Kal Zone


Well, OK, it's not really a "blog" if years go by between postings. It's more of a respository for things I occasionaly feel the need to write about. And I may feel that need again someday.

My dad would have been 101 this year

June 11, 2011. My dad, Karl Nemvalts, lived the last third of his life in Freeland, Michigan, from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In my memory of that time, Freeland was small-town America, where everyone knew everyone else. Where my dad directed the school band and the church choir and taught German at the high school.

But he grew up in a different world, in Estonia (Eesti in the native language) in the 1910s and 1920s, in rural northern Europe. Where the winter ride to town — this was about as far north as Juneau, Alaska — would involve a horse-drawn sleigh. His dad was a country schoolmaster. The details are sketchy to me. I imagine farms surrounded by birches and pines as in northern Michigan or Canada — dirt roads, horses, bright winter moonlight, rustic houses heated with wood stoves, saunas down the hill by the pond.


Sounds of Samuel P. Taylor State Park

May 16, 2011. S.P. Taylor State Park Last Monday afternoon, May 9, 2011, I spent some time in Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County, California, recording the sounds of a small side creek flowing down the north slope of Bolinas Ridge into Lagunitas Creek. I had been there the previous week with my friend Paul Vornhagen, and resolved to come back with some recording equipment to capture the sounds of the place while the creeks were still going strong with spring runoff. Here's the recording.


The new bipartisanship

April 11, 2011. Here's how it works. The Democrats (Obama and Reid) make a policy proposal that they figure splits the difference between the Ds and the Rs. The Republicans counter with a policy proposal (see Paul Ryan) that's way to the right of anything they've proposed before. Then they negotiate from there, with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party insisting on no compromise whatsoever. The final policy, arrived at through painful bipartisan negotiations, is — in spite of the fact that the Ds hold the presidency and a majority in the Senate (though not the currently-necessary supermajority) — well to the right of anything that George W. Bush could have pulled off.


A few things about London

April 2, 2011. The climate is milder than you'd expect, considering the 51° north latitude — farther north than Vancouver or Calgary. The ocean currents temper the weather. When Connie and I visited in late March, we had expected the stereotypical fog and drizzle, but it was exceptionally sunny and warm, the grass was green, and the trees were budding out.

People are very courteous. If someone thinks they have inconvenienced you in any way (even if you are the one who has bumbled into their path) they will excuse themselves with a quick "sorry".

The city attracts people from all over the world, both as tourists and as residents. It's a totally happening, sexy, 21st-century, world cultural capital.

People smoke way too much, even compared with, say, Las Vegas. This in spite of the huge SMOKING KILLS labels on cigarette packs. Fortunately, smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, though not at sidewalk tables just outside.


Toward a Palin-free news cycle

February 12, 2011. On February 6, the Huffington Post ran a story with the headline "Sarah Palin Blasts Obama's Handling Of Egypt". I admit up front that I never read it, and I'm not linking to it so that you, too, can have the pleasure of not reading it. I would be surprised if Sarah Palin could find Egypt on a map, let alone have anything constructive, informative, or useful to say about it.

The key word in the headline is "blasts". Sarah Palin is very good at "blasting". If you were to read the article you would probably find that Sarah Palin doesn't think very highly of President Obama. But you knew that already.


Review: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

January 22, 2011. Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, subtitled "Man, Nature, and Climate Change," is based on a series of articles that appeared in the New Yorker over the last several years. As you can guess, it deals with the topic of global warming, or, as we have now been taught to say, climate change. Kolbert's writing is very vivid and concrete. She has traveled to research sites around the world — to the Alaskan tundra, the glaciers of Greenland, the below-sea-level towns of the Netherlands — and interviewed many of the scientists who are collecting the data that is used as input to climate modeling: core samples of glacial ice and ocean sediments, ranges of biological species, sea ice coverage, and so on.

On first reading in the New Yorker, I thought Kolbert made a convincing case that global warming is among the most urgent threats to human society and to the planet as a whole. But partly in response to "climategate," the November 2009 pushback by global warming skeptics, I read Kolbert's book with a more skeptical attitude. I am still a global-warming "believer" — just as I am a believer in the laws of physics and thermodynamics and the theory of evolution. But I tried to read at Kolbert's narrative as a global-warming skeptic might, looking for soft spots in her assumptions or data.


Lunar Glee Club remastered

January 19, 2011. Lunar gig flyer When you think of "Glee Club" today, you might think of a hugely popular TV show. But if you were in Ann Arbor in the mid-1980s, "Glee Club" might have brought to mind a nine-piece band anchored by two electric basses and electric guitar, three percussionists, and three horns — but no singers. The Lunar Glee Club got together in 1984, and different versions of the band played around the Ann Arbor area until the 1990s. The musical style was somewhere in the jazz/funk/fusion/worldbeat/latin/avant-garde range — everyone in the band had been listening to everything from salsa and afrobeat and samba, to Weather Report, to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and many other musical heroes. When I once described the band to the pianist Kirk Lightsey, he shook his head and remarked, "Nine different ways to go out." Which we did. Gleefully. Remastered 1984 recordings of the band are now up on this website. A few of my favorite tracks are.


Extreme cuisine, an Estonian tradition

December 17, 2010. A recent article in the New York Times, Without Blood Sausage, It Just Wouldn't Be Christmas, lays it out:

Siim Vanaselja, who was in charge of blood-sausage operations [at the New York Estonian House], said that in traditional Estonian village life, verivorstid [blood sausages] were made immediately after the slaughter each autumn, when the weather turned cold and the cost of keeping animals warm and fed became too high. Bacon, ham and smoked sausages were laid down for the winter, but blood is highly perishable and must be cooked right away. So the fresh blood sausage was boiled, frozen and saved as a treat for Christmas Eve.

Blood sausage was not part of my childhood — have I possibly repressed the memory? — but I do remember other challenging dishes. For example, there was sült — jellied pigs' feet.


No, it's not "class warfare"

December 17, 2010. One of the most inflammatory conservative talking points is that progressive taxes — higher tax rates for the wealthier of us — constitute "class warfare".  The mental image is of the common hordes overrunning the aristocracy, a very un-American notion, even if we're only talking about majorities of voters, if not peasants wielding torches and pitchforks and guillotines.

But when the issue is merely restoring tax structures to what they were a decade ago — raising the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 40%, let's say — the wealthy would most likely survive. To call this "class warfare" is just demagoguery.

To put this in perspective, let me give you an example of what might actually be considered class warfare.

Before World War II, my maternal grandparents owned and lived on a farm in Estonia. When the Soviets took power after the war, private land was seized and the owners were declared to be enemies of the people. My grandparents disappeared. They were presumably arrested and deported to Siberia.


GOP agenda gets bipartisan support

December 15, 2010.


Open letter to congressional Democrats

December 5, 2010. The Bush tax cuts have proved to be a failure as economic policy: they have greatly increased inequality and contributed mightily to the federal deficit, yet have done little to promote employment or economic growth. It would be bad for the country to continue them.

I would rather see the Bush tax cuts expire as a whole — in accordance with the voodoo accounting that necessitated a sunset clause — than see them extended for the top tax brackets.


Republicans tighten their grip on the U.S. Senate

December 3, 2010. In the recent elections, the G.O.P. netted a gain of 6 Senate seats, from 41 to 47, an insurmountable advantage over the Democrats, who now only have 53.

This has prompted Republican Senator Mitch McConnell to proclaim that the midterm election results have given his party a mandate to block any legislation advanced by Senate Democrats. After all, in the incoming Congress they will hold a 47-53 advantage, and, as everyone knows, 60 votes are now required to pass anything in the Senate.


Do tax cuts work?

September 25, 2010. David Cay Johnston, in an article on Tax.com, examines the question of how the Bush tax cuts worked out for the U.S. economy. Not so well, it turns out.

Total income was $2.74 trillion less during the eight Bush years than if incomes had stayed at 2000 levels.

Although the wealthiest segment of the population did far better, people on average earned less. By this aggregate standard, it is clear that the Bush tax cuts, as an economic policy, were a failure.


Proposition 23 frames AB 32 as a job killer

September 22, 2010. From the Official Title and Summary of California Proposition 23:

This wording strongly suggests that AB 32 is a job killer, so should be put off until better economic times allow us to afford the luxury of controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

But what if the opposite is true, and Proposition 23 is itself the job killer? Proposition 23 would discourage the growth of green industries and could put the state (and the U.S.) farther behind in the race to develop clean energy technologies.


Democratic enthusiasm gap?

September 22, 2010. Conventional wisdom says that a fired-up Tea Party, and a sagging economy, will sweep the GOP back into power in the midterm elections.

Conventional wisdom says that Democrats are discouraged and defeated, now that the Republicans have a 41-to-59 advantage in the Senate and can stifle anything put forward by Democrats — thus showing the Democrats to be totally ineffectual. (Republicans, as the opposition party, are considered free of blame in this scenario of legislative gridlock.)

Much has been written about the GOP strategy of firing up its base.

Less has been said about the complementary GOP strategy of discouraging and disheartening Democratic voters. The message is: you Democrats are losers; you may as well stay home on November 2.


Single-payer health care recedes in the rear-view

July 15, 2010. Do you understand exactly how the health-care reform bill passed by Congress will affect you and your family? No? Neither do I.

Many people I've talked to recently are still struggling to find affordable health coverage. It's still a big concern. I find myself thinking it's too bad single-payer health care — aka "Medicare for all" — never had a chance in Congress, even though it had significant public support as shown by polls over the last several years. Earlier House versions of the bill did include a  public option, which would have created a government-run health insurance agency to compete with private health insurance companies. But this too was purged from the final bill, even though such a public option had majority support in many polls.


I work better in a structured environment

July 5, 2010. This Mr. Boffo cartoon was pinned to my cubicle wall at UC Berkeley as an expression of my attitude toward work. It's been two years now since I left there, and I'm still struggling to figure out how to structure my time. The "day job", grind though it sometimes was, still had the advantage of keeping me on a regular schedule and providing daily, face-to-face contact with interesting and creative coworkers.

These days I'm setting my own goals and schedules. There have been home-improvement projects — patching and painting, remodeling a bathroom, digging postholes and mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow, building a fence — and a more-or-less daily exercise routine. I try to devote one to two hours every day to practicing trumpet. I have been going through old music notebooks and trying to develop sketchy ideas into finished compositions. I have been improving my skills with music software — Digital Performer, Propellerhead Reason and Record, and Sibelius — so that I can actually take a compositional project from start to finish without getting stuck and setting it aside for "later". And, alas, I have been catching up on my sleep.


The oil spill is looking worse every day

June 11, 2010. And Obama deserves his share of the blame for letting it happen on his watch. But it is extremely hypocritical of the drill-baby-drill crowd to frame it as a failure of government, or "Obama's Katrina".


Whose perfect game?

June 8, 2010. Last week Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers lost a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce called a runner safe at first, in what would have been the 27th and final out. It is customary to attribute a perfect game to the pitcher — Game 5 of the 1956 World Series is widely known as "Don Larsen's perfect game" — but the June 1 Indians vs Tigers game shows that a "perfect game" belongs to everyone on the field, including the defense behind the pitcher, the opposing offense, and, yes, the umpires.


Why I'm voting No on Proposition 14

June 7, 2010. Let's imagine how the California gubernatorial primaries might play out if Proposition 14 were in effect today. Meg Whitman, in particular, might find it more productive to spend $81 million appealing to political moderates instead of competing with Poizner to attract the hard-core GOP base. Instead of red-meat Republicanism and anti-Liberalism, we would be seeing more soothing images of starry skies over the Sierras — a kinder, gentler Meg Whitman who would, vaguely, return California to greatness.


California Proposition 16 and the state of our democracy

June 7, 2010. California Proposition 16, financed primarily by PG&E, is advertised as the "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act." It would require a referendum whenever a local government (such as Marin County) moved to form its own public power agency. But Prop 16 would require a two-thirds supermajority to pass such a referendum.


Drupal minimalism

June 6, 2010. One of my goals for this site was to focus on content and avoid getting tangled up in technical details. So I vowed to stick to the most basic features of Drupal — those that would be sufficient to create a blog plus platform for media downloads. (On previous Drupal projects I was building multi-contibutor sites that required more detailed controls on roles and workflows.) For the present, minimalist project, here is what I came up with.


Open-ended site development

June 6, 2010. One of the very cool things about Drupal is that it is possible to launch the site and develop the site structure as you go. This is facilitated by a couple of key features of Drupal.


A brief trip to server land

June 6, 2010. My site was up and running as soon as I used the one-click Drupal installer at bluehost. But I couldn't stop myself from "opening the hood" and poking around to see how it was done.


Keeping it simple

June 2, 2010. Now that I'm using Drupal, the challenge is to stick to my original goal for the site, to provide a place to download music MP3s and PDFs. Drupal is so open-ended — offers so many possibilities — that I can easily go off into playing with all the cool tools and modules. So I need to stick with the basics.


Why I'm using Drupal for this

June 1, 2010. In my work as a web developer at UC Berkeley, I used Drupal for a number of websites, including http://ist.berkeley.edu/, http://technology.berkeley.edu /, and http://inews.berkeley.edu/. My purpose on this site is mainly to provide a platform for downloading my original music, in the form of audio recordings and sheet music PDFs.


Copyright © Kalle Nemvalts except as noted. Original content on this site is licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License. The Creative Commons license does not cover commercial reuse or adaptation, which must be negotiated separately.