Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Room with a View

I hadn't seen the movie in many years. It's every bit as good as I remember. After having watched her chewing up the scenery in a Harry Potter movie this week, it's nice to see Helena Bonham Carter at her most engaging. Granted she also makes a fine, fine villain. Now streaming on Netflix!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

No. 300

Nothing to say, but I just had to make sure I made it to my 300th post of 2015 before 12am 1/1/16. Happy New Year!

Minimum wage and poverty reduction

Raising the legal minimum wage involves tradeoffs, but my reading of the evidence and analysis is that there will be more gains than losses for low-income workers and their families under most of the proposed increases. The logic of setting different state and local minimums is nicely argued by Arindrajit Dube here. Still, it's worth remembering that raising the minimum wage is not a very well-targeted policy for poverty reduction, compared with, say, increased generosity of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). David Neumark makes the point here. As he notes, the two policies can be complementary, so progressives should push for more on both fronts.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Plugable Digital Microscope

For $40 on Amazon you can get this nifty little device. It's basically an inexpensive close-up USB camera with built-in LED lights and a clever gooseneck stand. If you stick the scope right up to your specimen, you can focus it to something like 250x and, using their software, snap photos of whatever you are looking at.

There are limitations. I presume it's not the best lens in the world, and to focus you have to use the ring on the body of the camera, which at high magnification means you are bound to move it around. But c'mon! Forty bucks to take pictures of whatever tiny things are growing or creeping around in your yard. Such as the moss and lichens below. Also, their customer service is excellent.

These are unaltered photos from my first try with the 'scope.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Lemmy, RIP

Not a metal fan by any stretch. But every once in a while I do find this therapeutic. As metal goes, it's low on bombast, high on noise and energy. And played with some virtuosity. And a rock'n'roll voice as indelible as Neil Young's or Roger Daltrey's.

Ellsworth Kelly, RIP

His Red White is just about my favorite painting at SF MOMA—the scale of the piece (very big) and the mass of deeply saturated red call out from across the gallery, and then the off-kilter mix of curves and angles holds your attention. I presume it will still be there when they reopen next year. I also blogged his plant drawings a while back.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Gate

I finally finished Natsume Sōseki's The Gate (1910) a few weeks ago, and for the first time since college (I think), I turned right around and read a book over again. Partly this is because the novel is that good. In fact it is exquisite. But to confess, another reason is that it took me a long time to make my way through the books's humble 214 pages the first time and give it the attention it requires and rewards. It kept putting me to sleep. Granted I had a very busy fall term and was pretty sleepy by the time a got into bed every night and picked up The Gate. I felt the book deserved another go-round, and I was right.

"Sōseki and the Art of Nothing Happening" is the title of Pico Iyer's introduction to the NYRB Classics translation by William F. Sibley, and (spoiler alert?) it's quite true that not much happens from a dramatic point of view as the story unfolds. We follow the quiet lives of the main characters, the couple Sōsuke and Oyone, as the events of their past quietly haunt them and potential new crises loom but never materialize. In the book's climactic final chapters, Sōsuke's quest to "find a way to attain serenity in life" leads him to a Zen retreat. But enlightenment seems to elude him entirely, unless you count the lovely, funny, and ambiguous, epiphany(?) of the novel's final line.

Iyer asserts that much of the narrative and psychological action takes place in the novel's elisions, and also its physical descriptions, as if the "external details.... are in fact the emotional heart of the story." I can't agree: Sōseki often takes us inside the minds of the characters, in particular Sōsuke, and his inner turmoil is what the book is about. But it is also true that The Gate relies on fine descriptive writing to set the tone. Sōsuke's deep unease, for example, becomes tangible as he is led by the monk Gidō across the dark monastery grounds to an audience with the Zen Master: "Dark as it was, the green of the leaves was still visible. It all but soaked into the weave of their clothing and sent a chill through Sōsuke." Sibley's excellent translation reads as if the book were originally written in English by a master of the period.

The Gate is, simply put, a great work of art. It is also a gentle, unconventional, and powerful love story. I'm tempted to go for round three.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What the hell is that?

Dunno. Moisture brings out all manner of slimy growing things...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mars InSight... just not quite

No sooner had I been waxing enthusiastic about the next Mars lander launch than we get news that it is suspended, due to difficulties with the vacuum seal around the key seismographic instrument... sigh... must be so frustrating for the team involved. The next optimal alignment of the planets for a launch will be in 2018... I guess you learn patience in that line of work.

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Southington, Connecticut. A street scene. Fenno Jacobs, 1942.

EPI top ten charts of 2015

You can find them here. Several are similar to last year's contenders. They acknowledge that the unemployment rate is looking a lot better, but the emphasis is on the (still) bad news: slow wage growth, and inequality. To me this one (#9) is the most interesting. Don't forget to send them some money...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Southington, Connecticut. Mrs. John Chimbor, one of the newer generations of Americans. She came from Iceland twenty years ago. Fenno Jacobs, 1942.

Barack's burden

I didn't hear the interview, but sounds like Professor Obama the sociologist was trying to be as understanding as possible while accounting for why all those white dudes hate him so. One interpretation is that the man's patience and equanimity are god-like. The other is that he is the most cutting sarcastic bastard ever. I'll take either one... or preferably both...
“If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I’m different, I’m Muslim, I’m disloyal to the country, etc. — which unfortunately is pretty far out there, and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials — what I’d say there is that that’s probably pretty specific to me, and who I am and my background,” Mr. Obama told Steve Inskeep, a host of “Morning Edition” on NPR. “In some ways, I may represent change that worries them.” 
“That’s not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it,” the president added. He noted, as an example, that voters living in coal-dependent areas may blame him for the loss of their jobs.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Hanging with the geophysicists

I spent yesterday at the last day of the humongous AGU (American Geophysical Union) conference in San Francisco. The AGU consists of scientists who do an amazing range of work... from planetary evolution to atmospheric and ocean science to climate impacts on agriculture. I was there for my small contribution to the last of these issues, with lead author Chris Bacon and legit geophysicist (hydrologist) Iris Stewart-Frey.

Some observations:

1. You have literally thousands of super-smart people, and hundreds of poster presentations and sessions, and you don't hear people debating the reality of anthropogenic climate change. You do see a lot of interesting work on understanding climate systems and the effects of warming on other earth systems, including human society and wellbeing. These people inhabit a different cognitive planet from the Republicans who play a big role in deciding climate policy.

2. My time was limited, but my favorite presentations were at a session about planetary structure and evolution. Is the core of Mars liquid or solid? We don't really know(!), but another Mars lander (InSight) is going to be sent on its way come March, and it should be able to help answer the question. Bruce Banerdt, the PI on the project, gave a nifty little talk and explained how you can learn a lot about the interior of Mars from one seismograph placed on the surface, without having to triangulate. You can get the gist of it from the video on this page, starting around minute 39.

3. We don't have much of a tradition of poster sessions in economics, but they are a really interesting and remarkably low-tech mode of knowledge transmission. Ten minutes of talking to someone one-on-one about their research is probably a lot more productive than ten minutes of listening to a talk with powerpoint slides. Scalability is an issue, of course.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My 2015 Top Ten Lists

Ha! I don't have any! But I will say that my favorite album of the year (which actually was released in December 2014 so probably doesn't even count), hands-down, was D'Angelo's Black Messiah. The best book I read (twice!) this year was Natsume Sōseki's The Gate (1910). More on that to come. Best movie? Got nothing really. Best TV show? Probably Mr. Robot. Best musical performance? James Carter in San Jose. Best cat? Toss-up between Satsu and Mei... not that I would ever toss a cat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 66

"Cosmic American music," Gram Parsons called it. Is there another pop song of the rock era with two versions as great as these? And did a dude ever play the gender bend as straight as Gram?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 65

Humans sure are capable of some weird shit. Ligeti's music is a good example. Nikki Einfeld's performance of this song last night at San Francisco Symphony's hipster SoundBox venue was the finale, and highlight of the evening.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Good news from Paris

Robert Stavins likes what he sees in the Paris climate agreement. As he notes, "The problem has not been solved," but Paris is a great foundation.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Happy 100th, Frank!

Even at his most easy-going, a hint of wistfulness...

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

Really quite bad from start to finish. Except for Miley Cyrus!


This NYT editorial kind of states the obvious for those of us living in the liberal Bay Area bubble, but it raises an important point: Which Republicans will repudiate Donald Trump in favor of Hillary, if it comes down to that? The answer says a lot about why responsibility for the country's political polarization is not symmetrical.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hard bop

What makes hard bop hard bop and not bebop? Well, it came along after bebop, and maybe it was played a little harder (and a little faster) than bebop at times. But then again, what could be harder and faster than Bird and Diz and Max? Bebop was weird, noisy, and impossibly difficult... avant garde... Cab Calloway called it "Chinese music." Hard bop was funkier, more accessible— bebop mainstreamed, in a way. But mainstream jazz would never again be dance music or popular music. Hard bop was created by the generation who invented bebop, but also by the next generation of youngsters who grew up proclaiming: This is cool, this is what we do now.

Clifford Brown was one of those youngsters, who before his death at age 25 managed to hitch his wagon to one of the transcendent geniuses of American music, Max Roach. Study in Brown is one of their masterful collaborations. Brown is great, Max is Max, but listening tonight, it is that unsung Californian Harold Land who grabs my ear.

Missing the forest for the trees

You can't really level that claim against the NY Times. After all, they do finally put things in perspective... in the last two 'graphs...!
Indeed, the death toll from jihadist terrorism in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — 45 people — is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies, according to New America, a research organization in Washington. 
And both tolls are a small fraction of the number of conventional murders, more than 200,000 in the same period. For Democrats, the common element for all of these deaths is the same — guns.
Although they also fail to mention that the number of gun suicides runs about twice the number of gun homicides. Thank God for the 2nd Amendment.

P.S. What James Fallows said.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Trump's language

This NYT article on the Donald's verbal demagoguery is interesting, based on some text analysis of all of his public utterances over the past week... but where are the tables and graphs? And more importantly, where are the comparisons with the rest of the Republican field? Is his tendency toward "us vs. them" really that different from Ted Cruz or the rest? Data analysis is all about comparisons.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 64

Oh, yeah, I confess, I do love the Bee Gees, even pre-disco, but especially disco-disco. And why not enjoy one of their best songs while watching a glorious scene from a fantastic movie, featuring an iconic American star in his defining role?


Some nifty Piazzolla for you, performed by Sundstrom offspring!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015

Build, Baby, Build!

Looking at things from the unaffordable left coast, I think Krugman is right on. The mix of inequality-induced demand for urban amenities coupled with a slow supply response is driving the 90% out of our most desirable cities. Getting pissed at hipsters and Google buses may feel good and righteous, but only more housing units will ultimately solve the problem. That includes more affordable housing, but more luxury housing too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Black coffee

Peggy Lee's recordings range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Toward the ridiculous end there are strings and bongos... toward the sublime...

Nature publishes a comic book...

... about global climate negotiations. Alas, no superheroes. But do read it. You'll learn something. It is ideologically even-handed to a fault, and the recurring Bucky Fuller visual meme is powerful... the way it echoes the Eiffel Tower is especially effective and interesting. As time goes on in this account, you may find your anxiety level rising. Partly this is because the real crisis is becoming more urgent, year by year. And partly it is because the artists have crammed the lines of text tighter and tighter. Well done. Scary. Hopeful?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rhythm Killers

Yesterday's featured Wikipedia article. I actually have the damn thing in vinyl. It's a good album, in an overproduced 1980s Laswell kind of way. And they're still at it... I heard them backing Michael Rose in Santa Cruz not long ago.

Where would we be without Wikipedia? Give them some money.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Mavericks is justly renowned for its big-wave surfing competition, but the same reefs that create those gnarly breakers also extend ashore and provide some excellent tide pools. The king tides are coming this week, which means very low lows... I was there for low tide today, a bit early for the lowest, but still saw some cool stuff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

O Bobby!

For some reason, Bobby Jindal was my favorite GOP candidate. Well, maybe second to Chris Christie. I guess I just liked the idea of having a Bobby as president! Why was he so unpopular, when Ben Carson is cleaning up in the polls? The Republican mind, if such a thing exists, is truly an enigma.

Apropos nothing at all, here is Sam Cooke singing a jazz standard, and quite badly at that. A great singer and a great song do not necessarily a great recording make. But sometimes they do... look up Billie Holiday's version...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 63

Play loud. Don't listen to the lyrics too carefully. Just let the guitar and the beat wash over you, as intended.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Allen Toussaint, RIP

It will stand...

More on U.S. women's mortality trends

Striking and depressing. From this post.

Gelman on mortality trends

A recent article by Case and Deaton on mortality trends of middle-aged white Americans vs. folks in other countries has justifiably received a lot of attention. The contrast is, to put it bluntly, dismal, and poses a fascinating puzzle. What exactly is going wrong here?

Andrew Gelman throws a little cold water on the findings, noting that the apparent rise in mortality in the data is an artifact of the changing age distribution within the 45-54 year old age group, at least for white men. The recent upward trend is largely restricted to women, and not quite so dramatic. But as he notes, the takeaway of the Case and Deaton paper still stands—namely, the international contrast: presumably the age adjustment would have similar implications for the comparison countries and make their mortality reductions look even better. Why have white Americans failed to experience the recent gains in longevity evident elsewhere around the world?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Keystone: No

Gas prices are low and the incumbent is a lame duck, so the political costs were not high, but still, good on Barack. No more business as usual on fossil fuels.
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”


Arbutus menziesii may well be our most beautiful native California tree, and it is certainly the most welcome this time of year. Here it is the dead of autumn, the entire color palette of the coastal hills muted tans and grays, and you come across a madrone covered in candy-colored fruit... not to mention the still-vibrant green of its rubber-plant leaves and the almost rosy tone of its smooth, cool trunk.

"Household surveys in crisis"

This article summarizes some highly important work by Bruce Meyer and colleagues on the ongoing deterioration of the reliability of household survey data, and its implications for measuring important social and economic outcomes. Measurement is a dry and boring topic to many, but anyone who has relied on Census-type surveys to analyze social trends has to be quite concerned.

The Current Population Survey (CPS) is among the most important and widely used of these surveys. Conducted by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the source of our monthly information on unemployment rates, as well as a standard source for income and poverty measures on an annual basis.

Our understanding of poverty as well as the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies rests critically on having good measures of the various sources of cash and non-cash income and assistance received by low-income Americans. As Meyer and Nikolas Mittag show in a new working paper, respondents to the CPS often fail to report receipt of various government transfers, and when they do they frequently under-report the amount. Hence the bias is strongly in the direction of over-estimating poverty, and under-estimating the poverty-reducing effect of transfer programs.

How can we tell what people are actually receiving? Meyer and Mittag link the CPS data for New York State to administrative records of the government agencies that are actually writing the checks. They find, for example, that for people reporting incomes at less than half the official poverty line, the missing transfers are worth a little more than the entire amount of their reported cash income. As a consequence of such measurement errors, "the poverty reducing effect of all programs together is nearly doubled" when transfers are fully accounted for.

The most poorly measured form of assistance in their New York data is housing subsidies. One reason for this may be that when these payments are made directly to the landlord, survey respondents may not be aware of the actual amount, and underestimate it. The CPS tries to impute rental assistance when it is not provided by respondents, but the imputation procedures are highly inaccurate, and downward-biased. Survey responses are incomplete and biased for other transfers as well, perhaps due to survey "fatigue", or stigma, or something else.

So there's bad news, but also some good news. The bad news is that these workhorse surveys are not nearly as reliable as we would have liked to believe, not through negligence or malfeasance on the part of the officials who run them, but because it is very difficult to elicit accurate responses. The good news is that administrative and other data sources may provide a more accurate picture. And better news still is the finding that thanks to government transfer programs, the social safety net is actually a lot more effective than we had thought.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Remember when kynect was considered the model for a state-run health care exchange? After our own shaky rollout, Californians could only envy the Kentuckians, who saw their percent uninsured drop dramatically. Well, so much for that. The people have spoken, and they have elected the mean-spirited asshole party. Good luck KY!

A similar spirit of tolerance and common sense seems to have prevailed in Houston as well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Amartya Sen on the end of the one-child policy...

"What is needed is more reasoning..." Sen is a treasure, and the sentiment is solid, but I've always wondered whether he didn't have just a little too much faith in the Enlightenment project... Republican primary debates...

Saturday, October 31, 2015


The smart-ass Steely Dan fans in college (my best buds) insisted that their pinnacle was the virtuosic and cynical Pretzel Logic, and who could disagree? Meanwhile, the slick jazz-rock of Aja was a sell-out: still the Dan, and still excellent, of course, but fully satisfying to neither the Dan fanatic nor the jazz aficionado. And yet... the (2nd?) greatest hip-hop collective of all chose to sample "Peg" for a reason: the slick over-production had a devious purpose... that every word and every note of every song would drill straight into the pleasure center of your brain. Or so it seems to me nearly 40 years after the fact.

Satsuki is a comfort-lover...

... and far be it from me to disrupt her comfort!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Neil Young is not a fan of Monsanto...

... or Starbucks, or GMOs. As for me... Starbucks has made it possible to find a drinkable cup of coffee wherever you go, a net positive for humanity; GMOs, a mixed bag, but hardly deserving blanket condemnation (ask Pope Francis, Laudato Si, ¶131); Monsanto, ditto.

As for Neil Young, the question is always whether the politics inspires the good Neil or the bad... by good I mean "Southern Man." Bad? This new song is a candidate, but there is a goofy earnestness that somehow redeems it for me...

Laylita's recipes

I stumbled across Laylita's enticing Ecuadorean cooking site tonight while searching for roast chicken with chimichurri. Her recipe for chimichurri butter was straightforward and delicious. Not all of her recipes are so simple... here's one that looks quite a bit more elaborate and that, as any good recipe must, makes you eager to give it a try.

I suppose everyone has their own favorite form of internet pornography...!

Oops, that was YOUR undersea mega-cable?

My bad, dude!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Vince Gill

OK, I confess, I occasionally watch Country's Family Reunion on RFD TV. Vince confesses that he sings like a girl. Good for the girls, I say.

The gall!

On scrub oak in Foothills Park...

Friday, October 16, 2015

I won't dance...

Ella and Louis. Jerome Kern. Oscar Peterson!

Race and police killings

A thoughtful piece by Sendhil Mullainathan. It does not refute the message of Black Lives Matter, but properly places it in a broader and even more challenging perspective. I do wish the headline had treated "data" as a plural...

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

San Augustine, Texas. Farm girl with a mule team behind the courthouse on Saturday afternoon. John Vachon, 1943.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Only in the California Native Plant Society Bulletin...

"Making friends with mosses and liverworts adds panache to one's naturalist mojo." Far be it from me to disagree... I just might have to sign up for the new statewide Bryophyte Chapter!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The X-Files

I'm not a TV addict, but yeah, I've watched my share. And there will never ever be a better TV love story than the X-Files. Two flawed grownups, each with her/his own seemingly irreconcilable philosophy and neuroses, brought together by crisis, necessity, curiosity, stubbornness, professionalism, and the plain irrefutable fact that once united, one could never again exist without the other. Pure 19th-century romanticism: The nods to irony are only there to trick the modern viewer into watching. Do.

In the debate, Hillary probably sealed the deal...

... against her only real rival, Joe Biden. I like Bernie, and I'd probably vote for him on pure preferences. But I'm a democratic socialist too, so that's no big surprise. I'd add that his position on Snowden is the only honest one... it's just total bullshit to claim, as every other Dem seemed to, that Snowden could have accomplished what he did by being a "whistleblower" within the system. But at this point, it is Hillary's election to lose. After the primaries, she'll be the only grownup in the race. One hopes there is still a majority of Electoral College votes that thinks it's a good idea to have a grownup running the country.

Tee hee hee...

Eduardo Porter writes a funny column about bringing the Republicans to the table on climate change policy. Here's my favorite silly quote:
Eli Lehrer, who runs the R Street Institute, a fairly conventional conservative research firm except that it supports a carbon tax to combat climate change, argued that the Republicans’ stance was “a direct reaction to the Democrats’ efforts to use scientific facts to try to dictate public policy.”
Oooo... those nasty Democrats tried to blind me with... science! Here's my favorite fun fact about the groundswell of Republican concern about the climate:
Last month, 11 Republicans in the House introduced a resolution that — tortuously worded though it may have been — acknowledged the need to “address the causes and effects” of a changing climate.
That's 11 nervous nellies... in the entire GOP House.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Eat shit and live

OK, crass, but I couldn't resist. And probably true...

Well, the good news is...

... that many of them seem either crazy or stupid enough to throw away millions on Ted Cruz and Rick Perry.
From Only 158 Families, Half the Cash in the ’16 Race
On the other hand, the bad news is they have lots of millions where those came from for the candidates left standing...

Friday, October 9, 2015

Now (NOT) showing at your local cineplex...

... but by golly it seems like it should be... The Creeping Garden. Guess I'll wait for it to hit Netflix...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Family types

"We are a weapons family," Ms. Skinner said.
"We are not," Mr. Sundstrom said.
Everyone sad and angry. Some armed.

Geri Allen

The best jazz pianist working today?

How hard is it to say exactly what you mean?

I am not confident that I know whether the Pope or the Vatican is in favor of carbon pricing policies or opposed. I read the encyclical as being opposed, for exactly the same reasons that Stavins and Nordhaus did. Now Joe Romm says we got it all wrong. The fact that very smart people can disagree on such a straightforward question suggests that the encyclical, in this regard, was poorly written, or perhaps poorly translated. Now there is a simple solution: Francis, do you or do you not support cap-and-trade and or carbon taxes as key policy instruments for combatting global warming?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 62

Yep, back to school, kids! Readin' and writin' and 'conometrics...

Metaphorically speaking, of course

Henning Mankell, RIP

I do like crime novels. I've read quite a few. Henning Mankell wrote some very good ones. His Inspector Wallander will surely go down as one of the greats... taciturn, brilliant, deeply ethical, in the mold of Adam Dalgliesh; not Dalgliesh of course, but then, in genre fiction, Dalgliesh and Smiley stand alone, no?

And yet, novel after novel, I began to lose interest. Mankell's chilly, cynical take on modern Scandinavian culture began to strike me as more posturing than realism. Of course, it's possible that life in Sweden or Norway is as corrupt and depraved as Mankell's and Nesbø's novels imply. If so, give me Elmore Leonard's cheerfully nasty drug dealers and prostitutes, or Denise Mina's tough-luck Scottish punks.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Wonderful things

Today: Dolphins off Santa Cruz; Pulp Fiction (again); best of all, a friendly alien visitor to our yard...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Splendid Spotify

Long day... long week... endless meetings and class prep...

For recovery, might I recommend searching spotify for "It Never Entered My Mind," one of the loveliest yet saddest songs in the American songbook, and listening to one after another after another... Sinatra and Miles Davis perhaps the best, but also Peggy Lee... Johnny Hartman... 

Once I laughed when I heard you saying 
that I'd be playing solitaire, 
uneasy in my easy chair. 
It never entered my mind. 

Coolest album cover ever?

Quite possibly, but what would you expect from the coolest musician ever (almost by definition)? The music is outstanding too, especially when Miles plays every note out of tune, just to send a very blue chill down your spine...

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Buy this album!

Offspring's latest. Good music for a good cause.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

The growing inequality of death

Stunning, scary. Seems like it should be question #1 at any presidential debate...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

At the risk of immodesty...

... I would say I am an excellent stone skipper. But not this good.

Master and Commander

I watched the movie again, having seen it in the theatre when it came out. A very fine entertainment by Peter Weir... it really takes you there, and captures some of the high-minded spirit of the novels, with the classical music and natural history. Russell Crowe is perfect. The plot moves along briskly and efficiently. The action scenes are chaotic and exciting. The mis-en-scène is undoubtedly less gritty and nasty than life must have been aboard those tall ships, but enough so to make it cinematically compelling. Your heart might just stir a little for old England during the corny Lord Nelson scene.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Yes, robots will take your job...

... just not next year... but someday. If you want to know what it feels like, just ask Roger Federer.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thursday, September 10, 2015

I'm a pretty good cook!

I love food, and most nights I'd rather eat my own cooking than go out and eat someone else's. How did I learn to cook? A lot of it was trial and error, and Mom, but if one person is responsible for whatever skills I have in the kitchen, it is Jacques Pépin. His TV cooking shows are never intimidating, always encouraging a degree of ease with improvisation and imprecision, but all the while teaching good technique and good taste. His charm, humility, and humor go a long way, but also the sense, lesson after lesson, that you'd really like to be eating whatever it is he has just made. I hope to catch some of his final series.

I arrived late to this party...

... but I will surely miss Key & Peele. A humanistic blend of Chappelle and Python, they hit a lot more often than they missed...

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The meek may not inherit the earth...

... but the tardigrades surely will...
Confronted with drying, rapid temperature changes, changes in water salinity or other problems, tardigrades can curtail their metabolism to 0.01 percent of normal, entering a kind of suspended animation in which they lose “the vast, vast, vast majority of their body water,” Dr. Siddall said. They curl up into something called a “tun.” 
Tuns can be subjected to atmospheric pressure 600 times that of the surface of Earth, and they will bounce right back. They can be chilled to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero for more than a year, no problem. The European Space Agency once sent tuns into space: Two-thirds survived simultaneous exposure to solar radiation and the vacuum of space. 
Without water, “the damaging effects of freezing cannot happen,” Dr. Siddall explained. “It protects against heat because the water inside cannot turn into a gas that expands.” Even radiation needs water to do damage, he said. When cosmic radiation hits water in a cell, it produces a highly reactive form of oxygen that damages cell DNA. The tun doesn’t have this problem.

Tuns have been reconstituted after more than a century and brought back to life as tardigrades, looking not a day older.
Holy crap. Photo:

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Scottish Highland Gathering and Games

I've never been to Scotland, but it's hard to imagine there are many places less like Scotland than Pleasanton, CA, a pretty and prosperous little town in the "Tri-Valley" near San Jose. Being over the ridge to the east of the Bay, the climate is hot and dry in the summer... the hills are crispy and dormant, not misty and verdant. Nevertheless, the Scottish Games have settled here on the Alameda County Fairgrounds. The organizers claim this is the sesquicentennial. Impressive... Scots can hardly have been her much longer than that...

Plaid and kilts much in evidence... and beer, and whisky. Of course, county-fair food, and the big bellies and butts that accompany it. Folks who claim Scots heritage or affinity come in droves and park their RVs among their "clans."

What were the highlights?

#3: Caber-tossing. I learned a lot about this sport. That's not saying much... I knew nothing about it except brawny guys try to hurl a big log. Most importantly, I learned that it has nothing to do with how far you toss the thing, but rather with how the caber lands. It's rather difficult. There are now women as well as men tossing the things.

#2: Albannach. A very spirited Scottish band featuring percussion and one bagpipe guy and a lot of tattoos, plus a dude on didgeridoo, which is a fine addition to any band with bagpipes. Drone on!

#1: Sheep dog trials. We arrived late and managed to catch only three dogs. I've seen this on TV, and, frankly, it's a lot more entertaining than you might suppose. Alas, these dogs were not the best, but the task is extremely challenging. The sheep really are not inclined to cooperate, and the dog must be unfailingly focused and strategic. I have thought of sport as a human activity at a very high level, but these dogs are fine athletes in every sense of the word.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Purisima Creek

Coast-side, there's plenty of fog and condensation, so the creeks are running even at summer's end during this severe drought year. A little piece of Oregon for the parched California hiker...



Alders are the pioneers in a logged-over creek bed...

Elk clover... always seems disproportionately large...

A section of redwoods in the canyon floor have crazy burls...

We're number one!

In the NY Times noted today...
The United States has long been the world’s largest donor to the international programs that deliver the most direct assistance to refugees, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Refugee Organization, the World Food Program and others.
But of course we're also the biggest economy on the planet: aggregates always make us look pretty good. How are we doing relative to population, or national income? Here are some numbers on overall humanitarian assistance from governments, for the top 20 donor countries. The per citizen numbers are in dollars per person per year.  Source: Table 10.6.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Nathan Rosenberg, RIP

Nate was one of my professors in grad school at Stanford, and I was in touch with him intermittently until recent years. Stanford's announcement of his death is here. Nate made his reputation as an economic historian of technological change, and he was an important teacher and mentor to a number of economic historians and students of technological change who passed through the Stanford program. We will remember him fondly.

Nate's work was considered "old school" in the sense of being qualitative and narrative, rather than quantitative in the spirit of the cliometric revolution that swept the field during the 1960s and 70s. But understanding technological change has remained a real challenge to economic theory and empirics both, no matter how mathematically sophisticated, and Nate's ideas, if occasionally informal and fuzzy by current standards, remain insightful. For example, the idea of technological disequilibrium: that incremental progress along certain technological lines produced tensions that spurred innovation in complementary areas. Or the importance of information sharing and local agglomeration economies, for example in nineteenth-century New England machine shops, an early example of the kind of knowledge-based local economy that we associate with Silicon Valley.

I interviewed Nate in 1994 for the newsletter of the Cliometric Society, an interview that was later published in a collection by Routledge. Here is a link to the interview. Nate's longstanding engagement with the history of economic thought comes out in the interview, including his mixed feelings about Marx... probably typical of many red-diaper babies like him. His relative agnosticism about neoclassical vs. heterodox ideas in economics was a plus to a generation of PhD students attracted to alternative approaches to economics in the 1970s and 1980s, including me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Monday, August 31, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 61

Great groove, compelling song, that fabulous voice.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tonight's martini...

... featured The Botanivore gin, from St. George Spirits in Alameda. It's heady stuff... medicinal, but mostly in a good way. I suppose being a born-again Californian and native plant lover I must try their Terroir gin, with "Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage, and other evocative botanicals." Do those botanicals include the musky (and lovely) Ribes sanguineum? At any rate, so far, in my martini I rather prefer another local, No. 209. Shaken, not stirred, of course.

Friday, August 28, 2015

California's climate leadership

I was happy to add my signature to this ad from the Union of Concerned Scientists in support of SB-32 and SB-350, which if passed by the Assembly will advance the state's leadership on climate policy. I was also flattered to be in such distinguished company. Call your rep. Mine is Rich Gordon... I'm pretty confident he is on board.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

In baseball, batting .350 is pretty damn good... in psychology research...?

Not so great. Would economics do better? We'll find out... here... and here...

Trend vs. cycle in the employment-population ratio

Two stylized facts about U.S. labor markets are that (1) while the unemployment rate has fallen substantially since the Great Recession, the employment-population ratio (E/P) has not nearly recovered to its pre-recession level, suggesting to many observers continuing labor-market slack, perhaps due to discouraged workers and other labor-force dropouts; and (2) E/P has been trending down for some time, partly due to demographic factors (e.g., retiring baby boomers) and possibly also due to institutional factors, such as changes in disability insurance work incentives.

The issue matters, because E/P is often thought to be a more reliable metric for labor-market "slack" than the conventional unemployment rate, and if so the apparently weak recovery of E/P could suggest continuing weakness in labor demand and thereby strengthen the case for continuing relatively expansionary monetary policy. So... where is E/P relative to its long-run trend or "full-employment" level?

This interesting post from the NY Fed claims that a demographically-adjusted E/P has fallen far enough that "roughly 90 percent of the labor gap that opened up following the recession has been closed." The authors' adjusted series is supposed to remove the business cycle effect and leave just the changes due to demographic shifts, reflecting the changing age structure of the population and life-cycle employment rates for a series of cohorts. Here is the money chart:

Very interesting, indeed, but there are a couple of slightly strange things going on here. First, the authors had to use a normalization to set the level of the trend E/P. That is, they can only calculate the shape of the blue curve, not how high or low it is. Their approach was to assume that the average gap between the actual and adjusted E/P was zero over the entire period, so the red curve has to spend something like half the time above the blue curve, by assumption. If you thought the economy was around "full employment" during those episodes of peak actual E/P in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, a more logical normalization might be to shift the blue cure up so that it sat on or near the top of those peaks. But their assumption seems a reasonable alternative. I would be reluctant to conclude that the convergence of their curves implies a return to full employment... perhaps more neutrally, we could call it a return to E/P "normalcy."

What troubles me more, however, are the dramatic changes in slope of the blue trend, around 1994 and again around 2008 or 2009. The latter is particularly puzzling. If it reflects a cohort shift in E/P at each stage of the life-cycle, then how can we be sure this is not a consequence of the severe recession? If that's not the explanation, then what accounts for the sudden acceleration in the decline of adjusted E/P?

It does seem very likely that the trend in E/P has been downward over the past 15-20 years, and in that case the actual E/P has been closing in on a moving target and may be closer to "full employment" than the red line by itself might suggest. Just how much closer is a difficult question to answer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"We know it's not right"

Robert Christgau claims that the great theme of country music is monogamy. Here's a particularly good, and twisted, example, in two splendid renditions. Remarkably (intentionally?), they are the same economical length, right down to the second.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Thanks lichens!

I can't believe that I was heretofore unaware of this theory: lichens may have played an essential role in the evolution of vascular land plants from marine organisms. One more reason to be a lichen liker.. as if you needed another...

A movie (and music) for grown-ups

We saw Birdman for a second time this weekend at the SF Jazz Center, this time with Antonio Sanchez in the house playing his extraordinary solo drum soundtrack live. The movie is excellent, and the drumming is excellent, but Laura and I both remarked on how much other interesting incidental music there is in the film, some of which you notice when Señor Sanchez sits on his hands or steps away from the drum kit... and some of which you may not notice at all, at least consciously, such as the John Adams... where was that? Which is not to endorse the Academy's decision to disqualify Sanchez for the original score Oscar...

Friday, August 21, 2015

Carson Pass Country, 2015

What would summer be without a short camping trip to Carson Pass? Two new hikes for me: scenic Dardanelles Lake and interesting Round Lake; and strenuous but highly rewarding Thunder Mountain, on the western edge of the Kirkwood ski resort.

Dardanelles Lake features a photogenic granitic cliff that plunges into the water at one end...

Rushes are round, and sedges have edges: both present in this boggy patch along the Dardanelles trail...

Round Lake is down a few feet during this drought year...

Gin, anyone?

Thunder Mountain is a long ridge made of volcanic rocks. The summit is the molar just left of the deep gap about a quarter of the way from the right end of the ridge...

The breathtaking view of Silver Lake from the summit...

Crazy layered volcanic formation...

The flowers are mostly well past their prime this year, but apparently these rock fringe didn't get the memo...

Colorful lichens LOVE the volcanic rocks...