Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the dismal science

finally watched a fantastic movie the other day: inside job, the oscar-winning best documentary of 2010, about the financial system crash that led to our recent great recession.

let's face it, most of the time beating up on economics or economists - even when i do it - feels a bit like kicking some poor old guy collapsed on the street. it's too damn easy, right? there are so many things wrong with economics and with the way it's used.

but economics survives as a discipline in large part because it is, ultimately, really freaking useful. not just the supply and demand, invisible hand type of things. these are just some applications of economic thought that, as they were being developed, were shaped by the personalities and the times of the people who developed them. sometimes these ideas stand the test of time, sometimes they don't. but that's not what economics is.

at it's very core, economics is a framework for understanding decision making, that works best on an individual level. and decision making is all about incentives. that's what was so great about the movie inside job. although in many ways the movie spent a fair bit of time bashing economists - particularly academic economists - they (we?) were redeemed by the presence of a few who never forgot what the discipline is all about: incentives.

markets are not systems that inherently drive themselves towards stability - something that people often forget. it's part of the base theory of economics that, over time, actors acting in their own interest will produce some outcomes that are stable - in the sense that, say, supply and demand will intersect at an appropriate price. but that is only if the incentives are correct and the actors are bit players. in the late 2000s, while most analysts and academics were all blinded by their own bed-sharing interests, a few clear-headed people looked at the system in place and could see where it was headed. could see that the rhetoric defending derivatives markets and other shady, unregulated financial services industry concepts was flawed.

for example, in 2005, raghuram rajan, the chief economist for IMF at the time, delivered a paper that clearly predicted that the crash would happen. he could see that the short-term incentives at play for the agents controlling the system were such that a crash was inevitable - and that, in fact, there was nothing that would stop it from happening.

or nouriel roubini, an economics professor who predicted a crisis as early as 2006, and was disparagingly referred to as 'Dr. Doom' for it. 

or charles morris, who delivered a book about an impending crisis to his publisher in late 2007. published in 2008, the trillion dollar meltdown erred only in underestimating the final cost we'd bear thanks to the financial market shenanigans then occurring.

anyway. a long time ago i had a post in mind bashing micro-economics to follow my earlier macro-economics bashing. it was one of those posts that formed in my head in the middle of the night and was dazzlingly clear and brilliant then that faded away come morning, but nonetheless, it's been sort of sitting on the back burner since then. i've been feeling very grouchy for the past two years about economics - seeing all that was wrong in it, seeing all that is flawed in the fundamentals of it.

oddly enough, watching inside job re-energized me slightly. because, while economics gave us the justification for actions that completely fucked a previously stable system, it also gave us - well, gave some people, anyway - the tools to be able to clearly see where we were headed. it's a powerful field, if we just remember to remove ourselves and our own incentives from our analysis of it. easier said than done, i realize that, but essential, if we want to recapture what's good about economics from what's dismal.

in other news, it would appear that i am the deloach distinguished graduate fellow in economics this coming year. which means, yep, they failed to kick me out of the program, again. oh well. they will surely wise up soon enough and send me packing. until then, it's good to head into the new year feeling slightly warmer towards my chosen field of study.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

and so goes twenty years...

i just got back from my 20-year high school reunion.

what an adventure.

i was a bit nervous - and worried - i admit it. i've changed somewhat, in what people see. i'm not nearly as skinny as i used to be, for starters. i was worried that people wouldn't recognize me, and i'd see it in their eyes as they searched for my name: "...(ohmygod-she's gained so much weight-who was she when she was thin)...oh hi, yes, of course!" but that didn't happen. or at least, not that i noticed. (i did, of course, go straight to bed and dream that it happened, that i showed up in my old black leather motorcycle jacket that i used to stomp around the halls in and someone grabbed my arm, saying 'boy, you've filled out, haven't you?' seriously, what a waste of a perfectly good dream-time, right?)

but at the reunion, one of the first conversations i had with old friends - and i mean OLD friends, like this was a group of people that i went to kindergarten with and went on family vacations with and went to junior high dances with and skipped class with in high school and saw again on our kids' first day of kindergarten - was somehow sort of telling.

"we're all sort of the same, you know?" said one friend.

i said, "you mean, deep down inside, we all have the same dreams and goals as each other?"

the group around the table laughed. "no," said the speaker, "i mean we're all the same, at the core, as we were back then."

the beauty of that few hours, for me, is that both interpretations of that were true. we were all the same - in our deepest core - as we once were. which means that all that striving and trying during those angst-filled years was for naught - and that we are nothing more or less than we always have been, for better or for worse.

but also, the other - at the end of the day, we are all the same. we were all there laughing together and remembering things and talking about struggles with kids and some of us divorced and some of us never married and some with many kids and some with no kids but there was a piece of us that was all the same - this piece that is the product of our place, our time, ourselves and each other - a mysterious alchemy of personality and environment that affected us all.

when i got home today, i dug out my senior yearbook. in one section we had been asked the standard sort of cheesy yearbook sound-bite question: where will you be in five years? and i didn't really have to look up my answer - i remember its general gist quite clearly - but i did anyway, and was struck for the first time just how still completely true it still was (note in particular the misuse of the word "hopefully"):

"MINDY CRANDALL: 'Hopefully I will be driving around the U.S. looking at everything and listening to everyone.' "

well, for fuck's sake. that's just who i am. i have no real higher goal, no loftier aspirations now, no matter what i dabbled with or proclaimed over the past 20 years. i am who i am, and always have been, no matter what shell i'm wrapped in, no matter where i am or what i'm doing, i'm still the same person that these people knew - and somewhat grudgingly accepted - all those years ago.

and that, my friends, is a pretty fucking sweet feeling. it is, in fact, what going home is all about.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

so, was it good for you?

well. it's july 31st. which means i've sort of survived my post-a-day-july. i say sort of survived, not conquered, because i certainly faltered. there were at least two, maybe three, days in which i failed to post, including yesterday! oh, to flail and falter at the very end of the race!

still, it was a good exercise. what did i learn?

- if i want to write more frequently, i've got to somehow let go of the need to write only complete, well-researched and thought out entire essays. that's essay writing, not blogging. all the 'tips' i read of blogging say the same thing: keep it short. which is very, very hard for me to do. so, trying to post every day has forced me, more often that not, to shorten the damn thing up, just because i don't have any choice.

- it's perfectly OK to post something not complete, not 100% perfect. that's the beauty of posting daily: necessity forces one to occasionally post crap. and you know what? the world keeps on freaking turning. this is a good lesson for those of us who don't want to do anything not perfect. or at least: nothing not completely vetted, proofread, and double or triple checked.

- if you  want to do something, just freaking do it. this is something i've learned before, and apparently i had to learn it again. back in the day, when i wanted to be an artist, i somehow knew that to draw i just had to draw - i had to draw every day, at every opportune moment. the same is really true for writing, although it's easy to overlook. if i want to write more, i just have to...write. more. that's it. just write, every day. doesn't matter what it's about, really - the focus should be on the activity, not necessarily the output.

so, was it good for me? yes, i think it was. it did get me out of my rut, and it did force me to expand myself a little bit; to post things that i wouldn't normally post. to force myself to write, even if normally i would have made excuses not to do it.

still, i do look forward to the upcoming months, where the expiration of post-a-day-july will mean that i don't have to post. i still plan to write every day, but i hope to spare folks the crap postings that such an arbitrary goal forces.

oh, what else did i learn? this whole facebook networked-blog things is a blessing and a curse. i think there's lots of people who read, but few comment. the funny thing about writing a blog is that you sort of live for comments, no matter WHAT they are. so, readers, don't be afraid to comment! otherwise, i don't know you're reading. and that's what really keeps me going, apart from random self-imposed goals.

and, whew. july is over. thanks, y'all. see you next month...sometime.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


it's true, i started this post an entire 18 months ago. in all honesty i couldn't change the date. so i'll just finish it off - and finally post it, for better or for worse.

it's january first, 2010. the first day of a new year, a new decade. and i'm sick, sick, sick right through and through. homesick.

which sounds ludicrous when you realize that i'm in my home state, living in a town i've lived in for something like 9 of the last 13 years, in a similar environment to what i'm used to, and only 70 miles from my actual home town. how can i be overwhelmed with homesickness, this close to home? how can the very marrow of my bones long for the salt air, the drops of rain falling through the conifer needles, the rush of coastal creeks riding high on winter rains?

i have a confession to make. i want to go home. i'm like a whiny child, looking for their mother!

and yet, to admit this - to acknowledge it - is a huge step for me. i want to go there. it's like i've been circling around it, avoiding it, for the past 18 years. but wanting to go home, i now realize, does not mean that i'm afraid of failure. it does not mean taking the easy way out. in fact, it might just be the hardest thing i could do.

because it's easy to be anonymous. it's easy not to have to invest in people you meet and places you see. it's easy to be the stranger.

that's the great secret to moving around all the time, i think - that it's so easy to be the stranger. if you don't mind being alone, then being the new person in town simply means not having any obligations, not having any ties, not having a whole lot of responsibility.

what's hard? facing who you were before, whether you liked it or not. facing people's impressions of you that they carved decades ago, and being strong enough to tell them how you've changed and how you want to be seen. working to change, for the better, an imperfect but beloved place rather than searching for a perfect but unknown one.

for me, leaving is easy. going home - that's hard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"the ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes, everything else - is pure theory."

we were fortunate enough to live in germany in 2006, when they hosted the men's world cup.

the first time germany won, i admit, i had already gone to bed. we lived on the middle floor of an old building, right on a very busy street, in a small, unknown town. suddenly, there was noise everywhere. yells and cars honking. i ran out to the front windows - long picture windows that overlooked the street - and the street was flooded with cars, cars with people hanging all over them, all of them waving flags, cheering, blowing horns, celebrating.

you might remember the 2006 world cup - or maybe not. regardless, germany made a little bit of a cinderella run deep into the tournament that no one was expecting. except they weren't a cinderella team at all, because they are one of the top most successful national football teams in FIFA. but that year, at least, no one expected them to do very well - not even the most loyal german.  in fact in 2006, their FIFA ranking was an abysmal 22nd.

they won their group. they won their game in the round of 16. they won in the quarter-finals, defeating no less an opponent than argentina. and these were the games when, post-match, the entire country went nuts. we were coming back from the train station one day in a cab, carrying friends who had just arrived for a visit, when suddenly everything in town - including our taxi - came to a screeching halt. people began mobbing the streets, cars honking, beer bottles in hands everywhere, songs and chants ringing. "what happened?" and our friends, completely bewildered.

"germany must have won again", i said, grinning. you have to enjoy it at that point in time, because you're not going to get anywhere very fast.

sometime in there i realized that there's no comparison to any event in the united states. there is no one sporting event, no one team, that galvanizes the entire country behind it. the most popular sports in the US - [american] football, basketball, and baseball - are sports where the pinnacle of the sport is, in fact, basically an intra-national competition (for the most part - claims of world champions notwithstanding). loyalties are at the state or region or, occasionally, sub-state level. if it's not your state, you may not even care about the outcome, unless there's some super villain (yankees or lakers, say) to root against.

the olympics are a time for rallying behind the american team to some extent - but there are so many events and so many athletes that there's not really one thing to follow.

there's no one sport - the most popular sport - where the title win is at the national level.

my friends and i went to frankfurt for later games in the series. because the country is so soccer crazed, and the tickets were so hard to get, fan viewing sites had been set up all over the country. the nearest one to us was a giant screen - bigger than anything i've ever seen - plopped right in the middle of the Main river. people lined both banks, drinking, partying, laughing, cheering.

in frankfurt, the town was turned out to welcome internationals from all over the world. even ghana, who also made a surprise run in the tournament, advancing out of the group round with a victory over the hapless united states, was represented by fans on the street.

in germany, everything else is theory. in the united states, we're still just some kind of amateur sports fans.

and p.s.: why on god's green earth, for all our stubborn continued usage of the word soccer, did we retain the name fussball when referring to a plastic table game played in bars?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

on being lost

my son is looking for his dinosaurs
all twenty-four of the one-inch figures
bought two years and 3000 miles ago.

he still remembers, and says to
me: there used to be two like this,
where is the other one?

oh, i say, we always seem to lose track
of these small things, checking under
the bed, as if it might possibly be so easy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

it all comes from somewhere

"The romantic movement gave the forests a new meaning for some people, and this admiration for what had once been rejected was bolstered by yet another change of attitude, which can best be called the ‘patriotic’. After the War of Independence the question was continually asked, ‘What was it in this new country that was distinctively American?’ The continent, with its short history and ill-formed traditions, could not produce anything like the rich cultural heritage and the antiquities of Europe. One thing that America had, however, was vast areas of untouched land – forest, prairie, and mountain – and these seemingly unending wild areas were perceived by nineteenth-century naturalists, poets, writers and artists as something uniquely American and something about which to be proud. Chateaubriand touched upon this feeling when he said, ‘There is nothing old in America excepting the woods…they are certainly the equivalent for monuments and ancestors’."

From Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography, By Michael Williams. 1989.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

rain, rain, go away

last night, at midnight, i woke up to a strange sound.

i thought my partner had turned the fan on. it was a white-type noise, noticeable in its volume, consistent in its tone.

it wasn't the fan. it was...solid and steady rain. pouring rain.

i'm sure it kills folks from other states when oregonians complain about rain. because, after all, isn't it the defining characteristic of oregon, and our existence?

well, yes. to large extent. but not - absolutely not - in july.

once we hit july 5th, we expect - and have earned - our two-plus beautiful, wonderful, dry months. the months that suck in newcomers. the months where, playing at the playground, you hear tourists talking to each other: "it's lovely here. what are the home prices like?"

and you chuckle to yourself, knowing another oregon summer has claimed another sucker.

the thing is, it's so damn beautiful here in july, august, and part of september, that it makes you forget all the pain and suffering of the past 9 months. all the grey skies. all the dreary drizzle. all the mud and clogged gutters and interminable, insufferable rain.

but, our ability to make it through the fall/winter/spring relies on these two to three months of absolutely dry, sunny, warm, breezy, absolutely perfect summer weather.

right now, i don't care that it was sunny in december. or whenever it was unseasonably sunny. because it was cold then, and i couldn't enjoy it. i don't care about sun in winter. i wait for, long for, count on, my two months of sun, warmth, and perfect weather - no humidity, no bugs, no sweat - to get me through.

weeks of sun in december doesn't count, for us. rain in july? just absolutely wrong. so that's when you'll hear oregonians - even "true" oregonians, like me, who love the winter rain - complain about rain.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

more from the oregon country fair

because the country fair is best seen, not pontificated about, i can't resist posting more pictures from it.

although these ones aren't mine - they were taken by a very talented young photographer, hannah mcintosh.

enjoy these views of the fair!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

of regional rivalry and...utility-kilts

something about being at the country fair, and thinking about soccer, has me thinking that possibly one could map out the PNW based on sales of utilikilts.

i mean, really. are there any other states where they are so prevalent?

there have been a great series of posts lately, from all corners, about the fantastic portland vs. seattle and, by extension, timbers vs. sounders rivalry.

what i find so intriguing about this series is the attempted regionalism that people are calling on. as it says in a recent WSJ article, part of the difficulty of the sounders - timbers rivalry is "how to work up a healthy hatred for fans who, in so many ways, look and think exactly alike."

portland and seattle - clearly the anchors of the pacific northwest. similar climate, similar history, similar economy. so, how do residents of these two lynchpin cities of the US PNW differentiate themselves?

from the wall street journal:

Until recently, Seattleites had plenty of reasons to feel superior: A diet that includes mushrooms and berries foraged from pristine local forests, a commitment to fixed-gear bicycles, fair-trade coffee, facial hair and the best attendance of any city with a Major League Soccer team in the country by a landslide.

[But] In Portland, stadium vendors hawk barbecued-tofu sandwiches, spinach salads and chocolate-covered bacon, putting Seattle's relatively mundane offerings, like veggie dogs, gourmet donuts and cappuccinos, to shame.

While Seattle's scarf-wielding supporters may look edgy compared to the baseball fans across the street at Safeco Field, Portland fans boast at least as many piercings, tattoos and mohawks. In the merchandise line at a Timbers game, Bryan Dean, a 40-year-old industrial designer with a tall blond mohawk was sporting a kilt. He said kilts are "considered quite masculine" in Scotland and Ireland and evoke Portland's identity: "underdogs and kinda blue collar, but also fringe, artistic."

Seattle fans like to poke fun at small differences, like Portland's higher unemployment rate and its relative lack of big companies. "Portland fans are icky, they're the trailer trash of the Pacific Northwest," said Kevin Scudder, a 48-year-old company owner relaxing in the stands. "We have a lot more money up here…though they do have a beautiful coastline."

Portland fans insult Seattle supporters by calling them "customers" instead of fans, and pick on everything from their love of boating to their diversity of political views. "In Seattle they have Republicans," said Heather Mathews, a graduate student at Lewis and Clark, who imagines Seattle fans spend most of their free time "sailing around in their sailboats."

from a sports illustrated vault article: 

Last week's showdown, which ended in a 1--1 tie, was just the latest evidence that the Cascadia region has become the hotbed of Major League Soccer. Two years after the Sounders joined the league, their average attendance at week's end (36,350) was far and away the highest in MLS—which has a leaguewide average of 17,150—and would have ranked ninth in the English Premier League, sixth in Spain's La Liga, second in France's Ligue 1 and fourth in Italy's Serie A. In Portland the expansion Timbers are the new darlings of MLS, winning their first four home games while boasting regular sellouts at Jeld-Wen Field (capacity: 18,627), as well as a chain saw--wielding human mascot who saws a slab off a giant log for every Portland goal and clean sheet.

"And a lot of the malice goes beyond soccer," added Garrett Dittfurth, 32, an analyst at a public relations firm. "Seattle was like the pinnacle of American coolness in the '90s, right? Now things have changed a little bit if you want to talk about creativity, arts and music."

"Then there's that big-city mentality they have in Seattle, and down here we're like, You've gotta be kidding me," added Dittfurth. "They have a lot more of an East Coast mentality than we do, and that kind of pervades on the field. You feel that air of superiority."

and finally, from grantland:

I was on my way to the game, standing on line in a convenience store, waiting to be rung up. The man on line in front of me was delivering a monologue, somewhat directed at the cashier but really to anyone within earshot, about reproductive rights and health education in various Third World countries. In New York, this guy would have been told to go reproduce with himself and get out of line. What happened here? As the man finished his speech the cashier nodded thoughtfully and said, "Man, I've got a documentary you have got to see."

Yeah, I was in Portland.

And that is going to be the last joke I make about the city's politics, fashions, food, or proclivity for fixed gear bikes. Let he who does not live within walking distance from several restaurants serving bacon-wrapped trout toss the first stone at PDX's hipster/hippie atmosphere.

I don't know what's funnier, that two people mention fixed-gear bixes as motifs of a unique identity - yet one is in reference to seattle, one in reference to portland - or that someone mentions a utilikilt-clad portland soccer fan stating that they are emblematic of portland, when in fact they are made in...


Tuesday, July 12, 2011


well, dear readers, i already failed in my goal.

i truthfully thought i'd get much, much closer to the end of a-post-a-day-july before finally breaking down.

but no! july 11 fail. not even two weeks. not even halfway through. that's gotta be some kind of record, even for me.

my weak-ass alibi? my dear friends were in town. we went out to dinner and then sometime like at 12:35 a.m. as i was pouring us all more wine and we were shooting the shit i looked at the clock and realized i'm not going to get my 7/11/11 post in.

but really, that's just an excuse. it was all about lack of prior prioritization and preparation. if i had planned ahead a little bit, if i had gotten myself organized, it wouldn't have happened.

i'm going to do my best not to fall off the wagon completely here, but get back on track for the rest of the month.

while i'm whining, there's approximately four people i know moving away from the state this month alone. and people whose blogs i've been following for a long time calling it quits, or changing formats, just when i don't even have this one figured out, they are off and running to something new and better.

that's quite enough leaving me behind for one month, thank you very much.

alright. pardon the digression. i'll be back on track tomorrow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

oregon, my oregon!

is there anything more western oregon than the country fair?

and i mean that in the complete sense. i don't just mean: oh, look at the hippies! i mean is anything more completely and truly western oregon than the country fair?

sure, there's hippies. the last of the few and the proud, leathery skin, wrinkles, grey hair - they are there, there's no doubt.

but there's also sorority girls in bikinis. little yuppie kids with berets and DIY, portlandia-type tattooed parents. middle-aged women with no bras and/or shirts at all. rubber-necking professors. wranglers and cowboy hats. wagons festooned with UO paraphernalia. punks and goths and frat boys and suburban wives.

yet the whole thing is so damn orderly. it's so...oregon. it's no burning man. it's no rainbow gathering. it's clearly based in a set place, it's all about the cash money exchanging hands, it's covered with volunteers. they guide your car in narrow rows and paths to an exact parking spot. everything is laid out and marked - from where your silverware goes to be washed and reused to your food scraps (for compost), glass, and other things. and yet, not completely orderly. it's not draconian state trooper style. it's a...flexible orderliness. as we were leaving, a giant SUV was sneaking in to park in an area designated for a specific group. "aw, just for five minutes", the driver wheedled the parking attendant. "i don't want to get in trouble" she said. "want a cigarette?" the driver asked hopefully. "yeah, i would like a cigarette," said the attendant, easily bought. she accepted the proffered smoke. "ok, but only for five minutes."

the country fair. it's a lovely time, and i love it, for all its surreal nature. everyone is smiling. really. everyone. from the tutu-clad volunteers, standing in the blazing sun for hours directing traffic, wishing everyone a cheery 'enjoy the fair!', to all the other fair-goers, dressed in their best, fairy skirts and lingerie pulled out from the closets, clothes dispensed with, faces painted, smiles on, everything beautiful and magical. even the timbers army put in an appearance and made thier presence known. see, this is oregon, where weird sports loyalty trumps hippie identity.

and, there's bordello-dressed kazoo-playing can-can dancing stiltwalkers. i mean, what more can you want in life?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

awesome americans #2: pollock & the abstract expressionists

i think i've mentioned, probably ad nauseum, how entranced i was by europe growing up.

i couldn't help it. fine arts, culture, classical music, cool watches - let's face it, europe had it, we didn't. and i wanted to be a painter. and everything about painting came from europe - all the classical masters, all the neo-classical masters, almost all of the important movements, the important artists, everything. what was the future for an unknown person from an unknown corner of an insignificant part of the world?

until i took an art history class in high school. and i learned about the movement of the twentieth century that - for the first time in recent history - brought the capital of art out of paris and to the new world, to new york city - abstract expressionism.

i'm not an art historian, nor critic. i can't really write an essay about abstract expressionism - well, not in any reasonable time frame, and not without a lot of cribbing off of online sources, like any undergrad worth his or hers salt these days. all i can really write about is my very personal experience with abstract expressionism - and with, most specifically, the paintings of jackson pollock.

in the classroom, i learned about this seminal movement that brought the art world over the pond and to our shores just following world war II, and i felt my self swell with - let's face it - pride, at being privy to the generation that can remember when we, we!, bested the europeans at art and brought it home to america. when we somehow breached the stronghold that was art in europe - both classical and revolutionary, training and boundary-breaking - all of that happened there, and yet in one cultural shift, we came up with something new, something different, something unique.

i dutifully studied the slides of the paintings on the screen, i looked at them in my textbook. i felt the pride, sure, and i felt the urge to continue working in the fine arts field, which was now - 50 years later - more balanced, with genius and new thoughts coming from all over the world - no longer just the domain of one country or continent. but the paintings on the screen didn't really move me. they didn't really sing, didn't rock me in my gut, didn't truly captivate. there was a secret part of me that couldn't dispute the dismissals about the movement: "a bunch of paint dripped on a canvas? any six-year-old can make that!"

finally, i went to new york city myself one day - and stood before one. and i got it. 

jackson pollock was born in wyoming and grew up all over the west. and when you look at one of his paintings, up close and personal...

what do you see? movement. wide open movement. huge arcs of the arm, paint coming off the end. sweeping motions. a person walking around, all sides, of a giant canvas. movement and motion and room to spread out, freedom to do something never done before. how he must have leaned over, to get at the center of the canvas. how he must have moved, faster and slower, stepping back to view it, stepping in to add more.

so, what's the connection, between place and art? between the wide open spaces of his childhood, and the wide open gestures of his art? i don't know for certain that the two are related. but it certainly made sense to me, that day, gazing up at something i'd never seen the likes of before. and to me it did seem related - the american west and this dancing canvas before me.

and i thought, well, that's one thing maybe we - or one of us, at least - got right.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

cacophony of place

i sat on the deck the other night, supremely at peace, and realized that my happiness & relaxation were related to a sound, of all things. i was responding to was the soft swish of wind through the trees, through branches and needles and broad leaves.

i started thinking about the sounds i love most -

rain hitting leaves
wind through the trees
the ocean

and realized they are nothing more than the things i am most familiar with, from growing up on the oregon coast. am i simply reacting to the known? apparently, the known provides comfort, a certain sense of familiarity and understanding and belonging.

where we live now, it's usually not windy, and the rain isn't even as reliable as before. still, i sleep with the window open, and my favorite sound here is the birds every morning and day. they start just before sunrise, going crazy in all the trees around us, a cacophony of tweets and twitters and chirps and calls. i don't think i will ever be able to live in a house again that's not surrounded by trees and bushes and the birds that perch there.

i can't identify any of them except the scrub jays, who are lurking around and calling out all day long. it'd be impossible not to know their sound. and the northern flicker, too, is very distinctive, but i don't know it immediately upon hearing - i just know that there's something in it that makes me jump up and grab the binoculars to search for the source, and then when i find it, try my best to implant it in my memory for the next time.

how long will it take before i respond to bird sounds without thinking at all?

i miss the coast.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

today's regionalism brought to you by ma bell

how to define the pacific northwest?

often, it refers to just oregon & washington, once upon a time one territory, the locations of the major cities in this corner of the U.S.

sometimes, BC and alaska are thrown in - if the focus is more ecological, this makes sense, as it's the swath covered by the temperate west-side forests.

sometimes it's more broadly defined to include instead areas to the east - idaho and montana. neither really fit into any other region, unless one draws an intermountain region that encompasses the territory of the rocky mountains.

but now, this is a super cool way to think about a region, as a community of people who are definitely interconnected - as evidenced by who they talk to.

as reported in the new york times, some researchers at MIT, AT&T and IBM analyzed aggregated cellphone traffic and defined connectivity by the amount of calls sent within an area, irrespective of state boundaries.

what'd they come up with? well, that calls orginiating in and destined for certain areas stuck out. for example, louisiana and mississippi had a lot of connectivity. and the panhandle of florida connected more to alabama and georgia than the rest of florida.

and there's our beleoved PNW! oregon, washington, and the northern bit of idaho - all looking towards and talking to each other. southern idaho, on the other hand, connects - not surprisingly - with utah.

it's too bad that there's insufficient data for eastern oregon and montana, to see what communication community they belong to.

here's the original web page for this:

a preview of the map they created is below. enjoy!

Monday, July 4, 2011

pride, patriotism, and uncle sam

"You hate America, don't you?" she said.

"That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It's impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn't interest me. It's no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can't think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can't believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will." 

--From Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut

pride (n.)

1. a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.

2. the state or feeling of being proud.

3. a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one's position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.

4. pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself: civic pride.

pride. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: September 29, 2009).

pa⋅tri⋅ot⋅ism (n.)

– devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty.

patriotism. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: September 29, 2009).

pride, and patriotism. these are two words i've often struggled with. i've often found the idea of being proud of being an american a little bit ludicrous. for me, the most immediate denotation of pride is definition #4 above: "pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself". i may be an american, but that is only an accident of birth; i can't claim any sort of ownership or achievement in that. so my affiliation with the group, from the get-go, is rather a result of chance that my own personal accomplishment. then there's the thorny problem of being proud of america. proud of america? of what we've done? having grown up fully steeped in the myriad ways in which we've wronged various groups over our short history - native americans, African americans, the poor, immigrants, as well as all the ill-conceived military actions we've been involved with across the globe - there often doesn't seem a lot there to be proud of.

i do love the landscape. the recent national parks special on PBS quoted someone to that effect; that viewing the national parks was a place where people could see the landscape and be proud of their country. and yet - that still rubs me the wrong way. i can be inspired and fulfilled by the landscape, i can love it, i can think places in our country are the most beautiful in the world, but being proud of the land to me, again, implies that i had some hand in it, that there exists some relationship between my actions and its present state. which is even more preposterous than being proud of the actual country. 

and patriotism? devoted support and loyalty? that immediately sets my alarm bells ringing. that sounds a lot like we're getting in to the unconditional realm. i can unconditionally love, but unconditional support? never going to happen. 

i guess this is why i've always squirmed a little when people talk about being proud to be an american, or being a patriot. i realize others may not see these words in the same way, not so absolute and threatening. but i've never been able to figure out where i fit in in the whole discussion though.

see, i am an american, through and through - i know that now and know it's no use pretending i'll ever be anything but a product of this country and of this landscape. so, maybe instead of pride, or patriotism, what i really feel is some sort of love - love in a complicated, uneasy, begrudging way. like in the way you might love a very grouchy and unpleasant relative, an uncle sam, say, whom you know is a bit of a bastard, but let's face it - they are family, and you do love them overall, even if you don't always like them. even if you don't want to ever have to back up things that they say or support things that they do. and in some way, whether good or bad, whether you like it or not, their presence has shaped who you are and what you think and feel. so you're connected, and you love, sometimes with a sweet appreciation for all that you have and have been given, sometimes with very little like and a whole lot of anger at the actions your beloved has taken. 

happy fourth of july, y'all. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

writing therapy

so my goal is to post something every day in july.

i've been having a hard time writing lately. it's like i've fallen out of the habit, or something. so maybe just doing it every goddamn day will help kick-start that center of my brain. maybe.

sometimes, though, i'm going to post on another blog that i've been wanting to start as well - something less academic and more personal. that's at but either here, or there, i'm going to try to get something out every day. which may mean, of course, that a lot of it will be crappy.

thanks for indulging me in this writing therapy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

you know you're in...

i'm kind of obsessed with place; you may have noticed. but it occurred to me the other day that when i think about place and a sense of place, i think almost exclusively of natural environments. yet there's this whole other sphere of place-based experience out there: urban.

we have lots of jokes that start follow that "you know you're in/from....when..." format ("we" as collective folks, not the royal we meaning me or even we meaning my family). but most of these relate to habits and culture. ok, of course local culture is a large part of sense of place, but is there an urban equivalent to the natural sense of place? how often can you really tell where you are in the US? if you were dropped in the middle of a city, with no native vegetation around to clue you in to at least a region, and no natives around to observe and clue you in, how many do you think you could truly identify?

i'm going to say i could know, incontrovertably, that i had landed in just a handful of very specific places. not coincidentally, those are my favorite cities in the US: the ones that are so unique, so clearly themselves, that they actually stand out from the mass of 1950s development, 4-lane streets on grids, and strip malls that is 90% of the settled country here.

san francisco

new york city

new orleans

occasionally, we get things right.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a digression (or, why i hate macroeconomics)

there was an article recently in the economist that laid a fair bit of the blame for the Great Recession at the feet of academic economists, rather than the usual whipping boys of MBAs and financiers. in particular, the author takes on the 'rational expectations hypothesis', which has - as he asserts - fueled economic thinking for the past 30 years because it was logical, mathematical, and fittingly conservative (conservative a la reagan).

in another article in the same magazine, they point out that we will probably cross the 7 billion mark on the planet's population in 2011. remember when we hit 6 billion? that seemed like such a scary milestone in 1999! now we calmly look ahead to predictions of the population stabilizing at almost 9 billion by 2050.

the two are related, really. i'm getting there.

i think the economics problem runs much, much deeper than just the past 30 years, in both macro theory and micro theory. even keynes - who was liberal, claiming that aggregate markets were not self-correcting and advocating for government intervention in markets to keep things running smoothly - was not interested in exploring the long-term effects of the basis of the doctrine.

all of macroeconomics rests on calculations and determinations of gross domestic product. gross domestic product is simply the total sum of all domestic (on our shores) production in an economy. it's easy to calculate, and the government does it all the time, because it is the single most important indicator of overall economic health used.

GDP by country*

at the simplest, you can calculate gdp two ways: you can sum up all of the income in a nation, or you can sum up all the expenditures - all the goods and services purchased - in a nation. it's common knowledge that gdp is a flawed measure. but every so often i am stunned by the depths to which it is a flawed measure. to wit:

activities that raise gdp
a divorce, and the subsequent establishment of another household
buying a new car
buying a new toy for your kids
anything inherently wasteful that requires you to buy something new
ill health - like having cancer
having as many medical tests done as possible
elderly cared for in an institution, rather than by family
taking your kids to disneyland
driving an inefficient vehicle (relative to an efficient one)
getting a new cell phone as often as possible

activities that have no effect* on gdp
saving seeds from your garden and growing food from them
buying a used car from an individual person
swapping used clothes
conserving electricity or water by limiting use
lifelong health
reading to your kids
walking in the woods (if you don't drive to get there)
driving an efficient vehicle (relative to an inefficient one)

*when something has no effect on gdp, that means it has no significance in the national economy. you might as well say it hurts our economy.

we know - i think that this is, in fact, almost irrefutable, no matter how rosily you view the future - that we cannot support two billion additional people on this planet at the level of the total consumption of an average american. hell, most likely, we couldn't even support all the existing people on the planet at our level. not at our current technology, anyway.

yet the single biggest factor in determining our nation's economic health is, in fact, consumption, period. that's the metric we use to both assess economic health and set monetary and fiscal policy. the reliance on this measure means that for us to be better off, we have to consume more - all of us.

there's no way around that conclusion. and, both theory and experience tell us that when gdp falls, unemployment rises. the definition of a recession is a decline in gdp for two or more quarters. and recessions, as we know, cause real and immediate pain for millions of unemployed people and families.

we can't just abandon gdp as a measure. for starters, there's no getting around the fact that production does matter. we have to have some production. not everyone can live off the grid, getting their goods and services through bartering, and walking everywhere. someone has to buy new clothes at some point in time, even if only to pass them along to the other, more sustainable members of the community down below at the bottom of the consumption chain. we also know, we know, that increases in wealth - gdp - lead to healthier, longer lives for everyone. almost unequivocally, as gdp and wealth rise, so do education rates and advances for women. here's an interesting video from the viewpoint of a health professor. at the end of the country-wise progression he illustrates, there's still a large gap in income, and he does point out the inequalities within countries, too, as they march along towards higher health and wealth. but there's no doubt that as we've gotten wealthier, life expectancy has increased - and we're healthier, too.

the united nations, recognizing both the flaws with a measure like gdp as well as its significance, uses gross national income per capita as one of the main indicators in its Human Development Index - which combines the income measure with other, more 'healthy' indicators like education and life expectancy.

united nations human development index components

and i know, for certain, how lucky i am. i know the great benefits being born onto this planet as a white american grants a person. i'm grateful, very grateful, for the technology - the progress, the overall wealth of our nation - that enables me to sleep in a warm house at night, type on my computer whenever i want, go to school in my mid 30s, travel around the world if i want, limit my child-bearing if i want, say whatever the fuck i want, and live past 40 (hopefully).

so what can we do? we have to have some primary production. our reliance on gdp as the metric for our economy will push us to constantly expand consumption and utilization of resources. yet, if we all suddenly brought our consumption down to a more sustainable level, our economy would come to a screeching halt - with millions out of work. as people stop spending, producers stop producing - and then workers stop working.

how can we reconcile the motivation at the national economic level for more consumption, with the constant cultural messages that our planet is coming to an unsustainable collapse? how can we internalize - economically speaking - valuing the things that we need to value, like conservation, wildness, and genuine loving and kind interpersonal relationships?

how can we deal with economics? this is what i just don't know. economics runs our entire country - don't let all the rhetoric about democracy fool you. capitalism is our real state religion, and the entire basis for capitalism is microeconomic & macroeconomic theory. i'll pick on capitalism, and micro theory, later on.

i don't know, maybe it's just a pessimistic month for me right now. but as i sit in macro theory class learning about how the models predict any number of dire outcomes for humanity when consumption falls - and yet i know for certain that consumption must fall if we're to bring up billions of people to an equitable standard of living, let alone add two billion more into the mix, and i see the antiquated, uncreative tools that we use to assess economic success - i can think only one thing:

we're fucked.