18 October 2010
"The biggest rift in the US is not religion, not race. It's between the stupid . . . and the very stupid."
He (intense, skinny southerner) then treated his sidekick (laid back, paunchy Canadian) to a diatribe in a Montana convenience store inspired by a pressurized can of Easy Cheese, "as opposed to difficult European cheese." This segued into a discussion of how Americans take the Declaration of Independence very seriously, especially the part about the pursuit of happiness: "Americans pursued it, they found it . . . and they ate it."
For an excellent article by a Seattle-based Brit looking ruefully rather than scornfully on our stupidity, see Jonathan Raban's "Sipping with the Tea Party": http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/16/tea-party-movement-jonathan-raban
A choice paragraph from the above:
As Obama continues to talk to the nation as if we were grown-ups capable of appreciating the intellectual complexities of the situation we're in, he leaves more and more of his audience hungering for schoolroom certitudes and simple rules of thumb. So Christian fundamentalism has led directly to constitutional fundamentalism, in which the US Constitution is held to be a sacred text, to be interpreted literally, word by word. Palin herself has said that the Constitution is "law based on the God of the Bible and the 10 Commandments". The constitutional pietists, whose lips move as they trace the words with their forefingers, love the tenth amendment, which reads: "Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Because the Constitution fails to mention the minimum wage, Medicaid, social security or the department of education, Tea Party fundamentalists such as Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada argue that such costly governmental fripperies are patently "unconstitutional", discretionary luxury items, to be adopted or rejected by individual states and their peoples. If we were only to read the Constitution aright, we'd be out of debt and recession tomorrow.
What an excellent weekend break, c/o an invitation to Michael from the Max Planck Institute at Göttingen to speak in the science component of the university's annual Literaturherbst. With classic German efficiency, every aspect of our visit was beautifully organized (thank you, Svea!). We could never have anticipated, however, the warmth and hospitality of our hosts, which will be particularly evident in the second and third segments of this account.
We flew BMI from Heathrow to Hanover and were whisked to Göttingen in a smoothly purring BMW (on the way back, our transportation was via another BMW, newly leased, with less than 200 kms on the odometer; for a mere €65,000, you too could have separate temperature controls for each side of the car). The sense of luxury continued in Hotel Gebhards, the city's finest, part of the Romantik chain:
We had lunch in the hotel's excellent and immaculately polished restaurant:
Göttingen's most popular (and diminutive) physics professor
Michael & Markus, the talented grad student/photographer -- who identified a chunk of desert glass sitting on the table just from having watched a TV documentary
After gratifyingly long applause (contributed to, no doubt, by Hans-Jörg's translation of opening remarks into idiomatic German), an author's perk: signing a book for a pretty blonde
10 October 2010
1) I had never stopped to think that the word museum comes from "the Greek term "museion"... first applied to temples dedicated to the muses."
2) Resonant lines from poet Kevin Hart: "A single word can darken the widest room / Even in summer."
3) Martin Amis, writing on Vladimir Nabokov and observing that Saul Bellow found Nabokov's "patricianism" a weakness, commented that "Nabokov [is] the classic émigré, Bellow the classic immigrant." Both writers are in his pantheon of literary heroes. [I was particularly grateful for the way Amis has now allowed me not to feel guilty about being put off Nabokov by Ada.]
4) Guppies is the new term for the "Great Unpublished."
5) From Katharine Whitehorn's review of David Kynaston's Family Britain 1951-1957: Tales of a New Jerusalem — "rationing [was] not finally called off until July 1954"; in 1952 London smog was so bad that "a performance of La Traviata had to be cancelled halfway through because the audience could no longer see the stage"; "as late as 1958, Woman's Own didn't do bathroom features, because too few of their readers had one"; and the obligatory sand reference, teddy boys going out for a night on the town with their "wooden stakes and sand-filled socks."
6) Virginia Woolf on the outsider status of women writers (A Room of One's Own): "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in."
7) For Kate and Michael, from a review of Filthy English: "it was hard anyway not to warm to a writer who could use an early footnote to exclaim: "What a wonderful word fuckwit is."'
All this and I'm only about two-thirds of the way through the reviews. . . .
07 October 2010
http://www.musee-ceret.com/mam/exposition.php?expo=141&statut=actuelle (the changing slide show on the right shows several of his works as they were displayed)
Pincemin was a dedicated Trotskyite who had worked on the Concorde engine assembly line at Renault before committing himself fulltime to art. Self-taught, he may have been an outsider, but was still très français in his theoretical and political rigor.
Photography wasn't allowed, so we have no pictures of the stunning first room, with huge unstretched canvases suspended from the walls. In fact, we have no photos of any paintings, so at the end I'll paste in some images found via google that are representative of Pincemin's oeuvres, though all of them weren't part of this exhibition.
When we got to the sculpture room, another visitor was snapping away, so we thought -- ah, perhaps it's permitted here. Wrong. Before being reprimanded, though, Michael had taken several photos of this sui generis work, weathered painted wood fastened with rusted wire. According to an article on an earlier NYC exhibition, this "bizarre neo-Constructivist sculpture ... [m]ade out of the leftovers of gutted slum buildings and lashed together with primitive wiring . . . looks dirty and dilapidated instead of utopian. There is a message in these materials and techniques: even the small sculptures would look awful on your marble coffee table." Proving once again what lousy art critics we are, Michael and I found the bleached wood/wire forms quite whimsical and uplifting.
06 October 2010
Thibaut & Marie-Claire, C & H-J, Juan & Emily, Ralf
05 October 2010
After interviews with despairing professors, a few examples of recent student papers appeared on the screen. Here was our favorite, a vocabulary quiz answer, wrong in a couple of quite delightful ways but also unintentionally right.
définition: l'étude de fossiles
How the geologist on the sofa next to me laughed. . . .
The other surprise nugget that appeared this week isn't amusing but was unexpected in the middle of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. I had tried reading this a few years ago, but found the will to live as well as the will to read seeping away by about page 70. Relentless downward spirals ( cf Bonfire of the Vanities) affect me this way. This time I persevered, however, and was rewarded by quite an amazing novel and — fanfare of trumpets — a math proof I had forgotten.
Having had it drummed into our heads so often, we all remember how to square a + b algebraically. What I didn't remember was the geometric representation of this, so elegantly simple. Once again, I'll copy and paste an online version.
The natural way to understand the concept of squaring is through looking at the area of a square—which is calculated by squaring. So below is a picture of a square whose sides are each a + b long. To make that more clear, those sides are broken up into their separate a and b parts.
Asking about (a + b)2, then, is just like asking about the area of that whole square. But the whole square is broken up into smaller squares and rectangles, and we know enough information to calculate each of those smaller parts separately. The areas of the two smaller squares are calculated below.
Notice that the areas of the two smaller squares together come nowhere close to totaling the area of the large square. In algebra terms, we'd have to say that (a + b)2 must simply be greater than a2 + b2. Of course that means they can't be equal, which is exactly what we've been trying to understand! This picture actually tells us even more, though. It tells us how much greater. Each of the blue rectangles has a length of a and a width of b, so they each have an area of a times b. And there's two of them. Which means precisely that (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2, just as we saw in the algebra.