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 SeƱor 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...

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, near Pine Grove, is one of my favorite places in this place of places, California. Chaw'Se is the Miwok word for grinding rock. The site features some broad low rock outcroppings with nearly 1200 mortar holes that were used for grinding acorns and other grains, "the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America." Around and between many of the holes were carved simple petroglyphs, some of them as many as two or three thousand years old and now very difficult to see, and a true rarity at grinding rocks.

The place is very quiet. It's not the most popular park in the state, especially on a hot weekday afternoon in late summer. On my most recent visit, the ranger had just closed the empty museum and was pulling out of the parking lot at 4:30, leaving me the whole place to myself.

The largest grinding rock is in an open grove of mature valley and black oaks, with some reproductions of Miwok dwellings and other structures nearby. A fairly large roundhouse is used on occasion for ceremonies by local tribes.

What makes it special? Aside from the very tranquility and simple harmony of the setting, for me it is the mystery of the grinding rock itself. Standing at the edge, I find myself trying to imagine the life and work of these people. It was not an easy existence, living off acorns. And so many holes... Were they all used at once? If so, it must have been a veritable mass production enterprise. Or more likely, were the holes worn down a few at a time over many years... many centuries? If the latter, it implies an extraordinary continuity of lifestyle, at least in technological terms: one generation could look a few feet away and see object evidence of the same work done by ancestors many generations past. Was the labor pure drudgery, or was there song and familial camaraderie, and special meaning provided by the strange markings carved into the stone?

Not far from the largest grinding rock is a grand old valley oak, a wonderful specimen, its furrowed bark riddled with the holes drilled by acorn woodpeckers. Their purpose is well understood to us, as is the utilitarian purpose of the Miwoks' grinding holes. But their place in a system of human meaning remains obscure, enigmatic.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Myra Melford Residency, Part 8

Pretty swinging. Dave Douglas hiding off in the shadows somewhere.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Whole Foods was selling these gorgeous violet-tinted mushrooms today, referring to them as blue-foots. Presumably not Psilocybe caerulipes, but a version of the blewit. Given the price, they sure ought to be hallucinogenic... I'll let you know after I eat the pasta...

Guide to R for SCU Economics Students

New and improved... videos to come soon...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Danilo and Rudresh

Two of my faves. Made for each other.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Myra Melford Residency, Part 7

Very nice. I do like Chris Speed, but James Carter is still ringing and singing in my ears. What could he and Myra accomplish together?

Is a $15 national minimum wage too much?

Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation to boost the federal minimum wage to $15. The NY Times has a good article comparing $15 per hour with the median wage in various U.S. cities. Roughly speaking, the higher the ratio of the mandated minimum to the median, the more "binding" the minimum, and the more likely it is to lead to job losses as low-skilled workers are priced out of the local market.

Of course, there is no magic ratio at which the minimum wage becomes "too high." And even if the adverse employment effects became significant, those effects would have to be weighed against the benefits to those receiving the pay boost. But it is definitely worth thinking about whether a much higher uniform national minimum wage (Bernie's proposed $15) makes sense, when $15 is only about 50% of the median wage in some places (e.g. San Francisco) but more than 75% in others (Miami).

Furthermore, from a justice perspective, the goal of a legal minimum is to help the lowest-paid workers afford a reasonable minimum standard of living. But the cost of living varies dramatically across locations. For example, according to this widely used calculator, the cost of living in Miami is about 75% of the cost of living in my area, San Jose. In Miami, then, an hourly wage of about $11.25 would support the same standard of living as $15 here.

Regardless, Sanders's $15 minimum is a political non-starter in the U.S. Congress, so we will no doubt continue to see a low (in my view too low) federal minimum, and a wide range of much higher local minimums. A fantastic set of natural experiments for smart young economists like Arindrajit Dube.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On "political correctness"

Regarding the Donald, one must deal with this as one would with an annoying 12-year-old boy. Since the youngster's goal is seeking attention, ignoring bad behavior is often called for. This is the proper Skinnerian response: Don't reward him with what he wants, lest you reinforce the behavior. But when the behavior is inappropriate enough to call it out, you call it out. Political correctness got nuthin to do with it. In fact, 95% of the angry white men who are so taken with the Donald would smack their own son upside the head if he said anything remotely close to what the Donald has said to any lady they respect. Unless they don't respect any ladies at all... but how PC of me to say so...

My last Trump post, unless/until he gets the nomination...

Monday, August 10, 2015

James Carter and Friends

I returned to Cafe Stritch last night to hear JC plus rhythm section. The 90-minute first set was probably the single best set of sax playing I have ever heard. Monstrous! The quartet setting allowed him to stretch out on the solos, and also permitted him the "luxury" of taking the tempo and volume down a notch for some ballad playing... a specialty that we don't always hear enough of (take a listen to The Real Quietstorm). This reminds me of another astounding aspect of Mr. Carter's playing that I forgot to note in my earlier review: circular breathing. He employs it not only to impress the audience with impossibly controlled held notes and long runs, but as a tactic for maintaining long phrases throughout a solo. Incredible technique in the service of expression.

Carter is as charming a front man as he is a beastly musician. He is an obsessive historian of jazz, so the set included a perfect mix of the relatively obscure and the utterly familiar, such as "Caravan," which he ripped through on soprano. He's a hot-dogger, to be sure, but also a generous player who elevates everyone around him. This was evident in the more free-form second set, when he brought some local musicians on stage for a jam session. He clearly loves what he's doing, and he wants you to love it too. I do! Come back anytime, JC!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The teacher shortage

As soon as I read the NY Times article on a nationwide teacher shortage, I knew exactly how Dean Baker would respond to it in his blog. He would sarcastically lament the article's failure to mention the solution to such a shortage that anyone would learn in Econ 101: raise the wage. And lo, here he is. Mind you, the fact that he's predictable doesn't make him wrong.

Full disclosure: One kid just started his new job as a seventh-grade teacher.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

James Carter

Jazz in the modern cerebral mode, with its polyrhythmic complexity, cultural eclecticism, and controlled virtuosity, is a thing to behold and appreciate. But I ask you, in all of this, where is the ecstatic? Where's the blues shout, the cry of joy or pain, the danger, the rolling-in-the aisles fervor, the story-telling, the speed-with-purpose, the Armstrong, Parker, or later Coltrane?

Well, James Carter is playing it. At Cafe Stritch's Rahsaanathon last night, he joined Steve Turre fronting a mostly local house band for their third night performing the Kirk songbook, in honor of what would have been Rahsaan's 80th birthday. Cafe Stritch is named after one of Kirk's custom-made saxophones, refurbished and played in the photo below by Mr. Carter himself (photo credit: LMK).

The band was pretty good, but as a group really didn't get into the spirit until the second half. Carter was in the spirit the moment his lips met his shiny metal mouthpiece. Playing full-tilt on every note of every solo, grooving and grinning through everyone else's, he came to play, and to please. To my ear, he has the most remarkably rich tenor sound since Sonny Rollins, with the possible exception of the late noise-master David S. Ware. His solos often start out by stating the melody in the gutbucket, jump-blues mode, but pretty soon he opens up his big bag of tricks: fast-paced modal runs (of course), fat vibrato, rumbling growls, squawks, quacks, percussive pops (how?), mile-high squeals and overblowing, polytones and overtones, and clever quotes on the fly from familiar melodies, sometimes three different tunes in a single phrase.

In other words, he is a show-off. I sensed that by night 3 the rest of the band, including the ostensible leader Mr. Turre, were exhausted by it all, if not quite resentful. Sitting in the front row of the cramped club, so close to Carter that I quite literally could have nabbed the drink at his feet, I had a different reaction. As a onetime mediocre high-school jazz-band tenor player, I know enough to know that this is something rare and wonderful... perhaps how I would feel playing doubles with Roger Federer. But mostly my reaction was... YES! JAZZ LIVES!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Humans, frankly,

... are crazier than shit-house rats. And when it comes to dramatic endings, no other species comes close. I don't think I'll feel quite so proud about making it 12 yards underwater on a breath since learning of Molchanova's 200... Then again, I've always resurfaced...

Monday, August 3, 2015

California's state lichen

The lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) is definitely a worthy choice. It's one of many fine organisms named for Archibald Menzies... from the madrone, to the Douglas fir, to baby blue eyes... Now that's immortality.

Update: Here's a picture I took this past winter in Foothills park...

More Kate

"He looks like an outline that needs filling in..."

Myra Melford Residency, Part 6

Be Bread Sextet. I think Melford is at her best in this kind of mid-sized group setting.

Lake Tahoe

We spent most of a week up there in a rented house on the west side, with a million-dollar view (first photo). Hiking, swimming, paddling. Tahoe is overcrowded, especially on the weekend, but as is so often the case in the Sierra, walking an hour from the road usually solves the people problem. In most years the northern Sierra wildflower display would be at or near its peak... this year, everything was pretty crispy. Still, Paige Meadows was covered in soft white yampah blossoms and nodding grass heads, and the hike to Ellis Peak, with its commanding views and little Ellis Lake nestled below, was super. Lightning sent us scurrying off the crest. I saw some lichens too.

The moral imperative to act

Joe Romm allows himself a little bit of optimism about Obama's latest climate move. Hope he's right.