Tuesday, February 28, 2006

BOOKS: 1776

Over the past several weeks, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading David McCullough's 1776. I probably knew the basic details of the Revolutionary War battles many years ago when high school history class was still fresh in mind, but I don't think I've ever understood them as vividly as they are painted by David McCullough. The book, while being scholarly, well-sourced, and footnoted, is also highly readable and engaging. McCullough does a great job balancing historical integrity with narrative interest and character development to make the historical events come to life. He takes care to clearly distinguish fact from inference and conjecture, while collecting and connecting sufficient sources and facts to paint a vivid and memorable picture of the events, giving us details like the temperature, rain, and wind, the road conditions, what people were eating, what their accommodations were like. He skillfully uses letters and journals from the participants in the historic events to give insight into not just what happened, but what the participants were thinking and feeling at the time. The variations of confidence and doubt, pride and fear, patriotism and self-interest among the different men at different times makes the story more human and that much more compelling, especially as the morale of the men was often a significant factor in the battles. The portrait of George Washington is particularly complex and compelling, as he unfailingly projected confidence and inspiration outwardly, even while hiding his own despair and lack of confidence at times. (It also reveals Washington's "inner Martha Stewart", as even in the midst of the war - or perhaps as an essential sanity-keeping distraction - he sent very particular instructions back to Mount Vernon concerning the remodeling of the house.) The narrative is also rich in dimension, as McCullough recounts the viewpoint of both British and Americans, lieutenants and foot soldiers as well as the generals. He brings to light some less popularly known figures who made important contributions, such as Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, as well as the many unnamed farmers, merchants, and other volunteers who made up the Continental Army. In the end, he leaves an amazing impression of the "brilliant strokes" combined with extraordinary luck that made events unfold as they did, and a proper sense of awe for how, had slightly different decisions been made at certain points, certain advice ignored or followed, certain unknown things discovered, or even the wind blown differently on a certain day, our fate could have been entirely different.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

MUSIC: Mozart Requiem

Friday night we had the pleasure of attending the LA Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program was all Mozart, in honor of Mozart's recent 250th birthday, and more personally, for the recent 50th birthday of two dear friends. The Disney Hall is always a treat, as the brilliant design of the place provides the intimacy of chamber music for an audience of two thousand. This feeling was enhanced by this classical program performed by a pared-down orchestra of a dozen violins, a few violas, cellos, and basses, a couple of oboes, a couple of bassoons, and a couple of horns. The first piece, Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major (K. 459), featured Orion Weiss on the piano, who brightly and fluidly turned out Mozart's rapid scales and ornaments in lovely counterpoint with the orchestra. The acoustics of the hall are superb, and you can hear every nuance and every note with unparalleled clarity. (The only downside to this was when some shameless woman had her cellphone go off, playing some ghastly ringtone.)

The second piece was Mozart's famous Requiem in D Minor (K. 626), where the piano was replaced with four soloists, the 80-strong USC Thornton Choral Artists, and organ. (The Disney Hall's impressive organ has a high main console for organ recitals, but also a console that can be positioned with the orchestra, as was done tonight.) The Requiem was a marvelous thing, ranging from the powerful full-chorus Kyrie and Dies Irae to the evocative simplicity of Tuba Miram, beginning with a beautiful solo alternation between a trombone and the bass voice. The soloists -- soprano Celena Shafer, mezzo Ruxandra Donose, tenor Eric Cutler, and bass Alfred Reiter -- were all outstanding. Reiter is perhaps the clearest bass I've ever heard. Cutler's tones were golden, Donose was dulcet, and Shafer sparkled. (Both Orion Weiss and Celena Shafer were last-minute replacements for scheduled soloists who were ill, but we hardly felt short-changed by their impressive performances.) The USC Thornton Choral Artists gave a powerful performance for this powerful piece. All were capably lead by conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. One of the treats of the Disney Hall, especially in our seats on the side of the orchestra, is being close enough to see the interaction of the conductor with the musicians. And in a work with such interaction between the various instruments and voices, it was an extra pleasure to watch as well as to hear the music.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Easy Path: The Gov and Congress, But Not the Ayatollah

It's always a happy circumstance when what is the right thing to do aligns with what is politically easy to do. Alas, it doesn't happen often enough. Sadly, politicians often go for the easy choice even when it conflicts with doing the right thing.

Governor Schwarzenegger to date has not granted any of the clemency petitions that have come to him from death row inmates. While I do not believe in the death penalty, I acknowledge that it is currently the law of California, and I accept that the Governor should only grant clemency in extraordinary circumstances. However, I believe extraordinary circumstances presented themselves last week in the case of Michael Morales. There is no dispute that Morales is a murderer and deserves at least life in prison. However, it has come to light that the evidence used to justify his death sentence were fabricated. Even the (Republican-appointed) judge who originally sentenced him has recognized that the death penalty was a mistake in this case, and is recommending that the Governor grant clemency. Unfortunately, the Governor, instead of doing the right thing, has opted to take the easy path and ignore the clemency petition. (Independently, Morales received a last-minute temporary reprieve when two anesthesiologists with a bit more conscience in this matter than the Governor, refused to cooperate in the execution.)

Then we have the jerking of many Congressional knees in regard to the Dubai World Ports kerfuffle. I'll admit that I initially had the same reaction as most everyone else: oh God, it'll be the fox guarding the henhouse. But after listening to calmer, informed voices on the matter, I realize that the analogy is inapt, unless we're talking about a fox who has a strong vested interest in egg production. As James Glassman points out, if the United Arab Emirates have a big stake in our ports, they'll be even more vigilant about safe-guarding their investment. I'd like to think that our Congress members would be more judicious and informed on such matters. But I guess they figure the heck with judicious and informed, when it's so easy to huff and strut.

That leaders too often choose the easy path over the right one makes it all the more laudable when a leader takes the right path when it's not easy. That would be the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shi'ites in Iraq, who has been urging his followers to protest peacefully, but remain calm and show restraint, in response to the horrific attack on one of their holiest sites. That is commendable, and a welcome contrast to the more incendiary reaction of al-Sadr's militia.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Enough About The Hunting Accident

I enjoyed as much as the next guy the comic ironies to be found in the Cheney hunting accident kerfuffle. ("The best intelligence estimates at the time indicated that there were birds in the brush." Heh.) But some people are all over this as if it were Watergate. Enough already. Hunting is a dangerous sport, and sometimes, regrettably, accidents happen. End of story. So there might have been some innocuous discrepancies in how the incident got initially reported and handled, but then not every hunter has his own personal chase team comprising secret service and an ambulance. The 18-hour gap in notifying the local authorities is just not of the same order as the infamous 18-minute gap in Nixon's tapes. The MoveOn crowd need to just move on. (And you too, Andrew.)

I think Arianna hit it best with her psychological explanation for the overreaction to this incident as a lover's quarrel between Cheney and the press. It's too bad the press can't keep up their fire at more proper targets, like torture, Plamegate, wiretapping, or the newly discovered executive powers of the vice-president (the bi-unitary executive theory?).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Losing a Sister

Late last night we got the call we'd been waiting for -- and dreading. My husband's sister passed away, after a long bout with inflammatory breast cancer. We had been losing her by degrees for some time now, but it's hard to fully grieve while some part of her was still with us. Now her struggle is over, and she is at peace. (Being the strong-willed spirit she was, as runs in her family, she struggled bravely.)

Linda was the sort of person who notices small things. One of her Christmas traditions, which we all looked forward to, was her famous handmade caramel popcorn with nuts. She would make a bag for each household in the family. One year I watched her making it, standing over the caramel pot, stirring and stirring to get it just perfect, a real labor of love. Well, the second year that I went home with George for Christmas, she remembered something I'd mentioned the year before. I like to relish treats, eating just a little bit at a time to make it last, while George would enjoy it more heartily (and quickly!), with the result that I didn't get very much of our shared bag of caramel corn. So the second year, after each household got their bag, she pulled me aside, flashed me a sly smile, slipped me my own bag of caramel corn, and said "Shhh. Don't tell George." Her insightful gesture made me feel especially welcomed into my new family.

Linda also had a knack for choosing the perfect gift, the kind that is very thoughtful and a consequence of her noticing the small things. She noticed how much enjoyment we got out of our barbecue grill (which George's sisters and families had pitched in and bought for us), and one year we got a wonderful tin box of assorted spice rubs. We weren't familiar with rubs before, but we sure are now, and we're grateful to Linda and Ken each time. Another year, she had noticed how we were enjoying the variety of birds that came to the bird bath in our backyard, and another Christmas we got a pair of field glasses and a bird book that has increased our enjoyment of our flying backyard visitors.

Linda loved gardening and loved her flowers. George has picked up her love of and knack for orchids, and I think his success can be traced to her inspiration and advice. Her garden always had varieties of beautiful things in it, and we would learn about new plants from her, in her backyard or in annual pilgrimages to Rogers Gardens (where she introduced us to "Million Bells"). Another Linda holiday tradition was her bulbs. Every year, we'd get a pot full of bulbs, and it was always a joy to see in the spring what variety of colorful flowers would come popping up. Her flowers, like her circle of family and friends, were lovingly cultivated and blossomed from her insightful attention.

We will miss her great smile, her quiet inquisitiveness, and her profound thoughtfulness, expressing her love through all the little details she took note of. Our love for our sister, and our fond memories of her, like her blooms, will be perennials.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Incredible Shrinking World

It's become trite to observe how the Internet is shrinking the world (or at least making it "flatter", as some have preferred to say), but it's still remarkable when you think about it. It has become especially apparent to me in the last few days. My quiet little blog has only a handful of readers and only rarely gets comments, but in the last few days, my thoughts about the Danish cartoon controversy, as well as the Palestinian elections, have drawn the comments of a Malaysian Muslim girl, a Muslim immigrant in Australia, and someone who seems to be Palestinian. I am amazed and delighted that people of such different perspectives than my own can reach across the world to share their thoughts with me. (I only wish they hadn't all posted anonymously. It would be fascinating to continue the conversation and get to know any of them a little bit better. I'm sure I could learn much from such different viewpoints.) Comments like these give me hope for our world.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Nothing Ever Dies on the Internet

Anyone who has done or said much on the Internet, or anymore even just in the public sphere, is probably aware of leaving "footprints" on the Internet. Such footprints can be found by simply Googling your own name. I know that a Google search of my name turns up a fairly rounded picture of me, including links on my politics, hobbies, and professional career. Some of that goes back pretty far, back to the days of Usenet, a loose collection of "newsgroups" (topic-oriented bulletin boards) that preceded the Internet as we know it today, and that only older geeks will remember. I'm somewhat surprised that near the top of the hits list in Googling me, one finds several references to things that I once wrote on a newsgroup called soc.motss (a gay social bulletin board) in the early 1990s. Things that I wrote 12 or 14 years ago have been squirreled away by somebody somewhere and have been discovered by Google over a decade later.

We used to talk about many things on soc.motss, but one "thread" (conversation) that I had long forgotten was about a book called "Love and Limerence" by Dorothy Tennov, a psychologist whose project was to apply the rigors of social science to an analysis of falling and being in love. I never read the book, but merely responded at some point, to someone's summary of it. I was rather sceptical, thinking that being in love was more a proper topic for poetry and literature than social science. Describing lovers as "limerent objects" and trying to analyze and measure romance seemed as ridiculous as trying to touch a mirage. Well, anyway, I guess something that I said about it got quoted by someone else, and that quote got squirreled away by someone else, and that footprint is still out there. I guess I wrote that some 14 years ago or so, but I'd certainly forgotten all about it. That is, until yesterday, when I received a petulant email from none other than Dorothy Tennov herself, who wrote:
From: Dorothy Tennov
To: Tom Chatt
Subject: your comment about me was wrong

Totally wrong: The whole project [the sociologist Tennov's theory of "limerence"] depends on the belief that vector mathematics is meaningfully analogous to human emotions. Sorry. I just don't buy it.-- Tom Chatt

I'm not a sociologist, I'm an independent scholar. And I never said anything about vector math. Look me up.

Dorothy Tennov
I just shook my head in amazement. Some things never die on the Internet. I guess Dorothy Tennov was Googling herself and somehow came across that snippet of a newsgroup thread circa 1992. Poor Dorothy needs to get a life. I did look her up. The first thing on her website, after her nebulous grand mission statement, is her rebuttal to a 1994 critical review of her book. Talk about defensive. I'm guessing that "independent scholar" really means "I couldn't even find a social sciences faculty who would take me seriously". Even her rebuttal to my quote shows pretty poor reading comprehension. I thought of replying to her email, but it seems more appropriate to just let it surface in some Internet search. Maybe in 2018.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Excluding One-Time Expenses

The phrase "excluding one-time expenses" is somewhat notorious and controversial in the annals of generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP). Sometimes a business will experience something extraordinary, for example, a terrorist blowing up its primary manufacturing plant. The company will incur considerable expense recovering from this extraordinary event, and there are those who say that a proper picture of the business's profit and loss should exclude those extraordinary expenses. After all, if a car manufacturer had a major plant blown up, and the costs of that were included in the bottom line, it would be hard to discern through that whether they were doing a profitable job of making and selling cars as an ongoing business. Others argue that anything that happens to the business is part of the business.

Some years ago, GAAP allowed "extraordinary expenses" to be excluded from P&L. However, many companies came to be rather liberal with their interpretation of what was "extraordinary". Extraordinary came to mean not just a terrorist attack, but a strike, a lawsuit, restructuring costs. Now a case can be made that any of those things may be extraordinary, but when they happen year after year after year, credulity becomes strained. How many years in a row can you have "one-time" expenses? I forget exactly how many years in a row Motorola did that, before the SEC came down on them (and everyone else - they were far from alone). These days, I believe, if a company has extraordinary expenses, the income statement is presented both ways - with and without. This is the most transparent.

All of this crossed my mind as I heard on the radio that President Bush has presented Congress with the fifth post 9/11 budget, and as with each of the previous years, the budget does not include expenses for the "Global War on Terror". The President plans to submit those expenses later as a "supplemental" (that's Congress-speak for "extraordinary one-time expenses"). I was glad to hear that at least some Senators were questioning how we could have an "emergency appropriation" for the fifth year in a row, and probably at least as many years into the foreseeable future. How exactly is that an "emergency"? Can the SEC please crack down on the White House? Not that this administration has given us any confidence that they might approach fiscal sanity, but such credulity-straining gimmickry intended to conjure the facsimile of balancing a budget only undermines confidence.

Correction (2/9): I had written "balance sheet" when I should have said "income statement". Thanks, Kip. I'm not an accountant (nor a lawyer nor a doctor nor a theologian), I just enjoy playing one on the web!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

FILM: Cinderella Man

Over the weekend, we got to watch Cinderella Man, which is already out on DVD. I was wary as to whether I would enjoy this film, since I have an aversion to boxing, and it is after all a story about a boxer. (Why boxing is such a perennial theme in films, I'll never quite get. Aren't there plenty of other individual sports where heroic character can be demonstrated, without all the horrendous violence?) However, the inspirational theme of this story, emphasizing the truly admirable character of James Bradford, won me ever. The story was about boxing, but more, it was about a man struggling to support his family, and to stay true to his values of honesty and responsibility, despite the hardships of the Great Depression. And it was truly heart-warming. (In both its setting and its heart-warming inspiration, it reminded me of a great film of a couple years ago, Seabiscuit.) Knowing how close this story touched to the milieu of my mother's childhood in New York and New Jersey in the 1930s added to the meaning for me. Ron Howard did a great job directing this, conveying a vivid sense of what lives were like then, including the combination of blissful semi-ignorance and fear and uncertainty experienced by the children of that time. Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger were both amazing in their roles, flawlessly personifying their characters. (Pity the film came out too early last year for the Academy to remember it. True, they did nominate Paul Giamatti for his great portrayal of Braddock's manager, but that's only because his Golden Globe win jogged their memory.) If you would enjoy a film about the sort of spirit that made our country great, then go see Cinderella Man.

More Cartoon Backlash

This cartoon backlash has become appalling. Those who are attacking Danish embassies, and especially those who are attacking merely anything European or Christian, they are compete barbarians. No possible cartoon could justify such a response. The Danish (who as Andrew Sullivan points out, have a long history of courageous and moral action) have nothing to apologize for. I went out today and bought some Havarti cheese, just to show a token of support. (Justice never tasted so good. :-)) The Danes deserve better. Maybe it's time I should start wearing a watch again, and I've always admired the clean lines of Skagen. (For ideas how you can show support to the Danes, see here. At least buy a sixer of Carlsberg.)

I'm also thankful to Wikipedia for being willing to republish the cartoons. Nearly all of the media here in the US have been too squeamish to do so. (It's okay to publish leaked government secrets that might compromise national security because freedom of the press demands it, but it's not okay to publish newsworthy cartoons because some people might be offended. Hmmm.)

At the same time, I should also be clear that, just as some prominent hooligans are wrong to hold all Denmark responsible for the actions of one newspaper, I for one do not hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of the hooligans. Some hopeful signs: An al-Jazeera online poll asking "Are consumer boycotts against countries an appropriate response to publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by newspapers?" currently has a small majority (53%) saying no. At least some American Muslims recognize a mountain being made of a molehill. And lastly, buried down in a NYTimes article, I read that while Lebanese Muslims were torching Christian neighborhoods in Beirut, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, went to the only Catholic church in Gaza and publicly condemned any threats against the Christians. That was the most hopeful thing I read all day.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Profaning the Prophet

Plenty of Christians were sorely offended when Sinead O'Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, or when artist Andres Serrano displayed a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, but no gunmen showed up at the Irish Embassy, and nobody advocated a boycott of the whole city or state of New York (where Serrano was from). They criticized, they complained loudly and they wrote angry letters to news papers, the network, and the NEA. That's how civilized people in a free country react to offense.

What a disturbing dust-up concerning a Danish newspaper that published several cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, one of which featured a turban shaped like a bomb. Sure, these cartoons were provocative, but that's the nature of political cartoons. That's no reason for Islamic fanatics to threaten to bomb the offices of the newspaper, and to issue death threats against the cartoonists. A fatwa has been declared against the Danish troops in Iraq. And now masked gunmen in Gaza have stormed the EU offices there. These thugs have lost all sense of perspective. Not only are these misguided people directing their ire with wildly indiscriminate breadth against the entire nation of Denmark (and beyond), but their response is so vastly disproportionate as to completely overshadow the original offense. Had these people any moral sense at all, they would be utterly ashamed at their own overreaction. Which profanes the Prophet more? A cartoon or a death threat against the cartoonist?

Oscar's Short-Term Memory

The Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and as usual, practically all of the nominations are for movies that came out in the last couple months of the year. What's up with that? Anymore the Oscars aren't really the "best of 2005", they're the "best of 4th quarter 2005". I guess it's all part of the shrinking American attention span. Just as CEOs are practically trained by the market to shrink their horizons to last quarter and next quarter, so filmmakers are trained to bring out their films at the end of the year if they care about getting an Oscar nod. The result is that we have some seasons when there's a drought of good films, and then in December, too many films are tripping over each other to be released at the same time.

Just to refresh Oscar's memory: I'm sure Judi Densch is great in "Mrs Henderson Presents" (I haven't seen it yet), but what about her performance in "Ladies in Lavender"? Or Maggie Smith in the same? And "Heights" touched on some of the same themes as "Sideways", but did a much better job in my opinion. How about Elizabeth Banks for best actress, or Glenn Close for best supporting, or Chris Terrio for direction, or Amy Fox for adapted screenplay? Oh yeah, it came out in the summer, that’s like so six months ago. . . How about Liev Schreiber for his direction or adaptation of "Everything Is Illuminated"? Or the performances of Elijah Wood and Eugene Husk? I guess even September is too long ago to be remembered. (I won't even mention the films like "Mysterious Skin" that technically were released in 2004, perhaps at a film festival or two, but didn't see general release until 2005, so get disqualified on a technicality.)