18 October 2010

Who'd've thunk it would be even more true six years later....

Paging through my commonplace book, I came across a comment Rich Hall, one of our favorite US comedians, made in his BBC broadcast the night of the 2004 presidential election:

"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.

Göttingen 1: the talk

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:

Michael's veal and the best rösti we've ever eaten

My duck with sour cherries, dumplings and red cabbage

That evening Michael and his tag-along spouse were escorted to the lovely old Paulinerkirche by (pasting from his website) "Prof. Dr. Stephan Herminghaus, Max Planck Institute for Self-Organization and Dynamics, Dept. Dynamics of Complex Fluids"—a world leader in the behavior of wet granular materials. He was charming, far more friendly and humorous than his title might imply.

Courtyard (Paulinerkirche is out of picture, on right)

Under tree above is a statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg,
Göttingen's most popular (and diminutive) physics professor

Paulinerkirche, with festival poster

The lecture hall runs the entire length of converted church
(first photo from official website)

While the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss is probably Göttingen's most revered presiding spirit, more of us will be familiar with two linguistics professors, the Brothers Grimm

Michael sitting in front of original copy of Galileo's Siderius Nuncius

For Kate: the sound system (Midas board)

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

Matthias & Sibylle, inviting Michael to tour
the granular materials lab the next day

Our second invitation arose during dinner at Das Kartoffelhaus, when Reinhold Wittig, geologist and enlightenment man extraordinaire, arranged for us to drop by to see his marionettes and games. Little did we guess what an adventure this would be (Göttingen 3). If you look back at the photo of our hotel, you'll see a bronze orb. This is the Sun, part of the Planetenweg he designed for the city, with distances between sculptures proportional to distances between planets: Pluto is up in the surrounding hills.

10 October 2010

Why I never get anything done

I should be tackling the ironing thrown over a chair for the last ten days, but instead I'll quickly note some of the FASCINATING bits gleaned from the year-old Guardian review section that I read in bed last night.

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


Saturday's visit to Ceret market (Céret in French but no accent in Catalan) also provided an opportunity to nip into one of our favorite art museums for an exhibition on an artist we had never come across but now are fans of: Jean-Pierre Pincemin, 1944-2005.

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.

Painting photos below provided c/o google images. One of the things you lose, unfortunately, is the amazing textural quality of the brushwork, especially in the Rothko-esque canvases.

06 October 2010

Cheri & Hans-Jörg en famille

Laroque-des-Albères, August 2010 (photo c/o Jenny -- more to be added when I'm back in London)

Thibaut & Marie-Claire, C & H-J, Juan & Emily, Ralf

Back in London now--
This time with Jenny, minus Cheri

Marie-Claire & H-J

Mutti & Papi
(great photo, though I'm not sure where
and when this one was taken)

05 October 2010

L'orthographie — and a little math

You never know where something of quirky interest will turn up. When we were watching the news on TF2 last night, in amidst updates on next week's general strike and the weather came a report on the dire state of l'orthographie in French schools. Hurray! It's not just les anglo-saxons who have this problem.

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.

Square example 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.

Square with areas 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.