Stranded Assets and the Bank of England

41ECa85N+ILMark Carney, the former Goldman Sachs banker and head of the Bank of Canada who now heads up the Bank of England, threw the City of London financial community into a bit of a tizzy recently. Carney picked up on a line of argument that a number of NGOs have been pushing for several years now—that investing in fossil fuels carries some potentially serious financial risks that investors should be giving some thought to. Carney simply pointed out the obvious, or what has been increasingly obvious to a number of investors for a while now. And that is the notion that if governments really do stick to adopting measures that will help to insure that global temperatures rise only 2 degrees Centigrade, many of the carbon assets currently on the books of fossil fuel companies—coal in particular, but other fossil fuels as well— will be “unburnable.”

This is not a new issue. A number of NGOs have spent the past several years leading the charge to “de-carbonize portfolios.” This portfolio de-carbonization effort is based on the perception that, aside from whatever “ethical” concerns may justify this, there is also a high likelihood of increased financial risk associated with carbon ownership—the exact point that Carney made. Much of this effort has been led by Carbon Tracker, a UK organization, but the original argument actually goes back to a presentation by environmental activist Bill McKibbin. Continue reading

Vote Labour

Labour chooses a new leader, again, except this time it’s kind of fun


After its election debacle last May, when Labour got crushed, the road back, or forward, or in any direction whatsoever has been a bit uncertain. Results were so bad that Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage all resigned. Why Farage resigned is a bit unclear, although UKIP only gained one MP, against some higher expectations, and Farage himself didn’t achieve a seat. However, the thing to keep in mind about this election is how dominant the conservative vote was—The Conservatives and UKIP together managed to garner over 50% of the vote, and all those overblown fears about another coalition government, or about an outright Labour win, proved to be misplaced. Continue reading

Alan Turing

Turing’s time

Last night we attended the world premiere of Sentences, Nico Muhly’s homage to Alan Turing, composed as a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. It was a lovely performance, consisting of seven sections, each relating to an aspect of Turing’s life. As Muhly said earlier in the week, they didn’t want to put together a typical gay tragedy, and in this they succeeded. Time will tell, of course, how durable of piece of composition it really is, but the Barbican crowd certainly enjoyed it, giving both Muhly, who conducted the glorious Britten Sinfonia, and Davies several standing ovations.

The libretto was by Adam Gopnik, whose day job is as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. In the program notes, Gopnik makes an interesting point—writing something new these days about Turing is like writing something new about Robin Hood. The myths have become so ingrained that’s it’s hard to come up with anything truly new. Turing has been not only rehabilitated, he’s nearly been canonized. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Another Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Venting

We haven’t had a good Rock and Roll venting around here for a while, so here goes.

The 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place a couple of months ago, and, let’s see, who’s in this year? Ringo Starr, The Five Royales, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Green Day, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bill Withers. Compared to some other years, this isn’t a terrible list by any means. There are some good rock bands here, and some fine, if not particularly original, guitar work in Vaughan. I always thought Reed was over-rated as both a songwriter and a performer, but that’s probably just me—lots of people think he was really deep, and he had what a lot of non-New Yorkers thought was a New York attitude, or something. And I’m absolutely delighted about the (long, long overdue) induction of the Butterfield Blues Band. But Ringo Starr? As a solo performer? Really? Levon Helm was a much better drummer, put together much better All-Star bands, and he’s not in. What’s up with that? Well, Ringo is LA through and through, and Helm—upstate New York. There you go. Continue reading


Unsolicited book review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

So we’ve got post-Arthurian Britain here, with the Britons and the Saxons occupying the land in an uneasy truce. We’ve got a collective failure of memory across society—no one, literally, can remember much, if anything, about past years, or even months. We’ve got wandering knights on missions. We’ve got an older couple on a search for their son, who left under unclear circumstances—which is not a surprise, since no one can remember anything. We’ve got faeries, ogres and a dragon, monks of uncertain motives, and swordfights. We’ve got really, really big questions. And we’ve also got, sadly, a somewhat tedious and boring novel.

I was, and remain, a huge fan of Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s wonderfully understated, and very powerful, novel about a dystopian future where the central characters are bred as organ providers for humans. It was the understatement that made the book so powerful. Ishiguro isn’t much of a stylist, really, and he writes in a very flat prose style, which in NLMG served to reinforce the essential horror of the situation the principal characters found themselves in. But it served another purpose, which was to let Ishiguro spend time developing the characters of the novel at leisure. The strength of the novel came from these genuinely interesting and human characters that weren’t human at all, but rather organic creations—which made the story so heartbreaking. Continue reading


TTP: fast-track disaster ahead

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the opposite of free trade

Like many, I have my share of disappointments with Obama. On balance, he’s infinitely preferable to any of the plausible Republican alternatives—can you imagine what Mitt Romney or John McCain and a Republican Congress would be getting up to these days? Still, there are areas—global warming in particular—where I wish he had been more aggressive. I fully concede the limits of what may have been possible throughout his term, given the implacable opposition he has been facing. But still, it would have been good to see a more deliberate attempt to change the trajectory of things.

The ongoing corporatization of nearly everything would have been another place to start. I suppose the failure to pursue the banks aggressively should have been a tip-off that the Clinton financial people were still running the show. Plus the Obama administration’s unwillingness to try to put Elizabeth Warren as head of her brainchild, the new (and pretty efficient, I gather) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (although she has had her payback.) When people start telling me that there’s no real difference between the two parties, in the finance area I tend to agree, with some notable exceptions like Warren. Continue reading

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive. Continue reading


Denmark makes a claim for the North Pole—Santa has a sad

Denmark surprised the world—well, maybe not the world, but a number of interested northern countries—with a slightly audacious claim this week for ownership of the North Pole. As we detailed in previous posts, the prospect of global warming opening up the Arctic region to various sorts of development has tantalized countries in the region—and not just the US, Canada and Russia, but also smaller countries such as Denmark and Norway. All have reasons to make claims; but all also have reasons to proceed under established protocols of international negotiations. In this case, that’s the UN Law of the Seas treaty, which the US still has not signed, which may or may not put it at some disadvantage at some nebulous point in the future.

Santa is probably unhappy about this. It’s his home, after all, and suddenly here come these countries, to all of which he distributes millions of presents annually to their children, clanging around and making claims right and left to his home. International negotiations over the allocation of the Arctic seabed are expected to take decades, something which Santa is definitely not looking forward to—especially since he suspects he won’t even be invited.
Continue reading

Roger Goodell is paid entirely too much money

Hmmm, let’s see—

1. ESPN suspends Stephen Smith for one week after Smith suggests that women play a role in provoking domestic violence. You know, they bring it on themselves.
2. Ray Rice was originally suspended for two weeks (well, two games, actually) by NFL chief honcho Roger Goodell for decking his wife so hard he knocked her out.
3. ESPN just suspended Bill Simmons for three weeks for stating the obvious—Goodell is lying.

I’m trying to find a pattern here. Can anyone help?


Scotland votes, and however it goes, expect bitterness to follow

Scottish voters, as the whole world probably knows by now, will be voting on their potential independence from the United Kingdom on Thursday. Actually, that’s not what they were initially going to be voting on—that would have been whether Scotland should enter negotiations for independence, but this question got changed somewhere along the line—it’s now “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Which is a pity, because the former question is actually a more sensible one. As it is, Scottish voters will be voting on whether Scotland should be an independent country without having much idea what that country would look like—how it would fund itself, what its domestic and foreign policies might look like, whether it will be in the EU or not, ditto NATO, all the mundane stuff that turns out to be the business of government. But these issues, much to the surprise of many outside of Scotland, seem to be of little concern to many in Scotland, or at least to those who support independence. There seems to be a lot of magical thinking involved.
Continue reading

Adventures in headline writing, Gaza edition

The New York Times, a division of the Israeli Military.

So something happened in Gaza today, something horrible even by the abysmal standards of that terrible situation. Here’s the headline in The Guardian:

Israeli strike on UN school kills 15

With the following sub-lede:

UN says it was refused time to evacuate civilians before IDF shelled Gaza school, injuring 200

Then there’s The Independent: Continue reading


Drones—threat or menace?

Wait, what drones? Well, for starters, the ones that Amazon is testing, which have a 50 mile range, and a five pound payload. All so you can get that book faster. Of course, in the US this needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Not only that, it requires that the FAA provide Amazon with an exemption from a bunch of regulations that currently prevent private companies from unmanned vehicle testing. Now, these might strike you as the kind of sensible regulation that you actually might want governments to enforce. The FAA, on the other hand, is currently preparing new rules that will loosen things up a bit, apparently. And if Amazon gets the approvals it wants? Get ready for “Amazon Prime Air.” Although five pounds doesn’t really seem to be a very large payload of books, or coffee, or lawn furniture, or whatever it is that’s so desperately needed from Amazon.
Continue reading


BBC wises up on Climate Science

Last year we bemoaned the fact that the BBC, which we do love dearly in spite of its occasional faults, was consistently blowing it on its climate change coverage. This has been, in the past, for reasons of “balance.” It may also have been the direct or indirect result of the political and “scientific” views of David Jordan, the BBC’s head of editorial standards, reputed to be a climate change “skeptic.” At least this was the theory put forward by Guardian commentator John Ashton. Whatever the case, it was embarrassing, and starting to compromise the BBC’s reputation for scientific coverage.

Hah. It turns out some folks at the BBC Trust seem to feel the same way as we do. And The Telegraph, in a story that Science Correspondent Sarah Knapton obviously enjoyed writing, and that the headline writer had a fun time with as well, provides us with the scoop: “BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes.” 200 staffers are now going to training on issues where the scientific consensus is settled, and to learn “not to insert ‘false balance’ into stories when issues were non-contentious.” And the BBC trust was not alone. In April, the British Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee came to a similar conclusion—the BBC’s coverage of climate change science was lamentable. As Jim Meyer over at Grist points out, the British Government has long accepted climate science, and the BBC was out there looking foolish.

So we’re glad to see that the old regime, if that’s actually what it was, will longer be acceptable, at least at the BBC. This has led to more hilarity, of course. Nigel Lawson, who used to routinely make an appearance to challenge climate scientists, is now complaining that the BBC not inviting him around any more to prattle away is censorship, dammit. Really, just shut up, Nigel, you old crank. You’ve still got The Mail.


So, how’s that vote on Scottish independence coming?

Say what you will about Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, there’s no denying his political instincts. Salmond’s most recent blast at David Cameron, which appeared yesterday in The Independent, suddenly takes Cameron’s recent battles with the European Union and attempts to turn them into a reason to vote Yes on the Scottish Independence motion on 18 September of this year. Salmond’s argument is really quite clever. Cameron, of course, has been using the potential threat of a possible British exit (“Brexit”) on the back of a proposed referendum within the UK on continued EU membership—in an attempt to get the EU to adopt some pro-British reforms. Salmond has taken Cameron’s implied threat and is now going to use it against him. As it turns out, this might be an argument that works. Scotland is considerably more supportive of EU membership than is the whole of the UK, as it turns out. So Salmond’s new argument for a Yes vote—there already are lots of them, of course, some good, some not so good—is that if you want to remain in the European Union, that may be more likely in an independent Scotland than by remaining within the United Kingdom. Continue reading

Tony Blair

Blair, Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz: who’s the biggest dick?

Tony BlairIt’s a tough call. On the one hand, we have former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair whining to an unappreciative world that what’s going on in Iraq now—which appears to be a complete breakdown of whatever civil and military institutions somehow survived the US-led and UK-abetted invasion and occupation—has nothing whatsoever to do with him, nosiree. This has been greeted with the highly predictable derision it deserves, including from members of the Labour Party who made him their leader in the first place. Continue reading

Popular Music

The many lives of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”: a great song lives forever

Some songs take on a life of their own.

It’s not clear to me—perhaps not to anyone—what turns a tune into a standard. I was reminded of this recently when I finally bought a CD of Jeff’s Beck’s Wired, which includes a remarkable version of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Mingus wrote this as an elegy to saxophonist Lester Young, who died two months prior to the release of the seminal Mingus album, Mingus Ah Um. The album is a deserved classic, with any number of strong pieces—the opening track, Better Get It in Your Soul, alone would make the album a classic. Continue reading


Hornstra Farms: local hero, redux

Local, natural, community focused: Massachusetts’ Outstanding Dairy Farm is thriving.

IMG_0412When we last visited John Hornstra five years ago, he had just bought a local farm here in the pretty affluent suburbs south of Boston, and had grand plans. Hornstra had delivered our milk (in glass bottles!) for years when we lived in Massachusetts, and he still delivers the same milk (and chocolate milk, and egg nog at Christmas) to my daughter’s family. But he had plans—to build his recently purchased farm into a local community place, a place for kids (and not just kids) to see how farms work, and to get real food. Most important was his plan to bring dairy farming back to the area that his family had lived in, and been dairy framers in, for several generations. So how’s that working out? Continue reading


Unsolicited museum review: Quilts and Color at the Museum of Fine Arts

The Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy quilting collection both instructs and exhilarates.

IMG_0267If you wander over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and plunk down the $25 admission fee (more on that later), you will see one of the best shows around – Quilts and Color, the quilt collection of Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy. They started collecting in the 1970s, around the time we did, although they had more money and better taste. And what a selection it is. As abstract artists, they collected quilts that reflected their interests in color and design, themes that were erupting in the abstract expressionism and op art of the period. So the curators have done an excellent thing here – they have interspersed the (mostly) abstract quilts with the occasional piece of op art, from artists like Bridget Riley, Josef Alpers (whose influence is felt throughout the show) and Sol LeWitt.<! – more – >

But it’s the quilts themselves that are the focus of the show, and these are splendid works of art in their own right. Much ink has been spilled the past forty years on the resurgence of folk arts of various sorts into, if not the mainstream, then at least a regarded periphery. My own education here, such as it is, has been developed by several decades of tagging along at a quilt show or two a year with Mrs W – who is  a quilter herself. Quilts are an astonishing art form, with its combination of visual design and the actual craft of sewing the thing together. Plus, quilts themselves are the creation of women over the years, and represent a genuine thread of, if not feminist, at least women’s art, if there is such a thing. I don’t know what category applies here, really – these were objects that were created as utilitarian objects, to be slept under, and more. There is always a family history – children were born under these quilts, and people died under them as well. And if quilts are in someone’s collection, that means they left the family at some point, for whatever reason. You always have to get back to the fact that this was an object created to be used. And used they were.

But they are also astonishing works of visual art, and of craftsmanship. Consider this quilt, A Feathered Diamond in a Square, made about 1880 in Pennsylvania by an unknown artist:

OK, check out the hand stitching. No machine quilting back then.

Mrs W usually just sort of sighs when she sees stitching like this, and moves on. These things took some time to make.

But it’s the color arrangements that impress, which is why Pilgrim and Roy chose the quilts they did. Some of the color combinations are straight out of Albers color theories, or would have been if not for the fact that they were created a century before Albers was doing his work on color. For example, here’s a pretty straightforward set of colors, in about as bold a presentation you can think of, given the constraints of the medium:

This is a Framed Diamond in a Square, also from Pennsylvania, around 1890, and also from someone we don’t know. The color blockings here are bold, dramatic, and simple – straight out of Alber’s Interactions of Color.

And the variations on some central themes of color and pattern recur frequently. There are, of course, established quilt designs that have evolved over the years, often passed on from mother to daughter, or woman to woman – men were rarely involved in these interactions. Here’s a Tumbling Blocks quilt, from Ohio or Indiana, again from someone we don’t know:

Midwestern farm wives were creating op art a century before New York artists stumbled on it. Similarly, consider this next one, a Sunshine and Shadow, also from a Pennsylvania woman we again don’t know. New York artists of the 1960s would have sold their collective souls to have come up with this:
And finally, if I have a favorite, it’s this Many Colors quilt from Pennsylvania, from the Mennonite community:

Who would not want this on their wall?

So, as a museum exhibit, this show does what any good one does – instruct and exhilarate. By all means, go.

But, of course, it would be a rare post from me that didn’t vent about something. I live in a country where museum admissions are generally free. So what’s with this $25 admission fee per adult? We waste enough tax dollars on unnecessary wars and absurd fossil fuel industry subsidies. How about increasing the arts subsidies so that the American museum experience can be one that doesn’t involve taking out a personal loan in order to take your kids to see some great art? If the arts are to be an integral part of education and life, as I believe they should be, then they should at least be affordable.

The quilt at the top of this post is a Flying Geese pattern, from Pennsylvania, probably from the 1880s.

Liveblogging Eurovision 2014

Ah, Eurovision. Or more properly, The Eurovision Song Contest. If you’re a lover of serious music, look away now. On the other hand, if you’re devoted to crass, cheesy, over-wrought and overproduced pop, often in some indecipherable language, occasionally played with accordions and zithers, in frequently bizarre and often distracting costumes, this is the show for you. It’s all part of the grand plan to unify Europe, which more or less works in the middle, although not necessarily on the periphery, as events of the past couple of years have shown. Still, points for trying. And it works here–everyone sings the same crap, but it’s fine.

Britain has never done well here. Which means they usually come in towards the bottom in terms of points. Continue reading


Fracking in the UK? Don’t hold your breath.

Lord MacGregor’s silly Telegraph op-ed is little more than a recitation of energy industry talking points.

The worthies over at the House of Lords—some of them, anyway—have issued a report deploring the fact that fracking has made virtually no progress in the UK, and that it should be an “urgent national priority,” noting that exploratory drilling hasn’t even really begun.

This is a report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee—no, I didn’t know they had one either. Continue reading