Thursday, May 28, 2009

La gente, unida

So tonight was the end of year picnic at Community Park School, when everybody brings potluck dinners.  And since CP is located in the only neighborhood in Princeton with a substantial hispanic population, it's a poorly kept secret that the best Mexican food in town is served at this picnic.  And that the Mexican food is far and away the best food at the picnic, although someone Asian usually makes some delicious dumplings too.  Us gringos are kinda slack.   We, for instance, showed up with a lame noodles with peanut sauce, peas, and scallions dish.

So imagine our dismay when we showed up at the picnic, and saw delicious looking stuff on the plates of various Mexican and Guatemalan folx, but we couldn't find it on the picnic table.  Apparently, some private label distribution was going on amongst la communidad.  And who can blame them? 

Eventually some of the good stuff made it to the table.  We should really host a dinner at which we cook real food for the ladies (we assume) of the hood, because they are getting a raw deal at present.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On Target

In "Heard on the Street" today, the WSJournal calls attention to the recent outperformance of Target relative to WalMart despite decreasing same-store customer traffic, market share, and relatively weak P/E ratios.

Me, I think Target's long-term potential (like that of, say, Williams Sonoma) will be hampered by its association with blue state metrosexuality of the boom era going forward, Obama victory notwithstanding. Sam Walton's brand (or lack thereof) is more malleable and focusable on the bare bones of subsistence, which is what everybody's thinking.

Similarly, I'm still waiting for the arrival of the style equivalent of early nineties meat loaf for our era. I see high-school girls out looking like early thrift store Madonna (very much a product of Volcker-era austerity) and I see thrift and consignment stores a-perkin, but I'm looking for more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Soaring above the data

For years I was frustrated by big numbers. Some industry rep would come to Washington or get on the news and say, for example, "Toilet scrubbing brushes are a $100 million dollar industry, we can't allow it to be threatened." And I thought to myself: "Do I care? Should I? How much money is $100 million in the big picture?" I now imagine that banks and analysts keep similar spreadsheets fresh real time.

So I began cobbling together data by hand to put things in perspective and kept it in spreadsheets, usually on my desktop so I could update them frequently (which I rarely did). But, of course, the desktop is a perilous place for data, because it often doesn't get backed up, and that's bad on Windows machines in particular, which share certain properties with their namesakes (i.e. fragility).

So here's the current version of my spreadsheet, now up on Google and free for editing by anyone. Some of it's out of date. See also sheet two for adding good data sources. If you do feel like adding or updating, please initial where you make changes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rendezvous in Paris

Rendezvous in Paris by Claude Lelouch.
On an August morning in 1978, French filmmaker Claude Lelouch mounted a gyro-stabilized camera to the bumper of a Ferrari 275 GTB and had a friend, a professional Formula 1 racer, drive at breakneck speed through the heart of Paris, early in the morning.

The film was limited for technical reasons to 10 minutes; the course was from Porte Dauphine, through the Louvre, to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. No streets were closed, for Lelouch was unable to obtain a permit.

The driver completed the course in about 9 minutes, reaching nearly 140 km/h (86.99 mph) in some stretches. The footage reveals him running real red lights, nearly hitting real pedestrians, and driving the wrong way up real one-way streets.

Upon showing the film in public for the first time, Lelouch
was arrested. He has never revealed the identity of the driver, and the film went underground. It is a classic. Turn on your sound and enjoy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why doesn't BofA sell Black Rock stake?

AnUntil this morning, I had somehow forgotten that BofA, having swallowed Merrill Lynch but not quite digested it, thereby inherited a huge chunk of BlackRock. Now, it's been clear for a long time the BlackRock and PIMCO were ideally positioned to do well in the TARP-PPIP environment, and they've been doing well.

So if BofA is divesting itself of CCB for $7 billion to get its stress test money, why shouldn't it also dump BlackRock. In fact, if the government is in a strong-armish mood, witness its treatment of Ken Lewis in December and Rick Wagoner more recently (not that either episode made me lose sleep), this should be the occasion for twist an arm and force BofA to raise money by selling its BlackRock. I mean, talk about conflict of interest, of piece of BofA -- the BlackRock Toxic Avengers -- in the driver's seat valuing the degraded assets of the old Merrill book.

Another thing that's been bothering me: How BofA / Merrill Lynch has decided to plump up First Republic as its wealth management arm. Never mind the difficulties with integrating US Trust, BofA Private Client, Merrill Wealth Management, etc., they're just pushing out First Republic as a main brand as if to wipe the slate clean, even though you can see the little Merrill Lynch down at the foot of the page. It's just silly.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A geek for the ages

This is a pretty amazing talk. Twenty minutes long. Just watch the first five if that's all you've got. The moral is: publicly funded data should be free.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


In the end Milk lived up to the hype.  Earnest, yes, and Dan White's actions were marginally undermotivated (where were the famous Twinkies?), but that was a sideline.  It was a biopic that transcended the genre, about an issue that remains, sadly relevant.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Glut of construction workers and Habitat

Has this surplus been addressed? Could construction workers come in and upskill people? But how can you convince construction workers to give away something that destroys their market value, and how do you teach them to teach?

Generally speaking, Habitat is could be net destructive of value. From Mercy Corps New Orleans anecdotes, construction workers have to go back in and rebuild shit on Monday that Habitat people cobble together over the weekend to assuage their guilty feelings. Better use of bourgeois people's time than swinging hammer would be to tutor and/or clean brownfields and plant trees or somesuch. Variously learn/teach financial literacy, as needed. Just donate money.

Habitat makes people feel good and that they're doing something. That could be a good thing, if it inspires them to do more, or a bad one, if they go home and do less.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reading habits

Natalie's new habit is to read up to eight books at one time.  At bed time, when I now lay at the other end of the bed, feet intertwined with hers, she reads the books serially, reading a chapter from one book and then, at something like seven minute intervals, she gets up, puts the book on the bedside table behind her with a bookmark in it, and takes another book out.  And so on until I force her to turn her lights out.

Which is fine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A day in the life, or, how United Health Care sucks

Natalie was scheduled to go in for a procedure tomorrow to implant a subdural device to diffuse hormones to arrest her early onset puberty (she'll be nine in June), which threatened in turn to stunt her growth and subject her to schoolyard taunting. The device is very expensive (ca $20k) and the procedure to implant it not cheap (ca $3k).

To get approval for the device, we had to actually speak to the manufacturer to confirm that we had coverage, and we did, with United Health Care, I thought, which one of my now former employer's partners had assured me was part of our "Cadillac benefits package" (how apt the GM analogy seems today). Turns out the device was covered by Medco, not UHC. Praise the Lord.

So this morning we get a call from William F. of United Health Care's Customer Care Denial team who tells us that the procedure is not covered. Quoth he: " of our doctors reviewed the claim and notice that the device (covered by Medco, already shipped by the manufacturer) is approved for use by symptomatic females up to age 8, while your daughter is 8 years and 11.25 months of age..." William F, it must be owned, was well suited for his role in the Customer Care Denial department, as he remained calm and unflapped as Mary and I berated him vigorously and I threatened to blog. Little did I know there was a whole blogosphere out there devoted to the theme "United Health Care Sucks".  So UHC, unlike other companies, doesn't really worry about bad blog press, as there's already so much out there.

So over the course of the day we've had conversations with:
  1. United
  2. Our pediatric endicrinologist
  3. Our pediatric surgeon
  4. The device manufacturer
  5. My Professional Employer's Organization and Cobra administrator (not to be confused with my former employer)
And, as you can imagine, nothing is resolved, though we've been told the device has been shipped and Medco has covered it, which is some comfort.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fat guys with power tools

Running down by the towpath on Delaware & Raritan canal at Carnegie Lake, I saw the state of America as if etched in amber. Over by some sort of bunkerish water treatment facility, about four obese municipal workers were cutting overgrowth with chain saws, then throwing the overgrowth into a big chipper they left running. Think about the externalities of this, all these two-stroke and other large engines left running to reduce the aggregate carbon sink, and how much it costs to manage the health of these fat guys: the disability and health insurance.

What about the good old axe? And hasn't anybody developed a pedal-powered chipper? That's obviously the ticket here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

As stupid as only white people may be

On the train back from the city today, ended up in front of a couple of kids who were maybe coming back from a Mets game, one maybe 11, one in the neighborhood of 13. The two of them, especially the younger, kept up an incessant string of inane prattle, like Beevis and Butthead in real life. "Dude, they make some really cool graffiti.... that one's awesome.". Singing along puerile lyrics to classics of hair metal. Never an instant of quiet. And their parents behind them never say a word.

One things for sure, I'm showing signs of age-derived grumpiness.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Not really ideal for posting on Mother's Day

...but I just saw Rushmore for the first time last night, and caught the "you are forgiven" part therein, which is as classic a piece of rock and roll as you're likely to find, so here's the whole piece for your delectation.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gevalia Coffee canister

Cleaning the house today, my eye alit to the porcelain Gevalia coffee canister, which currently holds 8' O'clock coffee which Mary insists we mix with Starbuck's because she hates the thought of paying for the latter at McCaffrey's.

This canister has a long history.  First off, it came with Gevalia coffee, which is, many years of coffee culture later, still really good coffee.  Secondly, it was sent to me in the winter of 1988, a snowy winter in Chapel Hill, when I was living south of town in a glorified shack heated only by a coal stove in the living room which, fortunately, burnt wood too.  These were hard times for the kid.  Having returned from a northern swing full of avant garde glamor and romance in New England, I settled in for a nasty winter when I got a DWI and was freezing my butt off.  My mom and sister chipped in and sent me a down comforter and chamois sheets and pillowcases, which were helpful.

And then, one day, the mailman brings me this coffee canister, sent by one Elizabeth "Betsy" Bishop of the University of Chicago Department of Political Science, with whom I had hung in Moscow in the summer of '87 and who was doing a dissertation on Russo-Egyptian relations. She subsequently married some Egyptian guy and settled in a suburb of Cairo.  If anyone knows her whereabouts, send her to comment on this blog or have her email me at  Good people.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


  • The geese, absent of traditional predators, have been rather emboldened here in the Garden State.  Running along Carnegie Lake, the parents stood close by their chicks and hissed and did a little dance with their necks, rather than give ground to the rather bigger me.
  • Graham selected Babar's Castle for tonight's reading, telling me that we were going to have to read the books about moving many times "so I can understand what it's like to move."  If only we had elephant-shaped medieval armor and secret passages where we're going.
  • After one week on the market, our house has now had at least 20 real prospects as well as a dozen-odd curious neighbors and 40-50 brokers tramp through it.  And it still looks clean. Which makes me wonder how I got myself bossed into taking off my shoes when I come in the house.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Mercer County Tennis Complex, 9 pm

David and I got a court next to a couple of roundish guys, one 52 or 3 who looked like Don Rickles, one 45 or so.  They had somewhat unorthodox strokes, but they were whacking the shit out of the ball and running each other all around.  I was torn been fearing that I would ever end up looking like them and wishing I could be just like them.  Fact is, both are probably already true.

Friday, May 01, 2009

David Foster Wallace

Was someone I had basically avoided. Infinite Jest seemed like something I should definitely read but something so taxing that I shouldn't actually try to, and so many of those young bad boy genius authors have been so disappointing. But now am reading his profile in the New Yorker and he seems rather kindred in many respects, and the extract from his last work published there is interesting, so I may need to wade into the guy.

Went to the city today.
At 8th and 30th, on the West hand side of the street, I espied a Chinese restaurant called "Dinersty". Hmm. I think they were aiming at a pun, but somehow went off track.

Wondered if I would see anybody wearing masks. Sure enough, an Asian couple on the 1:01 train back to Princeton had their mouths scrupulously covered.