Friday, August 17, 2007

Sitting in Wingra Park and reading about how Dickens competed with his characters

What's not to like about a fairly short book of literary analysis that only costs ten cents and begins like this?
Whales there are in Dickens, and a multitude of sprats. But this is a book about plankton. An explanation is called for...
It certainly was, and I awaited it eagerly. I took a folding chair down to the park and spent a pleasant afternoon with Mark Lambert's study of Dickens (Yale, 1981) and his use of the suspended quotation -- that wonderful Victorian circumlocution much beloved of Victorian novelists, especially the early Dickens, whereby they would start a quote, stop, wander off on a long rambling authorial digression before eventually return to the speaker. I found the book on sale at a bookstore that was closing and couldn't put it down -- the author had me at "plankton" -- and it looked as if I would get more than my money's worth.

The book offers an in-depth analysis of a very tiny subject, which broadens to reveal vistas, all in a rather playful, almost whimsical style. Lambert's argument is that Dickens was not only competing with his characters for audience attention in his earlier works, but he also found himself in an aggressive rivalry with them, revealed by the frequency of his interruptions. Less of this in his later books, with their more austere, modern style (at least in regard to quotes). This may have been because by then he was doing so much performing himself, in public readings where he clearly was the star and no longer had to compete with his characters.

Guaranteed to take your mind off the ills of the modern world. If you can find an old copy on Amazon, pick one up for the beach house.

Cross-posted at the new book review blog, The Book Book. Again, check it out.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Caught up in Michael Chabon's counterfactual Sitka

Always a heavy reader, I haven't had the attention span left over to read many books since joining the Blogger and Flickr cults some months ago. But Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union pulled me away from the keyboard and knocked me over. I loved everything about this book -- the deftly executed noir elements , the evocation of a parallel universe in which a Jewish homeland was established in Sitka, Alaska in 1948, and the bruised and battered love story between the protagonist and his ex-wife, who also happens to be his boss. Two things especially stood out in my mind:

It's a masterful counterfactual novel. This is more easily said than done, because it involves much more than the willing suspension of disbelief. For example, I left my disbelief at the door and was more than willing to meet Philip Roth halfway in The Plot Against America, but my gut rebelled. I just couldn't feel the reality of a world in which Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in 1940. I sympathized with what Roth was trying to do, but I couldn't get caught up in it. In contrast, Chabon caught me up and swept me away to a world that should have been absurd but wasn't at all. Mostly, it's because Chabon firmly embeds the imaginary in masterfully evoked everyday details: scraps of Yiddish, a present-day setting that's just slightly off-kilter, even the familiar and reassuring conventions of genre fiction. By the end of the book I felt I had known Jewish Sitka forever and was deeply involved and concerned about the uncertain fate of the sometimes brave but always deeply flawed residents I had come to know -- including members of its Hassidic organized crime gang.

Chabon's imagination clearly flourishes in the arctic. Though he writes in sunny California these days, something about arctic (and antarctic) landscapes seems to fuel the imagination of Michael Chabon, who grew up in Pittsburgh. When I was a kid, I read a mesmerizing account by Admiral Byrd of wintering alone in the Antarctic and nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, trapped, alone, nowhere to turn. Chabon must have read the same thing, because in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay he mutated this into a de force interlude of magic realism and a fable of escape and survival. In the new novel, he goes this one better by turning the founding myth of Israel -- carving a homeland out of an inhospitable desert -- on its head and reimagines it in the arctic tundra. Part of the what makes the novel so credible is its wintry sense of place -- you feel the snow in your face, the snap of the winter cold, the bleak, attenuated winter light. You huddle with the characters against the encroaching darkness. Haunting.

Cross-posted at the new book review blog, The Book Book. Check it out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Madison's all too casual and cavalier attitude toward preserving the city's sightlines

Madison's Cavalier Attitude About Preserving Its Sightlines
Once upon a time, there was a building with a dome at each end of State Street, and you could see the one from the other.

If you looked down the length of State Street from the Capitol toward Bascom Hall, you would see Bascom with its dome at the other end, as this photo from vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Set illustrates. Then Bascom's dome burned down. But even so, what remained of Bascom Hall could still be seen from the Capitol.

Not so today. As the top photo from the Capitol steps -- shot during a recent Dane County Farmers' Market -- demonstrates, you can no longer see Bascom Hall from ground level at the Capitol. If Bascom Hill were aligned with State Street, there would be no problem, but it jogs off at an angle to the right as seen from upper State Street. Thus, preserving those sightlines would have required greater setbacks and/or lower rooflines as State Street was developed, especially lower State Street. (Actually, you can still see a bit of the roof of Bascom Hall in the picture -- it's under the flagpole to the left of the Orpheum sign.)

The problem was the expansion of the UW-Madison Memorial Library in 1990, which brought its footprint closer to State Street and added height at the same time. Critics warned that sightlines would be compromised, but architectural drawings were marshaled against them, seemingly disproving their case. Later that decade, the same problem arose regarding the "Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired" Monona Terrace. Critics said it would cut off the view of Lake Monona from ground level on the Capitol Square. The criticism was dismissed, once again with the aid of architectural drawings based on Wright's that clearly showed the lake in the background, somehow obscuring the fact that the roof had been raised to build an exhibit hall.

In both cases, the drawings were misleading -- at best. You have to wonder how that happened. After all, the rules of perspective and projective geometry don't change over time. The truth, it seems, is more malleable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Inn on the Park's triumph of function over form

There has been a hotel at this corner of Madison's Capitol Square for more than 130 years. Over the years it has morphed endlessly , due to renovation, remodeling and even rebuilding. Currently it's known as the Best Western Inn On the Park . Earlier it was known as the Park Hotel, or, as in this 1915 photo which appeared in vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Set., the New Park Hotel and Annex. The lower eight floors were built in 1961 and had a certain curvilinear elegance. The addition that was ignominiously plunked down on top in the mid-eighties is a monstrosity, a total, brute force triumph of function over form. But it offers some grand views of the Capitol.

Shades of red compete for blue's attention

Shades of Red Compete for Blue's Attention
At Architect Kenton Peters' deep blue 1984 Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse in Madison, WI. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's architecture critic, Whitney Gould wrote:
If you want to see how beautiful an even deeper shade of blue can be in the right hands, check out architect Kenton Peters' Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse on S. Henry St. in Madison (1984), a sleek, shapely icon that is as timeless as any neo-classical civic building in the United States. There, color has helped create an expressive place-maker.
Several years ago Andy Moore profiled the architect in a Madison magazine story called "Man of Steel", which was illustrated by a photo that demonstrated his love of bright colors.
"Public input creates mediocrity," he says. In a city where the word "inclusionary" elected the last mayor, this statement reads like an advertisement to not do business with Peters. He knows it. But it doesn't discourage him or alter his quest to reinvent Downtown -- or die trying. He sees the give-and-take process of urban development as nothing more than the art of compromise. In Peters' world, there are no compromises in art. "I don't think the best of human potential is developed by a committee. It's by the individual's own creativity or abilities."
Another one of the works by Peters in Madison is the Marina Condominiumsproject, which i wrote about in my Condos after Dark series.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Financial markets: Chickens swept under the rug in 1998 come home to roost

What's going on in the financial markets? It's not just about liquidity and asset bubbles. We've long been conditioned to think the stock market is relatively safe because of all the reforms and regulations implemented since 1929. Sure, the market might go up or down hundreds of points in a day -- but off a 13,000-plus Dow that's nothing. Most people think a 1929 style crash couldn't possibly happen now.

From the inside, things are not as all that certain. The Australian writer Kate Jennings offered a wonderful snapshot in her novel Moral Hazard. The protagonist, Cath, is a feminist, a veteran of the radical politics of the sixties, and an admitted financial idiot: “I could barely tell a stock from a bond. Balancing my checkbook was beyond me, much less understanding option trees.” A friend finds her a well-paid job as a speechwriter for a prominent Wall Street investment bank (mirroring Jennings' own experience).

The protagonist's outsider status makes her all the more effective a mole for the rest of us in as she burrows into “a firm whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas. A firm where women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.”

The novel spans six years and concludes with a banking industry crisis involving hedge fund Long Term Capital Management that almost blows up the entire financial system, although the perturbation scarcely is noticed by the general public and nothing really changes.
“To date, no follow-up. Nothing. Nada. As if afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the Fed remains adamant that banks can police themselves,” Cath muses after the collapse of a hedge fund modeled on Long Term Capital Management. The spectacular demise of LTCM in 1998 was an eye-opener for industry insiders, but after a bailout arranged by the Fed it was quickly forgotten. “Deregulation rackets along like a runaway train, banking lobbyists clinging to its side, climbing into the cab, waving from the windows, hollering in their exhilaration. Hoo-ha.”
Hoo-ha, indeed. To mangle a metaphor, you might say that the chickens swept under the rug in 1998 have come home to roost.

Much of our securities trading now takes place under the totally unregulated umbrella of the hedge funds, which have been operating on a laissez faire frontier for a long time now. They should have learned -- and been regulated -- after LTCM in 1998, but that didn't happen.

Now, nobody knows what's going on behind their walls. There's no way to know, with their very limited reporting requirements. The bottom could fall out tomorrow, and the damage would be done before anything could be done about it.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Susan Meiselas and the Repatriation of Images

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas is one of the greats, one of the photographers through whose eyes the world saw the chaotic and bloody violence in Central America during the Reagan years. The New York Times provides an interesting update on her career since then. Like many photojournalists, she has had to find new outlets and sources of financial support for her work, and she is working with Human Rights Watch photographing child domestic workers.

What really caught my eye was her ideas about returning people's images to them.
Taking photographs, she once said in an interview with Nicaraguan television, “is sometimes the least you can do.”

Much of what drives Ms. Meiselas’s work is a desire to step back through the looking glass to find the people she once photographed, to forge connections and return their pictures to them.

“We take pictures away and we don’t bring them back,” she said. “That became a central quest for me — relinking, revisiting, the repatriation of work: it’s become a kind of motif in my thinking.”

The notion of moving in circles is now central to her work, but in a way, she has long been doing it. She laments the demise of the Polaroid camera because it allowed her to give a photograph, on the spot, to people who did not have cameras of their own.

In a project involving the Kurds, she sought to restore a collective memory to a dispossessed people, spending several years searching for photographs that were scanned into an online archive of Kurdish history, “akaKurdistan” (
The "repatriation of work" that Meiselas proposes certainly is different from the one-way exercise in voyeurism that photography usually becomes, no matter how good the motive. It raises difficult questions about the relationship between photographer and subject, and the ownership of images.

Let's take a moment to stop what we're doing and think about the Fibonacci Sequence

Let's Stop What We're Doing and Talk About the Fibonacci Series
This amazing sunburst stopped me in my tracks at the Dane County Farmers' Market yesterday and seems to have triggered the photographic reflex. After I put my camera back in my pocket, I thought about the spiral patterns made by its seeds, an arrangement determined by the Fibonacci Series, which I blogged about last year.
The Fibonacci sequence -- 0,1,1,2,3,5,8… (keep adding previous two numbers) -- is great if you’re a sunflower, or one of the many other plants that grow seeds or buds in that pattern. Or if you want to write the sort of short, numerically constrained poem that Gregory K. Pincus dubbed a “fib” on his blog GottaBook last year. What Pincus calls fibs are six-line poems in which the number of syllables in each line is determined by the successive Fibonacci numbers. The New York Times headed their article on the internet poetry explosion set off by Pincus with an example.

and rumor
But how about a
Rare, geeky form of poetry?
Want to read more? Click here.

UW math professor Jordan Ellenberg puts Gödel's famous theorem in its place

I came across a wonderful piece of math writing for a lay audience this weekend by Slate's math columnist Jordan Ellenberg -- "Does Gödel Matter? The romantic's favorite mathematician didn't prove what you think he did."
Gödel's theorem, for most working mathematicians, is like a sign warning us away from logical terrain we'd never visit anyway.

What is it about Gödel's theorem that so captures the imagination? Probably that its oversimplified plain-English form—"There are true things which cannot be proved"—is naturally appealing to anyone with a remotely romantic sensibility. Call it "the curse of the slogan": Any scientific result that can be approximated by an aphorism is ripe for misappropriation. The precise mathematical formulation that is Gödel's theorem doesn't really say "there are true things which cannot be proved" any more than Einstein's theory means "everything is relative, dude, it just depends on your point of view." And it certainly doesn't say anything directly about the world outside mathematics, though the physicist Roger Penrose does use the incompleteness theorem in making his controversial case for the role of quantum mechanics in human consciousness. Yet, Gödel is routinely deployed by people with antirationalist agendas as a stick to whack any offending piece of science that happens by. A typical recent article, "Why Evolutionary Theories Are Unbelievable," claims, "Basically, Gödel's theorems prove the Doctrine of Original Sin, the need for the sacrament of penance, and that there is a future eternity." If Gödel's theorems could prove that, he'd be even more important than Einstein and Heisenberg!
I loved his "curse of the slogan" (emphasis mine). So true! Not sure what Gödel's famous Incompleteness theorem actually says? Read the whole piece. It's very readable, and Ellenberg does a great job of explaining it.

Ellenberg is a math professor at the UW-Madison and author of a novel, The Grasshopper King. His blog Quomodocumque touches on math, language, baseball, refrigerator death and assorted Madisoniana. The blog also has a link to his Slate columns. Did he catch my eye with kind words like this about Letter from Here? You bet! Blogrolling works -- you can find him on mine.