Archive for July, 2007

Listen to the Lion

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Three weeks just fly by, when one is engaged in engrossing and challenging work in a novel environment. Teaching Torts and Contracts and Remedies in a posh precinct of London so full of museums it seems to serve as a warehouse of Empire has kept your reporter almost too busy to blog.

But it has passed in a flash, and now we are off to Amsterdam for 6 days of R&R before diving back into real life in Watertown. We are already assiduously avoiding desperate emails from flummoxed colleagues and needy children, all asking when we will be back. Too soon, too soon.

Meanwhile, our main worry is the authenticity of the somewhat shady last minute on-line travel agency from whom we obtained our air tickets and hotel reservations. We keep flashing in our mind’s eye to our chagrin on learning that our agency is merely a front for some Mongolian Mafia and our reservations no more than decorative ink on cheap copy paper.

We know not a soul in Holland, not anymore, although a close examination of the Dowbrigade stats reveals a hardcore of readers. Anyone aware of happenings or cyber events next week in Amsterdam, let us know.

The plan, if these reservations are real, is to stay at the Shipshol Airport hotel tonight, and move to the Van Gogh hotel tomorrow, on the Museumplatz, near the Big Three museums; the Van Gogh, the Reichsmuseum (Rembrant, etc.) and the modern art museum. This plaza is near Vondelpark, the biggest botanical refuge in the city, a bit away from the Dam and the major tourist areas. Lovely area, if we remember from our previous visits.

Added interesting note – as we hurry to post this last message before we cut the cord (ubiquitous wifi on Campus here in London) and head off into the adventurous part of the trip, Skynews on the TV is broadcasting live from Heathrow, the airport we are heading for, reporting that 141 flights have been cancelled, hundred yard lines, flooding, etc. Seems the situation is dire.

Although our flight isn’t supposed to leave for 8 hours, maybe we’ll head out as soon as they kick us out of the flat, at 10 am. Smells like news.

We will make an effort to post a few times from Cybercafes in the Low Countries.

Why We’re Not Worried

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mikeRecently, the news has been full of the intestinal ruminations of US Secretary of Homeland Security, who abruptly announced last week that he had a “gut feeling” that the US was about to be attacked by foreign terrorists.

The major media outlets and the blogosphere alike immediately ramped up an uproar, insinuating darkly that if anyone knows when its time to be very afraid it’s Michael Chertoff.

Well, let us go on the record as saying that the Dowbrigade isn’t worried. And we can say that with some degree of confidence, as we have , if memory serves, some experience with Michael Chertoff’s “gut feelings”.

For, you see, if we remember correctly, the Dowbrigade and Secretary Chertoff were at Harvard together (class of ’75), although in different departments and circles of friends. Chertoff, we seem to recall, majored in history and political science, while the Dowbrigade was engrossed in psychophysiology and shamanism.

If we remember correctly, Michael Chertoff was that skinny kid with the cadaverous skull who wore ratty sleeveless sweaters and argyle socks, and who we called “Jerk-off” behind his back.

We seem to recall an incident at a regular Friday wine and cheese reception at the Lowell House Master’s residence one November evening before the Harvard-Yale game our junior year (1973), when, after perhaps one too many glasses of Beaujolais, Michael, after removing his penny loafers to reveal subtly stained argyles, stood on one of the House Master’s living room chairs and announced that he had a gut feeling that Harvard would attack and overcome Yale’s formidable defenses the following day.

1973 Harvard-Yale final score from the Yale Bowl : Yale 35-Harvard 0.

At that point, if memory serves, Chertoff’s predictions were already well-known due to a oral report he delivered on October 4 of that same year to a Pollysci seminar called “Deciphering the Middle East”, in which he announced that he had “a gut feeling that there would be no further fighting in the area for at least a decade” while the Arab world waited to coalesce around a new generation of leaders.

Two days later Syria and Egypt simultaneously invaded Israel, setting off the desperate, bloody Yom Kippur War.

And to top it all off, if our memory holds, the following summer Michael was stuck in Cambridge for the summer, doing unpaid research for some professor’s book on Democracy. Late one night, legend has it, at Chiang Kai-shek’s Chicken Shack in Boston’s Chinatown, on the night of August 7, following a somber meeting of the Young Republicans Club, the future Terror Tsar made a heart-felt attempt to animate the crowd by proclaiming his “gut feeling that the President was going to come through his crisis and show up the Senate Democrats for the heel-snapping hyenas they were.”

The next day, of course. Richard Nixon announced his resignation, and Michael Chertoff was admitted to Stillman Infirmary with an acute case of food poisoning. If memory serves.

Of course, our memory is pretty hazy these days, especially of those days, which were pretty hazy themselves, come to think of it. But even if we have some of the details mixed up, we aren’t canceling any plans due to the Secretary’s sensitive gut.

His track record simply doesn’t merit it.

The Tall and Small

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Tall and small in ChinaIn terms of height they are worlds apart. The world’s tallest man, Bao Xishun today shook hands with He Pingping who claims to be Earth’s shortest.

But these two men actually hail from the same region of Inner Mongolia.

While Mr Xishun, 56, towers above everyone at an astonishing 7’10”, 19-year-old Mr Pingping is a mere 2’5″ high.

Bao Xishun, a herdsman from Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, was recently married in a traditional ceremony to a 28-year-old saleswoman from his hometown. At 5ft 6″ Xia Shujian only comes up to his elbow and is half his age.

He claims he was of normal height until he was 16 when he experienced a growth spurt and reached his present height seven years later. Mr Xishun was confirmed as the tallest person by the Guinness Book of Records last year.

Mr Pingping was born nearby in Wulanchabu city, Inner Mongolia. His father claims he was only the size of an adult’s palm at birth.

He is now seeking to be registered as the world’s shortest man by the Guinness Book of Recrods.

from the Daily Mail

Hats On the Henley

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Henley HatAs a seasoned veteran of  many Head of the Charles Regattas, held on the Charles River every fall, we felt an obligation to attend the august English equivalent, the Royal Henley Regatta at Henley-on-Thames.

We have never actually ROWED on the Charles or the Thames, mind you, but we have cheered on many a friend and the boats of our alma mater over the years. And so last Saturday we headed for the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames, about an hour southeast of London, where we met a friend whose daughter rowed for Brown.

In addition, the Harvard Heavies were favorites for the prestigeious Queens Cup. Any athletic contest is more engrossing when one has a dog in the fight.

However, once there we had serious trouble keeping our eyes on the river. Everywhere  we looked, it seemed, women were wearing outrageous, spectacular, unique and uniformly ugly HATS. Every size, shape and color, but all featuring some bizarre, unbalanced or seemingly random embellishment.

At first we thought it was a joke (we spied a few prime examples on the train out from London), but once we saw these dames strutting and preening on the banks of the Thames, we realized these were serious fashion statements.  All we could do was start snapping with the Nikon.

Here are the results.

Hypochondriac Heaven

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davincimanComputer geek hypochondriacs have long wished for a medical diagnostic program where you tell the computer what you feel like, and it will tell you what you’ve got.

An early effort in this direction was launched in the late 70’s by our Harvard undergraduate roommate, who was developing it while a student at Colombia Medical School.

He was know as Michael Red, due to his waist-length red hair and his fire-engine red classic Porsche. He was developing a program into which doctors could feed all of their observations and test results, and get back a list of the most probable diagnoses, in order of likelihood.

Older doctors thought he was crazy, doctors didn’t use computers, the PC was still a decade away, but we knew he was on to something. Michael Red was one of the smartest people we knew.

Then one summer we came back from an incomplete internship with a shaman in South America to find out that Michael Red was dead, murdered on his grandfather’s Christmas tree farm in Conneticutt by his main colaborator on the medical software project.

But the dream lives on. Today we discovered that WebMD has unveiled a “Symptom Checker” which in some ways goes beyond what Michael had envisioned, primarily because it is designed to be used by the patient rather than the doctor.

It’s very Web 2.o.  You start with a model of the human body, and point to where it hurts.  Then you answer a series of questions about the pain, discomfort, other symptoms, your age and general health, and BINGO – out pops not one, but about 20 possible conditions you could have.

Obviously, this is like a winning lottery ticket for a hypochondriac, and a goldmine for WebMD. Within minutes of discovering the site, we were convinced that we had dermatomyositis, a helicopactor pyori infection, and an aortic aneurysm.

Of course, information on each of these life-threatening conditions is just a click away on the WebMD site.

But don’t take our word for it.

Check it out for yourself here.

Trashing the Tate

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dowbrigade at the tateHere in London, the only place we see panic and dismay at the recent rash of attempted car bombings in Great Britain is on the softly glowing screens of the Toshiba TV in our London flat and our trusty laptop. Newscasters here are calling the plot the “Doctor Bombers.” Puts a whole new spin on Michael Moore’s “Sicko.”

In the streets of London, life goes on pretty much as usual. People walking their dogs, hustling down streets and lanes burdened under bags and boxes. Sweet secretaries, harried clerks named Clive, adolescent riff-raff looking as indolent as possible, students and soccer players and tons and tons of tourists, each in their own world, chatting on the phone, plugged into iPods or jiving with friends, nobody seems to be worrying about terrorism.

Which is probably not surprising. To a dyslexic Yank, the most dangerous thing on London’s street is the traffic. It seems to come from all sides. Yes, we are aware that they drive on the left on this side of the pond, but in addition to that drivers fly around corners with seeming total disregard for inattentive pedestrians.

The attitude in the street seems more akin to Latin America, where anyone who can’t afford a car had better watch out, than to Harvard Square, where drivers pussyfoot and crawl around corners out of fear of running over a Kennedy scion or the future King of Moldavia.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, use of turn signals seems to be optional, and parking, even on major thoroughfares, is allowed in either direction, facing or following the flow of traffic, resulting in drivers cutting suddenly across lanes to snag choice parking spots. And yet, despite the chaotic conditions and numerous near-misses, we have yet to witness an actual accident.

However, today, on the way to the Tate Modern, we were almost flattened by a diaper delivery vehicle, which careened around the corner in front of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece St. Paul’s Cathedral and practically plastered us to a bollard as we were trying to take a snapshot of a tugboat on the Thames.

Had we been taken to Hospital directly from that unfortunate incident, we wouldn’t have missed much. The building housing the museum, a mammoth former power plant, is impressive, but once inside we had trouble telling the actual art from empty display cases, electrical fixtures in the walls and various apparently abandoned satchels and packages which don’t seem to bother anyone much in this terror-prone city. Guess that means they must be art.

There was an entire exhibit of “found object” art, meaning all sorts of trash and common objects which were somehow magically transubstantiated into “art” because some so-called “artist” slapped a name tag and a price tag on them.

Truth be told, the Dowbrigade has never really “gotten” modern art. In fact, we consider it to a pretentious refuge for talentfree wannabes who couldn’t draw a dollar sign yet insisted that they were creative talents on the scale of a da Vinci or Donatello.

We don’t consider much of anything post-Impressionism more than pop culture or passing curiosity, and since the Tate Modern seemed to start around 1900, there wasn’t much power in the plant for our taste.

One exception to our general disinterest in 20th century art is surrealism. We had hopefully noted that the Tate is currently featuring a special exhibit on Dali and film. Upon arriving at the museum, however, we discovered that the Special Exhibit had a Special Price of 12 pounds ($24), and, adding insult to injury, the powers that be had removed EVERY SINGLE DALI from the permanent collection and rehung them in the restricted admission area.

After an hour of wandering around among works we were unable to even categorize as art, we ordered a five-dollar cup of tea at one of the poshly-priced cafes strategically situated around the museum, and found an empty seat near the door where more affluent and discerning patrons were exiting the Dali film exhibit. Perhaps, we reflected, as a failed artist , we were unable to respect any art we could have conceivably created ourself.

Every time the big exit door to the Special Exhibit opened, we could see a large Dali oil handing tantalizingly at an acute angle on a wall beyond. It was the closest we got all day to seeing a work we really wanted to see.

See the Dowbrigade’s Photos from England

Bulking Up Bowser

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This is Wendy the Whippet, the dog whose appearance is a long way from the usual long, lean and sleek look of her breed.

She was born with a genetic defect which has left her looking like the Incredible Hulk of Hounds.

While her head, heart, lungs and legs are the size of those of a normal whippet, her gene defect means she is “double muscled”.

She weighs 4st4lb – twice as much as she should – and has bulging neck muscles, burly shoulders and haunches like a baboon. And unlike ordinary whippets known for their lithe and narrow frame, this four-year-old pedigree doesn’t just have a sixpack stomach, she has a 24-pack.

But while she may look oddly menacing, her doting owner Ingrid Hansen claims the giant pooch likes nothing better than clambering up on to your lap to have her back scratched.

“People have referred to her as Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said.

“She’s healthy and happy. That’s all that counts.

“She doesn’t know she’s got a genetic defect. She might give you a nasty lick, that’s all.”

from the Daily Mail (we are in London, after all)

Instant Classic at Wimbledon

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nadalfed(Wimbledon, England – Exclusive to BostonNow) Tennis fans and history buffs will long remmber what transpored in the Tennis Temple of Wimbledon this afternoon. For a pure expression of a sport at the highest peak of its possible performance, and an example of the indomitable competitive spirit, it would be hard to outdo the show put on by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal today on Centre Court of the All England Club.

As tennis is the quintessential confrontation of athelete on athelete, one-on-one, each armed with his weapon and his wiles, it is natural that in the land of the tennis legends the honor roll is read in pairs: Conners and McEnroe, Everet and Navratilova, Sampras and Aggasi, and now Federer and Nadal. They are bound together forever, to the benefit of both, each with his or her arch-nemesis on the other side of the net.

Today Federer won in five sets of magnificent tennis, making him only the second man (after Borg) in 100 years to win five in a row. The level of play was such as lesser players (everyone else in the world) can only dream of. Last year Federer won at Wimbleton. Earlier this summer Nadal won on clay at the French Open Final in Paris. With any luck we can look forward to years more of this struggle; Federer is just 26, Nadal 22.

Like all great sports rivalries, this one features a contrast in styles. If one accepts the theory of multiple intelligences, there are at least three types of intelligence involved in tennis at this level, and these guys are geniuses in all three. In the arena of physical genius, Nadal has the edge. The Spaniard is an animal, in the most magnificent sense of the word, leaping to attack every single ball unfortunate enough to venture into his lair. In the arena of intellectual genius, Federer reigns supreme. It is a marvel to watch his steel-edged Swiss mind analyze his opponents’ game during the first few games of a match, and then eviscerate and dissect them like a specimen on an examining table.

In the arena of emotional or spiritual genius they are evenly matched, each a mountain of indomitable energy, resolve and pure fighting spirit. Which is why, when they meet, it is a rare and exquisite treat. Any fan of sport in any of its forms should treasure these chances to witness two human beings performing at the highest level of their art and skill seen by man, up to this point.

The next chapter in this epochal struggle will probably be next month, in Queens. See you there.