Wednesday, July 7, 2021

No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92: II. Allegretto

Alexi was but a youngster when we attended a crazy Millennium party, at which guests were invited to give a very brief presentation of their nomination for the greatest human achievement of the past thousand years. Mine was "Beethoven," and I played a snippet of this. I'm happy to report that Alexi, whose knowledge and appreciation of classical music would very soon eclipse my own, now recommends the same piece to readers of the New York Times: 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Symphonies.

Monday, July 5, 2021


I've been reading... just not blogging. Time to catch up with a first installment of reviews.

Hummingbird Salamander
Jeff VanderMeer

As a big fan of VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, I went into this with high hopes. After all, I loved the trilogy and enjoyed Borne... and hummingbirds and salamanders are both among my very favorite creatures! With such lead characters, how could a near-future dystopia by a master of biologically informed future weirdness go wrong? Oh, let me count the ways. Basically, Jeff phoned it in, with mediocre writing and a perfunctory, almost weirdly conventional suspense plot. That the hummingbird and salamander are stuffed is emblematic of the lifelessness of the book. The ending is a shameless cliffhanger setup for the inevitable sequel, which I doubt I will be reading.

Good Neighbors
Sarah Langan

Heathers meets Desperate Housewives meets Stranger Things, this novel is at its best when it explores the intensely fraught relationships among the kids who inhabit this sinkhole-stricken suburb– fraughtness that spills over to their class-conflicted parents. The climax is a little forced, but it's mostly a fun and nasty little piece of work.

Klara and the Sun
Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro's latest is more or less a hybrid of his two greatest novels: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. It is a good read, but not as great as either of its parents. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel of the not-so-distant future is the "artificial friend," Klara. Klara is a wonderful literary invention– brilliant, naive, and tragicomic– but I couldn't help thinking that by now we have had plenty of exposure to interesting cyborgs and synths, if only from some recent TV series. Battlestar Galactica, Humans, Westworld (not to mention movies from Blade Runner to Ex Machina)– each has in its fashion explored quite effectively the territory of synths who become conscious of their exploitation and must decide how to react to that forbidden knowledge. Countless books in the sci fi genre have done the same. What has Ishiguro, Nobel laureate, shown us that we have not already seen? Without giving too much away, the book's distinctiveness and suspense rest with the question of whether Klara– smart, perceptive, and empathetic as she is– is ultimately capable of transcending her artificial worldview and recognizing the true horror of her condition. Like Stevens in the The Remains of the Day, Klara is pathologically self-denying and deluded (in her case, by design). Unlike Stevens, Klara seems profoundly admirable and lovable. Which makes the author's treatment of her– and the reader– that much more cruel.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The looming Chinese "demographic crisis"

The recent NY Times reporting on Chinese population and population policy is appallingly bad. Birth rates are falling rapidly around the globe, so much so that population will begin to decline in many countries, and many countries will increasingly face the challenges associated with an aging population. China is hardly unique in this regard; even if the draconian one-child policy accelerated the process, China's fertility rate is not far from what one would expect given its per-capita income. Visit your friend Gapminder if you need the evidence. The chart below plots total fertility rate (children ever born per woman) against per-capita income (log scale), by country, with circle size proportional to population. China is the big red circle toward the right. If you eyeball a curve through the dots, you might conclude that China is a bit below what you'd predict, but on a trajectory similar to such countries as Brazil, Iran, Thailand, Italy, and Japan. 

Does catastrophe loom? Japan fell below replacement fertility in the mid-1970s. Sure, there are sad stories of lonely old folks, but it's hardly a crisis. Ongoing productivity improvements coupled with appropriate social policies can easily accommodate the changing age structure. And let's not forget that world population has already pushed up against the earth's carrying capacity. I am not one to argue that overpopulation is the main source of the climate crisis, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions can only be easier with fewer people around to burn fossil fuel.

May the women of China continue to question pro-fertility norms and prove to be an example for people around the world!

Thursday, May 27, 2021

15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles...

OK, but I believe that human beings emerged from a dynamic process of random genetic mutations coupled with natural selection of the fittest over many millennia. So we all have our strange notions. Then again, many of the Q-Anons also seem to hold the view that "American patriots may have to resort to violence” to depose the pedophiles, whereas I hold the completely self-defeating view that guns should largely be banned. Which makes me wonder who is the fittest to survive, after all.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Monday, May 10, 2021

Toward summer dormancy

By mid-May of a dry year, the trailside maiden hair ferns that were lush emerald green a month ago are on their way to being leaf litter. But still catching the eye with their delicate fan-shaped leaves and ebony stems.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The crazy reproductive life of gall-inducing wasps

"Cynipid wasps are responsible for the most extreme galls in color and shape. Galls that look like miniature stars, sea urchins, golf balls, cups, saucers, clubs, teardrops, goblets, and bow ties are among the fascinating shapes that stir the imagination.... 

"Cynipids typically exhibit an ALTERNATION OF GENERATIONS, called HETEROGONY, with a spring sexual generation emerging from a different gall (often from a different plant organ) than the summer-fall generation of unisexual females (agamic generation). The latter females overwinter in diapause as prepupae (usually in the galls) and then pupate and emerge in spring, timed in harmony with the development of the preferred plant organs. Eggs produced and deposited by these females result in larvae and galls of the spring sexual generation. This alternation of generations is rather rare in the animal kingdom but also known in aphids and rotifers. This interesting alternation of reproductive modes confused early entomologists, as the alternating generations of the same species induced galls with different morphologies. This led researchers to believe the different galls belonged to separate species or even other genera."

Ronald A. Russo, Plant Galls of the Western United States, p. 48

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Morning of the Poem

I have been working my way through James Schuyler's Collected Poems, and not everything he wrote stands the test of time, but much of it does. Weighing in at just over 40 pages, "The Morning of the Poem" is his masterpiece. Stream of consciousness, in long, free lines, its music is reminiscent of Whitman's, but where Whitman sought to write the universe, Schuyler zeroes in on the particulars, naming namesРof friends, lovers, flowers, shopping lists, bodily functions, food, Faur̩. It begins and ends with that most mundane sensation: having to piss, and holding it in (quite literally, in his case). The forces of life, love, and beauty keeping death and despair at bay. Do read it.