Monday, May 21, 2018

Romance

Watching the pilot for "The Office" with Graham last night, trying to figure out what we'll watch together next. Afterwards, Graham said he didn't like the Pam-Jim plot line. "You mean the romance?" I asked. He said yes. He also said he had a list of other shows that were ruined by romance plot lines.

We're getting there.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Parallels

Late yesterday afternoon, on Facebook, I came across a post from someone I know from high school. Her son, whose middle name was Clark, had died at the age of 25. I looked closely. He was a musician who had struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, and finally lost his struggle. The specifics weren't clear, they do not matter.

All I can say is that I am infinitely fortunate to have found help when I did, at the age of 24, helped on by conscientious law enforcement and mental health professionals, and also that my challenges came to light when they did historically, long before it was socially acceptable for middle-class kids to dabble in opiates.

It was late in the day when I saw the post. After reading the kid's obit, I packed up my computer and went home to see my family.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The beginning, not the end

I have to keep telling myself that. I was just ordering tickets for Natalie's last show at East, and I had "an emotional moment", as men say (i.e. I started crying). The idea that she's leaving continues to be pretty overwhelming.

In happier news, we were delighted to hear that Brooklyn 99 has been picked up by another network. Natalie and I have been watching in recent months on one of the streaming services.  We have a tradition of singing along to the theme music, developed during Parks and Rec and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Since there are no words to the theme for this show, we dance.

Before sitting down on the couch with me and getting under the couch (where she sticks her feet in my lap and wiggles her toes to beg for a foot and calf rub), Natalie gets a jar full of "bubbly" (i.e. sparkling water), so we have bubbly together. All very civilized.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The archive

Yesterday at Mother's Day dinner Natalie started asking about when she learned to read, so I checked the archive, which is of course this here blog. Somewhere in there I found this post detailing what the putting the kids to bed routine looked like back in December 2005. Natalie really dug it.

And I will confess that those posts, the deeply archival ones, personal memories, are the ones that I like best too, when I re-read them. All the philosophizing comes off a little shallow. Though I am who I am, and I gotta be me somehow.

So perhaps I should rededicate myself to the memoiristic function, perhaps with the aid of family photos.

As for yesterday, I attacked several of those chores which needed to be done, though a couple of them were over my head. Often, I just need professional help. I am not mr fix-it.

Late in the day I went for a swim, really planning to wake my swimming muscles up from their slumber. While on Saturday I play 80 minutes of soccer in the mid-day heat and came out sore but fine, yesterday swimming for maybe 15 minutes totally called out to a bunch of muscles that had forgotten they had work to do. Bodies are wierd.

Just walking down to the lake, swimming, and coming back, I ran into and talked to 15 people.

Natalie pitched in and went to the store for flowers and asparagus, then cooked a little. Graham swept the back deck, including the seam between the deck and the wall, which he felt was a little futile. I explained to him the Pareto Principle, that the first 20% of effort typically gives you 80% of the benefit of the whole kit and kaboodle. Hopefully he got it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day

Somehow, it is almost noon.  I promise I haven't been just messing around all morning. I have been reading, sent some important emails, renewing books, put in laundry...

And yet, somehow it is almost noon and it feels as if I am way behind in the list of things I should be getting done for Mother's Day, primarily things related to home improvement. Things I hate thinking about but generally feel good about having done once I have done them, however half-assedly.

They include:

  1. Get ashes out of fireplace
  2. Caulk around back of kitchen sink
  3. Assemble coffee table for porch
  4. Take Subaru to car wash, clean it up, take pix and post to Craigslist so I can get some $ out of this thing before I fall entirely in love with it
  5. Sweep pollen off of back porch (the ultimate Sisyphian chore)
  6. Make sure I have all I need to cook dinner
  7. Fix faucet in Graham's bathroom (before Mary's mom and Rob come for Natalie's graduation

    Also
  8. Go for long swim in lake
  9. Try to talk Graham into getting a haircut.  If so, get it done (mine too)
That's a lot of stuff. Better hop to it.


Friday, May 11, 2018

The world on my coffee table

Some months back I got basically free subscriptions to a bunch of magazines out of unused airline miles: Inc, Fast Company, and News China.  Mostly they sit on the coffee table and gather dust along with alumni mags and things like North Carolina Agriculture that I pick up at conferences. I barely scratch the surface of the Journal on a daily basis and The Economist weekly.

Which is a shame, particularly in the case of News China, a shared venture with Newsweek. Although it is totally state-sponsored media, undoubtedly heavily vetted and blessed by Chinese censors, it nonetheless provides a lot of insight into what's going on in China. Which is, not surprisingly, a lot. Today I picked up and article about a guy who custom paints sneakers, and does an awesome job, charging $100-$300 per pair.

It is not surprising to see this happening in China. On the one hand, I remember well how David Winters, the portfolio manager at the Wintergreen Fund, was some years ago very heavily overweight luxury watch manufacturers on the theory that the emerging Chinese middle class favored watches as a means of displaying wealth because they couldn't do it with their homes (everybody lives in apartments) or cars (too expensive to keep and maintain for many, plus no driveways to park them in). Then there was the West African guy -- a friend of my friend Alan -- who told of travelling to China just on an exploratory trip and discovering that in Beijing there is a shopping mall dedicated to nothing but sneakers. Ponder that.

I also had momentary twinges of guilt upon reading the article, because I really haven't taken the kids travelling as much as would be ideal. Natalie is headed off to college and has never been to Asia. Shit, I've never been to Asia. Graham would at least love the dumplings and noodles, even if he was exhausted and overwhelmed by the travel.

In any case, Natalie will get there one day if she really wants to. As will I.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Autism, individuality, and the division of labor

Richard Grinker of George Washington University came and talked at Duke a couple of weeks ago as part of Autism Awareness Month. He had a very interesting and thoughful presentation on autism, mental illness, and stigma. One of the most fundamental points he made was that capitalism, to the extent that it forcibly normalizes a model in which people grow up, leave home, find a place in the global economic machine, and replicate the model in their own families -- stigmatizes those who are challenged, through no fault of their own, in so doing. Good point.

As a counter-example Grinker, an anthropologist, told the story of a kid in some African tribe who was non-verbal, probably autistic, but had a remarkable facility with understanding the sheep and getting them in and out from pasture, finding lost ones, something like that. This kid, his point was, has no place in modern, thoroughly functionalized, societies.  I get that. It rings true and, by pointing out that an modern economic construct unnecessarily stigmatizes people who don't conform, is humane and hopeful.

However, we can flip this. Thinking back to economist Ryan Avent's work (see Kindle single The Gated City) on the benefits of highly granularized division of labor and how it boosts aggregate productivity, it's easy to argue that the only way we get an anthropologist who can tell the autism story in this way is through capitalism: i.e. we need very fine-grained division of labor, high amounts of generalized economic surplus, for Roy Grinker's work to exist.

In AA yesterday I was thinking about how this phenomenon connects as well to the effacing of individuality and regionalism and the increase in homogeneity in the corporate workplace. There is a tendency amongst the cultural elite to decry this cultural flattening. But the fact of the matter is, that to have people on far-flung teams working together, they have to be able to work together on things like conference calls, which means their language must be more or less interoperable. And they must be expected to behave more or less the same way. You can't have people being perceived to undercut and diss one another in emails, text threads, conference calls etc. because they have different dialects, intonational patterns, and in jokes. Team players have to gravitate towards a center, more or less, to be able to work together and get the benefits of working in a corporation (so you don't have to hunt down specialized vendors and service providers every time you need one - which takes time. This was the essential insight of Ronald Coase into the nature of firms: see this thumbnail). It is sad that individuality suffers. People need to reclaim that for themselves.

As in so many things, there is a need for balance between the One and the Many, and lord knows it's complicated.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Knocked off kilter

Came upstairs with the firm intent of writing something and then got derailed by my phone beeping: somebody wants to move this meeting by 30 minutes, somebody else wants confirmation on dinner. I got sucked into an article about how the Indonesian market has been hit hard over the last few days, and how a bunch of very wealthy people, including Betsy Devos, have gotten spanked by the collapse of Theranos. That's why they are "accredited investors." They can take those losses, and anybody who put a bunch of money into a company because its blonde, attractive, twenty-something female CEO did a remarkable imitation of Steve Jobs deserves to get spanked.

This is how it unfolds.

But now I have to get on the road.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Cave

I hadn't been there for many years, I don't know how many. Certainly I hadn't hung out there since I quit drinking, so a quarter century or so. But I was sad to hear that it was closing, so, after some internal back and forth, I pulled on some jeans after Graham and I had watched our show yesterday evening and went up there.


It was packed, sweaty, and stinky. At first I didn't see anybody I knew, just an endless sea of people who looked like I used to look back in the day. Scruffy, bearded, smelly, funky. They looked right past me as if I wasn't there, because to them I was just encroaching on their scene and its twilight. I would have done the same in my day.

Then I found a few people I knew and settled in. A few more happened by. Also a guy who had a pretty decent-sized dog on his shoulders. There was barely room for him to make it through the crowd. The dog was remarkably chill.

I was surprised and pleased to see the size of the crowd, it made me nostalgic for those "good old days." In truth, they weren't all that great, as epochs of my life go. The years between college and grad school were hard times, I was fucked up and kind of clueless. But I was surrounded by similar people who supported me, and they were by no means bad people, just wayward idealists, many of them with substance abuse problems. But not evil. A necessary part of society. It is sad to figure out where they will go in Chapel Hill in the future. Probably Durham. Hopefully Roxboro, eventually. We have some land to sell, and the "creative class" plays an important role in the lifecycle of communities.

At the same time, I've started reading Leslie Jamison's The Recovering, in which she details her own path to sobriety. In the early chapters she focuses a lot on the mythology of the drunken writer which guided her in some of her early days:  Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Rhys. Frankly, I am bored by that stuff. I think her editor could have trimmed a little.

But I'll keep going.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Western swing

Drove west late in the week, first to Greenville, SC, then to Asheville for a conference. I was mostly on interstates, so I didn't really see anything interesting -- though looking at the construction on 85 near Kannapolis and how it looked like they were putting in drains in the area between the east- and westbound lanes got me to thinking -- on the drive back, on how that might be a limiting factor on whether or not to plant trees there in the median.

I mean, really, why don't they?  In some places they do, in others they don't. It seems like trees in the middle of interstates would be an unalloyed good: shade, carbon sink, noise dampening, etc. Then again, maybe they would be just another thing for people to run into and kill themselves, plus they would shed leaves (or pine needles) that would need to be cleaned up, and they could blow over in hurricanes, etc. The world is deucedly complex.

I spent a good deal of time listening to Stephen Pinker's Enlightenment Now, which I think is pretty well argued. He takes on not just Trump etc. (you knew that was coming), but the romantic declinism and anti-progress bias of cultural elites. I.e. those who claim that we don't actually progress in fundamental ways. And he is right, this is a major strand of thought amongst the literary elite. I think at worst it devolves into a lazy excuse on the part of the chattering class not to study science, a fault to which your fair blogger, sadly, must confess guilt.

What it is not is a scintillating page-turner. He cites a lot of data, referencing charts one can't see as one drives down the road. There are some serious critics of Pinker out there, he is accused of cherry-picking. I'll try to dig more deeply into them when I finish the book. For now, I think he has some points.

Was also listening to Cat Power, who has a great voice.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

What Zuckerberg hath wrought

So many of the people I like best and admire most are not on Facebook. Or, perhaps, they just stand out as distinctive for taking a stand and/or just being distinctive, like wearing a cool shoes or a groovy jacket, because many of the people I like best and admire most are on Facebook too.

There's no question that it's a big potential timesuck. But it's also true that, in its absence, there's no way I'd be in touch with or tuned in to the concerns of so many people who are differ from me in meaningful ways. Yes, I do need to seek them out intentionally and intently, because the algorithms hide them from me, and there are vast forests and oceans of people who are even more different from me whose pages I have occasionally made my way over to, only to get a little bit freaked out.

So yeah, it's unquestionably a mixed bag, and it plays on our insecurities insofar as it tempts us to become like-whores (if you can't quickly grok that phrase, good for you!).

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The everlasting grind

I could certainly get more sleep. I tell myself that every day, every night, but somehow I never quite do it.

There is always so much to do, and for some reason I feel like I need to do most of it. It is great to get help from unexpected places. For example, getting ready to meet with a client tomorrow, that rare client who has a defined benefit pension plan. To plug the projected benefit into our planning software, I need to figure out what the projected benefit is, which can be a lot of work. Fortunately, the client's wife kicks ass and has gone in and figured that out for me, and in an email exchange it's become clear that I probably can't do that specific chunk of work better than she can.

Which is excellent, because it lets me go do something else that will help them and/or someone else.

Like the crap I need to do for my HOA board before tonight's meeting. Blech. I guess I should go do that. It's gonna be a long day, but a good one.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Zadie Smith

I just finished Zadie Smith's Swing Time, the first book of hers I've read. I don't know whether I was resisting it or what, maybe it's just because I was reading it almost only before going to bed, but for much of it I had a hard time fully catching the groove. Maybe it was because the protagonist was herself floundering, looking for direction. Maybe it was because the regular alternation of past and present felt a little stilted at times. In any case, there were definitely times I felt like it could have been shortened 100-150 pages.

But now that it's over, I'm a little sad. I suppose it's because our heroine was just beginning to see some openings, to find some direction, to emerge from the shadows of others, in her own way of speaking. But then she was gone, like Keyser Soze.

I will read more.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Seeming agony

When I was growing up and running a lot, and somewhat fleetly, I remember seeing older guys running along the side of the road, slowly, painfully, wearing the grimmest of grimaces. I would look at them and think, those poor souls, why do they even bother to come out and run?

Now that is me. Grey and plodding, but determined. And the fact is, as often as not I am slow and in pain because I did something more athletic and punishing to my body the day before, soccer, tennis, something a little less age appropriate. So it hurts to run because I am sore and inflamed. Yes, it is true that I am also not all that lithe and carefree, there's no denying that I'm not a competitive marathoner, but much of the apparent agony derives from something I am recovering from, which is also something I would rather not live without.

I wonder how much of this I have in common with those other guys from back in the day. Probably some.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fatties

Natalie called me up yesterday to ask for my advice. She needed to read a novel for English, something she could write about from a Marxist perspective, and she wondered if I would recommend Anna Karenina. I of course had to remind her that it was a pretty thick book, which I think she knew, then she listed off a bunch of other options. Almost all of them were shorter; none of them were compelling. So she decided to roll forward with Anna K.

Let's keep in mind that she's graduating in 7 weeks or so, and she has AP exams between now and then. She has also been enjoying herself some, going on little hikes and picnics with friends, relaxing a little. Watching Brooklyn 99 before bed with me. But Tolstoi it is.

I was reminded of how, sometime after the academic pressure was over my senior year, I don't remember if it was before or after graduation, I decided it was time to read Crime and Punishment. I was reading it at the beach, sitting in a squat chair in the shallow waves near our beach place at Emerald Isle, working on my tan, while the rather country girls in bikinis and whatnot walked up and down the beach. I never did make much progress getting to know them, primarily because I was kind of afraid to speak to them because what the hell was I gonna say? We had little in common.

At some point in time I left my Dostoievskii sitting on the arm of my chair and it fell into the water. I decided that this meant I wasn't supposed to read it then, and probably picked up a spy novel.

Things got better in New Haven.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Which side of the big picture

In the Journal this morning there were couple of big-trend articles which caught my eye

  1. Teenagers are getting drawn into the workforce because of labor shortages
  2. There is a massive shortfall of housing units since the financial crisis
Item 1 is generally great for labor market participants. Unemployment was going in the right direction for a long time under Obama, and has kept doing so since Trump unleashed animal spirits in the business world. We just can't argue that. We like to think that, net net, people will benefit.

The housing shortfall is clearly related to item 1: construction workers are in short supply.

Both the labor and housing shortage are exacerbated by the failure to reach an agreement on DACA.  We could use the 800,000 dreamers for sure. In my mind, the big question becomes, is it worth vilifying Trump at every turn if we drive the dreamers out, if we guarantee their departure from American soil? I don't know. That is a question above my pay grade, but we have to think about it.

In some sense, the Dreamers make the struggle with Trump into something like a classical tragedy. As he goes down, presuming that he does, he will thrash around and there will be collateral damage. Will it be worth it?

I suspect that, if we can revivify and recenter the Democratic Party, it will be worth it. But there are costs.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In the public eye

An article in the NY Times this morning about women lured into questionable surgeries so they can be potential high-return participants in class action suits got me to thinking about public vs. private markets and where we stand right now. The article details how alliances of law firms and hedge funds and other private funding vehicles track down and then convince women to have vaginal mesh implants removed, because women who have had them removed can recover large settlements in suits, whereas if they haven't had the procedure, they don't get much $.

Meanwhile, the number of publicly-listed companies in the US has declined by about half from 1996, from 7300ish to 3700ish.  Estimates of global assets in hedge funds and private equity funds stands at about $8 trillion (note that a large chunk of the former is in publicly traded securities). The best estimate is that there are now 233 "unicorns", privately held firms with valuations in excess of $1 bln. The best known of them in the West include household names like Uber and AirBnb.  It is impossible to guess how big the universe of small, privately-held speculative investment opportunities there are out there, but participating in private deals is de rigeur amongst people with money these days, it is a mark of status.

Now, what do these two things have to do with one another, you may ask? The fact that it is cool to invest outside of public markets, combined with the decline of public markets, encourages shitty things to happen in the shadows, like cold-calling working class women and telling them they might die next week if they don't come get some questionable surgery, so they can get cash in a settlement which you then take from them. Securities regulators and the transparency mandated by their reporting requirements acts as a general force for good in the world. They don't stop this stuff, but they funnel cash towards less evil behavior, in aggregate.

But it's complicated. Companies don't list on exchanges because the cost of compliance with regulations is high. We can't force them to list if they can get money elsewhere. One of the biggest and most onerous of the filing requirements is Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), which came in after the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Tyco and others back in the 2001-2002 timeframe.  A friend of mine from a large consultancy referred to SOX as the "universal consultant's employment act" at the time, because figuring out how to comply and then complying was such a huge undertaking.

I don't necessarily favor getting rid of SOX, I'm just citing that as an example, but balancing the costs of regulatory compliance with other downstream knock-on effects is not simple.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Keeping score

I am fast approaching my 52nd birthday, a milestone made particularly meaningful by the fact that it means I will be exactly twice as old as the guy who anchors the defense for me on our soccer team. A guy who, I should mention, in practice on Tuesday was trying to nutmeg me and instead hit me in the nuts as hard as I have ever been hit. It was excruciatingly painful. He may one day hear the end of it, but it is difficult to predict when that will be.

Actually, as I said in my last post, right now everything is framed by the fact that Natalie's high school graduation is fast approaching, and she is headed off to college soon. With all the planning I have to do in various domains, I get planning fatigue, and I have been dragging my feet on vacation planning. We don't know what we're doing this summer. In recent evenings, I have been digging into this topic. On the one hand, I am a little exhausted by two summers of point-to-point vacations, where we start in one place, end another, and have lots of logistics to deal with in the middle.  So I want to just more or less be in one place. On the other hand, I'd like for Natalie's potentially last summer vacation to be special and memorable.

Part of me does scorekeeping at the level of: "I went to Europe twice before college (she's been once), and visited more tropical places than she has (zero)." I feel like I should give her something roughly at parity with that. In my mind I even handicapped it and guilt-tripped myself: "The world is more globalized now than it was, people go to Asia and shit now."

But here's the main thing. She sings to herself in her room. When I was bored, I was driving around drunk, getting high, measuring my own self-worth by how many women I had slept with (and how hot they were), etc. The other night for fun she went to a candidates' forum and came back discussing the relative merits of the wise incumbent (David Price) vs. the breath of fresh air challenger (Michelle Cotton-Laws).

So I think I am doing OK.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Decisions, decisions

It is only 10:25 and already my mind is at risk of getting hijacked by the swarm, the concerns and anxieties of others. Which is to say that I responded to a couple of texts and looked at Facebook before turning to the blog, always a somewhat risky proposition. I've also had a fair amount of coffee, including some before eating, which is something that I do every day even though I know I probably shouldn't, according to a lot of research.

In any case, the topic at hand is: college. Specifically Natalie going to college. She had a great application season, candidly I will say she got into Yale (which I've already said), UNC, Smith, Barnard, and Cornell, but got dinged by Columbia and waitlisted by Duke. She had already come to the realization that she didn't want to go to a place where everybody camped out to get tickets to a basketball game, so Duke was more or less off the list anyway in the absence of a fat merit-based offer.

She reasons that, having grown up in Princeton and then Chapel Hill, she has always lived in college towns, so she is biased against Smith and Cornell on that basis (this was exactly my process in weeding out Amherst back in the day, so I can't fault her there) So the decision is now basically down to Yale vs. Barnard. Yale's financial aid offer was better, largely because its financial aid formula treats home equity in one's primary residence more favorably, so that's a mark in Yale's favor.

Plus Yale is just, well, Yale.

So we are restraining ourselves and trying to let her make her decision, but I will confess that it's hard not to just take her by the shoulders and make the decision for her.

But Barnard has things going for it too, and last night at Caroline's 50th birthday party James and Hayes were plumping pretty hard for Barnard, saying how the Barnard kids they hired were totally kick-ass, while some of the Yale kids were kinda duds.

I am reminded as well of the experience of a couple we know, whose boy got into Columbia and got a full ride to Emory but almost had a nervous breakdown and ended up going to Duke. They stayed above the fray and let him make his decision.

In the end, it's all good. I remember a couple of summers ago, Natalie and I took a one-night road trip from Larchmont up to Cornell and Colgate, plus hanging with Corinna (a Barnard grad) and John Adams on the way. We listened to Frank Bruno's Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be, a very wise if occasionally dry book about our college-selection insanity culture. In essence, he is right.

In honesty, I am being driven crazy by the fact that she is leaving, not the brand with which she will be associated going forward.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Moment of clarity

Yesterday afternoon I was at a light on 15-501, coming around south of Chapel Hill, having made very good time on 40 on my way to Rainbow soccer practice. My Subaru was all covered in pollen, flowers were blooming. I was listening to Sufjan Stephens, only kinda singing along, cuz I didn't really know the words. A college girl in a dark green Nissan looked over at me at the light as if I were not unattractive. I was feeling a little badassed.

At practice, I scored some goals.