Saving the skunks, one slashed yogurt cup at a time

It’s probably unfair to single out Yoplait, since every single serving of yogurt comes in a plastic container that could get lodged on a small animal’s head. But watch this, and you may never buy Yoplait again.

It’s a police-cam video that could be heartwarming — policeman saves cute skunk from agonizing death! — but for the fact that you just know if it happened to this little guy on a city street, it’s happening to hundreds of others out of sight who won’t be rescued.

That cuts a dozen w’s off my awwwww.

I wrote about this, and other environmental atrocities,  in a column you can find here. Yup, you can be a conservative and still hate plastic and what it’s doing to the planet.

Here’s a Facebook page about the Yoplait cups, and here’s a petition asking for a redesign.

Here’s the sly, smart video about the majestic plastic bag’s inspiring journey to the sea. (“Our bag manages to escape the Yorkie’s talons!”)

Check your toothpaste for the microscrubbers.  Mine had them, as did some of my daughter’s exfoliating cleansers.   With all the natural grainy stuff available out there – sugar, ground nuts, cornmeal, grits for that matter — I still can’t wrap my mind around some capitalist deviant thinking, “Hey!  Here’s a great idea!  Let’s put tiny bits of plastic in our children’s toothpaste!”

So slash through your yogurt cups before you put them in the trash, please.  And because you can’t take the South out of the girl, here’s the greatest homemade scrub ever:  grits and honey.

Review, Bike Battles

At the beginning of his engaging history of bicycling, James Longhurst, “mediocre middle-aged recreational cyclist” declares a motive: “I have a stake in this topic because I wish avoid being run over.”

Modern-day wheelmen benefit from the dual interests of the associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who brings a keen, thoughtful and often amusing perspective to a topic at the forefront of governance today: the role of the bicycle on public roads.

To casual observer, the conflict that Longhurst dubs Bike Battles is a new one, emerging from a convergence of environmentally and health conscious cyclists growing in number and their presence on congested city streets. The casual observer, however, misses a lot. Bike battles go back to the early 19th century, when the invention of two-wheel transportation set off a continuing struggle that lands many cyclists in ditches, in morgues and in court.

In 1879, a British cyclist was charged and convicted with “driving furiously” – not the first documented incidence of road rage, but “riding a bicycle on a highway at a furious pace.” Then came legal tussels over whether a bicycle was to be considered a vehicle (yes, it was), whether or not U.S. states could ban them from public roads and private roads (many states and cities did) and whether a cyclist could be accountable if his chosen method of transportation frightened a horse, causing an accident that injured a person (depends).

With generous detail, Longhurst builds on the early legal battles of “the first golden age of American cycling” before vaulting into the changes wrought by the golden age of the automobile, which ultimately transformed bicycles from a pastime of patricians (a Chicago newspaper reported bicycling news under the heading “polite athletics” and its early devotees were typically male elites) to something that only children and strangely clad professional athletes.

Along the way, he meanders down fascinating corridors of policy, such as the occasional efforts to tax bicyclists and bikes, bicycle rationing in wartime, the early perception of salaciousness in women who dared to ride. (An enduring song, “Daisy Bell,” written in 1892, is remembered for its lyrics “You’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two” but also had lines about Daisy’s suitor looking forward to taking her riding, “as man and wife, when the road’s dark” where there are no policemen or lamps.)

Bill Cosby, of all people, shares credit for the resurgence of bicycles among adults. The recently controversial comedian in 1974 narrated a educational film entitled “Bicycles Are Beautiful” in which he touted the wondrous benefits of bikes and bikeways, urging people to ride bikes because “Getting out in clean fresh air is good for your heart, your lungs, and your circulation, and your figure.” Bike “drivers”, he called them. Such public-relations efforts fueled a 1970s bike boom that also benefited from new technologies in the production of bikes, such as the development of what came to be known as the “10-speed”; the energy crisis; and an overall interest in health. (The 1970s also gave us the first running boom.) An appetite for bike paths was not new – in the 1800s, cycling enthusiasts lobbied for bike paths, that were then called “sidepaths” – but today’s increasingly sophisticated bike infrastructure had its beginnings when the Partridge Family was still on TV.

“The road,” Longhurst maintains, “is a commons.” And that commons is “based on thousands of years of tradition, law and legislation.” While the bike is back, it never really left, and when the driver of a car flips off a cyclist (or vice versa) he is re-enacting a scene that took place a hundred years ago between a wheelman and a wagon; and 500 years earlier, between a walker and a horse. “In the future, more than ever, we’ll need to share the road,” he concludes.

Intelligent, relevant and enlightening, Bike Battles is what all history should be. The reader needn’t be a policy wonk or a cycling enthusiast to appreciate the lessons, and its array of old photographs and sketches (bike commuters in 1902, “high riders” in Boston in 1880) are delightful. All in all, it’s a worthy ride.

Originally published in The Hippo.

Review, Birth of a Theorem

Ever wonder what professional mathematicians do all day? Me neither.

Still, the tantalizingly titled Birth of a Theorem seduced me, as did its premise: Brilliant Frenchman, winner of the most coveted prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, takes readers through an intimate tour of his brain in the years leading up to the breakthrough that won him the prize. theo2

It looks good. It’s aesthetically pleasing, with loads of exquisite black-and-white sketches of famous physicists and mathematicians you’ve never heard of, pages of complex equations, and email exchanges between some of the greatest minds alive today.

Unfortunately, at some point, you have to start reading the book that British author Alexander Masters has called “inpenetrable from page four.”

Page “four” is actually page “two” if you count the preface and title page.

Here is the sparkling exchange where Villani loses Masters, and everyone else without a Ph.D. in math:

   “So what’s up? Your message was pretty vague.”

     “My old demon’s back again – regularity for the inhomogeneous Boltzmann.”

   “Conditional regularity? You mean, modulo minimal regularity bounds?”

   “No, unconditional.”

   “Completely? Not even in a perturbative framework?”

It goes on, but you don’t have the time or will. And don’t make the deadly inference that you will understand all this when Villani concludes his incomprehensible journal 244 pages later. If you can’t explain Boltzmann equation, the Lipschitz regularity and Landau damping before you begin, you won’t be able to in the end. Worse, you will develop math rage, the sneaking suspicion that high-level mathematics, far from the key to everything, is just an elaborate ruse superior minds use to get out real work.

Evidence of this is contained in Villani’s description of of Oberwolfach, “the legendary institute for mathematical research deep in the heart of the Black Forest, a retreat where mathematicians come and go in an unending ballet of the mind, giving talks on every subject imaginable. No locks on the doors, an open bar, cakes and pastries galore.”

Villani is a man in love – with the Boltzmann equation (“the most beautiful equation in the world,” he sighs) and, alas, with exclamation marks, challenging my long-held opinion that the use of multiple exclamation marks is the sign of an inferior mind.

Ludwig Boltzmann was a 17th century Austrian physicist whose equations proved how entrophy increases in gases, and the accumulating disorder is irreversible. “In doing so, he demonstrated that the most disordered state is the most natural state of all,” Villani writes, before noting, with no apparent sense of irony, that “The triumphant young Boltzmann turned into a tormented old man who took his own life.” Well, there’s a guy to emulate, eh?

Then there are exclamation marks, mercifully absent in serious discussion, but abundant whenever Villani attempts, like Hillary Clinton, to connect with us common folk. When he is not writing and conversing at many pay grades above the average state college graduate, he (or his translator) writes prose so limp that it requires a propeller of excessive punctuation.  To wit:

   But first things first: we had to locate our apartment, our home for the next six months, and then get some sleep!

   Some people might wonder what there is to do for six months in this very small town. Not me – I’ve got plenty to do! Above all I need to concentrate. Especially now that I can give my undivided attention to my many mathematical mistresses!

   In the meantime, a lot has happened on the Landau damping front!

Fairness demands acknowledgement of at least the project’s potential. Villani could have been a Hubbell-like lens on a far-away world – the rarefied space where polymaths dwell – and occasionally he lurches in there, as when he writes of locking himself in his children’s room so he can think in darkness, shutters closed. (Even polymaths, it seems, have trouble concentrating.) And it is amusing to learn how geniuses suffer while studying in the backwater that is Princeton, New Jersey:

“The crispy French-style baquette is hard to find in Princeton. An even more serious deficiency, as far as products of the highest necessity are concerned, is how scandalously poor the cheese is,” he complains.

In the original Rocky, Rocky tells Adrian that he boxes because he can’t sing or dance. The corollary for mathematicians: They do equations because they can’t write. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, because there is a fascinating story buried in Vallani’s life; it’s just that he wasn’t the one to tell it. His own mathematical hero was the late John Nash, the tormented mathematician whose descent into paranoia was portrayed by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind.” The film was based on a biography by Sylvia Nasar. If only Villani had hired her to write this story.

As I was saying

So, Pittsburgh.

Yeah, I know.

But it’s not the city it was 20 years ago. Not even close.

When the executive editor of the Post-Gazette called me in November, it was late afternoon, I was up against a Globe deadline, the kids had just gotten home from school and the house was noisy. Half of what he said, I couldn’t hear, but I heard this:  “Is it plausible that you would consider moving to Pittsburgh?”

I laughed.

Plausible, yes.

It’s also plausible that I might move to Alaska (where they pay you to live), or to Poland (where my daughter is going next month), or to the moon.

Plausible, yes, but not likely.

But David Shribman is a legendary newsman with a Pulitzer, and the paper has six of its own, and when I visited, I looked out of my hotel room and saw lovely old houses and churches atop cliffs, and sports stadiums, and the rivers, and some of the city’s dazzling bridges. It didn’t seem anything like the places I now call home, and it was much too far from the ocean, but it was …. plausible. Yes, it was.

So here we are, nudged (maybe shoved) by a confluence of odd circumstance, and although there are still mornings when I wake up and think “what the hell just happened?”, for the most part, it’s been terrific.

I’m learning to do a type of writing I’ve never done before — editorials —  and loving being part of a newsroom again.  And, not insignificantly, I finally got my goat.


LAST YEAR, I bought a birthday card that shows an Old-World, gray-haired woman complaining that birthdays promise, but never deliver. “I make wish. It never comes true. But eets fun tradition.”    Inside, she says, “I make wish for goat. Does goat come? No!”

On our refrigerator is that image, with “no” crossed out and “yes” in its place.

As most of you know, I’m all about animals.  I think a lot of people who were overweight as children are — animals were (are) the only creatures we could trust not to make fun of us. We get attached.

I would have hundreds, but for my desperate desire to sleep (circa 1-14-93, the birthday of my firstborn). You can’t hit the snooze button on dogs. Or roosters.  So maybe farm livin’ isn’t the life for me. But you never know.

When I accepted the job on the editorial board of the Post-Gazette (meet my distinguished colleagues here), I started looking for a house in Mt. Lebanon, a well-regarded suburb of Pittsburgh infested with gorgeous brick Tudors and white-tailed deer.  But I also placed an ad on craigslist that said:  Looking for three-bedroom house to rent within 30 minutes of Pittsburgh, in a great school district, with room for donkeys. I know, I know, but miracles do happen.

I expected nothing.

Over the past five years, I’ve grown increasingly cynical about miracles, but as readers of my book know, I still have a rich, complicated relationship with hope.

And damned if, for once, it didn’t deliver.

I got an email from an amazing couple who live in Mt. Lebanon, but have a farmhouse in the North Hills, where they do organic farming when they’re not at work, or caring for their nine children, or homeschooling, or taking care of feral cat colonies.

The house was empty; they were mostly just using the land. They would consider renting it. Without traffic, it was just 20 minutes to the newspaper office.

007So here we are –  looking out the kitchen window at, best as I can count, 150 free-range chickens, 12 ducks, 10 pigs, four cows, three calves, and, soon to be, two donkeys.  (Jo-Jo and Foggy arrive in two weeks.)

There’s a treehouse, a tire swing, a trampoline, a gazebo with a swing, an enthusiastic stream, and …. five goats.

Hope doesn’t often deliver. But when it does, it delivers in spades.

Review, Amherst

William Nicholson is a screenwriter, or at least a co-screenwriter, having shared credits for Shadowlands, Les Miserables and Gladiator. (Although given the scathing things Russell Crowe has said about the Gladiator script, one would think he’d leave that off the resume.)

amherstbookartIn Amherst, Nicholson has written another script, albeit one disguised as a novel. It’s a soppy, gloppy rendition of a story that’s already been written: the scandalous love affair between Emily Dickenson’s brother and the wife of an Amherst professor, sanctioned (and possibly encouraged) by the beloved, odd poet herself.

Polly Longsworth told it first, in a 1984 book that was 449 pages and contained the love letters exchanged between Austin Dickenson, who was 53 years old when he fell in love with Mabel Loomis Todd, who was 25. In the small town of Amherst, which was even smaller when the Todds arrived in 1881, little was hidden. Austin Dickenson and Mabel Todd used Emily Dickenson’s dining room for their trysts (specifically, the dining-room couch, if you want too much information), and it’s uncomfortably understood that the poet probably overheard much that went on in the 13-year affair that ended, still blazing, upon Austin’s death.

Adding to an already awkward situation, both spouses knew of the love affair. Mabel’s husband, himself the philandering type, approved because it gave him license to roam. Austin Dickenson’s wife icily did not, but the pair remained married and, like the Todds, are buried side-by-side like more conventional spouses.

Stranger still, although Mabel Dickenson is credited with giving Emily Dickenson her fame — having organized and published the 2,000 poems Dickenson kept locked in a desk — she never met her face to face. They exchanged notes, and Emily wrote Mabel poems (and overheard her ecstasies) but Mabel saw Emily only when she was lying in her coffin.

And you thought your family was strange.

You can’t make this stuff up, but Nicholson gamely tries, interspersing a sparsely written version of the Emily-Austin-Mabel affair with a modern-day parallel, a cloying drama of an aspiring British screenwriter who goes to Amherst to research the tale and – spoiler alert – and stays with a much older, much married man who happens to share some of Mabel and Austin’s free-love notions.   At first, Alice Dickenson (yes, he names the fictional screenwriter Dickenson — insert pained sigh) resists his rants about “love as possession, love as ownership, love as property.”

” ‘Look,’ he says, exasperated, ‘I don’t quite know why we’re having this argument, but it seems to me to be perfectly simple. If I love my mother, must I love my father less? If I love one friend, must I love another friend less? Love isn’t a limited resource. It’s not a cake that’s going to run out. It’s the very opposite. The more you love, the more there is.’ ”

To which, our heroine Alice replies, “Does your wife agree with you on this?”

The snappy dialogue continues, and there’s a naked swim in a hidden pool, and Nick Crocker, the aging academic, is so, so attractive. As a hundred years earlier, messiness ensues. Like a hundred years earlier, there’s much moralizing.

Mabel and Austin believed that their love was ordained by God, although it was outside the bounds of commonly accepted propriety. Theirs was a complicated passion; the one shared by Alice and Nick, in comparison, seems only tawdry. And the business of Alice (Dickenson!) writing a screenplay within what will someday probably be a screenplay is wearisome on its face.

To be fair, this will probably make an excellent movie, which, one suspects, is the point of the venture. Nicholson has written 13 other books (six of them for children), but the money’s in Hollywood, which is likely where this is headed. Given the sparseness of phrase, it won’t take long for him to adapt it.

As such, the potential reader is probably better served by abandoning this story in favor of the Longsworth book or Lyndall Gordon’s “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” which also chronicles Amherst’s most famous affair. This way, when the movie comes out, there’s a chance you won’t know the ending. A small chance, but a chance, nonetheless.

Originally published in The Hippo.