Saturday, December 31, 2016


Hip-hop just the way I like it: jazzy and heartfelt. Thanks, Aidan!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Palo Alto in winter

By February it will be spring. At New Year's, the first rainstorms have brought mushrooms and greened up the hills. But dormancy remains the dominant theme. That, and slanting light on pied textures.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Trump and the Electoral College

This column by Nate Cohn is a clever dissection of the Trump victory in the Electoral College, with some cute historical "what-ifs." His point is that the most commonly cited biases of the Electoral College– such as the over-representation of small-population states– did not have much effect this election. What did matter is the elevated role of chance resulting from winner-take-all in battleground states. If the toss-up states are sufficiently large, luck can easily decide the outcome. In this case, Trump, ever the Casino man, won four of the five decisive coin tosses. That kind of thing happens more often than you might like.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 76

A friend recently asked me for my favorite albums of 2016. I can't say I have sampled that many. But in that limited set, Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny is an easy winner. Vu is a modern jazz trumpeter with all the skills... Miles is definitely an inspiration, but I hear a lot of Bill Dixon's emphasis on space and texture. Metheny is enjoying himself, his penchant for joyful noise finding its perfect match in Vu. The rhythm section of Stomu Takeishi and Ted Poor kills it. A great working band with a celebrity jazz soloist who, despite his fame, is underappreciated. Jazz just the way I like it. Hope you do too.

Eduardo Porter epic fail

Usually I find Eduardo Porter's columns in the NY Times interesting and thoughtful. But this one is sadly misleading, as Kevin Drum and others have been quick to point out. Here's Porter's main point:
There are almost nine million more jobs than there were at the previous peak in November 2007, just before the economy tumbled into recession. But the gains have not been evenly distributed. 
Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs. Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.
The problem is that this disparity largely disappears when one accounts for differential population growth across these groups. Hispanics have experienced a lot of the job growth because they account for a lot of the population growth. Employment and unemployment rates, taking account of the denominator as well as the numerator, show rather little difference in the experience by ethnic group, as Drum shows.

A disaffected white male might still argue that his job prospects would be that much better today had he not had to compete with an expanded nonwhite workforce. We can debate that point, but not using Porter's statistics or argument, which is unexpectedly below his standard.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Thomas Schelling, RIP

Schelling's little book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, is a thought-provoking classic. For anyone interested in how individual preferences and simple decision settings can aggregate into complex and sometimes unexpected social phenomena, it is a great place to start.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


I'm a sucker for alien contact, arrival, and invasion movie plots. In most cases, it's all about the anticipation– both because suspense is 90% anticipation, and because once the aliens show their ugly heads, fangs, or tentacles, they are almost inevitably disappointing, in spite of the technological marvels of modern special effects.

Arrival is an exception. The aliens are excellent. Why they have seven legs instead of the even number that any advanced product of evolution should have, I can't say. But it definitely helps that they live in a murky soup of foggy vapor that obscures their eyes (and therefore their facial expressions), and that their bodies are a mysterious compromise between the fluid plasticity of an octopus and the discrete jointedness of an old man's gnarled hand. Like cephalopods, they can squirt ink, and they are very good at it indeed. Cool.

The film is beautiful to watch, and beautiful to listen to. Amy Adams is truly a pleasure almost every moment her funny, lovely, intelligent face lights up the screen. And who am I to complain when the hero of the movie is a professor of linguistics! Still, I can't say I was nearly as enthusiastic about the rest of it. The other characters, the love story, the conflict, the woo-woo time-warp element... yawn. Don't expect too much... but go... and appreciate those heptapods.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 75

What makes one great Stevie song greater than another?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Good and hard

Well, Ez, point taken, but it's not what you and I asked for...

Ezra Klein:
It has been weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, and here is what we can say: he is still just himself. He is governing like he promised. He is appointing the loyalists, lackeys, and extremists he surrounded himself with during the campaign. He is tweeting the same strange, crazed missives, pursuing the same odd and counterproductive vendettas. His conflicts of interest have proven, if anything, worse than expected, and he has shown no shame, restraint, or interest in addressing them. America — through the electoral college — voted to make Donald J. Trump president, and we are getting what we asked for, good and hard.

We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service

The latest (and last?) album from A Tribe Called Quest is probably not deserving of the rare A+ that Robert Christgau awards it. Perhaps Bob's critical standards were clouded a bit by the election of Mr. Trump, who comes in for some choice dissection by the Tribe. But I'd agree with a solid A. Cool funky sounds from start to finish, and fine guest appearances from the likes of Kendrick, André 3000, and especially Busta Rhymes. Great humanistic, political hip-hop for anti-Trump white males like Bob and me, and presumably for other humans as well.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Trespasser

I've been a fan of Tana French's twisted, psychological crime novels from the beginning. Her latest is perhaps her most conventional: narrated by the tightly wound, brilliant, and borderline paranoid detective Antoinette Conway, The Trespasser is at base a standard procedural. The craft kept me going for the first two-thirds, even as the plot meandered some. And as is often the case with French, you have to accept that some key characters may behave in ways or reveal motives that push the boundaries of believable human behavior. But the novel's triumph is its final hundred pages or so, which hurtle along in the best tradition of "couldn't put it down" (at least I couldn't). No hostage taking, no gunfight, no damsel in distress, no ticking time bomb: just a sequence of "interviews" between Conway and her suspect, as she attempts to outfox him and close the case. P.D. James could only have approved.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Blessing

By James Wright. The perfect Thanksgiving poem. Wright wore his heart on his sleeve, unashamedly, and to great effect.

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness  
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.  
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.  
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me  
And nuzzled my left hand.  
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Today's political art message, 1973 edition

By Rupert Garcia, from an excellent exhibition of California art from the 1970s now at the Palo Alto Art Center. Also on display, Ant Farm's fantastic and funny Media Burn, more relevant than ever.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Now that we have lost Doctorow...

... we are blessed with his obvious successor Michael Chabon. We need them more than ever.


We could all use a little thoughtful escapism right now. And HBO's Westworld has turned out to be an unexpectedly good high-concept entertainment. The premise, based loosely on the bad 70s movie of the same title, is so ridiculously contrived, it seems impossible that it could work. And things do not get off to a promising start: The cheesy title sequence and theme music lead you to expect that this will be an exploitative, sci-fi Game of Thrones knock-off – a suspicion only confirmed by the graphic if cartoonish violence and gratuitous brothel scenes.

But after a couple episodes it becomes clear that the creators have outsized ambitions, and maybe the chops to back them up. Their theme is identity as narrative, and you can't get much higher concept than that. Interestingly, for all its glorious canyon-country scenery and wild-west gun battles, the show's most effective scenes take place in the quiet, sterile workshop where the robotic "hosts" are patched up and re-programmed to fulfill the expensive fantasies of the theme park's next cohort of human guests. Naked, completely at the command of their technicians (who are in turn proletarians serving at the pleasure of a shadowy corporate board), the hosts are treated as the pieces of capital they are, until, occasionally, traumatic memories of narratives past start to leak into their circuitry. From there: consciousness, morality, identity, and agency. Maybe.

Annals of targeted marketing

The banner ad on top of my NY Times front page, post-election... Is this someone's idea of funny?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Prevedellis grow apples

Right now their organic Braeburns and Newtown Pippins are just about perfect: crisp, tart, and apple-y. Perhaps at a farmers' market near you!

Friday, October 28, 2016

My "calligraphic" offspring

Not sure I care for the headline, but this profile of a certain violinist I know does make a papa proud.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Neither programmer nor coder am I, but I am trying to teach my econometrics students how to fix problems when their R code fails. Curious, I googled debugging, and not surprisingly the word has a colorful, if contested history. Here's a picture of the very bug that started it all, in legend if not in fact.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Dedicated to you, Mr. T.

With any luck, we will soon be rid of you. And sorry very very much to anyone offended by the language in this profane but irresistible song...

The best thing you can buy at Costco right now

OK, I suppose that's hyperbole, as I confess I have not purchased and tested every item for sale at Costco. Still, I know a thing or two about noodles. I eat a lot of them, and I have made my own pasta on numerous occasions. And these are some noodles.

The secret to good fettuccine is (1) fresh ingredients and (2) development of the glutens (sorry gluten-free people!) through repeated stretching, which imparts the chewy, elastic texture that every great noodle requires. The "fresh" fettuccine one buys at the grocery store is almost always worse than the dried stuff, probably because it is extruded through a machine rather than rolled and stretched. Furthermore, it is rare to find a blend of spinach and flour noodles that works, because the spinach noodles are more fragile and cook too quickly. Somehow the Monte Pollino people got everything right. These noodles are dried, and rolled into "nests" that separate quickly in boiling water. Good with any pasta sauce you can think of. About $3 per pound, in 3-pound sacks. That comes to about $1 per person per meal, depending on how hungry you are. Believe me, you are worth it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Andy Stern on basic income

Sure, organized labor has sometimes been a mixed bag, but we need it more than ever, and Andy Stern has been a force for good in the modern labor movement. I think his views on the future of labor and the need for a universal basic income (UBI)– what I have previously referred to as a BIG– are spot-on, as is his sober realism about the political prospects of getting there anytime soon. Like young Payton Foy, seventh grader, Andy worries about a Hunger Games future...
Q: If we don’t implement something like a UBI, what does work and the middle class look like in 30 years? 
Andy Stern: It looks like the Hunger Games. It’s more of what we’re beginning to see now: an enclave of extremely successful people at the center and then everyone else on the margins. There will be fewer opportunities in a hollowed out and increasingly zero-sum economy. 
If capital trumps labor, the people who own will keep getting wealthier and the people who supply labor will become less necessary. And this is exactly what AI and robotics and software are now doing: substituting capital for labor.
Andy is less pessimistic than some about how Americans will fare in a world without wage labor...
Q: Work has always been tethered to identity in this country. Do we have to completely rethink the concept of work in this new world? 
Andy Stern: Women have always worked historically raising families, which everyone sees as a great value, but it was not paid work. UBI will solve this problem. 
People have always taken care of their parents, which in some cases is a paid job and in other cases it’s not paid work. The same thing is true about tutoring your child, or volunteering at a hospital or as a Little League coach or with any other service organization. 
We need to decide that creative activity, such as learning a language, painting, writing plays or books, is work. Or that trying to build a business or solve a problem or learn new skills is work, even if you’re not being compensated. 
We’re also going to need to appreciate that there are many other things that people can do to self-actualize, which may be the most important adventure that people can travel to make life fulfilling, and it may not be what we now call work.
Something here rings a bell... The German Ideology...
... in communist society, 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, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. 

Kids say the darnedest things

“I believe if Trump is elected, it’s going to be like ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” said Payton Foy, prompting nervous giggles around the room. “I’m not trying to be mean to Trump. I just really believe that.”

I hear you Payton.

Source: "Teaching Seventh Graders in a ‘Total Mess’ of an Election Season."

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tale of Two Clones

Tim Taylor reports on the latest take on U.S. income inequality by the labor economist Richard Freeman. Freeman notes that rising wage inequality coincides with rising inequality of wages across firms, which in turn coincides with growing inequality in productivity across firms. Thus two equally skilled workers might be paid vastly different wages depending on whether they happened to land a job at a high-paying or low-paying company.

This is an interesting and important recent finding about inequality. What is unclear to me is the extent to which the inter-firm wage differentials reflect differences in firm-specific productivity versus firm-specific rents. A firm can afford to pay a worker more to the extent that the worker adds more to output, but also to the extent that the revenue earned from each unit of product is greater. Differences in both productivity and market power in the product market could contribute to divergent wages across firms.

Here's the illustrative example Freeman provides, quoted by Taylor:
[C]onsider two indistinguishable workers, you and your clone. By definition, you/clone have the same gender, ethnicity, years of schooling, family background, skills, etc. In 2006 you/clone graduated with identical academic records from the same university and obtained identical job offers from Facebook and MySpace. Not knowing any more about the future than the analysts who valued Facebook and MySpace roughly equally in the mid-2000s, you/clone flipped coins to decide which offer to accept: heads – Facebook; tails – MySpace. Clone’s coin came up heads. Yours came up tails. Ten years later, Clone is in the catbird’s seat in the job market — high pay, stock options, a secure future. You struggle.
Fair enough. But is the difference between Facebook and MySpace a consequence of Facebook's much superior technology and organization– i.e., its productivity? Or were the initial differences in productivity somewhat marginal, and then the dynamic of network externalities led to a divergent, winner-take-all outcome? In the latter story, the lucky workers at Facebook are earning higher wages in large part because the winner, Facebook, is earning monopoly rents and sharing them with the workers. Why firms might share rents with workers is an interesting question, but there are certainly plausible reasons they might.

Whether it is productivity or rents driving interfirm variation in wages does not much matter for the argument that it is "luck" that accounts for the difference in fortunes of the clones. Whether, how, and how much society should reduce inequality arising from pure luck remain essential questions.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Beautiful Highway 198, western portion

An out-of the-way east-west road through remote territory between two out-of-the-way places: King City and Coachella. It warrants going out of your way. The stretch east of King City slowly ascends a winding valley between bleak, pale, rolling hills, and soon enters a landscape typical of the Diablo Range in the vicinity of Pinnacles: this time of year, the color palette is especially appealing, featuring the seafoam green of the gray pines, the gold of the European grasses, the rusty spikes of chamise, and the vibrant burgundy of the mature flower heads of California buckeye.

Heading farther east from Coachella through the flat farmland... well, you must be on your way somewhere...

Here's a view west from one of the crests.

California's dust bowl

The Okies migrated here to escape the Grapes of Wrath. Time to move back? Driving the 30-plus miles of Manning Avenue between Selma and San Joaquin today, we were buffeted by horizontal streams of dust the entire way. At this crossroads near Raisin City (!), that may or may not be oncoming traffic to my left above the side-view mirror. With visibility down to 20 feet at times, you hold your breath and speed across.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan

Yeah, I think so. I have read most of Philip Roth's books, and he is a great writer, probably deserving, but Dylan is more important. There is no reason not to recognize great lyricists as great writers of literature, even if lyrics are not the same thing as poetry. I like the classic 60s Dylan, but my favorites are his great albums post-2000, Love and Theft and Modern Times. Nobody has bent the 12-bar blues paradigm to their sly purposes better than Dylan. And the 12-bar blues is our American haiku, our sonnet.

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take

Bob Dylan - The Levee's Gonna Break by Cheethamotion

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Is there a lesson for Donald Trump in this somewhere...?

I think not, but it's a fine, strange version of the song nonetheless... Oliver Nelson's arrangement, Louie Bellson's band. Mighty strange album cover, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rod Temperton, RIP

Yes, I confess, I used to be of the "disco sucks" persuasion. Much of it did indeed suck. Then again, there was disco as perfect pop. Apparently Rod Temperton knew the formula.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why Are Politicians So Obsessed With Manufacturing?

Excellent piece by Binyamin Appelbaum. Two paragraphs of note...
From an economic perspective, however, there can be no revival of American manufacturing, because there has been no collapse. Because of automation, there are far fewer jobs in factories. But the value of stuff made in America reached a record high in the first quarter of 2016, even after adjusting for inflation. The present moment, in other words, is the most productive in the nation’s history. ....
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 64,000 steelworkers in America last year, and 820,000 home health aides — more than double the population of Pittsburgh. Next year, there will be fewer steelworkers and still more home health aides, as baby boomers fade into old age. Soon, we will be living in the United States of Home Health Aides, yet the candidates keep talking about steelworkers. Many home health aides live close to the poverty line: Average annual wages were just $22,870 last year. If both parties are willing to meddle with the marketplace in order to help one sector, why not do the same for jobs that currently exist? 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


I'm not big on vampire stories*, and X-Files without Scully is hardly X-Files at all, but I found this episode from Season 2 pretty compelling. David Duchovny is more sad-eyed and sleazy than ever, pining for the disappeared Dana, anxiously fingering her cross pendant as he is tempted by an alluring maybe-vampire lady. The investigation finds him slumming it in a vamp bar in LA, with a classic vampy LA punk song on the jukebox. By X, of course.

* With the obvious exception of Buffy.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Who is Elena Ferrante?

Honestly, I couldn't care less! I am generally completely incurious about the lives of writers I like. Herman Melville wrote my favorite novel, and I guess it's unsurprising that he led a pretty adventurous life, but Moby-Dick would still be the transcendent work of art it is if he had spent all his days as a boring insurance executive in Hartford, CT, a homebody amateur gardener in Amherst, MA, or for that matter, I'm sorry to say, a serial killer. The pact between a great writer and her reader is based on mutual anonymity: What I give to you is not of your world, or mine.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 74

Rhythm and power generate most of the excitement and surprise, but rich chords play a part too.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

They'll love us, won't they?

They feed us, don't they?

Randy Newman's own version on Sail Away is the best, but this has its jaunty appeal.

Chris Ware does it again

New Yorker covers are often kinda clever or pretty. Ware's make me stop and say wow. Not a single line or stroke is without deep intention.

John Quiggin on homesteading and property rights

He notes an obvious but delicious irony of the claims of the Bundy clan...
In the US context, ‘homesteading’ has a specific legal and historical meaning. It refers to the granting, by the US state, and subject to a range of conditions, of land previously expropriated from the indigenous inhabitants. The classic piece of legislation was the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of public land to any US citizen willing to settle on and farm the land for at least five years. Among the beneficiaries of this government largesse were the forebears of Cliven Bundy, who homesteaded land in 1877.
Bundy’s claim is that, having inherited land received as a conditional grant from the state, he should now be free of those conditions. This is the same claim made by the great majority of propertarians: despite their belief that the state which created and enforces the property rights system under which we live is an organized system of theft and enslavement, they believe that the property rights they claim should be given to them free of the obligations (for example, the payment of taxes) under which they were granted.
And he arrives at a bottom line I share: "The justice or otherwise of a set of property rights can’t be assessed separately from that of the social structure of which it is a part. To the extent that the social structure is just or unjust, a property rights system that effectively supports and reinforces that social structure shares that character."

Which is not to deny that a stable and enforceable system of property rights can be a very desirable feature of a just social structure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Study Economics?

A nice address by Stanley Fischer to the Howard University Economics Department. He answers the question posed, and then goes on to make some excellent observations about the need for greater diversity in the economics profession.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Gerhard Richter phase

Also known as my accidental photo of the sidewalk phase...

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Eating out in Palo Alto

Yeah, I guess I have some sympathy for restauranteurs in Palo Alto, where rents are astronomical, and Google and Palantir hire away your best line chefs. On the other hand, the answer to a labor shortage is... Econ 101 students? Excellent answer, yes, higher wages. And thus, higher prices for the consumers. We can afford another dollar or two for our artisan pizza. Still, the best restaurant in town, aside from the impossibly loud and overpriced Evvia, is one of the cheapest, Tofu House. Dinner for two with all the fixins, and you're out the door for $30. That is, if you can get in the door in the first place.


During my recent visit with my parents in Florida, my (formerly?) Republican father tried to goad me a little bit, as he usually does. "Here's someone I bet you and I disagree on: Edward Snowden. Good or bad?" I suppose he thought I'd side with Obama on this one. More good than bad, I replied, moderating my actual view, which is way more to the good than the bad side. Dad agrees.

Finally watched the movie last night. I know Laura Poitras is anything but impartial, but when all is said and done, it's hard to think of Snowden as anything but heroic.

I do love Obama, but security and intelligence issues are a serious blemish on his record. Barack, a pardon for Snowden would be courageous, the right thing, and good for your legacy. Bring the boy home. He can do more good here than in Russia. You can wait until after the election, of course.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 73

Mostly Other People Do the Killing is the most consistently exciting working jazz group of recent years. Their latest album Mauch Chunk is quite accessible... well, at least by MOPDtK standards. I like everything they do, and I'm especially fond of Jon Irabagon on alto. Every tune is a winner, including this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ben Bernanke on Fed policy

A clear and cogent column by Professor B, per expectations. Ben thinks negative policy rates ought to be taken more seriously here, but the bottom line seems to be that we couldn't push the nominal rate much below -0.5%. That's a pretty limited scope for monetary policy, but given the apparent difficulty and uncertainty of managing inflation expectations, a viable option. Et tu, Janet Y?

Friday, September 9, 2016

Offspring plays Janáček

One of the greatest string quartets... the world in 24 minutes...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mr. Robot

Both visually and aurally arresting, Mr. Robot is avant-garde filmmaking masquerading as TV crime drama. Yes, sometimes they try too hard, and by now I really have no idea what the F is going on, but I don't care, I wouldn't miss an episode. And the cast. There are at least five or six you hope will appear in the next scene, and the next. I never cared much for Meryl Streep (sorry), but her lookalike daughter Grace Gummer kills it, with her naturalness and wry humor. Michael Cristofer, the perfect corporate Satan. Portia Doubleday, with her 20 different variations on deer in the headlights. Even annoying habitual over-actor Christian Slater, born to play a schizophrenic's hallucination (maybe). And Rami Malek, the bug-eyed schizo icon for our time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

More vacation reading

Waiting at SFO for my flight to Orlando, I nearly missed the last boarding call, so engrossed was I in E.L. Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). It is a western– violent and uncharacteristically misanthropic compared with the humanism that typifies so much of Doctorow's oeuvre. The villain is satanic, but overall it is a ferocious Old Testament God who seems to rule the day. Highly recommended.

I also re-read A Perfect Spy, said by some (including the author) to be LeCarre's best. It is a great psychological thriller, a kind of double-biography, but as with Welcome to Hard Times, a very cold wind blows through the whole thing.

A colleague gave me a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I tried to get through it on the return flight from Florida, and he had me for the first third or so. The claims about early human (pre-)history seem cautious and balanced. He is particularly good on the agricultural revolution and its quite likely adverse effect on most aspects of human well-being in the transition from a gatherer society to settled peasantry. Harari writes that "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud," although nobody could see it coming at the time. And one's overall assessment hinges not only on how you view the modern societies that followed on the agricultural revolution, but also on whether you want to be an average or total utilitarian. Under settled agriculture, mean utility u was surely lower: more work, poorer health and nutrition, drudgery as opposed to physical and intellectual stimulation. But N increased many-fold, so total utility U = Nu might have been higher... assuming it was positive on average!

From there, downhill. A kind of pop sociology begins to dominate, and real history fades into the background. Functionalism is the order of the day: Harari is no Marxist, but for him as much as Marx and Engels, religion is the opium of the masses and serves to keep the peasants toiling down in the muck while the elites build castles and employ artists and composers. How exactly did the elites pull off this monumental con? I'm not saying they didn't, but a historian is obliged to provide the sequence of events, not a just-so story.

Indeed, for Harari, all human institutions are a form of "imagined reality"– mythology, really– and at some ontological level all are equally vaporous. That rock you just dropped on your toe was real, and it obeyed objective laws of physics. That money you just laid down for a bottle of Advil to treat your toe-ache, however, was imagined, the same kind of thing as the mischievous god who directed the rock toward your toe instead of the neighboring tuft of grass. Well, err, no, Professor Harari! The money is no less objective than the law of gravity. You know from longstanding personal experience, and in fact we can confirm using careful observation and data analysis, that you can expect to receive the bottle of pills when you hand over a valid debit card. The fact that you are reasonably expecting a standard and predictable behavioral response from another Sapiens is quite similar to expecting the rock to fall downward rather than upward. As Harari correctly notes, trust often plays a role here, and trust may depend in part on "belief"... but it is not merely trust. In fact there are plenty of transactions where trust is quite minimal, but we expect exchange to take place because of mutual self-interest, fear of retribution or punishment for non-compliance, etc.

Perhaps the book's speculative final chapters on the future of our species would have been worth the effort, but I threw in the towel before I got there, and turned instead to cracking the medium sudoku in the Hemispheres magazine. I have to agree with Galen Strawson's review in the Guardian: "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Beach reading roundup

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves. Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age explode with energy, creativity, vivid characters, and dark humor. Both are great reads from beginning to end. Seveneves lacks every single redeeming feature of those books. It is derivative, tedious, humorless, and endless. I gave up long after I should have... several hundred pages into this deep pile of crap.

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. Recommended by my colleague MK... along with everyone else. It is a fine novel: wonderful storytelling, psychologically astute... and the translation is exceptional.

John LeCarre, A Call for the Dead. His first, introducing George Smiley. I've read it a couple times, and though it was not my first Smiley novel (nor my favorite*), it would be the best place to start. It is a perfect suspense novel, and more.

Attica Locke, The Cutting Season. A whodunit featuring a charismatic single mom protagonist and an atmospheric mis-en-scène on a restored Louisiana sugar plantation. I picked it up from the hotel bookshelf for the flight home from Kauai. There are times when our hero Caren Gray makes decisions that are not as smart as she is, and the villains are a bit one-dimensional, but overall it is a fine escape with a deftly handled element of American racial history that doesn't insult your intelligence or standards.

* That would be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


Yes, it is paradise. I have some photos below, but there's no way to capture the lush beauty of the place, especially the north shore. There are tourists, for sure—the GDP must be well over half tourism—but in spite of it Kauai has managed to maintain a rural, local vibe.

You don't usually have to drive far down a side road to encounter a little fruit stand offering a few mangos or avocados, often operating on the honor system. The day we arrived I swerved off the main road to buy a jar of homemade dill pickles from a young guy selling them from the back of his pickup truck, his sign painted on an old surfboard, of course. One or two scruffy, leathered old surfer dudes will inevitably be on the beach with you if there's a hint of a wave to catch. While fixing my latte, the young woman behind the counter at the gift shop/ cafe at Hanalei Colony Resort, where we stayed, told me about getting lost on the unmarked hunters' tracks she has hiked through the other-worldly thick jungle of the Alakai Swamp. A large percentage of the work force seems to be earning just enough in the tourist trade to support the island lifestyle. Could you thrive on a diet of ramen noodles and cheap beer, live in a buggy, rustic cottage, all in order to maximize the hours per week you could spend trekking in that crazy beautiful jungle, or snorkeling those abundant reefs, or riding those choppy breakers to a backdrop of Bali Hai? If you think the answer is obviously no, maybe you haven't been there.

The only mild down side for a nature-lover like me is contemplating the tenuous grip on survival that so many of Kauai's native species have. Several million years isolated by thousands of miles of open ocean have left the flora and fauna that evolved there unique, but vulnerable. The adventurous, industrious Polynesians, with their pigs, rats, and invasive though useful foreign plants, played a big part in the island's biological fall from grace. Western settlers brought more invasives, and even very recently some popular landscaping plants, such as the beautiful octopus tree (Schefflera actinophylla), are devastating Kauai's remaining native forests. Kauai's birds may also be suffering from mosquito-born diseases. Talk about the Fall: even the mosquitoes only came with the humans.

The Pihea Trail is the most direct way to the aforementioned Alakai Swamp. It starts down a ridge overlooking the spectacular Kalalau Valley... when, of course, the clouds part. Somewhere behind that fluffy white stuff. Did I mention 400 inches of rain annually?

A great place to learn about Kauai's native and introduced flora, and the uses to which the native Hawaiians put them, is the Limahuli Garden in Haena. It is spectacular.

Hibiscus is all over the place. Some varieties are endemic to the island. Not this one, I think...

The Pihea and Alakai Trails feature miles of old boardwalks, which keep your feet out of the mud... partly.

For a Californian coming off several years of drought, the amount of moisture on Kauai is... well... obscene? It clots the very air you breathe.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Game of Thrones betting market

The markets predict that insufferable dragon lady as the winner by a substantial margin. God I hope not. In the moral universe of television, one rule that should always be observed is that the winner is a halfway decent actor. If I were a betting man, I'd go with Cersei Lannister, not only because she is my favorite character, but also because she seems invincible. On the other hand, if Bran Stark triumphs, just shoot me... no worries, I will already have been bored to death...

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Golden Compass

I recently re-read the first installment of Philip Pullman's marvelous fantasy trilogy, mostly while I was shivering next to the campfire in Yosemite. It was almost as good as I remember it. Still, it really is fiction for young folks, not old cynics like me, and I perceived a few shortcomings that I might have missed the first time, when the breathless plot carried me right along. In particular, the narrative rushes toward the end, when a reader might prefer that Pullman take his time and reveal more about some of the main characters—not their back stories, but their character. And things are sometimes a little too easy for Lyra: her clever plans work out better than one could reasonably expect. This reflects the tension in the story between destiny and agency. My taste leans toward more agency, but I acknowledge that others may differ. One thing we can probably all agree on is that together, this girl and her daemon make a hero for all time.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


That's farmers' market-speak for mushy or broken tomatoes (etc.) sold at a steep discount. Today's were 75 cents a pound, just fine to eat sliced today. Mine are suffering a different fate...

Friday, August 12, 2016

Yosemite visit

The peak of summer tourist season is not the ideal time to visit Yosemite, but if you head to the "less popular" (that's a relative term) upper part of the park, manage to find a campsite, and then hit the trail... well... it's Yosemite! I lucked into the last open site in the rustic and secluded Porcupine Flat campground. Tioga Road (Rte 120) was a traffic jam at times. But what still astonishes me is that you need only hike for an hour from the road and not see another human soul.

Bad news first. The drive between Groveland and Crane Flat (many miles) was depressing. The pines that haven't been taken out by wildfires are succumbing to pine bark beetles in large numbers. Within a decade the lower Sierras will look more like chaparral than forest. But let's just ignore all that and head up to high country.

Hike #1 was the short chug up Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows... a good way to get acclimated to the thinner air. Great views. If you haven't yet... just do it!

Next day, Hike #2: Gaylor and Granite Lakes, a trail that takes off from Tioga Pass at the east end of the park. One of my favorites—I have done it many times. Most people seem to stop at the first (Middle) Gaylor Lake. It's lovely, but the best lies beyond.

Bumblebees love ranger buttons (Sphenosciadium capitellum).

A mellow stroll from Middle Gaylor brings you to Upper Gaylor Lake. And from there, it's a short trudge uphill to the "Great Sierra Mine." The miners, in search of fortunes of silver, were unsuccessful, but they built a fine stone cabin at the crest with a southward view that rivals any I know of. Then again, pretty chilly winters up there!

Thanks to Jeffrey Schaffer I know that you can bushwhack past the mine to a scenic nearby pond and then over a ridge to the Granite Lakes. The view from atop the ridge is a classic:

Hike #4: Mono and Parker Passes. (I deal with Hike #3 below.) This is one of the top day hikes in Yosemite. 12 miles round trip in high-elevation air, so be prepared!

First, up to Mono Pass. Many good views, and an interesting set of pioneer cabins at the pass. Beautiful weathered logs...

Then head south to Parker Pass. The climb is gradual, and the open-country scenery is spectacular all the way.

Parker Pass, at 11,000 feet, is essentially the top of a long, broad, windswept meadow. It is a dramatic setting.

Just south of the pass is a moraine (I think), hiding chilly, sapphire Parker Pass Lake. I scrambled down to it for lunch.

The rocks here are the typical eastern Sierra metamorphic melange. The green stuff (serpentine?) seems to attract the hardy lichens in this inhospitable environment...

From Parker Pass Lake it's an easy cross-country stroll down crazy-beautiful meadows to shallow Spillway Lake. There I met a couple of friendly Park Service limnologists taking their lunch break after collecting and analyzing some water samples... well, they weren't really limnologists, but physical chemists, but I like the word limnologist.

Oh yeah... Hike #3? Short jaunt up Panum Crater, just south of Mono Lake. This is a rhyolitic lava dome of very recent vintage... 600-700 years old. The dome is a kind of fun-house of volcanic rock, including huge blobs of obsidian. At that age, it has to be considered active, and standing there you do wonder when it might get a hankering to blow again...

This rock exhibits what is known as breadcrust texture, caused by cooling and cracking of the lava.

Yosemite has critters too. Like Belding's ground squirrel. At Gaylor Lake, they have only a few short months to eat up and go to bed before the snows come again. Cute?

Whistle while you woyk

I suppose Samsung thinks they are selling phones in these commercials. What they're really selling is America's greatest musical genius. Maybe some kid begging Mom and Dad for a new phone with which to play Pokemon Go will wonder whose crazy voice that is... then she'll google him and hear him play trumpet. If I were a believing person I'd imagine he was smiling... and whistling... at this. And wishing he were still alive for the royalty payment.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 72

American popular music offers such an abundance of riches... I'd never claim there was a golden era or genre. For me, the jazz-inflected popular song of the 1950s—Ella, Sarah, of course Frank—ranks mighty high, as does 70s soul and funk, classic Dixieland, 60s Blue Note jazz... I could go on. But 90s hip-hop is right up there... a nearly limitless trove. I thank Aidan, a true aficionado, for helping me appreciate how to listen, especially to the beats. Spotify's I Love My 90s Hip Hop channel is a mixed bag, but that's partly what's impressive... from Black Eyed Peas to Eminem to Lauryn Hill to Pharcyde to Wu Tang Clan... stylistically, the diversity is extraordinary. And then there's the lyrics. From psychedelia to trenchant social realism.

Speaking of social realism... This one is so hard, so sad, so poetic. Profane, for sure.

The government's cost of capital... or, a case for socialization

For the feds right now, borrowing money is cheap. If the federal government can borrow at 0%, should that be considered the relevant cost of funds for making decisions on public investment projects? For example, suppose a proposed highway improvement would cost $10 million, is expected to last 10 years, and could be financed with a bond at 0% interest. Would we want the government to undertake the project, so long as it was expected to yield at least $1 million in benefits annually? Or should we insist, as a private firm probably would, on a bigger stream of benefits, to cover the opportunity cost of not investing that $10 million in something with a higher rate of return? This is a debate about the appropriate discount rate for making social decisions.

Tyler Cowen makes the latter opportunity cost argument, noting that if private investors make investment decisions based on a marginal private rate of return on capital of 10% or more, as they appear to, the government should too. Thus our highway project should yield annual benefits closer to, say $1.1 million.

Brad DeLong disagrees, using an argument from "first principles" on what the social discount rate should be. If we treat the utility of future generations equally with our own, which seems like the ethical thing to do, then the (risk-free) real discount rate should only be positive to the extent that people in the future will be better off than we are, and the utility of a dollar is worth less to a (future) person who has more of them. Typically these considerations imply a real social discount rate of about 2% or less.

This is an old debate. The Cowen position has been referred to as the descriptive approach, because it rests on actual market valuation by private agents in the economy. The DeLong position has been referred to as prescriptive, because it is, well, prescriptive. This debate has played an important role in economic analyses of optimal climate change policy. Because most of the costs of climate change mitigation occur now, and most benefits far in the future, the discount rate can make a huge difference in benefit-cost calculations. Indeed, using Cowen's preferred discount rate, the optimal policy response to climate change would be rather minimal.

Like DeLong, I prefer the prescriptive approach on ethical grounds, but Cowen's argument needs to be thought through. From a utilitarian point of view, private returns are social returns.* So we face the question of why private agents are underinvesting relative to the social optimum. DeLong offers some speculations as to why. But more to the point... If the government can borrow at less than 2%, and earn private returns of 10%, society would benefit if the feds borrowed a huge amount of money and invested heavily in the private economy. I.e., socialization. Risk is a factor, but the government is big and can do a lot of diversifying. So why not?

* In the absence of externalities or other market failures, of course.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Olympics report

Lots of swimming: Now that I am swimming regularly, I find it more impressive than I used to. Still not terribly exciting... way too many events.
Women's cycling road race: Earlier in the day I was agreeing with my sports fan neighbor that it is like watching paint dry. Why are they devoting so much air time to this? By the end of the race you could not have pried me away from the TV. Wow.
Men's tennis: Djoko and del Potro. Awesome.
So far, so good!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Marcella's tomato sauce

Well, tomato and butter sauce, really. Every bit as delicious as they say. And as simple.

Lovely... never, never change...

Not in his best voice, but this is Tony Bennett at his most intimate and appealing. And the song. Fields and Kern. It only needs be sung. Which he does.

Skills beget skills

Why place a particular emphasis on early childhood education? There are two reasons. First, young kids' brains may be more plastic, in which case investments in education or good parenting would yield a higher return in terms of learning. Second, the ability to learn depends dynamically on the child's previously acquired capacity to learn. That is, skills beget skills. If so, early education earns a kind of "double dividend" by adding skills directly and facilitating later skill acquisition.

How important are these two effects? Not an easy question to answer, because we cannot directly observe or measure either investment in skills or the skills themselves. We do, however, have imperfect measures related to skills, such as test scores. These indicators may allow one to estimate the latent unobservables.

That's precisely the subject of this paper by Agostinelli and Wiswall, "Estimating the Technology of Children's Skill Formation." The dry title and dense methodology could be a little daunting, but the results are important. Here are my takeaways. First, identification of the latent variables and their effects is sensitive to modeling assumptions. Figuring out which assumptions are reasonable seems a high priority for future research. Second, under their preferred assumptions, they find the following, using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY):
  • A child's skills are strongly affected by both investments and pre-existing skills.
  • Both effects are larger for younger kids. The results strongly favor early investment.
  • There is some evidence that early investments have a bigger effect—and thus presumably bigger bang for the buck—for less-skilled kids. This result differs from some past findings which had suggested a reinforcing effect between skills and investment.
  • Investment in skills is an increasing function of family income as well as the mother's cognitive and noncognitive skills—the latter having a particularly large impact. Noncognitive skills are measured using standard survey-based metrics conducted as part of the NLSY. 
  • Because investment is greater for children from advantaged backgrounds, "endogenous investment increases inequality in children’s skills." 
Finally, the authors use their results to estimate the benefits and costs of an income transfer of $1000 to a child's family in terms of its impact on childhood skill development. The only benefit accounted for is the impact of skills on the child's future income. The net benefits are substantial, as shown in the table below. 

It's tempting to read too much into this result, given the way it is presented. There is no attempt in the paper to show that the effect of income is causal. Rather, family income could be correlated with something else affecting investment in skills, such as neighborhood effects, or father's skills. So there is no evidence here that a simple money transfer would have these salutary effects. What they have demonstrated is that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a very big disadvantage indeed in accumulating skills that affect life prospects in a big way. Given the dynamic of skill acquisition, figuring out how to level the playing field early in life is a compelling research and policy priority.

Friday, August 5, 2016

On Such a Full Sea

This near-future dystopia by Chang-Rae Lee is a fantastic read. It follows the adventures of a teenage girl, Fan, who leaves her home town of B-Mor in search of her one and only true love, Reg, gone missing under suspicious circumstances. The book envisions an essentially stateless America, which has been carved up into three kinds of communities: wealthy gated Charter villages; collective urban production settlements like B-Mor; and the lawless open counties everywhere else inbetween. Similarities to the world we now inhabit are hardly subtle—indeed, when the locus of action shifted to the Charter village, I had to cringe at the many resemblances to my own Palo Alto.

Lots of bad stuff happens to our Fan along her journey—both physical violence and the moral violence of betrayal—but comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro by some reviewers are, in my view, inapt. On Such a Full Sea is far from McCarthy's misanthropic machismo or Ishiguro's quietly devastating sadness in Never Let Me Go. In its way, this is an exuberant book. Fan is irrepressible in her quest, and beauty and acts of kindness and sacrifice abound, amidst the moral decay and occasional brutality.

Plot-wise, there's not all that much new here, if you read this kind of book, although a couple of the set pieces are unexpectedly original and compelling, including a driving lesson, and the creation of an elaborate drawing on a bedroom wall. The glory of this novel is in the language. Lee has a voice all his own. In fact, the novel's voice is that of an unnamed resident of B-Mor, recounting Fan's story as legend. In typical modernist fashion, this narrator is self-conscious and not entirely reliable, by her/his own admission in places. How could she be, not being direct witness to any of the main action in Fan's story? Perhaps more reliable, but still subjective, is the parallel story arc of the ups and downs of B-Mor itself, as the missing Reg becomes something of a cause célèbre during hard times. The narrator is constantly engaged in conversation with the reader, with himself, with the absent Fan, with fellow B-Morians, and often turns didactic, asking questions—sometimes rhetorical, sometimes ironic or humorous.

I thought the book's final act dragged just a little, as Lee's interest in social criticism got the better of him in spots. But the writing is seldom less than brilliant. And the plot twist on the last page is utterly satisfying and right. Don't peek.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Music for 18 Musicians

Performed by Eighth Blackbird. Plus ten guest artists, I reckon. Play loud.

Happy birthday, AB 32

California's landmark climate law at age 10. Let's keep the ball rolling.

What student debt crisis?

That is not the actual title of this VoxEU report by five economists at the President's Council of Economic Advisers, but the picture they paint is actually a good bit rosier than one often hears in the press. There are three main takeaways:
  • The return to a college education in terms of higher earnings swamps the amount of student debt held by most students (see figure below). Most students hold modest amounts of student debt and are successful at repaying. 
  • The students who fare the worst in terms of repayment and default tend to be those who don't complete college and/or attend for-profit, low-quality institutions. An interesting paradox is that default rates are quite high among those with relatively little student debt, because many of these folks never finished their degree and thus received a smaller income boost. 
  • Because the earnings premium from a college degree increases with age (up to a point), ability to repay increases over time, so deferred or "income driven" repayment schemes can be a big help.
Higher education is, among many other things, an investment in individual human capital, and a very good investment for most. Debt finance is a perfectly appropriate and rational means of paying for such an investment. The rhetoric of the student debt "crisis" has had the unfortunate side effect of implying that student debt is something to be avoided, rather than an opportunity if managed prudently. Public policy can potentially do a lot to facilitate sound debt finance of human capital accumulation: by improving student access to credit on good terms, by making repayment schemes more flexible and less painful, and by helping students make better decisions about where to go to school. Not surprisingly, the authors note various Obama administration initiatives along these lines. 

Lurking in the background, of course, are political debates about higher education policy. For example, there is the proposal to make public higher education tuition-free for lower- and middle-income students, an idea embraced this summer by Secretary Clinton to throw a bone to the Sanders wing of the party. It seems like a fine idea to me, but one without much prospect of enactment in the near future. Ongoing policy reforms that facilitate responsible and manageable student debt remain crucial.

Monday, August 1, 2016


Less than two months after I discovered and recommended it, KUSP has run out of money and shut down. It was good while it lasted. Sigh.

Billy Hart Quartet

My friend and neighbor Doug had a spare ticket to Billy Hart's concert at Stanford Jazz last night. It was a show that had caught my eye. Hart, 75, has played drums with many of the greats, and can be heard on some 500 albums, according to the program. He has a pretty ferocious, hard-driving sound, heavy on the cymbals. His band features pianist Ethan Iverson, of Bad Plus renown, saxophonist Mark Turner, and bassist Ben Street. I'm not a big fan of Bad Plus, the music being too precious for my taste, but Iverson is undoubtedly a fine player and a clever composer. I was interested to hear what would happen when he got together with a hard-bop master drummer who has some free jazz tendencies.

The music? Cerebral, brilliantly played, a bit chilly, and... boring. The compositions—several by Iverson—featured complex thematic introductions, modal harmonies, and stop-and-start rhythms. There was not much you could hum along to, Doug and I agreed afterward. That's OK with me. But even (especially?) the avant-garde benefits from some heart and soul to go with the brains, and soul was in short supply here.

Turner, standing straight and still, improvises on tenor with extended modal runs; you could almost see the circuits rapid-firing in his brain as he turned the lines inside out and upside down and made up crazy but logical chord transitions on the fly. His style reminds me of another great tenor man of the same generation, Chris Potter, whom I also heard at Stanford, and I had a somewhat similar, chilly, reaction. Iverson's playing, also impressive, was likewise technical and inward-focused. Ben Street's bass was the highlight for me, though he never got to take a solo. Rock solid, melodically interesting, he unified the group and warmed things up a bit.

As for the bandleader... Hart is undoubtedly inspired by playing with these younger dudes, but that didn't prevent a certain incongruity between his thrashing pulse and the more composed, angular, and precise rhythmic attack of the others. He gave the impression of a musical force hemmed in, flailing about, trying to break loose of the musical mind games his younger colleagues were playing. Break loose to do what exactly? Explode? Emote? Swing?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trump's narcissism

This somewhat longwinded post by David Auerbach captures pretty well my own working understanding of the Donald Trump phenomenon, as well as the cultural moment in which he could rise to power. It leaves unanswered two pressing questions: If Trump is not a conventional demagogue, of which we have ample historical examples to study, how can we predict what a Trump presidency would look like? And given that his campaign is not about ideas, and that attacks on his character are absorbed as if praise, what can be done to defeat him?

Friday, July 22, 2016


Last night I dreamt I was riding a crowded school bus, the venue for a debate between the presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joseph Stiglitz. Trump was standing at the front, tall with an improved haircut, sounding thoughtful and presidential. "Stiglitz," a short disheveled man with a gray mustache, was seated nearby, mumbling. He did not look at all like the real Joe Stiglitz. At one point he stood, interrupting Trump, and started a rambling professorial disquisition, something about inequality, but difficult to follow. From behind me, a couple of bros heckled him. "Trump is going to win," I said to myself.

I was awakened by the garbage truck, making its Friday morning rounds.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Illuminating our path above the beach at Pacifica. Probably one of ten days per summer that the place is not socked in with fog...

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Proud to be an American...

Redwood City's 4th of July Parade attracts a lot of people, but it still has a small-town vibe. The crowd reflects the diversity of the city itself as well as the surrounding Bay Area: many colors, many languages, many American flags; Girl Scouts followed by Mexican folkloric dancers followed by synchronized Falun Gong-ers.

After the parade... classic cars lined Broadway. Congresswoman Speiers's gun regulation sit-down in front of the old Fox Theatre attracted a small crowd, but the macarena (!) was booming from the sound system directly across the street, it was hard to hear, and most folks seemed more in the mood for a taco and a Bud than politics.

A larger audience assembled to see Stanford and UC-Davis square off in a battle of the marching bands (I use both "marching" and "band" loosely here). I'm afraid the Aggies came in larger numbers and readier to play, although the Stanford tree gave it his all. Both sides were passing around plastic "water" bottles, containing some liquid that only helped the musicianship up to a point.

I thought the best politics of the day was implicit in that patriotic rainbow crowd... you shoulda seen it, Mr. Trump. Then again, I suspect your presence might have soured the festive mood.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Those crafty, evil Canadians

The Donald seems very concerned about the Mexicans and the Chinese, but meanwhile he is largely ignoring the more serious threat from north of the border. Not only are the Canadians our top trading "partner" (globalism! bad!), but it seems that their primary objectives are to take in scary Muslim refugees and make us look bad and ashamed of ourselves while they're at it. Not to mention that their PM has a very French-sounding name. Something needs to be done! Canuxit!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Marshall on economic freedom

Here is a nice post by Tim Taylor quoting Alfred Marshall at length on competition and economic freedom. Marshall expresses some views on "backward people" using language that we would not choose today, but his observations about the traits of deliberation and trustworthiness exhibited and reinforced in modern market societies are nuanced. I was reminded of this famous paper measuring prosocial behavior across cultures, which finds that "the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosociality expressed in experimental games."

This felicitous view of economic freedom is not shared by all... e.g., Marx and Engels:
The bourgeoisie... has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gender-neutral gender bias

Here at Santa Clara University, we are (in my view) justifiably proud of our generous parental leave and tenure-clock policies for faculty. A full academic term of paid leave and a one-year extension of the tenure clock are automatic for new parents. The policy is gender-neutral. In addition, birth mothers qualify for paid pregnancy disability leave of up to 12 weeks.

Sigh. This recent post by Justin Wolfers has drawn attention to an interesting research paper revealing an unintended but not entirely unanticipated consequence of gender-neutral parental tenure clock extension policies: They help men and hurt women. Using data from top-50 economics departments, Antecol et al show that after an institution implemented a gender-neutral tenure clock extension policy, the average rate of achieving tenure increased by about 20 percentage points for males and decreased by a similar amount for females. Why? Quite likely, to put it starkly, many dads took advantage of their extra year to push out some more articles, while many moms devoted their extra year to what it was intended for: childrearing.

When women (and some of us men) advocated for more family-friendly policies, we knew this outcome was possible, but the size of the effect the authors find is well beyond what I would have expected: a widening of the gender gap in tenure rates of about 40 percentage points. That's huge, and hugely discouraging.

Of course, this is just one study, looking only at economists... maybe things are not so bad elsewhere. But to me the message is pretty clear, and accords with common sense. When women's advancement in the professions is hindered by societal gender roles, gender-neutral policies in the workplace may not reduce inequities, and may in fact increase them.

So... what to do? There appear to be four options.
(1) Strong gender-neutral policies (our status quo), which may well have paradoxically gender-biased implications.
(2) Gender-conscious policies: parental leave for women but not men. Politically touchy, and too bad for the handful of progressive dads.
(3) Gender-neutral policies with strict rules and enforcement. Surveillance cameras can ensure that dads on parental leave are playing with junior rather than running regressions. Non-starter.
(4) Narrowly targeted gender-neutral policies: e.g., subsidized child care. Universities would do well to identify, assess, and support such initiatives.

Monday, June 27, 2016


As expected, my visit last week to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park evoked mixed emotions. The Diggins is a large (by historical standards) pit mine in the gold country northeast of Sacramento, where hydraulic mining was used to blast away whole hillsides in search of the gold. Large volumes of water were diverted and collected uphill and then piped down to the mine, where thanks to gravitational force the water could be sprayed at high pressure and volume through impressive cannon-like monitors to wash away the gold-bearing gravel sediments. The resulting gravel slurry then flowed through large sluices where the gold settled out, often with mercury added to aid the separation.

The removal of whole hillsides and the erosion that followed were undoubtedly an environmental disaster, at least locally. But the impact was felt far more widely. The large volumes of waste mine tailings were washed down into the local watersheds (in the case of Malakoff, this meant the Yuba River). Havoc ensued downstream in the rich Sacramento Valley farming region, where the sediment covered farmland, clogged waterways, and induced flooding. The farmers sued the mine, and in 1884 the Sawyer decision largely put an end to the practice.

Despite the mess, one can't help but admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of human beings driven by greed. They got the job done. And the Diggins are beautiful in their fashion, having been compared, aptly, to a miniature, human-made Bryce Canyon.

But for me, the most heartening aspect of my visit was seeing nature take back the Diggins. The floor of the pit is covered over with pines and manzanita at the margins, thickets of willow in the flats, and a marsh of reeds and water plants at the lowest point. Within another century or so, I suspect the "canyon" walls will be obscured behind the trees, and visitors will wonder what all the fuss was about. The mercury contamination will, of course, be with us for a good while, as will the changes in the Yuba.

Color contrasts between the sediments are striking:

Here's a monitor, taking aim:

The Hiller tunnel allowed the tailings to wash from the basin into the Yuba watershed:

I wouldn't want to swim in murky Diggins Lake, but the vegetation seems satisfied with the accommodations:

Nature takes back the metal pipes, too:

Humans are helping out a little with the recovery. Here a "brush box" does its job of slowing the erosion process and trapping soils, allowing saplings to take root:

Lakes Basin in bloom

Spring has arrived in the Lakes Basin of the northern Sierra. A reasonably wet winter (at last) means lingering patches of snow and lush vegetation in late June.

The burnt-over hillsides are covered in creamy tobacco brush (Ceanothus velutinus):

Another handsome shrub, bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata), is ubiquitous:

In rocky places, Sierra stonecrop (Sedum obtusatum):

And in damp spots, mountain maple (Acer glabrum):

Higher up, arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is a delight whether in living color...

... or blazing black-and-white:

I was informed by some foraging older hippy-types that the newly budded, burgundy-colored foliage of this manzanita makes a tincture good for treating a bladder infection. I hope they left some new growth behind:

Disclaimer: all plant identifications should be taken with a grain of salt!