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.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur Blythe, RIP

His album Lenox Avenue Breakdown is, simply put, one of the very best jazz albums ever produced. His music epitomized the immediate post-free-jazz avant-garde, when musicians like Blythe, Henry Threadgill, and David Murray sought to restore some of traditional jazz's compositional sophistication and swing while retaining the challenging sonic edginess of free jazz. It's not surprising that some of the best of this music was created in mid-sized bands that opened up options for richer rhythms and harmonies, not to mention unconventional instrumentation, such as electric guitar with tuba.

The NYT obit includes the following:
In 1982, the critic Francis Davis wrote that Mr. Blythe “may well prove to be the magic figure of reconciliation, the force for consensus, that modern jazz has been looking for in vain since the death of John Coltrane in 1967.”
That was not to be. Within a few years, a young crop of neo-traditional musicians had seized what spotlight remained for jazz. Mr. Blythe left New York at the end of the 1990s, and his playing career tapered off.
Well, yes and no. True, and sad, that great innovators like Blythe lost audience to the traditionalists. No diss to Wynton Marsalis, who is a musician of exceptional gifts, but his success represented a compromise and a retreat. On the other hand, "Black Arthur" will live on in the music of such fellow altoists as Rudresh Mahanthappa and Miguel Zenon. Each in his manner expresses Blythe's eclecticism and compositional complexity; each could take a lesson from Blythe and get up in the face of his audience just a little bit more.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Exposure to robots and imports

Someone needs to correlate this with Trumpism (source)...

Yes, robots will take your job... and yours too...

"These numbers are large but not implausible. For example, they imply that one more robot in a commuting zone reduces employment by 6.2 workers..."

So says Professor Acemoglu. He doesn't cite Marx, which is an unfortunate oversight, since Marx had a lot to say about technological unemployment. Myself, I'm a robot pessimist/ optimist. Pessimist because I am very confident that AI/robotics will displace workers in a way that lowers equilibrium wages for a large majority, by a lot. Optimist because all of this liberates humans from toil, if only we can see our way to a mode of distribution that decouples consumption from labor. That's called socialism.

Single payer in America

I knew Medicare was important... but Medicaid even more so?! I guess the exchanges and mandates were just a sideshow to Obama's stealth strategy for achieving socialized health insurance. It was all about Medicaid expansion. The GOP takes control of the entire apparatus of government and can't reverse it. Props, Barack.

Why can't some songs go on forever?

Only three short minutes of this groove... it's just cruel, Eddie.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reading roundup

Margaret Drabble's The Millstone (1965) is one of those perfectly understated little novels that it seems only the English can write. Touching, funny, a little sad, it is exquisitely written in its pacing, set pieces, and use of language. Given its time and setting, it is also robustly feminist, the story of a young single woman who discovers that she needs only herself... and, well, her unexpected baby. Her life– and indeed the novel– balance on a knife-edge between chance and will. The final scene, featuring a meeting of old friends on Christmas Eve, is thrilling in its range of possibilities. The ending is absolutely right. Superb.

Henry Green was considered "a writer's writer's writer," and I gave Loving (1945) a try. It is an upstairs-downstairs story taking place in Ireland during WWII. Most of the action is downstairs, among the English servants. The book is written almost entirely in dialogue– an impressive exercise, but I struggled to get through it. I'm not a writer, let alone a writer's writer, so there's no reason to expect I would appreciate a writer's writer's writer. I didn't.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama has been pitched as a Japanese crime thriller, but it is really a bureaucratic procedural, which sounds worse than it is. The plot revolves around power struggles between different branches of the police force, as well as the journalists who cover them. It's a long book, and rather little actually happens. Somehow it kept my interest. I can't promise it will keep yours.

Friday, March 17, 2017

New and improved euphemism for lying

"... the standoff between the president and the available record..." -NY Times

Get Out

It seems so obvious to base a horror film on racism in America that one is surprised it hasn't been done before... at least not like this. Jordan Peele's Get Out is not a great film, but it is clever, entertaining, and even thought-provoking. Its cleverness lies in embedding the race angle into just about every horror-film cliche you can think of. As it romps from one satirical movie homage to another, it gets you to wondering whether all those classic horror films weren't racial allegories all along.

The Oxford Comma

It is clearer, more logical, and necessary. So of course. I'm happy that Mother Jones endorses it, even if the New York Times does not.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Miguel Zenon Quartet at Bach Dancing

Miguel and his longstanding quartet played a gig at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society near Half Moon Bay yesterday. It's a venerable spot for live jazz, an intimate wood-paneled venue overlooking the Pacific, with views out to Mavericks, and a fiery sunset over the breakers.

As I have blogged before, Miguel is one of the best saxophonists and composers in jazz right now, and his working band is exceptional. The compositions, all from their new album, Típico, are tightly wound, with flavors from his native Puerto Rico... though nobody would be tempted to get up and dance to this stuff, except maybe a heptapod. However talented the musicians, this is not music you pull off in a jam session, and the quartet's many years together pay off. Even during extended solos, the players are listening and interacting: endless rehearsals, or just mind-meld?

Speaking of aliens, Henry Cole is one of those otherworldly modern jazz drummers who keeps perfect time in about three or four time signatures simultaneously and manages to add rim shots, rolls, and cymbal coloration in conversation with the soloists, but never obtrusively. He listens intently: you can see his eyes laser-beamed across the stage at the pianist, Luis Perdomo. Cole's solo closing the first half was the highlight of the show. Where's the beat? Nothing his hands are doing corresponds to any identifiable pulse. But it's there all right: your toes are tapping along.

I couldn't really ask for anything more from an afternoon of jazz, but I'll try anyway. Miguel, play more ballads. Nobody does it better.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

More on Arrow

Here is an excellent post, the first in a series, on Kenneth Arrow's contributions (as well as his character). Based on a link it provides to a paper Ken was working on last year (well into his 90s!), I have to take back my assertion that he didn't seem to have an empirical bone in his body, because here's a paper with N = 130,000!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Apple Park?!

They really couldn't come up with a more creative name for the spaceship?
How about the Apple Pie? The Orchard? The i-O? The Circle Works?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kenneth Arrow, an appreciation

I've had the privilege of interacting with a number of very smart people over the years. Kenneth Arrow was unquestionably the most brilliant person I ever met. He was my teacher for a third of my first-year graduate micro sequence at Stanford, and I saw him at social gatherings roughly annually since then. In addition to being arguably the most important economist since Keynes, he was good company: charming, funny, and cultured.

There will be plenty of Arrow anecdotes in days to come, and many reckonings of his place in the history of economic thought; the New York Times obituary is a good place to get a sense of just how broad, deep, and influential he was. But I feel compelled to offer a few personal observations.

When I was deciding on grad schools, my advisor at UMass was pushing Stanford. I was interested in radical/Marxist economics, and Stanford was one of the top departments where you could study that stuff in the early 80s. "And of course you know Arrow is there," he said. I really didn't know enough about economics to fully appreciate what he meant. But I went.

First observation: Kenneth was not a great teacher. He taught us general equilibrium theory. (That would be a little like learning relativity from Einstein.) His presentation was adequate, and of course technically accurate. But one sensed he was a little bored teaching foundational proofs he had derived several decades earlier. Late in the term he turned to the optional part of the syllabus, where he had decided to include some material on endogenous preferences and new developments in what would in a few years come to be known as behavioral economics. He became animated. He quoted from The Odyssey. Suddenly we were in the presence of a great mind, working things out for himself, and sharing it with us. Hmm... maybe a great teacher after all.

He was consistently a man of the left, a social democrat (or democratic socialist?). That's a good thing, by the way. He dressed funny. His belt was always up around his armpits. He rode his 3-speed to campus and sometimes forgot to remove his pants clip. He didn't seem to have an empirical bone in his body; as a devoted empiricist myself, this has given me pause on a number of occasions– maybe facts and data are not the same thing...

My favorite Arrow story is from the annual Christmas caroling party we both attended. I pride myself on knowing a lot of the classic Christmas carols, even beyond the first verse. Not bad for a lapsed Unitarian! Kenneth, Jewish, put me to shame. He knew most of the carols by heart, often deep into the third or fourth verse. (How?) His singing voice was not good, to say the least. I will miss him.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Very bad week for the funk

Clyde StubblefieldJunie Morrison... With Bernie Worrell gone, not to mention Prince, the universe's funkfield has definitely diminished in power this year. We badly need a visit from the Mothership.

Update: How could I fail to provide some "relief"? Here you go. Audio and video quality show their age (nearly 40 years!), but don't you wish you coulda been there? Make sure to hang around for the solos in Part 2... holy crap...

Play "Misty" for Me

It's a tacky song: I never cared much for it. And Quincy Jones was certainly capable of overproducing, as he amply demonstrates here. But there's a reason Sarah Vaughan was called The Divine One. And Zoot Sims knew he was in the presence of divinity when he added his saxophone filigrees. Come to think of it, Zoot had a little holiness in his sound as well. Add the album of the same name to your Spotify list; you need more Sarah in your personal soundtrack.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Dark Forest

I preferred this sequel to Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem to the first installment. Both books are sci-fi on a grand scale, featuring an evolving cast of largely Chinese characters as well as the mysterious and menacing aliens who have left their own doomed solar system and are en route to colonize earth and presumably exterminate humanity. What makes The Dark Forest a better book? Partly the translation from the Chinese, in this case by Joel Martinsen, which is more fluid and vivid than Ken Liu's competent but dry version of The Three-Body Problem. But I also found more compelling the story of Luo Ji, the unconventional hero of this tale. A dreamer, he conjures a love for himself, and a spell to save the world. Can they become reality?

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

We watched this masterful 1964 French musical last night. All the dialogue is sung, which is impressive, and the music by Michel Legrand features many familiar and lovely melodies. The plot revolves around a love affair and the unplanned pregnancy of a young single woman, played by Catherine Deneuve. The pregnancy is treated matter-of-factly, something you couldn't possibly imagine in an American film of the same period. The movie is a riot of colors; the current release was restored from three black-and-white separation masters ordered by the director, Jacques Demy.

Umbrellas was clearly an inspiration for La La Land, but unlike the latter film, which suffers from sluggish pacing in parts, Umbrellas sweeps the viewer along from start to finish. The jazzy score and recitative dialogue, along with the swirl of vivid colors, constantly delight the ears and eyes. As for the charming couple and their ill-fated romance... well, they're nice too.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Three killer graphics from Raj Chetty

Click your way over to his web site, The Equality of Opportunity Project, and spend some time exploring. Here are three of my favorites... you'll find your own.

1. You grew up poor: Your parents earned an income at the 10th percentile of the national income distribution. Across the tracks, your unlikely friend grew up rich, at the 90th percentile. You're both now in your mid-20s... How's it going? If you are typical, given your humble origins, you've had to work hard, but you've made out OK: your income is nearly at the 40th percentile– on the low side of middle class, but you've escaped poverty. Your friend, meanwhile, had many advantages in life, and not surprisingly she's doing better than you are: slightly above the 60th percentile. But materially, at least, the income divide of your childhood has narrowed substantially.

We know from comparative studies that intergenerational mobility in the United States is actually lower than most other developed economies. The playing field is not level: the circumstances of one's birth matter a lot here. But on average, maybe not as much as I had thought.

2. But wait a sec. "On average," I said. Average obscures a lot of variation. And in the United States, Chetty et al have shown, a lot of variation is associated with place. In this map, the colors show where you ended up in the income distribution, having been raised in a family at the 25th percentile. Darker means you were less likely to escape your humble origins. In the prairie states, you probably made it to middle class... If you came from the "black belt," or "the rez," you probably didn't do much better than your folks. Opportunity, like the map, is color-coded in America. The underlying data here, by the way, are adjusted for local cost of living. That adjustment only really matters in high-cost places like the Bay Area, which offers less upward mobility than we'd like to think.

3. So if you're living in one of those dark red zones, maybe you should grab the kids and move to a lighter place on the map. Will it help them grow up more prosperous? Indeed, and they gain for every additional year they're there. Meanwhile, our democracy might work harder figuring out how to equalize the numbers.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Trump tax reform best case scenario?

From John Cochrane's blog. I'd give it this side of a snowball's chance in hell.
Kotlikoff's preferred tax plan... a) eliminates the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, and the estate and gift tax, b) introduces a value added tax (VAT), a progressive personal consumption tax on top consumers that exempts consumption financed by labor income, an inheritance tax that kicks in after the receipt of $5 million, and a Co2 emissions tax of $80 per ton, c) eliminates the ceiling on the FICA payroll tax, and d) provides a $2,000 annual payment to each U.S. citizen.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, OK, I've only seen three of the nominees for best picture. Arrival? Good entertainment, cool aliens, definitely worth seeing. Best picture? C'mon. La La Land? Pleasantly nostalgic, charmingly incompetent singing and dancing, definitely worth seeing. The theme is pure romantic fantasy in Casablanca mode: love at first sight, sad inevitable separation, we'll always have Paris... or LA... Best picture? Nah. Moonlight? Beautiful filmmaking, understatedly beautiful acting, 21st century realism: Groping forbidden love at first sight, love of low expectations, love as the simple human touch necessary for survival. Best picture? Maybe so.

Song of the day...

... or year... or next four years...

Friday, January 27, 2017

David Brooks disses porcupines everywhere...

"If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear.... It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear." NY Times.

Having encountered porcupines in the woods now and then over the years, I'd have to say they never strike me as being particularly fearful (why would they be?), let alone dark or resentful. More charming and bumbling. Un-Trumpian.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

H is for Hawk

I mostly read fiction books, but "nature" nonfiction attracts my attention now and then. I suppose Helen Macdonald's account of training a goshawk counts as a nature book, but it is much, much more. Macdonald weaves the alien allure of this most extraordinary bird of prey, the craft and lore of falconry, her debilitating grief over the death of her father, the rich human history and uncertain future of the semi-wild English landscape, and a compressed, sad biography of T.H. White into a complete and absolutely compelling work of art. Her powers of description– internal, external, and speculative– are poetic. Funny, insecure, invincible, she invites you into her saga of grief, near-madness, and recovery. Her love for Mabel, her hawk, is all the more remarkable for the fact that, as she eventually concedes, the goshawk is other... inscrutable. Yet there is quite a bit of the goshawk in this woman: her ferocity, her independence, her virtuosity. A masterpiece.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 77

A perfect rock 'n' roll voice fronting a kick-ass band. Rock on, Mauritania!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Millennials for Trump quote of the day

“I really do hope he does what he’s saying, but I’ve been hearing he’s surrounding himself with swampy people.” -NY Times

Friday, January 20, 2017

Song of the day

Inauguration day 2017, that is.


The BBC-by-way-of-Netflix series, that is. It's far from perfect. But you'll forgive all the flaws because, as the schizophrenic detective River, Stellan Skarsgård gives one of the greatest character portrayals in TV history. His voice is so lazily mellifluous, I'd be happy just to hear him read the phone book (or Wikipedia). But he also pours every inch of his lanky, stiffly shambling body into the role– it is a complete performance. He gets some excellent support, especially from Nicola Walker, as his main hallucination, and Adeel Akhtar, as his stoical, angelic partner... and the city of London. Overplotted, melodramatic at times, River pushes some heavy themes: lunacy, and loss. But mostly it is about love. And Skarsgård will convince you that love is all that really matters.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Defending free speech in the academy

This statement by Reverend James Walsh, S.J., appears in the preamble to Georgetown University's Speech and Expression Policy. It is very nicely put. I thank my provost, Dennis Jacobs, for the tip.
The following policy on free speech and expression derives from a certain understanding of what a university is and of what Georgetown University is. I will attempt to articulate that understanding. 
1. The nature of a university. A university is many things but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information. This discourse is carried on communally: we all speak and we all listen. Ideally, discourse is open and candid and also-ideally-is characterized by courtesy, mutual reverence and even charity. 
2. The university teaches by being what it is. What the university takes seriously as an institution imparts (to its students especially but not exclusively) important lessons. The fundamental lesson it imparts-just by being what it is-has to do with the nature of the intellectual life. Rigor of thought and care in research; the willingness to address any question whatever; the habit of self-critical awareness of one's own biases and presupposition; reverence for fellow members of the university community and openness to their ideas, which is reductively a concern for the truth itself-the list could be prolonged. These habits of mind and attitude have a powerfully shaping influence on all members of the academic community. A university that sends contrary "signals" to any of its members (as, obviously, by tolerating plagiarism, violence, intellectual shoddiness, or any sort of special pleading in the interest of ideology or vested interest) betrays its mission. 
3. "Free speech" is central to the life of the university. The category "free speech" suggests another realm of life and argument, that of American constitutional law. Indeed, members of a university community exercise "dual citizenship": we are academics and we are Americans. The rights and obligations that flow from our participation in each of the two orders--academic and constitutional--are not reducible to those of either one, nor superceded by one or the other, but neither are they in conflict. At the same time, the body of legal principles elaborated from the First Amendment is usefully applied to particular problems. For example, "free speech", in the constitutional sense, may be limited by, and only by, reasonable and non discriminatory considerations of "time, place and manner." These legal categories are most helpful in resolving the problem of how to reconcile the absolute openness of expression proper to a university with other considerations: numbers of people, multiplicity of activities, scheduling, space available and so on. The long and short of the matter is that "time, place and manner" are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university. 
4. More is better. Discourse is central to the life of the university. To forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for. This conviction proceeds from several assumptions. Besides those sketched above, there is the assumption that the exchange of ideas will lead to clarity, mutual understanding, the tempering of harsh and extreme positions, the softening of hardened positions and ultimately the attainment of truth. Some ideas, simply by being expressed, sink without a trace; others cry out for the intervention of reflection, contrary evidence, probing questions. None of that happens when one cuts off discourse. John Henry Newman's formulation applies here: "flagrant evils cure themselves by being flagrant." The remedy for silly or extreme or offensive ideas is not less free speech but more. 
5. The tradition of Georgetown University demands that we live up to these ideals. In this whole question, matters of history and of convictions central to the Catholic and Jesuit tradition come into play. The historical precedent of the medieval Catholic university, with its lively practice of the "disputation," and its role in the formulation, clarification and development of doctrine, the Catholic teaching that between faith and reason there can be no fundamental conflict, the Catholic teaching about the autonomy of reason, certain Jesuit principles about putting the most favorable construction on your neighbor's argument and especially about reverence for conscience; the vision of our founder, John Carroll, of a "…general and equal toleration, ... giving a free circulation to fair argument," and of an Academy that would be the "first in character & merit in America"-these and many other fundamentals of the tradition in which Georgetown stands prohibit any limitation upon discourse. Georgetown's identification with the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, far from limiting or compromising the ideal of free discourse, requires that we live up to that ideal. 
6. Violation of these principles, by whatever parties, must have consequences. This is a corollary of the principles themselves and necessary to vindicate the nature of the University itself. The offenses envisioned in the following policy amount to cutting off discourse. Making it impossible for others to speak or be heard or seen, or in any way obstructing the free exchange of ideas, is an attack on the core principles the University lives by and may not be tolerated. 
-- Rev. James Walsh, S.J., Department of Theology

Friday, January 6, 2017


Dad, what does "equanimity" mean?
Oh, that's like the way Barack Obama was with people who hated him.
What do you mean?
Here, kid, watch this...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

California's burden, California's opportunity

As The United States of America lurch into the Trump era, it falls to The Great State of California to make the case for an alternative path. It is widely noted that California on its own is the world's 6th largest economy, and a bastion of progressive politics. Let's act like it. We have a special responsibility. Not only must California lead on such feel-good liberal policies as climate policy, innovation, and openness to immigrants. We have to put our money where our mouth is. We must now use our economic and fiscal capacity to show that big government has an indispensable role to play in providing a generous safety net and offsetting the ill effects of economic displacement and inequality. If Trump and his GOP cronies cut taxes on the rich, we must accordingly raise them. If they kill Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion, we must replace that funding with homegrown MediCal expansions or even Cal-single-payer. If the GOP wants disenfranchisement, let's double down on participation. Jerry is the man, but he is at heart a bit of a skinflint. We may need to think a little bigger... but we also have to be willing to pony up. Let's show 'em what we got.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Bowie vs. Beasties

Today I listened to a couple of albums I confess I hadn't paid much attention to: David Bowie's Low, considered the #1 album of the 1970s (!) by Pitchfork magazine, and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which squeaked in at #98 of their top 100 of the 1980s.

Which is better? No contest. Low: OMG, so pretentious and boring... a total snoozefest.* Paul's Boutique? All that puerile Beastie energy and humor laid out over the most clever jazz, rock, funk, and (yes) country samples you're likely to hear. It's easy not to take the Beastie Boys seriously, possibly because they did not want to be taken seriously. But what a joyful, fascinating soundscape.

* With fairness to Pitchfork, it's hard to argue with their #2-#5 of the 1970s: London Calling, Marquee Moon, There's a Riot Going On, and Blood on the Tracks.

Feeling, fast and slow

The subtitle of Peter Wohleben's The Hidden Life of Trees is What They Feel, How They Communicate. I don't think he really can know what they feel. Certainly they react to stimuli, and in ways a lot more complex than one might have thought. Still, if sending out a chemical "distress" signal when an insect starts chewing your leaves counts as the experience of pain– well, then I imagine every living thing shares in similar feelings. I'm not sure that would pass Peter Singer's test of sentience as the ability to experience suffering.

Which is not to say Wohleben is necessarily wrong about tree feelings. He has spent a lifetime with trees, and he shares some wisdom about them in his book. For me there are two key takeaways. First, trees are social organisms. Not just in the sense that they live in groups and offer obvious mutual support as windbreaks and soil stabilizers. They also communicate, through commingling of roots and chemical signals sent across dense networks of fungal filaments– the "wood-wide web." And they share resources, in what any economist would see as risk-pooling arrangements. Of course, they are also in competition– Wohleben is especially good in describing the struggle between species in the process of forest succession, where scrappy, fast-growing pioneer varieties pounce on openings created by fire, flood, or avalanche, but inevitably are overshadowed by their more patient rivals.

Second, trees experience the world in a completely different time scale, which comes from the fact of being rooted, and the extraordinary lifespans of many species. The realization of the transitory nature of a human life compared with trees is one of the things that makes it so humbling to stand in a grove of old-growth redwoods. Fantasy filmmakers like to scare you with the trees that "come to life": think Oz, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. Real trees are actually quite active and mobile in their fashion– they just take their time about it. Mobility, in fact, occurs only on an intergenerational time scale.

The alien slowness of tree experience raises difficulties for thinking about tree sentience. I never really believed all that woo-woo business about plants having feelings, singing to your houseplants to make them happy, etc. As someone who loves forests and trees, I value trees deeply for what I understand them to be: beautiful, fascinating, and utilitarian organisms. In the past I would have welcomed Wohleben's approach only as a useful metaphor– a plea for treating trees with respect, but not to be taken literally.

Nowadays, I'm less confident in my skepticism. We take seriously that humans are animals, all the way deep down, that other animals can have cognition and consciousness, and that the bright lines dividing organisms one from another are a lot blurrier than we thought: 90% of our cells, after all, are "non-human." So who is to say that there is not some very slow-moving form of consciousness embodied in the complex network of roots, filaments, and soil microorganisms of the forest? Perhaps a consciousness that can suffer?

Wohleben is not a great writer, and his book begins to plod within the first hundred pages. But I'd recommend the first half, at least. I'm not yet sure how it will change the way I interact with trees, but I think it will.