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Atlantic Monthly

Steinway and its Discontents

This book is really the story of two eccentrics. The first is Gould, easily the most finicky in a strong field of stubborn kooks on the concert-pianist circuit. The second, and more interesting, is the collectively eccentric industry of concert-piano builders, as epitomized by Steinway & Sons and the peculiar men (they are all men, at least in this account) who keep their products in tune. Other books have documented Gould’s eccentricities better — this one wastes a great deal of space reprising tired anecdotes about his summer overcoats, his extreme sensitivity to touch, and his diet of Arrowroot biscuits and ketchup — but the Steinway thread reveals an unfamiliar and fascinating side of the classical-music industry.

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Atlantic Monthly

Fallout Holidays

The opening scene of the newest Indiana Jones film is set in Nevada in 1957, possibly during Operation Plumbbob, an actual nuclear-test series in which the U.S. measured the response of humans and physical structures to nuclear blasts. Satellite images give a hint of what’s left: a pockmarked brown landscape of craters and broken buildings. There are smashed reinforced-concrete domes, shattered windows, as well as iron rails and bridges that the heat and explosion have twisted. It looks, I am told, like a place where Superman (or perhaps Uri Geller) had given himself over to a fit of rage.

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New York Sun

Panic Attack

Originally appeared The New York Sun.

Once, I had occasion to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I was on crutches at the time, and at a reception after an opening-night performance of “The Dybbuk.” While leaning against a wall and eating a smoked-salmon canapé, I felt heat on my lower back. Smelling smoke, I craned my head to see a small candle igniting my shirt, and flames licking their way up toward my collar. The reactions around me were diverse and instructive. A woman shrieked, and a man laughed. But neither did anything. I picked up my crutches, hobbled to the open bar and asked them to douse me. Incredibly, the barmaid started by daintily pressing ice cubes against the flames, until I suggested that she just drench me with the contents of her bucket.

Categories
Atlantic Monthly

Consider the Burger

A little over a century ago, the New York street food of choice was the oyster, which grew so abundantly that rich and poor alike ate them in vast quantities. That period feels distant and fantastic, partly because oysters are now a luxury food, and partly because it’s hard to imagine a national cuisine not dominated by the hamburger.

The signature American sandwich has always been an unapologetically demotic food — at least until recently — but Ozersky’s cultural history emphasizes three principal phases in our collective consumption: first, its murky origins in “hamburger steak,” first served in the U.S. but associated with immigrants from the port city of Hamburg; second, the early days of White Castle in the 1920s, when the preparation of burgers became a science and an art; and finally the postwar McDonald’s era, when a ruthless entrepreneur named Ray Kroc took the fast-food model and made it franchisable nationwide, and then worldwide.

The burger is, Ozersky notes, an irreducible food, a “gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato.” Yet somehow, with each phase, innovations prevailed. White Castle figured out that it could cook faster and more evenly and use griddle space more efficiently if it served square burgers, not round ones, and poked a hole in the center. McDonald’s embraced the all-Styrofoam-and-paper service area, streamlining itself into absurd profitability. And Dave Thomas, the genius behind Wendy’s, invented the drive-through window, capitalizing on the sandwich’s key virtue — its portability. You can eat a hamburger as you drive (try that with an oyster).

The Hamburger is short but comprehensive, heavy with interesting detail about the habits of American diners and restaurateurs. (It would be better if it were even leaner; the gratuitous lessons in pop sociology should be trimmed first.) One serious omission, though, is a realistic discussion of the scale of the industry it describes, which we all know is staggeringly large, but it is in fact even larger than most appreciate. The amount of beef McDonald’s alone uses in a year is so great that if the cows supplying its restaurants were all in one herd, and were being killed Blackfoot-style by stampeding them off a cliff 20 feet wide, McDonald’s gauchos would have to be rushing the herd off that cliff from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, to satisfy demand. The pop and sizzle of hamburgers conceal the frantic moos of an unfathomable number of animals, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgment of their sacrifice.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

Categories
New York Sun

The Bacteria Within Us

Originally published in the New York Sun.

The poet William Blake imagined what it would be like “to see the world in a grain of sand.” Reading “Microcosm” (Pantheon, 243 pages, $25.95), Carl Zimmer’s new book on the world’s most famous bacterium, one wonders whether Blake might have phrased his reverie differently if he had had an electron microscope. Had Blake looked closely enough, at a magnification that would make sand grains look like lifeless, barren mountains, the poet would have seen a remarkably complex creature, one so beguiling that it is, as Mr. Zimmer’s title suggests, easy to imagine it as a world in miniature. The bacterium, whose genome scientists mapped fully by 1997, fights viruses, just as we do; it fights its enemies, just as we do; it even has a primitive kind of sex. It is, the author argues persuasively, a model organism, and one with much to teach our own species.

Categories
Atlantic Monthly

Birth of a Nation

The south of Iraq is dominated by prickly and humorless factions — groups often indifferent to the perceptions of outsiders, and rarely willing to soften their image to soothe the nerves of the journalists who want to report on them. The north of Iraq presents the opposite problem: the Kurds are just so damned smooth, so endlessly accommodating, that a journalist has to keep his guard up to make sure he isn’t getting played.

Categories
Atlantic Monthly

Muqtada’s Victory

Four years ago last week, the subcommander of an armed faction in Iraq appeared in a grainy video — shot somewhere in Baghdad and distributed to Western journalists — and vowed to kill the leader of a rival group. Today that subcommander is alive but forgotten, and his rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, is one of the most powerful figures in the country. The forgotten subcommander, of course, is Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star whose command of Coalition forces in Iraq lasted a scant two months after he issued the kill order on Sadr. The contrast between Sadr’s massive public rallies and Sanchez’s furtive low-fi video should have given a clue as to how high young Sadr would rise.

Categories
New York Sun

Economics by Other Means

The New York Sun
April 16, 2008

To be an economist nowadays is to be a professional smartypants, gleeful in explaining away nearly everything everyone else does or cares about. Got a funny name? Ask an economist, not Mom and Dad. Worried about spotted owls? Check out this incentive structure. Think each “X-Men” movie is worse than the last? Have I got a regression for you. In recent years, as if to signal that they have exhausted the field of human behavior, economists have tried (and largely succeeded) to move on to other species and explain capuchin monkey behavior as well.

“Castles, Battles, and Bombs” (University of Chicago Press, 424 pages, $29), co-authored by an economist, Jurgen Brauer, and a historian, Hubert van Tuyll, purports to explain military history through economics. It examines seven key moments in the last thousand years of warfare — among them, the building of castles in the High Middle Ages, France’s decision to irradiate the South Pacific with costly nuclear testing during the Cold War, the role of private military contractors in the Italian Renaissance, and the bombing of Germany in World War II. These are all, the authors say, susceptible to economic analysis and elucidation. If economics can explain the behavior of capuchin monkeys, then surely it can explain the behavior of Frenchmen.