Archive for April, 2009

RadioLab Listening Party @ MOS

Last night I attend a special even at the Museum of Science, a listening party for the public radio show RadioLab.  For the uninitiated, RadioLab is a show produced by WNYC in New York that ask questions and tell stories centered on an idea, usually related to science.  If you like This American Life, I’d say RadioLab is even better than This American Life.  If you don’t like This American Life, well RadioLab is still better than This American Life.  If you want to find out for sure you can listen to episodes on the website, download podcasts, or tune into WBUR or WGBH to listen on the radio.

The show is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the former of which was on hand last night to greet the chic geeks who gathered together in the museum’s planetarium.  Because that’s how cool this event was, it took place in the planetarium!  Appropriately the episode Space played while the stars danced on the dome above our heads.  At appropriate times photos and images appeared on the planetarium appropriate to the story.  But not too much.  This was time to sit back, reflect on the stars, and ponder the curiosities of space.  I admit there were times I felt weepy, especially about the Challenger disaster.  I also think that it would be cool to get a copy of the Voyager Golden Record.

After the show, Abumrad took questions mainly dealing with the unique sound of RadioLab where voices, music, and sound effects are layered and repeated.  The audience thinks these effects are cool and enhance learning although Abumrad admitted that a lot of people find it annoying.  Then there was a reception in the Blue Wing with chocolate fondue which was so good I went back several times.  I also took a gander at the beautiful & disturbing Manufactured Landscapes exhibit of photographs byEdward Burtynsky.

It was a good night.  It’s great to live in a town with museums, culture, intelligence and events and people that bring them all together.

Book Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

What can I possibly say about Ulysses (1920) by James Joyce in way of review? Here are 18 thoughts, one for each episode.

  1. I can’t believe I finally finished reading Ulysses.
  2. I can’t believe I read Ulysses for fun.
  3. I can’t believe I didn’t read Ulysses in my college English courses.  What cowardice forced my professors to make us read Dubliners over and over again when class room discussions would have made reading Ulysses such a valuable experience?
  4. Ulysses lends itself well to reading online via DailyLit.
  5. It takes a village to read Ulysses.  Here are some resources I referred to guide my way through the book:
      1. Joyce does a spectacular job of drawing in mythology, literature, history, and current events into the storyline of June 16, 1904.
      2. It’s equally amazing how Joyce well-plotted the movements of characters and overlapping plots in that one day in Dublin.
      3. The structure of the book is remarkable – each episode alluding the the Odyssey as well as having symbols, colors, body parts, writing techniques, et al as detailed in the Linati and Gilbert schema.
      4. The experiments in language and writing styles to evoke meaning beyond the plot and dialogue is also impressive even if it makes the book quite complex to read.
      5. Despite all that, I actually think I understood a good portion of the novel.
      6. Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it again some day to gain a richer understanding.
      7. And despite being a “masterpiece of modern literature” and all that, Ulysses is also pretty funny.
      8. I mean there are as many fart and penis jokes in this book as your typical Kevin Smith movie.
      9. Ulysses can also be quite grotesque and disturbing.
      10. But always poetic.
      11. And sometimes quite sexy, although with an earthy realism.
      12. If this is not a good enough review for you, I have also posted my reflections while reading the book:
      13. Next I’ll have to re-try reading Finnegan’s Wake.

      Book Review: The Dark Side of the Diamond by Roger I. Abrams

      The Dark Side of the Diamond (2007) by Roger I. Abrams is the antidote for anyone who looks at the state of our National Pastime and yearns for “the good old days” when baseball and virtue went hand-in-hand.   As Abrams dutifully enumerates, professional baseball in the “bad old days” offers plenty of examples of gambling, game-fixing (commonplace in the era from 1870-1920), abuse of alcohol & recreational drugs, performance-enhancing drugs (Pud Galvin used an extract from animal testicles in 1889), and fisticuffs, racism and other violence on and off the field.  It is to Abrams credit that it is similar in tone to many traditional baseball histories in the reverence toward the game as oppossed to just being a tell-all expose such as Chico Escuela’s fabled memoir Bad Stuff ‘Bout the Mets.   Abrams’ work is the story of baseball with an added emphasis on the warts.  Still I would have liked it more if he could have given a broader context to how these flaws played out in shaping the game.  Abrams is good at making comparisons to American society at large but oddly doesn’t make a case for the game itself being helped or  hindered by the cheating, drunken, violent thugs that played the game.  In the end though Abrams does make a good case for baseball really being representative of America’s greatness and its evils all in one National Pastime.

      Favorite Passage

      “A more complete picture of baseball behaviors can tell us much beyond the heroics of a few fine atheletes.  It can tell us a rich story of a complex continental nation that was founded in liberty for some and slavery for others, that strove to find gold in individual achievement and in coordinated thievery, and that ultimately emerged on he world stage in the twentieth century as a boisterous adolescent convinced of its destiny.  Baseball was our mantra because, in the minds of many, it symbolized a nation where joint effort and individual excellence wer rewarded.  It was also a game where reules were broken unless the umpires saw the transgressions.

      Baseball was designed in the beginning as a pure and healthy exercise and it has provided entertainment to the American public for a century and a half.  Over that expanse of time, the game demonstrated the American character to its multitude of fans.  We hoped that baseball would teach our youngsters about resourcefulness and fortitude, adherence to rules and authority, teamwork and pride. At the same time, however, it taught the next generation about partisan rivalries, violence, disparagement, cheating, and human frailty.  It resonated with the full context of American society, and it has told us much about whom we were and whom we are today, ” – p. 32.

      Author : Abrams, Roger I., 1945-
      Title : The dark side of the diamond : gambling, violence, drugs and alcoholism in the national pastime / Roger I. Abrams.
      Edition : 1st ed.
      Published : Burlington, MA : Rounder Books, c2007.
      Description : vii, 216 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

      Book Review: The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl

      Long ago when I was in high school I read and enjoyed Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute, an attempt to reconstruct William Shakespeare’s life and times as a celebrated dramatist.  Thus I was attracted to this similarly themed book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl.  This book is built upon one scrap of the public record which includes a rare instance of Shakespeare’s signature which is upon a deposition in a court case regarding a bride’s dowry.  That dowry is unpaid by Christopher Mountjoy who with his wife Mary are French immigrants living in London and manufacturing head-dresses for women.  Mountjoy also rents out rooms in his home and thus is Shakespeare’s landlord as Shakespeare takes a room to live in while working in the theaters of London.

      From this court record, Nicholl extrapolates details about Shakespeare’s life in London around the time that he turned forty.  He builds his case on public records, written experiences of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the plays and poems of Shakespeare himself and lots and lots of speculation.  It is at times fascinating, tantalizing, and just down right irritating, but mostly fascinating.  We learn a lot about what houses were like in the Mountjoy’s Cripplegate neighborhood, the trade of “tire-making”, 17th-century marriage practices, the immigrant experience, and the solitary and bawdy aspects of working in the the theater.  Nicholls also speculates about Shakespeare’s atypical positive view of foriegners in his plays as well as the attention to detail in apparrell that may have been influenced by Shakespeare’s association with the Mountjoys.

      If you’re interested in learning about the life of Shakespeare you’re probably going to be disappointed by this book, but on the other hand you will get a healthy dose of “his times” which is not a bad thing.  Nicholls is both detailed and imaginative and always lively in his writing even at the times where the details may grow tedious.

      Author Nicholl, Charles.
      Title The lodger Shakespeare [sound recording] : his life on Silver Street / Charles Nicholl.
      Publication Info. Old Saybrook, CT : Tantor Audio, 2008.
      Edition Unabridged.
      Description 8 sound discs (9 hrs.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

      Book Review: Outcasts United by Warren St. John

      Outcasts United (2009) by Warren St. John tells a story about something I never even knew was going on in America today.  Large numbers of refugees from war-torn nations worldwide are relocated to new homes in the US, but instead of blending into immigrant communities in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, they are moved wholesale into small towns, often ones that have hit economic hard times and need an infusion of new residents.  One of these locations is Clarkston, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta that in the last decade has seen an influx of refugees from Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Congo and dozens of other countries.  St. John paints a surreal portrait of housing projects packed with people of many cultures and languages with virtually no interaction with people born in America.  The long term residents have either moved away or are obstinately trying to reclaim their small-town lifestyle by ostracizing and mocking the refugees, keeping them under police survaillance and restricting where they can go or work.

      Fortunately, for this book to have a shred of hope there are also people who more charitably are working to help the refugees acclimate to life in America and escape from poverty (often brought on by debt for paying one-way fares to the US and exacerbated by cultural and language gaps in finding good work).  One of these people is Luma Mufleh, a woman born in Jordan and educated in Western-style schools.  She studied abroad at Smith College and at the cost of being disowned by her parents chose to remain in America after college for the greater opportunities afforded to women.  She is the creator and coach of the Fugees soccer team which allows the “misfit” boys of Clarkston to come together to share a common bond on the field.  Luma is a strict coach with rules that must be followed by any boy who wants to play on her team.  She kind of reminds me of University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit in that she sounds very harsh but still commands the respect and admiration of her players.  Luma also gets result as her Fugees with very little in the way of equipment, uniforms, and as documented in this book, even trouble getting a decent practice field, still are able to compete with and defeat teams from Atlanta’s wealthy white suburbs.

      The Fugees are in fact three teams – under 13, under 15, and under 17.  The central drama of this book regards the U15 squad which Luma actually dissolves early in the season when too many players refuse to follow the rules like getting haircuts and showing up on time for the bus to a game.   Yet a core group of players are able to convince Luma to reconstitute the team with tryouts for new players even though there’s little chance the team can gain any ground in the standings so far into the season.  The U13 team also shows considerable success in making it to a local tournament.

      This is a well-written book centered on soccer but more about the life of refugee peoples in this small town in Georgia.  It’s quite remarkable and thankfully quite hopeful.  I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it.

      Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John. Spiegel & Grau (no date), Hardcover, 320 pages

      Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

      I expected Traffic (2008) by Tom Vanderbilt to be an interesting but it proved to be a fascinating and provocative book about driving.  There’s a lot of stuff here about the assumptions and practices of driving that amazed even me someone who hates driving and obsesses over how dangerous it is.  Vanderbilt surveys the world, history, and numerous studies to evaluate the way humans operate machines at high speeds in a changing environment. Some things learned:

      • every driver has an optimistic bias – thinking they’re above average – and in the worst cases this leads to narcissism and aggressive driving
      • driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis
      • sober speeders and cell phone users (even hands free variety) can be as dangerous as drunken drivers but are not restricted, stigmatized or punished in the same way
      • incorrect to refer to auto collisions as “accidents” as if they were out of the driver’s power to prevent.  This is seen in media portrayal of celebrity “accidents” like baseball pitcher Josh Hancock and politician Bill Janklow who were obviously at fault
      • unintentional blindness to things the driver is not looking for, as proved by the famous attention test with the basketball players:
      • there is safety in numbers for pedestrians
      • SUV & pick up truck drivers speed more
      • the Leibowitz Hypothesis that says that human beings are very bad at judging the speed of oncoming objects
      • remote traffic engineers adjust traffic signals and road use on Oscar Night so that 100’s of celebrity-laden limousines arrive on time (I think some gutsy celeb should take the Metro to Hollywood & Highland next time)
      • some Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles have “Sabbath Crossing” lights that change automatically for observant pedestrians who cannot push a button
      • roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections, although their perceived danger encourages the more vigilant driving that contributes to their safety
      • on Dagen H in Sweden in 1967, drivers moved from driving on the left to driving on the right: video
      • the more divisions between the “traffic space” and the “social space” in a city the more dangerous it is for everyone
      • there is a linkage between low GDP and traffic fatalities throughout the world although greater corruption also affects traffic safety
      • safety devices on cars have not made in significant impact in reducing traffic fatalities over the past 50 years.  It seems that the greater the sense of “safety” leads to more risky or inattentive driving behaviors although the issues are complex

      I highly recommend that everyone who drives, bikes and/or walks to read or listen to this illuminating book.  It might make you as paranoid about driving as I am, but it also may make you safer.  This book challenges the assumptions we make about driving in the same way The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenges the assumptions of urban planning.

      Author Vanderbilt, Tom. Title Traffic [sound recording] : [why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)] / by Tom Vanderbilt. Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008. Edition Unabridged. Description 11 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

      Book Review: Playing Hard Ball by E.T. Smith

      Fifteen years ago I attended a portion of a cricket cup match in Bermuda and have had a curiosity about the game ever since. Now I’ve discovered a book by a cricketer who loves baseball, a game I understand much better. Playing Hard Ball: County Cricket and Big League Baseball (2003) by professional cricketer E.T. Smith is an amusing and insightful comparison of the national pastimes of England and the United States.  Smith visits New York in 1998 and is swept up in baseball fever and yearns to learn more about the game.  In 2000 he returns to New York to watch the Subway Series rightly supporting the underdog Mets agains the dynastic Yankees.

      The next spring he spends a few days with the Mets at Spring Training.  Some of the more humorous moments of the book are here as Smith takes a few cuts against live pitching and the American ballplayers inevitably refer to him as a cricketeer.  But it also shows that the then Mets manager Bobby Valentine has a sharp mind and actually knows enough about cricket to help Smith with his swing.

      In the next section of the book Smith compares the rising fortune of his own Kent County Cricket Club in 2001 while the Mets collapse and fail to make the postseason that same year.  The highlight of this book is Smith’s reflections on the Mets playing the first game in New York after the September 11th attacks.  The memory of the night made me a little bit weepy as did the part where Smith quotes Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech.  According to Smith, everyone cries at that speech, including himself.

      Other chapters of the book focus on sporting dynasties, statistics, and sports literature -which Smith believes is vastly superior in the US than in England, at least prior to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Smith is less flattering on a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the ideas of baseball as representing national character.  Yet he balances this with equal bunk stated about cricket.  In the end he concludes, baseball and cricket are great games but have no inherent morality or character other than what people bring to it.  Smith also observes about how much more international cricket is compared to baseball although this was written before the coming of Ichiro and Japan’s back-to-back victories in the World Baseball Classic.

      This is a good, fun book for sports fans and those who are interested in cultural exchange.  I can’t say that I’ve learned much about cricket though as those passages are written for an English audience leaving me completely befuddled.

      Favorite Passage

      It is a surprising comparison.  America, which so values individuality and self-expression, has produced sports which are massively reliant on the intervention of coaches and managers, and a culture which demands players to adhere to their demands.  But in England, and in English-invented games worldwide, the players have hung on to more of their self-determination.

      Authors: Smith, E. T. (Ed T.), 1977-
      Title: Playing hard ball / E.T. Smith.
      Published: London : Abacus, 2003.
      Description: viii, 213 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 20 cm.
      Notes: Originally published: London : Little, Brown, 2002.
      ISBN: 0349116660 (pbk.)
      9780349116662 (pbk.)

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