Friday, December 26, 2008

Great Books, Entry #1

David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified is a labor of love and a masterpiece of its genre, the field guide. As a nerd who enjoys the outdoors and identifying what I encounter there, I own a healthy number of field guides, but this is the only one I would, and frequently do, read for pleasure.

Field guides have much in common with cookbooks, in that they are oriented toward the eager amateur and must therefore be eminently practical but also technically reliable; but for some reason a good cookbook is almost always better written than a good field guide. I suppose it has much to do with the expectation that field guides will have genuine scientific legitimacy, and the convincing gravitas and stuffiness of style that go with it. I must confess off the bat that I cannot vouch for Mr. Arora's bona fides as a mycologist. My gut, as an academic in an unrelated field, tells me that his shortcomings in this regard are likely to be, as we say in economics, "at the margins."

In addition to what appears to be an encyclopedic knowledge of and childlike enthusiasm for wild fungi, Arora has two more things going for him: he is very, very funny, and he is very informative on the cultural uses of fungi, of course as food, but also as dyes, folk medicines, psychoactives, and the like. He is also extremely careful to make sure that you do not repeat the mistake of the elephant king in the Babar story and kill yourself by eating the wrong fungus; at the same time, he is equally intent that you overcome your fungophobia, the result of years of indoctrination (including Babar!) suggesting that every little mushroom you encounter is a dangerous toadstool.

If you do not feel ready to commit to the 900+ pages of the masterpiece itself, you can get a wonderful and useful taste of Arora in his pocket-size All That the Rain Promises, and More..., a little book that any western hiker will enjoy. In my experience it will help you identify, at least to the genus level, 80-90 percent of the mushrooms you encounter in the Bay Area, and introduce you to some of Arora's fellow fungophiles via cute little anecdotes.

The best reason to own these books is that with them, if you keep your eyes and mind wide open, you will gain an appreciation for the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and ecological and cultural significance of wild mushrooms. Opening up a whole new world so large and full of wonder is really what makes any great book great, and it is a rare thing indeed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mr. Spock and Alexi

Yes, that is Mr. Spock, although apparently his ears have been trimmed, with my son Alexi and some other musician kids. Spock narrated Peter and the Wolf with Alexi's orchestra, the SFSYO. If you are a local, go hear them sometime. Cheap, and damn good... and of course I am unbiased.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Max Roach

Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas", recorded in 1956, is a beloved jazz classic, not least for that inimitable Sonny sound. As a melodist, improviser, and pure player, he's in a league with Louis Armstrong and few others. Still, listen again for Max Roach's drum solo, a concise masterpiece that communicates the lilting calypso melody via some kind of weird rhythmic induction. Roach was a genius, not only for helping invent bebop, but for making percussion a source of color, not just shape, in jazz.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Martin Puryear at SF MoMA

Go and see Martin Puryear's work at this SFMoMA retrospective. Puryear is a complete artist: his sculptures are richly evocative, sometimes political, but never didactic; he is an extraordinary craftsman; and his choice of materials is revelatory: you will never see wood, tar, or cowhide the same way again. Through January 25.

While you are there, check out Toba Khedoori's Untitled (Rooms), through January 19. Warning: It doesn't look like much on your computer screen. Taking up an entire wall, it pulls you in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The kids

A beautiful late autumn day in Foothills Park, Palo Alto, featuring our lovely and threatened native oak woodlands.


Alexi carved this pumpkin portrait of our now president-elect from a stencil for Halloween. The biggest treat of all was his election. No, he doesn't have a mustache in real life, but maybe it's worth a try... Michelle?

I'm a fun-guy...

Amanita lanei, Foothills Park, Palo Alto. A truly beautiful mushroom. Edible, but related to the deadly (duh) Death Cap. So please do not eat unless you know what you are doing (I do not).

And below, an earth star, reconstituted in the recent rain, found on the same walk. Very cool fungus.

Sorry, kid...

Dad attempts to hog the ice cream sandwiches at Ad Hoc, Yountville, CA.

Alexi in Napa Valley

Sunday, October 12, 2008


As someone who prefers his jazz with plenty of edge, I wish KCSM, "the Bay Area's Jazz Station," were a lot more adventurous in its programming. Which is not to say it is not a pleasant station to listen to almost any time of day. But KCSM has one genuine treasure, and that is Jesse "Chuy" Varela, host of the Latin Jazz show Sundays at 2. Jesse is amazingly knowledgeable, and has nearly impeccable taste. Plus, his enthusiasm is truly infectious. It's pronounced Chewy... You can listen on-line.

No on Prop 8

I'll leave the presidential politics to others, but fellow Californians, do the right thing and vote No on 8. There are two reasons. The first is a negative argument: that the state should not be in the business of discriminating in conferring important legal status on its adult citizens. The second is a positive argument: that a committed loving relationship between consenting adults is fundamentally a good thing. It's that simple. Really.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nice 'n' Easy?

Hardly. The album starts with the teaser title track, which does suggest the kind of breezy swing you get on Come Fly with Me. But the mood is overall contemplative, if not somber. Frank's deepening and darkening voice pulls against Nelson Riddle's somewhat brighter arrangements, and the result is, well, among the best of the Capitol albums. Which is to say one of the great pop albums ever recorded.

The bonus tracks on the CD version are mostly hard to argue with: The Nearness of You, Someone to Watch Over Me, My One and Only Love... beautiful songs sung by the master. The exception is Day In-Day Out, an overblown mood-breaker here. You can program over that one.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Miguel Zenon, genius

Congrats to Miguel Zenon, a new MacArthur "genius." MacArthur's choices for jazz geniuses have been impeccable, but slanted heavily toward the established elder statesmen of the avant garde, like Ornette, Cecil, and Max Roach. Zenon (age 31) seems to fit the bill as a young Turk. And he can blow.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Having no cable TV, we have been stuck with NBC's broadcast coverage, which in practice means swimming, gymnastics, track, and beach volleyball, ad nauseam. I did enjoy a few moments of BMX bike racing, which basically is the same as the snowboard cross event in the winter games, but on wheels; the main reason to watch is hoping there are some good wipeouts, and thankfully there usually are.

Gymnastics (and swimming) could use some editing: far too many medals handed out. But my favorites are definitely rings for men and balance beam for women. The former because what they do does not seem humanly possible, the latter because it is by far the most dramatic, anxiety-producing Olympic sport imaginable. Occasional jingoistic remarks from Bela Karolyi were nearly insufferable; there's a guy who could give Dick Button a run for his money as most obnoxious Olympic commentator.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knowledge and markets... or Fred meets Mike

Rereading Friedrich Hayek’s classic 1945 article “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” I find its message surprisingly relevant, and worthy of assigning to yet another generation of microeconomics students. This in spite of the dated references to the socialist calculation debate, which long ago was won by Hayek’s side.

Hayek’s point is that the distinctive virtue of the market is not the efficiency of competitive equilibrium per se, although that is what we teach cohort upon cohort of micro students. Rather, it is that this efficiency is achieved through a decentralized process, whereby individuals make decisions based on local, idiosyncratic knowledge, and prices summarize and convey all the information that other participants need to know:

“Assume that somewhere in the world a new opportunity for the use of some raw material, say, tin, has arisen, or that one of the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated. It does not matter for our purpose—and it is very significant that it does not matter—which of these two causes has made tin more scarce. All that the users of tin need to know is that some of the tin they used to consume is now more profitably employed elsewhere and that, in consequence, they must economize tin (p. 526).”

Nowadays any attentive student of freshman micro should be able to recite the limitations of this claim. Prices do not necessarily convey the correct information under a variety of real-world conditions–notably, in the presence of externalities (spillover effects like pollution), market power (monopolies), or asymmetric information (used cars). But Hayek’s point is still powerful: the best policy prescription to correct such problems usually involves government regulations that would help the market “get the prices right,” while still taking advantage of the price system’s ability to coordinate decentralized agents: a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an important current example.

One can think of Hayek’s essay as a tribute to both local knowledge and global ignorance. Our user of tin need know nothing more about the conditions of tin production than what is summarized in the price. Indeed the beauty of the price system is that it would be a waste of his time and resources to try to learn more. And here we see a head-on collision with the increasingly influential view that consumers should make it their business to learn as much as possible about where their purchases came from and under what conditions they were produced. This perspective informs the fair-trade and anti-sweatshop movements, as well as the ethical food movement, exemplified in the writings of Michael Pollan, whose wonderful book The Omnivore’s Dilemma I recommend to everyone who eats.

One of the many strengths of Pollan’s writing is that he does justice to the tension between impersonal global markets, on which modern affluence depends, and a “small is beautiful” ethos that, were it practical, might make humans and their planet a lot healthier. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, he writes, “As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization.... Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection--and responsibility--linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences...”

As a comfortable professional living in the Bay Area, I wish everyone could shop for vegetables at their local farmers’ market and get to know the lettuce guy and the tomato lady. But I suspect that for most inhabitants of the planet, the best hope for the future rests with Hayek, augmented by thoughtful government regulation to mitigate the market’s many serious imperfections.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


This is my first post. I hope there will be more to follow.