Friday, March 16, 2018

Talking points

Met with a guy this morning about the Orange County Dems "County to County" initiative. My mom and I are trying to figure out how to move the needle up in Person County, where she is from and where we own property.

Then I get back to my desk and read that Kudlow is trying to push the "phase two" tax cut concept even before he is fully in the saddle as National Economic Advisor. It occurred to me that the Democrats really need to figure out how to articulate the value proposition of government per se. We have let the Republicans define the agenda ("the state is bad") for all too long. The underlying thread to most of it is:

  1. The government takes hard-earned money that you owned and gives it to people who don't deserve it (mostly people of color)
  2. You should be able to do whatever the fuck you want to. Regulation is bad
The Republicans have defined the narrative for too long, because they have figured out the simple themes and have been able to pound them hone relentlessly by staying on message.

We need an equally simple counter narrative.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


We were out at the house of this artistic couple who have openings at their house all the time, and have a little apartment which lets them hosts artists in residence. The guy their had taken a sabbatical in which he drove 20,000 miles across 21 states and visited 50 retreats over the course of 5 months. It occurred to me that I might apply using my blog. I mean, I write more than most writers do, no doubt about that, I just don't edit much.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Old pictures

For the second day in a row I was sucked down into the rabbit hole of looking at old pictures of the kids when they were younger. At some level, there is nothing more rewarding. At another, nothing more wasteful. It is hard to figure out which is more true.

But it is not the right time of day for it, that's for sure. I need to get this season's soccer games on my calendar and then press on with the day.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Pre-Genesis aliens

The Al-Anon daily readers with which I have been starting my day for some time had gotten a little stale of late, so I conferred with my friend Mark, out in Seattle, has been reconnecting with his Jewish heritage. He suggested a few titles for me, including The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph Soloveitchik, a towering figure in the rabbinical world who for decades taught Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University. I had suggested to Mark that we might have a distance book club, and that this might be a good place to start. To which I said, OKURYV.

In this 1965 book, Soloveitchik takes as his jumping off point the contradictions between Genesis I, in which God makes man to dominate the world, and Genesis II, in which God makes man to tend to it. I read for a little while, and then realized that, if I was going to really take this little book of Soloveitchik's seriously, I needed to go back and take in the referenced scripture. So I went and got my Bible off the shelf. Actually, I got the New English Oxford Study Edition, with the revised translation, because I couldn't find the King James edition I have had since childhood (but never really cracked). I know it is around here somewhere.

So I start reading, from the beginning, and God is making the world by proclamation, using all these words: light, water, earth, firmament, fruit, seeds, beasts, etc. And I realized that the only way (s)he would have all of these words was if (s)he had already made other worlds.

Which really made me pine for Star Trek. Since Graham and I finished watching Deep Space 9, he has insisted that we watch The Blacklist, in which James Spader has a lot of fun playing a master criminal, and lots of people die. But, compared to the majesty of the Star Trek universe, with its ever-expanding cast of extra-terrestrial beings and its genuine, multi-decade attempt to grow a franchise which meditates as seriously as possible on the growth and interplay of civilizations and species, it fairly pales. I will make a serious push for us to get started with Voyager as soon as possible.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Newer cars

After resisting for a while, because I really don't want to sell her, but I know I should, I went to the car parts store to get "For Sale" signs to hang in the window of my lovely 2008 Silver Outback with a stick shift (98k miles, $8500). As I was checking out, the guy at the register, an African-American guy in his mid-late-20s, asked me what I was selling:

"A 2008 Outback, but with a stick shift"
"Oh, a newer car."
"Well, I've never owned anything newer than a 2000."

Turns out, right now he's driving a 1995 Lexus. "It's in great shape. I mean, it had the engine rebuilt a couple of years ago, but it's basically like new."

I do love people who drive their cars for a while and come to love them just because. That aspect of car culture is endearing, and its slow demise with the advent of autonomous vehicles will be bittersweet.

But I also remember when the natural order of things seemed to be three TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) plus a little more (PBS, channels that carried syndicated stuff) and three automatkers (GM, Ford, Chrysler) plus some scrappers and foreign cars for those cool enough to live in university towns. And that all changed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Tuning the boy

Mary was out at a meeting yesterday evening, and before transitioning from homework to TV time I paused Graham in the living room, where we had a small basket of laundry to fold. Graham asks me: "So I asked mom and I guess I should ask you: when you were in high school was there anything you weren't good at?" I assured him that there were plenty of things: science, scoring goals, high-level leadership, music (even though I organized our monstrous reggae band, I wasn't very good at my instrument, which is no surprise, since I had never played it before), basketball... The list of things I sucked at was actually longer than the list of things I was good at. We just don't talk as much about the things we're not good at.

Graham is beginning to perceive a fair amount of pressure. Natalie got into Yale, I went there, Mary went there, his friends are getting increasingly geared for the long game of high school. There are even those who question aloud whether the pressure-cooker atmosphere of East Chapel Hill is right for Graham. It could be that it isn't.

But I have to believe that he can make it through. Natalie has exceptional drive and discipline, it is true, but also just a good groove about her. She and her friends are so incredibly supportive of one another. In many ways many attributes the stereotypically sisterly components of female gender coding has just plain worked for her, have carried her through. We need to figure out how to harness some of that for Graham, to get him to knit better with his friends.

He and Jake had a blow up a few weeks back, Graham got frustrated and tossed a chess board that he and Jake were playing. Almost certainly Graham was losing, which would have annoyed and threatened him. Graham sent an apologetic email after mom figured it out and coached him. I wonder if a follow-up phone call or in-person conversation might not be in order. Email is better than nothing, but actual human contact is better even.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Processing speed

Played tennis with Z yesterday, we will not discuss the results here. Let's just say that he played really well, I was proud of him.

All week long the meteorologists predicted that it would be breezy, and man were they right. There were gusts of up to 50 mph, or so they said. All I know is that it was really windy, and that we were the only ones out there fool enough to be trying to play a match.

On one side, the wind was more or less at your back, on the other, more or less blowing towards you. But there was also substantial cross wind. And, in tennis, you switch sides after every two games, which means the conditions were changing regularly. Add to that the natural variability of the wind, there was a lot of change to process.

Graham not too long ago had a neuropsych evaluation done, which determined that his cognitive processing speed was somewhere around the 18th percentile, while his verbal communications were something like in the 99th. That's a big gap. My sister Leslie, who works with kids on the spectrum, knows of others with similar gaps, and it's hard to coach them to bridge this gap.

It strikes me that I am probably something like that too. I am not really all that quick, which means that, from a young age, when guys were standing around trading barbs and whatnot, I was far from the quickest. I might drift off, think of something pertinent, and then be looking for a place to interject it, but the really quick and dominant guys (Cool, Whitey, Josh, Crabill) would have long since carried the conversation elsewhere. That's not where my core strengths were best focused.

A blog is just my speed. And, since all the research indicates that the number of people who can trade in the markets on a short-term basis and add value in a statistically significant way is vanishingly small, shepherding people towards long-term financial goals also makes a lot of sense, counter-intuitive though it may appear.

And this was particularly apparent to me yesterday out on the court. It is always hard for me to stay on message on the court. Usually it's best for me to try to run down balls and let the other person make a mistake, but it's boring and hard to stick to that. Shifting winds and trading sides added even more variables to the task of sticking to my game plan. But it was all good, I got some exercise, had some good yucks; it was a hundred times better than just going for a run.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Imagine your calendar full

I got an email the other day from a guy, a 401k wholesaler, which said something like how he had some magical system for filling my calendar with prospects. There are those who really want that, to have some system that generates lots of leads with generic prospects to whom they can sell things so they can create a huge book of business. It is like they want to develop a machine that puts them into the situation which all doctors complain about now, where they are providing cookie-cutter services under time pressure for a bunch of people they hardly know.

When I think about that, it just bums me out. I would much rather have what I have now, an organically evolving business in which I get to help out and spend time with people I've known for a long time. In which I get to keep learning stuff which is useful to them.

And now, it is time to go brush my teeth and keep reading about the evolution of the post-war, post-Bretton Woods global currency markets, and the defense of the British Pound in 1964. Good stuff.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Down on the farm

An article on the front page of the print section of the Wall Street Journal this morning describes how a huge chunk of America's farming population struggles to make ends meet and stay on their land, taking second and third jobs, working their asses off continually, etc. It is hard not to feel their pain. They are like many sectors of the economy, under relentless pressure to specialize, scale up and build in economies of scale to survive. In general, and I've probably blogged about this before, I think that the mounting difficulty for people to have their own businesses and survive as independent entities is a little-understood undercurrent of many of the maladies facing our society today, starting with the "deaths of despair" phenomenon documented most authoritatively in the work of Ann Case and Angus Deaton, but really visible anywhere you go outside of economic power centers around the world, and ending with craziness like Brexit, Trump, and Putin.

People feel powerless, and men, who are the ones most likely to get worked up and get violent just because of physiology, feel emasculated. As a sidebar, let's just admit that the furor over the government taking away guns is about that: castration. Or, more accurately, having our penises taken away. By God, the Founding Fathers wanted to be sure we could have our metal penises with which to destroy others, in whatever shapes, sizes and capacities we could dream up. You know that was foremost in the minds of Jefferson and Madison.

But I digress.

The thing about the farmers is, we all want farmers to survive. It is part of our sense of place to think that plants and animals are being managed out there in the areas where we don't live and that somebody who looks like us is growing them, getting up at dawn, milking, bailing, etc. It allows us to feel whole. The idea that the countryside might be fully aggregated into large corporate forms is dystopian. There is a long history of rich people making money and then buying farms with pretty houses and porches that run at a loss just to regain that sense of connectivity late in their own lifecycles. We might call them Potemkin farms. At a higher level, the Japanese put insane tariffs on rice, to be sure that there are a few rice farmers left to preserve their national heritage.

So yes, we want these farmers to stay on the land. At least I do. But they all seem to have voted for Trump. We need to figure that out. And it's not because they're stupid, we need to get that shit out of our heads. That's what got us in trouble.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Borlaug and the Green Revolution

Made the mistake of looking at Facebook just now before turning to blog. So easy to get drawn into other peoples' mindstreams.

But what is going on?  I know very well where I am right now. I have to take Graham to martial arts in 20 minutes, and after that my day heats up. It is quiet here at my desk, except for somebody with a leafblower across the ridge over there. But I have written about that before.

What is new is this:  I just finished reading Our Daily Bread, a biography of Norman Borlaug.  And who is that, you may ask. I also didn't know until last year, but he was the guy who drove the Green Revolution, the introduction of new hybrid wheat varieties as well as best practices in the application of fertilizer, and also new ways of getting these best practices disseminated across the farming population, a conservative lot by and large. The Green Revolution pulled a lot of the developing world (first Mexico, then Pakistan and India, then other places) out of a condition of dire poverty and widespread hunger. In later years some of the farming practices it popularized have gotten more complicated (think of fertilizer run-off into the Gulf of Mexico and the dead zones caused by hypoxia), but that's life.

The interesting thing is that I had never heard of him till last year, when I heard of him at an AgBio conference. A woman I met with yesterday, a former derivatives salesperson for JP Morgan and Morehead Scholar, also hadn't. But Graham had heard of him through online discussions of the most important people who weren't widely known, and Natalie was broadly familiar with the Green Revolution from AP Earth Sciences.

In other words, our kids are so frickin well-educated it's not funny.

In any case, back to the discussion of this book. It's a fun book, well-written by a guy who is obviously a big fan of Borlaug's (and rightly so), and it tells the story of his growing up hungry in Depression-era Iowa, being the first in his family to leave the farm to go to high school, and he ends up schooling heads of state, including Indira Gandhi, on how to manage their economies. At one point in time he tells the PM of Pakistan to print money so he can support wheat prices so that farmers will bring wheat to market instead of warehousing it for lack of good pricing, while others were starving. Quite a path.

Gotta hop!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Reality of Money

At Phillips today, I participated in an event called "The Reality of Money," in which a bunch of parents, teachers, and others helped students work through real-lifeish decisions about spending. Each student was given a role (Nurse practitioner -- 2-year degree - one kid -- $30k income....) and then they had to go out and make smart decisions about spending. I was on the Help Desk, which is where kids came when they spent all their money. We would counsel them about making decisions -- scaling back spending, or maybe getting another job. The roles available to them varied by level of educational attainment.

Lots of kids ran out of money because they made stupid decisions, or just because they were legitimately stretched.

Graham ended up $500 in the black each month. He was the only kid I saw who saved money by living at home with his parents, and he selected the cheapest option available wherever possible.

Of course, it's quite possible that many other kids chose to live at home with their parents, and that's why they didn't end up at the Help Desk trying to figure out how to make it all work.

In the end, Graham came up to me and asked how much interest he could earn on his money.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Lengthening perspective

Just came back from my Saturday Al-Anon meeting, which is a key moment in my week, and which I had missed two weeks in a row owing to Natalie's Mock Trial and then guys' weekend at the lake. And I have been busy during the week so haven't making meetings then.

So I was kind of in re-entry mode, my mind swimming with a thousand things, many of them professional in origin and, frankly, nature. First off, listening to these people whom I have been getting to know for 6 years now on a more or less weekly business as they shared about health crises and other stuff with spouses or kids, or watching the couple where the guy always brings his wife with dementia to the meetings, but whose condition has progressed so far that he now has to physically help her sit down in her chair, it occurred to me that so much of my job is helping people lengthen their perspective. To think better and more clearly not about what is happening today, this week, or even this year, but what is likely to happen over time period between now and when their next financial goal (college, retirement...) or potential risk factor (health event, war, identity theft, car wreck...) gets in their face. And that the people who are best able to conceptualize and manage long horizons are those with disciplined spiritual practices, deeply-held values, or, possibly, athletic practices. Something else in their lives that transcends the present.

It could be argued that community organizations, and in particular religious communities, are particularly well-suited for offering this perspective because they are so often explicitly thematizing continuity across major life events (births, comings of age, marriages, deaths).

I also, it must be admitted, started thinking about emerging markets (EM) and how active management might theoretically add value vs. passive because of the absence of overarching regulators to encourage the development of strong corporate governance. I.e. how index funds channeling money into immature markets might be sending dumb money into the hands of scoundrels. It made me want, on the one hand, to reach out to my friend who is head of retail distribution at BlackRock to ask about how they are handling governance for EM, but also I think it validates paying a little extra for Environmental-Social-Governance ETFs for Emerging Markets because they provide this influence inexpensively.

Thankfully, is a three-day weekend so some of this train of thought may die back a little.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Guys in a pizza place

I went to Randy's Pizza on Miami Boulevard to get a slice today. They messed up my order, so I had to stand around for a couple of minutes while they fixed it. As usual, the place was largely full, and 95% full of guys. Guys in denim, guys in khaki, guys in flannel, no guys in suits. In other words, regular guys, not fancy guys.

Now, I'm sure they were more educated than most. Probably the incidence of advanced degrees in that room was much higher than in your average group of 80 guys around America or the world. But they weren't all Ivy-educated PhDs in frickin Russian Literature or something equally useless. I'll bet there were a lot of MS in Engineering from NC State or Virginia Tech kinda guys. I.e. degrees attainable by normal people who figure out something practical to study and apply themselves to achieving a goal.

And my point is (as I'm sure you were wondering) -- I think these guys were regular guys who had worked hard to get their educations and did pretty well, but they didn't come from silver spoon backgrounds. They got the kind of education anybody could get if they applied themselves and figured out a way to move towards educational and career opportunity, be they from a county red or blue. So why on God's green earth are we bending over backwards to keep dangerous, boring and soul-sucking manufacturing jobs in rural counties when we should be focusing on moving people towards where jobs are and getting them better jobs and better lives? That's my point.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Rage, rage against the dying of the light?

Now I am reading Maybe Esther, by my friend Katya, recently released in English. This morning I was reminded of the irony of reading it while up at the lake, with almost all of my oldest friends (we missed Konanc this year), after writing about the wistful envy she felt when I told her I had such long-lasting and rooted relationships (see here).

After making my way through Knausgaard (still eagerly awaiting Volume 6 in English) and Ferrante, it is hard not to see something in the intense first-personness of all these books, and how compelling it is. It is as if the I of the narrator, attacked from all sides by big data, artificial intelligence, social media, what have you, insists upon itself energetically.  And yes, as an individual myself, it is hard not to root for the I, to believe in the distinctiveness of the individual.

We can only hope that it is not a rear guard effort. Though I guess I must say that I should speak for myself. As if there were anything else I could do.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hanging by the fire

It is the end of a long day of hanging with the boys up here at the lake. Eric was just saying something, probably unimportant, but Niklaus turned up the music so loud we couldn't hear anything because they were playing a song that was popular when he and Marvin went to Jamaica 30 years ago.

Thankfully, Carolina beat State earlier, or the mood would be much less buoyant.

Unfortunately, it was too wet out for us to play basketball ourselves, so Crabill and I had to go for a run, to supplement our earlier walk. This, of course, to justify the excessive amounts of food we have eaten/will eat later. I for one am intent on hitting the pecan pie from Bullock's left over from last last night.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Props due

After a relatively lazy Sunday, I am still in recovery mode from my 15-hour day with Natalie and her team members at the Mock Trial competition. They did not, in the end, win. They lost in the Regional final to a team of home schoolers who are apparently the children of lawyers, for whom Mock Trial is apparently like the Olympics. They were almost flawless, if a little smug.

The amazing and beautiful thing was the speed with which Natalie and her teammates accepted the loss and turned positive. In the car they were all effusively professing their love for their teammates and for Mock itself, though there was a little frustration with some of the specific judges' scoring. Of the third attorney beside Natalie and her fellow senior, a freshman, who was a little meek and unpolished, and who probably dragged their score down, all they could say was how good she was going to be. I was nothing but proud of Natalie and friends.

I am also, I must say, most impressed with the stamina of all my fellow parents who cart their kids around weekend after weekend and then go to work on Monday. For various reasons I won't dig into here, Mary and I have been somewhat spared this fate, and often have two-day weekends at home, not infrequently involving naps for your boy. I am utterly spoiled.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The flow of discourse

It is almost lunch time, and I am frankly hungry, because Sunday breakfasts are just pancakes with some nuts on them. So I am in some sense racing against the clock to post, because I know that after lunch I will fill the pull of my schedule: need to work on taxes, on other stuff and then exercise before mom comes over for dinner around 6.

It is often thus on weekends, particularly on Sundays, as I see the weekend slipping away towards Monday, which doesn't look too different in my life to the untrained eye than weekends do, though I serve a slightly different set of masters slightly differently.

For me, I am always scambling internally, however to optimize my input/output ratio, a theme I have taken up before. On the one hand, I hear the voice of my friend Blue, a rather capable writer who has settled in to self-publishing prolifically on Facebook, who noted some time ago than when you are reading, you are not writing.

Which is true. But the question this begs is: why should I prefer output to input? Isn't that just egocentrism, this belief that the world profits more when I am spewing my mouth?

Ultimately, I think what I am seeking is an optimized equilibrium within the flow of discourse. Reading enough to keep me dynamic and thinking, writing enough so that worthwhile thoughts are crystallized and shared. Really, I just need to make small notches in the tree of discourse, less so that others can remember that I was there, more for my own sake. Like the spines of books facing out, so I can remember I was there.

But now I am in need of protein, and I know all too well that if I get too far behind this curve, I will pay the price later in the afternoon in my inability to do much of anything. Which is good for noone.

Saturday, February 03, 2018


In High Point, at a Mock Trial competition. Natalie and friends are competing against another team that they don't consider strong competition, but it's hard for me to figure out who's winning, so this produces some anxiety. I really freaking want them to win. Which is really kind of silly, given that Natalie is already in her dream school, so is her friend Makenna.

But damn, I want them to win, and will take it personally if they don't!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Missing Natalie

Graham and I walked to the library yesterday and thence to the grocery store, office supply store, and pharmacy to pick up stuff. Yall can probably guess which ones, no reason for me to plug them here.

I wanted to do the walk because Graham had told me how his friend Jake knew how to walk from the library to the grocery store to get a baked treat, and I was frankly a little shocked that Graham didn't have this geography straight in his head. So we got it straight.

As we walked, we talked a little about high school, looming next year. I asked if he was mostly looking forward to it, or mostly not. The latter, he said, but one of the biggest reasons was because Natalie was going to be reason. "Is it just because you'll miss her?" I asked. "Yeah," he said.

My kids do make me proud.

Friday, January 26, 2018

State/Gown relations

I met a guy from the University of Georgia over Christmas vacation, a humanities professor. He said that when he joined the university some years ago -- and this is still a common practice there -- they put him on a bus with other new hires and took them around the state to introduce them to people.

Just now, I was reading an article about weather volatility -- basically how global warming will make the incidence of extreme weather events rise. Not just warm weather, but extreme cold snaps too. And, thought the thesis makes sense, and it is supported by data and well-grounded principles, this is the kind of thing that climate change skeptics eat for breakfast. Here's what they say: "See, the ivory-tower liberals don't really know anything, they just want to make you get out of your truck and into a little Japanese car because they hate America. They'll twist their story around however they need to."

But part of the problem here is that the universities are so distant from red counties and don't make much of an effort to bridge that gap. And because university business models don't encourage behavior that would bridge it, like sending faculty or even grad students out to rural high schools or chambers of commerce to give talks about what they do and the high-level state of their fields.

This is, of course, more easily said than remedied. The fact is that professors and future professors are competing with people in Stockholm and Beijing and Canberra to produce research that moves the ball forward in their fields.  Building presentations for general audiences is really the work of PBS and National Geographic etc. But they also lack effective footsoldiers and advocates, as they are squeezed for cash and need to focus on their own core demographics to survive.

But it is work that somebody should be doing. It is, frankly, the function of the pubic sector to do this kind of work that markets do poorly.