Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Where are the editors?

Why is financial prose so often so faulty. Re-reading Roger Lowenstein's When Genius Failed now, and it is
in many ways a fine book. He's got a great theme going: arrogant believers in pure rationality versus the old guard, trusting experience. Intellect vs. instinct. In some ways it revisits John Henry and the steam engine.

And yet, who was editing this book? There are so many portents, omens, signs, indications, auguries and foreshadowings that it's all excessively overdetermined. Pretty much every page has some version of, "seen in in hindsight, it's now clear that blah." Hindsight is famously easy after the fact. Who are the editors that let all these omens through? Cmon guys, work a little.

But John Meriwether is really, right up with Mohammed Atta, a figure crying out for a biopic. Great dramatic material for both of them, if different. What are the Weinstein brothers up to if not making these movies? Slackers.

Back to the question of books, take Peter Bernstein's Against the Gods. Again, a classic, sui generis, the only good general history of the development of probability theory there is. But the chapter structure leaves something to be desired. There are like 20 chapters, each of them dedicated to a seminal figure in the history of probability and risk assessment. Each chapter is this: there was this guy, he was really smart, but also eccentric (drank a lot, whored a lot, played cards), he contributed blah to the theory of risk, with blah taking 8-10 pages.

First off, this violates the basic principle that any given narrative can have a limited number of highpoints, typically 3 or 4. The story must rise to and fall from them. You just can't have 20 peaks. Again, an editor could have done wonders.

Photo session with Natalie

Just looking over the many shots Mary took, over an hour and a half, to get a good holiday card picture of Natalie and Graham. Several reflections follow, all from reading Natalie's face (Graham being too young to really understand).

  1. It really must suck to have a photographer for a mom. All that sitting still can really make a young girl mad.
  2. Having lots of exposures of the same person really gives a lot of nuance, and in aggregate really provides a tremendous view into a personality, especially when there's an element of duress at work in the sitting and someone cavorting in the background to try to distract the sitter. The archival value will lie in the session and the range of expressions elicited, not the final picture selected for distribution.

    Balzac famously resisted being photographed, fearing that a piece of his soul was being pealed off, like the layers of an onion. As if soul were a zero sum game. Who knows, maybe for him it was. I don't think it's a very lossy transaction, although, as any good pomo person will object, the distinction between performing a self and being onesself is pretty thin and can be easily effaced entirely by a perceived need to perform.

Hmmm. Better get ready for work.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Christmas lights at Saks

Looking down over 5th Ave right now from my office as it's getting dark. A couple of lame little "tasteful" trees over in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral (what do you expect from a church?), but the lights on Saks 5th rock pretty good. OK, they're monochrome, and right now they're just sitting there, but at times they wind those puppies up and get some fine rhythmic patterns going. On. Off. Fading. Flashing. Not bad for a staid department store.

Give us a break

Though it remains hands down the best English-language news magazine, even as it quaintly refers to itself as a "newspaper", The Economist sometimes wraps its head around its ankles. In its year-end issue it devotes a couple of pages to mocking lit-crit types who've been "deconstructing" the Economist, making fun, in particular, of their quasi-exegetical pretensions to finding and decoding domineering and exclusionary master narratives within its articles. Great. It's always fun to pick on the goofy excesses of graduate students and junior faculty. It sells magazines and grants an air of intellectual superiority.

But wait! In the same issue, in its cover story on Apocalypticism, millenarianism, etc., the Economist does its own bit of lit crittery, and not a particularly inventive one at that. Succeeding earlier cyclical cosmologies, Zoroaster begets apocalypticism and a linear conception of history, bequeathing it to Judeaism and Christianity (OK. Standard fare). Marxist historiography also has an apocalyptic master narrative (also not news). Manifest destiny and even the idea of "progress" depend on a the imputed presence of an End (Lit Crit 201). In short, this is all a type of grand hermeneutics which is inconceivable without the speculative inheritance of the literary theoretical tradition which stretches from Nietzsche to the present.

I can see scientists cringing in their lab coats, gazing longingly at their pin-ups of Allen Sokal. "It's all so speculative, there's no data, no proof!" But here's the thing: scientists have budgets for labs. They make lots of mistakes there, and don't publish them. They also publish tons of useless or soon-to-be-superceded work. Humanists have only one good lab: the market. They discuss things with colleagues, which could be likened to preliminary due diligence, get drafts read, and then publish. At that point in time, their ideas really enter the lab. So yeah, there's lots of funny stuff floating around out there. The real reason magazines don't make fun of scientists so much is not that there's not lots of foolishness out there, but that their work doesn't provide as much good comic material.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Who'd have thunk it? Food poisoning? From Whole Foods fresh chicken sausage?

And I've got to drive to the in-laws in the rain, over the GWB and all. Yuck.

Random notes

Blue hooked me up with some fine tunes. Ted Leo's not bad, reminiscent of the Jam, the Buzzcocks, Squirrel Bait, Blur. The Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is flat out rich. I'm shocked Black Francis isn't involved. The chord progressions and general lyrical flow are so Pixies-like, and not the Kim Deal side of things.

For those with an interest, the Sex Police are reuniting for one show at the Cat's Cradle on New Year's Eve. It'll be a great chance to relive the Chapel Hill scene before Sonic Youth made fun of us, before Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Ben Folds Five, and other bands threatened for a moment to turn the southern part of heaven into the next Seattle / Athens. Before the internet and the total subsumption of the alt scene by the majors changed things entirely.

Oh yeah, on yesterday's paean to 1989, I forgot to link to the great anthem of the period, "'89" by the Croatian Iggy Pop-loving band Majke. This live one's not as good as the album version, but hell, it's free.

Off to the in-laws for the holidays. Low bandwidth. Will try to check in with the Grouse, but it's hard to predict.

S rozhdestvom! Happy holidays! Joyeux Noel! Feliz Navidad! and so on.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A big day

December 22nd is a huge day. I remember December 22nd, 1989 so clearly. The dictator Nikolai Ceausescu and his wife Elena got were apprehended in Romania by agents of the uprisen people. American troops moved in on the rogue drug-dealer Noriega in Panama. I remember well watching the news on a big screen in the Student Union in Chapel Hill and thinking that things really were changing, incredibly. On Christmas day, when they lined the Ceausescus up and shot them dead like the dogs they were, it sealed in blood the genteel progression from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Prague through the release of Mandela in February of 1990. It's instructive to recall that there was a moment in our lives when history really opened up and revealed seemingly endless possibilities, when it really seemed like progress was in the wind. The oft-posited analogy with 1848 is well taken.

That 9/11 is the counterpoint to the solstice of '89, and that its preconditions were already simmering at that time in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere, that's the great irony. Frances Fukuyama already in the summer of '89 speculated that religious fundamentalism might supplant the Cold War struggle as the dominant sub-narrative after the "end of history," but he didn't quite sense how quickly and violently a virulent hatred of the West and secular "progress" would flow into the cavity left by the fallen demon communism. Who did? Whoops.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Party's over...

and the numbers are in.

Number of guests attending: 54
Average # of guests in house at once: 33
Injuries or broken dishes: 0
Beers drunk: 1
Cookies and desserts brought into the house: Beyond counting

A number of key inferences can be derived from this year's holiday party:

* We can fit more people in our house, and therefore invite more.

* Utilizing our precise tabulations of food purchased, imported, and eaten, we can better predict future consumption, thereby reducing future waste, taking into account a few additional variables, such as average age of child. Aggregate and per capita consumption can be assumed to correlate to age of children, which should only rise. Anecdotal evidence does not suggest that this rise in consumption will be to any demonstrable degree offset by a decrease in consumption by aging adults.

* (As if to demonstrate the above) Those desserts made with chocolate chips, coconut, caramel and a graham cracker crust are too delicious, even if made right out of a box.

* Do not leave important and fancy dishes in the closet off the downstairs bathroom if 7-year olds will be present. An impromptu game of hide-and-seek almost lit up the board on the "injuries and broken dishes" stat.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

More holiday cheer

Our own holiday party starts in a few hours. Food and drinks are pretty much good to go. House is clean. Guest list is firmed up. Should be lots of fun.

Discussion of my employer's 4th quarterly meeting can be found on my other blog.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Too much money, too few ideas

Everybody agrees all the major hedge fund arb strategies are overfunded and maxed out. In its recent survey of private equity, the Economist notes that PE funds are having trouble finding exit strategies because they can't IPO and big corporate buyers aren't stepping in, making Private Equity a troublesome place to leave money. Where are the truly High Net Worth to put all their cash? LVMH can't absorb it all. Break out the violins.

They'll tell you that VC industry provides capital to start ups. Why does it need to exit? Why can't investors stick around for a business to mature and live off the income from them, like the god-fearing entrepreneurs of the dinner tables of yore?

What it all boils down to is too much money chasing too few ideas, and I mean real world ideas, not investment strategies. What have we come up with since the bubble burst? Offshoring. Itunes. Sarbanes-Oxley. The Patriot Act. That's about it. GM rebadges the Impreza as a Saab. Shiver me timbers.

If the superrich don't know what to do with their money, one idea might be, ummm, a more progressive tax structure to pay down the frickin deficit. Golly.

Generally entrepreneurialism beat down by corporate culture. With a big box for everything or a website category killer, and the rest of the web to spread ideas quickly, there's room for fewer consumer and business facing niches.

Meanwhile, out in California, one of the few, the proud Grousereaders has nurtured a consumer products idea in his capacious bosom for some time, and will soon unleash it on America with a fury like none seen for many a quarter! I think it has something to do with computers... Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Seasonal cheer

Ah, the holidays. Good times abounding. Natalie and I decorated the tree on Saturday while listening to the Charlie Brown Chistmas soundtrack. I even strung up lights on the porch and the house looks fabulous.

This does, however, return me to a debate on Christmas tree lights and holiday aesthetics in general which I have with Mary and her fellow Westchesterite siblings. I grew up with a twinkling tree, not a blinking one. That is, the lights blinked irregularly, so that the tree twinkled. All these swanky yankees I married into, however, insist that Christmas tree lights should be static. Some even advocate for white lights. Boring.

As far as yards go, we drive by big fancy houses now with restrained lighting on their bushes and Mary praises them and I'm just like: where are the glowing sleighs, reindeer, elves, candycanes and whatnot? Why no blinking? That's the stuff that defined the destination yards when I was a kid. Not that you would want all that crap in your own yard, or your neighbor's, for that matter, but you could appreciate that somebody had done all that work and really brought the season to life. And you got in your car and drove there.

I had meant to write about holiday card and party and all that, but I see 15 minutes have gone by. Back to coal mine.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Masha Gessen is...

The Muscovite journalist Masha Gessen was in Princeton a couple of weeks ago giving a talk on censorship and self-censorship in Putin's Russia and gently stumping for her new book about her two grandmothers during the purges. One of them was, you guessed it, a censor, and the other one also had to make some accomodations with the Stalin regime, as did most. Since they bent a little and made it through, we have Masha, a no-nonsense investigative journalist in time and place not really suited for her ilk.

After her talk I joined Masha (whom I knew from Moscow) and a bunch of others for a dinner, and I asked her about our common friend Katia Petrovskaia, originally of Kiev but now in Berlin. Masha promised me to send Katia's email address, but hasn't done so just yet. Tsk tsk.

In a discussion of the so-called "World Wide Web," Masha recounted how she and some of her friends play a game called "Googlism" where they google the phrase "(Googler's name) is" and see what comes up. Lets see how soon it is that Masha plays that game, and if she pulls up the Grouse. Stay tuned, fair reader, for an update...

Sunday, December 12, 2004

They can put it in you...

But they can't take it out.

This is one of the many bullshit macho mantras bandied about on ESPN2's 3, a biopic of the late Dale Earnhardt and his moustache. Mary was kind enough to sit and watch this piece of red-state hooey, which consisted largely of guys with standing around nodding, furrowing their brows, and saying alternately deep, homoerotic, and portentous things to one another, and then going and racing cars. Fishing, hunting, beer and guns are also featured. In one classic scene, Earnhardt lays down the law and tells his son, also known as Dale, that he must finish high school if he wants to race stock cars like his paw. Tough love.

It segued directly into the World Series of Poker, featuring lots of guys who wear their sunglasses indoors, including one guy whose trademark is, get this, wearing them upside down! I want to launch a start-up just so I can hire that guy.

I'm glad I watched ESPN2 tonight so I could get back in touch with what it means to be a man.

Graham is walking

Yes indeed, the little guy is taking steps consistently and somewhat confidently, taking off from a standing start: i.e. pulling up or getting up off a step or the little star couch up here on the third floor. And he has this expression of immense pride and glee.

And he's expanded his repertoire of consonants as well, having mastered all the vowels, probably, while still in the womb, but certainly on the maternity ward.

And he's fallen in love with Brown Bear, Brown Bear. A reasonable step towards literacy. To double his fun, he walks while holding his favorite book. I like it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Happy and Secure Holidays!

Dear Grousereader,

It has been my pleasure to provide you with blogmatter this year, and I look forward to continuing to do so through 2005.

Graham Berridge Troy
917 Ruminant Ave
Central, NJ 08007

ps. This note shouldn't exactly be construed as a threat to those who choose not to contribute.

pss. The forward-looking may also consider also supporting Ernie&Bert2008.DNC.org.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

On machismo and other censoring forces in the blog

I've talked about censoring forces on the blog before, and here I am again. On the one hand, the blog should be a free medium, bloggers write about anything they want. On the other hand, this blog is mostly being read by a bunch of guys that I know, so there's a strong tendency for a sort of egghead machismo to impose itself, a pressure to write what's pleasing to my audience. Wit, first and foremost. Sardonicism.

But wit and irony, as we all know, is a prime way of distancing onesself from whatever one is dealing with. From James Ellroy to Martin Amis, there's a strong tendency in contemporary literature (and has been for some time) to interpose a strong-voiced narrator between reader and narrative, to wall experience off in affect. Immediacy can also be a fetish, but it can be done well, as Claire Messud has done so stunningly in the first half of her most recent book, The Hunters. (had to get a plug in for Claire, who, full disclosure, is a friend from college)

And of course I can't really blame the blog. I'm talking about myself, really, my blog. In any case, my 15 minutes are up and I don't know where I was going with this. Oh well.

The general and the specific

Of all the blogs I've checked out, and it's not really all that many, one that sticks in my brain if not my bookmarks is one where a woman, amongst other stuff, described her commute home in the DC suburbs. Like so. "Did it again today. I meant to get off 495 and Jensen's Corner Rd., but I forgot about the construction on the offramp and I had to go all the way down to the Smithson Ave exit. I got forced into the westbound lane and had to make a U-turn via the WalMart parking lot, where I was backed up for 5 light cycles. Then it started to rain."

On the one hand, I have no idea what she's talking about, those specifics of time and place. On the other hand, I'm right there with her, cursing fate as 25 minutes of the precious post-work day are eaten up by one moment of lapsed attention and a whole lot of civil engineering. When you get this effect, the blog rises to the level of great realism, the great realistic novel, where the utterly particular is conveyed with the proper tone and nods to the reader so that it rises to the level of the universal. Or, at least, it's universal to anyone close enough in experience to the narrator to get it.

Good documentaries can achieve the same effect, though they tend to be marred, ironically, by excess didacticism, with affectations of cinema verite undercut by preaching to the converted agendas. Errol Morris does it well, at times.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Andy Roddick, the Times tells us, was very sportmanlike in the US Davis Cup loss to Spain, even though he couldn't win on clay to save his life. Good work, kid. Back in the day, I would have been into his Green Day affectations and other goofiness, but now I think it just detracts from his already sufficiently boring game.

I remember back when Ben Jonson and Carl Lewis went head to head in the Olympics and Ben, with steroids making his eyes a blazing, raging red, was like: "I'm gonna kick that skinny boy's ass" where Lewis, in his quasi Michael Jackson voice, allowed that "I just want to go out and do my best and run my fastest..." and I just wanted Jonson to crush him like a bug, because Jonson was being more honest and forthright.

But now, when I hear athletes attribute their success to God and the like, particularly African American athletes (as middle American white people's Christianity just gives me the willies), I think there's something rather touching and earnest about it, an understanding that success combines something received and something made, a refusal to be egomaniacal about accomplishment.

But I dunno. Maybe this graciousness is deceiving, yet another example of ideology as bad faith. The corporate world rewards the steroidal alpha dog before all else. Better go do that.

Monday, December 06, 2004

No time. Must actually work

I'm getting behind at work, if you can believe that. Am supposed to have submitted my quarterly review, but instead must concentrate on getting a proposal in the hands of a hedge fund that is insisting that we sell to them more quickly. What a rare situation. Meanwhile another hedge fund opportunity via a former wholesaling client in lies fallow while I can't do anything. Crazy.

Perhaps it's best that I write little, as I've thought equally little.

Had lunch at a diner that proclaims itself to have "The best wait staff in the history of the world" in a message scrawled permanently on a wall mirror. This is not in fact borne out empirically.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Crossover artist

While working on my Christmas List, I stopped back by Gillian Welch's website to evaluate her albums we don't yet own, and got hooked on a concert video of "Red Clay Halo," which is basically an intensely beautiful and upbeat meditation on death, or "crossing over." Another variant on ashes to ashes. Meaningful art about death is hard for us to swallow. There is no basically secular idiom of death. "Your mom died, oh man, that's really hard."

The gloom and doom of funereal and church iconography don't really quite get it, either. I mean, yes, looking upwards in a gothic church, at the stained glass and all that, does intimate transcendence and permanence, but it's all very cerebral. Does little for the gut.

But bluegrass and other folk traditions celebrating death, really singing it, that's hard to assimilate within daily life. It's a whole other dimension of devotional art, very powerful and disruptive in its own way.