Category Archives: travel

New York trip

Back from an east coast swing with the kids. We took the train up from my parents’ place in Philadelphia Friday morning, came back Saturday night; in that time we went to five museums (Natural History, Met, NYPL, MoMA, International Center of Photography) — ate belly lox at Zabar’s, pastrami at Katz’s, dumplings in Chinatown, Georgian food (Tbilisi not Atlanta) on the Upper West Side, and Junior’s cheesecake for breakfast — and saw three old friends. Oh and CJ took a college tour. My iPhone’s step counter registered 30,000 steps the first day (my all-time record!) and 20,000 the second day. We’re getting good at doing things fast!

I don’t doubt New York has been changed by the pandemic but the changes aren’t visible when you’re just walking around as a tourist on the street. Everything’s crowded and aive.

I was worried we’d have conflict about how much time to spend in art museums but both kids like the Canonical Moderns Of Painting right now so it worked out well. AB was very into Fernand Leger and was aggrieved they didn’t have any Leger postcards at the giftshop but I explained to her that it’s much cooler to be into the artists who aren’t the ones that get postcards at the giftshop. She thinks Jackson Pollock is a fraud and don’t even get her started on Barnett Newman.

My favorite old painting at the Met, the one I always go visit first, isn’t on view anymore. But my other favorite — a little on brand for me, I know — is in the gallery as always. Also saw a bunch of Max Beckmann I wasn’t familiar with, and at MoMA, this Alice Neel painting which looked kind of like Beckmann:

I took the kids to McNally Jackson and to the flagship North American MUJI (where I bought a new yak sweater, there is just no sweater like a MUJI yak sweater.) CJ went in the NBA store and complained they didn’t have enough Bucks gear. We went in a fancy stationery store where the very cute little desk clock we saw turned out to cost $172. We walked through the new Essex Market in the Lower East Side which is like Reading Terminal Market if everything were brand new. Michelle Shih took us to Economy Candy, which has been there forever and which I’d never heard of. I bought a Bar None, a candy bar I remember really liking in the 90s and which I haven’t seen in years. Turns out it was discontinued in 1997 but has been resuscitated by a company whose entire business is bringing back candy bars people fondly remember. There was a huge traffic snarl caused by someone blocking the box so my kids got to see an actual New York guy lean halfway out of his car and yell “YO!” (Then he yelled some other words.) We were so full from the pastrami that we couldn’t eat all the pickles. I brought them all the way home to Madison and just ate them. I ❤️ NY.

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Road trip to Fargo

I turned 50 and, as I had long planned, I set foot in my 50th state, North Dakota, on my 50th birthday. It’s not far from Madison to Fargo, about 7 and a half hours drive, but I was a little intimidated; it’s been a long time since I drove more than four hours in a day, and I had questions about my 2001 Forester, which went from Madison to California and back in its youth but which is now, by some measures, an old car. But I needn’t have worried! Driving long distances, when you have the company of one of your kids, is not so bad. We listened to a lot of podcasts about the new MacBook Pro.

The first day, we didn’t see much; by the time CJ got home from school and we were ready to go, it was almost 4, so we drove through the familiar landscape of western Wisconsin, stopping for Culver’s in the suburban outskirts of Eau Claire, and stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn in Brooklyn Park. (Thanks to Hotel Tonight, the perfect app for road tripping, which allows you to easily book a cheap same-night hotel room when you feel you’ve got about two hours of driving left in you.) Nobody is wearing masks in Brooklyn Park, even though it’s in greater Minneapolis, not the hotel clerk, not the people in the gas station convenience store, nobody. It’s something you notice if you’re used to Madison (and we wore ours inside, without anybody looking at us funny.) The next morning, my birthday morning, we set out into western Minnesota, as the forests started to peter out into prairie. This part of I-94 is the land of pretty lakes, like Lake Osakis (the “sak” here is the same as “Sauk”)

and of unexpected roadside attractions

perhaps most notably the world’s largest prairie chicken, in Rothsay, MN.

All these pictures are by CJ, by the way. He has taken up photography. We got him a camera, an actual camera, which it turns out they still make, on the repeated promise that he would actually use it, and he’s lived up to that. He knows what all the buttons do. More importantly, I think he has a real sense for how things should look in an image. Well, you be the judge. It takes a tough man to shoot a prairie chicken.

We roll across the Red River into Fargo around 1:00. I’m now a fifty-stater, I’ve known for a while it was within reach; two cross country trips with Prof. Dr. Mrs. Q and family trips to Hawaii and Alaska got most of the hard stuff done. Then Jennifer Johnson-Leung of the University of Idaho invited me to give a seminar in Moscow and suddenly I was at 49.

It turns out I’m not the only person to leave North Dakota for last. It’s such a common thing that there’s a club for it. I’m now a member:

Large parts of Fargo look like any other low-density Midwestern sprawlville but there’s an old turn-of-the-century downtown that gives you some sense of what the place was like when it was old and rich. (It reminded me a little bit of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, about what was going on in Idaho — big trouble, in case you didn’t guess — around the time Fargo was being built.) There’s a building with “Kopelman’s” engraved across the top. Really? One of us, in Fargo? Really. The building now houses North Dakota’s only abortion provider. A few years ago they found that the mikveh was still there in the basement, under a concrete slab.

We had lunch with an old Ph.D. student of mine, Rohit Nagpal, with his wife, who’s a doctor there, and their extremely enjoyable two-year-old. The lunch place, BernBaum’s, is a Scandinavian-Jewish fusion deli, and it is good. Not “I’m surprised a place in a small-to-medium city in North Dakota is this good” good — good good. Why don’t Jews put lingonberries on our blintzes? Because we never knew about them, is the only explanation.

We went across the river to Moorhead, MN to see the Hjemkomst Center. So it seems that Norwegian-Americans sometimes become obsessed and build replicas of old Norwegian things. A Moorhead guidance counselor named Robert Asp built an exact replica of a wooden Viking ship. After his death, his kids sailed it from Minnesota to Norway and back. Now it’s in a museum:

A different Norwegian-American, Guy Paulson, built an exact replica of a 12th century wooden church that stands on the southern shore of the Sognefjorden.

OK, not exact; for it to meet US code he had to use nails. “But it would stand up without them,” the guide assures us. Norwegian wooden faces are thick with feeling.

We cross the river and eat schnitzel and spaetzle at a bar where everyone is watching the North Dakota State Bison demolish Indiana State, 44-2, at the FargoDome. Then it’s time to leave Fargo, because we don’t want to have the full distance to drive the last day. The sun goes down over western Minnesota

People on the internet are saying there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, so we parked on the side of a dirt road in a corn field far away from any light and with an unobstructed northern view, and we stood out there freezing for a long time until it was completely dark, but the promised borealic peak never came. CJ got some good Milky Way pictures, at any rate. And we still made it back to the Twin Cities outskirts to sleep.

Sunday morning we went into downtown Minneapolis. CJ wanted to take pictures. We went up to the top of the Foshay Tower, which I’d never heard of.

Foshay was a Minneapolis industrialist who built this huge art deco obeliskical office building in the middle of town, only to lose his shirt in the crash three months after the grand opening. He was eventually convicted of wire fraud (though not before escaping his first trial with a mistrial, the one holdout juror being, it turned out, the wife of one of Foshay’s business associates, undisclosed.) But he remained a popular figure in town and it seems like his full pardon by Truman in 1947 was celebrated rather than questioned.

CJ wanted to see the new football stadium. Really? But guess what, it’s a beaut and I’m glad we walked around it

He got a picture with no people but in fact, even at 10 in the morning, central Minneapolis was already thick with Cowboys fans in full Cowboys paint, gearing up for that night’s game. We walked across the stone arch bridge, picked up some antelope tacos, sweet potatoes, and bison bowls at Owamni, and then drove down to Minnehaha Park because CJ loves taking waterfall pictures.

From there it was a straight drive home, because CJ had Halloween plans with his friends. We listened to Taylor Swift all the way. CJ is a sophomore in high school and when I was that age I was just starting to have Opinions about Records. I didn’t know that CJ had Opinions about Records, but it turns out he does — not vaguely “notice that I am alternative” stuff like the R.E.M. albums I was opining about at 16, but about Taylor Swift. I try to hold back my tendencies to want my kids to value exactly the same things that I do, but I cannot lie, it warms me that CJ has Opinions about Records. I learned a lot about Swift’s progression as a writer and I was even able to sneak in some older songs (“Fire and Rain,” “Linger”) that I felt helped situate Swift within a tradition. Anyway, I kind of knew Taylor Swift was great but I gained new appreciation for a lot of the non-singles, like “Getaway Car.”

We made it back to Madison in time for CJ to meet his friends and for me to greet some of the masses of kids walking for candy; after a year of distanced trick-or-treating, there was a lot of pent-up demand.

There was one more sunset.

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Pandemic blog 22: departures

This is the current list of every flight leaving Madison today:

(For those who don’t live here, under normal conditions there would be about 50 depatures a day to 15-20 destinations.)

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Los Angeles, November 2019

Actually, I arrived on October 31, but who can resist a gratuitous Blade Runner reference?

I was in town for the always-interesting meeting of the IPAM science board. Keep an eye on their schedule; there are great workshops coming up!

There was chaos and anger at LAX when I landed, because the airport just this week moved Lyft/Uber/taxi pickups offsite. For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has led to long waits for rideshare cars. For reasons I understand even less, people are waiting an hour for their Lyft to show up when the regular taxi stand is right there, and you can — I did — just hop in a cab with no wait and go. (Yes, a VC-subsidized Lyft is cheaper than a cab, if it’s not surge time. But the bus is cheaper still, and once you’re not saving time with the Lyft, what’s the point?)

So I got in my cab and went to the beach, and watched the sunset over the ocean. Clear view of a really nice Moon-Jupiter conjunction and Venus still visible down at the horizon. Last time I went to Dockweiler Beach I was all alone, but this time there were several groups of people in Halloween costumes around bonfires. That was probably the most Blade Runner thing about this trip and it wasn’t even November 2019 yet!

I have a first cousin in LA, and good luck for me — my first cousin’s first baby was born my first morning in town! So on Saturday after the meeting I got to go see my first cousin once removed on his second day alive. I haven’t seen a one-day-old baby in a really long time! And it’s true what they say; I both remember my own kids being that age and I don’t. It’s more like I remember remembering it. I thought I was going to have a lot of advice but mostly all I had to say to them was that they are going to be amazing parents, because they are.

The hospital was in East Hollywood, a neighborhood I don’t know at all. Walking around afterwards, I saw a sign for an art-food festival in a park, so I walked up the hill into the park, where there wasn’t really an art-food festival, but there was a great Frank Lloyd Wright mansion I’d never heard of, Hollyhock House:

As with most FLW houses, there’s a lot more to it than you can see in the picture. A lot of it is just the pleasurable three-dimensional superimposition of rectangular parallelipipeds, and that doesn’t project well onto the plane.

There were a lot of folks sitting on blankets on the hillside, even though there was no art-food festival, because it turns out Barnsdall Park is where you and your 20-something moderately hipster friends go to watch the sunset in LA (unless it’s Halloween, in which case I guess you dress up and build a bonfire on Dockweiler Beach.) Sunset:

Then I ate some Filipino food, since Filipino restaurants sadly don’t exist in Madison right now, and went back to my hotel and read MathJobs files.

My Lyft driver on the way back was a 27-year-old guy from Florida who’s working on an album. That’s no surprise; my Lyft driver yesterday was also working on an album. Your Lyft driver in LA, unless they are a comic, is always working on an album. (My Lyft driver yesterday was also a comic.) This ride was a little deeper, though. This guy was a first-generation college student who went to school out-of-state on a soccer scholarship, majored in biology, and thought about getting a Ph.D. but was too stressed out about the GRE. He said whenever he started studying for the math part he was troubled by deep questions about foundations. Pi, he asked me: what is it? How can anyone really know it goes on forever? For that matter, what about two? Why is there such a thing as two? He also wanted to be a perfusionist but sat in on an open-heart surgery and decided it wasn’t for him, not in the long term. He started asking himself: is biology what I really want to do? So he’s driving a Lyft and working on his album. He also told me about how he doubts he’ll be able to make a long-term relationship work because he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (he said: “out of wedlock”) and how he had dabbled in Hasidic Judiasm and how he was surprised I was Jewish because I didn’t look it (“no offense.”) Anyway, it just made me think about how normal and maybe universal his existential doubts and worries are for a 27-year-old dude; but for an upper-middle-class 27-year-old dude from an elite educational background, those existential doubts and worries would be something to process while you continued climbing on up that staircase to a stable professional career. That would just be a given. For this guy, the world said “You’re not sure you want that? Fine, don’t have it.”

Now I’m in LAX about to go get on the flight home to Madison, the direct flight we so gloriously now have. The last time I was in this LAX breakfast place, there was a big tumult around somebody else eating there and I realized it must be a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him at all, and it turned out it was Gene Simmons. In LA people know what Gene Simmons looks like without the Kiss makeup! I do not. For all I know he could be in here right now. Are you here, Gene Simmons?

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Watermelon, chevre, piment d’espelette

I spent a little time this summer visiting Institut Henri Poincare for their program on rational points, but this post is not about the math I did there, but about a salad I ate there. Not there at IHP, but at the terrific neighborhood bistro around the corner from where I was staying. I liked it so much I went there three times and I got this salad three times. I have been trying to recreate it at home. It’s good! Not Paris bistro good. But really good. Here is how I make it so I don’t forget.

  • Seedless watermelon cut in cubical or oblong chunks, as sweet as possible
  • Good chevre (not feta, chevre) ripped up into modest pieces
  • Some kind of not-too-bitter greens (I’ve been using arugula, they used some kind of micro watercressy kind of deal) Not a ton; this is a watermelon salad with some greens in it for color and accent, not a green salad.
  • Roasted pine nuts (I am thinking this could also be good with roasted pepitas but have not tried it)
  • Juice of a lime
  • Olive oil, the best you have
  • Piment d’espelette

I had never heard of piment d’espelette! It’s from the Basque part of France and is roughly in the paprika family but it’s different. I went to a spice store before I left Paris and bought a jar to bring home. So now I have something I thought my kitchen would never be able to boast: a spice Penzey’s doesn’t sell.

Anyway, the recipe is: put all that stuff in a bowl and mix it up. Or ideally put everything except the chevre in and mix it up and then strew the chevre on the top. Festive!

Of course the concept of watermelon and goat cheese as a summer salad is standard; but this is a lot better than any version of this I’ve had before.

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Paris June 2019

Back from nearly two weeks at the Institut Henri Poincare, where we were reinventing rational points, though they actually seem pretty much as they have always been. But lots of new ideas floating around and in particular lots of problems I see as potentially rich ones for students.

Last week featured the hottest temperatures ever recorded in France, reminding one that when you move the mean of a distribution even a little, the frequency of formerly rare events might jump quite a lot. Paris was spared the worst of the heat; after initial predictions of temperatures going over 100F, the hottest day of the conference was 97 and the rest of the week was in the mid-90s, regular old East Coast US summer weather. But of course France doesn’t have regular old East Coast US summer air-conditioning. Faiblement climatisé is the order of the day. The word for heatwave in French is “canicule,” which comes from the Italian word for Sirius, thought to be a bringer of hot weather.

It’s also the Women’s World Cup. Tickets for the US-France quarterfinal, held the night before I left, were going at 350 euros for the very cheapest, but I don’t think I’d have wanted to go, anyway. The Orioles are the only team I love enough to really enjoy rooting for them as the visiting team. Instead I went to Scotland-Argentina, which looked like a laugher 70 minutes in with Scotland up 3-0, but ended in a controversial tie after Scotland’s apparent save of a last-minute penalty kick was called back when VAR showed the goalie jumping off the line a moment before the ball was kicked. The ref called end of time directly after the second kick went in to tie the game, to the confusion and dismay of the players on the field; both teams needed a win to have a real chance of advancing past the group stage, and the tie left them both out. Scottish forward Erin Cuthbert pulled something out of her sock and kissed it after her goal; later I found out it was a picture of herself as a baby. I like her style!

I ate well. I ate whelks. They’re OK. I ate thiebou djienne at this place near IHP which was much better than OK. I ate a watermelon-chevre salad that was so good I went to a spice store and bought the pepper they used, piment d’espelette, and now I have a spice Penzey’s doesn’t sell. Favorite new cheese I ate on this trip was Soumaintrain.

I went to the museum of Jewish history where I saw this campaign poster:

And I saw the computer teen Blaise Pascal built for his dad in 1642, which is at the Musée des arts et métiers, along with a revolutionary 10-hour clock:

And right there at the museum, later that night, just by my good luck, there was a free Divine Comedy concert as part of the Fête de la Musique. It was sold out but, my good luck part deux, someone’s friend didn’t show up and in I went. Great set. Sort of a beautifully multinational moment to watch an Irish guy play a They Might Be Giants song in Paris in front of a cast of the Statue of Liberty:

I also learned on this trip that when French kids play Capture the Flag they use an actual French flag:

and that “Good Grief!” in French is “Bon sang!”

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Assembled audience

I gave a talk at Williams College last year and took a little while to visit one of my favorite museums, Mass MoCA. There’s a new installation there, by Taryn Simon, called Assembled Audience. You walk in through a curtained opening and you’re in a pitch-black space. It’s very quiet. And then, slowly, applause starts to build. Bigger and bigger. About a minute of swell until the invisible crowd out there in the dark is going absolutely fucking nuts.

And I have to be honest, whatever this may say about me: I felt an incredible warmth and safety and satisfaction, standing there, being clapped for and adored by a recording of a crowd. Reader, I stayed for a second cycle.

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When the coffee cup shattered on the kitchen floor

As an eternal 1990s indie-pop nerd I could not but be thrilled this week when I realized I was going to Bristol

on the National Express.

Bristol, besides having lots of great mathematicians to talk to, is much lovelier than I knew. There’s lots of terrain! It seems every time you turn a corner there’s another fine vista of pastel-painted row houses and the green English hills far away. There’s a famous bridge. I walked across it, then sat on a bench at the other side doing some math, in the hopes I’d think of something really good, because I’ve always wanted to scratch some math on a British bridge, William Rowan Hamilton-style. Didn’t happen. There was a bus strike in Bristol for civil rights because the bus companies didn’t allow black or Indian drivers; the bus lines gave in to the strikers and integrated on the same day Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying “I have a dream” in Washington, DC. There’s a chain of tea shops in Bristol called Boston Tea Party. I think it’s slightly weird to have a commercial operation named after an anti-colonial uprising against your own country, but my colleagues said no one there really thinks of it that way. The University of Bristol, by the way, is sort of the Duke of the UK, in that it was founded by a limitless bequest from the biggest tobacco family in the country, the Willses. Bristol also has this clock:

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It’s right by the airport

I went to California last week to talk math and machine learning with Ben Recht (have you read his awesome blogstravaganza about reinforcement learning and control?) My first time on the brand-new Madison – San Francisco direct flight (the long-time wish of Silicon Isthmus finally realized!) That flight only goes once a day, which means I landed at SFO at 6:15, in the middle of rush hour, which meant getting to Berkeley by car was going to take almost an hour and a half.  So maybe it made more sense to have dinner near SFO and then go to the East Bay.  But where can you have dinner near SFO?

Well, here’s what I learned.  When I was at MSRI for the Galois Groups and Fundamental Groups semester in 1999, there was an amazing Chinese restaurant in Albany, CA called China Village.  I learned about it from my favorite website at the time, Chowhound.com.  China Village is still there and apparently still great, but the original chef, Zongyi Liu, left long ago.  Chowhound, too, is still there, but a thin shadow of its old self.  When I checked Chowhound this week, though, I learned something fantastic — Liu is back and cooking in Millbrae!  At Royal Feast, a 10-minute drive from SFO.  So what started as a plan to dodge traffic turned into the best Chinese meal I’ve eaten in forever.  Now I’m thinking I’ll probably stop there every time I fly to San Francisco!  And it’s right by the Millbrae BART station, so if you’re going into the city, it’s as convenient as being at the airport.

So that got me thinking:  what are good things to know about that are right near the airport in other cities?  The neighborhood around the airport is often kind of unpromising, so it’s good to have some prior knowledge of places worth stopping.  And I actually have a pretty decent list!

LAX:  This is easy — you can go to the beach!  Dockweiler State Beach is maybe 5 minutes from the airport.  It’s a state park, not developed, so there’s no boardwalk, no snack stand, and, when I went there, no people.  You just walk down to the ocean and look at the waves and every thirty seconds or so a jumbo jet blasts by overhead on its way to Asia because did I mention 5 minutes from the airport?  You’re right under the takeoff path.  And it’s great.  A sensory experience like no other beach there is.  I just stood there for an hour thinking about math.

BOSTON:  There is lots of great pizza in Boston, of course, but Santarpio’s in East Boston might be the very best I’ve had, and it’s only 7 minutes from Logan airport.  Stop there and get takeout on your way unless you want to bring yet another $13 cup of Legal Seafood chowder on your flight.

MILWAUKEE:  I have already blogged about the unexpectedly excellent Jalapeño Loco, literally across the street from the airport.  Best chile en nogada in the great state of Wisconsin.

SEATTLE:  The Museum of Flight isn’t quite as close to Sea-Tac as some of these other attractions are to their airports — 12 minutes away per Google Maps.  But it’s very worth seeing, especially if you happen to be landing in Seattle with an aircraft-mad 11-year-old in tow.

MADISON:  “The best barbecue in Madison, Wisconsin” is not going to impress my friends south of the Mason-Dixon line, or even my friends south of the Beloit-Rockford line, but Smoky Jon’s, just north of the airport on Packers Avenue (not named for the football team, but for the actual packers who worked at the Oscar Mayer plant that stood on this road until 2017) is the real thing, good enough for out of town visitors and definitely better than what’s on offer at MSN.

CHICAGO:  No, O’Hare is terrible in this way as in every other way.  I once got stuck there for the night and tried to find something exciting in the area to do or eat.  I didn’t succeed.

You guys travel a lot — you must have some good ones!  Put them in the comments.

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American Revolution

I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago with AB and we went to the brand-new Museum of the American Revolution.  It’s a great work of public history.  Every American, and everybody else who cares about America, should see it.

The museum scrapes away the layer of inevitability and myth around our founding.  Its Revolution is something that might easily not have succeeded.  Or that might have succeeded but with different aims.  There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be.  The museum puts you face to face with them.

E Pluribus Unum was an aspiration, not a fact.  There was a lot of pluribus.  The gentility in Massachusetts and the Oneida and frontierspeople in Maryland and the French and the enslaved Africans and their American slavemasters were different people with different interests and each had their own revolution in mind.

Somehow it came together.  George Washington gets his due.  The museum presents him as a real person, not just a face on the money.  A person who knew that the decisions he made, in a hurry and under duress, would reverberate through the lifespan of the new country.  We were lucky to have him.  And yes, I choked up, seeing his tent, fragile and beaten-up and confined to a climate-controlled chamber, but somehow still here and standing.

The Haggadah tells us that every generation of Jews has to read the story of Exodus as if we, ourselves, personally, were among those brought out from Egypt.  The museum reminded me of that commandment.  It demands that we find the General Washington in ourselves.  In each generation we have to tell the story of the American Revolution as if we, ourselves, personally, are fighting for our freedom, and are responsible for what America will be.

Because we are!  We are still in the course of human events.  The American Revolution isn’t over.  It won’t ever be over.  It’s right that we call it a “revolution” and not an “overthrow” or a “liberation.”  We’re still revolving, still turning this place over, we’re still plural, we’re still arguing.  We still have the chance, and so we still have the obligation, to make the lives of our children more free than our own.

Happy Independence Day.

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