Friday, December 31, 2010
The bad guys are bankers and their government toadies; our man le Carré is more Chomsky than Chomsky, and his heavy-handed politics have weighed down more than one of his recent novels. But here it all works. Maybe the financial meltdown has primed us for vilifying the lords of finance. But more likely it has to do with a fantastic cast of characters, including the man who knew too much, Perry Makepiece, a quintessential le Carré tragic working stiff spy, Luke Weaver, and most especially, Perry's girlfriend Gail Perkins, perhaps the most fully formed and appealing female character the novelist has ever created. Together they try to bring a spy in from the cold, although in this case it is not a spy but a Russian money-launderer with a guilty conscience, and his rather complex blended family. And all's well that ends well? Yeah right, it's le Carré.
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, is a fast-paced post-climate change dystopia set in a not-too distant future Bangkok. Genetic engineering has gone a bit awry, and either draconian carbon pricing or old-school resource exhaustion has left much of the world energy-starved. Machinery is driven by bio-engineered springs that are wound by beasts of burden-- gigantic genetically modified elephants, in fact.
As for the sci-fi, I found some of it plausible, including the notion that unscrupulous agribusiness firms might genetically engineer devastating plant and human diseases for the sake of creating a market for resistant strains, as well as the rising sea levels and the resulting strategic importance of dikes protecting the low-lying city. The energy crisis was less convincing: where's the nuclear, the solar, the tidal? These guys can produce amazing energy storage devices in vats of algae, but they can't charge a battery?
What really counts in cyberpunk, however, are character development and the shifting complexities of politics in a world where states, corporations, ideologies, and ethnic minorities connive and compete. All of that is here in abundance, and all of it revolving around the compelling story of the title character Emiko, a genetically engineered geisha, born and bred to serve and to please men. We follow her journey of self-discovery, and her biggest discovery is that there are limits to what she is willing to take; and there are also surprisingly few limits to what she is capable of. I'll follow her anywhere, one hopes right into a sequel to this excellent entertainment.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Addendum: I guess he can't... Dream Act killed in the Senate.
Monday, November 22, 2010
The acting limitations of the principals remain a problem. The child leads of the Potter movies, like their fictional counterparts in the books, find themselves thrust into adult roles by circumstances beyond their control. Alas, in fiction such a transformation can be pulled off with a stroke of the author's pen or computer mouse; not so easy for real-life child actors. But perhaps this liability is also an asset. We need never be distracted by the star power of the wooden Mr. Radcliffe or his sidekicks. And there are signs of growth, even for Mr. Radcliffe. The film's pivotal scene-- Harry's little dance with Hermione, alone together against the world in their flimsy tent-- is tender and revealing of character.
Some critics have griped that we don't see enough of the series' real actors in Potter VII: Rickman, Fiennes, etc. Helena Bonham Carter is more in evidence, and seems to have been born to this kind of role (Cf. Sweeney Todd), although her lovely and expressive face is usually obscured by that unkempt mop of witch-ly locks. To the extent that these movies work, it is not because of the stars, or the exciting scenes of stuff blowing up, but in spite of them; we have to be convinced that something much more important than a thrill is at stake here. That was the triumph of the books, and the movies come closest when they approach that seriousness of purpose, and that sense of wonder or dread. I for one look forward to seeing the final chapter... if not to the obligatory epilogue, which was something of a blemish on J.K. Rowling's remarkable achievement.
Monday, November 15, 2010
The James Brown performance is justifiably famous. Given his importance as a great bandleader and inventor of funk and everything that would follow, it's easy to forget just how great a singer he was. He could dance too. His intensity, work ethic, professionalism, and raw artistry just blow everyone else off the stage.
The Book of Eli: Denzel eats a cat.
White: Fine but not outstanding Kieslowski effort. I.e., only ten times better than most movies.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Thorsteinn does interesting work involving chemistry in and around tiny droplets of oil, among other things. He also has amusing things to say about his home country of Iceland.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
The article is important because it is a compelling explanation of the increasingly polarized economic prospects of Americans; depressing because the causes are deeply rooted in social trends that we cannot, and probably would not want to, reverse; hopeful, because we actually know cost-effective ways to address the problems; doubly depressing because there's little indication of the political interest, let alone will, to do anything.
Heckman's core argument is that the skills leading to lifelong success are both cognitive (smarts) and noncognitive (motivation, etc.), are formed very early in life, are acquired more in the family than in the schools, and are distributed increasingly unequally between advantaged and disadvantaged American children. The rest of the story is complex and subtle, and needs to be heard and understood.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes--
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers--
Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning."
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
With the state’s unemployment rate stuck at around 12 percent, many Californians are suffering and desperate for a paycheck. Exploiting their pain, two Texas oil companies, a pair of out-of-state billionaires, and other backers of Proposition 23 hope to convince voters to effectively repeal California’s landmark clean energy law in the name of protecting jobs.
In fact, passing Prop 23 would protect fossil fuel industry profits, not jobs, which explains why it is being bankrolled by the Valero and Tesoro Texas oil companies and a Kansas-based company owned by the Koch brothers, who made their fortune in the oil industry. Rather than protecting jobs, Prop 23 would indefinitely delay sensible measures to create a clean energy economy.
Prop 23’s target, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), requires California to reduce emissions of heat-trapping pollution to 1990 levels by 2020, and it lays the groundwork for cost-effective means of achieving this goal, including market-based “cap and trade” regulation. As an economist who teaches environmental policy, I was delighted to see California adopt an approach that economists have urged for years—one that harnesses market incentives and competition to achieve pollution reductions at minimal cost.
What does clean energy mean for employment? The net impact on California’s employment picture is likely to be so small as to be barely noticeable in the unemployment statistics. While some of our clean energy law’s provisions will add to the short-term cost of doing business, most independent estimates find these costs to be quite modest. Offsetting these transitional impacts will be new “green jobs” in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. Clean technology is a growth industry, and California has been a significant beneficiary of that growth. Venture capitalists poured $2.1 billion in “clean economy” investment capital into California in 2009 alone, 60 percent of the total in North America.
But the biggest reason that California’s clean energy law will have little impact on the employment situation is that California’s economic crisis is first and foremost a product of the financial crisis and the resulting global recession, not state energy policy. Why California’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average is subject to debate, but likely suspects include the severity of California’s real estate collapse, along with the poor fiscal condition of our state and local governments.
Prop 23 would create regulatory uncertainty that could compound the damage to California’s economy for years. Regulations work best when they are stable and predictable, so businesses and consumers can make plans to adapt to them. Prop 23 would render such plans contingent on an unknowable future path of the state’s labor market, creating unnecessary costs and further delays.
While California can’t solve global warming on its own, our leadership can make a big difference. There are two reasons we must move forward. First, California is a huge economy and a significant source of global warming pollution in its own right. Second, what our state learns about clean energy alternatives and market-based climate policies will have a ripple effect well beyond our borders.
If global warming continues unchecked, the long-run impacts of coastal flooding, wildfires, and drought represent a serious threat to our economy and way of life. That’s why when the Union of Concerned Scientists invited me to sign an open letter from more than 100 Ph.D. economists urging Californians not to delay implementing AB 32, I was glad to do so, and I urge you to join me in voting No on Prop 23 in November.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
Still, the film is worth seeing given everything that happened in the years after its release (1998). The plot, which one would have called contrived and offensive at the time, features terrorist attacks on New York City carried out by Islamic extremists, racist profiling and overreaction by the government, blowback from CIA shenanigans in the Middle East... it's all remarkably prescient. Occasional glimpses of the twin towers between the explosions add to the deep sense of unease that comes with hindsight.
Ultimately the movie feels a bit dated because the government's bad cop is a rogue military man in the Ollie North mold, rather than, say, a more up-to-date villain such as an ignorant and ideological president or a Machiavellian vice president.
Still, when all is said and done, the movie made me just a little proud of how my compatriots handled themselves after 9-11. In The Siege, federal overreaction takes the form of Army tanks in the streets and the rounding up and incarceration of all the young Muslim males in NYC. Yeah, the unnecessary war, the torture, the domestic spying that actually occurred were (are?) evil, really evil, but face it, domestically we could have done a lot worse... and may yet do so...
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
1. The sound is still really, really cool.
2. They are basically noodling for 20 minutes at a time, with no apparent musical purpose aside from sounding really, really cool. Maybe I am missing something, but I much prefer the focused rocking intensity of A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Then again, maybe I'm just too old to pay attention.
Monday, July 26, 2010
The area has a few things going for it:
1. Spectacular scenery.
2. Less than four hours from the Bay Area.
3. Once you escape the fishermen, RVs, and dogs in the rustic "resorts" along the Stanislaus, you only have to share the place with the occasional backpacker making her or his way over some portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. (For the record, I have nothing against fishermen, RVs, or dogs, in their proper place.)
My main excursion was a day hike south from the Pass on the PCT. The air is a little thin for a sea-level geezer like me, but after your lungs adjust it is only the view that leaves you gasping. E.g., chilly Latopie Lake (photo).
I would say the wildflowers here are not quite up to the standard at Carson Pass to the north, but then again what is? Up on the bleak moonscapes near Sonora Pass you do encounter plenty of sturdy alpine wildflowers, such as the brilliant alpine penstemon.
One more picture, and two puzzles:
1. I understand why, from an evolutionary standpoint, the alpine plants use bright colors to advertise heavily with the pollinators during the short growing season. But what is the adaptive advantage to a lichen of being dayglow yellow?
2. How can the Prius still average 46 MPG in the Sierras, when it has to rely on the gas engine to make it up the climbs?
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Monday, July 5, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
Bombarded nightly by your TV commercials, which range from cloying and disingenuous to grating and dishonest, I think it's time to make a deal. By November, you probably will have spent something like $200 million of your own money trying to buy the governorship of California. This has got to be one of the most thankless and fruitless jobs in the country (just ask Arnold), but you really seem to want it, and frankly the state government is so dysfunctional that it probably won't make any difference whether it's you or Jerry.
So Meg, here's the deal. We ask Jerry, very nicely, to concede the election to you right away. You, in turn, hand over the $200 mil, plus an estimate of what Jerry is going to spend, say another $50 mil, to the state coffers. Sure, some of it is money you have already spent in the primary whipping Poizner's ass, but frankly you are still behind in some polls and I think you should be happy to kick in some extra for the certainty of victory.
Of course your quarter billion won't make much of a dent in the projected $20 billion budget shortfall, but it would be twice the amount needed to fully fund the Healthy Families program that Arnie has threatened to axe. Just think, you get to play governor AND help California's low-income moms and children stay healthy!
So what do you say, Meg?
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait and Switch quartet opened the show. Mezzacappa is an excellent jazz bassist and a fantastic composer. The pieces here were inspired by some of the free jazz greats of the 60s and 70s: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, etc. Special kudos to saxophonist Aaron Bennett, whose nerdy appearance belies the raucous energy revealed in his compressed but well-conceived solos.
Next up, Andy Milne and Dapp Theory provided an updated take on some of the looser versions of 70s fusion, replete with spoken word vocalist and cheesy synth sounds. Tight drums, excellent pianism.
The headliners were Fred Frith's new band, Dream On, featuring Beth Custer on clarinets and Pavel Fajt on percussion. Frith, who is a guitar god a la Clapton or Page in some very twisted alternate universe, introduced their set by mumbling, "We're going to make a filthy racket for 50 minutes and then go home." True enough. Nobody can torture a guitar like Frith. Last time I heard him live he took a power drill to his instrument. Aidan and I had to drive home to get up early for work this morning, so we couldn't stay on for the full assault, thus missing out on any power tools. Too bad.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The late Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo got a lot of attention when it came out, and like many I read it with high expectations. Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but the book was a major disappointment: poorly written, with cardboard cutout characters and a ridiculous, convoluted plot. With its cheap cliffhangers it kept my attention to the lame and bitter end, much like The Da Vinci Code, another miserably written thriller. But I didn't feel at all good about myself in the morning. (At least one could give Larsson the benefit of the doubt and attribute the ham-handed writing to the translation from the Swedish, an excuse alas unavailable to Dan Brown.)
I'd sworn off the Girl sequels until I read Michiko Kakutani's recent glowing review of the posthumously published finale of the trilogy. I generally trust Kakutani's judgment, so I figured I better give the guy another chance and catch up with part 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Big mistake. It's just as lame as the first installment, and at least as poorly written. The first chunk of the book is devoted to a pedestrian recap of the first installment, along with some obligatory and truly atrocious sex scenes. From there it only gets worse, with cheesy villains right out of a bad Bond movie, and a spunky heroine who is so much smarter than her adversaries that she never is in any real danger, until the absurdly implausible ending.
Oof. So imagine my delight when I followed that up with a truly masterful, minor classic of cyberpunk by Richard K. Morgan: Thirteen. I had read and enjoyed some of Morgan's hardboiled near-future thrillers before, but this was the best so far by a good margin. The main plot elements are well-worn staples of the genre: a conflicted genetically engineered hero, corporate malfeasance, and a post-United States political landscape in which, in this instance, the country has split into two coastal blue countries and a central red Republic, nicknamed Jesusland by the blue-staters.
So far nothing you haven't seen before, all the basic elements not so very different from what you find in Larsson, but handled so well, and get this, artfully written! Nice descriptions of urban landscapes, clever metaphors, vivid action scenes, and some steamy romance that at least is not embarrassing. The book runs long, and just when you think Morgan has finally run out of gas, he surprises you with an extended, heartfelt, and genuinely sad deathbed scene. From there the denouement is a little disappointing, leaving us with an ambiguous ending that at least offers some hope for a sequel. I'd read it.
I followed this up with a last-minute and perhaps desperate airplane read, Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. Mankell is usually reliable, but this is by far the worst I've read. Dull dull dull! Perhaps this summer's best-selling title should be: The Swedes Who Couldn't Write for Shit.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
The designers of the High Line took an old elevated railway in Chelsea and converted it to a trail through an urban prairie garden. Everything about it works. The High Line manages to look simultaneously overgrown and anarchic and, well, simply lovely, like a cottage garden flowing above the city streets. Walking along, your eyes and ears are continually drawn from the plantings and your fellow strollers to the sights and sounds of the city around you (and the city views are spectacular here), but since you are in a sense floating above it all, there is a curious sensation of being both a part and apart.
The view from the street...
You might suppose that flowers and greenery would only call attention to blight and ugliness. I incline toward finding beauty in urban industrial decay anyway, but I think most people will find that the High Line makes everything around it look better.
Go and see!
(Thanks to LMK for some of the photos.)
Friday, May 21, 2010
Sometimes we seem to smell of decay, encumbered by the faded remains of the past; but if only we could see how many fat and white shoots are pushing forward in the old tilled soil, which is called the present day; how many seeds germinate in secret; how many old plants draw themselves together and concentrate into a living bud, which one day will burst into flowering life--if only we could see that secret swarming of the future within us, we should say that our melancholy and distrust is silly and absurd, and that the best thing of all is to be a living man--that is, a man who grows.The translation, by M. and R. Weatherall, is similarly lovely throughout.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Monday, May 3, 2010
On the same trip I picked up The Best of John Coltrane (Atlantic 1970). The title is misleading: all of the tracks here were recorded with his quartet over a two-year period (1959 and 1960). On the other hand, you can't argue with the music. Coltrane as soloist, composer, bandleader, conceptualist, visionary. McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones tearing it up. Aside from the recording quality, it's hard to believe this music is now a half-century old.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Sunday, April 11, 2010
The late rains have kept the native miner's lettuce coming, but the end is near as the plants all bolt and wilt. Wikipedia claims it "is not quite as delicate as other lettuce," which is crazy. It requires gentle handling, but is delicious!
Friday, April 9, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
Here is something amazing, and it's called a bird's nest fungus (Cyathus sp.). These are tiny things, about a centimeter across, and the little "eggs," called peridioles, contain the spores. They came out on the front-yard mulch after all the recent rain. Each is perfect in its own way, and each could not care less about financial meltdowns or health care reform or the Pope's misdeeds. I do, but it's nice to know the fungi carry on regardless.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Post-Cold War, there was a gradual decline. I'm somewhat reluctant to admit that I eventually lost interest... until I was browsing for some escapism recently at Kepler's Books, and Alan Furst's endorsement of A Most Wanted Man jumped off the cover. OK, Alan, you sold me.
And it's a good read. The plotting is, as they say, brisk, the writing unmistakably le Carre. So what's not to like? Well, the characters, for one. Our hero, Tommy Brue, is a le Carre stock character, the almost washed-up, 60-year-old Brit trying to live up to, or live down, the legacy of his dad. The love interest, Annabel, is further evidence that le Carre is constitutionally incapable of creating a compelling female character. OK, he still has the remaining 50 percent of the human race to work with, right? Wrong: the hapless victim of this intrigue, a Chechen named Issa, is himself a crude caricature.
Is there then a single well-rounded, believable character in the book? Indeed there is, thankfully: the German spymaster Bachmann, a highly competent Smiley-type whose little shreds of conscience and credulity prove to be his undoing.
We read le Carre for the Smileys and Bachmanns, but we also need a supporting cast of convincing foils for our flawed heroes. We don't get them here. Maybe the master has lost his touch, but I am inclined to think that the source of the problem is his righteous outrage at the post-9/11 new world order, with his despised American spooks firmly in charge. We can only hope that the age of Obama, whatever its flaws, will restore John le Carre's faith in moral ambiguity, in all its glorious shades of gray.
Monday, February 15, 2010
As an employee of a Catholic institution of higher learning, I feel eminently qualified and indeed entitled to comment on the Vatican's recently released top ten list, which is presented below in order of release. I give +1 for good choices and -1 for bad, 0 for neutral. Tally at the bottom.
Revolver by the Beatles: Off to a great start, Benny! (That's how we refer to the current Pope when we see him around campus.) +1
If I could Only Remember My Name by David Crosby: I confess I don't know this album at all, but any list that includes Crosby, Stills, or Nash to the exclusion of Young is a non-starter. -1
The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd: What you been smokin', Benny? -1
Rumours by Fleetwood Mac: Annoying, but kind of a cheese-pop classic. (Note: the only women on the list... no Aretha? No Madonna?... Papa don't preach, I'm keeping my baby?) 0
The Nightfly by Donald Fagen: The best Steely Dan album of all (sorry Walter), and a pretty hip choice. +1
Thriller by Michael Jackson: No-brainer. +1
Graceland by Paul Simon: A very pleasant album, but maybe not Paul's best, and let's face it, this would be nothing without the South African backing band (and their tunes). 0
Achtung Baby by U2: Another safe but boring choice. First step toward Bono's beatification? 0
(What's the story) Morning Glory by Oasis: Honestly, this is the best you can come up with for alternative rock? No Nevermind? No 3 Feet High and Rising? -1
Supernatural by Carlos Santana: Santana only has one guitar solo, but it's a damn good one. Too bad you can't say the same about the songs. -1
OK, that's close enough to neutral to earn a passing grade.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Fans of the Buffy series should note the following important changes in vampire etiquette and behavior:
1. Apparently vampires may now enter your home uninvited. This eliminates one of the most sensible ways to avoid being bitten: Don't go out at night!
2. The slaying of vampires has become considerably more difficult. The simple plunge of a wooden stake into the heart, followed by implosion of vampire into a cloud of sooty dust, seems no longer to suffice. Vanquishing now requires that the vampire in question be subdued by other vampires and then set ablaze. With all due respect to Buffy's amazing abilities, this would have made her life a lot more challenging.
3. Exposure to sunlight no longer causes vampires to blister and writhe in pain. Rather, they merely glisten most appealingly. The only reason they avoid the sunlight is to avoid detection by humans... as if they blend right in as it is...
4. Vampire business is serious business: No humor allowed!