Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Something to keep in mind

I was visiting with a former client yesterday when I was reminded that one of their team had passed away, so I asked about the guy, who was, like, my age. And the guy I was talking to says: "Well, they were getting ready to move to another house and he was down in the basement moving boxes of books around" and I thought I saw the obvious denoument, lifts heavy box, has heart attack. If only things were so simple in life, so the guy keeps going "and it got to be lunchtime, and he sat down and choked on a roast beef sandwich. It got stuck in his throat and there was nobody around, and he died." Which was a new one for me. And gives new meaning and credence to Keith Ferrazzi's dictum "Never eat alone."

No but seriously, that's hard.

Basketball Jones

Even being as equal opportunity offensive as it is, it's difficult to imagine the video being released today.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Day of inquiry

I should be posting about something clever and market related to capitalize on traffic sent over by Felix Salmon's Market Movers blog. But in fact, after a morning conversation with some lofty denizens of the financial district, I have delved into one of the longer-lived mysteries of our time: the lingering question of Jamie Lee Curtis's hermaphroditism.

I must note that I was inspired in this quest by my recent rediscovery of the most excellent series of children's books she has put together with artist Laura Cornell, most recently (in our rotation) I'm Gonna Like Me, Where Do Balloons Go?, and The Human Race, all of which Graham and I have been enjoying immensely. They are as good as children's books get these days, and may take their place in the pantheon of great along with Dr. Seuss, Curious George and Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candlesticks.

But I digress. Hermaphroditism. This rumor has clung to Jamie Lee like the gerbil to Gere, and is no less ticklish. And on what evidence? A boyish name? Adopted children? And what are the counterarguments? True Lies, Trading Places, Perfect, and, of course, this month's shocking topless cover photo of the AARP magazine. OK. Maybe that's not a counter-argument.

In any case, I must say that a few minutes due diligence has resolved little, but has aided and abetted digestion.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

AAA -- shill about town.

AAA is one of those organizations you have to belong to -- everybody needs a tow or a jump now and then -- and yet it's so heinous in its untiring advocacy of all that's motorific that you have to wonder. Usually I toss the AAA magazine as soon as it comes in, but today I snuck a peak at an article on small, fuel-efficient cars. Perhaps there's one I haven't heard of, I thought. But no, of the three "efficient" cars in there, the best is a Mini at 27/34 highway, and there's also the BMW 128i, sporting 18/28 on the one with the smaller engine, Lord knows what for the one with 300 horses. I've already written about mileage when I was a kid. But this is just ridiculous. There should be no mention of 300 horsepower in an article about fuel-efficient.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Merrill Lynch, slackers

While getting my 401k out of Merrill Lynch and moving it to its current roost was in some ways 100 times easier than getting Mary's 403b out of TIAA-CREF: we got it done in one conference call rather than months of hand-wringing bullshit. But then, after moving so swiftly to extract the ducats, I'm informed that Merrill can send them to the recipient either by 1st Class mail (7-10 business days) or by UPS (4 days), and the latter is excluded because the new home uses a PO Box. So all my money is dangling in the USPS zone for 7-10 days, and a lot of them have been good market days.

Now, as market news geeks know, some significant portion of one's lifetime gains can come from being in the market when things turn. This underlies the buy and hold and dollar-cost averaging theologies. So imagine my dismay at having this non-pathetic bucket of cash out being shuffled between mail bins somewhere between here and its destination in the MidWest.

Merrill Lynch is a classic "wirehouse," in industry terms, whatever the fuck that means. Why don't they wire my money?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Life's little mysteries

Why is it that, "Point of Sale," as they say, you have to select whether you're using a credit or a debit card. With all the info they put onto a card, you'd think they could squeeze that in there.

You may infer that there was little going on in my world today, and you would not err in so inferring. I sat at my desk and operated within the thin walls of Microsoft: Excel, Powerpoint, Word, with continual forays into Firefox. It was one of the first warm days of the year, but already our un climate-controlled third floor got clammy. But at least I got on no trains nor cars (hardly).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Theft, it turns out

Until Mike burned me a disc recently, Richard Hell and the Voidoids were a name I knew well, without actually knowing the tunes. Here's their big hit, which is a great song with a great hook indeed, but it's just as interesting to hear how shamelessly Brian Seltzer and the Stray Cats ripped them off.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Graham throws the frisbee

Mary doesn't remember this, but when he was 18-24 months, Graham was a little jock. When I rolled a ball to him on the floor, he could time its trajectory and reach out and catch it about as well as Natalie could at the same point in time.

However, as the years have progressed and he's been diagnosed with first low tone and then fine and gross motor delays (the former surely shared by his papa), he's become progressively less jocky.

So when I took a frisbee with me when I walked down to the preschool to pick him up (yes, we do live well) and then he rode back with me on his bike, I threw the frisbee and tried to keep it on the long straight sidewalks beneath the flowering trees. Once I hit a tree and took down a branch. After that, that's all Graham wanted to see.

But when we got back to the house, Graham showed an active interest in the disc, including throwing it, mostly into bushes and trees, trying to knock them down and whatnot. But he was into it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Retail Structured Product

A couple of years back in a big survey on asset management McKinsey rose up and prophesied the rise of retail structured financial products. It was thinking of fancy shmancy longevity annuities etc.

Frank Partnoy of UC San Diego has written a number of books which argue that Wall Street makes its money on "information asymmetry", making products too complicated for their purchasers to understand them, and sophisticated enough to make the act of purchasing them impute luster to their purchasers.

In the end, then, it looks like fancy mortgages were already that retail structured product that flattered its purchaser with its complexity. "I got 5/1 neg-am ARM." Sounds smooth, no?

What does this imply for the future of financial products? Will there be a return to simplicity, products you can trust?

Friday, April 18, 2008


CNBC yesterday was celebrating its 19th birthday, and in the spirit of sharing it threw some numbers up onscreen (these are best guess from memory). Since the channel's inception, the indices are up like this:

S & P 352%
Dow Jones 440%
NASDAQ a little bit higher even.

Lets talk about the Dow. Just using the rule of 72 to guide us (if rate x number of periods = 72, then you double your amount) we can see that the Dow has a little more than doubled in 19 years. If it doubled twice in 20 years, the rate would be 7.2%, so lets say the Dow has been rising 8% a year to get 440% over 19 years. Before inflation. Lets knock it down two points to control for inflation and we've got a 6% real rate of return. That's below even conservative estimates of historical inflation-adjusted returns. And returns for the broader S & P are lower.

And this during the heyday of CNBC, since 401ks blossomed and equity markets got huge retail
inflows. What it implies is that the new slap-happy capital markets aren't really doing that superb a job with our money.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

8:30 AM, Broad St, across from NYSE

Across from the Exchange, just down the hill but above the Hermes store, there is a swanky apartment building with a very hip lobby in which there is a huge chandelier hung, ironically, just above the floor, asymmetrically off to the left. Other than the elegant chandelier it's all very modern and sleek.

This morning as I passed there were a pair of trader boys in stylish suits and some young lady clearly prostrate before the glamor of this foyer:

Her, with great feeling and no trace of irony: "It's so beautiful!"
One of the hims: "Yeah baby, check that out."

And you could tell this was very important to them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Urban Arteriosclerosis

In its infinite wisdom, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey continues with its ambitious program of building in and around so-called Ground Zero. Seven years later, the hole is one big construction site, and so is everything for blocks around. Somebody's gettin some sweet kickbax and payola.

Anyhoo, last week they opened a new exit from the PATH station, one which took you out the north side of the station and allowed me to skirt some pedestrian volume at the chokepoint when you left the station. So for a few days I liked it. No more.

Now they've closed the old exit and escalators, and everybody has to come and go through the new one, and it's a nightmare because once you hit the streets everyfrickinbody has to walk through an alley at the north end of the site and it's unbearable. Those of you who don't live in the Metro area can't imagine what it's like to spend whole days when seemingly every step you take is constrained by someone in front of you. It sucks.

As a bonus, watching Argentine soccer highlight on FSC reminded me of another chestnut from YouTube: Roberto Carlos highlights.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dues paying

It was recently brought to my attention that it is a violation of blogo-netiquette to not link back to someone who links to me. We were not taught this growing up down in the Piedmont.

However, this being the case I am deeply indebted to one Felix Salmon of Portfolio.com's Market Movers, who has linked to me on a number of occasions and has given me what, in my modest terms, are major traffic events. I can also say that, when lunchtime comes around and it's time to do some reading and I'm faced with the vast void of surfing ideas that is my brain before the internet, that I often read Felix's blog and that I do not regret the choice. He stays on top of things pretty good, for a ding diddily danged furner.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Antony and the Johnsons

Just thought to look on YouTube. The guy is a freak, but he has both pipes and soul.


A nedostroika is an unfinished building, and there were many of them in Russia in the 80s and 90s, cheap 14-story apartment buildings to be that somehow never got done. The conceptualists Ilya Kabakov and Andrei Monastyrsky viewed them and their attendant stagnant pools of fetid water as an allegory for the failure of the Soviet Union. I don't know if they ever quoted Walter Benjamin take on allegory in the Baroque: "allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things", but they might as well have.

The physical legacies of poor planning occur cyclically. I remember well expanses of excess office space in Cary in 1989, and have read of elevated highways to nowhere in Thailand 1997 and boatloads of excess fiberoptics capacity ca 2002-3. All this stuff tends to work itself out in time.

But what of today's surfeit of McMansions and condos, will they be absorbed into the flow of history, or will they be stripped, looted, and rotted? Time will tell.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Popular Malaise

My reposting of Jimmy Carter's Malaise speech has become the search item which brings the most surfers to the Grouse. One wonders what has been the occasion for its rising up in the consciousness of the Googling masses, if not the likeness of the impasse in which we find ourselves to that of Jimmy's day. Though then the America was under threat from the higher quality of imported products (along with expensive oil), when now -- at the far end of an epochal cycle of retooling -- we are victimized by our omnipresent thirst for bigger and more (along with expensive oil).

The new meatloaf

Those with a certain length of perspective will recall how, in the early 90s, meatloaf and mac and cheese began to appear on the menus of stylish urban restaurants: enhanced comfort foods in the post-Milken Bush I recession which assured us that the "greed is good" ethos applied to others and not us and connected us back to our wholesome Mayberry roots (and eventually shifted a good deal of economic power to Bentonville, Arkansas).

What will be the new comfort food? The food which will demonstrate a symbolic return to our roots, a productivist mirage? Or has the homey already been so thoroughly simulacralized as to be not even resurrectable? Perhaps it will be Naan and saag panir.

Friday, April 11, 2008

No Country for Old Men

This is a good movie, with some good scenes, but it's essentially a shoot em up. Minimal plot. Zero character development. Within the Coen ouevre it's a quarter of the movie Fargo is, and it pales beside Raising Arizona too. So why all the fuss and Oscars?

I mean, it's a fine shoot em up. Good sets and cinematography, fine guy dialog, inventive violence. I'm enjoying it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eating in peace

Below is a classic outtake from Luis Bunuel's Phantom of Liberty, otherwise by no means his best film. In it (for those of you too busy to watch the 5 minutes) polite society is transacted as people sit on toilets around a table, where the mere mention of food is scandalous. Towards the end, a man discretely carries himself off to a little eating room at the end of the hall, where he gnaws on some chicken.

I was reminded of this by the lunch culture I see in lots of hard-charging corporate environments, where 90% of lunches are taken at one's desk, as efficiently as possible. Members of senior management may set tone by declaring that they "do not believe in lunch." So food becomes a thing of shame, the barest of necessities. A salad, even.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Monday morning

The cruellest time of all, passing between dimensions. The first train of the week is like shrapnel.

But once I settle into work it almost makes sense.

Religious views

I saw recently that someone had put "I believe in science!" as their religious view on Facebook. True enough.

The problem is that science demonstrates that religion is common to all of mankind, and perhaps is the marker that distinguishes us from other species, as science has shown that "language" has become progressively less able to serve as the thing separating us from beasts since Rousseau first served up that hypothesis in the 1780s. People have religion, animals don't.

Perhaps what religion really gives us is an ability to organize our lives around a bigger narrative framework, a sense that we're going from somewhere to somewhere, which allows us to at least sometimes defer gratification and get other things done.

Don't get me wrong, religion does kinda suck and the whole "ecrasez l'infame" thing has made modern life possible. But at the end of the day, it's still the end of the day, and that's where Pascal's Wager appears less wrong.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. "That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

-Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

There is, perhaps, no downside risk. But when do you have to bet? Catholics allow for deathbed conversion, Mormons collect terabytes of genealogical data to facilitate the retroactive conversion of ancestors when they snag a convert (which pisses some Jews off to no end). Calvinists held a longer view similar to Pascal: since we don't know shit about God, you have to basically assume that he's gonna smite sinners, and so undertake a course of Godliness from right about when you put down the pacifier.

But I digress. At the end of the day religiousity as a species marker probably has everything to do with our general tendency to be abstract and goal-oriented.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Jhumpa'in the gun

After finishing watching The Namesake, and operating on the usually reasonable assumption that the book is at least as good as the novel, I retract my earlier call upon Jhumpa Lahiri to do more. This was a really good and emotionally real movie, which means that a box of Kleenex is recommended for all but the coldest of heart. A touch overwrought at times, but beautifully acted and well rhythmed and resolved. Rent and watch.

My how they mature

It's Jhumpa Lahiri weekend here in Princeton, where we're watching the movie of The Namesakeand then here's my old contemporary Liesl Schillinger writing a review or her new book in the Times Book Review. Before diving into the quasi-catty let me say that I like Lahiri, I thought The Interpreter of Maladies was a very solid collection of stories and observations and this movie is good too, though I've not read the book.

But I'd like to take a second to look at the branding of Lahiri. The jacket cover photo of her first book was all babeliciousness, as were other pix of her when she promoted the book.

But now there's a new Lahiri, as seen below. There are, admittedly, nine years intervening between the two pictures, but it looks like 22 have passed, and amongst them 9/11. What we are being told is that she is now a senior, authoritative woman of letters, and Schillinger will surely not disabuse us of this. I dunno, I think she's good but from the description of her new stories she could push herself a little harder. I think of Ang Lee as a natural peer, someone whose early work (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet, Pushing Hands) meditated thoughtfully on issues of cultural conflict and combination, before he moved on to do good to great work in other genres. I'd like to see more before the claims of seniority are arrogated to her.

But, anyhow, no crime compares with Vikram Seth's failure to give us a sequel to A Suitable Boy.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Reading partner, the aftermath

So on the way out the door, and in the car on the way to school, and on the way from the car into school, Natalie kept asking if I had to come with her to class because not many parents really did it and she really didn't want me to, etc. On and on. And then we got into the school and on the way down the hall she quickened her pace so that she wouldn't be seen with me. And then we got into the classroom and...

It was reading time. So first she read a book to Bridget and she leaned against me and then Bridget read us a book and she kissed my nose and climbed on my back and leaned on me and then I read an Amelia Bedelia book and, well, I think you know how that goes. Amelia Bedelia is funny, and girls love her. So it all went well in the end.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Reading Partner

Tomorrow right after drop off I will be Natalie's reading partner in the classroom. It will be interesting to see if she will hold my hand anywhere on the school grounds, or if that phase is over.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Bedtime, Spring '08

Natalie is in a phase where all she wants to do is play a nose kissing game: I try to kiss her nose, she mine, and we both fight it. She also likes to get backrubs, both Mom-style (feather-like) and Dad-style (more traditional).

Graham, on the other hand, is all about kissing time: on the nose, the mouth, the cheeks. This is a particularly sweet period for him, once he gets done fighting putting on his jammies.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Contractual obligation

It's late and I have to get up early for train to Manhattan and here I am trying to think of things to write about to fulfill my statutory blogging obligation.

My dad turned 70 today and my commute was miserable. But at least it's Spring and the Tar Heels are in the Final Four and, lest we should forget, our man Josh Stein is mounting a forceful drive at the North Carolina State Senate. So all's well.