Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dirca occidentalis...

... colloquially known as western leatherwood. A humble, gangly shrub, its sunny yellow fuchsia-shaped blossoms might just catch your eye on the slope next to the trail this time of year, when lowly milkmaids are the only other thing in bloom. Dirca is a rare plant, according to CNPS, but a reliable winter bloomer in a few places in Palo Alto's Foothills Park. Mind you, at 70 degrees, it sure didn't feel like winter today.

Uber alles

The new world of work, Uber-ized:
Just as Uber is doing for taxis, new technologies have the potential to chop up a broad array of traditional jobs into discrete tasks that can be assigned to people just when they’re needed, with wages set by a dynamic measurement of supply and demand, and every worker’s performance constantly tracked, reviewed and subject to the sometimes harsh light of customer satisfaction.
 Professor Arun Sundararajan thinks it's not a bad thing:
“We may end up with a future in which a fraction of the work force would do a portfolio of things to generate an income — you could be an Uber driver, an Instacart shopper, an Airbnb host and a Taskrabbit,” Dr. Sundararajan said.
“I think it’s nonsense, utter nonsense,” says Robert Reich.

Sundararajan's vision of the future somehow echoed a familiar quote:
"... in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic." (Marx, The German Ideology)
Of course, Marx assumed a society post-scarcity– distribution "to each according to his need," etc. The Uber economy might not be that bad, undergirded by a fairly generous basic income guarantee, universal health insurance... nah, that would be communism!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 54

Tom's gone to Hilo. A slow shanty for a heavy lift. And a heavy heart.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ben Shahn: pictures and pictures

The great New Deal photographer Ben Shahn was also a painter of some ability. In fact, he has paintings hanging in the Vatican Museum, not very far from those of his superior predecessors, Raphael and Michelangelo. Here's "The Burial Society":

He also took good pictures of pictures... in this case, kids painting in school in Pennsylvania.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 53

So... what is it that makes it so damn funky? It has to be super laid back, but tight like a coiled spring at the same time. Oh, and the band, and Maceo and Fred, and the Godfather himself, a vocalist with few peers and a bandleader with none.

Hopkin's Rose, II

Laura took this picture out at Mavericks. Looks like a cat toy. And I bet the kitties would enjoy playing with it, although the tempting structure collapses out of water.

Cookers slow and fast

This article on the Crock-Pot and women's labor force participation is interesting, if in need of some editing. In my household we have owned a slow cooker for a few years, and more recently I purchased what might be considered the device at the opposite end of the speed spectrum, a pressure cooker. Neither one gets used very often. I'd much prefer to load up one of my wonderful Creuset Dutch ovens and stick it in the oven or on the stove top at low temperature for a couple hours... It's more civilized to eat late, anyway...

I've never been very happy with the results from the slow cooker, but maybe it has something to do with the bland recipes. The pressure cooker, on the other hand, is really rather amazing for certain tasks, such as dried beans or braised short ribs. But no matter the assurances from me or the manufacturer, Laura doesn't quite trust the thing... and I confess that the hissing and sputtering from the pressure valve is indeed a little unnerving.

Untaxed household labor

Here's an excellent post from Josh Barro on Obama's proposed childcare tax credit for "working" parents... in quotes because of course all parents work, inside and/or outside the home. Barro's point is that we don't tax home labor, so in fact the tax system provides an incentive at the margin for parents to stay at home. A perfect little lesson in Beckerian economics, and even with some back-of-the-envelope data analysis. Nice.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sleater-Kinney Reunion

I'm going in May. I suppose it will be crammed with Portlandia fans. Me? I wanna hear Corin wail, and Janet whale. Mostly I wanna hear Corin wail. Not sure why.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hopkin's Rose

I love tide pools, and so it was highly fortuitous that this weekend's negative low tides coincided with sunny, unseasonably warm late afternoons in Half Moon Bay. The reefs at Mavericks were fully exposed, and the marine life was stunning. In addition to the lovely anemones, algae, and sea stars: a couple octopi, and many of these radiant little nudibranchs. A marine biologist was wandering around, overturning rocks, and I asked him what adaptive advantage could possibly be served by this visual attention grabbing. "Ahem," he began in professorial mode, "Often brilliant colors serve as a warning to potential predators, and may be a form of mimicry..." I.e., he was bullshitting, and might as well have said 'cuz God made 'em that way. I didn't hold it against him... his answer was incidental. I belong to the tribe that cannot attribute beauty to God, but this disbelief never diminishes my sense of wonder, and perhaps only serves to heighten it. I'd like to know why, but I do not need to.

Photo credit.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Yelp storytelling

Yelp reviewing is a literary form, and some people are very good at it– intentionally or not. I will not name the restaurant, because I haven't been there and don't know whether the reviewer can be trusted. Still, she is a talented storyteller... the narrative really picks up steam with "the bad" chapter... as one might expect...
High Highs and Low Lows... overall, I would come back, but hope these items were addressed in the meantime. 
Let's start with the good: 
- The oysters were really fresh and delicious- there were two varieties offered, and we got 6 of each, a great start to the meal. Additionally, there was fresh bread (possibly made on-site?) 
- The scallops were very good, as were the dishes ordered by my two friends: beet salad appetizer, lamb shank entree and duck breast entree. 
- Everything was very good, but I don't think anything was mind-blowing 
- The desserts were also very tasty. we had the lavender panna cotta, an affogato and a duo of fresh sorbets. I had the sorbet (one scoop of mango, and one coconut) and they were delicious- super fresh and flavorful. My friend who had the lavender panna cotta was also extremely happy with her dessert. 
Now, the bad: 
- Early in the meal, I excused myself to go use the restroom. I walked from the table out and around over to the restroom (the most direct path was blocked off by temporary walls, so I am thinking there was a private party or something) so I had to walk through the whole dining room in a giant U-turn to get over there. No biggie, but the restaurant floor was a little crowded, so getting over there was a bit of a dance. 
- About 10 feet from the door of the restroom is when things took a severe turn for the worse. I smelled a vaguely familiar, heavy perfume scent, and thought "ugh, I hate when people wear strong perfumes to restaurants- its really inconsiderate." then as I got closer, I realized that the smell wasn't perfume but incense. YUCK. 
- I walked into the bathroom and there was a haze of incense smoke. I will admit, I am overly sensitive to smells, but this was unbearable- I thought I might throw up and instantly got a headache. There were not one, not two, but at least three sticks of incense ALL burning in the women's restroom.  
- I got out of there as quickly as possible, hoping that I could get back to the table and shake it off. However, the smell was SO strong that it permeated my clothes, and I kept getting whiffs of it throughout the meal.  
- The other odd thing that happened was that one of the three people in our group ordered a bottle of sparkling water, while the other two of us opted for flat ice water. We had to stop the staff from pouring the sparkling into the tap water glasses at least half a dozen times, including once where it was too late. It would be better if there were two different types of glassware used so that it would be clear which glasses are tap and which are pellegrino. This was a small gaffe, but it was irritating ontop of my already cranky mood from the incense smell. 
I genuinely feel like the incense issue ruined my experience, ultimately leaving me with a headache and horribly affecting the taste of what was otherwise a delicious meal. I do think that there was an underlying issue with the restroom, as there was an aroma of sulfur that I think the incense was intended to mask, but I think that this actually made things about a thousand times worse.
And still, overall, she "would come back"!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

FSA/OWI photos made easy!

The Library of Congress FSA/OWI web site is wonderful: searchable on keywords, photographer names, etc. But Yale's Photogrammar is a slick alternative for exploring this endlessly fascinating national treasure. The interactive map allows you to browse the pictures by county. I clicked somewhat randomly on Union County, NM, and found that Russell Lee, that talented and tirelessly peripatetic photographer, took some shots there, including this oddity. "Rest assured," indeed....

The LoC site has more than 20,000 photos by Lee, including his stunning work in the Japanese internment camps.

Hey kids, do you enjoy a fine pickle?

I just bought myself a jar of Paulie's, and they are first-rate. Super-fresh, crunchy, just the right balance of salt, sugar, heat, and dill. They don't bowl you over with garlic or vinegar. Mind you, although it's a big jar, at $9 they're strictly for special occasions. Like... today!

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Twin Falls, Idaho. FSA (Farm Security Administration) farm workers' camp. Japanese farm workers play game of "Go". Russell Lee, 1942.

Friday, January 16, 2015

She Left Me for Jesus

Sad story... good song...

Update: Terminator future

My colleague Sanjiv Das, whose knowledge of all things computing exceeds mine by about three orders of magnitude, assures me that there is nothing to worry about. He brought this reassuring piece to my attention. Of course this is just what the machines want us to think... we'll be less likely to pull the plug on the bastards if they can convince us of their incompetence...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Of course, when the machines do take over...

... there's a decent chance they'll treat the planet better than we have. They'll probably be solar-powered, and may well think all those ocean organisms are pretty neat... the ones we are madly driving toward mass extinction.

Terminator future

I almost NEVER click on that little teaser ad at the top of my personal gmail account. But I confess, this one was irresistible:
WIRED - Elon Musk Donates $10M to Keep AI From Turning Evil

As someone who believes (really) that the probability is significantly greater than 0% that the machines will take over within the next half century or so, I am happy Elon is thinking about this and putting his money where his mouth is. I'm also happy he has shared Tesla's patents with the world. Go Elon!

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 52

I think this may be the best Dusty Springfield song... don't you?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bats are so cool!

Amazing bat facts from the NY Times:
  • "...while a mouse is lucky to live for a year, the Brandt’s bat can survive well into its 40s."
  • “One in every five mammals is a bat.” 
  • "When a bat flies, its heart beats an impressive 1,000 times a minute, and its metabolism ramps up 15-fold over resting rate."
And there's much more. Here's hoping they survive their recent challenges.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Russell Lee was one of the best New Deal photographers, but clearly dude couldn't tell a lichen from a moss...

Jackson County, Oregon. Detail of moss-covered rail fence. Russell Lee, 1942.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


The gadwall is not flashy, but it is a handsome and elegant duck: At Palo Alto Baylands right now, the males in their winter plumage are a rich, warm brown with gray patterning, and distinctive saturated darkness under the tail. The female is lovely in her mottled brown. They are quiet and easily overlooked, but should not be.

By DickDaniels ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Slow but steady.

"The map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum), the lichen most used in lichenometry."
"Rhizocarpon geographicum on quartz" by User:Tigerente - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Annals of overwrought prose

Tess of the D'Urbervilles:
Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.
Calm down, Mr. Hardy!

Oddly, in places the novel reminds me of Moby-Dick, with its vivid and convincing depictions of manual labor in a natural setting, and the unabashed eroticism of the description. Still, to his credit, Melville never wrote anything quite as unabashed as the above.

I'm halfway through Tess, and I fear that all will not end well...

Monday, January 5, 2015

We love our Jerry...

... Brown, that is. Why the somewhat ambitious 50% renewables target? Because we can do it, and because the world can't wait.

He'll only be 78 or so in 2016: President would be a nice feather in his cap, no?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Racism: Conscious, unconscious, and structural

The idea behind structural or institutional racism, as I have understood it, is that society is stacked against African-Americans because of the persistent effects of historical bias– legal and extra-legal discrimination of the past, the legacy of Jim Crow– even though blatant bigotry or personal bias has gradually withered away among a majority of whites. Thus we have segregated cities begetting concentrated poverty, with attendant pernicious feedback effects, and sentencing laws that, although "color-blind," result in the mass incarceration of black men.

The theory is compelling to a degree, but it has always struck me as too convenient. Could the decks really be so consistently and persistently stacked against African-Americans, even if most whites wished it were not so, or were merely racially indifferent? Have we white folks just failed to notice all those black faces in the prison photos, or when we have, have we really been convinced by the "unfortunate truth" of lingering social pathologies that, yes, we should really do something about one of these days? Or is it rather the case that the cops, prosecutors, witnesses, and juries see things in color?

Sendhil Mullainathan provides the foundation of a more convincing story here. Evidence of conscious and unconscious racial bias is overwhelming. And structural racism persists– even thrives– when individual psychology encourages us to look the other way, or jump to a biased conclusion. Social equilibria exist because of feedback dynamics, and with feedback, as Thomas Schelling argued, micro causes can compound into macro patterns.

Professor Mullainathan closes his column with the following: "Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small." Content of their characters, and all that. A pleasant utopian thought, indeed.

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Farm woman in conversation with relief investigator, West Virginia. Walker Evans, 1935.