Sunday, April 23, 2017
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Towards the end of my run I dipped into the forebay area where North and South Lake Shore come together. It's hard for me to believe I didn't blog about it a month or so ago when we were working on it. In short, we had to drop the level of the lake about 2.5 feet (by opening some valves at the base of the dam using a ridiculous 14 foot fork which we poke around till we hit metal). Then we had to bust up all these places where the creek between the forebay at the lake was plugged up, largely by hard-working beavers who just put all kinds of shit in the creek.
The work was cold and filthy and disgusting. One day I lost my wedding band while I was digging down into the muck with my arms and basically throwing bunches of branches up on shore.
It was, in short, awesome. And by hook or by crook, we got the water in the creek to flow and lowered the water level in the forebay significantly -- we literally drained a swamp -- so a contractor could bring in heavy equipment and dig out 10 foot tall, 50 foot long pile of muck, which was deposited alongside the forebay.
So, a month and change later, today, that is, I stopped in to see how things were going with the creek.
Astonishingly, all of our hard and good work is pretty much a thing of the past. The swamp was no longer drained. The creek was barely flowing. It seemed in one place that a beaver had been back starting to build up a dam, being a beaver, in short. In one place we had brought in a mini-backhoe to help us unplug a particular plugged up spot in the creek, and there had been heavy and visible treadmarks. No more. They are filled in with grass.
Overall, this being Earth Day, I was reminded of how utterly indifferent nature is in the end about our presence. It could give a flying fuck. It will be just fine when we are gone. We needn't worry at all about the planet.
I thought back to McPhee's The Pine Barrens, which I just read, where he details all kinds of settlements from the 18th and 19th centuries back in the Barrens, of which scarcely a trace remains. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Yesterday morning I was headed to an event at the Frontier, a space owned by the RTP foundation on 54 between Davis and Alexander. I have been there many times before, but somehow I can never quite get it straight in my head where it is.
Partially this is because of the placelessness of the park, all the glass boxes set back behind trees off of 45 mph roads and highways.
Partially it is because I have become so dependent on Google Maps for everything and somehow my brain just doesn't internalize space and directions the way it used to. Is it because dominion over this subject matter has become less compelling to my ego?
Partially it is because I was spaced out, listening to a book in the car (Abundance, by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis).
In any case, I got off 40 onto Davis and was in the left turn lane, about to head towards Miami Blvd, when I realized I needed to turn right to go towards Alexander Drive. I should have turned left and gone up and hung a u-ey, instead I backed up, put on my right turn signal, and made my way across the lanes to make a right turn thanks to the very kind people in the lanes in the middle. It was a silly thing to do, really rather irresponsible, as close as it was to 9 am.
Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Monday, April 17, 2017
It is unreasonable to expect that anyone should read everything and be on top of everything pertaining to one's field, yet that is in some sense the expectation I put on myself. I have stacks and stacks of books, am managing a constant flow of periodicals through the house and links coming through my social media feeds, I know that I can't read it all. Yet somehow I feel like I'm supposed to.
I have internalized pretty good discipline with regard to the New Yorker over the decades. I have recognized that I will never even begin to keep up with it, and that to try basically impoverishes me via a steady diet of fast casual narrative, optimized for cocktail party chit chat, so basically read very little of it. Though I do let it pile up and then go through the piles. This weekend I recycled maybe 20 of them.
Same with the New York Times magazine, only more so. I just rarely read it, and rarely miss it.
This year for my birthday Mary asked if I had updated my Amazon list. Half paying attention, I grunted yes, meaning to go back and pare it down and prioritize it. Then I forgot. For my birthday she bought me some 8 books from the list, some of which I would have moved to the "business books" list had I made the time to look at my list, instead of watching endless Federer and Messi videos on YouTube before going to bed, or learning to strum new songs on my guitar.
So now I have a stack of even more books that I only kind of want. Though, honestly, when I turn my head and look at them, they look pretty good, and I know there is much to learn from them.
Sales gurus would say that even sitting around thinking about what I should be reading is a means of avoidance of going out and talking to people and learning what they need, that that would be more instrumental in helping me build my business. And there is some truth in that. But it is also true that I am building my product, one page at a time. And it's working.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
On Friday I turned 51. It was most welcome for my birthday to coincide with Good Friday, which was most opportunely a market holiday, so I have been able to really milk this birthday thing all weekend.
It's a good thing too, as I was dead tired and sick after the two weeks of traveling for college trips and then again back to New York last weekend, I have been very happy to just lie around and do nothing. And mostly have few thoughts. I am still trying to find traction in a new book since I worked through the Wallander.
In fact, I went up to the Bookshop on Franklin, whose upcoming disappearance I am bemoaning almost somatically, and bought up all of the Wallander books we didn't have, since Mary is getting into them too. I even bought two copies of one book by accident, and several books by Mankell that don't have Wallander as hero. I hope they don't suck. I was sort of in a hurry to get home for dinner.
While at the Bookshop I placed a hold on one of the bookshelves there. Mary doesn't think they are very nice, but that place has been a big part of my life and I will have one of those bookshelves up here in my office, though I'm pretty sure we will have to bring it in through the window, since there's no way that it's gonna fit round the corner at the top of the stairs.
OK. It is now time to get the Easter baskets from the attic and put jelly beans in them. Graham informed me that the "sibling rivalry Easter egg hunt is the only thing that makes Easter special." So we gotta do that.
Meanwhile, an owl has alighted on a branch just outside the window of my office up here. It seems to have just swooped down to the ground and grabbed some sort of snack, perhaps a vole. Mary is now checking it out.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
For the first time in twenty years, I saw my friend Katya yesterday. She hails from Kiev, Ukraine, but then was educated in Tartu, Estonia. She came to New York on a Fulbright in '94, and I was flattered to learn that she had heard of me from people I had met the summer before in Kazan'. We ended up hanging out some in '97-'98 in Moscow, and she memorably took excellent care of Mary one day when we went on a boating expedition to some island somewhere up the Moscow River somewhere.
So we had seen pix on Facebook, and were kind of generally up to date on the highlights of one another's lives. Children. Her move to Berlin with husband Tobias and her winning of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for a book she had written in German, of all things. In my mind, this all seemed pretty swank.
I told her how, being home in North Carolina, I was able to hang out with people I had known since I had been five, six, seven years of old, and she became rather melancholy. This rootless cosmopolitanism, she explained, is anything but glamorous. That Kiev is a beautiful town, how it had been larger than Paris in the 11th century, but that it was right at the crossroads of too many historical forces. How, the day Russia had invaded Crimea, she had stood in a store in Berlin with a woman from St Petersburg and they had both broken into tears, because they were from the same country, after all, it just didn't exist anymore.
It occurred to me that my family has not been forced to move anywhere for a long time. We have been in the Piedmont since before the Revolution, and though I went away, I came back. In this regard I am extremely lucky, and it is an effect of other people in my family scrimping and saving and earning and squirrelling, that I can.
Over the course of history, sometimes people are fortunate and can put down roots. At other times, they must move. In post-war America, it seemed like we pretty much had things squared away, and people could nestle in, mine coal, work in factories, buy trucks, watch football, bake cookies, what have you. It seemed like it was other people that had to move. At least since the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Otherwise, it was a voluntary thing to do, an option, albeit one that the higher-earning portion of the population understood was what one did to move forward.
These days, not so much. The Trump electorate is effectively asking the government to vouchsafe their ability to rest in place. They will be disappointed.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Flew into Newark this morning. At the airport, I wasn't in a rush, and my old black boots have a few cracks in the leather, and I knew it was gonna be damp again in the Northeast (again 😡), so I stopped to have my shoes shined and tended to. A little shoe spa.
Turned out, my shine professional also had NC roots, and was planning to head down to Charlotte via Amtrak tomorrow to see his 91-year old father, who wasn't doing well. He needed to make another $120 today over 15 hours to get the cash needed for his ticket, and was concerned the inclement weather would mess with his volume and therefore revenue. He treated my shoes good, so I gave him a $3 tip on a $7 shine. He mighta fed me a story, but it sounded good and was convincing, and my shoes look great.
I was rather hungry, having had only a banana at RDU (where, by the way, I ran into Rhett Autry, whom I hadn't seen in 30-odd years. She also got a banana with her coffee). So I went to Wendy's, the best option. There the very friendly associate upsold me from the Artisan Breakfast Sandwich to a Panini. Good work! It was OK.
The big difference between the two transactions was I couldn't tip her.
Now, as the economy is hollowed out, as manufacturing is outsourced and then 3D printed away, as Amazon destroys dry goods retail, increasingly only service jobs will be left. And, as the advantages of larger corporations play out, there will be fewer entrepreneurs, presuming that people continue to vote with their wallets for cheaper options. So the share of people working in fast food etc. contexts will rise.
Service will continue to be an important component of this world, but we will be unable to pay for it, and thereby incentivize its thoughtful and chearful delivery and improvement. But it would be easy enough, in the age of platforms like Venmo, to shift this a little. Why shouldn't I be able to tip the woman at Wendy's a little if I like her? Why couldn't she have a button with a QR code that I could scan and shoot a tip to? If she's a team player, we could imagine that she might like to pool her tips and pass fractions of them to teammates, as is the culture of restaurants with wait staff. This would incentivize not just good individual instances of service, but attempts to improve service.
It would be difficult to integrate this into a top-down, hierarchical management framework. In a sense it would involve the disintermediation of management. But it would certainly be interesting, and it should be tried.
It would be good, as well, if an analog to the QR code could be found that would let one do the same thing for call center workers, It probably exists, I just can't think of it right now.
I think we all at some level understand that the progressive automation and granularization of large value chains debases human labor, but that the people doing the work are on balance good people trying to get by. The more we can find ways to individually reward the people who provide us with services, the better.
BTW, I bet someone is already working on this.
Monday, April 03, 2017
Just finished Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. Much has been written about it, I won't dive deep now, a fine book.
What to read next? I can't read book two in Ferrante's series, because I don't have it. In principal I should probably start reading something non-fictiony and edifying. But it is rainy, I am sick, and I have been borne on the wave of an engaging first person narrator for some time now, so I will continue with that, in the form of a new Wallander novel. Back to it!
Saturday, April 01, 2017
I remember when, back in '86, after I had discovered there was this thing called literary theory that all the self-respecting intellectuals were studying, I was informed by my girlfriend Hilary that I had to take Lit 130 with Andrzej Warminski and Kevin Newmark. Somewhere in there we read Gerard de Nerval's Daughters of Fire, and I remember that Newmark, who I think led discussion of this book, made the point that the protagonist, as he loved women over the course of his life, always found himself trying to recapture the image and sensation of his first love. He made some very high-falutin theoretical point about this, about how this was the basis of knowledge or experience or something, how we are always already removed from experience in itself, working our way back to some ideal.
It seemed deep.
And it is, kinda, but I think that the significance is really less epistemological than just experiential. Of course we have nostalgia for the past, for moments of extraordinary ripeness and fullness, and the fact that our hormones are raging and eyes are being opened by new experiences during our college years make it only natural that we try to recreate them for ourselves... and our children.
Somehow I was reminded of this when, after touring Swarthmore today and having a little bite to eat, we had to dip into the college bookstore to find something for Natalie to read because she had finished the book she had started the day before. There weren't really many obvious young adult candidates, but since she had just read another Jane Austen novel earlier in the trip it seemed to me that Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel might be something she might like. So we snapped that up, and I'll be damned if, by the time we touched down at RDU three hours and change later, she wasn't a hundred pages into it.
It occurred to me that I have been raising the kind of young woman who I might have gone out with in college -- smart, positive, conscientious, comfortable in her own skin if somewhat unnecessarily shy -- if I hadn't been out there trying to be CLARK TROY, DAMNIT, and thereby in need of women with a little more... projection.
In any case, I'm very proud of her. She will make someone happy one day, first and foremost, herself, one hopes.
Friday, March 31, 2017
And so, it is nearly done. BU, Northeastern, Harvard, Tufts, Smith, Amherst, Wesleyan, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Penn. There remains only Swarthmore in the morning.
Though they have run together, they remain surprisingly distinct, and I think Natalie retains relatively clear impressions of them. Often on trips like this I have deep thoughts. This time, not so much, instead, it has been an orgy of logistics, getting from here to there, eating, sleeping, drying off after standing in cold rain while listening to some perky sophomore prattle on about the meal plan or the honor code. It was all crowned by a masterful transition, stepping off the New Haven train at 6:22 at Grand Central, then settling into our seats on the 6:39 out of Penn Station to Princeton. That took perfect execution, and subways doing what they do at rush hour.
Through it all, Natalie has maintained characteristic good spirits. Just today, she has read through maybe 250 pages of some book she can't seem to put down, reading even when I could not restrain myself from watching Coming to America on the Family Channel for, I don't know, the 10th time, because it is such a perfect little film.
She will go far.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
In New England, seeing colleges with Natalie. A weird exercise in joyous anticipation and anxiety, self-judgment and letting go, caloric indulgence and walking a lot. Like going to art museums on the calves, but cubed.
Must hustle now. We are due in Cambridge shortly.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Jeff Bezos famously insists that there be an empty chair at all conference tables to remind Amazon employees of the missing person: the customer. Which is swell.
Another independent local store announced it was closing this week, a toy store, owned by the family of a friend. Meanwhile a new Chipotle rises across just across 15-501 from a new CVS, which is itself near a longtime pub that closed not long ago, really the only watering hole on this side of town. Other new chains are coming in soon, you can tell from the outlines of the buildings going up. Great.
Meanwhile Anne Case and Angus Deaton released new research this week building on the research they published in 2015 demonstrating that mortality amongst white people, especially related to suicide, substance abuse, and mental health, continues to rise.
I don't want to pose a causal relationship between the corporatization and scaling up of retail and services represented by Amazon and chains and the hollowing out of the middle class, but there is a correlation, and I think the former is a factor in the latter. The continual destruction of the merchant class, for one thing, pulls people out of the public sphere in which they used to interact as peers, as opposed to seeming lords and minions.
In fact, the corporate class of the top 2 to 3 income deciles are squeezed themselves, working their butts off to earn the dollars it takes to buy the houses, cars, and, most importantly, college educations that form the bulwarks of fortress upper middle. But is not necessarily always apparent, save for when we are self-righteous and glued to our phones, airports and interstates like zombies.
At some point in time, Bezos's empty chair merges into Eastwood's.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Listening to Diamandis and Kotler's "Abundance" in the car. They were just talking about how AI would let robots take better care of old people. It seems to me that fulfilling the aged and infirm's basic functions is not the issue. It is having someone there to love, care, and be present for them (see Gawande). To the extent that robots can feed and clean and allow family members to do the important stuff, it's good. Otherwise the technology is just a way to allay guilt of not being there for loved ones.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Somewhere over the weekend I read something about making it in New York, and how doing so really allows one to prove to onesself that one is capable, blah blah blah. How hard it is, and therefore what an accomplishment it is.
This is all true, in a sense. But it is ultimately a false god, and this mentality drives all too many people to grind themselves themselves to parch at its alter.
I am reminded of a scene from some movie about a young actress in LA, beautiful, slim, who gets out of bed with her lover and stands in front of a mirror and regards her body critically, then asks of her lover: "I look OK, right?" or "Do I seem fat to you?"
The soil is indifferent to where you made it, as is whatever maker might stand in judgment over us. Can you imagine God going "Well, he was kind of an asshole, but New York is a dog-eat-dog kinda place, so I'm gonna cut him some slack?" Doubtful.
Much better to drive yourself less and sleep better.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Usually I would have blogged on Saturday, when I was feeling deep. But that got run over.
It was a good, if busy weekend. Friday night Natalie and I went to Twelfth Night at Playmakers'. The show was good, if long. On the way in I was reminded of how, between college and grad school, mom would come with me to movies out at the Chelsea, whatever ridiculous art film I wanted to go to, she would take me to, mostly to spend time with me, I'm sure. She often fell asleep during the movie, and who could blame her? I have no recollection of any of the films, but I'm sure they were slow and pretentious, by and large, and she was working hard to earn money. I told Natalie about this on the way in and, despite the Diet Coke we shared before the show, I did find myself about to doze off a little in there. But it was fun.
Then, on Saturday, soccer. Then mom told me she had some salmon for me, so I went and got that, and therefore bagels to eat it with. Then I started making some headway into Elena Ferrante in the afternoon, but took time to push through Buffett's 1996 shareholder letter.
Today, tennis, where I played not so well. Then more salmon, and a nap, and Ferrante, and taxes.
Then I took Graham and a friend to a sports bar to watch Carolina play Arkansas, and we barely pulled it out. We were doing a lot of triangular, two-handed high-fiving, and ate an enormous chocolate chip cookie. Carolina pulled it out.
And now, back to Ferrante, whose groove I am catching.
Friday, March 17, 2017
I have been listening to the 2012 book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis in the car recently. Markus suggested it to me over lunch not too long ago, and I had heard of it before.
It's a good book, pretty heavily geeked out, draws on a lot of strands in contemporary thought (Matthew Ridley, Hans Rosling, Daniel Kahneman, blah blah blah) to argue that we have what we need to provide for everybody on the planet.
Then somewhere in there, he lists out 8 key themes that lead us to the possibility of abundance, how they were the disciplines represented in the Singularity University that one of the authors was part of founding, and that the rest of the book will be devoted to them. They were all techno-oriented, and they all made sense, but I forgot what they were between the car and coming into the building to work.
Because the point is, that though we have the tools to make the future better, our ability to do so is severely constrained by our ability to get the world to agree on what it is we should be doing. I am reminded of the beginning of Kierkegaarde's Fear and Trembling, where he basically says there is no progress in ethics, that we all begin at the beginning in each lifetime, each consciousness. And he is right.
Which by no means makes me a pessimist. There was a video circulated on Facebook recently of a kid at McDonalds working the drive-through window who, upon noticing that the woman who had just pulled through was having some sort of health emergency as her car drifted past the window, vaulted through the window, assessed the situation, rushed back inside, found someone who could do CPR, and saved the woman's life. There were two kids in the back of the car, I should note. Or there was the story in the Washington Post last week about an African-American nurse practitioner working in a clinic in a small town in West Virginia, tending to a bunch of white Trump voters who had healthcare due to Medicaid expansion made possible by Obamacare. At the end of an exhausting day, she rested in her chair and prayed for President Trump. Crazy stuff, but beautiful, and these are the things that give us hope, as much as any technoutopian strands of thought. Both are needed for hope.
The fundamental problem then is - again - alignment. Getting everybody on the same page, more or less. Or, maybe, coming to understand that we are all kinda there already.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Lunched yesterday with a nice young CPA from Hyderabad (by way of Australia, Canada, Boston) recently settled in Morrisville. Having people like that move to the Triangle and to America is a good thing. At the same time, there is truth to the "bubble" meme, i.e. coastal elites are cut off from parts of the county that are hurting. The concept of "sister cities" around the world was once popular. Today, why not have "sister cities" or even "sister schools" that are closer? Have affluent public schools develop relationships with specific, less-fortunate schools not so geographically distant. Have affluent PTAs raise money for them, I know there are downsides (seeming patronizing, exciting envy, etc.) but might there not be value?
Monday, March 13, 2017
Both Mary and I have gotten in the habit of drinking a little coffee in the middle of the afternoon. Which is great, so long as we don't go too late. The problem is that figuring how to space out lunch, exercise, and other stuff we need to do gets complicated, because we don't want to push the coffee back too late in the day, lest it mess with our sleep schedules, which are themselves rather imperfect.
I am well aware that this is not the greatest of habits, that many fault caffeine as being one of the great crazymakers of modernity. I know, I know.
Saturday, March 11, 2017
(I came across this in my "drafts" folder. Thought this was long since published)
I was looking at Mary's pictures of Moscow this afternoon and working on a brief written piece to accompany it when they are "published" as an "online book" sometime soon, and I was trying to figure out someone in Russia who might comment on them, and I thought of my old roommate Oleg Kireev. He and I hadn't been in touch for some years, so I googled him. I was shocked and saddened to learn that he had died, apparently by his own hand, back in 2009.
The various tributes to him I've found on the internet focus on his rad seriousness as an intellectual, theoretician, artist, what have you. A performance piece he did in Amsterdam, pre-9/11, when he wandered around dressed like a Russian policeman and demanded to see ID was the best example I could find of him in action.
Honestly, when I knew him, back in '97, he just seemed like a smart kid, just out of college, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with himself. He was hanging out with Tolya Osmolovsky, starting a journal named Radek, raving about their idea of running for office under the "Against All Parties" moniker, just trying to make a little noise for himself.
Mostly, he hosted. I think he was one of the rare ones in his peer group who had his own apartment (it actually belonged to his grandfather Senya). He and Tolya and the rest of their crew liked to hang out, drink vodka, smoke, eat smoked fish, and pontificate. They were, in short, a pretty regular bunch of Russian guys and gals, who took themselves pretty seriously. Also a Russian trait.
I remember exchanging emails with him somewhere in the years in between, he had become a dad, not entirely according to plan. I don't know what eventually brought him down. He was a good kid.
Very full day today, with my normal morning meeting followed by a political organizational brainstorming session for someone thinking of running for Congress, then Mary and I hustled up to Raleigh to watch Natalie participate in the State Mock Trial finals. They won the round we saw, but had the misfortune of being paired in the morning against some home schooled team made up -- legend has it -- only of the children of lawyers -- who live, eat, breathe, shit and sleep Mock Trial. These kids have States every year since the dawn of time, as it were.
Frankly, I don't know how parents who have kids who do sports all the time do it. Driving from tournament to tournament all the time. When do they read? Nap? Blog? Recharge for the next week at work?
And then, to add insult to injury, tonight is Daylight Savings Time night, the evening of springing forward, when we lose an hour of sleep.
Friday, March 10, 2017
This is an honest title for a post, that could have been the title of many.
A couple of weeks ago The Economist had a story about unexpected effects of the adoption of renewable energy on the fundamental economics of providing electricity. Basically, the argument is that renewables bring down the cost of electricity and make it harder for utilities to make the investments they need to maintain the infrastructure needed to make sure everybody has electricity whenever they need it. Because when the sun ain't shinin and the wind ain't blowin, it's gotta come from somewhere. Increased storage capacity (see Tesla's superbatteries) and usage optimization can help, but only to a point. In sum, it turns out that somebody's got to plunk down a lot of money to make this transition. And realistically, that can only come from the public sector.
Which means somebody is going to have to make some complex sales to make that happen. Again, it will be a question of leaders creating a shared vision and making society feel like its interest will be aligned with it. It is so complex it's hard to see it happening. Most likely, a non-trivial number of poor people will need to die from our failure to do this before people will be able to get it.
Today in the Wall Street Journal there's a story on restaurants adding labor surcharges to checks to account for rises in wages rather than raising the prices on entrees, appetizers, etc. There is perceived price inelasticity for food. Some restaurateurs are even calling the surcharge things like "California Mandate" as a political statement to let people know why the cost is rising. I get that, sounds like a first amendment thing to me. I can even envision other restaurant-owners putting in surcharges like "Charge for driving out illegal immigrants" on their bills.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. For one, from a process and accounting perspective, rather than folding all the costs into the cost of food, adding a line item adds complexity, it could even stretch the capacities of many Point of Sale systems at restaurants. Secondly, and more importantly, it poses the question of how much sausage-making and transparency people really want. With financial advisors, there is a great hue and cry at all times about all the various fees and how outrageous it is, but people are not as interested in seeing line-itemization of costs for other things. Imagine if, for every cheeseburger and fries plate, if providers broke out all the different labor and materials charges that went into it. It would be insane. Nobody but nobody wants that. I predict that the labor surcharge in dining establishments will be short-lived.