Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Get Thee to a Nunnery

The Corner That Held Them
Sylvia Townsend Warner

Naturally I wasn't expecting Jack Reacher-style action when I picked up this 399-page 1948 novel about three decades in the life and times of a humble 14th-Century English convent. And indeed, it is one of those books in which not much happens, at least for considerable stretches. There is a backdrop of big events, beginning with the Black Death, but poverty, sickness, and death were everyday features of life during those times and are treated without much drama. Nuns arrive and usually remain until their own deaths; each in a sequence of prioresses is more or less competent or unpopular than the last; over the course of the novel the convent finds itself under the more or less disinterested rule of three different bishops. After about 200 somewhat soporific pages I confess I nearly threw in the towel, but the exceptional quality of the writing and the sheer trueness of the storytelling kept me going; the second half of the book picks up narrative steam and is, in places, deeply moving. It is, in retrospect, a splendid book.

Perhaps unexpectedly in a novel by a feminist woman about a community of women, with a few exceptions The Corner That Held Them does not develop the characters of the individual nuns in much depth or subtlety– they often appear in pairs or as a gaggle. Indeed it is Townsend's goal to portray the history of a community, not individuals. The most vividly drawn character is the steadiest presence through nearly the entire narrative arc: Sir Ralph Kello, the (supposed) convent priest. A dreamer and scholar and a bit of a fool, he is both an outside observer and intimate participant in the affairs of the convent.

There is no conventionally linear plot, although the book is rigorously chronological. Rather, Warner presents a sequence of vignettes centered on the convent, but with much of the drama provided by a series of short journeys a few days' ride away, by one character or another.

It did not surprise me to learn that Townsend, in addition to being a novelist, feminist, and scholar of early music, was also a committed Marxist. If it is possible to write a historical materialist novel, this is surely it. Much attention is paid to the economic context of the convent, its finances and management– in a word, money. As an institution, the convent relied for revenue on its claims over streams of income from various endowments, assets, and modest landholdings, which might come as a dowry when a family committed a daughter to enter the convent as a novice. These sources of income were unsteady, and could be at the mercy of the granting family. When a nun died, did the revenue from her endowment continue, or revert to her family? Did her wishes in this respect carry any weight? There was also borrowing: one plot element even revolves around the prospect of consolidating and refinancing the convent's debt.

As any economic historian knows, the Black Death ushered in a period of high wages for the working class, as labor supply collapsed. But institutions reliant on rents found these to be harder times– the standard Ricardian logic dictated declining rents as the land-labor ratio rose. Such problems hit home for the prioress and her treasuress. Nunneries were also subject to oversight by the Church, with its interests both financial and theological. A meddling visitation by the new bishop Walter yields a scathing accreditation report and the imposition of a custos, the bishop's man, to keep tabs on the place. Thankfully, the appointed custos Henry Yellowlees is not a fan of the new bishop and not eager to make too much trouble for the nuns.

As a materialist, Townsend has no truck with miracles or the reality of the spirit domain, but she is respectful of religious experience, even when she has her fun with it. And the book is consistently funny, in its understated ironic fashion. It also finds beauty in the most unlikely places, for example when Henry journeys off to Esselby on behalf of the nuns, aiming to collect rent in arrears from one of the convent's holdings. En route he stays a night at a leper-house, where the chaplain happens to be a devotee of the Ars nova and enlists Henry to sing a kyrie of Machault, the third part sung by a leper, who is kept at a safe distance at the further end of the room.
... And as paradise is made for man, this music seemed made for man's singing; not for edification, or the working-out of an argument, or the display of skill, but only for ease and pleasure, as in paradise where the abolition of sin begets a pagan carelessness, where the certainty of Christ's countenance frees men's souls from the obligations of christian behaviour, the creaking counterpoint of God's law and man's obedience.  
It ended. Henry Yellowlees raised his eyes from the music-book. The rays of the levelling sun had shifted while they sang and now shone full on the leper. His face, his high bald head, were scarlet. He seemed to be on fire. 
'Again! Let us sing it again!'
This epiphany has a profound effect on Henry. Alas, not all goes well for the chaplain and his lepers. The convent, however, endures, at least to March 1382, when the story does not exactly end, but stops.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Would Non-Profit Utilities Cure What Ails California Electricity?

That is the title of Severin Borenstein's typically insightful and fair-minded overview of the issues on the Berkeley-Haas Energy Institute blog. He summarizes various more or less convincing arguments for preferring a publicly or cooperatively owned non-profit utility to a regulated private monopoly such as PG&E. His bottom line is well-hedged: "What’s clear to me is that converting PG&E to a public or cooperatively-owned utility would not be the silver bullet that creates a more efficient, reliable and safety-oriented electricity provider for Northern California. It would at best be just the beginning of a long road to re-invent the utility."

One important point he makes, which I had not thought much about, is that there is a serious risk of rich, urban service areas peeling off parts of PG&E to form local public providers, shifting the bulk of the fire risk onto more rural, poorer areas:
It’s not a coincidence that the first area to advocate for making their part of PG&E territory into a public entity has been the city of San Francisco, an urban area in which the power lines pose very little wildfire risk. It is possible that PG&E is too big, and the best solution is to break it up, but it is certain that carving off the low-fire-risk areas will leave the more wooded and rural — and, on average, poorer — parts of its service territory where the fire risk is highest. No one is going to want to be the public (or investor-owned) power provider for those areas unless someone else covers the wildfire liability. Without a holistic plan to provide power in all of PG&E’s service territory, cherry picking what are now the low-cost areas will just create massive wealth transfers and exacerbate inequality.
He also points out that the dividing line between public and private is not so clear when an investor-owned firm is publicly regulated. In his view, justified skepticism about the quality of regulatory oversight under the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ought to raise similar questions about the ability of a purely governmental entity to run the whole system safely and effectively:
In fact, many advocates for public or customer ownership are also the most outspoken critics of the CPUC. If they think that the CPUC, a state agency, is such a failure, why are they so confident that a government agency (or a non-profit coop) running the utility will be a success?
I take his point, snarky as it is, but there is a potentially important factor differentiating government-regulated from government-owned: the potential for "capture" of the regulators by the regulated. "Capture" is one word that one cannot find in Borenstein's post. I don't know enough about the CPUC to know whether its apparent failures in regulating PG&E are a function of incompetence, under-resourcing, bad luck, regulatory capture by the regulated entities, or some combination. But transferring ownership from rich investors with powerful interests potentially at odds with the interests of the public could improve things. On the other hand, capture of a state-owned enterprise by powerful stakeholders who are similarly conflicted cannot be ruled out...

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Self-partnered

That is Emma Watson's current status, self-described. Good for her. Reminds me of a song.


Medicare for all

Elizabeth Warren's plan.

Kevin Drum Mother Jones liberal suggests that you should view it as no more than a signal that Liz is a very serious lefty– a "lunatic," as he puts it: "...these M4A plans... should be treated like Republican tax cut proposals. Nobody bothers to analyze them (except for liberal think tanks, natch) because no one takes them seriously. They are meant merely as markers to show where your heart is."

Tyler Cowen libertarian wants you to take the plan quite seriously, at least to the extent that we should evaluate its fiscal (in)feasibility: "Can we spend another $52 trillion without raising middle class taxes? The question seems like a joke, right? Yet because so much of our elite media class wants Elizabeth Warren to win, they are contorting themselves into every possible direction to make this one sound coherent."

So, paradoxically, those sympathetic to Warren ask you not to take the proposal too seriously, and those who think she's a disaster ask you to take it very seriously.

Me? I wish the social democratic wing of the Democrats could find a more aspirational language that still treated the electorate like grownups– people who understand politics and appreciate that policy is contingent, and who thus don't require elaborate nudge-nudge-wink-wink plans that will never be enacted, supported by overly optimistic if not downright dishonest analysis. Something more like this: "I will work with Congress to ensure quality health care for all, which will build on Obamacare by offering a robust public option and implement practical cost reductions. I value the dignity of work and will leverage government to build skills and produce good green jobs through R&D and infrastructure spending, but I will also make sure that the safety net protects the livelihoods of working people who are innocent victims of the inevitable dislocations associated with modern technology and global markets. A universal basic income could play an important role here. Progressive policies don't come cheap. We expect everyone to pay their share, but I think simple fairness demands that the very rich pay a much bigger share of taxes than they do now, as they did 50 years ago: something more like the 50% of their income that they paid in 1960 than the 30% of today..." and so forth and so on.

Maybe I should take another look at what Mayor Pete and Senator Harris have to say for themselves.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Regressive state and local taxation

Here's an excellent post from Kevin Drum on the distributive burden of state and local taxation, comparing California and Texas. His point is that for the lower and middle classes (the majority), state and local tax rates are actually lower in California than in Texas. Only the top 1-5% really get slammed in California compared with Texas. So there's little reason to think that high taxes per se should be driving a large-scale exodus from CA to TX.

The source he links to, ITEP, has a particularly interesting map of states by tax regressivity. You might be able to make out some correlation between red states and regressive states, but if so it's not a strong one: Washington state is the worst, and South Carolina looks quite equitable. Food for thought.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

NYRB round-up

In addition to Black Wings Has My Angel, I've been reading some other New York Review Books novels. Time to catch up...

The True Deceiver
Tove Jansson
A chilly psychological novel set in a chilly place, it was worth reading, but not much of it has stuck with me.

The Alteration
Kingsley Amis
An alternate history in which the Reformation failed, and the Catholics are running England in the 1970s. Our hero is a choirboy with the voice of an angel and puberty not far off, which turns out is not a good situation if you want to avoid "the alteration." It's no Lucky Jim, but Amis has plenty of fun dropping names of historical figures whose roles turned out a little different (e.g. Pope Martin Luther) and keeps the plot moving.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
D.G. Compton
A near-future dystopian 1974 novel about love, celebrity, privacy, media over-saturation, and death with dignity. Despite the heavy topics, it is touching, and charmingly quirky in its fashion. Perhaps the best of this batch.

Chocky
The Chrysalids
John Wyndham
Two sci-fi books from the author of The Day of the Triffids. Both enjoyable reads, offering some food for thought; of the two, Chocky, about a boy with an unusual and not-necessarily-imaginary friend, is the lighter and perhaps more compelling story, while The Chrysalids (1955), with its repressive religious fundamentalists and post-nuclear environmental badlands, captures the obsessions and anxieties of its time... and ours.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Kadri Gopalnath, RIP

I mostly know of him by way of this great album with Rudresh Mahanthappa. Jazz fusion that really works, and a new way to hear the sax.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 91

This song gives me goosebumps every time and really is just about perfect in every possible way. A fantastic performance to boot. Is the botox lady just projecting?

Autumn color in Foothills Park

Oh, it's no Vermont, you say? True enough. We learn to appreciate dusty shades of sage and ochre here, punctuated by the occasional fallen madrone berry or poison oak leaf. Thankful that our subtly beautiful hills are not (yet) burning.




Monday, October 28, 2019

Jordan Casteel at the Cantor Museum

A good way to get out of the smoke for a while if you live anywhere near Stanford is to check out the Cantor's exhibition, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze. Casteel's large-scale portraits pay homage to fauvism but definitely show you something new. Yes, the eyes return the gaze– but there's plenty to look at in the hands, feet, and teeshirts of her subjects, too.

Elijah (detail)


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Black Wings

Black Wings Has My Angel
Elliott Chaze

A very fine wild ride of a noir thriller from 1953. It offers up all the hard-boiled prose you could possibly want, rarely if ever veering into the lane of self-parody. The protagonists are made for each other, and their love affair is as warm as it is hot. Can they get away with the perfect crime? Even if they don't, you can believe they would do it all again in a heartbeat. Not entirely immune to some of the stereotypes of its time and genre, Black Wings Has My Angel nonetheless gives us a femme fatale who is every bit the equal of our conniving and complex narrator, as well as pitch-perfect satire of suburban domesticity and convention. And every page is a pleasure to read...
I took her handbag from her lap, flipped the tortoise shell latch, and removed her shiny little automatic, the toy I'd given her the night we came home from Mamie's. The gun looked like one of those things at the carnival where you throw hoops and try to win it. It was no longer than my hand and didn't look as if it would kill a flea. That was very funny, as you will see. I thumbed the release of the clip and checked her ammunition, little baby-bullets with coppery noses like costume jewelry. I replaced the full clip and jerked the chromed jacket back to full-cock position, pleased that it slid nicely, pumping a cartridge into the chamber when I let it go. "You ever shoot one of these, baby?" 
"No," she said, "but it must be just like pointing your finger." 
"That's right, they say that's why in the newspaper when you read about a housewife shooting her man, he generally stays shot. Women don't complicate shooting with a lot of stylized foolishness. The average housewife has had plenty of practice pointing her finger at her old man when he comes home late nights. Then when she gets really sore at him and points a gun instead of a finger it hits him where it hurts." 
"I'm no housewife."  
"No, but you've got some of the symptoms." 

Ethan Frome

I finally read Edith Wharton's little masterpiece. The writing is brilliant, as one would expect– economical but still palpably descriptive of both inner and outer experience. The story is utterly compelling, right down to the nasty plot twist ending. Biting humor affords the reader a nervous chuckle now and then. But I can't think of another book in which the author is so cruel to her protagonist. Why must Ethan be consigned to hell on earth? Is he being punished for being a naive dreamer? For his self-sacrifice for the sake of moral duty? For lusting in his heart? Just for being poor? I guess if God did it to Job...

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Baylands geometry


How to appeal to the future of the Democratic Party... not...

"Anxious Democratic Establishment Asks, ‘Is There Anybody Else?’ Party leaders who are fatalistic about Democrats’ chances in 2020 are musing about possible late entrants to the race. Sherrod Brown? Michelle Obama?" So reads the head of this NYT article, but when you scroll down, much of the talk is actually about Hillary or Bloomberg jumping in, or being conscripted by... who, you ask? Those out-of-touch party elites and Wall Streeters? Nah...

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Your Second FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Bohemian miners (coal loaders) unemployed since mechanization of mines. Jere, West Virginia. They live together in one house with a woman housekeeper. All on relief. Spend most of their time fighting about politics. Call their dog "Hitler" because he's so mean and nasty. To the left is an outdoor oven for baking bread. Abandoned mining town.
Marion Post Wolcott, 1938

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Unemployed miner. Herrin, Illinois
Arthur Rothstein, 1939.


35 Soul Classics 1970-1975

Is there ever a time when you would not want to listen to any one of these songs? On Spotify.

Little things

I took this blurry close-up of a valley oak leaf with my phone the other day in Arastradero Preserve... the little red pimple- or volcano-shaped galls caught my eye, although they knocked off so easily I wonder if they were not some kind of scale insect. At any rate, I missed the handsome jumping spider entirely, until I cropped the picture...


Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 90

While I was spluttering through my mile at the pool today, one of the lifeguards was playing a pretty good playlist, including some Sly... though not this song, which is among his best. So many great lyrics, including my two favorite verses: "Stand! You've been sitting much too long– there's a permanent crease in your right-and-wrong" and "Stand! Don't you know that you are free? Well at least in your mind, if you want to be..." A sarcastic dig at the Beatles? Then the funky denouement...

Meanwhile the SF Jazz Collective this season is covering Stand! along with Miles's In a Silent Way on the occasion of both albums' 50th anniversaries. I hope they capture the wild funky spirit of both...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Where were you and what were you doing during the earthquake?

On the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake, KQED wants to know. I have a weak memory, but I do remember that moment. I was in my office in Kenna Hall at Santa Clara University. The shaking was scary, but the loud steel-on-steel roar that the building made was even scarier. "Freight train over railroad trestle" seems about right. But then it subsided, and I decided to drive home... carefully. That was eery. Most people seemed to be hunkered down– not a lot of traffic. The most vivid image was of a cannery on my way home– there were still some canneries even then– with a buckled wall and a huge stack of empty cans spilling out. That's when it hit me that there was some serious damage.

Laura was in Colorado on business, pregnant with Aidan. Of course we couldn't get in touch right away, and the news outside the Bay Area sensationalized to the point where she might have thought it was Nagasaki. But I was OK, and so were most folks. Are we ready for the next big one? I doubt it.

Monday, October 7, 2019

We laugh, because... what's the alternative?

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

This represents some hubris... I really don't think he has totally destroyed and obliterated our economy yet! But give him time...

Saturday, October 5, 2019

"Self-defeat" seems like the right term

Once upon a time in America, prosperous rural towns helped lead the revolution in public education and local public goods such as libraries. As the story goes, the United States became a leader in economic growth by way of human capital accumulation because political power was democratic and decentralized; many communities viewed investments in local public goods as a way they could collectively better themselves, and they had the authority and will to collect the necessary tax revenue and make it happen. The eclipse of this collective optimism by selfish pessimism is a tragedy being played out in our country's heartland, as Monica Potts reports in this sad but excellent piece. When and how did this reversal of outlook come about? Then again, as a friend put it, the news is "hopeful too, because as [the] author points out, the number of people with these 'lifestyles' is dwindling...."

Friday, October 4, 2019

The driver is part of the death machine

I found it interesting that in an op-ed entitled "Cars Are Death Machines. Self-Driving Tech Won’t Change That." one can search for the word "alcohol" and get zero hits. "Drunk" gets one, in a photo caption. The CDC estimates that alcohol-impaired crashes account for nearly 30% of traffic fatalities. One could add to that fatalities caused by drowsy or distracted drivers and come up with quite a few unnecessary deaths that could logically be prevented by always alert and sober computer drivers. That seems like a significant improvement over the status quo, if and when it happens.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Gene Ammons...

... did not make it to 50 years old, and about ten years of his short life were spent behind bars for narcotics possession. The rest were spent making fantastic music.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Trump and the California clean air waiver

James Sallee has a nice analysis here. Galling as it is to see Trump trying to revoke California's waiver, which allows the state to impose more stringent gas mileage standards than the national, Sallee suggests that the damage was really done when Trump rolled back the national standards imposed by Obama. The reason has to do with the way the federal CAFE standards interact with California's:
The federal greenhouse gas rule for automobiles, called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, require automakers to sell vehicles that, on average, have fuel economy above a certain threshold. If California has its own, stricter greenhouse gas rule, the cars sold in California still count as part of the federal fleet under CAFE. This means that every Leaf, Prius and Tesla sold in California improves the industry’s federal average. That enables automakers to sell more Mustangs and Suburbans in the rest of the country, which means that much, if not all, of the greenhouse gas mitigation that takes place in California will be offset by increased emissions throughout the nation. 
The application of this so called “waterbed effect” to California fuel economy standards was described elegantly in a paper by Larry Goulder, Mark Jacobsen and Arthur van Benthem back in 2012. They studied the implementation of a California-specific fuel economy rule and concluded that between two-thirds and three-quarters of emissions reductions in California would be offset by increases in other states. In the meantime, the burden of complying with strong regulations would fall on Golden State consumers.
At any rate, the issue is now in the courts– of law and of public opinion. The best rule change would follow regime change in the White House.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Anne B

I recently re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Are these now my two favorite books? I think so. And not just because they have added great words like umbles and gralloched to my vocabulary, should I have occasion to use them (though granted that seems unlikely). I could happily turn around and read both books straight through again. Hilary, where is volume 3?
Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives."
Bring Up the Bodies, p. 38

Game of Fleabags

I watched a bit of the Emmys tonight. I had watched some of the shows that were big winners. Regarding which: I'd give up about two or three seasons of Game of Thrones for an episode or two of Fleabag.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Robert Frank, RIP

Gosh, so many obit blog posts lately. Anyway, I own a reprint edition of Frank's The Americans, and I have had the privilege of seeing the actual prints, in book order, in a museum setting. I love his approach to photography, and I love his take on America: critical, leftist, but open-minded and big-hearted, and with a real sense of humor: Why not obscure the faces of your subjects with jingoistic iconography? But when he wanted to capture faces, he didn't mess around...

Democratic National Convention, 1956, 1996.147.1






Monday, September 9, 2019

Jimmy Johnson, RIP

Even if you've never heard of him, you've heard him. The Swampers... Art and commerce vs. racism? Sometimes it even worked...
“We didn’t know we were making history,” he said of this interracial affinity in an interview with Southern Rambler magazine. “Black or white, we had the same goal: to cut a hit record.” 
After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the all-white Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s work on soul music sessions for Atlantic and Stax, two of the era’s most influential record companies, was suspended. To Mr. Johnson’s relief, the suspension was temporary. 
“We were an integral part of Atlantic and Stax and thought that might be it,” he recalled in that interview. “We were told we wouldn’t be cutting any more black records, and those were our favorite records.”

Friday, August 30, 2019

Pedro Bell, RIP

Not always PC, but always visually funky.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Tuxedo Junction

Dr. Lenzy Wallace, who directed our high school jazz band, must have had his moments of frustration and doubt. We weren't very good, through no fault of his. I'm no racial essentialist no-how, so I don't for a moment think that white folk are less capable of swinging than black folk, but the suburban white kids in Storrs CT did NOT swing, for whatever reason. Perhaps Lenzy should have forced us to listen to recordings of the tunes he selected for us to play, such as "Tuxedo Junction." Erskine Hawkins, who co-wrote it and made this 1939 recording with his once-college dance band, knew how to swing and chicken-scratch his way to perfection. Who knows, a little bit of the humor and easy elegance might have sunk in with us.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Across the divide

One of my favorite day hikes follows the Pacific Crest Trail from Carson Pass up to Meiss Col and down into beautiful Meiss Meadow, from which you can proceed to lovely little Showers Lake and/or elsewhere. An interesting feature of Meiss Col, which had not occurred to me until this visit, is that it lies along the divide between the Pacific and the Great Basin watersheds. So at the point where the first picture below was taken, looking roughly southward toward Round Top, any rain or snow melt in front of me would run downhill into various creeks and eventually into the American River, the Sacramento River, and the Bay, before emptying into the Pacific; whereas behind me, the water drains into the Upper Truckee River (e.g. from the snowfield in the second picture), into Lake Tahoe and then out of it into the Truckee proper, which finally drains into Pyramid Lake, an endorheic lake within the Great Basin. Endorheic is a new word for me: water checks in but it doesn't check out. Well, evaporation notwithstanding. Two raindrops or snowflakes that fall quite near one another on Meiss Col could end up thousands of miles apart. Of course there may be some hapless little raindrop that falls at the very divide and languishes there, like Buridan's ass, unable to decide which great watershed to join. Such a drop may happily end up nourishing one of the many western blue flag irises that flourish in the col. (The map below thanks to Wikipedia... don't forget to send them money.)




This being a family-friendly blog...

... I feel obliged to provide wholesome information about the birds and the bees... or in this case the sphinx moths. This pair were removed (gently) from my tent at Woods Lake yesterday. Lovely.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Sons of Kemet, My Queen is Ada Eastman

We heard them live at San Jose Jazz on Saturday. Something new under the sun: An hour-and-a-half of ultra-high-energy... what?... acoustic jazz-funk-afropop? There's a punk sensibility in there as well. No breaks, no let-up. Theon Cross on tuba is a force of nature. If they come to your neighborhood, don't miss them. The music starts at 1:38.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison, RIP

John Leonard, on when she received the Nobel. A more optimistic time, perhaps, not so long ago.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Itsy monkey flower

I won't nominate this (Diplacus nanus?) for national flower, but it is quite lovely if you notice it underfoot– noticed in this case at Upper Kinney Lake, near Ebbetts Pass.


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Our national flower...

... has been the rose since 1986, when Reagan signed it into law... I did not know that! There had been a movement– championed by seed mogul David Burpee and Senator Everett Dirksen– to name the marigold, but obviously that failed. In 1962 Katharine S. White made a good case against both the rose and the marigold, and she had a much better nominee, although it ultimately fared no better than the marigold against the rose:
Feeling as I do about the marigold as the flower of the United States, I've decided to start a flower lobby of my own. I thought of nominating the moccasin flower (or lady's-slipper), our handsomest native orchid—it would be a nice tribute to our earliest inhabitants—but the moccasin flower does not grow in all our states. May I therefore suggest the humble but glorious goldenrod, which grows wild in every state of the Union[*] and spreads its cheerful gold in August and September from Maine to the Pacific, from Canada to Florida and New Mexico? It is as sturdy and as various as our population; there is delicate dwarf goldenrod, silver goldenrod, tall yellow goldenrod in a multitude of forms and shapes—spikes, plumes, and panicles of native gold. Hortus Second lists fifty-five species, only one of which is not native to the United States, and one or another of these fifty-four grows in every sort of soil. Descend into a bog and there, growing wild, is goldenrod; climb a mountain and there, between the crevices of boulders, is goldenrod; follow the shore of the sea and goldenrod gleams along the edge of the sands; drive along our highways from coast to coast in August and September and the fields and ditches are bright with goldenrod, unless the state you are driving through has destroyed them with chemical sprays. The very ubiquity of the flower has given it a bad name as an irritant to hay-fever victims, but I've recently read that it is the ragweed and flowering grasses growing alongside goldenrod that are the villains during the late-summer hay-fever season. The goldenrod also has the great advantage—if it were to be our national flower– of owing nothing to man, of enriching no seed company, or companies, and of being as wild as our national bird, the eagle. Canaries, like marigolds, presumably thrive in all fifty states, yet no one would dream of nominating the canary as the national bird. 
 – Katharine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden

The goldenrod I planted in my yard some years ago is just getting started on its graceful, cheery, and abundant annual bloom. I look forward to it every year.

* Perhaps with the exception of Hawaii, methinks, where it is an introduced non-native.

Warren's wealth tax

I'd like to believe Saez and Zucman's estimate that Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax of 2% on the very wealthy would bring in $200 billion annually. Summers and Sarin figure it might be a lot closer to 25 billion. (Links to the arguments can be found here.)

Why such a huge difference? It all hinges on how successful you think the very rich will be at tax avoidance. I suppose if there is a president who can bring them to heel, it will be Warren. Then again, ask yourself who can afford to buy the very best lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and congresspeople?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Opportunity cost is real

Money doesn't grow on trees, and if and when progressives return to power in this country, we will face hard choices, no matter how much we soak the rich. Leaders like Bernie Sanders should not be pushing the wrong choices, no matter how salient and rhetorically appealing some of them may be. Case in point: cancelling all student debt.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Singing in English

Not always the best idea. If I had to pick my favorite musician, Rubén Blades would be right up there. His gig with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra included some typically Rubénesque gems, such as this one... which includes the bonus of Winton going all salsa c. 3:40. On the other hand, you have Rubén singing "Too Close for Comfort," and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me," in which he sounds quite a bit like a middling Tony Bennett impersonator. I doubt it was intended.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Early Rubens

Now at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco– a fine little museum in a spectacular setting, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and what must be one of the world's loveliest golf courses (?!). This version of his Raising of the Cross, a later, smaller rendering of an earlier triptych, was my favorite piece. The energy and tension ripple across the painting.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Alameda County Fair

I love county fairs, from the goat judging to the pig racing to the bunnies to the ferris wheel to the quilts, pies, and jelly jars to the gut-wrenchingly disgusting yet somehow perniciously tempting food-booth items, such as deep-fried shrimp-on-a-stick dipped in Fruity Pebbles. Now in California we can add the splendid influence of our Latinx immigrant population, with live mariachi, banda, Modelo, and tamales-eating contests. Alameda County has got to be one of the most diverse counties in the USA: the great California melting pot, everybody having fun. And a 10-year-old 4-H-er named Yashvi can take first place in the craft competition with a Hot Dog Stuffed Animal. If that doesn't make you proud to be an American, I can't imagine what possibly would.


Libra

Who knows whether Facebook bucks will take off, but regardless, I will forever think of Libra as the title of Don DeLillo's fantastic paranoid thriller about Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination. Of course, Facebook would never inspire paranoia!

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Don't worry 'bout the President, he can't stop us now"

A nice groove to feed whatever optimism you have left.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The best breakfast in Palo Alto

Halwa puri at Zareen's... weekends only! Happy Father's Day to me!


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Fuzzy things

A couple of our nice fuzzy native plants...
Cirsium occidentale: cobweb thistle. I grew it from seed!



Clematis lasiantha: pipestem, between its lovely creamy flower and its appealing puffball stages...

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 89

I've been listening to the Murray-Allen-Carrington Power Trio recording, Perfection, and the album title is not far off. Here's a studio recording of the title track, with a couple of guests. It's not my favorite track on the album– Craig Harris gets things off to a slow start– but it gives an idea of what they're up to. David Murray sounds like... David Murray... always first-rate, never phoning it in. Terri Lyne Carrington is a drummer to be reckoned with. Geri Allen (RIP) was more of a chameleon... she could do sophisticated or New Age-y, Ellington or Evans, and she could do fists, elbows, and glissandos. This was the dream trio for her talents– one more reason to lament her premature death at age 50.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Ngoni

The humble little ngoni has a sweet lilting sound that can also rock, especially with judicious use of wah-wah pedal, and in the hands of Bassekou Kouyate and friends and family. Amy Sacko does the blazing lead vocals. Beautiful.

Random reading

Sometimes you just have to pick it up and read it, not knowing exactly what to expect.

Tears of the Trufflepig

Fernando A. Flores
The cover of this book, with its unappealing title, caught my eye at the local library. A near-future political dystopia, somewhere on the Texas-Mexico border... why not? It's a good read, reminiscent in style of Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, with its touch of magic realism, humor, dread, and local flavor, along with the humanism at the core of the main characters. Add to that two (count 'em) border walls and trafficking in genetically engineered designer animals, and you have what strikes me as a fully plausible storyline ripped from the headlines of 2030.

Onward and Upward in the Garden
Katharine S. White
Consisting of her collected reviews of garden catalogues, starting in 1958. Seeds, bulbs, and roses. I kid you not. I don't garden much, and when I do it's not even close to the kind of gardening White engaged in. So why am I compelled to read on, season after season, hybrid after hybrid? It's the writer's voice, of course...
By August a flower garden, at least on the coast of eastern Maine, where I live, can be at its best—and at its worst. Most of one's successes are apparent, and all of one's failures. For me, this year, heavy memories remain from spring of the disaster area in the north bed of old-fashioned roses, where field mice, hungry under a snowdrift, stripped the bark off the bushes and killed two-thirds of them. Like all disaster areas, this one is still, although replanted, rather bleak. A more recent sorrow is the sudden death on the terrace of a well-established Jackmani clematis, which turned black overnight just as its big purple blossoms were opening. There are numerous theories in the household about this loss—too heavy a dose of fertilizer, too much watering, too strong a spray drifting over from the nearby rose beds, a disease still undiagnosed. My own theory is dachshund trouble. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Game 4 and Dark Magus

This has got to be one of the most god-awful sloppiest-ass first halves of basketball I have ever seen, Klay aside. I watched with the sound off while listening for my first time ever to Miles's Dark Magus, a relentless masterpiece of funk-noise. Hard to imagine what the Carnegie Hall audience back in 1974 made of Pete Cosey shredding and Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence honking and squawking. The Miles recordings of these years went somewhere music has never gone before and probably never will again.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dr. John, RIP

American music is the best music, and New Orleans music is the best American music, and though Dr. John may not have been the best of New Orlean music, he was pretty damn good.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Panda's Thumb is my Achilles' Heel

A sesamoid bone "is a bone embedded within a tendon or a muscle." In the ball of your foot, the two little metatarsophalangeal sesamoid bones can become inflamed and cause a small world o' pain. As they are doing in my left foot as I write.

Until reading the Wikipedia entry, I had not known (or had forgotten) that the panda's thumb, as made famous by Stephen Jay Gould, is in fact a sesamoid bone. I'm happy for the pandas, who can use that sesamoid to grasp and strip tasty bamboo leaves from a branch. As for me, it feels as if somebody shoved a bamboo sliver right into the ball of my foot. Nothing a little ibuprofen and ice can't cure... for now... I hope...




The bad dream that is Trump

Every time Laura expresses justified outrage at the latest Trumpian outrage, I remind her that we should be very thankful that Donald Trump is an incompetent idiot... that he really hasn't done all that much permanent harm. In this regard, I am very much in agreement with Kevin Drum. Of course Trump is appalling, and the sooner we are rid of him the better. But almost any currently influential Republican you can think of would probably have done more damage as president– it's just that he (yes, I presume he) would not have been as downright embarrassing.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Happy 200th Birthday, WW!

Immortal, indeed!

Is it wonderful that I should be immortal? as every
      one is immortal,
I know it is wonderful—but my eye-sight is equally
      wonderful, and how I was conceived in my moth-
      er's womb is equally wonderful;
And how I was not palpable once, but am now—and
      was born on the last day of Fifth Month, in the
      Year 43 of America,
And passed from a babe, in the creeping trance of
      three summers and three winters, to articulate
      and walk—All this is equally wonderful.
And that I grew six feet high, and that I have become
      a man thirty-six years old in the Year 79 of
      America—and that I am here anyhow—are all
      equally wonderful.
And that my Soul embraces you this hour, and we af-
      fect each other without ever seeing each other,
      and never perhaps to see each other, is every bit
      as wonderful.

The Walt Whitman Archive

Monday, May 27, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 88

I'm definitely looking forward to hearing Rudresh up at SFJazz in a couple weeks. I don't expect his trio with Eric Revis and Dave King will be quite as out there as Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss are on this cut, but no doubt they will deliver. Great head-exploding jazz.

"Hey man..."

"... Is this the line for that new ramen place? Sheesh."




Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Lichens Family...

... is a small musical promotion operation in Chile. I have to approve of their choice of name and logo! They also represent the excellent Newen Afrobeat, recommended by Aidan. It's as if Fela learned to sing in Spanish... well, sometimes they adopt his pidgin too...



Alameda

A unique, funky little town– part abandoned naval base, part working-class residential town: People still smoke stogies here and there are lots of corner bars. It also features some very lovely tree-lined avenues with grand Victorians where the rich captains must have lived. Like all good things Bay Area, it is now being invaded by hipsters, which of course has its pros and cons.

The old naval air station has become home to some craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries, among other enterprises. From the St. George distillery, where they concoct their very aromatic gins, you get a fine view of the Port of Oakland and the massive container ships, Trump trade war be damned!


Thursday, May 23, 2019

Ditch the trey

Or at least move the lines back. Steph is great, for sure, but this piece from FiveThirtyEight helps explain why the game has become a little less fun to watch, because the palette of shot selection has become much more limited.




Saturday, May 18, 2019

Reading roundup

I guess it's been a while. Von besser zu lesser...

Sand
Wolfgang Herrndorf
Le Carré meets Nabokov– with a little Kafka and Elmore Leonard thrown into the mix– in this very well-written, darkly funny, and harrowing literary thriller. It's 1972, and our nameless hero has come-to after a blow to the kopf, and finds himself stricken with amnesia and in the thick of some very nasty business, somewhere in North Africa. Amnesia is a plot device best used sparingly if at all, but Herrndorf pulls it off with bravado. A great entertainment, exquisitely translated by Tim Mohr.

A Long Way from Home
Peter Carey
A typical shaggy-dog tale from Carey, following an oddball threesome on an early cross-country auto race through Australia in the 1950s. Carey's parents ran a GM dealership in the same place and time as the novel's starting line, and he seems to know of what he writes. Funny and splendidly written with vivid, likable characters, the story picks up speed through the first two-thirds or so and then suffers a flat tire or two toward the end as it takes a political turn. Still, a good read.

Elizabeth Costello

J.M. Coetzee
Efficient, chilly and beautifully crafted, it is a novel of ideas and writing. The title character stands in for Coetzee, a person you'd only want to know on the printed page.

Sanshirō
Natsume Sōseki
Sōseki's The Gate is one of my favorite novels... a book in which not much really happens. In this wistful coming-of-age story, even less happens, if that is possible. That doesn't mean it's a better book...

Ride the Pink Horse

Dorothy B. Hughes
Hughes wrote noir but never stuck to a formula. This feverish, surrealistic tale– a revenge story featuring a sympathetic but not very bright protagonist in a southwestern town– is not as good as her masterpieces, The Expendable Man and In a Lonely Place, but it holds your attention.

Innocence

Penelope Fitzgerald
A literary rom-com a la Fitzgerald, set in Italy in the 1950s. Gramsci puts in an appearance. A decent read, but not my favorite of hers.

Troubles
J.G. Farrell
A grand old hotel in Ireland crumbles as the English dominion over Ireland crumbles, along with a way of life. Well executed, I think, but it did not keep me awake.

Berlin Game
Len Deighton
Le Carré aside, I don't read much spy fiction, and I'd never read Deighton, considered one of the masters. This is a pretty good yarn with a nice twist, but I won't be running out to read his oeuvre, as I have with Mr. Le Carré.

Semiosis
Sue Burke
On an alien planet, the fungi communicate and compete and are pretty smart. Would you trust them?

Vast 
Linda Nagata
This novel does a pretty good job imagining a version of human existence–if we can still think of them as humans– millions of years in the future. The problem is characterization. And sci fi without good characters is– frankly– bad fi.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“We are and will always be a values-driven company"

"Sasan Goodarzi, the CEO of Intuit, says the company’s efforts to make its free tax-filing software harder to find on Google were part of the software giant’s commitment to educating taxpayers."
In an 11-minute video sent to Intuit employees, Goodarzi said the company was trying to help consumers by steering them to “educational content” instead of TurboTax’s free filing website. 
The company promised the IRS it would offer a free option to tens of millions of taxpayers earning less than $34,000. 
Responding to our reporting, which shows that Intuit, H&R Block and other for-profit tax software companies were steering low-income customers to their paid products, Goodarzi said the company’s marketing practices “had been misinterpreted to signal that we were trying to hide the product we offer in the IRS program. That is inaccurate.” 
“Our choice around search was intended to be [in] the best interest of taxpayers so they were more fully informed about their options and could choose what they felt was best for them,” Goodarzi said in the video, which was marked “Intuit Confidential” and was sent to staff on May 3.
The story and links to ProPublica's ongoing investigation can be found here. One of my favorite installments dug into the HTML code and showed how the customer steering sausage was made. Perhaps Intuit's good intentions were indeed "misinterpreted," but it is noteworthy that since the story appeared Intuit has changed the code on its Free File page.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 87

For Cinco de Mayo I put on Vicente Fernández... quite a crooner, but I must admit I like my Mex seasoned with a little more Tex... Freddy Fender... While we're at it, stir in a little rockabilly, Cajun, and LA punk... mmm... perfect... Los Lobos.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Us

Rave reviews and the precedent of Get Out– which was truly something new under the sun and a great entertainment as well– gave me high hopes for Us. It's worth a watch, but kind of a letdown. Neither as scary nor as funny as expected, it's a pretty conventional horror movie dressed up with some undercooked "meta" themes. The acting is ho-hum, except for Lupita Nyong'o of course, who seems to be enjoying herself and eclipses everything and everyone else anytime she is in the frame.

I'd forgotten about Hands Across America. Good times. Jordan could have made more of that. I also learned that if I ever get a smart speaker ("Ophelia" in the movie, hee hee), it's important to enunciate. The consequence of failing to do so in the movie becomes a kind of a stupid joke, although also an opportunity to beef up the soundtrack and to remind us how good Ice Cube was back in the day.

The greatest mystery in the film is where you can find a waterfront house like that place within driving distance of Santa Cruz. Maybe Seattle? Long day trip.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Free college for all?

Kevin Drum brings a few facts to Elizabeth Warren's proposal to eliminate (public) tuition and most student debt. I think his sympathetic skepticism gets it just about right.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 86

My favorite Go-Betweens song. It reminisces experiences I had no part of, but I am nostalgic for them nonetheless.

Table Mountain viewed from the west

Google Maps' 3-D satellite image shows the inverted valley winding its way across the landscape...


Saturday, April 13, 2019

Table Mountain

There are a few different "Table Mountains" in California, but the one I visited for the first time yesterday is near Jamestown in Tuolumne County. It is a plateau formed by volcanic rock. The top features vernal pools that– at least after a nice wet winter like this one– generate a riot of wildflowers. The Wikipedia entry explains the fascinating geology:
Table Mountain is an inverted valley, an elevated landform which follows the former contours of a river valley above level of the surrounding topography, rather than below it. It was created by lava flows which filled an ancient river bed. The resulting igneous rock resisted erosion better than the materials around it, leaving behind a sinuous rock formation elevated above the surrounding landscape.
I was there for the flowers, but the views are spectacular too– to the west, New Melones reservoir, and to the east, in the distance Yosemite's still snowy peaks and directly below, somewhat less appealingly, the Chicken Ranch casino, the surrounding oaks and grassland glowing green.

The dominant flowers on top are lupines, butter-and-eggs, goldfield, and clover. A very special place this time of year.









Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Interview with Preston McAfee

Interesting throughout. He has served as chief economist at Yahoo and Microsoft. His views on antitrust as it relates to the big tech companies bear special attention as we consider calls by Elizabeth Warren and others to bust up FB, Google, etc. And this...
EF: What was the most surprising part of your transition from being an academic economist to being an economist in a high-tech corporate setting?
McAfee: There's a school of thought that government is inefficient because it can be, while firms, subject to markets, are forced to be efficient. The thing that shocked me the most was how inefficient large firms can be. Sure, there is government waste, but it is commensurate with size and clarity of mission. In one sense, I already knew that large firms could be inefficient — the failure of Kodak and Blockbuster are examples — but it is another thing to live through it.
Hat tip to Tim Taylor.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Tintoretto

I attended and gave a couple presentations at the American Association of Geographers meetings in DC the past few days. It's a huge conference with tremendous breadth of topics and methods. I was most inspired by the poster sessions, where you can wander around and engage a (usually) young scholar in conversation about their work. The undergrad researchers are particularly inspiring.

The cherry blossoms were at their peak, but I didn't find time to join the hoards at the Tidal Basin to gawk at them. Instead, I spent my free afternoon inside, at the National Gallery, with Jacopo Tintoretto. I have been to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, which is justifiably considered Tintoretto's Sistine Chapel. That was probably the greatest artistic experience of my life. The National Gallery exhibition is not the San Rocco, but it provides a broader view of Tintoretto's genius, including his sketches, his impressionistic brushwork, his radical evocation of depth, motion, and narrative, his empathy, and, in particular, his stunning portraits. Some snapshots...






Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The awesomeness of American pop music

Three degrees of hook separation... I feel it in my bones...







Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

"Higher returns on education can’t explain growing wage inequality"

The college wage premium remains very high in the United States, but its role in explaining recent inequality trends is negligible. A very insightful post from EPI's Elise Gould.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Well I'll be darned

I'm not fond of the language of "sin." And David Brooks sees absolutely nothing new here that was not always sitting squarely in front of his face. But it's still quite something to read a defense of reparations coming from his pen.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 85

The album Glitter Wolf by Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom got a rave review on Fresh Air the other day, and I hope it helps her sell some albums and concert tickets. The music is stunningly good, and really fun. Miller's playing and composition bring out the best in Myra Melford, who is clearly having a ball. Her solo on this track, commencing around 3:30, exhibits many of the traits that make her my favorite pianist: elaborate modal runs, thundering Tyner-like chords, Taylor-esque motifs, and her own special sauce. Actually, Miller seems to bring out the best in everyone, including Jenny Scheinman and Ben Goldberg, two musicians I admire but don't always enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Lichens at Coyote Hills

Coyote Hills Regional Park is a special place tucked against the east shore of San Francisco Bay in Fremont. It is rich in habitat– from marshland to rolling hills featuring interesting Franciscan complex outcroppings– and has a long human history, indicated by an old Ohlone village site and shellmound. The lichens growing on the reddish radiolarian chert are the most lovely I know of in the Bay Area...