Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hunger Games

Watched the latest installment at the 9:00 showing in Redwood City last night. Packed house... clearly they have touched a nerve with this franchise.

I thought it was, like the first installment... not bad! As with the first, there was too much time wasted preening and fawning over the fashion elements, but then again, I am not unaware of the core demographic for this film. This one drags a bit in the middle during the buildup to the "game," which then actually goes by a little too quickly. There is a pack of vicious baboons (nice touch) and a poisonous fog (yawn).

The plot, if you are one of the four or five people who have not seen the movie, revolves around a smart, strong, skilled, and compassionate young woman who reluctantly assumes the role of leader in a rebellion against a tyrannical government led by Donald Sutherland... What's not to like about that? Jennifer Lawrence is just about perfect for the role. The movie also seems to have provided work for a number of male actors who are underemployed or who may just have moved into the coasting phase of their careers... in addition to the aforementioned Sutherland, we have Harrelson, Hoffman, Kravitz, Tucci, and Wright.

My two main complaints about the movie are (1) Not one of the insipid young male leads/ love interests is a worthy match for Katniss in any dimension, either as character or actor; and (2) There's no way a drunken Woody Harrelson could physically subdue our hero, even after the trauma of having nearly electrocuted herself saving the day... but I suppose when the main message of the movie is that men fuck everything up, it pays to offer a conciliating gesture or two to the masculine ego...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds

John Prine's 1999 album of duets with a number of the leading ladies of country music, In Spite of Ourselves, is a delight from beginning to end. He has great taste in songs, and even better taste in singers. Unsurprisingly, Iris DeMent stands out, but a couple of my other favorites are with Melba Montgomery, whose voice has the quaver of an old woman's, but retains a lot of beauty and spunk. I couldn't find recordings from the album on the youtube, I'm afraid. But earlier versions of the songs are around. Back in the day, Melba sang duets with another dude who was a smidge better singer than Mr. Prine...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

[Shoeshine stand detail, Southeastern U.S.] Walker Evans, 1936.

Dolphy, Berlin, 1961

You can decide which is cooler: Eric Dolphy deconstructing "God Bless the Child" on solo bass clarinet, or Eric Dolphy in shades tearing apart "GW" on alto. Extraordinary.

The state of the job market

In the NY Times, Greg Mankiw offers a pretty balanced assessment of the current macro state of the U.S. labor market and its implications for monetary policy. For the most part, things still look pretty bad, but there are some hints of upward movement in wages and a rising rate of job vacancies that could signal, especially to inflation hawks, that the Fed should ease its foot off the accelerator. Dean Baker provides useful notes of skepticism.

The vacancy rate is an interesting series, providing a demand-side indicator of market tightness to complement the unemployment rate on the worker side. Unfortunately, the modern vacancy series only goes back to 2001. Here it is, displayed with the unemployment rate and employment-population ratio:

The vacancy and unemployment rates can be combined into the vacancy-unemployment (v/u) ratio, which has the common-sense interpretation of measuring the ratio of job openings to workers looking for them. It should be procyclical. In the following diagram, I plot v/u and an alternative index using one minus the employment-population ratio in the denominator:

The recovery since the bottom of the crisis is pretty clear, but by this measure of tightness, the labor market has a long way to go before it returns to its pre-crisis conditions, let alone the state it was in as of early 2001. Of course, it's possible that the labor market was "overheated" on the eve of the financial meltdown, and maybe we would prefer not to go there. But there's not a whole lot of evidence that wage inflation was accelerating in 2006-2007, as the following chart with the annualized rate of change in average hourly earnings suggests:

P.S.: You too can have fun with FRED!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Townsend's warbler...

... is, like many warblers, a gem, a gift one can never tire of. Like most warblers, it is coy, and flits overhead in the branches, flashing its exceptional yellow and black facial plumage, often with a friend nearby. If you are patient and still, they may come nearer... curious, or just oblivious?

Townsend's warbler is named for the naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who identified the bird for western science in the 1830s. Townsend came from a rather remarkable Quaker family, it seems, back when the world was smaller and people were bigger...
John Kirk Townsend was the son of Charles Townsend and Priscilla Kirk, he had five brothers and four sisters. His sister Mary wrote a book called, "Life In the Insect World" in 1844. And Mary and another sister, Hannah, wrote "The Anti-Slavery Alphabet" in 1846, which was sold at the Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia. His brother Edward was President of the Philadelphia Institution for Instruction of the Blind and helped organize the Philadelphia Dental College.
Photo credit.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Inequality undermines growth?

Kevin Drum's blog pointed me toward this short piece, by David Callahan, suggesting that economic inequality reduces economic growth. This would commend to us a "bigger pie" argument for redistribution.

Like Drum, I don't find the case very compelling on the face of it. Why would greater inequality slow growth? One old story is that the rich save a greater share of their income than the rest of us, so redistribution upward would raise the aggregate savings rate and reduce the share of consumption spending in the economy. (Back when I was an undergrad at UMass, the notion that the owners of capital save more of their income than do the workers was called the Cambridge saving function.) If inequality lowers consumption, this could dampen aggregate demand, slowing economic growth, a la Keynes. Since inequality trends are fairly longterm trends, this claim would require the existence of "secular stagnation," another old idea that seems to be making a comeback these days.

Still, there is a long-run argument based on the Cambridge saving function that goes the other way. Since growth is partly a function of capital accumulation, more saving means more investment means more productivity and a bigger pie. This is the classic trickle-down story. Not just Reagan, but Bob Solow.

Which story is correct? That, my dears, is an empirical question.

It would be nice to have strong empirical evidence on the causal relationship between inequality and aggregate growth. Alas, the identification problem is daunting. "Identification problem" is econo-speak for "correlation does not imply causation." And just what is the raw correlation between growth and inequality? Here's the OECD. Ummm....

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pied Beauty

Why are wood rat nests... female pintails... patches of lichen on a boulder... hawthorn leaves half green and half gold... so lovely to me? Gerard Manley Hopkins would attribute it to God. I cannot. But I like his taste.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


The hawthorn looks splendid.

Harvest time

Alexi planted yams in the back yard early in the summer, then left the work to us. The results were impressive...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Raul Ramirez, RIP

The California Report is probably the best thing on the radio: a news program of integrity that never insults your intelligence. I knew of Raul Ramirez only from the credits... he was apparently a leading light behind the scenes. Sad news.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Myra Melford and Snowy Egret

Yes, there are snowy egrets in the Palo Alto Baylands, but in this case Snowy Egret is the name of pianist Myra Melford's extraordinary jazz quintet, with whom she premiered her major multimedia work, Language of Dreams, last night at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. The work is inspired by writer Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, and features short excerpts from that work, in English and Spanish, spoken by the singer Sofia Rei, usually over the music. It was performed before a large two-screen backdrop of grainy, impressionistic video footage, loosely connected to the themes of the work, as well as intermittent dancing by Oguri.

What to make of this concoction? First, the spoken-word element worked really well. The snippets of Galeano were selected primarily for their poetry rather than as narrative, and Rei's delivery was wonderful, as musical as the musicians'. Second, the videos: They seemed superfluous to me. I would say they were a distraction, but I paid little attention. Third, the dancing: This was truly weird. Oguri works in a kind of avant-Butoh tradition, which was, to say the least, jarring against Melford's modern jazz and Galeano's pan-Latin American politics. Oguri appeared and reappeared, in his PJs, playing a fool, a drunk, a clown, a spirit, a marionette, an exploited peasant, a... who knows? He is excellent... In fact, I liked it so much that it really was a distraction. What are you getting at, Myra?

But let's get to the main point: the music. Amazing. The band plays somewhere in the space between chamber jazz and free jazz, shifting from swirling soundscapes to pulsating grooves, in harmonies inspired by Melford's studies in Indian music as well as blues and Latin jazz. I was excited at the prospect of hearing Liberty Ellman on guitar, whose liquid runs did not disappoint. Drummer Jeff Davis was a real discovery.

And then there is Melford. A pipsqueak of a woman, she plays with extraordinary focus and power. I have heard her in a number of contexts now, including this summer with Allison Miller's band at Stanford. As a sidewoman, she can sometimes blend into the background. But when she is on, especially leading a band, she can be the best in the business.

Like many top modern jazz ensembles these days, Snowy Egret plays intricate, polyrhythmic music that is beautiful and often compelling, but occasionally over-written, and even when collectively improvised, a little too safe. Something of the ecstatic that can be heard in the solos of the great jazz improvisers-- think Armstrong or the later Coltrane-- is often missing. Myra Melford is certainly capable of it, as she proved in her best solo of the evening, building energy and tension with repeated motifs, and then dropping some of her mentor Don Pullen's best sonic explosives: fists and elbows, but also whipping glissandos, the piano in flight. Tough on the hands, thrilling for the ears. Give us more, Myra.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Late fall in the garden

The Epilobium canum is having its second (or third) wind... eventually it must be cut back to the ground, but not yet, not yet...


The Palo Alto Baylands are teeming with waterfowl right now. On my morning run today I got a nice up-close look at a flock of northern pintail. This is the most beautiful and graceful of our ducks, in my opinion. The male is simply a splendid creature, with his dark chocolate head, elegant coloration and markings, and eponymous tail feathers. But the female should not be overlooked, with her richly tawny head, subtle mottling, and equally graceful long neck.
(Photo source)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Health and housing

An informative and hopeful piece by Harold Pollack on the link between expensive hospital stays and homelessness, and the promise of reducing the former by addressing the latter. Humane and cost-effective policy... therefore a non-starter in the U.S. House...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Say a little prayer

Oh, this is more like it. The illusion of effortlessness. Fantastic.

What it is, what it is

The glory of the studio version of "Rock Steady" is the relaxed funky grind, which Aretha makes her own so splendidly. The Soul Train rendition captures the feel. For some reason the folks on the Flip Wilson Show decided they needed to speed things up... a lot. When you're the world's greatest singer, that ain't no thing: a moment of adjustment, and then it's just another smoking gospel number. Her backup singers struggle to keep up.

Full Moon on the Quad

Perhaps the Stanford tradition of mass (consensual) interclass kissing on the first full moon of the year had not yet made its comeback when I was a grad student in the 80s. Or perhaps the undergrads made a point of making sure Econ grad students didn't hear about it. Prudent on their part, I confess.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 33

Was this the Duke's response to Hamp? Nah, just "a melody written for percussion... that will rattle in your brain until you die," according to Gary Giddins. Sounds about right.