Friday, December 31, 2010

Stinson Beach, December 2010

For about 15 minutes, this sunset brightened rather than dimmed. Hat tip to LMK for the photo.

Christmas dinner blogging

The first course was baked squash soup with five different winter squashes. People seemed to like it!

Happy Reading for the New Year!

John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor is probably his best post-Cold War novel. Which is to say it is obligatory reading for people who like this kind of book... and that should be everyone! Laura gave it to me for Christmas, and of course I mowed through it in a couple days. It is efficient, suspenseful, and beautifully written. As usual, almost nothing happens; a large chunk of the story consists of people talking to each other and fretting. But still the tension mounts and the pace quickens.

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

Good news, for a change

DADT repealed. Thanks to eight thoughtful Senate Republicans. Maybe they will come to their senses on some other matters, such as climate change? Tax policy? It's Christmas-time, a boy can dream, can't he?
Addendum: I guess he can't... Dream Act killed in the Senate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Potter VII, Part 1

I actually enjoyed this movie more than I expected to. Whatever the commerical advantages, artistically speaking it was probably a good idea to break the overstuffed final book of the series into two movies. Compared with the other installments, rather little actually happens in this film, plot-wise. One horcrux is located, obtained, and destroyed, but aside from that the movie is essentially a sequence of hair's-breadth escapes. These are handled effectively. The mood is dark throughout, in keeping with the trajectory in the novels.

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

Capsule movie reviews

T.A.M.I. Show: Highlights include the Beach Boys in all their twisted pop glory, and Lesley Gore belting out the amazing proto-feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me" and the always wonderful "It's My Party." Marvin Gaye is in good voice on some bluesy straight-ahead soul numbers, but you also appreciate how well served he would be a little later by the Motown songwriters who allowed him to capitalize on his falsetto come-on. Smokey is good of course, but as always a little "pitchy" live. The Stones? Merely watchable.

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

Viking blood brothers

Here I am at a recent Santa Clara University event with my colleague from the Chemistry Department, Thorsteinn Adalsteinsson. He's the more sophisticated fellow on the left drinking his beer from a glass. There was no coordination on facial hair or apparel.

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

Schools, Skills, and Synapses

James Heckman's "Schools, Skills, and Synapses" is the most important, depressing, and possibly hopeful economics article I have read in some time. It won't come as a big surprise to those who follow Heckman's research, but it is a fantastic summary of his current thinking as well as a ton of work by others. It is rich in empirical savvy, theoretical clarity, and interdisciplinary creativity.

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

Yes on 19

I had a few hesitations, but Charles Blow's column in today's NY Times clinched it for me. And shame on the Democrats for perpetuating the injustice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Happy Birthday, Robert Pinsky!

Blank verse lives!


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.

Robert Pinsky

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sometimes you feel like a nut...

... sometimes you don't. But I have to say that, more often than not, I feel like a nut!

Monday, September 27, 2010

NO on Prop 23

I submitted the following op-ed to the San Jose Mercury. They rejected it. My blog has accepted it...

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.

Not as bad as it looks

On my run today the sidewalk jumped up and tripped me. I think my blood is a lovely hue, don't you?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Never will I go...

Well, never say never. But Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a perfect novel, one of the saddest and most beautiful I have read. Why make a movie of it?

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Siege

Not at all a good movie, by any means. The dialogue is miserable; Denzel is OK, but kind of coasting, Annette Bening is shrill and one-dimensional (she really can do better... cf., The Kids Are All Right), Bruce Willis is simply horrendous (and I say this as a fan), Tony Shalhoub isn't half-bad, but what's with that accent Mr. Monk?

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

Tana French

OK, listen up, you: Summer is almost over, put down that Lee Child or Stieg Larsson; don't you think you are ready for a grown-up thriller? Tana French's rich psychological crime novels, set in the Irish present and recent past, are simply the best. You may as well start with the first of the three, In the Woods, and then you should need no prompting from me to read The Likeness and Faithful Place, her latest. Of these, I would have to say the first two are nearly perfect. Faithful Place, which came out this summer, suffers from a bit too much dysfunctional Irish family melodrama, but to say it is a little weaker than the first two is to say A- instead of A+.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heretical thoughts

Driving up to Sonora Pass (see below) I listened to the two CDs of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew for the first time in a while, and I had two reactions:
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

Mountain blogging

Having never explored the Sonora Pass area (just north of Yosemite), I decided to toss the tent in the Prius and head up for a couple of nights in the lovely (despite the name) Pigeon Flats campground, 20 minutes west of the summit on Hwy. 108.

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

Viva Argentina!

Nice to know civilization exists somewhere in our hemisphere.
Now if only they could learn to play soccer...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Say it ain't so, Bob

For a 50-something, I like to think I have pretty up-to-date and broad-minded (I hesitate to add good, but why not-- yes, good) taste in popular music, and for that I have Robert Christgau to thank more than anyone else. Christgau's Consumer Guide to popular music has been a mainstay, always fun to read and insightful, and even more important highly reliable. I don't hesitate to buy an album when Christgau grades it A. Even when I don't like it, I understand why he did, and most of the time I do too. Christgau introduced me to rap and African pop, and my life is much richer for both. I mean that sincerely. Now he is retiring from the Consumer Guide, and it would be selfish to expect him to keep it up forever. Still, I don't have a ready replacement, and it will be a little scary navigating the popular music scene without my trusted guide.

Thanks, Bob.

Friday, July 2, 2010

OK, Meg, you can have it

Dear Meg,

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

Go Left, Young Person

Aidan and I checked out the Go Left Fest 2 at Yoshi's SF last night. The three acts were well-chosen to represent the range of what is happening in improvised music that might very loosely be called the jazz avant garde.

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

Bill Dixon, RIP

Probably not everyone's cup of tea, but he was a jazz musician of the very first rank. Vade Mecum is an album I return to when in the mood for music that is challenging, adventurous, and anarchic, yet humble and even soothing in its highly textured fashion. Unlike most avant-garde jazz, the music simmers and bubbles, but never comes to a full boil. It still cooks. One could argue that in some ways he made the trumpet speak and sing in the human voice more compellingly than anyone since Louis Armstrong. (Photo stolen from NY Times.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer reading advice

Although, like most people, I work through the summer, there is something about the warm weather and the week or two of vacation that put me in the mood for some pure literary escapism. My criteria are pretty simple. Sure, the novel should be exciting, with some cliffhanger chapter endings, but it should also have compelling heroes facing worthy adversaries, and it should not insult your intelligence with lame plot devices. Humor helps. But perhaps most important, it should be well written. Having largely exhausted the oeuvres of LeCarre, Leonard, and PD James, the true masters, I have had to resort to lesser literary mortals.

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

And still more NYC blogging

Laura examines a Rothko at the MOMA. Nice paintings for sure, although my own tastes in abstract expressionism have gravitated toward Barnett Newman. These strange deceptively simple works still speak in a way that is very rare in art.

More NYC blogging

Alexi enjoys an iced green tea at Canteen 82 (83?), purveyors of a mighty fine xiaolongbao. It's very gratifying to have an adventurous foody as offspring!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The High Line

I had read about The High Line in the New York Times, and based on the review I expected it to be pretty cool, but seeing it in person exceeded every expectation. It was the highlight of my recent one-week trip to NY.

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.)

The Muse of History

Here I am, bemused, while enjoying a glass of house chianti at Pisticci in Harlem, in the company of the muse of history and namesake of cliometrics (or quantitative economic history for you uninitiated).

Prop 16 goes down

So PG&E's bald-faced attempt to buy a CA state law that would protect their electricity monopoly has gone down to defeat, despite the fact that they outspent their opposition 500-to-1. I suppose I should take comfort in the wisdom of democracy, rather than being depressed about the 47.5 percent who voted "yes"...

Friday, May 21, 2010


Karel Čapek's The Gardener's Year is an absolute gem of a little book. First published in 1929, it consists of the Czech author's amusing and amused observations about gardening and gardeners. Of course gardening also serves as a very workable metaphor for various aspects of the human condition. Consider Čapek's short chapter "Preparations," tucked between November and December, on what transpires beneath the soil as the plants appear to go dormant for the winter:
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


By night the blossoms of our beautiful native flax Linum lewisii close and droop; come morning they lift their heads, open up, and stare into the sun. Which is a nice thing indeed if your front yard faces eastward.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rediscovering some old faves

I bought Gary Burton's Dreams So Real on vinyl when it first came out in 1976 and it quickly became one of my favorite albums, but I had not really listened to it much in many years. All that changed with my recent visit to the used jazz CD bin at Rasputins. Nearly 35 years later I could still hum along to every solo. The rap against ECM Records has been that they are purveyors of soulless new age Euro-jazz, but this album still has a nice little edge to it. The band is tight and proves the feasibility of producing plenty of energy through cool fusion. Pat Metheny turns in some nice work, but among the accompanists it is Steve Swallow's driving bass line that keeps things moving. More than anything, the album showcases vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose playing ranges from lyrical and sensitive to mind-boggling... can he really do that with "just" four mallets?

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

Look but don't touch

A fine-looking plant, poison oak, especially when leafing out. From a distance, the festive red and green appears uniform dusty purple-brown, one of those subtle Mediterranean hues we get in California's chaparral.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dying Inside

I stumbled across Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg in the new science fiction books at our public library. I confess to having been familiar with neither the author nor the work, which is a recent reissue of a 1972 novel. There was a positive blurb by Michael Chabon on the cover, so I read it. It is a fine novel, reflecting the tenor of its time and place (New York City in the 60s and 70s for the most part), but not dated. Through a series of vignettes and flashbacks, we follow our protagonist-narrator, nearing middle age, as he comes to grips with the loss of his telepathic powers. I guess the telepathy is what qualifies the book as "speculative fiction," but it's really a meditation on identity, love, and solitude... and on our uneasy relationship with that capricious Old Testament god, whether or not he exists. I thought of Philip Roth, without the humor or the rage. Dying Inside is not as good as Roth at his best (when the Nobel prize?), but better than a minor Roth. It is worthy of (re)discovery.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Miner's Lettuce

Salad of fresh miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) with pecans and organic beets, dressed in lemon juice and olive oil.

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

Krugman on climate

I urge one and all to read in its entirety Paul Krugman's piece on climate change policy and economics for the NY Times Magazine. It is the best non-technical article on the subject that I have read, and I say that as someone who has tried to write one myself. Suppressing his inclination to shrillness and partisanship, Krugman has produced a piece that is clear, accurate, fair (not impartial, but fair), and essential.

If I were to add anything to his article, it would be a greater emphasis on the likely disproportionate impact of climate change on the world's poorest, many of whom live in arid or low-lying areas, and who will lack the resources for adaptation to rapidly changing conditions. If I were to change anything, I would strike a less negative tone on China. Despite the dangers of China's growing dependence on coal, there are also very promising signs of Chinese leadership on clean technology development. (They may even build our high-speed rail for us here in CA.)

If I were to draw a single political lesson, it would be that we on the political left (you know who we are) should be prepared to hold our noses and pay what it takes to buy off the energy industries and the politicians they own. Cap-and-trade provides an easy mechanism for doing so. Too much is at stake to get hung up on moral purity. Besides, to paraphrase a certain LSE-educated singer: "I shouted out, who killed the climate? When after all, it was you and me..."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Look down!

I've learned a lot from my kids, and one of those things is to LOOK DOWN. I don't mean "watch your step," I mean look at the dirt under your feet close up and brush away some of the crap to see what's under there. Chances are it is something amazing. Of course I knew this at some point but I had unlearned it.

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

More Damages

As I said, Glenn Close is good, but it's all about Ted Danson. He is the most convincing TV villain since, who, maybe Stringer Bell (Idris Elba)? He knows how you loved Sammy, and he'll turn on that old Sammy charm only to shock you all the better when he twists the knife. You know he's good because now he has you wondering whether it was really Sammy you misjudged.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Big water

Originally constructed in the 1870s as a for-profit toll trail, the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is a relentless leg-burner for an old dude like me. Aidan kept a stiff upper lip, but I could tell he was flagging as well by the halfway point. In late March the valley rim was still covered in deep snow, and slipping and sliding down to the cliff's edge was anxiety-inducing, despite the assurance of a minimalist railing between you and a 1400-foot quick way down. Needless to say, it is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thanks, Nancy

Tea Partiers are right to vilify Nancy Pelosi. She does a Californian proud.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not much of a meal

The first-ever harvest of edible fungi in the yard. Two morels, each half the size of my pinky. I'm still hungry.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spring has sprung

To left, the fantastic and easy California native currant, Ribes sanguineum glutinosum.

Below, Ceanothus "Dark Star" is covered in these this time of year, the buds even prettier than the flowers.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Slime mold of the day

Saw something very much like this on the trail in Foothills Park on Sunday, but lacking a camera I must now rely on the wonderful folks at Mykoweb for the photo. These were quite tiny, looking like minuscule, brilliant salmon eggs carefully arranged on a bay laurel log. What the world needs is a nice full-color field guide to the slime molds. Don't you agree? (By the way, they are not fungi, despite the label below.)


Watching the current season, and catching up on season 1 via DVD. Glenn Close, with her beady animal eyes, raptor beak, and plastic mouth, is perfect, and clearly enjoying every moment. I haven't yet decided whether the other actors are up to the task of taking her on. But it's a kick so far.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carre's Cold War spy novels are among my favorite books: meditations on the peculiar character of their time, but also on the human condition. Not to mention that they are highly effective thrillers and beautifully written. Few novelists have achieved so much so efficiently, working in so narrow a genre, and so entertainingly.

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

Vatican top ten pop albums

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

Total: -1

OK, that's close enough to neutral to earn a passing grade.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New rules for vampires

We were desperate for some dumb entertainment last night, and the Twilight movie hit the spot. No, it was not nearly as good as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, but who could expect it to be? For the remaining three or four people in the world who have not yet read the books or seen the movie, the plot is easily described: Hot human teenage girl and hot vampire boy fall in love at first sight; love cannot be physically consummated lest boy suck life out of girl; much heaving of bosoms and soulful longing eye-gazing ensue. Girl begs to be bitten so she may live eternally with boy; boy declines, perhaps fearing commitment that could last... like... FOREVERRRR! Bad vampires make things even more complicated than they already are.

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!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Muhal Richard Abrams

Two of my favorite jazz albums are The Hearinga Suite and Blu Blu Blu by Abrams and his big band, both dating back to around 1990. A founder of AACM, he is one of the most important American musicians of the past half century. So it was nice to see him recognized with a Jazz Masters Award by the NEA. Co-recipients Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron highly deserving as well.