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