Category Archives: Books

Best of 2015

Continuing the tradition, here are a few notes on some of what I liked best in the nearly ended year of 2015.

Albums:
Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Joanna Newsom – Divers
Eternal Tapestry – Wild Strawberries
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Grimes – Art Angels
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Laura Marling – Short Movie
Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Live Music:
Carmina Burana conducted by Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony
Vijay Iyer Trio @ Winningstad Theater, Feb 20, 2015
Marc Ribot (solo) @ Marylhurst University, Lake Oswego – May 8, 2015
Kamasi Washington & band @ Pickathon, July 31, 2015
Vieux Farka Toure @ Doug Fir Lounge, Oct 7. 2015
Wayne Shorter Quartet @ Revolution Hall, Oct 13, 2015
Luna @ Aladdin Theater, Nov 6, 2015
Typhoon 10th Anniversary @ Revolution Hall, Dec 20, 2015

Books:
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant – Roz Chast
Words Without Music – Philip Glass
Digital Gold – Nathaniel Popper
Misbehaving – Richard H. Thaler
Being Mortal – Atul Gawande
Barbarian Days – William Finnegan
Hold Still – Sally Mann
(as it happens, while I read plenty of fiction as well, nothing quite stood out in my mind as did the above memoirs and non-fiction)(One good find, however, was Eric Ambler’s late 1930’s spy/thrillers)

I’m sure I’ve left some good things out, and there’s plenty more that I just haven’t come across yet.

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Springsteen, Landau and Weinberg

I think Tyler Cowen first identified for me my problem with much of the latter day Bruce Springsteen catalog – “monotonous rhythm section” (see this blog post). Along these lines, I found a couple passages from Clinton Heylin‘s book “E Street Shuffle” to be especially on target.

First on page 114, discussing the band and period of touring just after Born To Run album came out. The ‘he’ here is Bruce.

He wanted a drummer who imposed a beat, and left it at that. When he told a court transcriber in 1976 that Landau “taught my drummer … how to play drums in a rock band,” he meant it as a compliment. However, this more metronomic style of playing failed to complement much of the material on which a prodigious live reputation had been forged. In other words, this was not the band Landau recently proclaimed to be “the future of rock ‘n’ roll,” making any ongoing promotional use of the that review almost smack of misrepresentation.

Jon Landau was the critic who wrote the ‘future’ line, and he became Bruce’s manager and confidante. He seems to push things in a very orthodox rock direction, and Heylin zeroes in on this point on page 84.

Landau’s interest had been piqued by the second album and, like Ed Ward, he was curious how they sounded live. If Landau’s local review of The Wild, the Innocent, posted in the window of Charlie’s Place, was essentially positive, he thought Lopez’s drumming “a weak spot,” and found the recording to be “a mite thin or trebly-sounding, especially when the band moves into the breaks.” When Springsteen introduced Landau to his producer inside, Appel rightly called him out, “So you don’t like the album’s production, huh!” Coming from the man who had gutted the most abrasive band to ever come out of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom (Landau produced the MC5’s weak second album, Back in the USA), Landau’s comments suggested an expertise he simply did not have.

From this account, it seems clear that Jon Landau pushed toward the metronome drumming that Max Weinberg quickly mastered. And I guess that helps explain why I still prefer Bruce’s first couple albums over all the rest. Which is not to say that Bruce and the E Street Band don’t put on a great show.

Duchamp on change

Last time I was in San Francisco, I paid a ritual visit to City Lights bookstore, where I am usually able to find something I’ve not seen before.  On this occasion it was a book titled “Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance” by Herbert Molderings (2010).  This short work focuses on a single work by Marcel Duchamp, “3 Standard Stoppages” which was initially created in 1913 but not really exhibited until 1936, and by that time he had changed the format of the initial work considerably.  The basic idea of it is that he took a string one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter, and captured the random curve formed when it landed.

While the book takes a variety of interesting tangents and alleys in describing the work, and Duchamp’s various comments about the work, I particularly liked this simple quote from Duchamp:

“Change and life are synonymous. We must realize this and accept it.  Change is what makes life interesting.  There is no progress, change is all we know.” (p. 114)

And here’s one more:

“My work has been an attempt to show that reason is less fruitful than we think. We think we find solutions through this function of rational thought but we do not. The mind is much freer than this type of thought would indicate.”

An interesting book that challenges many opinions of what Duchamp was up to.

Climatopolis – Matthew Kahn (2010)

Climatopolis is a recent book by Matthew Kahn, an economist and ‘green’ thinker, focusing on the effects of climate change on cities (subtitle = How our cities will thrive in the hotter future).  It’s a fairly short and easy read, and has some interesting findings and ideas, taking some level of climate change as a given and suggesting that market forces will provide mechanisms of adaptation as city amenities (like weather and flood risk) change over time – leading people to move around as they see fit.

I find various passages in the book to be annoyingly glib however.  Too often Kahn simply parrots free-market ideas without much consideration or subtlety.  Here are a couple examples.  Page 27, he says that high taxes “encourages people to work less and take more leisure” – well, perhaps, for some portion of the ‘people’ who find that the marginal work effort is not worth the marginal gain, but most people have pretty fixed expenses and will probably work just as much if not more.  Page 45, at the end of a chapter on a variety of responses to city disasters, he writes “One theme that emerges from this chapter is that government policies can significantly increase the degree of climate -related risks that a population faces” – yet one of the sections in the chapter talks about the use of better building codes to increase the quality of buildings and reduce potential damages…  so obviously bad policies can make things worse and good policies can make things better – it’s not a one way street!

As noted on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there is also a rather casual treatment of past instances of mass violence and death, citing statistics that show that both the A-bombed cities of Japan and Vietnam got back fairly quickly to their longer-term growth rates.  Not much comfort for those in the midst of the onslaught.  And likewise for those caught in climate-change disasters, it’s not going to make the going any easier to realize that probably all will be back to normal in 15-20 years (assuming that’s true).

Kahn includes in the book some closer looks at issue that Los Angeles, New York and the new Chinese cities will be facing, and it is worth a read just to stir one’s thoughts on the future (with a critical eye open).

Here’s Matthew Kahn’s blog on Environmental and Urban Economics.

A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge (1999)

I normally don’t read too much science fiction, but found out about this one from Brad DeLong’s blog and decided to give it a go.  A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge is quite a space saga (774 pages paperback), with two competing human cultures encountering an alien race out in the depths of space.  There was a lot that I liked about it; many interesting characters, compelling situation and plot, interesting ideas about technology and psychology.  The only real drawback was that I found things a little meandering for perhaps the 2nd quarter of the book.  But the finish is pretty rip-roaring.

Here’s a page on the publisher’s site discussing more aspects of the book – there are spoilers so don’t read too far if you want surprises.

Tom McCarthy, Tintin

First learned of Tom McCarthy when I saw copies of his new novel, C, in the shops a couple months back.  The book got some interesting reviews, and made me want to learn a bit more about his work.  First I read his novel Remainder from 2005, and then found his litcrit book “Tintin and the Secret of Literature”.  I realized that I somehow had never read any Tintin books, written and drawn by the Belgian Herge between the 1930s and the 1970s (23 ‘adventures’ in all), so I figured it was about time to read a few.

McCarthy’s book is a close reading of the series, which involves the never-aging boy reporter Tintin, his white terrier Snowy, a blustery older sea captain, two bumbling ‘twin’ policemen, and sometimes the opera singer Castafiore.  When you look closely, as McCarthy does, it is all a bit mysterious and complicated!

Here’s McCarthy on his top 10 European modernists.  If you are intrigued, there’s lots more to investigate.

 

Stories of Your Life – Ted Chiang (2002)

I know I’m arriving very late at the party on this one, but only recently discovered Ted Chiang, a celebrated science fiction short story writer who’s been publishing since the early 1990s. His collection “Stories of Your Life” gathered up his work as of 2002, and it’s pretty great stuff.

I think my favorite was “Story of Your Life” which concerns attempts to establish communications with an alien race. The main idea is that there can be completely different ways of looking at the universe, and these viewpoints could result in very different linguistic approaches (as well as different ways of behaving). This makes the story sound very abstract, and while I suppose in some ways it is, it’s also very readable and easy to approach (as are just about all the stories).

Ideas to consider…

I’m reading The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, subtitled ‘How Prosperity Evolves’.  On page 109 I came across a few lines that describe what I also find to be an interesting paradox:

Politically, as Brink Lindsay has diagnosed, the coincidence of wealth with toleration has led to the bizarre paradox of a conservative movement that embraces economic change but hates its social consequences and a liberal movement that loves the social consequences but hates the economic source from which they came. ‘One side denounce capitalism but gobbled up its fruits; the other side cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them.’

The reference is to Brink Lindsay’s 2007 book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.

Ridley is in essence trying to convince both sides to see the bright side.

The Big Short – Michael Lewis (2010)

I first read Michael Lewis back in the 80s with Liar’s Poker, where he covered the initial bond trading explosion.  His new book, The Big Short, is back in the same territory, covering the subprime mortgage blowup in 2006-2008, and it’s a very readable story centering on a handful of traders who got the idea early that they should start betting against this market.  If only to have a quick reference for later, I want to jot down a few notes on the various trading vehicles.

First off, note that any cash stream can essentially be thought of like a bond.  A mortgage is a cash stream from the borrower to the lender.  The risk on a particular mortgage is that the borrowers won’t be able to re-pay, but since the penalty for not paying will be to lose the house, most borrowers with some skin in the game will try hard to re-pay.  Back in the 80s they came up with the idea of bundling mortgages together, and making bonds out of them, called collateralized debt obligation (CDO).  That worked OK for awhile, but in the 2000’s real estate boom, in part to keep the party going, we saw the massive increase of subprime loans (where there was little to no downpayment, and perhaps no income verification either).

But it wasn’t until about 2005 that some smart traders decided they needed a vehicle to bet against mortgage bonds, and in particular mortgage bonds on subprime mortgages.  Now it’s apparently very hard to short a bond, but bankers were able to come up with the next best thing, which was called the credit default swap (CDS).  The CDS is like an insurance policy on a mortgage bond – to hold a CDS you pay a yearly insurance premium (usually a percent or two of the amount of the bond) to the issuer, and if the underlying mortgage bond defaults (because individual loans in the bond are not being repaid), then the issuer pays out to cover the losses.  Note that the issuer of the CDS is potentially on the hook for the entire value of the underlying bond.

Now we can see that in fact one can look at the CDS as a cash stream of insurance premium payments, and since the chance of a pay out is the same as the chance that the underlying bond will default, it means that you can create a CDO made out of CDS policies (called a synthetic CDO). And if your assumption was that the underlying mortgages would always be repaid since real estate always goes up, then you’d be presumably happy to buy synthetic CDOs as well as regular CDOs, seeing them as equally risk-free.

The other important factor here is that as long as you can find an issuer, anyone can buy a CDS.  Thus the volume of trading of these things was not limited to the number of home loans being made!  For awhile AIG was a big issuer of CDS’s, but after awhile they saw they might run into trouble with them, and others stepped in. Also note that most purchases of these things were brokered by the big banks, and they liked the fact that there was not a transparent market – i.e. they could charge a nice profit for being the middleman.  They also, of course, had some of their own money in these holdings.

So, The Big Short tells the story of some investors who bought CDS’s, and what happened next.  Funny enough, while they were convinced that the underlying mortgage bonds would go bad, several of them were very worried that they would not be paid off, because they could see that the issuers would be losing a lot of money.  Thus typically they did not hold the CDS’s until the end, but sold them at a big profit to desperate buyers who had the underlying bonds and saw that they were in big trouble.

This books gives me some idea of why the banks are so opposed to regulations, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to listen to them!

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

This morning I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel Middlesex, and I’d say it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years.  Just a pleasure to read a chapter at a time, no rush.  It’s pretty long at 530 pages hardcover, and is a great family epic as told by a hermaphrodite character born in 1960 who reaches a crisis point at age 14.  But much of the book is about the character’s grandparents and parents and their life in Detroit.  Highly recommended!

Here’s a bit from a Powell’s interview done in 2002 with Eugenides:

At the same time, it’s a family story and more of an epic. I needed the third-person. I tried to give a sense that Cal, in writing his story, is perhaps inventing his past as much as recalling it. He might make claims that he has a genetic memory or that he knows things, but there are a lot of tip-offs to the reader that he’s making it up. He needed to tell the whole story to explain his incredible life to himself. He knew a lot about his grandparents — and perhaps he feels he’s been endowed with abilities to go into people’s heads who are long dead — but, to a certain extent, he’s making it up. It took me a long time to let myself do that.