Monday, April 30, 2007

More New York Stuff

Just a few more random items about our trip to New York City.

First: the subway. This was one of those things I had some kind of irrational fear of (well, maybe it was rational). I must have seen too many movies and TV shows about bad experiences on the subway. Dirty, noisy, scary. I dunno.

Truth is, it's great! It goes all over town, it's easy to figure out, and it costs $2 to go anywhere. Um, it was also kind of dirty and noisy, but not scary. In fact, I'm really impressed that a system that old is in as good shape as it is. We managed to ride the subway every day, I think, and we only made two mistakes that I'm aware of. The first was catching the wrong train (in the right direction), but we caught that after only one station, and were able to get right back on the right track (so to speak). We also got caught on a local train that "went express" just before our destination, so we ended up taking a quick ride up to Harlem. Not a problem: just got off and took a local train back. Just lost a little time.

I'm a big fan of transit systems, and the New York City subway was great. I wish we had something like it here in the Bay Area. Even the combination of BART (which is really a commuter system) and the San Francisco Muni Metro, which is useful, but not nearly as comprehensive.

Second: Bagels! Right around the block from our hotel was a terrific little bagel shop and deli called Ess-A-Bagel. Terrific place for breakfast: quick and tasty. Very dense bagels in lots of flavors. We particularly enjoyed the pumpernickel and the 9-grain. The chicken curry salad was very good. They also had more flavors of cream cheese (chocolate chip??? cinnamon apple!!!) than I had ever seen. And I had my first potato knish.

Third: tasty food (of the non-bagel variety). After our first night at the theater, we randomly picked a restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center called P.J. Clarke's. That worked out well, as we got a nice Maryland crab salad and a tasty New York strip steak with a nice pinot noir, followed by an apple cobbler for dessert.

One other night we met friends after the show at Mas (Farmhouse) Restaurant in Greenwich Village. Really nice place with good food and wine, and a fine staff. That was a genuinely good meal.

One other night after the show, we strolled down Broadway through Times Square, enjoying the lights and sights. Ended up having a post-midnight light dinner at a bar called Tonic. Good drinks, and tasty bar food (barbecue pulled pork shoulder sandwiches, potstickers).

And on our last evening in town, we took the family to a French restaurant focused on cheese called Artisanal Bistro. Awesome onion soup, and even the split order of mussels was HUGE. We had meant to finish with a cheese course, but we were all too full. We all love cheese, so this is definitely a place we'd go again.

And we finished that last evening at Times Square with a chocolate snack at the Hershey's store (across the street from M&Ms World...really). We discovered several chocolate items we had not anticipated: a mix of little Hershey bars, all made with Special Dark chocolate, either plain or with peanuts or crisped rice; dark chocolate Kissables (basically candy-coated chocolate chips); and chocolate Bubble Yum.

It's late, so I'll have to save the toy store visits for another post.

The History of Nature

So, as noted in the last post, we spent almost a week in New York City. In the evenings, my wife and I went to the theater, and the daytimes were spent with our almost-six-year-old daughter at the American Museum of Natural History.

As I am sure I have mentioned elsewhere, said daughter is dinosaur-obsessed. And ever since seeing a video called Dinosaur Hunters, she has told everyone who will listen that she plans to be a paleontologist, and after she gets her degree in Paleontology (from UC Berkeley, of course!), she plans to work at the Museum of Natural History in New York, although she will spend much of her time in the field in Mongolia, digging for oviraptor fossils.

So going to the museum itself was sort of a pilgrimage for her. Needless to say, after purchasing our membership (given the length of our stay, it was much less expensive than daily tickets), we headed straight to the 4th floor [pdf], home of fossils. We spent much of that first afternoon in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs. Needless to say, the scale of things is daunting. Not only are the dinos BIG, but there are so many, and so much to read. Probably the thing she found most mesmerizing was a little video of a time-lapse view of reposing the big T-Rex skeleton. Scientific consensus about how T-Rex stood and moved necessitated disassembling and reassembling the display that had been there since 1915. It's quite interesting to watch how they managed it.

Subsequently, we managed to wander around to the orientation hall, where they have an excellent video narrated by Meryl Streep that explains they layout of the whole floor, which traces the evolution of vertebrates from the earliest brain case and simple backbone through advanced mammals. There are some truly spectacular items on display, but until we saw the video, we didn't get how brilliantly they have laid out the displays to trace the development of vertebrate life.

Needless to say, our daughter really got it, and thereafter insisted on following the development path in the proper direction only.

One cute note is that she is quite petite for her age, so she had some difficulty using the many computer displays in the different exhibit halls. She would convince various people to lift her up onto the display itself, where she could easily manipulate the controls and work her way through the lessons. Several times we noticed museum staff come over to shoo the little kid sitting on the computer, until they realized she was really studying the material.

We all got a great deal out of the 4th floor. Since we returned, we have gotten daily lectures on various aspects of vertebrate development, such as the fact that we are synapsids. Our plush platypus has been named Amnion, and so on.

Although we collectively spent the bulk of our time at the museum wandering the 4th floor, we managed to sneak off at times to see some of the other exhibits. Of particular interest to those of us who love to dive was the Hall of Ocean Life, which covers all sorts of things, from coral reefs and kelp forests to big marine mammals. We were dubious that a dry exhibit (as opposed to an aquarium) could capture the essence of ocean life, but they've done a really credible job.

All in all, despite the overwhelming amount of stuff, we all came away with both a great appreciation for the museum itself and the lessons it teaches and a desire to go back to explore some more. When we realized that we'd spent a huge amount of time exploring a relatively small percentage of the material on display, we knew we'll be returning to see more.

Truly, the museum is an astounding place, and well worth visiting.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Coast of Utopia

Just back from a family vacation to...New York City. As I noted last year, I used to have a sort of irrational fear of New York City, probably due to watching too many sensational TV and movie portrayals as a youth.

But that taste last fall made me want to go back and explore a bit, and the planets aligned to make it work out this week.

The main reason to go was theater. My wife and I are both huge fans of Tom Stoppard, and will go to great lengths to see his plays. In this case, it took us to Lincoln Center, where they are currently staging The Coast of Utopia, a sequential trilogy of plays about intellectual radicalism in 19th-century Russia.

And it was great! I have to admit, I was dubious when I first heard about the concept and the viability of three plays in a row. But it really works. Mainly, of course, it's Stoppard, so it's witty and intellectually challenging. But then you add on the difficulty of staging three plays at a time in the same theater, mostly with the same cast (some playing different characters), and a large cast at that, and it's really daunting. Staging any one Stoppard play is challenging, but this is a huge undertaking.

Which explains why it's only been staged twice: initially in London, and now in New York. So it's not the sort of production that's going to go on a national tour, and we figured it might be our only chance to see it, ever.

The three parts of the trilogy, although they ostensibly stand alone, really work as three parts of one story. The individual plays are, in order, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, which might give you an idea of how things proceed. Voyage introduces the characters in their youth, exploring European philosophies as they make their way into Russia. Shipwreck follows them as they move into middle age, finding their personal and political lives on the rocks. And Salvage shows them aging, watching the baton pass to another generation of revolutionaries.

I should also mention that the New York production attracted a terrific cast. I'm always a little wary when I see actors better known for movies and television work on stage, but in this case, it worked. I was particularly impressed with the work of Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup, whose work I only knew through film, but they were very charismatic and consistent in their portrayals. Hawke's rendition of Michael Bakunin, in particular, is wonderful.

And we ended up having a terrific time in New York. But more about that later.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Intellectual Diversity"???

This is too awful for words, but I'll try.

The Missouri House of Representatives has passed a bill promoting "intellectual diversity" in higher learning. Now, being somewhat literal minded, I figured this was some kind of affirmative action program for stupid people. I mean, "ethnic diversity" means including people of different ethnic backgrounds, and "political diversity" means including people of differing political views. So obviously, "intellectual diversity" means including people with differing levels of intellect.

So I'm envisioning the state colleges of Missouri opening their doors to people who were previously excluded because they weren't smart enough. Call me elitist, but this seems like a bad idea to me.

But then I read some of the discussion of the issue (especially good coverage by PZ Myers and Digby), and actually looked at the text of the bill, which says
..."intellectual diversity" is defined as the foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, religious, and other perspectives, when such perspectives relate to the subject matter being taught or issues being discussed.
So I'm sort of having an Emily Litella moment. Sort of.

But the more I think about it, the less I like the idea. I totally agree with the notion that colleges should be places where one is free to air one's views, and the bill does give at least nominal credence to the notion of free expression. On the other hand, buried deep in the language of the bill is this (right after establishing policies to ensure that heckling doesn't interfere with expression of views):
(e) Include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution's guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant;
So now the intent of the authors becomes clear: they want to ensure that a particular religious view is given special standing, intellectually speaking. I do have issues with singling out particular views as being special, particularly religious views. My guess is that singling out one such viewpoint for special treatment will run afoul of the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses.

But more than that, it worries me that they potentially put certain viewpoints out of the realm of discussion. I don't mind if they want to posit a religious viewpoint in a classroom discussion. But that viewpoint has to be subject to the same level of investigation and scrutiny as any other. I envision every class discussion degenerating into an endless filibuster about religion, and people's feeling being hurt because their "inerrant" source was made subject to scrutiny.

There are certainly valid questions about the role of religious belief in higher education, and questions about the attitude of academia in how it deal with belief and believers. But the answer is definitely not to codify one particular religious belief as being particularly worthy. What seems appropriate is some kind of dialogue about the role of religious beliefs in public education, but not the ramming of a particular religion into the classroom, whether it wants to be there or not.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

So it goes.

Bummer. Aside from the obvious success of novels such as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle (my personal favorite), I found a couple of his other works inspirational or eye-opening. I think the first book of his I read was Breakfast of Champions, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it. And the collection of short stories Welcome to the Monkey House has several really good stories. One of them (EPICAC) inspired me as I was writing an oration in high school that ended up being very successful.

Thanks, Kurt. Cruising the blogs tonight, I can see that you inspired a lot of people.

The Dog Ate Their Homework

Oh, please.

I can't say I didn't see it coming, but really, in this day and age, there is no excuse for this.

No win situation here: either these people are hopelessly, ridiculously incompetent or they are hopelessly dishonest. Neither is a pretty picture.

Update: Really good coverage of this by The Anonymous Liberal, who is an attorney:
...if a private entity--particularly one subject to legally mandated record keeping requirements--were to inform government investigators seeking such documents that they had been "mishandled" and were now "lost," that entity would immediately find itself in a world of hurt and would be lucky if it survived the aftermath. No amount of talking would be enough to convince the authorities that there was an innocent explanation for the missing documents. They would be absolutely convinced that the "mishandled" documents were intentionally destroyed in order to cover up wrongdoing.
Further update: Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post explores the matter in depth today:
Countless e-mails to and from many key White House staffers have been deleted -- lost to history and placed out of reach of congressional subpoenas -- due to a brazen violation of internal White House policy that was allowed to continue for more than six years, the White House acknowledged yesterday.
Or maybe not so countless. CREW says its millions of messages destroyed:
Through two confidential sources, CREW learned that the Executive Office of the President (EOP) has lost over FIVE MILLION emails generated between March 2003 and October 2005. The White House counsel’s office was advised of these problems in 2005 and CREW has been told that the White House was given a plan of action to recover these emails, but to date nothing has been done to rectify this significant loss of records.
The incompetence defense is seeming less plausible today.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Life Begins Anew

Ah, Spring. Clear skies, sunshine, bird singing, and the start of baseball season.

It doesn't get better than this. Today was just about the perfect Opening Day in San Francisco. Since San Francisco and the Giants will be hosting the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game this July, the Giants started off the season with a pregame introduction of a bunch of former Giants who were All-Stars. Impressive group, which took me back through my formative years with looks at some of my favorite players, many of whom are considerably different shapes and colors than they used to be (notably, rounder and grayer). Wonderful trip down memory lane to start the season.

The Giants' new manager, Bruce Bochy, summed it up nicely:
"There's nothing like Opening Day. This is what you look forward to from the first day of Spring Training. It doesn't matter how long you've been in this game. This is a huge day," manager Bruce Bochy said before suffering a 7-0 defeat.
Oh, right. It could have been better. Nothing quite like a crushing defeat to get a new season underway. On the plus side, other than the fact that no one on the team seemed particularly inclined to hit, and the relief pitching was atrocious, the team played reasonably well.

And tomorrow is another day and another game. One down, 161 to go!

"Play ball!"