Sunday, December 3, 2017

The world is my oyster...

... or the oyster is my world... Banana slugs, like many humans, find oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus) tasty, as well as, perhaps, aesthetically pleasing...

Coyote Hills

This fascinating little Fremont park in the East Bay Regional Park District features a lovely freshwater marsh separated from the Bay by low hills covered in colorful outcroppings of Franciscan complex chert, and a Native American site with shell mounds. The small visitor center includes an expanding exhibition on the local Ohlone people, past and present. The outcroppings are fun with kids, if you keep your eye out for the abundant poison oak, and are fun for lichen lovers of all ages...

Monday, November 20, 2017

ECM, now streaming...

Back in the 70s and 80s I was a pretty avid ECM Records listener and vinyl purchaser. Even then, it was obvious that some of the recordings were pretentious, and precious. But a lot of it sounded fresh, aurally adventurous, and always meticulously produced. ECM has finally come around and released its catalogue for streaming. I took a listen to a few old faves on Spotify.

Terje Rypdal, Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away: Sibelius meets John McLaughlin. Neither seems to have enjoyed the encounter, and you may not either.

John Abercrombie, Timeless: Dated.

Keith Jarrett, Belonging: It is not quite as good as I remember, but the clever compositions hold up, as does Jan Garbarek's piercing, steely tenor sax. Give it a spin.

Gary Burton Quintet, Dreams So Real: An undeniably lovely album of Carla Bley compositions, reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage in its understated, virtuosic perfection.

Now at the de Young Museum, Part 2

The quilters of Gee's Bend, AL, created some of the greatest works of art in U.S. history. To see these jaunty, audacious, thoroughly modern creations up close and personal is a revelation, and a privilege.

Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams, "'Roman Stripes' Variation", c. 1975:

And my personal favorite, Annie Mae Young, "'Bars' Work-Clothes Quilt," c. 1970:

Now at the de Young Museum

Art and artifacts from Teotihuacan. Over the first five centuries CE, they created one of the world's most remarkable and advanced material civilizations. C. 550 they seem to have collapsed. Nearly every object is extraordinary.

Olive picking time

A couple small bottles of oil from every bucket...

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Build Baby Build!

I'm mostly on-board with this well-argued op-ed by Enrico Moretti, calling upon progressives in the Bay Area to get our act together on housing supply.
Thanks to aggressive lobbying by an odd coalition of Nimby homeowners and progressives — radical county supervisors, tenants’ unions, environmental groups — in places like San Francisco and Oakland, it takes years (and sometimes even decades), harsh political battles and arduous appeals to get a market-rate housing project approved.
This is no doubt true, but I also have the impression that perverse incentives arising from our tax codes are a serious obstacle, at least in places like San Jose, where inviting commercial development pays off for city coffers in a way that residential development (especially given the costs of provision of public services) does not.

Moretti does a good job laying out the adverse environmental implications of suppressing high-density housing development within the urban centers: Housing and population are pushed out into the suburbs, displacing agricultural uses and open space, expanding into fire-prone natural environments, and increasing the externalities associated with commuting.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Muhal Richard Abrams, RIP

Unique, irreplaceable. In this cut you get some nifty whistling from Joel Brandon, and the usual topnotch cast of characters playing with Abrams.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


A jazz venue worth Czech-ing out...

Last night we paid our first visit to Cafe Pink House, a cozy and comfortable jazz club on the main drag of sleepy, upscale Saratoga, CA. In the house was a quintet led by pianist Anne Sajdera, with Jan Fečo (alto sax) and Miroslav Hloucal (trumpet and flugelhorn) visiting from Prague, and local talents Dan Feiszli (bass) and Jason Lewis (drums). The compositions were mostly by Fečo and Hloucal, and according to Sajdera featured some Romani melodies from the home country. Roma meets Blue Note, perhaps. I'm not sure I could pick out the folk melodies, but the choruses, chord changes, and rhythms were all clearly challenging, and the band, with minimal rehearsal time, more than rose to the occasion.

Hloucal was fine throughout, with clean lines and clear tone. Fečo took a while to warm up, but by the second set he was flying... definitely took the best solo of the night. Lewis more than kept up, adding plenty of color and punctuations to tricky compositions he could not have played more than once or twice before.

Altogether, about as good as jazz gets, and in an intimate setting where every seat is spitting distance from the musicians. For $20. In the live music desert of the South Bay, I don't expect this place to last, but I wish them well. Do give them some business.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weirsdale Community Cemetery after Irma

My parents live in Stonecrest, a retirement development in central Florida near the better-known and enormous Villages. Their house is on the periphery of the development, near two cemeteries that predate the housing tract. In this picture, the upper circle identifies the Forest Hill Cemetery, traditionally occupied by white deceased, and the lower one the Weirsdale Community Cemetery, traditionally for African-Americans. As you can see, the WCC has been surrounded by the encroaching Stonecrest golf courses and ranch homes, but for the catty-corner contact with rancher Frank Smith's expansive cattle land to the northeast...

From my parents' back yard, to make your way to the WCC, you pass the colorful flock of butterflies on their lantana and slip through the gap in the barbed wire fence that separates new from old Florida... from there, down a dirt track that skirts between the development and the cattle ranch...

A couple hundred yards along, you reach the cemetery– sparsely occupied and minimally maintained. The budget is presumably modest. A black snake may slither out of your path, a brown thrasher may make its presence known in one of the live oaks, or, Dad says, a pair of great horned owls may hoot to each other at dusk or dawn. Aside from these creatures, the bugs, and the background sound of a lawnmower in the distance, you generally have this peaceful corner to yourself and its quiet residents. Irma left some damage, but nothing that can't be fixed in time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fly Me to the Moon

In this the golden age of Spotify, it's instructive and delightful to search on a great song and play through the covers. Alexi is working on a transcription of "Fly Me to the Moon" for solo violin, which made me curious. The Sinatra version is of course definitive. If you really expect to fly me to the moon, you better make it swing, and Frank made it swing. What's interesting is how many renditions get hung up on the clever melody and fall flat.

After Frank's, the best version is surely by the Oscar Peterson Trio, with Oscar channeling Bach from the get-go, and then going all blues, and then swinging pretty hard, and finally just showing off and ripping it for the last few choruses, with a great full stop:

The worst must surely be by Johnny Mathis. Great pop singer, but god did he butcher this one:

Among the versions that don't try to swing, the best is Sarah Vaughan's, because, well, Sarah Vaughan:

Also recommended, if you love that cheesy Hammond B3 sound (and admit, you do love it!), is Joey DeFrancesco's:

Friday, October 6, 2017

Granddad had a gun

He died when I was still a kid, but his memory is vivid to me. He fished, and he hunted. He had German shorthaired pointers – sleek, nervous, beautiful dogs that might, or might not, help with the pheasant hunting: Pip, as I recall, was "gun-shy" and apparently useless for hunting– but no less loved for that. Fishing was something he wanted me to do– he gave me a beautiful lightweight fly rod, which was snapped by the car door closing, a strange sad fleeting memory. I'm not sure he ever wanted me hunting... was it that he had mixed feelings himself, or that Mom didn't approve, or that he respected Pip's misgivings, or that I was just too young? What I know now is that I still have no strong moral objection to hunting, given proper restrictions. But what I also know is that 2/3 of gun deaths are suicides, that wildlife are better appreciated through the lens of a camera or a pair of binoculars, that we have enough trouble with living that we don't need to facilitate killing. So, basically, fuck the 2nd Amendment. Let's get civilized.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro

If one can win the Nobel prize based on a single novel, then yes, he deserves it: Were I forced to list the ten greatest novels I have read, I can imagine Never Let Me Go making the cut. I've read two of his other books: The Remains of the Day, considered his other masterpiece, exquisitely written and structured but to me just too chilly and mannered; and When We Were Orphans, a tedious, disappointing mess. Among living writers in English, does he pass the Philip Roth test?

Monday, September 25, 2017

The ACS: Please fill it out

The American Community Survey arrived at our house in the mail today. Well, not the survey itself, but the instructions for how to access it on line. As the envelope says, "YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW." But that's not the main reason you should complete this survey carefully, should one arrive at your address (about 1/480 chance each month). The reason is that this is the largest high-quality source of information about the U.S. population available. It covers about 1% of the U.S. population each year. I and thousands of others use the data for teaching and research: It informs reality-based policy and social science. The Census Bureau folks are real pros, and they are a lot more reliable with your information than Equifax or Target. For those of us who try to deal in facts rather than alternative facts, the ACS is indispensable. Please answer truthfully, and double-check your answers. Thanks!

La Canción del Final del Mundo

Only Rubén Blades could make all the bad news sound so good.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 79

Charles Mingus's two Changes albums are among my very favorite recordings. There are versions of this song on each of the albums, but the instrumental on Vol. 1 (this one) is the winner. My favorite pianist, Don Pullen, takes a piano solo that is uncharacteristically lovely and lyrical; George Adams kills it on tenor, and the bassist... well... he's Mingus.

Whatcha gonna do when the pond goes dry?

At least, that's how I hear it.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Holger Czukay, RIP

Can was kind of a cross between German prog-rock and Lou Reed, and apparently Holger Czukay was their "major sound architect." That sound, hard driving and full of oddly distorted electronic effects, was unlike anything else. This album (Landed), which I still have in vinyl, had great, twisted tunes and a most amazing glossy cover. It was popular at parties in the late 70s, at least for a song or two.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

John Ashbery, RIP

I've been dabbling in his Flow Chart for a while now. Concentrating, I just don't get it. Relaxing, nearly nodding off, I hear the music in the words. It may be gibberish, but it is not nonsense. Or do I mean the reverse?

Walter Becker, RIP

As are many others of our generation, I imagine, we are playing a lot of Dan today. I can understand why they are disdained or actively disliked by many– the slickness bordering on schmaltz, their unseemly seeming admiration for molesters and low-lifes, the flirtations with racial stereotypes. But at a time when jazz was fracturing between free-jazz noise and fusion schlock, they showed that jazz could be pop and still maintain musical integrity and– yeah– hipness. Interestingly, I suspect their influence will be greater on jazz than on pop moving forward.

As college students we revered Pretzel Logic and had our serious doubts about the sellout that was Aja. I still love Pretzel Logic, but Aja has improved with age. Yes, that was Wayne Shorter taking the solo on the title track. Yes, the album was worthy of his consecration. (And yes, the very best Steely Dan album was a Donald Fagen solo album– The Nightfly. That doesn't detract from Walter Becker's greatness.)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

In praise of ducks

No, not our fine feathered floating friends, praiseworthy though they be... I mean those little piles of rocks (cairns to many) that mark your way along a trail. Most ducks are humble things, a couple of flat stones stacked in a visible spot. Of course, we know from Andy Goldsworthy and countless anonymous predecessors that a cairn can be a lovely, deliberate thing, but the typical trail duck is a utilitarian object, and it seems that the most haphazard, ungainly, and precarious are often the most visually pleasing. Placement is everything with a duck... the whole point is to guide you in the right direction from an ambiguous fork or a boulder-strewn section of trail, so the duck must be fairly obvious just past the point of confusion. Ducks are also a nice example of spontaneous, anonymous human cooperation.

Carson Pass ramblings

I was happy to squeeze in a couple nights up near Carson Pass before the end of summer. Tropical moisture up from somewhere brought rollicking afternoon thunderstorms, the biggest hail I've ever experienced (from the car), glorious sunsets, and gratitude that my old REI tent fly still repels water. Where a wet winter's snow retreats from the higher spots, it's barely spring, with shorter cooler days not far behind.

Lupines and paintbrush on the trail up to Lake Winnemucca, with Round Top in the background...

Elephant's head...

Fireweed lines the west shore of Round Top Lake...

Marsh marigold is often the first plant to get its toes wet when a snowfield retreats...

A lily near Woods Lake...

Sierra Nevada elements in black and white...

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sci-fi wanderings

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
I'd never read it before this summer. The first two-thirds are a well-crafted gender-bending political fable. The remainder is a well-crafted gender-bending buddy adventure story. The gender-bending must have been revolutionary when it was published... less so now, but the story-telling and character development hold up just fine.

Too Like the Lightning
Ada Palmer
I read this before I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and I now see that it is a longer, convoluted homage to Le Guin's classic. The excellent Crooked Timber blog devoted an entire "seminar" to this book and its sequel. It is high-high-sci-fi. I admired the author's ability to drop the reader into a recognizably human but quite odd social milieu. There are lots of characters involved in a complex web of political and sexual alliances. But the story-telling is not up to Le Guin's standard... and I'm not sure I have the attention span for this sort of thing.

Critter corner...

The Children of the Sky
Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon the Deep introduced readers to the Tines, the most interesting aliens in any book I've read. Doglike creatures, "individual" Tines actually consist of small packs, which communicate using a kind of sonic mindspeak. Vinge explored the complications and limitations of this mode of existence in fascinating detail, embedding it in a sprawling space opera featuring, as so many such books do, the arrival of human refugees on the Tines' distant planet. This sequel, actually published after a prequel, is not nearly as eye-opening as the original, but the politics and even economics of the novel will keep your attention. Along with those complicated, fascinating, not-human Tines.

Children of Time
Adrian Tchaikovsky
What happens when spiders get bigger and a whole lot smarter? The writing is merely functional, and the humans who occupy half the chapters are not terribly interesting. But the spiders are pretty cool, from their matriarchal, atavistically man-eating social structure to their deployment of ant colonies as computing machines. And the book may inspire you to learn a little more about the genus Portia of jumping spiders, whose descendants are the heroes of the book. If you are like me, you are very fond of jumping spiders, with their funny eight-eyed faces and extraordinary leaping ability. But you may not want to be around when they make that evolutionary jump.

Reading roundup

Oh boy, am I behind on my book reports! From best to worst...

The Beginning of Spring
Penelope Fitzgerald
This little novel is full of little mysteries, and bits of wisdom. You'll learn a little about the art of printing, circa 1913, and a little about Russian politics of the same era. Mostly you'll learn a good bit about the beating human heart of Frank Reid, the English printer whose story this is. Not a single letter of type is wasted in this exquisite book.

The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins
The first (1868) and best detective novel ever? Some have said so. I wouldn't know, but I can report that it's very funny, socially astute (for its time), cleverly composed, and highly entertaining from start to finish.


Paul Beatty
Beatty's latest novel The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize, but it was checked out at the library, so I settled for Slumberland. The narrator-protagonist is an African-American DJ in Berlin in search of the perfect beat, around the time of the fall of the Wall. The writing is virtuosic and smart-ass and full of inside jokes and references that would appeal to an American music fan of a certain age. A mysterious, reclusive Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra-type plays a central role. As a meditation on race and racism, the book's conceits sometimes get the better of it, but it's still a good read.

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
This coming-of-age tale of a Turkish-American Harvard first-year garnered much praise from some critics. I found the plot soporific, the characters annoying, the attempts at humor largely unfunny, and the writing pedestrian. Then again, it's quite possible that the deeper Dostoyevskian allusions flew right over my head.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017


I consider myself reasonably tech-adept for a dude pushing 60, but I have never found a good way to keep track of random notes to myself: web sites, lists of books or places to visit, etc. I tried Evernote, and it just seemed like overkill. NY Times Upshot reporter Claire Cain Miller says she is using Google Keep. I put it on my phone. Hmm... super simple, kind of like Google Docs. With respect to Google, I am already Kept, so why not keep Keep?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Pygmy forests of Mendocino

Along the Mendocino coast one finds examples of so-called ecological staircases: terraced land structures that originated under the ocean along the California shore but have been uplifted and exposed over the past few hundred thousand years. Some of these terraces have developed poor drainage and soil types that are highly inhospitable to most plants, leading to unusual pygmy or elfin forests:
Drainage is poor at best on these stairs and plants sit in a bath of their own tannins and acids for much of the wet season. Plant communities on this terrace have reacted to limited root mobility and acidic soil by evolving stunted forms. 
There are a couple of nice examples of pygmy forests near the town of Mendocino. For a great introduction to the landscape that gives rise to these things, the Ecological Staircase Trail in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a must. This beautiful trail starts on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, crosses Highway 1, and descends into the lush riparian habitat of the Jughandle Creek bed. From there one ascends a series of the ecological staircases through beautiful coniferous forests, finally arriving at the pygmy forest, where a short boardwalk takes you through the thicket of stunted trees and shrubs. (Another, short stroll through a pygmy forest can be found at the Van Damme State Park. The forest is easily accessible from Airport Road.)

Some of the trees in these "forests" might be only an inch in diameter and little taller than head height, yet a century old. Bizarre and remarkable places, they were for me strangely reminiscent of the Alakai Swamp on Kauai, as well as some scrubby areas of central Florida, both otherworldly plantscapes.

Pygmy forests do not lend themselves to photography: Context is everything. But here are a few shots, including an example of the beautiful Fort Bragg Manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) and the reindeer lichen (Cladonia portentosa ssp. pacifica) one finds growing on the ground under the scrub.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The best fast food item in the world

Nobody I know believes me, but that's because they refuse to try the McDonald's filet-o-fish sandwich. It is a perfect little meal in a cardboard box: the fresh lightly breaded rectangle of sustainably sourced fish, the square of yellow American cheese firmly but gently gluing the fish to the bottom half of the bun, the dollop of properly bland tartar sauce, and the top of the bun, unnaturally soft, smooth, and rounded. Every bite features a pleasant crunch before it sticks to the roof of your mouth and then melts into a flavorful bolus. An aesthetic and culinary masterpiece.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Released in 2010, now on Netflix, it features an enormous wall along the Mexican border to keep out the aliens. No, not those aliens, although the wall seems to serve that purpose as well. I mean the enormous shambling octopus-shaped aliens that now inhabit much of Mexico, the infected zone. Their little egg sacs are placed on trees and resemble translucent bracket fungi, a touch I really appreciated. The Latin Americans who live in and south of the zone are not so sure which is worse, the aliens or the American bombing raids against them. This Trumpian scenario is balanced by a sweetly naive Obamian optimism and good will (though let's not forget about Barack's real-world drone attacks). The lead couple are charming and have real chemistry. The special effects are used sparingly and with humility. Children appear throughout and are portrayed naturalistically and lovingly.

A sweet little indie alien invasion love story.

Monday, July 24, 2017


On my black oak. One of many varieties found in our great state.
California’s 22 species of oaks... are known to support over 200 species of cynipid gall wasps, more recorded species than North Africa, Europe, and Asia combined.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Golden Hill

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York is being touted as Francis Spufford's first novel. I'll call it his second, because Red Plenty is clearly historical fiction in my book. Golden Hill is set in New York City in late 1746. It's a vibrant small city on the make, with plenty of wheeler dealers and political tensions... the kind of place where an outsider with ambitious plans should be plenty wary of sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Enter our hero, Richard Smith, newly arrived from London with a check for a thousand pounds sterling (quite a small fortune) that he needs to cash in order to conduct some unknown business in town. Unknown, that is, until nearly the end of the novel, when we learn of Smith's mission. In the meantime, there is friendship, theatre, imprisonment, love, death, sex, and scandal. Oh, and currency, in multitudes of denominations and discounts.

Golden Hill is definitely a good yarn, if not in the same league as the genre-busting minor masterpiece Red Plenty. Spufford is an ambitious, clever writer; here he seeks to replicate some of the style of 18th-century literature... with mixed success. The rococo opening sentence, run-on and crammed with interjections, reads just about right to my ear. But Spufford can't always keep it up. The lengthy letter from jail in the book's middle didn't quite work for me. Some plot contrivances are a little pat. And the story seems to rush to its conclusion.

All that said, it's mostly a very good tale well told. The book imagines a quite believable pre-revolutionary Manhattan, with political, religious, and ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the surface; the main characters are well drawn and appealing. A chilly Christmas in Old New York may be just what you need for beach reading this summer.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Whenever I am browsing Kepler's Books for a good read and nothing on the "new" table appeals, I often scan the fiction shelves for a book with the NYRB logo on the spine and give it a try. Nine times out of ten I am quite happy with the outcome. New York Review Books Classics specializes in novels that were well-received in their day but have disappeared from print and still deserve to be read. Many of the best of them are early- to mid-century British novels.

Barbara Comyns's Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a great example. By turns funny and harrowing, and often both, it is the account of a young woman in Depression-era London struggling with poverty, a deadbeat husband, and a sequence of not entirely welcome pregnancies. Published in 1950, it is remarkably frank about reproduction, medicalized births, and even abortion. The writing is spare, unadorned, pedestrian in places, but all the more effective for that. The depiction of Sophia's stay in a working-class London hospital for her first birth is a tour-de-force. In labor, she is brought into a ward where she is shaved, sponged with stinging disinfectant ("This smarted a lot, but it was was almost a relief to have a different sort of pain"), and administered an enema followed by a dose of castor oil.
After this I escaped from the torture chamber and was taken to a room called the labour ward. There were other women there that had not actually started their labour yet, but were expected to have difficult confinements. They were talking quite cheerfully, and it made me feel better to hear them, because all the nurses had been so grumpy and impatient with me. I had begun to think it was a disgraceful wicked thing to do– to have a baby.
Sophia's naiveté and passive resignation to her plainly dreadful marriage are at first frustrating to a modern feminist reader, but objectively speaking her options are limited, and it's not long before her humor and equanimity can be seen as manifestations of deeper strength and resourcefulness. Eventually taking command of her life, as best she can, there is the prospect of a happy ending. If she gets it, it will only be what she deserves; if not, only what she has reason to expect. Which will it be, reader? I urge you to obtain a copy of this gem of a novel and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Postcards from Nicaragua

Research meetings took up most of my time, but I managed a little sightseeing. How about a few pictures...

Front yard of my home stay in Sontule, Miraflor...

Vacas bonitas...

Corn and beans, the staples...

My daily walk through the barrio El Rosario in Estelí took me over the Rio Estelí on "la rampla," a local landmark...

Estelí is famed for its murals. I didn't get around enough to see many of them, but this is a good one...

Some interesting commercial artwork in Managua...

And last but not least, a visit to Volcan Masaya, just south of Managua, where you can just catch a glimpse of the bubbling lava at the bottom of the crater... scary and impressive. Green parakeets nest in burrows in the walls inside the crater and sometimes circle overhead through the smoke...

And why not close with a cliché, sunset in Miraflor...

Coffee country, Part 2

The small producers we visited in the Segovias region of northern Nicaragua mainly belong to PRODECOOP, a consortium of local coffee co-ops. In addition to certifying and marketing coffee at a fair-trade price, the organization has a number of social programs to support local development and food security.

The variation in the scale of operation along the coffee supply chain, especially in the small-producer specialty market, is striking. The process may start with the seedlings on a farm with an acre or two under cultivation...

I think most of the farms have moved beyond this old equipment for removing the husks...

The green beans are brought to a processing facility for final drying, sorting, and shipping. PRODECOOP has a big modern facility in Palacagüina...

This impressive machine uses a laser to test the color of the beans as they fly by and with a small puff of air culls the ones not up to standard. It is the noisiest place in a noisy factory...

Despite mechanical and optical sorting technologies, the final sort is done by hand, by women...

From there, into shipping containers and off to port for export. Most of the roasting is done at the destination...