The SkywalkerSwartz Blog

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Born Again in Siena


I was born in 1979. That waning year of the Jimmy Carter administration and stagflation was also the last time that Civetta (the "Little Owl") won the Palio, Siena's twice-yearly medieval horse race. Civetta is one of 17 contrade, or districts, of Siena, a walled city that once rivaled Florence for domination of Tuscany.

The contrada that has not won the Palio for the longest is called la nonna or "the grandma," and with its 30-year losing streak, Civetta was la nonna by 10 years over the next "oldest" contrada (Lupa, the "She Wolf"). Think of the (pre-2004) Red Sox or the (current) Cubs...that's Civetta. In fact, during this year's July Palio, Civetta's horse was injured the day before (during the prova generale or "general test race") so they didn't even get a chance to run! A few years back, a Dutch TV station even ran a documentary called The Last Victory (reviewed here) about their failure to win since 1979.


The beautiful and talented Erika Parker somehow managed to stumble onto tickets for Civetta's Cena della Prova Generale, a dinner thrown by each contrada to celebrate the final test race and prepare for the next day's Palio. (I'll ignore for the moment that she chose Civetta because their flag matched her outfit...) There, we joined the civettini as they sang their traditional songs and neighborhood bigwigs gave speeches about their favorite contrada. Carlo Rossi, the priore (president) explained that this smallest of the contrade was still the best: "We are great, not because we are many, but because we have great hearts."


Pumped up and hoping that Civetta would finally win, we headed early to the Piazza del Campo to find a good spot. A few of us explored Siena's beautiful duomo (cathedral) and we grabbed some picnic supplies to feed the rest of the group. On the way back, we encountered an interesting West Side Story Sharks versus Jets meets Robin Hood: Men in Tights moment, as rival contradaioli sporting full medieval regalia passed each other in narrow lanes, taunting each other with flags.

As the afternoon wore on, we finally got some shade and watched the long medieval procession into the Campo. After much flag-throwing and trumpet-blasting, a number of young civettini arrived and shoved their way into a spot near us. Their arrival nearly started a fight: On one hand, the people whom they shoved aside had been waiting for many hours to get that spot: first come, first served. On the other hand, those people were outsiders merely here to observe, rather than participants here to cheer on their beloved Civetta. We had experienced similar less-than-welcoming attitudes from Sienese earlier, which reminded me a bit of some of my former island-mates in Bainbridge Island, Washington, who professed to hate the ferry to Seattle, even though that ferry is the only reason the island is so wealthy. After all, Siena's economy depends on all the outsiders coming into Siena during Palio. Still, it was a thrill to now be surrounded by fanatic Civetta fans.


Finally the horses arrived, and a hush went over the crowd. It was erie having that many thousands of Italians go completely quiet. Finally, the race director broke the silence to announce the starting lineup. When Civetta was announced in the fourth position (a good one, as far as I can tell), a small yell went up from the civettini around us, although they quickly went quiet. Then began one hour and a half--that's right, 90 minutes--of lining up and false starts. In fairness, this is because a good start relies on the hardest thing possible for an Italian: waiting still in a straight line. Imagine how hard it is for an Italian horse!

As the time wore on and frustrations mounted, we reminded ourselves of Civetta's motto: Vedo nella notte ("We see at night")...which was appropriate, as the late hour and diminishing sun almost made the city fathers postpone the race until the next day. Finally, almost without warning, they were off! As they rounded the first turn, we could barely believe our eyes: Civetta was ahead! They approached the deadly Curva di San Martino (a sometimes literally deadly 90 degree turn), and as they emerged...Civetta was still in the lead! We began to jump up and down excitedly as they went around the piazza a second time.  Civetta still ahead! As they went around a third and final time, Civetta's jockey (Andrea Mari, or "Brio," the same guy who couldn't ride in the July Palio due to his horse's injuries) opened up a commanding lead and wild euphoria broke out among the civettini (see Rai 3's coverage below...the race begins at about 1:30).



As they passed the finish line, a few of us Americans jumped over the railing with the civettini to join in the celebration. We massed around the Palio (a banner in honor of the Assumption of Mary) as they ripped it down and began to parade it around the city.  (Note: in the video above, you can hear Jon Dowling, who was apparently close to the microphone, yelling "Luca!  Luca!" at me around 4:34, just before we almost got crushed by the Palio horde.)  The emotions were over-the-top: imagine winning the World Series and Superbowl at the same time and then rushing the field.

It is said that when a contrada wins the Palio, the residents are all re-born. They even sport pacifiers to bring home the point that they are no longer the nonna. Thus, while yesterday, like all the residents of Civetta, I was 30 years old, today, I am born again!

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Monday, June 15, 2009

La Dolce Via: How to Drive in Italy

Three major tips for understanding Italian driving. For even more excitement, follow my example and learn to drive stick at the same time!

1) CARS ARE BIG SCOOTERS - Italians can't drive until age 18...but they can drive scooters as young as 14. When they grow up, they treat their cars like big scooters: weaving around wildly.

2) PRAGMATISM, NOT RULES - Americans follow rules. They stay in their lanes and stop at stop signs/lights. The Italians will stay in their lanes--but not if there's extra room. They will stop at traffic signals--if there is someone to stop for. Americans expect cars to come to a complete stop for pedestrians, but Italians just weave around them (remember rule 1: Cars are just big scooters). It's actually much more efficient.

3) DIFFERENT SIGNALS - Take a look at this handy chart:
SignalMeaning in USAlternate Meaning in Italy
leaving your left turn signal on in the left lane"I am old and forgot to turn off my signal""I want to pass you" or "I will move over when I get a chance."
hazard lights"I am pulled over and don't want you to hit me.""sudden stop/slowdown ahead."
honking"F--- you!" or "Get outta' my way!""Hey, just so you know, I'm here" or "I'm not going to let you in."

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Know-Nothing Veep: How the VPILF Broke My Heart

...the trouble is that...the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. - Bertrand Russell, "The Triumph of Stupidity"


I'll admit it: John McCain had already broken my heart--wooing religious demagogues he once denounced, proposing unfunded tax cuts he once decried, and slinging mud he once disdained--such that I wasn't going to vote for his ticket even if he chose a resurrected Mother Teresa as his running mate. But I must say that when I first heard and saw Sarah Palin, I was impressed. Yes, her relatively thin résumé undermined the Republican argument that Obama was "inexperienced," but what a talker! (And what a looker!) She rightfully gave the campaign a fresh, reform-minded, outsider--and, let's not forget it, feminine--jolt of energy.

Over the subsequent weeks, I saw snippets of interviews and, despite her masterful performance at the RNC, a few doubts began to seep in: Was she really up to the job? Or were these just a "gotcha" moments of nervousness?

Then I saw SNL's parody of her interview with Katie Couric. In it, Tina Fey (born for the role) responds to a question about the Wall Street Bailout with a nonsensical talking-point stream of consciousness. Hilarious. It reminded me of Miss Teen South Carolina 2007's much-played YouTube moment. (I'm not the only one.) But truth is stranger than fiction: the line was almost verbatim from the real interview. It was so embarrassing, even Ross Douthat, a thoughtful Republican writer who had suggested Palin as a VP pick early on, cringed.

Noam Scheiber's article put the final nail in my "I love Sarah" coffin. He describes her start in politics on the Wasilla city council, and her meteoric rise to the Governorship. What emerges is a portrait not only of a opportunistic power-grabber (let's be honest: what politician--Obama included--is not?) but, more disturbingly, a spiteful, willfully ignorant ideologue who not only didn't know simple aspects of government but who didn't care to learn. In short, she has more in common with the current President than just saying "nucular": she takes a perverse pride in her simple-mindedness.

It's this shoot-from-the-hip, loyalty-over-competence, don't-think-things-through, we-don't-do-nuance approach that got us into so much trouble under the current administration. Paul Krugman laments that the GOP, once the "party of ideas" has "become the party of stupid...the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise."

It's too bad: I once believed that John McCain was the sort of thoughtful rebel who could buck the GOP's current trend of ideological handcuffs and know-nothing ersatz-redneck stupidity. Alas, whichever way this election goes, we'll have to wait at least four more years to see if the party of Lincoln can live up to its former greatness.

Update: William F. Buckley's son also apparently feels the same disappointment at the "new" McCain.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

The World's Healthiest Food for Thought

My friend Bryan is fanatically devoted to a book called The World's Healthiest Foods. You can preview author George Mateljan's list of healthy foods on his website. Of course, I'm more concerned about taste, and thus prefer The New Best Recipe, which I tell my friends is like "being given the answers to the test ahead of time."

This war of cookbooks points out what I think is a larger trend (as noted by David Kamp's United States of Arugula and Mark Bittman's excellent NY Times Magazine article) that eating and cooking--both for health and pleasure--has become a national obsession. Some interesting reading on the subject:

  • Real Food

    Nina Planck, a farmers' market organizer, has become a proponent of "Real Food"...which means not only eating local/non-processed food, but also eating meats and other animal products (including lard!). She used to be a vegan, and her book largely chronicles her journey from only-olive-oil-and-lentils to a wider range of "real" foods. A brief interview gives you the gist of her thesis, as can a longer video of her speaking in Seattle. An obvious criticism is that poor people cannot afford the free-range organic meats that she promotes, but her thesis is still compelling.


  • Pollan's Polemics

    Michael Pollan seems to be making a career out of food politics, including a thought-provoking article on "Nutritionism", what he calls the obsession with eating nutrients instead of--you guessed it--real food. The article likely excerpts from his new book, In Defense of Food. Also interesting is his shorter article on how the Farm Bill should really be called the Food Bill, which will make you even more angry that the Democrats squandered a chance to finally reform food subsidies.

    Pollan's best writing may be in the highly popular Omnivore's Dilemma, which poses the question, "What should one eat"? Among its very interesting chapters is a critique of, and defense of, eating animal products. Essentially, he comes to the same conclusion as Nina Planck: that perhaps there is much evil in industrialized farming of animals, but eating traditionally raised animals can be completely ethical and even humane. If you enjoyed Fast Food Nation, you'll also enjoy this book. Parts of it are a bit pretentious and overwrought, but the interesting subject matter and thoughtful conclusions are worth the occasional ramble. One of his early points, that (heavily subsidized) corn is the cash crop behind much of the "food" in the supermarket, is featured in the movie King Corn.

    Both Pollan and Planck have the same dietary message: forget the health fads of the 20th and early 21st century. So long as you eat "traditional" foods that your (or somebody else's) great-grandparents would eat, you'll probably be alright.


  • Foodstuff Fanaticism

    Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish, a fascinating tell-all about sushi, got me curious about what other foods have books devoted to them. A cursory Amazon search yielded books chronicling the complete history and anthropological significance of sugar (and another one), salt, potatoes, corn (and another), bananas, olives, peanuts, tomatoes, lobsters, oysters, cod, caviar, chocolate (and another one), honey, nutmeg, saffron, curry, coffeee (and another), milk, rum, tea, and no fewer than three books on vanilla. Several other books group several foodstuffs: Pollan's The Botany of Desire discusses apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes; Spice: The History of a Temptation covers various spices; Seeds of Change discusses quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, cocoa, and the potato while its sister book Seeds of Wealth discusses wine grapes as well as inedibles tobacco, timber, and rubber; A History of the World in 6 Glasses goes into beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola.

    ...now all we need is the "untold story" about how haggis "changed the world"!

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Is Jesus Red or Blue? The Politics of Bible TranslationsJesus Is a DemocratJesus Votes Republican

Just as it is supposedly possible to tell someone's political party from their consumer preferences, you can separate the Blue and Red Christians based on which translation of the Bible they use.

While Muslims believe the Qur'an is the direct Word of God and must be read in the original Arabic, Christians don't insist on reading the multiple Greek and Hebrew antecedents to the Bible. Thus, one must choose which of the several dozen English translations to use. Here are the major translations grouped geneologically with their political significance:


Catholic Bibles are different not only in that they get a fancy imprimatur but they also include the deuterocanonical books:

More Bible translation blog fun: an interesting discussion about what translation has to do with dog urination.



Saturday, March 04, 2006

Crash Into Stereotypes

I just finished watching Crash, an ensemble film likely to win a number of awards (including, perhaps, the Oscar for Best Picture?) this year. WARNING: Spoilers below if you haven't seen the movie!

Oscar-Made Ensemble Films

To me, the film had a similar feel to the less popular Thirteen Conversations About One Thing--a bunch of random folks end up having connections to each other in an artsy way. This style of film (the random-ensemble-comes-together, vice just a film with an ensemble cast) seems to be growing in popularity especially amongst Oscar contenders, with such titles as Love Actually, Magnolia, and Pulp Fiction.

Preachy or no?

At first the movie seemed like yet another can't-we-all-just-get-along several-hour exercise to show that "racism is bad." However, once two of the characters simultaneously bad-mouth and live up to the stereotype that "young black men cruising a white suburb must be up to no good" I knew the film was more complex.

Indeed, each person defies a stereotype in one way or another: The "good" non-racist cop kills a Black man, the "bad" racist cop saves a Black woman's life. The "gang-banger" Latino ends up being a tender father, the "hoodlum" black car thief ends up saving a truckload of immigrants from slavery. The "hothead" Persian store owner sees the light; the "Latin-bashing" rich white woman realizes her Latina housekeeper is her best friend. By the end of the film, each of the characters suprises you in some way or another.

Asians get screwed again

However, one group never gets any multi-dimensional characters or moves beyond conventional stereotypes: Asians. Despite LA being chock full of Asians, there are basically only two kinds of Asians in the film: FOBs (represented by the Korean couple who each get into an accident) and Nerds (represented by the inspector who tells the Persians that the insurance company won't pay them back).

The only "suprising" the Asian characters do is not be Chinese: the "chinaman" under the truck is Korean, and the "chinamen" in the truck are Southeast Asian. (As the director mentions in the DVD commentary, this "not all Asians are Chinese" falls in line with the "not all Latinos are Mexican" and "not all Middle Easterners are Arab" theme.) Other blogs noticed the same thing. Although the movie has aspirations of initiating dialogue about stereotypes and racism, at least where Asians are concerned, it merely replays the same old schtick.

Linguistics and racism

African American Vernacular English (or AAVE) plays an interesting role in one scene: Tony Danza, in a cameo as a TV producer, comments that one of the characters isn't talking "Black" enough. The film sets up his comment as thinly veiled racism, but I disagree: Perhaps the way he said it--"Eddie's supposed to be the smart one, not Jamal," thus equating AAVE with stupidity--was wrong, but it's true that some characters (just like some people) speak more "standard"/white English than others. Most African-Americans drift easily between the two linguistic forms, but it does "ring false" (as Danza's character points out) if a character who always speaks in AAVE suddenly sounds like a WASP-y Harvard grad.



Sunday, February 19, 2006

OHIO in the News


OHIO Media Day

We recently had our Return to Service ceremony (basically the same thing as a Commissioning ceremony except that OHIO was never de-commissioned), so OHIO is now all over the web! Here are some of the best links:
  • The Navy News Site has a bunch of photos, including one of much of the wardroom "manning the rails" in front of the Captain reporting OHIO "manned and ready." Since we're arranged in height order, I'm about 5-6 people too short to appear in the photo! Also, the one showing sailors in front of the sail with our "726" hull number includes 2 guys in my division. Other Navy photos are at the CSG9 webpage and slideshow.

  • Before the ceremony, we had a "media day" underway when various organizations were invited on board to see the sub in action. Yours truly was stuck back in "the box" (the Maneuvering space in the Engine Room where the reactor is controlled) so there aren't any photos of me...but there is a photo accompanying the Kitsap Sun's article of some of my fellow JOs pretending to plan a mission with the SEALS in our Battle Management Center.

  • Media Day happened to be a very windy one, so the vessel that was supposed to take the media back home had some trouble...The Tacoma News Tribune article mentions the stormy weather and cheesily calls it "a metaphor for Ohio's new mission." Also check out LTJG Ryan Schow's head just barely peeking out in front of his freezing lookouts (YN2 Mcleod and MM3 Simpson).

  • One of the film crews on board for Media Day was from the Naval Media Center, who produced a short Windows Media Player news clip that features a bunch of my shipmates and the Captain.

  • Supposedly KING 5 news brought a film crew as well, but the only clip I could find on their website was this older one of OHIO passing Seattle on our way out for Sea Trials.

  • Finally, the Navigator's wife, Heidi Evans, wrote the best description of the RTS ceremony in her weekly Saturday column in the Kitsap Sun (you may need to register to see it).



Sunday, January 01, 2006

Submarine Movies

So, what's the best submarine movie? Clearly Das Boot is the classic choice, although The Hunt for Red October, with its Cold War drama and classic Sean Connery lines ("One ping only!") is a close runner-up. Of course, each has its problems: The former is in German (and thus the subtitles will put off a lot of viewers) and the latter requires close attention (otherwise its dense plot will confuse a lot of viewers). Nevertheless, if you only see two sub movies, these should be the two.

What of the rest of the movies?

Well, having ridden the ALABAMA, I am compelled to mention Crimson Tide. It features excellent performances by Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington and an interesting dilemma regarding nuclear war, but in the submarine community it's a laughingstock. Pretty much every scene has multiple errors, a handful of which are on the IMDB goofs page, but the funny thing is that the dialogue is fairly accurate (e.g. what people say when the ship is diving, as opposed to what you see--a fast attack diving!). My guess is that they had a submariner help them write the script, but that they didn't have anybody on hand (or didn't listen to him) during filming.

I wasn't all that thrilled with Run Silent, Run Deep. I honestly don't remember much about the movie, other than when I finished it, I remember thinking, "That is a classic?"

U-571 is a bit silly/trite in points, but is still an enjoyable movie.

K-19: The Widowmaker features a horrific nuclear accident underway and an even more horrific Russian accent by Harrison Ford, but it tells its (true) story well. It's important to note that the Russians' reactors had (and, as far as I know, still have) many fewer safety features than the Americans'!

I recently saw a forgettable submarine rescue movie from 1978, Gray Lady Down, starring Charlton Heston ("Let my people go...um...back to the surface, Pharaoh!"). In an interesting twist, Gray Lady Down's cast features two stars from the same year's Superman: Christopher Reeve (who of course plays Superman/Clark Kent) as LTJG Phillips, a bit part, and Ned Beatty (who plays Otis, Lex Luthor's bumbling assistant) as Chief Mickey, Stacy Keach's slightly-less-bumbling assistant. For much better sub rescue fare, read the excellent book The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas (there was also a halfway decent TV movie Submerged based on the book, starring Sam Neil (lead in Jurassic Park and XO on the Red October) as Charles "Sweede" Momsen).

However, the most accurate portrayal of submariners and their antics is definitely Down Periscope, the silly comedy featuring Kelsey Grammer. Ask any submariner and they'll tell you the same!



Sunday, August 14, 2005

Frequently Asked Questions about Submarines

Having returned from a ride on the ALABAMA, I thought I'd post answers to questions folks have been asking me:

Do you have any windows?
Nope. NR-1, the Navy's research submarine, has a window, but that's about it.

But don't you want to see the fish?
Well, seeing as sunlight only penetrates down a few dozen feet, you wouldn't be able to see them without a powerful light anyway. However, I did get to see about two dozen dolphins jumping around just outside of San Diego through the periscope!

Is the nuclear power plant like The Simpsons?
Exactly. I spend 100% of my day eating jelly doughnuts and saying "Doh!"

Don't you get claustophobic?
Despite the fact that our "racks" (beds) are called "coffins," no. It's very much like having to stay inside for days at a time with the windowshades drawn.

Do you get email?
Yes, depending on the ship's schedule, we can both send and receive email. This is an improvement from the Cold War days when sailors would get only short, telegram-like "family-grams" every month or so.

What's it like?
Probably the hardest thing to get used to is the schedule. Pretty much everybody is in one of three "watch sections," which rotate every 6 hours. Thus, you are up for 12 hours (6 of which is watch), sleep for 6, up for 12, sleep for 6...always getting up at a different time (due to the 18-hour vice 24-hour day).

For more FAQs, see the excellent Boomersailors page.



Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Another Reason Why Old Star Wars Better Than New Is

Geoff Pullum analyzes Yoda's syntax in a fun Language Log post, noting how Yoda tends to do two separate things: First, pull various phrases to the front of their clauses (in "XSV ordering"), as in "When nine hundred years you reach, look as good you will not." Second, "Yoda also extracts verb phrases that are catenative complements of auxiliary verbs, so those auxiliary verbs are left stranded at the end of the sentence" as in "Begun, the Clone Wars has." The second kind of Yoda-speak seems artificially backward to me, almost a caricature of the first, more natural "backwardness."

The interesting thing is that almost all of the examples of more normal/natural (in the sense of being like human natural languages) patterns come from episodes IV through VI, while the second kind of backwards-ness almost all comes from I through III. In other words, George Lucas seems to have made Yoda's speech even more unusual in the "prequels," thus making his once-sage pronouncements seem comical.



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