Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Robot caregivers

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

Making it in New York

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

A good weekend

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

Abundance

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

Sister Schools?

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

The tyranny of afternoon coffee

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

Requiem for Oleg Kireev

(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.






Off to the races

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

Random reflections on readings

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.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Being heard

There have been times over the last few years when I have had low inbound email and phone traffic and have felt more or less like I didn't exist, it was really hard on the ego. Probably this traces back to growing up as the son of a charismatic alcoholic, the life of many a party, who sucked a lot of oxygen out of many rooms, so that the rest of us had to fight for the remainder or feel suffocated.

Right now that is not where I'm at. There are a lot of demands on me, and I am having to prioritize things to figure out what I should be doing at any given moment. One of the hardest things is making sure I have time to myself to just chill out and read.

This afternoon, for example, I was thinking of going for a long run in the woods at Carolina North, then a guy just asked me to play tennis. First, however, I need to figure out if there are any movies that Graham might like to go see. Natalie is out of town for Model UN, and Graham and I haven't done anything special on our own for a while, except, of course, watch Star Trek episodes.  We are making our way through Deep Space 9 and, while it is certainly not Next Generation, it's better than nothing. So I hope there's a movie for us to watch, and that it does not suck. Kind of a tall order.

I should also keep reading Buffett's letters, but I need to prep for a workshop on entrepreneurial finance on the 22nd and I'm getting a little behind on thinking that through, so maybe I should be reading a book for that.

I also need to allocate a little energy to supporting Mary in the decision-making process for some furniture purchasing. I wish we could just pull the trigger, but she likes to think things through very thoroughly, which may mean a trip to High Point in the near future. I need to look at that as an opportunity to spend time with her outside of the normal flow of day to day, week to week blocking and tackling, as opposed to a burden. Hell, High Point is kind of interesting, in its own way. I know they have a nice little taqueria there.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Good signs in labor market

The woman at the sandwich place where I go for lunch -- one of two primary sandwich makers on their line -- recently left because she found a role as an admin assistant. Yesterday a new hire, an African-American woman with a bunch of tattoos, made my sandwich. She had never used a pepper mill before, but the other guy showed it to her and it barely slowed things down at all. You could tell she was a little nervous as the line of balding guys in blue shirts got longer as noon approached, but she was gonna do fine.

Over the weekend a friend of mine complained about the level of service in a restaurant owned by another friend.

This is all good. It shows that people are being drawn into the labor force. Food service and hospitality are not the greatest jobs, but they are jobs, and people learn valuable skills and habits in them. I know I did. People are coming back into the workforce.

Much of this is due to tailwinds from the Obama years, but it is not being hurt by a revival of animal spirits and expectation of a more favorable regulatory climate under Trump.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

game of throwns

Up at the lake this weekend with some fellas, While many of us engaged in our statutory one game of basketball a year, a certain R------ C-----ll chose not to play, because he was too concerned about getting injured. Sadly, our friend's delicate ego proved equally susceptible to injury to some light ribbing from your present correspondent. To exact his revenge, this friend proceeded to booby trap the Grouse's bed with some items of clothing in pillow cases and under sheets, and to loosen the bulbs in my reading lamps. But, utilizing my estimable powers of observation and deduction, I discovered these subterfuges (OK, not the socks added in pillowcases) and got a fine night of sleep.

However, this morning, my back was killing me from jumping up and down on the concrete basketball court, suggesting that there was indeed wisdom in refraining. Wisdom shmisdom though, ballers gonna ball.

Postscript: against all commonsense, my back got better on the ride home, and now my attention will be focused on facing down Z on the tennis court come Wednesday. And then soccer season.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Opioid penetration

Saw this story on Facebook last night. We have all heard about the opioid epidemic, but I was shocked to see that, in a range of places, many of them in NC, the incidence of opioid dependency exceeds 8% of the population, going as high as 11.6%. That is insane.

I have separately seen stories about how counties that went for Trump showed higher incidence of opioid overdose deaths.  Here's one.  This really points up the depth of despair which has collectively driven a group of people to vote for someone so manifestly unqualified for his job, such a willingness to flirt with fascism. People in these places perceive themselves to be under mortal threat, and then look across the interstate at blue states and counties where people are sipping lattes and driving Lexi, Prii, and Audis and are pissed beyond measure.

OK, the work day is underway. Gotta hop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Soap slivers

In the shower just now I was using the last slivers of a bar of soap (itself part of a great war chest of hotel size bars that I built up over years of staying in hotels and bringing the soap home. Don't remember the last time I/we bought soap).  I was reminded of Ballard, my dad's brother, who showed us with pride when we visited him a few years ago how he saved up all the little slivers of soap, dissolved them in water together, and then redesiccated them to make a new bar of soap. That, my friends, is good old Scots-Irish frugality.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Presence on court

Went out and played tennis this morning at the Farm.  Mostly doubles. I kind of prefer singles, but doubles is often what is available in a free-form, pickup format, so doubles it often is.

Tennis is perhaps the most perfect demonstration of both mean reversion and the role that the psyche can play in it. Which is to say, it is all too easy to hit a few winners or win a few points or games, get on a roll, get excited, and start screwing up. Conversely, it is all too difficult at times to play one point at a time, forgetting the prior point or points or games, to remember that each point is a new game which is only impacted by the prior ones if you allow it to be.

The ante is upped considerably in doubles, where you and your teammate are interdependent.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sam Stone


One day in college, I was sitting on the couch of Wayne, the a non-Yale student stoner who hung out and played a lot of hackeysack and to a lesser extent frisbee. He had some good weed, I'm sure, and we were smoking it while listening to some music. I didn't know what it was, but then I heard the chorus:  "There's a hole in daddy's arm, where all the money goes" -- and in an instant I was transported back to childhood. This was John Prine, "Sam Stone," and it was a record my dad had played a lot, in some ways his answer to mom's Carol King Tapestry, a record that I associate strongly with him.

At the time I was, of course, not paying attention to the lyrics, I had no idea what it was about.  I was a kid. When I listened to it again as an adult, I got it. Vietnam vet, heroin addict, overdose. Done. But the chorus reaches back to childhood to say: this is in fact the story any kid, and the transition from innocent child to dead addict is seemless and invisible and is in fact not the insertion of one thing in place of another, but different stages of the same thing, or, rather, the commingling of two seemingly mutually exclusive things.

Last week I went to an AA meeting and a woman shared about her son, who had been off at a rehab, then spent time in a halfway house. On his first night home, he overdosed and died. She went out and got drunk. When she told the story, all the oxygen went out of the room, but then the next person raised his or her hand and shared another experience because that is what we do.

It is hard for those of us who live relatively stable lives to grasp the seriousness of the opioid epidemic now. I won't trot out statistics, but it is very real and present. I buried a friend last Friday who had many years of sobriety after some years of serious drug addiction, but we don't know what killed him in the end. In some sense, it doesn't matter, in other senses, it does.

In the years following the end of the Soviet Union, as the metanarrative of a great and successful Communist society -- which had seemed plausible following WWII and the end of Stalin's years for a couple of decades but then eroded through the 70s until it collapsed under Gorbachev -- Russia began to experience very negative demographic trends. Under Yeltsin, Russia basically smoked and drank itself to death. People had fewer babies. Putin came along and changed the game. He is evil and a kleptocrat, but he gave and gives Russians something to be proud of and hang their hat on.

The West has seen some of the same things happen. Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton have shown that, for the first time in history, mortality for white American males is going backwards: white men are dying younger, and substance abuse and mental health are the big drivers. Branko Milanovic of CUNY has provided a broader framework for causality around this:  median incomes for the middle classes in the developed world have stagnated over the last few decades while the middle classes in emerging markets have made progress, and the rich have gotten richer.  Small wonder that kleptocrat populists are able to gain power while blaming immigrants.

I may have made some of these points before, and I don't have time to tie it all together because, as is the case every Saturday, it is time to take Graham to martial arts. And then it is time to get outside and enjoy the day.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Differentiation and being onesself

One of the received doxas of management theory of the last quarter century or whatever is that providers of goods and services should always be seeking to differentiate themselves from their competition, to demonstrate how they are different. This is reminiscent, on the one hand, of young people trying to mark themselves off as distinct by how they dress, piercings, tattoos, the music they listen to, etc. Amongst individuals, this quest to differentiate onesself has pushed itself forward as the Boomers have aged and Madison Avenue has gotten smarter, to where people at ever higher ages are still trying to be cool. By the time they are at death's door most but not all people are over it.

People often ask me, how do you differentiate yourself from other advisors? And it is a tiresome question, because what they are really asking is "how are you better?" and the subtext is "how are you going to beat the market?"  Given that beating the market consistently is more or less statistically impossible, what they are really asking is "how can you lie to me to give me the impression that you, and by extension I as your client, are privy to a special sauce which is available only to the select wealthy few?" Which is silly, but it is what some people want, and those people are looking for someone other than me to take care of them.

I am focused increasingly, in all domains of life, to trying to stop demonstrating that I am different than other people and just being myself. It is, in fact, a good deal easier to do that.

I recently bought some new jeans and also black jeans.  I have been wearing them more and more during work hours, and enjoying it. Wearing jeans is more who I am. Tomorrow I am going to Duke Law School to meet a prospect, a referral, and since people in universities have gotten oddly more formal in their dress even as universities have drifted ever leftward in their curricula, I am going to make and exception and wear some khakis. Black ones. Such is life.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Undoing Project

I just finished Michael Lewis's new book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.  As with many Michael Lewis books, it was a little uneven;  I feel like Lewis has license to write basically whatever he wants because he is Michael Lewis, after all, and he writes so well and has been so successful and has such incredible access.  In a sense, this is evidence of the sort of mean reversion that is observable in all human endeavors:  you can't be great in everything you do.

And part of my reaction to Lewis is, as I think I've shared before, jealousy and envy because I feel like I should be Michael Lewis, out writing about whatever the hell I want to and getting paid for it, as opposed to writing about whatever the hell I want to and not getting paid for it.

And so, the book. It is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their groundbreaking work in psychology that has impacted so many domains. Funny, I had always thought of them as psychologists whose main impact has been in economics, under the banner of behavioral economics, but it turns out that's just one epiphenomenon of their work, the one I've run into.

I have read other books about behavioral economics, usually I don't finish them. This one I finished, because, in the end, it was the story of the remarkable friendship between these two guys and its growing pains, how the one who appeared to be transcendentally brilliant (Tversky) got all the prizes as the two of them got traction, how his brilliance made him a difficult person which spoiled their theretofore incredibly tight friendship and partnership, then how they stuck together to the end nonetheless when Tversky got cancer that killed him fast and young. In the end, Kahneman got the Nobel, and has become more famous.

I cried at the end, and it made me appreciate my excellent friends. I called one today, whose dad is dying of cancer and is in the country for a few weeks. I had been too busy to do it of late, and couldn't make it to New York to see him. But it's OK.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Here I am

It's a typical Sunday morning.  We made pancakes, and were reading the paper.  After looking at the sports page, the one time a week I look at one these days (I get soccer news on weekend nights online), I started in on the Sunday Review section. Very quickly I could see myself getting sucked into the mire of the Trumpmania from which we all suffer now.

I had to pull back and come upstairs to try to lengthen my perspective here on the blog, to try to remember that the world is happening in cycles other than  those dictated to us by our lunatic Tweeter-in-Chief, the oracle of logorrheic bile pent-up within so many. See, there I go. It's hard to escape it even for a few minutes,so thoroughly does it permeate our every pore.

And indeed, there's really not much else of note going on in the world, though I should pause to note that Natalie and her team won their first mock trial competition yesterday, that Graham and I are making headway on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and that, though the show does not compare with Next Generation, I am glad that we have something decent to watch while sharing a blanket in the rec room and that, in particular, I am delighted to have side-stepped a need to watch season three of Avengers Assemble, which would surely have been more of Hulk, Thor and the gang smashing and crashing against an ever-wider array of new and rehashed supercriminals hell bent on destroying the universe as we know it.  I should also say that I went out and played basketball with a couple of guys including Skeet Baldwin yesterday, and that I pretty much shot him out. Today, both of my wrists are sore and one quad where this guy kneed me, but that's the game.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Listening

The other day I met with a couple of prospects who had been referred to me by not one, but two clients, independently.  A nice thing.  We sat and talked for an hour or so, and I walked away from the conversation with about half a page of notes about them.

Which is not really enough. The problem was, of course, that I had been talking more than I had been listening and asking questions, which is really my job. I need to know who they are and what they value so I can offer them good counsel.

I realized that quickly, then thought about it in my meeting yesterday morning. After the meeting, a few of the guys and I repaired to the chilly Starbucks in the foyer of the Harris Teeter by the mall, as we do sometimes. I decided to resist the temptation to talk and to just ask questions and listen to the other guys.  I lasted about 15 minutes, before I started holding forth about something.

This is a facet of the problem of Protuberance (as already documented in these posts).  I.e. the need for the fragile male ego, to wit, my own, to assert itself to establish dominance in the domain for which it is best suited.



It is hard right now to sit back and listen to anything quietly, as Trump and his crew seem hell-bent on wreaking as much destruction as possible as quickly as they can.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A girl and her cat

This morning Natalie started singing one of her more recent songs about our more social cat, Rascal.

Rascal has four paws,
Rascal has four paws,
Rascal has four paws,
And Bingo was its name-o

Earlier tunes include

Rascal cat, is wearing a hat (sung to the tune of "Jesse's mom" (has got it goin on)).

Other highlights of this girl/cat relationship include Rascal sitting on Natalie's lap at the island in the morning when she is having her cereal, and at her desk in the evenings (and daytime) when Natalie is doing her homework.

Natalie also likes to raise Rascal in the air over her head, look up at her, and cry out "Simba!", in the manner of The Lion King. Rascal does not object.

We are not the only ones who will miss her when she is gone, all too soon.