February 2006


This is apparently not a joke:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Dennis “Boog” Highberger, Mayor of the City of Lawrence, Kansas, do hereby proclaim the days of February 4, April 1, March 28, July 15, August 2, August 7, August 16, August 26, September 18, September 22, October 1, October 17, and October 26, 2006 as “INTERNATIONAL DADAISM MONTH.”

I fully approve of these developments in Kansas. Via Metafilter.

Larkin near Ellis. This is another place I had been meaning to write about for a long time (more than a year now). This is probably the best Vietnamese food I’ve had, and a steal for the price. It’s in the Tenderloin, which is not the nicest of neighborhoods, but it’s a good place for an early dinner before going for more adventures (or rehearsals). If you’re a pho fan, you’ll find their broth to be richer than most places, and the tai (rare flank) is really fresh until you push it under the broth to cook it. There’s a 7-course beef feast that I’ve never tried but I hear it’s delicious. I’ve also tried the construct-your-own spring roll with shrimp molded over sugar cane and grilled (you have to try it). On the curry side I had a lemongrass dish that was good but just wasn’t as exciting as the other things. The restaurant itself is a little spare but in an elegant clean designed way. And did I mention it’s cheap?

Mariposa at Hampshire, one block west of Potrero. I meant to write about this place before, but it slipped my mind. Slow Club is one of those hip restaurants in that area between Potrero Hill and the Mission. We had to wait for a table so we decided to sample the drinks at the bar. I had a Junipero martini. I’d never had Junipero before, despite it being a local gin, and it was quite good, although I think I prefer Hendricks if I’m going to pay ridiculous amounts for gin. Overall though, I’d skip the bar next time and maybe get a glass of wine with the meal.

Slow Club is the kind of place that has good food that even your picky (but non-vegetarian) friends might eat. There’s always a pasta, a lamb, a chicken, a fish, and the burger. As I mentioned, the vegetarian pickings are slim. Prices range from $10-$20 for an entree, but I definitely recommend splitting an appetizer, such as the grilled flatbread. It’s a kind of lavash-like pizza thing and it’s ridiculously tasty. The menu changes daily and is posted online.

We had the flatbread and I had linguini with a veal ragout. The pasta tasted fresh and light, much like the Phoenix Pastificio in Berkeley. The sauce was delicious, and not too fatty in spite of the veal. I think I tasted fennel in there, which I will have to try the next time I make meat sauce. I also got to try my friends’ dishes, a leg of lamb that was too tender to be believed, and a citrus-rosemary crusted chicken. It’s the second time I’ve tasted the orange-rosemary combination and I’m sold on it now.

I’m definitely going to go there again, maybe on an off-night. As long as you can ignore the endless parade of hipsters and the loudness of the room and concentrate on the good eats, you’ll be golden.

Liz and I went to see August Wilson’s The Gem Of The Ocean at ACT last night, directed by Reuben Santiago-Hudson (of Lackawanna Blues fame). As with all productions I’ve seen at ACT, it was a mixed bag, most of which I attribute to a one-note performance turned out by Michele Shaw, the actress playing Aunt Ester. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gem Of The Ocean is set in Pittsburgh in 1904, and is the penultimate (in writing order) and first (chronologically) in Wilson’s epic project to write a play about the lives of black Americans for every decade in the 20th century. As with many of Wilson’s plays, the stories of individuals are played out against the background of social and political events. In the case of Gem it is worsening work conditions at a mill that employs many of the black citizens that causes a walkout. A man was accused of stealing a bucket of nails and drowned himself rather than admit to the crime he did not do. At the top of the play a young man from Alabama, Citizen Barlow, tries to get help from Aunt Ester, an old matriarch who is said to “clean people’s souls.” She takes him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones so he can confront his guilt and fill the hole in his soul.

I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but the other characters are what really make the play sparkle. Ester lives with Black Mary, a strong woman who seems to be Ester’s mentee, and Eli, a former Underground Railroad worker. Solly Two Kings, another escaped slave, is a frequent visitor to the house, and constantly reminds Barlow that there is still a war to be fought for rights and citizenship in the US. The villain of the piece, Caesar, is Black Mary’s brother, a self-made entrepreneur who is charged by the city with keeping the law. His zeal for the job puts him at odds with his own community as he makes ourageous statements like “some niggers were better off under slavery.”

What works about a play like Fences (Wilson’s 1950′s play) is that the social context of the play is integral to all of the characters — they are all inextricably caught up in the movements of their time. Here, by contrast, Ester is almost divorced from reality, and Shaw’s performance brings out the spiritual wanderings and tones down the groundedness. Indeed, it is in those moments where Ester is not having a deep metaphysical connection that Shaw runs roughshod over the lines — her Ester is two people, a priestess and a pushy old woman.

The rest of the cast is significantly better. In particular, Steven Anthony Jones as Solly Two Kings dominated the stage and there was a fire behind his performance that was hard to match. Roslyn Ruff brought that quiet intensity to her performance that was so lacking in Shaw. The actor playing Barlow, Owiso Odera, was the great surprise of the evening — especially when he committed to the unreality of the City of Bones sequence.

There’s more I want to write about the politics in the play, but I’ll wait until I read it. In particular, Caesar is a kind of stand-in for Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas, a tool of the law rather than a shaper. The juxtaposition (and conflict) between him and the truly radical and revolutionary Solly Two Kings was uneven — a little man with a gun versus a big man who had one notch on his walking stick for each of the over 60 slaves he helped to free. Wilson is telling us that in 1904 it was clearer than it is now how much work is left to be done — slavery wasn’t so long ago and the wounds were fresh. When Caesar comes with a warrant for Ester, she tells him that she has a piece of paper too, her bill of sale. Just because the law’s written on paper, she reminds him, “don’t make it right.”

According to Fafblog, the justification of our presence in Iraq is a kind of Groundhog Day experience. Here was a laugh-out-loud snippet:

Q. Why are we in Iraq?
A. For freedom! Recent intelligence informs us it is on the march.
Q. Hooray! Where’s it marching to?
A. To set up a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and held in check by strict adherence to the laws of Islam.
Q. Huh! Freedom sounds strangely like theocracy.
A. No it doesn’t! It is representative godocracy, in which laws are written by the legislative branch, enforced by the executive branch, and interpreted by an all-powerful all-knowing deity which manifests its will through a panel of senior clerics.
Q. Whew! Is democracy on the march?
A. Democracy was on the march. Sadly, freedom and democracy were caught in a blizzard and freedom was forced to eat democracy to survive.

Just think about that for a moment — freedom was forced to eat democracy to survive. It’s an elegant and damning metaphor. For all the bluster about the new realpolitik of our post 9-11 world, the neoconservative agenda is fundamentally a pie-in-the-sky approach to foreign policy. As Publius writes while commenting on the NY Times Fukuyama article,

The actual invasion of Iraq (and the greater neocon vision for the Middle East) depends entirely on idealism in that it bets the house on imposing Western ideas top-down rather than helping them develop from the bottom-up… Because liberal democracy “recognizes” the dignity of each individual in a way that no other system does, it represents the final stage of History and has, ideologically speaking, triumphed over competing systems like socialism.

Rather than getting down to brass tacks and figuring out what is actually achievable, we’re fed some heavy-duty koan-like analyses that beggar explanation. And so here is your moment of Zen:

Q. Why are we in Iraq?
A. To prevent the failure of the occupation of Iraq. If we pull out now the occupation will be a failure!
Q. Would it have been easier to have never occupied it in the first place?
A. Ah, but if we never occupied Iraq, then the occupation certainly would have been a failure, now wouldn’t it?
Q. [meditates for many years]
Q. Now I am enlightened.

One of the things that unsettles me the most is when people revel in their own ignorance. They go around proudly proclaiming that they never bothered to learn A and they turned out ok and happy, so clearly A is not important to know. It’s a roundabout way of arguing that it’s ok to be bad at A because secretly A isn’t worth it. Of course, since most of the public discussion about this happens in the media, it’s invariably mathematics and science that bear the brunt of it. The latest “contribution” to the fire is Richard Cohen’s article on algebra.

Cohen isn’t good at math. He can handle “basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages),” but barely made it through algebra and geometry and then turned his back on mathematics forever. He boldly asserts that math should be on a need-to-know basis because “most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator.” The modern computer age has made many mechanical jobs obsolete, and with them, many skills, it seems. Being able to do percentages seems pretty important to me, given our tax system, but I suppose we have computers to do our taxes for us as well — why bother knowing how to check if its correct?

It’s not really the uselessness of math that Cohen is interested it — he wants to establish a pecking order among disciplines, at the top of which is writing. Because to him, computers are math, and computers cannot “write a column or even a thank-you note — or reason even a little bit” (leave that aside for a moment, you AI-fiends), math is inferior to writing. Someone should send him back to a rhetoric class and make him reread his Aristotle.

Cohen’s final surge off the tracks of reason is a lovely piece of anecdotal evidence:

all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

Perhaps a remedial logic class is in order as well, although I suppose philosophy is equally wasted on Cohen. The lovely canard of the hapless math geek who can’t manage to understand any other subject is cheap and tawdry. Is this the best that he can do to muster an argument?

Cohen privileges his fear of mathematics, implicitly claiming that this fear is unique to the subject

There are those of us who know the sweat, the panic, the trembling, cold fear that comes from the teacher casting an eye in your direction and calling you to the blackboard. It is like being summoned to your own execution.

Oh poor poor Richard Cohen. I shed a tear for you. Mathematics emasculated you and now you will have your revenge. You’ll get those nerds back. Gobi Desert! Ha ha ha!

It’s true that some people are not good at math. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be good at math, but for whatever reason either through their own lack of interest or a poor background from grade school on up, it doesn’t click for them. And maybe there should be a debate as to whether algebra should be required for graduation. This column is not debate — it’s a shoddily assembled collection of logical fallacies and cheap shots. It’s true that a computer would never be able to write this column. But who would want it to?

A middle-school student I know told me recently that the two subjects that you really don’t need to know are science and history. I asked her why and she said “because you don’t need them for your life.” I tried to argue with her that yes, you don’t need them to live, but imagine how much richer a life you will live because you know them. History and science give you the why of things; they let you understand how the world works, how to tell when someone is feeding you a line about politics or the big bang. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then no knowledge is safety! Big Brother would be proud of you, Richard Cohen. Have you read any Orwell?

Update : via Kevin Drum.

After months of just dealing with my printing being “messed up.” I discovered the tiny file /etc/papersize, which contained only two characters — “a4.” After replacing those with “letter” today my life has improved noticeably. Of course, this wasn’t an easy-to-find system configuration — maybe they should consider adding it to the GNOME system config tools.

Warning : this is all tenuous connections in my head and probably has some horrible misunderstanding in it.

In high dimensions (> 4) there are only 3 regular polyhedra — the n-simplex, n-ocahedron, and n-cube. The latter are also surfaces of constant l1-norm and l-norm respectively. Those two can be thought of as “dual” to each other since 1/1 + 1/∞ = 1 (by analogy with p norms). The sphere is also a regular body that exists in every dimension, and is a surface of constant 2-norm, and 2 is self-dual. Is there some crazy norm or metric such that the simplex is also a surface of constant norm?

Delicious delicious bacon.

As Lord Buckley might say — two baker’s dozen is the cat’s meow.

Is it rude to call Charles Darwin Chuck D? I mean, it might revamp his image a bit… In the meanwhile, check out The Questionable Authority. Some grad students actually have good ideas and expertise for blogging.

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