Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Midlife crisis economics?

Like Paul Krugman, I find myself in deep disagreement with this pessimistic column by David Brooks. Brooks compares our own time unfavorably with the era of the Great Depression, when, he alleges, the economy was in its "adolescence" and its underlying potential to create mass prosperity was far greater than it is today. Krugman makes the simple but important observation that a similar attitude of defeatism was widespread during the 1930s, only to be rapidly turned around with the wartime recovery and subsequent postwar expansion. In Krugman's view, a substantial boost to aggregate demand is all the anti-depressant our depressed economy needs (presumably something other than World War III would be the best prescription).

There are other serious problems with Brooks's diagnosis. One claim is that the structure of the global economy today is much more prone to generating severe inequality in advanced countries than it was in the 1930s. Perhaps, but the data suggest otherwise to me: Top income shares were just as high in the 1930s as they are today. The following diagram, downloaded from the fantastic World Top Incomes Database page, tracks the top 1 and 10 percent shares in the United States:

Judging from this chart, as of the late 1930s you might have concluded that a profoundly unequal distribution of income was built into the very DNA of the U.S. economy. The ensuing four decades would prove you wrong, obviously.

The regulations that Brooks decries as creating a "lack of institutional effectiveness" have made the United States a much cleaner, healthier, and safer place to live. These improvements are not counted in conventional GDP or income measures, but they are every bit as real as a hamburger, haircut, or iPhone. Of course regulation could be smarter and more efficient. But do we really want less of it?

There are undoubtedly very real challenges facing that U.S. economy that did not exist in the 1930s. Health care costs are indeed outrageous and rising without any clear plan for controlling them. Advances in educational attainment have stagnated. Inequality has returned to Depression-era levels. Climate change is coming on faster than anticipated. Some of these problems we know how to fix and have chosen not to; others we are not so sure. Personally I have little doubt that the richest and most technologically advanced country in the history of humanity could get it all done, with a mix of can-do political will and technocratic competence. What most depresses me is how many people seem to mistake the current mix of political dysfunction and malignity for a genuine crisis of possibilities.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Some good news for fish

Not all the environmental news is gloom and doom. Nice to see Yao Ming sticking up for the sharks.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Oh no!

Far be it from me to suppose that a couple of dudes who can't get it together sufficiently to file a few signatures by a well-known deadline may not be the best choice to be elected the leader of the free world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Ron Paul has some political views that I find attractive, such as his (relative) anti-militarism, and his opposition to drug prohibition. On the majority of issues, however, he is a crackpot, or worse. And he is too cowardly or slimy to own the truly ugly statements that have been made in his name; whether he agreed with them or just didn't care enough to do anything about them, they are equally as damning and disqualifying.

Mittens is looking better every day.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 6

Louis Armstrong is the one jazz musician who had an indisputable claim to being first-rank in two distinct instruments: trumpet and vocals. He is also the most important American musician (period). So why not treat yourself to an album on which both of his instrumental gifts are amply displayed, and the music is altogether irresistible?

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (Columbia Jazz).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kim Jong-il + Vaclav Havel = 0

In my more optimistic moments, I'd probably say > 0.

Harakiri (1962)

Masaki Kobayashi's very fine film Harakiri is not subtle in its critique of authoritarianism, nor in the stark contrast it draws between individual moral virtue and a corrupted code of honor. The basic plot, in which a single good man stands up to abusive power, is well-worn, and a staple of action movies from Shane to Bourne. But Harakiri messes with genre expectations and is rich in sub-themes; it also resonates in various ways with the politics of our own time.

At one level this is a simple tale of vengeance, but there are ironic and unexpected twists. Our avenging impoverished ronin hero, Tsugumo, turns the tables on his enemies, the Iyi clan, not primarily by drawing their blood but by using their own code to disgrace and humiliate them.

As in many classic westerns, the manly public sphere of action, honor, and violence is contrasted with the feminine sphere of family and domesticity. Yet in another poignant reversal, the widower Tsugumo finds himself filling the role not only of father but of mother as well, as he cares for his weakening, consumptive daughter and her sickly young son.

The plot unfolds slowly through storytelling and flashbacks, steadily building tension and suspense. The acting is strikingly naturalistic, especially in comparison with what one has grown to expect from the classic Kurosawa samurai films of the same period. Tatsuya Nakadai, as Tsugumo, is a commanding presence. The wide-screen black-and-white cinematography is exceptionally beautiful, sequences of carefully framed stills of courtyards and interiors juxtaposed with dramatic facial close-ups, wind-whipped grass, and swordplay. The music, by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, evokes both ancient and modern.

I think I'll watch it again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More rat nests

Some very fine work (by the rats, not necessarily the photographer). See the other highlights of today's hike here.

From Woodrat project, vol. 2

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I eagerly read his column in The Nation back before he and the magazine parted ways over his enthusiasm for the disastrous Bush-Cheney war in Iraq. I have never been a fan of his proselytizing brand of atheism, despite my sympathies for the cause. One suspects he was, in sum, an asshole. We were fortunate to have him around, and will miss him now he's gone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good news for chimps

It won't satisfy everyone, but this is good news. That chimps deserve "special consideration and respect" seems obviously correct to me, and not because they share most of their genes with us, but because they have moral standing. How do I know that? I know it when I see it. You do too. Or if not, let Peter Singer convince you.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 5

I lived in Cincinnati for about a year when I was 6-ish. I have very fond memories. And now it's home to the best rock band in the world. Who knew?!

The studio albums have a fantastic sound, but the songs stand on their own, even when performed in an RV...

Monday, December 12, 2011


There are many great animal builders on our planet, but very few of them are mammals, with the notable exception of our own species. Beyond humans, beavers are certainly the best known. But pound for pound our local dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) gives the beaver a run for its money. Woodrats build conical dens from sticks and twigs that can be a meter or more in height, and just as big across... not bad for a critter that is, well, rat-size.

The woodrat is alleged to be a solitary creature, which makes the relative scale of the den all the more impressive. How do they do it, and why? Solitary notwithstanding, the dens are often found in groups not far from one another, stick huts in a woodsy village. One can't help thinking there is some kind of secret nocturnal social life going on here after all.

As engineers, woodrats are opportunists, taking advantage of brush piles, fallen trees, and thickets to provide support for their structures. As a consequence, getting a clear line for a photo can be a challenge. On the other hand, there is a kind of busy, chaotic beauty to the setting of most woodrat dens. My first attempt to capture this beauty, including the following, can be found here. I expect it won't be my last.

From Woodrat project, vol. 1

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My favorite radio DJ

Saturday afternoons had just not been the same since Trinity stopped doing her regular show on KFJC... until I found something even better: New World Disorder, with Sadie O., on KZSU. Frankly, Sadie herself has an obnoxious voice, and talks a little too much. But Sadie, take no offense, because you make up for it by having the best damn taste in music out there. Eclecticism in the best possible sense. Unfortunately, this being the Stanford station, Sadie is sometimes preempted by a sporting event. Too bad. Give it a listen (they stream): you'll surely hear something fantastic you've never heard before...

Friday, December 9, 2011

David Montgomery, 1927-2011

There's little question that Montgomery's influential studies painted a vivid picture of the complex political culture and shopfloor experiences of American workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet what exactly was there in the new labor history that an aspiring young economic historian interested in labor markets could use? Deep description, yes, but tainted by a certain willful ignorance of the overall record of market capitalism in (eventually) raising living standards and opportunities. To me, the contrast between the approach taken by the mainstream of my discipline and that taken by the historians (and some radical economists) remains an unbridged divide, one that raises an unanswered and profound question: What is the relative importance of power vs. opportunity in shaping the lives and prospects of ordinary people?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Strange bedfellows

The Complete Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Recordings captures the famous collaboration of these two giants of American music in 1975 and 1976. Tony Bennett is a great pop vocalist, but as much cabaret as jazz, while Bill Evans is the most understated and intellectual of jazz pianists. Does it work? More often than you'd expect. "Waltz for Debbie," originally an Evans instrumental masterpiece, becomes something of an embarrassment when put to words. But then, "We'll Be Together Again" is divine, sending a chill. To my ear, it's a piano album. Four years later, Evans would be dead, of "the longest suicide in history." On the other hand, Tony B, it seems, is immortal.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Full Belly

Glorious organic artichokes from Full Belly Farm, braised with shallots in sauvignon blanc and a squeeze of lemon. Not bad.

$4 million for Ohio State football coach

Congrats to Coach Urban, but so what? Santa Clara U. just offered me $6.5 million per year to teach micro, plus a bonus of $50,000 for every student who can correctly identify the deadweight loss triangle in a sales-tax diagram.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ruth Stone, RIP

I have been reading her latest collection of new and selected poems, What Love Comes To, and just today learned of her death at 96. "New readers discovered a poet of varied and uncommon gifts, fierce and funny, by turns elegiac, scathing, lyric and colloquial." Yup. You can buy the book from Copper Canyon Press (link to left).

Paul Motian, RIP

I have been listening to jazz since I was a kid, and of course the music has changed a lot during that time, but nothing has undergone more change than jazz drumming: the techniques, the styles, and the role of percussion in the ensemble. Nobody was more responsible for these changes than Paul Motian, who has died at age 80. The NY Times obit quotes one of his many fine collaborators, Greg Osby: “He was an economist: every note and phrase and utterance counted. There was nothing disposable.” Well, that's a nice compliment to any economist!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The uses of enchantment

We watched My Neighbor Totoro again at about midnight on Thanksgiving... a contender for the most beautiful movie ever made. Maybe drinking wine for the preceding 9 hours straight had something to do with my assessment, but the first time I saw it with the kiddos I was stone cold sober, and I had the same reaction. Coincidentally, this showed up at Boing Boing today.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Notorious George Eliot

I read Middlemarch some years ago and loved it. I was not listening to gangsta rap back then, so I did not think to compare George Eliot's style with Biggie's. Then again, who would? Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, and damned if he doesn't pull it off.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Randy Newman

"Austin City Limits" gave Randy Newman an hour to sing a bunch of his songs. He could have gone on for another 4 hours, as far as I'm concerned. His songs are great, and really nobody sings them better than the man himself. He is a clever piano player too, who makes a virtue of his limitations.

An audience member requested "Rednecks," and he simply said, "No, I can't sing that." It's one of his best, but every other word is the N word, so it's a nonstarter for PBS. Too bad: The song is a spirited if not very subtle condemnation of racism and racial hypocrisy in the United States. No matter, he has plenty of fantastic politically charged songs where that one came from.

Watch Randy Newman "You've Got a Friend in Me" on PBS. See more from AUSTIN CITY LIMITS.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bil Keane, RIP

In "The Family Circus," Bil Keane had unfunny down to a science. There was an art to it, and sometimes there was a little social commentary to it as well.

GOP debate... again?!

Convinced that Romney will inevitably be the last man/woman standing, and that debates are at best bad political theater, I haven't been paying much attention. But from the reports, I give Cain a point for opposing going to war with Iran over nukes, at least not immediately. Reassuringly to the base, however, he supports torture, like pretty much everyone in his party, save Huntsman and Paul. Those guys are toast, obviously. The set for this debate, I must say, is quite pleasing, like Jasper Johns reimagined by Ikea.


This almost impossibly delicate and lovely fungus popped up around the new manzanitas. It would appear to be Coprinus plicatilis, a common variety of inky cap.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What a swell party this is!

Somehow the continuing sitcom that is the GOP presidential race reminded me of the greatest Cole Porter cover evah! It's... well... it's... swellegant!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Michiko rocks

Great critics are very rare. In the New York Times, which I peruse daily, there is only one whom I read without fail, and rarely with disappointment: Michiko Kakutani. It is not only because I agree with her taste in books; nor is it merely because she appears to be as smart as her dad, beloved of all economists of my generation for his fixed point theorem; it is also because she can write a turn of phrase like this, capturing the very essence of Bill Clinton in seven words: "freewheeling policy wonk and genial retail politician." Nifty.

Walmart, bank-slayer

Yes, lefty friends and allies, I know we don't generally shop there, but remind me again, why is it we don't like Walmart?


Charles Babbage may indeed have invented the first computer, but he was also not at all shabby as an economist. He quite sensibly suggested that one significant advantage of the division of labor, overlooked by Adam Smith, was that subdividing the tasks made it possible to save on labor costs by hiring low-skilled specialists who were very adept at only one thing, and thus cheap. This simple "deskilling" argument strikes many of us as more compelling than any of the advantages proposed by the Adam.

Heavy D, RIP

Monday, November 7, 2011

Who are the great jazz instrumentalists?

I don't mean the great composers (Ellington, Monk, Shorter) or great bandleaders (Ellington again, Basie, Blakey, Miles) or even the great revolutionaries (Ellington again, Miles again, Ornette). Miles and Ornette could blow your mind, and did so frequently, but they were not the guys who make me ask: Can a human being possibly produce sound so grand and beautiful? Armstrong, Hawkins, Holiday, Parker, Rollins, yes. Somewhat reluctantly, Art Tatum and Wynton, yes. Max Roach and Tony Williams. Eric Dolphy, in my book. Coltrane... hmm...

A question inspired by Rudresh Mahanthappa. A guy still in the running.

Garden plant of the year, at least in my garden

Solidago californica, one of our native goldenrods. Here it is November 7 and even the late-blooming California fuchsia are nearing their end. But the solidago has been in bloom for nearly three months now, with no sign of letting up. A little burst of sunshine on a gray November day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Planet Money

Every time I hear the "Planet Money" correspondents on "All Things Considered," I reach for the change channel button. The reports are invariably cutesy, trite, and somewhere between uninformative and misleading. Now we have Adam Davidson colonizing the NY Times, promising to "demystify complicated economic issues." His first installment? Creating jobs is "practically impossible in our current capitalist democracy." After the obligatory bow to "he said, she said," featuring one-line caricatures of archaic Keynesians and do-nothing Chicagoans, Davidson offers platitudes, urging us all to buck up and make the most of it. "An economic downturn is a great time to learn things." Yes, in your unexpected surfeit of leisure time you could learn to sell apples on the street corner, or turn tricks.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Not-so-guilty pleasures

Is it wrong that "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" makes me proud to be an American?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Defend yourself against tear gas

I've participated in a few demonstrations over the years (not recently, I must confess), but never one where the authorities used tear gas on the crowd. Peaceful protest being one of our most fundamental and cherished rights as Americans, proper education in civics calls for some knowledge of practical measures one can take to defend against tear gas attack and other abuses of power. And your friends at boingboing are here to help. Remember: Only for good, never for evil!

To sing as the host sings in his house

One of the benefits of having had a woefully incomplete education in literature (poetry in particular) is that one can reach the age of 53 and discover something wondrous brand new in the written word... even if the poem has been around for decades...
To breathe and stretch one's arms again
to breathe through the mouth to breathe to
breathe through the mouth to utter in
the most quiet way not to whisper not to whisper
to breathe through the mouth in the most quiet way to
breathe to sing to breathe to sing to breathe
to sing the most quiet way.

To sing to light the most quiet light in darkness
radiantia radiantia
singing light in darkness.

To sing as the host sings in his house.
From John Taggart, "Slow Song for Mark Rothko." Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Game 6

I really don't like baseball at all. Except sometimes...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


It seems logical to me that the officials of cities like Atlanta and Oakland might be losing their patience with the Washington politicians and their wealthy paymasters who have failed to undertake sensible fiscal policies to alleviate the real pain of their citizens in these hard times. Instead, they decide that frustrated protesters, the large majority peaceful and orderly, need to be forcibly removed from downtown parks and plazas because... because...? Oh, the sanitation problems. Never mind that a few porta potties probably cost less than the tear gas canisters that are putting people into hospitals.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kevin Spacey

We watched Horrible Bosses this weekend, a dumb comedy that provided more than a few good laughs. Kevin Spacey was one of the three horrible bosses. He could play this kind of amusing creep in his sleep, and judging from the performance, that's pretty much what he did. Ditto for Colin Farrell. Of the three bosses, only Jennifer Aniston, as a nympho-maniacal dentist, clearly put some effort into it. She is very funny.

Spacey first came to my attention in the late 80s TV series, Wiseguy, in which he guest starred as a twisted, drug-addled gangster. The creepiness factor has served him well ever since then, in American Beauty (a movie I didn't care for), in which he turns out to be a creep with a heart of gold, and Seven (a movie I liked), in which he is a creep beyond redemption.

Which brings us to Richard III, the role Kevin Spacey was born to. We were lucky to be there opening night in San Francisco. The production is brilliant. The other actors range from solid to excellent. But it is, as I guess Shakespeare intended it, a one-man show. Every Richard is evil, and it would have been natural for Spacey to model his Richard on all the other humorously creepy villains he has created. The evil is there, and the humor too, to be sure. But evil does not exactly define this Richard. Spacey as Richard is more pure life force. Twisted, wracked with pain, this Richard nonetheless seems to relish every second. The physicality of the performance is astonishing. The set is deep and largely empty; "crippled" Richard charges across it, in full command of his space, as dangerous as a wounded animal, as devastatingly effective as Walter Payton running the football.

But this is Richard, after all, and in the end this life force must get his comeuppance (quite literally, as it turns out, in this staging). Only in a cheesy horror movie would such a villain's corpse come back to life to wreak havoc one last time. I'm sure I was not the only member of the audience wishing that it could happen here too, just this once...

Occupy the classroom

Kristof is right on. A humane society surely will do what it can to help out the unfortunate whose life chances have been constrained by upbringing, prejudice, or some other kind of bad luck. In the process, some deemed "undeserving" will be helped as well. Sorry, insurance just works that way. But a just society will do its best to equalize life chances in the first place. Efficiency and equity both served.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Climate change news: good, bad, and ugly

Good! California adopts cap and trade for greenhouse gases. California alone cannot make much of a dent in global warming, but we can demonstrate that life will go on pretty much as usual after cap and trade. The great state of CA will still be vibrant, growing, diverse, and politically dysfunctional.

Bad: No matter how carefully you massage the surface temperature data, global warming is happening, and fast, confirming the data reported by NASA and other reliable sources. And this research comes from a one-time climate change questioner, if not a denier.

Ugly: Economists prove that coal sucks. These are not your tree-hugger economists, if such exist. These are distinguished, hard-nosed microeconomists who have leaned toward the "don't do too much too fast" view on climate policy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Take Shelter

The film Take Shelter just opened within the last week or so, but already on Saturday night the Guild Theater in Menlo Park was nearly empty. Perhaps word has gotten out that the movie will subject you to two full hours of existential dread... and who needs that? Well, you do, if you value a gripping, thought-provoking story and first-rate writing, directing, and acting. I won't tell you what I think of the ending. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bertel Bruun, RIP

I confess, I was a kid birder. We had a feeder outside the kitchen window of our Connecticut house, and the folks bought a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide, the standard reference at the time. When I started heading out into the woods and marshes looking for birds beyond the back yard, for some reason I acquired a copy of Birds of North America (first ed., 1966), co-written by the late Bertel Bruun (along with Chandler Robbins and Herbert Zim).

I found the book much more user-friendly than Peterson's guide. For one thing, I thought, and still think, that the illustrations were more life-like and true to the birds than Peterson's iconic paintings. But more important, the book's design placed the full text descriptions adjacent to the plates, rather than elsewhere in the book as was Peterson's norm. No annoying fumbling and flipping back and forth in the field. The NY Times obit notes that this eminently sensible design was Mr. Bruun's innovation and principal contribution to the book.

I now also own a copy of the definitive Sibley guide, a beautiful achievement and a wonderful reference. But when I see a bird I'm unsure of, my first move is still for Mr. Bruun's masterpiece.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 3

One of my favorite reviews from my favorite pop music critic, Robert Christgau, was his A+ review of DeBarge's In a Special Way:
I know of no pop music more shameless in its pursuit of pure beauty--not emotional (much less intellectual) expression, just voices joining for their own sweet sake, with the subtle Latinized rhythms (like the close harmonies themselves) working to soften odd melodic shapes and strengthen the music's weave. High energy doesn't always manifest itself as speed and volume--sometimes it gets winnowed down to its essence.
Of course, very rarely you get the deepest expression and the purest beauty all at the same time--Louis Armstrong comes to mind. I am unwilling to claim that Andy Bey approaches that exalted level. But when it comes to high energy in the service of shameless beauty, hiding itself behind suave and smooth, I put American Song right up there.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Black Saint

Back in the 1970s, some crazy Italians apparently decided that it would be a good idea to record the most creative but least commercially viable musicians in America. The result is a discography to drool over. My hunch is that every single record offers something transcendent. Because transcendence is the unifying theme of avant-garde jazz. And avant-garde jazz lived on Black Saint.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Not in my name

I have little sympathy for guys like Anwar al-Awlaki, who represent about the exact opposite of what I love and admire in modern human society. But one of the things I love and admire is due process under the rule of law. An eye for an eye with a wink and a nod doesn't cut it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 2

I own a serviceable vinyl copy of the Pogues' Rum Sodomy & the Lash, with its excellent altered Gericault cover. Like most of my vinyl, it stands idle in the "record cabinet." I always remembered it fondly, and recently stumbled across a CD copy at... where else?... the library book sale. I love sea shanties, and I love Scotch-Irish American folk, and I love 80s punk, and Shane MacGowan makes me think there may not be that much difference between 'em. Pass the Bushmills!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Congratulations to all winners

Once again I was passed up for a genius award, but I try not to be bitter. I'm particularly happy to see grants go to Roland Fryer, a brilliant and fearless* economist who is intent on figuring out how to make things better for America's most disadvantaged children; Jeanne Gang, who designed one of the most beautiful buildings in Chicago (a city with more than its share of beautiful buildings); and Dafnis Prieto, a drummer who kicks butt. As for me, there's always next year!

* By this I mean that he has taken on hot-button topics and let the facts take him where they will; e.g., the racial test-score gap in early childhood, the possibility of "pay for performance" for school kids, etc.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nader again?

Not long ago I would have said that even if he ran for president again, Ralph Nader could not possibly carry enough votes to be a spoiler, but now I'm not so sure. Obama is in real trouble, but so is his opposition, so 2012 may well be pretty close. In swing states, disgruntled leftists and assorted crackpots who might defect to Nader could be numerous enough to play a deciding role. Which is to say that I agree with everything James Fallows says here. If you, like me, are one of those disgruntled leftists or assorted crackpots, take a long hard look around you, then a long hard look deep inside yourself, and tell me you really could vote for Nader again. Really?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Politically correct racism

As usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates nails it. I won't be too hard on Michael Moore, because I am sure I have been guilty of saying something similar, and plenty of good liberals I know occasionally lapse into ethnic generalizations; these are "permissible" if they point to what are considered positive rather than negative cultural attributes, never mind the casual empiricism and questionable sociology. Let's all agree to stop doing it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ringer, cont.

Alas, it kinda sucked. Sorry Sarah, next time make sure your old boss Joss W is the creator...

Monday, September 12, 2011


So, Sarah Michelle Gellar has a new series on the CW, premiere tomorrow. It appears to be based on one of the oldest and often lamest premises in the book: the evil twin or maybe the mysterious doppelganger plot. But I will dutifully watch. After all, Sarah was the star of what was arguably the greatest television series of all time. So I am prepared to cut her some slack.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Twenty Lakes Basin

The scenery in the Hoover Wilderness just east of Yosemite is so spectacular, one could be excused for failing to look down.

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

But look down one should, if only to avoid what our family refers to as "fishy foot"...

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

An even better reason to look down is that this area features a fantastic jumble of old volcanic, metamorphic, and granitic rocks that provide a colorful architecture around the many small lakes that dot the basin.

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

Spring, which came in late August this year, brings a number of interesting flowers that decorate the rock walls and meadows. Like this one, which I believe is (aptly named) rockfringe, Epilobium obcordatum:

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

Do look back up occasionally so as to avoid bumping your head on the ice...

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

... and because you might catch the last patch of blue disappearing above Greenstone Lake and Mt. Conness, if a late-summer squall kicks up.

From 20 Lakes Basin, Sept. 2011

Although it is a designated wilderness area, the Twenty Lakes Basin is easy to get to from Saddlebag Lake, a few miles off Rte. 120 near Tioga Pass. The little fishing resort at Saddlebag will water taxi you to the far (north) end of the lake for $11 round trip, which saves you about 4 miles total of walking, and you can devote the extra time to exploring this remarkable and beautiful area. Or trout fishing, if you are so inclined.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Late summer

I have my google calendar set up to show one week at a time. All summer long, when Sunday arrives, the new week pops into view, and for the most part the calendar has been pure as the driven snow, a field of empty white time slots. But alas the first week of September has brought a nasty checkerboard of blue appointments and meetings.

Still, late summer has its virtues, including the beautiful organic cranberry beans from Full Belly Farm, pulled fresh from the pod.

From September 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011


“All in all, we have a very senior rover that’s showing her age,” said John Callas, the project manager. “She has some arthritis and other issues, but in general, she’s in good health.”

It's easy to forget how amazing "her" journey has been... and she sure takes some nifty snapshots...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Alan Krueger nominated for CEA chief

"Among economists Dr. Krueger is known as a voracious data hound..."
And this is really the best breed of econ dog. Excellent choice, Mr. President.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Serra at Stanford

Richard Serra's Sequence is now installed and open to the public at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. Walking through it reminded me of hiking in one of those southwestern box canyons, glimpses of bright blue sky opening and closing above the curved rust-colored walls. But the human, industrial origins of the thing are unmistakable too... it could be the rusting hulk of an abandoned ocean freighter. It is evocative, fun, and beautiful. And heavy!

The Cantor Center is a Bay Area treasure. It is free and open to the public, and has an excellent and wide-ranging collection. It's small enough that you won't be overwhelmed, but big enough that you will find something new and rewarding on every visit. The Serra, which will be at the Cantor Center until 2016, has amazing company nearby: Rodin's Gates of Hell, and Andy Goldsworthy's Stone River.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sad day for pop music

RIP Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. Between the two of them they provided an awful lot of pleasure to an awful lot of music lovers...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Keeping things in perspective

Matthew Yglesias: "One [of] the oddities about the current economic doldrums afflicting the developed world is that if you look at the global average, this is almost certainly the best time to be alive in human history."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hardly a screech

Lying in bed last night at 2 a.m. after son the elder had landed from his evening's flight, I discovered that he was not the only night owl in the neighborhood... "The double note is a primary call although not as frequently heard. This is generally associated with an excited owl." (source) Palo Alto after midnight... excited about what, I wonder?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 1

It was certainly a perfect summer afternoon yesterday in downtown San Jose for the final sets of the San Jose Jazz Festival. On the salsa stage at 6 p.m., Fito Reinoso y su Ritmo y Armonia sizzled in front of a beautiful San Jose rainbow crowd. Playing salsa Cuban style, the band is a well-oiled machine, and Reinoso is a charismatic front man. His baritone is so rich I kept wishing for a ballad, but the band and the dancers in the crowd would have none of that. The horns were tight, the timbales driving the rhythm without punishing your eardrums, the piano providing that propulsive montuno riff. The answer, in short, is yes.

Earlier we caught the first half hour of Miguel Zenón's quartet. The band seemed tentative and a bit disorganized at first, but by the time I left to check out some other stages, they were cooking, mastering tough chord changes and bizarre meters as if it were the 12-bar blues. Zenón plants his feet and wobbles around on bent knees while he solos on alto. I'm not sure I've heard a better saxophonist in some time.

We walked by the main stage twice, hearing a bit of Ramsey Lewis one way and then George Duke/ David Sanborn coming back. Is it funk jazz? Smooth jazz? Arena jazz? Whatever it is, it's popular, and it kind of sucks.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Michelle first, Ron second! If the past is a foreign country, the GOP must be a different planet. Feelin' bad for Tim, though...

Friday, August 12, 2011

It's all yours, chimps!

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" features your standard sci-fi plot No. 3, whereby science with the best of intentions goes awfully awry. The movie has its moments, but is generally ho-hum. The acting is uniformly middling. James Franco sleep-walks through the whole thing, substititing a kind of befuddled concern for Charlton Heston's angry burn in the original. Freida Pinto is here strictly for ornamentation, although she does get to deliver the obligatory "Some things are not meant to be changed" line.

Critics seem to love the performance-capture technology used to turn actors into chimps, but frankly I found the chimps even less inspiring than the humans. Our chimp hero Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a very narrow emotional range, usually somewhere between pouting and brooding. Give me Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter mugging through their layers of makeup any day.

Eventually our army of chimp rebels escape from their prisons and gallop across the Golden Gate, facing down the CHiPs and our nasty corporate antihero. Their objective? Muir Woods, where Caesar plans to make their new home. The Muir Woods are indeed lovely, but redwood forests are actually rather barren of vegetation, and I found myself wondering, "What will they eat?" But then I remembered that they are in Marin! If they get hungry they can swing over to Bradley Ogden's Tavern at Lark Creek for a bite... if they can get a reservation, that is...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Carson Pass country

The mountains surrounding Carson Pass are widely renowned for having the most beautiful wildflower display in the Sierra Nevada. Spring came late to the high country this year; even a week into August there was plenty of snow to traverse. Abundant moisture is perhaps compensating for the shortened growing season. To a great degree the flowers come in predictable combinations: on the sloping meadows, lupines, tall red paintbrush, and golden mule ears; in the swampy patches, blazing pink and yellow monkey-flowers and head-high corn lilies; the high rocky areas dotted with sulphur buckwheat and penstemon. But Nature is eager to experiment with the color palette, and especially along the margins between plant communities one finds the most striking and unexpected combinations. I took a few pictures.

Columbines among the boulders...

... that pink kind of monkey-flower...

... the corn lilies is as high as an elephant's eye...

... every garden benefits from a water feature...

... and don't take the rocks for granite...

Grrr... that damn Obama...

... nothing could make me vote for that clown again... oh... wait...

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Noblesse oblige... sans irony

Three cheers for Bloomberg and Soros. They say the devil is in the details, but jobs, and somebody actually giving a shit, have to be a good start. Especially when Washington is single-mindedly intent on making matters worse.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The employment crisis

Here's the employment-population ratio for prime-age (25-54) black men since 1994. Yes, down by ten percentage points in just three years. What is the debt plan doing for these folks?

Addendum: the longer view, black men 20 years and older... the lowest level since we have been collecting modern data...

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, seasonally adjusted

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Too optimistic

Sure, political dysfunction, economic disaster, but he didn't even mention global warming...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

99 and a half...

... just won't do for John Boehner, or perhaps it's his tea-drinking friends...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hey Rocky...

... watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

I keep hoping that Obama will produce the debt ceiling rabbit, but Prof. Krugman seems to think the GOP bear is more likely. I fear he is correct. He usually is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola

Heard them from the second row at the Dana Street Roasting Company, a smallish coffee house in Mountain View. Wow. You should catch them if they visit your neighborhood. They play, and they play, as in playful.

If you are unfamiliar, Hunter finger-picks a 7-(or 8-)string guitar, thumping out the bass line while improvising on the higher strings. His technique is kinda superhuman, although it does impose some limitations on the fluidity of his solo lines. Amendola is a jazz drummer in the modern mold, specializing in Caribbean-tinged grooves and funky backbeats. Good with the brushes as well. The highlight of the night for me was his quiet solo on "Body and Soul" (I think): the sticks swishing and tapping the cymbals, maintaining an evolving ringing tone while he explored the rhythm on the skins.

Kudos to Dana Street RC for bringing real music to our boring little suburb.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beautiful Chicago

Highlights of my latest (and Laura's first) visit included...
...the extraordinary Chicago Cultural Center with two (count 'em) spectacular stained glass domes, one surrounded by intricate Tiffany glass mosaics...

...the glorious prairie gardens in Millennium Park...

... caldo with Alexi at Rick Bayless's Xoco...

...staying in the Burnham Hotel, in Atwood, Burnham, and Root's extraordinary 1895 Reliance Building...

... funky blues at Kingston Mines...
By the way, the Chicago climate sucks...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Budget politics

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems the recurring pattern is that each time the parties are near "agreement" on a plan for raising the debt limit, Congressional Republicans introduce new demands, and the President gets a little petulant, but then, statesman that he is, he "compromises" by capitulating to the previous set of Republican demands. This is not a good dynamic.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Most reliable music genre

Say you are browsing internet radio by genres. What genre of popular music is most likely to be quite acceptable, or LEAST likely to be unlistenable? I vote for "alt-country." You?

Top underpaid players

You really do have to feel for LeBron, underpaid to the tune of $20 million a year. I wish someone would do this sort of calculation for university faculty... I am sure I must be underpaid by at least $20 a year.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Happy 4th!

It wouldn't be Independence Day without some Sousa, and why not from the man himself?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Unhappy Medium

Somewhere between punk, with its anger, energy, and utter artlessness, and heavy metal, with its virtuosity and insufferable bombast, lies the bliss point of hard rock. Nirvana nailed it.

Now with links!

Some of my favorites, over on the left below my beautiful portrait. This presentation by Mark Bernstein (or read the paper) discusses his simulations of the concentration of traffic on the web under different assumptions about linking. The take-away for me was that including links to a variety of web sites (a blogroll) creates a positive externality that helps preserve what Bernstein calls the "long tail" of diverse and potentially important but infrequently visited web sites. That kind of web "biodiversity" is worth preserving. Of course, the links can only do any good if someone gets to them in the first place... dear reader...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stay in school

Yeah, the job market for new college grads sucks right now, and lots of evidence suggests they will suffer the ill effects for years, maybe decades to come. But it infuriates me to see people drawing the conclusion that college doesn't pay. David Leonhardt lays that notion to rest in yesterday's column. And money aside, it's not such a bad thing being an educated person.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What's in bloom in the garden

Two kinds of native buckwheat...

...and of course monkeyflowers.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Congratulations, New York

A victory for humans, but especially for the gay ones who'd like to be married. I'm waiting for California to catch up. Always so strange reading the objections of the opponents...
"If it passes, we feel it's going to ruin our state and our country," said Dawn Adams, a coordinator of the Norwich Tea Party Patriots.
Really, Dawn? REALLY?
Even with the protections, the state's Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan vehemently opposed passage of a gay marriage bill, calling it "bad for society." "Marriage has always been, is now, and always will be the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong, life-giving union," the bishops said in a statement. "Government does not have the authority to change this most basic of truths."
Really, Tim?
I guess it's unsettling, hearing that whooshing sound as history passes by you...

Peter Falk, RIP

I loved and still love "Columbo," one of the few cop shows of its era that still holds up, entirely because Peter Falk was so good. The NYT obit fails to mention, I believe, that he also had a wonderful turn playing himself in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire."

Update/correction: The print edition does refer to "Wings of Desire."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Plenty of blame to go around

Krugman is right, of course, the Fed can and should (and legally must) do more. The Republicans are hopeless; Obama and the Dems (willfully?) helpless. High unemployment means lost output big time, as in: We are poorer than we need be. But it is especially bad for low-wage and minority workers, and for new grads, whose lifetime earnings will be substantially less than they otherwise would be. All for the sake of....?!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Somebody kill it!

I quite enjoyed the premiere episode of AMC's new cop series, "The Killing": stylish TV noir with some very promising characters. Then over the course of the season the show steadily deteriorated, introducing one or two lame plot twists every week, each featuring its own "likely suspect of the day" who turned out not to be so likely after all by the end of the episode.

Now it turns out that I may just have been watching the wrong TV show, because apparently there was a much better series with the same name, over which the NY Times critic Ginia Bellafante gushes, "With its lyrical pacing, restrained performances and a palette so visually cool that it feels as though you are watching from inside a Sub-Zero, 'The Killing' is at once a procedural and a rich exploration of the perils of obsession."

I know for a fact that she was watching a different series, because she concludes from the final episode that there is only a ".0009 percent chance" that the prime suspect is not guilty, whereas the final episode of the series I watched made it rather clear that the prime suspect was being set up.

What I find particularly unforgivable about "The Killing" is the way it spent the entire season developing a main character whom both the viewer and the protagonist come to like and trust, only to turn around and make him into some kind of con man in the final 10 seconds, I guess all for the sake of being "clever" and "unpredictable." It's a cheap trick. Son Aidan was right: "Dad, this show sucks, it's all about Breaking Bad."

I won't make the mistake of watching it again next season, unless I can figure out where to find that excellent show Ms. Bellafante was writing about.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Politics and self-interest...

... who woulda thunk it, the two related somehow? The propertied oldsters in AARP, now that they got theirs, happy to recommend increasing the eligibility age or otherwise reducing benefits for Social Security beneficiaries "far off in the future." Translation: Screw you, kids, and especially you poor kids.

Do they wonder why I tear up their junk mail every time they try to get me to join?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mavs in 6

Ditto what I said below. Not the best game of the series, but plenty of prime hoops. Any randomly chosen 5 minutes would be more exciting than the best 5 minutes of any major-league baseball game.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mavs by 9

When I hear people say the NBA is boring, not what it used to be, etc., I have absolutely no idea what they could be talking about. The world's most complete athletes doing their intricate, collectively improvised ballet, playing every game as if it mattered. Nothing like it.

The Great Hamster of Alsace...

... sounds like it could be the title of a Church official of some sort, or a delicious French preparation, or perhaps a psychedelic band. But no, it is in fact an endangered critter, and one of those fortunate critters that is both handsome and adorable... like George Clooney I suppose.

Rockin' with ukuleles and Tuaregs

A couple of recent recommendations from Robert Christgau do not disappoint:
tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L: super-cool set of tuneful but edgy songs by Merrill Garbus, she of the soulful voice, triphoppy loops, and excellent uke.
Bombino, Agadez: Saharan electric guitar godliness.
Still plenty new to be heard under the sun!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Beautiful, TNC

I haven't seen X-Men: First Class, and it seems fairly likely that I will not, but I will always gladly read Ta-Nehisi Coates on whatever he wants to write about. His blog is a lot better than mine, so go over there.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I love veggies, but...

... if God had intended for us to eat sprouts he would not keep lacing them with E. coli...

Update: The sprouts have been exonerated, for now. I still don't like 'em much...

No, Professor Diamond, a Nobel is not enough...

Maybe you should try bein' a regular dumb-ass like the Senator, instead of insulting him by acting all intelligent and shit.

Manly man, I am?

After dropping my son off in Santa Cruz this afternoon, I popped over to the UCSC Arboretum to check out the South African protea, many still in bloom. Lovely! Then hit the gift shop and examined the Arboretum aprons... handsome, but I decided not to purchase... On my way home I stopped at Piazza's to pick up some fragrant fresh CA peaches, and asparagus for pasta primavera... gotta try that new Cook's Illustrated recipe, you know...

So why is it that I feel the NBA Finals on ABC is not marketing to me?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Like addicts gathered outside the methadone clinic, the bleary-eyed customers line up every morning at Philz Coffee on Middlefield in Palo Alto. Oh yes, I am occasionally among them, even though I also brew my own at home. The prices are a bit steep, but you get what you pay for. I usually drink it black, but the other day I tried their Turkish with cream and medium sugar. Just about the best cup o' joe I've ever had. I'm trying not to order it again anytime soon... that would be a particularly hard habit to shake.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron

Dead at 62, a fixture for many young lefties coming of age in the 1970s, including some I know rather well. The rap and spoken-word influence is how he will be remembered, but it was his husky, slightly nasal, and understated singing voice, backed by that cool 70s "urban" sound, that always made me stop and listen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pulgas Ridge

The dog people love Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve, with its off-leash area, but really it's the all about the flora.

The sticky monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus), glowing against the cool green-white of the chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum).

Golden brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides)... and...

What the hell is it? You tell me!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And in another parallel universe...

... progressive and conservative organizations line up behind a steep and rising carbon tax as a means of providing budget-balancing revenue and curbing climate change. Oh, that has already happened in our own universe. What's different in the parallel universe is that the politicians are sane enough to implement it...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dylan, Melodist

Of course: Dylan, lyricist. And Dylan, vocalist, in every whining and croaking incarnation. And why not: Dylan, competent guitar picker and instantly recognizable harmonicist. But why do so many great singers keep making great covers of his songs? Dylan, melodist.

Happy birthday, Bob.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Regarding Harold Camping's prophecy that the world will end tomorrow, one must always bear in mind that there is a very high likelihood we are living in a simulated reality. In some percentage of these simulated realities, apocalyptic scenarios are permitted to unfold. Certainly if I were in charge of the model, I'd be sorely tempted to try it, just to watch all the skeptics freaking out. In this regard the higher intelligences running the simulation would be indistinguishable from the capricious gods who inhabit so many of our myths.

Even if our reality is simulated, it is surely a lovely and precious simulation, right down to the bug on the columbine that I saw on my hike this morning.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cheaper by the half dozen

If they all hatch, our resident house finches will have their work cut out for them.

Gruff but lovable...

... and self-aware, Larry Summers:
"I said to the president when he asked me to do the job that I was a person who had strong views, and that I would make every effort to make sure that he was exposed to all perspectives and that each of those perspectives would be presented in as effective a way as possible. But if he wanted to maximize the feeling of kumbaya in the group, I wasn’t the right person."

Friday, May 13, 2011


Our extraordinarily affluent state is now apparently too poor to keep 70 of its state parks open. Not to mention the slow strangulation and privatization of our great public universities. Somehow we have become miserly and small-minded. What happened?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Poison oak

A beautiful plant any time of year, but especially in spring as its polished leaves and waxy little flowers unfurl.

Then again...

... I guess you could say that Ben is not really doing his job right now...
The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy's long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.
(My italics). See PK.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In defense of Ben B

OK, true, I guess Ben could be doing more, but let's be fair, he did save us from GD II, and the politicians, who maybe should take some responsibility, are basically intent on making matters worse. So I say give the man a break. Let's see you do better.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The 0.5% solution

To be perfectly honest, I have a feeling they could blend in 0.5% cat pee and I wouldn't notice. But at any rate this Trader Joe special is pretty good.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are symphony concerts overpriced?

The sorry financial condition of the great Philadelphia Orchestra, following on similar news out of Detroit, has Philly boy Atrios concerned, and he seems to accept that the ticket prices are just too damn high. He cites some evidence on 1975 prices and notes that "Converted into 2005 dollars... the top ticket price to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra today should be $39.33." Instead, it's the equivalent of $122.

So how come? One possibility is that the orchestra has underestimated the demand elasticity, and is simply over-pricing its product. This seems to be Atrios's view. Or it could be that the union musicians are grossly overpaid and need a good smackdown.

But my sense is that what we are seeing is simply the classic(al) example of Baumol cost disease. William Baumol noted many years ago that the production of some goods is fundamentally skilled-labor intensive and not subject to cost-saving technological change. As the cost of other, usually high-tech goods declines, the relative price of goods like live symphony concerts rises, and deflated by a standard price index the real price is bound to be higher.

In light of this I'm inclined to say: If you want to hear first-class musicians playing live, you simply gotta pay. Yes, playing Farmville is a lot cheaper than it was in 1975! If you prefer that kind of entertainment, this is a great time to be alive...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Salade Nicoise

Gosh it's tasty. All the ingredients are at your local Trader Joe's or your favorite local grocery. Mine is Piazza's, the best food store in the greater Palo Alto area. Everything that you need and most of what you want.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sierra Blue

Of the six varieties of ceanothus in my yard, 'Sierra Blue' is my favorite. Some people seem to think it is prone to becoming "leggy," but to my eye the rangy, open structure is reminiscent of a well-pruned olive tree. And the flowers? Judge for yourself.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain

What the hell is this? Outkast meets Yo la Tengo is the nearest thing I can come up with, but that doesn't quite do this 2006 hippy-funk noise-fest justice. I play their more accessible Dear Science (2008) frequently, but I had heard nothing else by these guys until I picked this up... where else... at the public library book sale. I like it.

At the same sale I snagged the perfect antidote if your ears are ringing and your nerves need a break after Cookie Mountain: Bill Evans Trio's Portrait in Jazz (1959). Actually, this one is a bit rockin' by BE standards. The all-time classic piano trio, with LaFaro and Motian. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poem of the week

Goes out,
comes back--
the loves of a cat.

-Issa (trans. Robert Hass)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Inside the poppy

With the amazing little Canon S90 "point and click."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Garden blogging

The ceanothus are peaking, the goofy black oak is leafing, the flax are getting started, and the poppies... never to be taken for granted!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

War on the Poor

I sort of remember when there was a "war on poverty" instead. And of course Medicaid is not just for the poor, in the sense that we usually use the term. Stand tall, Mr. President.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Medicine show, Huntingdon, TN, Oct. 1935

This was taken by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) when he was working for the photography group of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and many others. Thousands of images from this project can be viewed and downloaded from the Library of Congress web site. I suppose they were mostly commies, but one can't look through this marvelous archive without seeing it as evidence that the government is in fact capable of making excellent use of our tax dollars...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ceanothus 'Dark Star'

This amazing hybrid of a California native makes pulling into the driveway a pleasure every day, and it is very popular with the bees.