June 3, 2016

I recently read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan stories, which is really just one long story about two girls growing up in Naples. It's engrossing; it's War and Peace by Fellini, though instead of Russia versus Napoleon we have female emancipation versus hundreds of years of culture and habit.


Volume one, My Beautiful Friend, starts slowly. There are a lot of characters to meet, some confusingly named. Our narrator, Elena (also called Lenu) and best friend Lila (also called Lina) are young girls, playing with dolls, wandering a dark street in post-war Naples, and by the end of this volume they are young women.

Through three more volumes Ferrante brings us to the present and along the way we get to see many of the seminal moments in the lives of our heroines as well as a glimpse of life in poor urban Naples. And life is vividly and brutally portrayed, it's a violent, patriarchal culture. The story is especially wrenching when the characters transition to young adulthood, where their idealism collides with the inertia of hundreds of years of habit. Highly recommended.

What I'm listening to: Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales by Car Seat Headrest.

May 7, 2016

Spring brings lots of flower photo opportunities, which is good if you like bright colors and wild details. I like this flower for its orange petals set against green leaves that are detailed with a red-dot border. Note that even at f/25 there are out of focus areas, something focus stacking would solve.

105 mm   f/25.0   6/10 sec   ISO 100  Nikon D800e
Eleven Choices    
April 28, 2016

I've a California primary ballot sitting on my desk. The ballot is short as California ballots go but it's rich in complexity and it makes me think about what it means to be a member of a semi-direct democracy.

The June ballot has eleven choices, everything from issuing debt to choosing local officials to choosing the President of the US. Again, small for California, and of course nothing like the famous 135-person ballot that saw Schwarzenegger replace Gray Davis.

Want it even more direct? Check out the recent Flash Forward podcast, "Swipe right for democracy", where they estimated that voters would face something like fifteen choices per day in a pure direct democracy. Maybe California's ballot isn't so onerous.

Fortunately, my ballot arrived in my email with plenty of time to review the accompanying voter guide and meet the June 7 deadline. Both the county and the state provide excellent guides. Kudos to California: they know how to hold an election.

So, what's on the ballot? Let's see, there are eleven choices:

  • Seven candidates for US President
  • Six candidates for county central committee
  • Thirty-four candidates for US Senate
  • Five candidates for US House
  • Two candidates for California Senate
  • Two candidates for California House
  • One candidate for Auditor, Controller, Tax collector
  • One candidate for District Attorney
  • An initiative to allow the legislature to suspend a member
  • A $310M bond for Cabrillo community college
  • A $67M bond for the Santa Cruz library

I have the sense that every California ballot has to include a few bonds. Mind you, the debt is usually for a good cause, like this ballot's libraries and schools, so I usually vote yes, but I also wonder if I am really the best person to be deciding these things. This is of course above and beyond the fact that I don't even live in California so why should I have a say in their debt.

Here's another interesting aspect of this ballot: the presidential candidates are all Democrats vying for a single slot on the November ballot (where she or he will likely be competing with a certain short-fingered vulgarian) whereas the US Senate candidates are a mix of all the parties, and the top two will face each other in November.

After spending some time looking at this ballot I'm not sure what I think of our direct democracy. It's a lot more direct than where I now live, which has a parliamentary system. I worry about my qualifications as a voter and I puzzle over our choice of candidates. But somehow it all works: one election ends, another starts. We keep deciding and deciding and deciding yet again. It's certainly better than having no choices. The challenge is in designing how many decisions do we want to make, and how many can we delegate. How direct do we want to be? And will a more direct approach create a better society? I'd wager it inevitable that some jurisdictions will experiment with more direct models and perhaps, with time, it will become a way to get people more engaged.

Wavy Gravy    
February 11, 2016

The announcement that gravitational waves have been detected is a bright science fiction-y story in a sea of crappy news.

The story from LIGO, short for the laser interferometer gravitational observatory, is all extremes, either invisibly small, like waves we cannot see that penetrate everything unperturbed, or ginormous, the "sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away" [1]. And the story features exotic characters like black hoes and ripples in the "fabric of space and time" [2].

These gravitational waves were detected by a new analytical instrument that was designed to measure something that had never been measured. The instrument, whose sensitivity is mind-blowing [3], monitors three things that are the same distance apart, looking for an occasional ripple in space time that would make one segment of the route just a teeny tiny bit different, and just for a moment. And this tiny difference is in the order of 10-19m.

Performing the gravitational wave experiments also involved big numbers. The paper announcing the discovery has hundreds of authors and the National Science Foundation spent $1.1b over forty years on this research, which sounds big until you compare it to the US military budget which in 2015 was almost 600-times this amount.

I'm listening to Miles Davis' Générique. C'est merveilleux.

[1] Science News .

[2] NYTimes which features a really nice video.

[3] Vibration reduction at LIGO.