:

“Hey, baby, I don’t have a nerdy pickup line, but I can prove that one exists.”

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DFW remembered at Slate, by me and others: plus, juvenilia

Slate has posted a series of short essays on David Foster Wallace, including mine, in which I write about the debt DFW’s language owes to his background in mathematics.

Also, courtesy of wallace-l, what might be Wallace’s first published story, scanned from a 1984 issue of an undergrad literary magazine at Amherst: “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing.” The style is recognizably an underdeveloped version of Wallace’s; what’s surprising me here is the strong taste of Salinger in sentences like “a hospital to which I was sent ever so briefly following a really highly ridiculous incident involving electrical appliances in the bathtub about which I really don’t wish to say a whole lot.” As far as I can recall there’s not a particle of Salingeriness in DFW’s entire body of adult work.

wallace-amherst_review-the_planet (.pdf file)

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David Foster Wallace at Harper’s

I’m not trying to make this blog into a David Foster Wallace memorial wall; this will probably be my last post on the subject. But I did want to publicize the fact that Harper’s has now made all their DFW material publicly readable in .pdf, including one of his finest stories, “The Depressed Person,” and one of his finest pieces of comic reportage, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” listed here under its original title, “Shipping Out.”

And via Cosmic Variance, this quote from DFW’s book Everything and More:

n modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G. F. L. P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad By Attempts To Grapple With ∞. The truth, though, is that Cantor’s work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guy’s life. The real irony is that the view of ∞ as some forbidden zone or road to insanity — which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years — is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon; it’s not only wrong but insulting.

This is an important and correct thing to say about math, and about what happened to David Foster Wallace last weekend.

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A letter from David Foster Wallace, maybe

From wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace mailing list, this anonymous account from an alumnus of Granada House, a drug and alcohol rehab center in Allston. DFW is believed to be the author.

An Ex-Resident’s Story

I was referred to Granada House in November 1989. “Referred” is a very
polite way to put it. I was a patient in a rehab attached to a well-known
mental hospital in Boston, and a psychiatrist in this rehab had established
some credibility with me, and he opined that (1) unless I signed up for
long-term treatment someplace, I wasn’t going to be able to stay off drugs
and alcohol; and that (2) if I couldn’t find a way to stay off drugs and
alcohol, I was going to be dead by 30. I was 27. This was not my first
in-patient rehab, nor was it my first mental hospital.

Continue reading

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David Foster Wallace is dead

A suicide.

There’s not much I can add to the sickening fact — except to say that if you never read his books, you might as well use this sad occasion to move yourself to get around to it. The essay collection A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again would be a better place to start than the huge Infinite Jest. Here’s what I wrote in the Boston Phoenix about ASFTINDA.

It was only in 9th or 10th grade that I started to understand there was such a thing as contemporary fiction, with the corollary that writing new things in new ways was an option for a living person like me. Two of my heroes, Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme, I learned about from my creative writing teacher. Wallace, the third, was my favorite, because I discovered him myself. Like Carver and Barthelme, he is impossible to imitate, even slightly, without sounding false. But every paragraph I write owes something to him.

One thing I learned from Wallace was that a story could have a joke on every page and be very, very serious.

Via MetaFilter, Wallace’s remarkable 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.

Tom interviewed Wallace for the Phoenix in 1998.

Wallace’s very short “Incarnations of Burned Children” is readable online at Esquire, but is not for the weak. You might cry. (Even if you’re strong.) Even more relentless, and longer, which is part of its relentlessness, is “The Depressed Person,” which you can read online if you subscribe to Harper’s.

But his writing, in general, wasn’t brutal and relentless. It was funny, rather easy-going, observant and wise — even when it was about the impossible struggle to be a human being and not a glib self-presentation, or a drug addiction, or a complicated language game. He was our Trollope, not our Kafka. I thought he’d die in bed at eighty.

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Is there life after Potty Power?

We watched Potty Power a lot this summer. I mean, a lot. Like, John-Hinckley-watching-Taxi Driver a lot. After a while, I started wondering: who are the actors in Potty Power? Is this the kind of gig you take on your way to stardom? Or are there actors whose whole career is in toilet-training videos?

Jessica Cannon, the peppy MC and vocalist who manages to deliver lyrics like “Wash your hands / wash ‘em real good / wash your hands like you know you should” with a winning supper-club flair, appears in the New York Daily News in August 2006 as a struggling actor, working kids’ birthday parties and cocktail-waitressing between auditions to keep afloat. She’s now giving piano lessons in New York City. Matt Dyer, who plays the King to Cannon’s Queen in the play-within-a-play, “The Princess and the Potty,” got good reviews this year in a Norwich, CT production of “The Last Session,” a musical about AIDS and the music industry. Also appearing in “The Princess and the Potty” is the biggest success story of all, the scene-stealing jester Todd Alan Crain. He’s continued to appear in kids’ videos, but also seems to get consistent Off-Off-Broadway work, has some appearances on Comedy Central and the Onion News Network, and, best of all, toured the U.S. as Slim Goodbody. It sounds like what pays the bills is a steady series of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, being the guy in the suit behind the desk who looks a little like a news anchor and introduces the in-house promotional film. I never wondered about who did jobs like that, but now I know — graduates of Potty Power.

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