Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Dark Forest

I preferred this sequel to Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem to the first installment. Both books are sci-fi on a grand scale, featuring an evolving cast of largely Chinese characters as well as the mysterious and menacing aliens who have left their own doomed solar system and are en route to colonize earth and presumably exterminate humanity. What makes The Dark Forest a better book? Partly the translation from the Chinese, in this case by Joel Martinsen, which is more fluid and vivid than Ken Liu's competent but dry version of The Three-Body Problem. But I also found more compelling the story of Luo Ji, the unconventional hero of this tale. A dreamer, he conjures a love for himself, and a spell to save the world. Can they become reality?

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

We watched this masterful 1964 French musical last night. All the dialogue is sung, which is impressive, and the music by Michel Legrand features many familiar and lovely melodies. The plot revolves around a love affair and the unplanned pregnancy of a young single woman, played by Catherine Deneuve. The pregnancy is treated matter-of-factly, something you couldn't possibly imagine in an American film of the same period. The movie is a riot of colors; the current release was restored from three black-and-white separation masters ordered by the director, Jacques Demy.

Umbrellas was clearly an inspiration for La La Land, but unlike the latter film, which suffers from sluggish pacing in parts, Umbrellas sweeps the viewer along from start to finish. The jazzy score and recitative dialogue, along with the swirl of vivid colors, constantly delight the ears and eyes. As for the charming couple and their ill-fated romance... well, they're nice too.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Three killer graphics from Raj Chetty

Click your way over to his web site, The Equality of Opportunity Project, and spend some time exploring. Here are three of my favorites... you'll find your own.

1. You grew up poor: Your parents earned an income at the 10th percentile of the national income distribution. Across the tracks, your unlikely friend grew up rich, at the 90th percentile. You're both now in your mid-20s... How's it going? If you are typical, given your humble origins, you've had to work hard, but you've made out OK: your income is nearly at the 40th percentile– on the low side of middle class, but you've escaped poverty. Your friend, meanwhile, had many advantages in life, and not surprisingly she's doing better than you are: slightly above the 60th percentile. But materially, at least, the income divide of your childhood has narrowed substantially.

We know from comparative studies that intergenerational mobility in the United States is actually lower than most other developed economies. The playing field is not level: the circumstances of one's birth matter a lot here. But on average, maybe not as much as I had thought.

2. But wait a sec. "On average," I said. Average obscures a lot of variation. And in the United States, Chetty et al have shown, a lot of variation is associated with place. In this map, the colors show where you ended up in the income distribution, having been raised in a family at the 25th percentile. Darker means you were less likely to escape your humble origins. In the prairie states, you probably made it to middle class... If you came from the "black belt," or "the rez," you probably didn't do much better than your folks. Opportunity, like the map, is color-coded in America. The underlying data here, by the way, are adjusted for local cost of living. That adjustment only really matters in high-cost places like the Bay Area, which offers less upward mobility than we'd like to think.

3. So if you're living in one of those dark red zones, maybe you should grab the kids and move to a lighter place on the map. Will it help them grow up more prosperous? Indeed, and they gain for every additional year they're there. Meanwhile, our democracy might work harder figuring out how to equalize the numbers.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Trump tax reform best case scenario?

From John Cochrane's blog. I'd give it this side of a snowball's chance in hell.
Kotlikoff's preferred tax plan... a) eliminates the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, and the estate and gift tax, b) introduces a value added tax (VAT), a progressive personal consumption tax on top consumers that exempts consumption financed by labor income, an inheritance tax that kicks in after the receipt of $5 million, and a Co2 emissions tax of $80 per ton, c) eliminates the ceiling on the FICA payroll tax, and d) provides a $2,000 annual payment to each U.S. citizen.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, OK, I've only seen three of the nominees for best picture. Arrival? Good entertainment, cool aliens, definitely worth seeing. Best picture? C'mon. La La Land? Pleasantly nostalgic, charmingly incompetent singing and dancing, definitely worth seeing. The theme is pure romantic fantasy in Casablanca mode: love at first sight, sad inevitable separation, we'll always have Paris... or LA... Best picture? Nah. Moonlight? Beautiful filmmaking, understatedly beautiful acting, 21st century realism: Groping forbidden love at first sight, love of low expectations, love as the simple human touch necessary for survival. Best picture? Maybe so.

Song of the day...

... or year... or next four years...

Friday, January 27, 2017

David Brooks disses porcupines everywhere...

"If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear.... It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear." NY Times.

Having encountered porcupines in the woods now and then over the years, I'd have to say they never strike me as being particularly fearful (why would they be?), let alone dark or resentful. More charming and bumbling. Un-Trumpian.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

H is for Hawk

I mostly read fiction books, but "nature" nonfiction attracts my attention now and then. I suppose Helen Macdonald's account of training a goshawk counts as a nature book, but it is much, much more. Macdonald weaves the alien allure of this most extraordinary bird of prey, the craft and lore of falconry, her debilitating grief over the death of her father, the rich human history and uncertain future of the semi-wild English landscape, and a compressed, sad biography of T.H. White into a complete and absolutely compelling work of art. Her powers of description– internal, external, and speculative– are poetic. Funny, insecure, invincible, she invites you into her saga of grief, near-madness, and recovery. Her love for Mabel, her hawk, is all the more remarkable for the fact that, as she eventually concedes, the goshawk is other... inscrutable. Yet there is quite a bit of the goshawk in this woman: her ferocity, her independence, her virtuosity. A masterpiece.