Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Year

This weekend we watched Mike Leigh's most recent film, Another Year. While the film can be a bit difficult to watch as much of the screen time is occupied by a couple of alcoholics who are friends and colleagues of the protagonists, one of whom is pretty much an open and bottomless wound, it is, in the end, a Mike Leigh film, which is a good thing.  Leigh has a vision which is infinitely more human than most of the rest of the directors over the course of cinema history, and all he cares about is people.

And it is, moreover, a film warmed by the presence of Jim Broadbent, who is really one of the great actors of our time.  It wasn't until I looked at his IMDB page that I realized just how omnipresent the guy is, he's really the Morgan Freeman of Great Britain, the moral center so many directors call on.  And apparently he's done 7 films with Mike Leigh, and I haven't seen all of them.  I'll be fixing that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

This weekend's viewing

Finished up City Island, with Andy Garcia. A nice little movie, very much worth seeing, like a younger and less ambitious cousin of Moonstruck.

Then we watched In the Loop, with James Galdofini and a bunch of foul-mouthed Brits.  Extremely funny and cynical, though it putters into an anti-climactic end.  Still, well worth seeing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Flying from Ft Lauderdale to Charlotte last night, a couple got into the two seats between me and the window.  He had on a Guns and Roses like bandana, with long hair, with his head shaved up under his ears and some patchy jeans. I started talking to them, and it turns out they were down in Florida getting married.  Alone.  Without family, on purpose.  Stayed in some luxury time share on Fisher's Island near Palm Beach.

Turns out, they needed time alone.  They had 5 kids between em, 3 from previous marriages and a couple of their own.  Both were in college, and he had two jobs.  One of them, it turns out, was in a slaughterhouse, slaughtering 1300 pigs a day.  And he gave me a fair amount of detail around the processes involved in killing them, which.... I will spare you. It made me think about vegetarianism, but when he hit the ground he was intent on finding some bbq (and rightly so, though the slaw down in that part of the state kind of sucks).  I think he wanted to fuck with me a little bit (and he did).

And between the five kids and two jobs, he had found time to master Angry Birds, to get up to levels Graham and I have never dreamed of.  A very sweet guy.  Spent a lot of time looking through his wedding pix (they were both in white) on his computer and declaring that this one or that one is the best.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I never thought an issue of Businessweek would make me cry, but here comes this week's with a picture of Steve Jobs on the cover, and I'm thinking:  oh, here's Businessweek's tribute issue.  So I start thumbing through it and see, in fact, that it's something more than that.  It's all about Jobs and Apple, every page, and there only appears to be one advertiser, and you can guess who it is.  20 consecutive pages of pictures of Steve and people around the world with Apple products, with quotes from Steve about life and death superimposed on them.  No logos.

It is, in short, a little breathtaking.  I'll read the articles later.

And keep in mind that I'm not even really an Apple fan. I'm writing this on a wintel machine, have an Android phone, mostly use my iPad (which I got for free) as a reading device.

Went back and read the articles, and they didn't add a ton to what I had read earlier in other places, but I did read it all.  Jobs was a compelling figure.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The New Yorker for the iPad

Is ridiculously large.  This week's is 186 megs.  The whole iPad stores 12 or 16 gigs.  Unless I'm mistaken, the New Yorker could theoretically max the thing out in a little over a year.  Absurd.  Nobody needs the ads to be this freaking hi-res.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Together

I really need to do some work tonight, but I keep coming home and getting sucked into reading about the Occupation, because, yes, it's important. If you haven't read Naomi Klein's speech from Zuccotti Square, do.

OccupyTogether is also impressive.

I have outlined some of my misgivings about the Occupation, but, while everything they say is not right, and they don't have all the answers, in essence they are not wrong.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Lots of TV

Graham, was sick today, so we watched a lot of TV, or, as the case may be, videos.  Late morning, it was Looney Tunes, including "The Scarlet Pumpernickel". Later, as part of his new Star Wars thing, we watched Revenge of the Jedi. I guess I had never watched it before, because I definitely had never seen Darth Vader pick up the Emperor and hurl him down into the conveniently placed abyss, and then have him die, helmet off and looking all space skanky, in Luke's arms.

The 99%

I have been spending a fair amount of time at We are the 99% reading the stories there.  Much of it is moving and powerful and times are hard and lots of people are getting fucked, but sometimes it's annoying to read about people who undertook impractical courses of study and huge debt loads and then are surprised they can't find work.

I know it is ridiculous for someone with a PhD in Russian Literature to say that, but it's true. I wouldn't have studied what I did if it meant taking on debt. I am definitely amongst the 99% in terms of income and wealth, but I'm towards the upper end of it, and am perhaps amongst the 1% in terms of good fortune and educational attainment. I probably could have joined the 1% had I been more practical in my career choices and had that world just not seemed shallow and repulsive and just too focused on work.

And if you think America's 99% are hungry, think how hungry the 99% in China, India, Zambia, Indonesia etc.are, how hard they're working, and what they're getting back in real terms.

But a big part of our problem now is indeed that America isn't producing things the rest of the world wants to buy.  To stay affluent we really do need to focus on science and math education -- which means that people need to be focused on the potential economic returns of what they study.  I have been extremely lucky in my ability to fight my way back from being impractical, and that I chose to do it right when unemployment was very low.

But we also need support for entrepreneurship, which means that making credit available to small and medium-sized businesses is important.  And at the end of the day the government is not going to do the best job doing that. Well-regulated capital markets can and should do a good job.  Does Dodd-Frank do a good job of doing that?  Who knows, there's too much of it to say and it's not well articulated. It's better than nothing, but probably too much. Reinstate Glass-Steagall?  Maybe.

So, yes, tax reform is necessary.  Wealthy people aren't paying enough taxes, and that includes me. Yes, health care reform is necessary.  Let people keep marching, and let us all keep reading and talking.

I know I keep rambling on.  Must go play with Graham.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Fox Soccer going downhill

Why so little Premier League and Champions League these days?  Has all the good stuff moved to Fox Soccer Plus or something where you have to pay a premium?

Or is this about general Murdoch empire financial weakness?

Murdoch has brought very little good into the world: the Simpsons, FSC.  And both seem to be fading.  So sad.

Update:  just saw that this is an off weekend for Premier League and that Wayne Rooney was off getting himself in trouble in Montenegro, so maybe I haven't been paying attention.   And I will also note that college soccer seems to be getting better in America.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

On Steve Jobs and Jim Valvano

I've never been a huge huge fan of Steve Jobs, though he has truly changed our lives. Somehow I thought the back-dating of stock options was in bad taste, and his management style sounded atrocious.

But I was nonetheless very sad to hear he had died, and I had a hard time falling to sleep last night.

I had never heard about his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, but it was everywhere this morning and I read it, and it is moving.  But it reminded me of another, similar, stronger moment even.  I've posted this before, but here it is again. It's worth watching every few years.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

One of my readers asked me what I think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that's a good question. I don't know what to think, so I keep reading. In the last few days I read Nikolas Krystof's piece in the Times, this critique of it, this piece in Dissent magazine, this piece in the Awl, and other stuff too.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and the truth is that I've been working in and around finance for a decade and I'm not always happy with what I see.  I was in the hedge fund world for a few years and I was pretty disgusted, not necessarily with the people who made a lot of money, and I didn't see so much of them, as the hoi polloi in the crowds who fawned on them with so much adulation and so coveted their ducats.  Many of the people who were actually making money were in fact pretty interesting people, and really focused on understanding things clearly -- which is how they became successful -- rather than on strutting around displaying their wealth.  Though I never went to any of their houses. Had I done so, I may well have been disgusted.

So I've been in and around finance for a decade, and have developed a fondness for companies that focus on providing good value to clients.  I love Vanguard, though most of my money's at Fidelity (long story).

So, do I think everybody on Wall Street are criminals? No, but there is a degree of nastiness that gets distasteful.

Do I think that the answer to our health care problems can just be fixed with a stroke of the pen and saying that everybody gets free health care?  No.

Do I think that the wealth dispersion in this country is bad for our society?  Yes.
Do I think that this problem is easily remediated by just taxing the hell out of the rich? No.
Do I think that the Bush tax cuts were one of the stupidest policy decisions of our lifetime?  Yes.
Do I think that the war in Iraq has been the stupidest foreign policy venture of my sentient lifetime? Yes.

Similarly, excessive executive compensation is definitely a problem, but it can't be solved by just outlawing big salaries. More progressive taxation is probably par of the answer, if not a somehow simplified tax code (I'm not a tax guru so I won't pontificate on what it should be).

But do I think that the solution to our fiscal situation is as simple as banksters stealing people's money?  No. Increases in longevity and demographic curves (all the retiring boomers) as well as chronic diseases (obesity, diabetes, etc.) have changed the picture for us. Entitlements will need to be tweaked as we age.

But yes, McDonald's et al. are pretty evil.

But am I substantially invested in the stock market?  Yes.  I'm too lazy to own rental real estate and I think that burying gold in one's backyard is nihilism.  Though the regulatory structure we have is imperfect and Harry Markopolos of Madoff fame clearly demonstrated that it is worse than that in certain ways, the free press and some pretty hard-nosed and hard-working analysts provide a level of corporate governance in the US that's better than most other places (compare recent experiences in China and the collapse of Satyam in India in 2008). I believe that, net net, capital markets are a reasonable way to channel savings towards productive enterprises.  I just prefer index funds because I don't want to pay high fees. Not because fund managers are criminals, but because, on average, they suck.

And, being in the markets, and being employed near the industry, and with a child headed off to college in 7 years for which I'm saving and investing, I feel conflicted and a little guilty watching Occupy Wall Street.
So, in the end, I guess I come down being somewhere close to Kristof. I think that Occupy Wall Street is a good thing all told. Certainly the cops don't need to be spraying pepper spray in the face of non-violent protesters. It gives voice to people on the left who are pissed, and by doing so increases the probability that Obama won't be unseated by some right-wing freak.

But he should be chastened.

Off to bed. Tomorrow I'll surely think of something else.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Exile on Wall Street

Although my grousing has cut back some, I continue write a lot (maybe 200-250 pages a year) in both a professional and semi-professional mode, but it's in large part sort of fragmentary and concerning things that I only kind of care about, so I often wonder what I'd write a book about if I had time and energy to write a book. The big immediate if dreadfully boring topic is the challenge of staying focused on earning a living, but also the intermittent push and pull of life in and around financial markets.  On the one hand, as my buddy Jim, who writes marketing stuff for a big bank, said so well, "the American and world economy is so infinitely complex and fascinating," and one could really spend one's whole life reading and thinking about it without dying intellectually.

The problem, of course, is that there is so much else in the world that's also not only interesting, but compelling. There's morality, ethics, mortality too. Which is not to say that being homo economicus is necessarily immoral or even amoral. But I don't think there's an easy answer to that question , which is really just one facet of a bigger one: what is one (or, specifically, what am I) supposed to do with one's life?  And the only way to have a perspective on it is by stepping back from the life financial and looking at it.

And, yes, family and leisure are what's supposed to give us that, but you need a little more even. And that's where culture and just Being in the Social World come into play.  Doing things for others, seeing how other people live, reading novels, etc. To say nothing of soccer and snoozing and cupcakes.

And so, I sense that one day I will write a book.  But, I think, what will it be about, and what will I name it.  If I were to name it based on my current condition, the best title that comes to mind is Exile on Wall Street, the sense of being trapped in the world of money, markets, and, yes, technology, because I have to be.

But then I google that title and find that, lo and behold, it has already been claimed by the ever-energetic banking analyst Michael Mayo, whose book is coming out this November and, in fact, sounds like it's gonna be a good one.