Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Definitive Sonny Rollins...

... on Prestige, Riverside, & Contemporary... I fired this up on Spotify before dinner, and two hours later it's still going. Every track a gem. Check it out.

Montara Mountain

The winding trail up the northwest slope of Montara Mountain from Pacifica offers a pleasant, verdant respite from the crispy vegetation in many of our local parks (and my yard) during this severe drought year. Chinquapin and manzanita predominate much of the way up, but with a lush mix of ceanothus, huckleberry, silk tassel, coffee berry, elderberry, and toyon to keep it interesting. Quite a few flowers are still blooming. The summer fog is key. Making a fantastic clear summer day all the more special. Wished I'd had the better camera.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Myra Melford Residency, Part 5

I've fallen a bit behind...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

E.L. Doctorow, RIP

When all is said and done, he was my favorite living novelist. His writing was brilliant, innovative, and poetic enough to deserve a Nobel prize, but perhaps the strength and appeal of his storytelling and his pigeonholing as a writer of "historical fiction" made him a little too popular. Ragtime and The March are deservedly considered his masterpieces, but I liked The Book of Daniel and Homer & Langley nearly as well.

Good news: The Central Limit Theorem assures us...

... that as the number of GOP candidates increases without bound, they will become approximately normal.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Was cap-and-trade for SO2 actually worse than command-and-control?

One thing we teach our students in environmental economics and other policy-related courses is that market-based pollution regulation is a great idea: it can be expected to deliver the same reductions in environmental damages as more rigid "command-and-control" regulations at substantially lower cost. Hence economists' strong advocacy of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade for fossil-fuel emissions. (Pope Francis, are you listening?)

Economic theory suggests why cap-and-trade is efficient: The government limits the total amount of pollution by limiting the number of permits to pollute that it issues. Then, firms that can reduce pollution at low cost have an incentive to do so, and sell their excess pollution permits to firms with higher abatement costs. Same overall pollution reduction, less total cost. And that's not all! We have always been able to point to evidence that it really works: the highly successful cap-and-trade program for SO2 reduction implemented by the EPA to cut acid rain.

Now along comes this paper by Chan et al, which if I read it correctly estimates that the SO2 trading scheme was on net actually quite a bit worse than a counterfactual uniform performance standard (command-and-control) that would have achieved the same aggregate emissions. While it's true that the power plants achieved the emissions reductions at lower total cost, these gains were more than offset by worse pollution damages in the form of adverse health consequences. (Side note: the major gains from cleaning up coal did not come from reducing acid rain, but from reducing health problems associated with particulates, etc.)

What went wrong? This finding points to a well-known potential problem with cap-and-trade systems. If it matters where the pollution goes, then administering a permit system that covers a wide area may sometimes lead to more pollution where it does more damage. In this case, the dirty eastern coal plants bought permits from their western counterparts, allowing the eastern plants to pollute more, as the western plants polluted less. Unfortunately, more people live downwind of those eastern plants. It would have saved more lives to force both the eastern and western plants to reduce their pollution by a uniform amount. (Now that we know there is a problem, there are well-known partial fixes to this problem—for example restricting permit trading to a "bubble" within a certain affected region. What is most interesting here is how important these effects turned out to be in practice.)

Now, back to climate change. Fortunately for carbon cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax), the damages associated with greenhouse gases are truly global in scope: The CO2 goes up into the atmosphere, spreads around, and warms the whole planet. So the localized damages are not a concern when it comes to climate change policy, and market-based solutions look pretty good again. Francis, are you still paying attention?

BUT... One caveat. One can never lose sight of the extraordinary, more localized impact of burning coal in places like China, where particulate air pollution causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually. Pricing carbon globally is not the answer to that set of problems.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Rule #46

Brazilian singers, no matter how great, should never, ever, sing in English.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hillary's plan for the middle class

This column by Eduardo Porter is kind of bizarro. After rehearsing the depressing statistics about labor-market trends in the United States and elsewhere—stagnant wages for most, growing inequality—he notes that many of Clinton's ideas for boosting middle-class incomes and strengthening the social safety net are sensible and have been effective in the past. But they are also completely politically infeasible in the current climate. Porter's solution? "A future Clinton administration might help change the norms of corporate governance to foster the kind of labor relations that everyday workers have not experienced in decades." He doesn't suggest how, or why the very people who have been riding high on recent inequality trends would want to go back. This approach is just as unrealistic as Hillary's old-school liberalism, and from a policy perspective completely unproven in its effectiveness. The only real hope he offers is labor-market tightness: declining labor-force participation coupled with pro-growth monetary policy. We shall see whether Dr. Yellen continues to administer the necessary treatment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Top 100 songs of 1975

The soundtrack for my 40th high-school reunion...? Say it ain't so... Appalling!
Here's the top ten... and it gets worse...

1 Captain and Tennille, Love Will Keep Us Together
2 Glen Campbell, Rhinestone Cowboy
3 Elton John, Philadelphia Freedom
4 Freddy Fender, Before The Next Teardrop Falls
5 Frankie Valli, My Eyes Adored You
6 Earth, Wind and Fire, Shining Star
7 David Bowie, Fame
8 Neil Sedaka, Laughter In The Rain
9 Eagles, One Of These Nights
10 John Denver, Thank God I'm A Country Boy

Well, except you gotta love Freddy, of course...

Deal(ing) with Iran

This post by Amanda Taub gives credit to Obama where credit is due on the Iran deal, but is pretty hard on him for his alleged failures in the Middle East. Obama's Moneyball undoctrine, as in "Don't do stupid shit," she suggests, "is really well-suited to orderly negotiations that take place in an air-conditioned hotel in Vienna, but is far less effective when it comes to problems like chaotic state collapse." And the latter is what we have in Iraq and Syria, with no good end in sight. Well, I am unqualified to judge the fine points of foreign policy, but I find this claim a little odd:
Obama's legacy in the Middle East will rightfully be associated with these crises and the failure to solve them. (The same goes for his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose Iraq invasion set many of these trends in motion.) 
In other words, the alternative to the Obama undoctrine seems to be the failed "stupid shit" doctrine. The world's a crazy and imperfect place, but I'll take my chances with the undoctrine.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tennis is really hard...

... and one of the hardest things to do is return a really good serve. Suppose it is coming in at around 120 mph, and buried in either corner... what to do? Novak knows. Everyone loves Federer, and rightly so. But has there ever been a return machine like Djokovic? Maybe Federer a decade ago?

Damn that television!

My favorite song from my favorite Talking Heads album. The studio version sounds a little better, but so fun to watch them when they were still just kids. Weird kids...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Chicago II

I'll be missing my 40th high school reunion, with some regrets. According to Laura, who kindly has followed the Facebook chatter, there has been some discussion of what music for the playlist. Chicago has come up. So, I'm playing Chicago II, their breakthrough album, on Spotify right now. God they sucked even worse than I remember. Still, it's wonderful to think that, here in America, what sounded like a middling high school jazz band could become the biggest pop act in the country. "Colour My World"... Why the Brit spelling? Why did our girlfriends all swoon to a major seventh chord and a cheesy flute solo? Ah, memories!

James Tate, RIP

His demise was brought to my attention by Michael D. He was a prof at my alma mater, though I never took a course from him. We've all been paying a lot of attention to the Pope lately, so this one seems to provide important information...

How the Pope is Chosen
By James Tate

Any poodle under ten inches high is a toy.
Almost always a toy is an imitation
of something grown-ups use.
Popes with unclipped hair are called “corded popes.”
If a Pope’s hair is allowed to grow unchecked,
it becomes extremely long and twists
into long strands that look like ropes.
When it is shorter it is tightly curled.
Popes are very intelligent.
There are three different sizes.
The largest are called standard Popes.
The medium-sized ones are called miniature Popes.
I could go on like this, I could say:
“He is a squarely built Pope, neat,
well-proportioned, with an alert stance
and an expression of bright curiosity,”
but I won’t. After a poodle dies
all the cardinals flock to the nearest 7-Eleven.
They drink Slurpies until one of them throws up
and then he’s the new Pope.
He is then fully armed and rides through the wilderness alone,
day and night in all kinds of weather.
The new Pope chooses the name he will use as Pope,
like “Wild Bill” or “Buffalo Bill.”
He wears red shoes with a cross embroidered on the front.
Most Popes are called “Babe” because
growing up to become a Pope is a lot of fun.
All the time their bodies are becoming bigger and stranger,
but sometimes things happen to make them unhappy.
They have to go to the bathroom by themselves,
and they spend almost all of their time sleeping.
Parents seem incapable of helping their little popes grow up.
Fathers tell them over and over again not to lean out of windows,
but the sky is full of them.
It looks as if they are just taking it easy,
but they are learning something else.
What, we don’t know, because we are not like them.
We can’t even dress like them.
We are like red bugs or mites compared to them.
We think we are having a good time cutting cartoons out of the paper,
but really we are eating crumbs out of their hands.
We are tiny germs that cannot be seen under microscopes.
When a Pope is ready to come into the world,
we try to sing a song, but the words do not fit the music too well.
Some of the full-bodied popes are a million times bigger than us.
They open their mouths at regular intervals.
They are continually grinding up pieces of the cross
and spitting them out. Black flies cling to their lips.
Once they are elected they are given a bowl of cream
and a puppy clip. Eyebrows are a protection
when the Pope must plunge through dense underbrush

in search of a sheep.

Myra Melford Residency, Part 4

A bit meandering, but interesting string textures all around. Would have preferred to hear Mary Halvorson bring the noise a little more... that being her stock in trade...

This is sad

Of course, Serena would probably be the best ever anyway... but is it really possible, in the year 2015, that the reason she has so little competition is that many of her best potential competitors are too concerned about their body image to build the necessary strength?
"It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10," said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. "Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman."
Then again, money talks. "Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner."

For my part, I think Serena looks pretty damn womanly. In a scary way.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Airplane mode

Nothing like a cross-country flight with storm delays for providing some extended pleasure-reading time... Not to mention the welcome distraction of an absorbing novel during the episodes of storm-related turbulence.

I made it through three novels in transit (including a little down time while visiting in Florida).

Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was recommended to me by my chain-reading friend and colleague, Michael Kevane. As I reported to another friend, it's quite a fine little novel. Very funny and deeply cynical. And rather creepy. It's short enough to be a novella, really, but that's just a function of the extraordinary economy of the prose. I can't recall ever seeing the movie version, but having finally read the book I'm not sure how they could have pulled it off: the book is full of time jumps and foreshadowings. Miss Brodie is very sharply drawn, but the true protagonist is her aptly named student, Sandy Stranger. She's strange for sure and, ultimately, a stranger, inscrutable.

Peter Carey's Amnesia masquerades as a cyber-thriller, hackers against corporate evil-doers, but it is really the family saga of three generations of feisty Australian women, and the journalist who chronicles their story. Carey is not an economical writer, but he is a good story-teller. Still, I found the book meandered a bit. One thing I learned is how woefully ignorant I am of Australian history. The CIA-backed Coup of 1975? I'll be damned.

When in Florida: Carl Hiaasen! Sick Puppy may not be his best, but it is packed with the usual screwball characters, local color, and funny set pieces. In the genre of comic crime novels, Elmore Leonard will never be surpassed. But Hiaasen is not a bad substitute, especially when one is heading to the Sunshine State, with which he has an obvious love-hate relationship.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Good run on Pandora

Generally Pandora is disappointing... predictable and pedestrian, even when you give it a good prompt, but this evening our Elvis Costello channel has been unusually solid... with the proviso that you hit the skip button as soon as Sting or Petty comes on. Three goodies for ya... including one by the nearly always (but not always always!) overrated David Bowie...

Who are these guys? They're pretty tuneful!

A few days in the lightning capital of the USA*...

     * Central Florida (see map below)
... and an exasperating day of lightning-related travel delays getting home from there got me to revisiting a question that came up recently while hiking in a Yosemite thunderstorm: How many people are killed by lightning? Well, not many: In recent years, an average of about 33 Americans per year. And what are people doing when they are killed by lightning? Our man at the National Weather Service, John Jensenius, has the goods. From the Executive Summary:
From 2006 through 2013, 261 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States. Almost two thirds of the deaths occurred to people who had been enjoying outdoor leisure activities. The common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth. During this 8-year period fishermen accounted for more than three times as many fatalities as golfers, while camping and boating each accounted for almost twice as many deaths as golf. From 2006 to 2013, there were a total of 30 fishing deaths, 16 camping deaths, and 14 boating deaths, and 13 beach deaths. Of the sports activities, soccer saw the greatest number of deaths with 12, as compared to golf with 8. Around the home, yard work (including mowing the lawn) accounted for 12 fatalities. For work-related activities, ranching/farming topped the list with 14 deaths.
... Work-related activities contributed to 15% of the total lightning fatalities.... Farming/ranching-related activities contributed most (37%) to the work-related deaths. Other activities included construction (11%), lawn care (8%), roofing (8%), military work (5%), barge work (5%), and other (24%).
At the Orlando Airport, American Airlines workers stop loading bags if there has been a lightning strike within 5 miles during the previous 20 minutes. As I discovered, this can lead to pretty long delays taking off on a typical summer afternoon in Lightning Alley. Looking out the plane window as we sat on the tarmac, we could see the Jet Blue planes being loaded and taxiing toward takeoff. We were told over the intercom that "some other airlines" may not care as much about worker safety.

Myra Melford Residency, Part 3

With Ben Goldberg on clarinet. Two of our Bay Area greats.

"Guns don’t kill people; dudes with guns kill people"

Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015