Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney, RIP

Too young... seemed likely he had some good poems left in him at 74...

Lifting (from A Lough Neagh Sequence)

They're busy in a high boat
That stalks towards Antrim, the power cut.
The line's a filament of smut

Drawn hand over fist
Where every three yards a hook's missed
Or taken (and the smut thickens, wrist-

Thick, a flail
Lashed into the barrel
With one swing). Each eel

Comes aboard to this welcome:
The hook left in gill or gum,
It's slapped into the barrel numb

But knits itself, four-ply,
With the furling, fat, slippy
Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

That stays continuously one
For each catch they fling in
Is sucked home like lubrication.

And wakes are enwound as the catch
On the morning water: which
Boat was which?

And when did this begin?
This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?
The crows will answer, "Once the season's in."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bayard Rustin

An American hero who, like A. Philip Randolph, needs to be remembered on days like today... and every day.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Happy People

Werner Herzog's "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" is a typical entry in Herzog's recent oeuvre, a documentary exploring human strangeness in extreme conditions... in this case, a year in the lives of fur trappers in a remote part of the Siberian taiga. It is a beautiful and fascinating movie. The trappers spend some of the year in the village with their families, but they prefer solitude and living off the land in their harsh environs, especially over the long, vicious winter. That's when they trap their wild sables in a variety of simple contraptions, moving in a circuit from hut to hut across their assigned hunting territory. Solitude is not quite correct, however, because there is always a dog. The partnership between man and dog is the central relationship of the movie, and a complex one. The dogs are valued--indispensable perhaps--and, in a way, loved, but also mistreated.

The economist in me couldn't help but wonder how they do it. The trapping production process appears to be surprisingly capital intensive. The short summer is devoted to repairing and building traps, and particularly to maintaining and stocking the network of trapping huts, which are rustic but quite robust structures, built to withstand the elements. There are snowmobiles and small motorboats to buy and maintain as well. Year after year, it's a considerable investment in time and money, and blood too: the mosquitoes are, well, beyond belief. All this for the occasional frozen, somewhat bedraggled sable pelt, crushed in a simple but effective deadfall trap. They must do it for fun, not profit... how strange is that?

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Convicts from the Greene County prison camp at the funeral of their warden who was killed in an automobile accident, Georgia. Jack Delano, 1941.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

France "in decline"

A NY Times article finds the French lamenting their country's alleged slow decline and provides a laundry list of economic woes. Way down in page 2 one finds a few caveats... yes, the French economy "retains plenty of strengths." Sneering a little at those generous vacations, the reporter concedes that "When the French work, they work hard.... labor productivity... is still relatively high..."

Actually, France's real output per work hour in 2012 was sixth highest in the world, ahead of Germany, Sweden, the UK, and Switzerland. Not so shabby for a bunch of wine-swilling slackers!

Update: Dean Baker has more, and is more explicit about the not-so-subtle agenda behind the article. Here's a typical line, without any indication or evidence whatsoever regarding whose "underlying understanding" this is: "There is nonetheless an underlying understanding that there will be little lasting gain without structural changes to the state-heavy French economy." My guess is that it's the underlying understanding of people who would like to gut the French welfare state.

Louisa Jo (Louis) Killen, RIP

"We're all bound to go."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard, RIP

For some reason, I never read poetry until I was well into my 40s. With the exception, that is, of Elmore Leonard's novels. Sad there won't be any more.

Monday, August 19, 2013


On topo maps, my house appears to be at about 8 feet above sea level. High enough that I don't have to panic about the new IPCC prediction of a 3-foot rise by 2100. On the other hand, I presume they are simply ignoring the possible collapse of the Greenland and/or Antarctic ice caps. In which case maybe I should be thinking about selling.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Yes we can!

In the fresh-tomato euphoria at the local farmer's markets this time of year, it's easy to forget about the tomatoes we rely on the other 10 months of the year. Bittman recently visited a big "industrial" California tomato grower and a canner, and basically liked what he saw. I have to say that not all canned tomatoes are created equal, and I have grown a bit too fond of the pricy Solania San Marzanos at Costco. But even middling canned tomatoes are a remarkable and indispensable product. Now excuse me while I sauce these organic dry-farmed Early Girls and San Marzanos that I picked up in Berkeley today...

Ruth Asawa, RIP

The word "irony" is often misused, but I suppose this might truly qualify:
Ruth Aiko Asawa was born on Jan. 24, 1926, in Norwalk, a Southern California farming town. Her third-grade teacher encouraged her artwork, and in 1939, her drawing of the Statue of Liberty took first prize in a school competition to represent what it means to be an American.
In 1942 F.B.I. agents seized her father and sent him to an internment camp in New Mexico. Ms. Asawa did not see him for six years. Two months later, she, her mother and her five siblings were taken to the racetrack. After five months, they were taken to a camp in Arkansas.
Still, she claimed not to be at all resentful of her family's treatment. She went on to produce works of extraordinary beauty and immediacy that obliterated the distinction between craft and high modern art.

Photo source

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer reading roundup

The most recent three...

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives.
He was on Terry Gross today. The book is good, and the author's efforts to get out the truth about FBI repression of dissent at Berkeley through years of FOI Act requests was heroic. It suffers a bit from the author's desire to put a narrative spin on the history, and excessive length. We get some fairly canned pop psychology regarding the book's dramatis personae: heroes Mario Savio and Clark Kerr, villains J. Edgar and Ronald Reagan. Of course one is hoping for a smoking gun that condemns Reagan's legacy. Instead, there are some sordid FBI favors, atrocious but politically expedient lies about the nature of the campus protest movements, and a lot of criminal behavior by local law enforcement. Clearly J. Edgar and Ronnie saw eye to eye, and were happy to help each other out when it was mutually beneficial, but Rosenfeld can't really prove that Reagan's rise to power owed very much to the feds. The revelation that Black Panther Richard Aoki was an FBI informant is a shocker, but its importance for understanding Panther history remains vague. Did he act as an agent provocateur, and if so is it possible that through his activities the FBI successfully steered the Panthers toward a more radical, violent, and therefore marginalized politics? 
I was intrigued by some of the book's fifth business, particularly FBI agent Don Jones. This guy was always around, spying on the subversives, issuing reports. But he called it as he saw it, and the way he saw it didn't always accord with what Hoover or Reagan wanted to hear. "Almost all of the faculty members at UCB have expressed opposition to student agitational activities which result in violence, damage or terror, while expressing sympathy with constructive change in the usual process, social and political reform and orderly descent [sic]," he wrote in an extensive report about the 1969 Third World Liberation Front protests (p. 446). In other words, Berkeley was a hotbed of... liberalism!

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin.
Just your usual story within a story within a story within a story novel. All the stories are great, and the writing rarely lets you down. It's my first Margaret Atwood novel, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say. It won't be my last. This got me thinking... how many Canadian novelists have I read? I consulted Wikipedia's list. Not many, it turns out, and Saul Bellow hardly counts... but the average quality is high, regardless.
Margaret Atwood
Saul Bellow
Robertson Davies
Barbara Gowdy

Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey.
Funny in parts, mostly a little flat and disappointing. It was so damn predictable that the bad monkey would save the day by chomping on a bad-guy's dick. Hey, it had to be said.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jean Bethke Elshtain, RIP

She was a very influential and admired professor at UMass when I was an undergrad there in the late 70s... I think generally considered a person of the left, but definitely an independent thinker. She was my advisor on an independent study project, and I'm very proud that she liked my work.

On the other hand, she was one of those folks whose moral compass wandered a bit after 9/11. “I get very irritated when people say Bush lied,” Dr. Elshtain said in a 2010 interview with The University of Chicago Magazine. “These are very dense, thick issues.” Er, no, not really. Bush lied. She was certainly entitled to think that ridding the world of Saddam was worth the chaos and loss of life. But she was not entitled to rewrite history.

Normal, standard people...

Yelena Isinbayeva, the world champion pole-vaulter and the biggest star in Russian track and field, said she supported the new law, which bans “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships,” and she urged athletes to respect Russia’s views on sexuality....
“It’s my opinion also,” she said. “If we all to promote, you know to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just because you're paranoid...

... doesn't mean they're not out to get you...

Social Security

This chart, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, tells you most of what you need to know about the importance of Social Security. Barring very bad political decisions, it will be with you through thick and thin, reliably keeping you out of poverty, unlike, say, your Detroit city pension, 401K, or Vegas real estate investments. And thanks to its near universality and contributory element, it is rather well protected against very bad political decisions, as FDR shrewdly intended.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Edward Snowden, Patriot

As I listened to the President, I had exactly the same reaction as Ezra Klein, here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Milton Friedman, Unperson?

So sayeth Dr. Krugman. Who knows, if Uncle Milty is remembered, it may be less for his contributions to macro than for something like his defense of the negative income tax, which is nothing less than a guaranteed basic income. If the right renounces Milton, maybe the left can embrace him!

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 32

Far be it from me to pronounce my own offspring (the violinist here) perfect. You be the judge.

Music in Focus: International Program Artists from Music@Menlo on Vimeo.

Eric Harland

The drummer doesn't seem to be moving much. His head is rolled back a little... could be meditating. Every once in a while he looks out and flashes a winning grin, or pauses, shakes his head gently. Then back to work. But what exactly is he doing back there? Most of the focus is on the snare and toms... not a lot of cymbal work, not even a lot of high-hat. Not much flailing about for impressive effect. The beat is propulsive, but where exactly is it in that fascinating, swirling rumble of sound? None of the big back-beat or hip-hop glitch effects that seem popular among top jazz drummers these days. More implicit than explicit. He is in perfect sync with the rock-steady bassist, Larry Grenadier.

Chris Potter is the headliner, and he takes most of the solos. Technically, he may be the most impressive jazz saxophonist I have heard. Although he definitely gets into the zone, I do wish his playing went outside a little more... he'll deliver a squawk once in a while, but then it's back off into his liquid modal arpeggios and runs. But who else can play arpeggios and runs like that?

Potter is great, but he gives the final solo to Harland. For not the first time, the bandleader stands off to the side and observes with a bemused expression, as if just as mystified by this subtle virtuosity as the audience is. The climax of the solo is a drum roll on the snare, which seems to last for three or four minutes. If you are Eric Harland, you can squeeze the whole world into a drum roll.

(Stanford Jazz Festival, 8/7/2013)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sam McDonald County Park

Peaceful and shady on a Sunday afternoon in early August. Some old-growth redwoods, impressive douglas firs, tanoaks suffering badly from SOD, exposed meadows atop the ridge.

I was pleased to find this cozy wood rat nest tucked into a hollow redwood... unusual to find the critters living in these groves, in my experience:

This artist's conk (Ganoderma applanatum) was lying on the ground, detached. I felt compelled to make an artistic statement:

You might easily walk right by the tiny, delicate California harebell (Asyneuma prenanthoides):

And yes, there were some nice lichens on the oak just outside the Sierra Club hiker's hut...

One more, why not?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen in bitter, moralizing, Old Testament mode... a la Crimes and Misdemeanors. The movie is relentless and cruel, and could easily be accused of misogyny in its treatment of the title character. Except that Cate Blanchett, pushing it past the limit at times, commands your attention and grudging admiration every moment she is on screen. Woody consigns her to the depths of hell, but you know she will keep clawing her way back up, gulping xanax and swilling Stoli all the way. Recommended.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 3a

I already plugged the album a while back, so I can't give the song a new volume number of its own. I'd describe his voice as more butter than honey, but it does stick with you.

Friday, August 2, 2013

I have mixed feelings about this

It's nice to know that there are some self-proclaimed Republicans who accept that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. On the other hand, they fail to name names. Such as... the names of the deniers who seem to dominate the entire GOP leadership. They could also have showed some gumption and advised Republicans who care about the future of the planet to vote Democrat. All 10 or 12 of them.

Precautionary security policy

Whenever someone mentions yet another horror story about internet identity theft, or the bad consequences that have come of some kid posting stupid or mean things on facebook, or google's tracking our every move and trying to sell it right back at us, my reaction (to myself) is usually something like, "Yes, bad, bad, but the technology is still brand new, and we are still finding our way, in terms of social norms, the law, technological fixes, and common sense. It will be a little chaotic until we figure it out."

Eventually, this unsettled period will shake out into a system of more stable institutions and rules. Once that happens, patterns of behavior will become self-reinforcing and rigid; change will become a lot more difficult. In my field (economic history), we call this lock-in, or path dependence. You really don't want to lock in bad rules. But during a period of flux systems are sensitive to "small perturbations." In our era, it's an unfortunate coincidence that one of those perturbations was 9/11, which has afforded political advantage on security and communications policy-making to those with authoritarian inclinations, or those who find it expedient to feign them. What's happening right now is a struggle over the set of rules that may be locked in.

All the more reason to err in the direction of skepticism, libertarianism, and resistance when it comes to government surveillance and the security state. It seems that many Americans, and even many Congresspeople, agree. So, Mr. Putin, even though you are a tyrant, and your motive is as childish as thumbing your nose at Uncle Sam, thanks for keeping our whistle-blower (yes) Mr. Snowden safe and sound for a few more months, while we try to figure it all out and protect the freedoms that you disdain.