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...

Monday, July 3, 2017

Coffee country, Part 1

Having worked three plus years on an interdisciplinary study of food and water security in Nicaragua's coffee country, I finally had an opportunity to visit the place over the last two weeks. We were based in the city of Estelí, but took some drives up the rutted dirt roads into the mountains to visit the farms and the farmers. Beautiful country, impressive farming.

Shade-grown coffee plots are a great example of agrobiodiversity and pied beauty. Banana trees are a common source of shade and food...

Coffee berries are green this time of year...

50 shades of greenery on Don Marvin's finca in Sontule, Miraflor...

Bromeliads are blooming in the trees and on the ground...

Coffee leaf rust (la roya) has caused massive losses in the region over the last few years. Most of Marvin's plants are doing okay...

Banana and plantain leaves are impressive...

Amazingly, the entire massive banana plant grows in about a year, the bananas are harvested, and the plant is cut back at the base, where a new sprout spirals up...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Geri Allen, RIP

She was one of my favorite pianists, a trio specialist with a wide-ranging musical mind. At 60 it seems she was just getting started.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 78

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) is available in its entirety on Spotify. Is it possible to listen to the whole 11 plus hours from beginning to end without tiring of this glorious singer and the great musicians who adopted her? Four hours and counting, and I have no desire to change the channel.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ooh Poo Pah Doo

Because it's the most!


I was for the Cavs... the amount of talent the Warriors have assembled is simply unfair, and I think LeBron is not just the greatest, but the most un-selfish superstar I have witnessed in any sport. Still, you have to be impressed when you watch the Warriors getting it done. They have so many ways to win. And KD is such a classy, chill, and lethal player. So, yes, well done Dubs... Talent notwithstanding, you deserve it!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Love in the time of apocalypse

Jeff VanderMeer and Mohsin Hamid wrote some of my favorite books of the last few years. Both have new novels out, which I purchased for my flights to and from New York City last weekend. Strangely enough, different as they are, both books take place in a dystopian future and feature love stories of couples on the run. Though neither is up to its author's previous standard, both are good reads.

The title character of VanderMeer's Borne is an odd bit of genetically engineered something-or-other discovered by the book's resourceful scavenger-protagonist Rachel in the nightmarish Mad Max landscape she inhabits. She decides she'll keep him. I was immediately reminded of one of my very favorite Dr. Seuss poems:

Needless to say Borne doesn't remain merely a curious little lump for long, and soon he is a large, very smart, and voracious shape-shifter. Borne aside, Rachel has plenty of problems on her hands, struggling to stay clear of the terrifying giant flying bear that rules much of her territory as well as the Magician, a powerful warlord who has recruited an army of ultra-violent bio-damaged orphans to compete with the bear and the Company, which apparently was responsible for the mess everyone is in.

I wasn't really convinced by the bear or the Magician, and if you read much sci-fi you've probably already encountered someone like Borne. The book is not as downright weird and compelling as VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. Still, Rachel and her drug-dealing partner Wick are a couple worth getting to know. And VanderMeer's powers of description remain acute.

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West takes place in a much nearer future that closely resembles our own time. There is no flying terror-bear, but the religious extremists who take over Nadia and Saeed's home town (perhaps Aleppo) are just as scary. As chaos, violence, and intolerance descend on their city, rumors spread that there are doors hidden in the city that can take you far away to a safe somewhere-else. These portals, like the wardrobe that opens into Narnia, are an odd contrivance. In an otherwise realistic work of fiction, they serve one main function in the narrative: to permit the plot to follow its refugees directly from origin to destination, skipping the journey itself– no harrowing boat ride across the Mediterranean, no airless shipping container, no trek across the desert and treacherous midnight crossing of the Rio Grande, no underground railroad... such an odd choice for a novel about forced migration!

Hamid's previous novels were concise, tightly focused, compressed. His prose has been referred to as "lapidary," which describes both its beauty and its cold, sharp, even cruel precision. These virtues are present in Exit West too, but for once I found myself wishing for a more expansive, epic approach. A refugee story that crosses multiple continents– from an unnamed city in the Middle East or Central Asia, to Greece, to London, and to the future favelas of Marin County (!)– and that posits a humanistic, even optimistic vision of the refugee community as full of progressive possibility– really deserves a longer treatment... to take its time. Instead, Hamid rushes toward the ending. Did he have trouble juggling the diverse settings, or the seemingly gratuitous element of magic realism? Need the paycheck? Just lose interest? Mohsin, take this one back and work on it a couple more years. It could be a masterpiece.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

I knew he would do it...

... so why am I feeling shocked that he did it? So petty. So stupid. So depressing.
But if withdrawing from the agreement will not make Mr. Trump’s domestic policies any worse than they are, it is still a terrible decision that could have enormous consequences globally. In huge neon letters, it sends a clear message that this president knows nothing or cares little about the science underlying the stark warnings of environmental disruption. That he knows or cares little about the problems that disruption could bring, especially in poor countries. That he is unmindful that America, historically the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, has a special obligation to help the rest of the world address these issues. That he is impervious to the further damage this will cause to his already tattered relationship with the European allies. That his malfeasance might now prompt other countries that signed the accord to withdraw from the agreement, or rethink their emissions pledges.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


I'm with the YIMBYs: advocates of less restrictive urban housing development, including development of more market-rate housing. This column by Noah Smith lays out the YIMBY case, while trying to be sympathetic to NIMBY concerns. As he concludes, "the YIMBY viewpoint has the weight of evidence and theory on its side." The outrageous cost of housing in the Bay Area, which imposes very real hardships on the poorest members of our community, is in this view largely a product of supply not being allowed to respond adequately to demand.

One point that could be added to the YIMBY argument is the evidence that over time market-rate housing "filters down" to lower-income renters, as argued in this recent article by Stuart Rosenthal:
While filtering has long been considered the primary mechanism by which markets supply low-income housing, direct estimates of that process have been absent. This has contributed to doubts about the viability of markets and to misplaced policy. I fill this gap by estimating a "repeat income" model using 1985-2011 panel data. Real annual filtering rates are faster for rental housing (2.5 percent) than owner-occupied (0.5 percent), vary inversely with the income elasticity of demand and house price inflation, and are sensitive to tenure transitions as homes age. For most locations, filtering is robust which lends support for housing voucher programs.
Of course, skeptical NIMBYs might claim that "filtering" smacks of "trickle-down," a theory of income distribution that seems to have been pretty well refuted by the evidence. But there is a big theoretical difference between the impact of increasing supply of housing at the top and the impact of transferring income to the top. Not to mention the weight of the evidence. Build baby build!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Oh no! Harsher!

Ross Douthat has out-harshed harsh David Brooks:
...ultimately I do not believe that our president sufficiently understands the nature of the office that he holds, the nature of the legal constraints that are supposed to bind him, perhaps even the nature of normal human interactions, to be guilty of obstruction of justice in the Nixonian or even Clintonian sense of the phrase....
Meanwhile, from the perspective of the Republican leadership’s duty to their country, and indeed to the world that our imperium bestrides, leaving a man this witless and unmastered in an office with these powers and responsibilities is an act of gross negligence, which no objective on the near-term political horizon seems remotely significant enough to justify. 
Good luck with that, Ross. Those are your people in charge now, and they are craven political opportunists first, members of the central committee of the capitalist class second. Our best hope is that they see the president as a threat "on the near-term political horizon." Then we get to deal with Mikey Pence, friend of the working man and woman. Shit.

Monday, May 15, 2017

So harsh!

David Brooks seems to think our president is an "infantilist." Ouch. But on the up side, we've got the greatest, the best, the biggest baby!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Should computer programming be a prerequisite for learning statistics?

Andrew Gelman isn't sure, but gives programming a higher priority than math.
So, sure, no need to learn programming before you take that statistics course. No need to learn math, either. If you had to choose between them, I’d choose programming. Better to have both, though. Programming and math are both useful. Programming’s more useful, but math helps too.
Hmm... You really do have to have enough math to be comfortable with basic algebra, I think. And I find, sadly, that many students can pass through two courses in calculus and still be shaky solving two equations in two unknowns. Let's go with "both-and."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Poetry and politics in China

Burton Watson on the "public side to poetry" in China:
From early times, Confucian scholars have seen poetry as playing a vital role in the ordering of the state, functioning as a vehicle through which the officials and common people might celebrate the virtue of a just ruler or, as is more likely to be the case, decry the hardships inflicted by an unjust one. This view of poetry as a medium for social and political complaint has led to the composition of many moving and impassioned works, realistic descriptions of the griefs of the tax-burdened farmers, outcries against military conscription and the ills of war, and attacks on social injustice in its many guises. 
According to Confucian theory, the ruler was expected to welcome such complaints as expressions of loyal concern on the part of his subjects. But in an authoritarian governmental system such as that of imperial China, reasonable complaint was in practice all too often interpreted as treasonable impertinence, and countless officials found themselves summarily demoted and “exiled” to minor office in some remote province as a result of their poetic criticisms. It is a tribute to the courage and integrity of the Chinese poet-officials that, in spite of such risks, so many of them continued over the centuries to pour out their remonstrances in poetry.
The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), pp. 4-5.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Satsu and Mei

Burton Watson, RIP

I'm a novice reader of classical Chinese poetry, so I can't say that the translations I prefer are truer to the original, if that even makes sense. Watson's were spare and direct, but not without some music...
Thinking of East Mountain
It's been so long since I headed for East Mountain –
how many times have the roses bloomed?
White clouds have scattered themselves away –
and this bright moon – whose house is it setting on?
                                                              - Li Po

Friday, May 5, 2017

William Baumol, RIP

Baumol probably should have won a Nobel in economics, but it eluded him, and he is now dead at the age of 95.

Baumol was most famous for the notion of "cost disease." The idea is pretty simple, but powerful: Industries that experience more rapid productivity growth will see their relative costs– and therefore relative unit prices– fall. Conversely, industries in which productivity gains are difficult will see their relative prices rise and, assuming demand is relatively inelastic, will take up a growing share of the economy in value terms. This cost disease particularly afflicts high-skill service industries where mechanization and automation cannot readily displace skilled labor. It's one explanation for the growing share of health care in the economy, and for the tendency for education costs to rise more rapidly than inflation.

This post has an excellent discussion of Baumol's work on innovation and market structure. He also did interesting work on money, and on fairness theory. He was a very clear expositor of important economic ideas. For a while I taught using his fine little book, Perfect Markets and Easy Virtue: Business Ethics and the Invisible Hand, with Sue Anne Batey Blackman (1992). This book uses standard arguments from the literature on market imperfections to help the reader understand when markets do a good job steering the pursuit of profit toward the social good, and when they do not. It is an excellent antidote to the usual claptrap about socially responsible business and the unalloyed virtues of markets.

He was a prolific writer and a prolific painter. Not nearly as good an economistic painter as Wassily Kandinsky, but no doubt a better painting economist.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Henry Coe

It's partly the sheer scale of northern California's largest state park that sets the place apart. From your trailhead at the civilized western edge, your calves burn as you ascend to the closest major ridge– in my case, Willson Peak. The views open up, first westward, then north and south, and finally eastward, where the park extends, rolling ridge beyond rolling ridge, as far as the eye can see. It's little wonder that you encounter more backpackers than day hikers: it's a place to get lost for a few days, especially on a temperate overcast spring weekend, with the deciduous oaks leafing out and wildflowers competing with the emerald European grasses.

Oaks and grass dominate... and what oaks! Blue, black, valley, and live oaks, some of them commingling and presumably hybridizing. Atop Willson Peak, the bluegreen serpentine outcropping is a striking dead zone, surrounded at the margins by the hardy native flowers that have evolved to handle the chemicals. There are also some nice lichens.

Trump tax reform

The working stiff's friend. If you count golf as work.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Saturday, April 8, 2017


You don't have to drive all the way out to Carrizo Plain to find a nice springtime display. Tidy tips, goldfield, and owl's clover. Right here in good ol' Redwood City!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Carrizo Plain

The dominant color palette is all in shades of yellow and gold. Rust-orange fiddlenecks, pale lemony tidy tips, aptly named goldfields, and glowingly psychedelic yellow coreopsis, in mindboggling meadows. The lovely blue accent is phacelia, and the pinkish-purple a native mustard, with a heavenly scent. I don't expect to see something like this many times in my life. I'm grateful I did.