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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Taricha and terroir

First the terroir: Aidan's first official wine tasting since turning 21, sampling some nice pinot at Savannah-Chanelle winery above Saratoga. The winery is adjacent to some lovely redwoods and a rushing creek. Alongside which we discovered the...

Taricha torosa, i.e. the California newt, one of my very favorite denizens of our local woods. I guess it could be a rough-skinned newt instead... one is supposed to be able to distinguish them from the color of the lower eyelid. Can you tell?

(Hat tip to LMK for the pictures)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Inside Job

Finally saw it last night. In terms of film-making I thought it was pretty ho-hum... hard to believe it could have been the best documentary of the year, although I suppose writer-director Charles Ferguson did reasonably well with a subject that does not particularly lend itself to the medium. Matt Damon's narration was quite flat... if he had only been Jason Bourne he could have gone in there and kicked Larry Summers's butt...

The now-famous sequence in which well-known economists are struck silent or goofy when asked about their undisclosed conflicts of interest was fair and necessary, although my guess is that most of these guys believed what they were arguing well before they ever had the promise of a penny from the fat cats... self-selection rather than moral hazard at work.

I thought it was interesting that in the end Ferguson seemed to be pushing Raghuram Rajan's argument that rising inequality fueled the demand for mortgage credit which led to the bubble and the crash. Of course that story is not necessarily incompatible with the explanation offered in the rest of the movie up to that point... namely that deregulation allowed the crooked banksters and their economist shills to pull a fast one on us. The film does not offer up a third explanation, which I'm partial to and rests on an appreciation of more universal human foibles: When the smartest guys in the room say they can get you something for nothing, it will be very hard to resist, but you will wish you had done so.

Still raining

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Corin Tucker Band: 1,000 Years

If you're like me and found Sleater-Kinney just a little too abrasive to fit comfortably into your middle-aged lifestyle, but were still attracted to the noise and energy, Corin's solo project is just the thing for you. She sings some lovely folksy numbers, but you'll be happiest when the band rocks out: the buzz-saw guitars, the kickin' backbeat, and oh, that voice, that beautiful rock'n'roll voice. The lyrics are good too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Apparently so...

Mark Thoma:
We have enough money to pay for military action in Libya, but not for job creation?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book report

I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson's earlier novels, including Snow Crash and especially The Diamond Age. Both are great entertainments that are packed with wit and energy and give you a little bit to think about. Cryptonomicon had its moments, but the book was too long and flagged badly in various places. His subsequent efforts did not attract my attention, but I thought I owed him another try and picked up a copy of Anathem. It's a profoundly boring book, slow-moving, unfunny, and packed with characters about whom you just can't give a rat's ass. Oh, and did I mention it's almost a thousand pages long? Sorry Neal, but if it's any consolation I still recommend the above-mentioned two to everybody.

Michael Shaara's Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels is the perfect antidote to Anathem: economical and suspenseful, even though of course the outcomes are well known in advance; compelling characters, fine descriptions of landscape and battle. As literature, it does not rank with another Civil War novel I read recently, Doctorow's The March, but it is a wonderful way to spend a few evenings... not unlike Snow Crash in that regard, come to think of it.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I've been reading James Prosek's wonderful book, Eels, which Laura gave me for Christmas. One of the characters featured in the book is Ray Turner, who catches eels in the upper Delaware River in a stone fishing weir, then smokes and sells them. He spends a good part of the year out in the middle of the river repairing his weir--which has been there for generations--by hand.

I got curious whether it would show up on google satellite. And lo, here it is. You can see the V-shaped rapids created by the weir. The mature eel run downstream for a couple of days during September, and are funneled into wooden traps placed at the vertex of the V.

Among the many amazing facts about eels, here's one I did not know: Just about all the eel we consume here (mostly in unagi, I would guess), is farm-raised in China. However, no one has been able to profitably farm-raise eel larvae. Consequently, the tiny young eel (glass eel) are netted as they run upstream, mostly from the Atlantic (quite a few from Maine), then shipped live to China where they are raised to adulthood. The glass eels are extremely valuable, often going for thousands of dollars per pound. This of course reflects the fact that a variety of F-ed-up human impacts have damaged or destroyed many eel fisheries.

No one has ever observed "freshwater" eel spawning in nature, and no one is even sure where it occurs (but somewhere in the wide Sargasso Sea, at least for the eel in North America).

Prosek also mingles with some Maoris and Pacific Islanders who revere the giant freshwater eels native to their waters and even base some creation myths on them. Altogether the book is a revelation, although I'm not necessarily happy that Prosek may impel me to give up my unagi.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

John Tierney on energy efficiency

John Tierney, a "science" columnist at the New York Times, fancies himself a contrarian, and has dabbled in climate-change denial upon occasion. Yesterday's column finds him discovering the so-called rebound effect, whereby increased energy efficiency might paradoxically lead to increased energy consumption. Apparently Mr. Tierney finally got around to reading a longer New Yorker article on the same subject, which appeared in December, although he doesn't seem to cite it.

The rebound effect is cute, but it is probably very uncommon in the real world. To obtain a net increase in energy consumption would require an unrealistically large increase in the energy-using activity in response to the savings in energy costs. In other words, the existence of the effect depends on the demand elasticity, a concept near and dear to the hearts of Econ 101 students everywhere. In a response to the original New Yorker article, Matthew Kahn of UCLA offered a simple and rather devastating numerical example of how implausible the rebound effect would be, based on driving and fuel efficiency.

Energy efficiency standards are not the best way to address the climate change problem, because they do not provide a direct incentive for reduction in fuel use. Pricing carbon is the best way to go, because it places all forms of energy conservation and low-carbon fuels on an equal footing. But the notion that tightening CAFE standards will increase gasoline consumption is just a red herring.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

China's growth and the climate

Here's a pessimistic post from Climate Progress asserting that China's currency policy has led to the country taking an increasingly dominant role in the production of greenhouse gases. The charts are quite interesting, including a nifty Herfindahl index of the concentration of CO2 emissions across countries.

Whether China's export-led growth policy really provides a causal account for the trend in its share of GHG emissions I am not sure: the authors of the post don't provide a counterfactual under, say, a more neutral currency policy. But even taking their story at face value, the news seems more mixed to me. According to the story, if China had not manipulated its currency, more of these dirty industries might be dispersed in other countries, but it’s not clear that the total global GHG emissions would be any lower. Indeed, the high concentration of GHG emissions in a few countries could facilitate reductions over time. As the post notes, China will suffer significantly from climate change. The fact that they produce a huge portion of the problem and will suffer a big adverse consequence implies that, in economics jargon, they have partly internalized the externality. This should increase their incentive to do better. Concentration could also make it easier to achieve international agreements, since negotiation would be between a smaller number of major players.