Friday, June 29, 2012

Epic heat

After it had been doing some unwelcome shuddering on the highway, I took the Volvo in to the shop this morning, because I didn't feel like driving Natalie to the mountains in that car.  This is, of course, the same car that I once if not twice took in to the shop only to be told that "the wheel was loose."  This time, it turns out the thing needed new front brakes, which is, sadly, a common malady for the S40 of a certain vintage.

So I got to the shop and picked it up, and it had been sitting in 105 degree heat in the parking lot for some time. The seats were hot, and the gearshift and the steering wheel were so hot they practically burnt my hands.  It cooled down.

Tomorrow Natalie and I will hie off to Shelby, NC, where we will stay in the Hampton Inn for a mere 7500 points, will most likely take a dip in the pool before dining at Red Bridges BBQ Lodge just across highway 54, where they have blue leather booths and fountain Cheerwine. Good living.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quick reviews

I recently made my way through P.D. James's Original Sin because I had read somewhere that Rendell had cooed about it so lovelily.  And it was, truth be told, a very good mystery indeed. I had to feel, however, that James worked a little too hard trying to ladle on layer after layer of character to make the headiest brew possible. It was, in the end, a little overwrought.  Every action needed to be deeply motivated, each character needed to be as round as possible, to the extent that it was a little like a bunch of Pere Ubus wobbling round the text bumping their great stomachs against one another, muttering, "By my green candle!"  The novel could have clocked in 150 pages lighter without much loss. That said, somehow this was my first novel by James, and I will read more.

This weekend we watched Sophia Coppola's Somewhere.  Don't. At such a tender age, she has degenerated into a pale shadow of her already wispish self. There is no there there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Let them eat start-up!

There was an interesting piece in called "The New Busking" in the Times "Week in Review" section (or whatever they're calling it these days) by musician Terre Roche, ex-of a band called the Roches. In it she laments how using crowdfunding sources to fund new recordings/releases devolved into a huge waste of time for her, emailing, soliciting, responding, etc.

This rings oh so true. I remember a couple of years ago reading Stephen Johnson's book Emergence, in which he details a variety of phenomena demonstrating that a "bottom-up" paradigm was taking shape that would fundamentally reshape the way we do a whole range of things.  To his credit, he did a great job explicating how ant colonies work together in ways that are very difficult to understand, and tied that in to other things going on in the world in an interesting way.

But what was hard to swallow in Johnson's basic line of argument was that bottom-up was necessarily good.  Yes, as aging punk rockers and people weaned on the Jeffersonian tradition of entrepreneurialism and the little guy, we like bottom-up stuff. Who doesn't love the story of the small shopkeeper made good?

And yet, how well does bottom-up work for everybody?  Much as we love to rag on them, where would we be without Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Sergei and Larry, shit, Henry Ford?  Our prosperity is built on the back of enterprises that scaled, the mass production that came of it, and the standards they put in place.  Their stories are great because they started small and then they built into something bigger, so that things got cheaper.  And at the end of the story, there's always the people at Foxconn/Hon Hai, workers ground to parch so fine that they jump out of dormitory windows to their deaths. And the guys at the top became, each in their own ways, simultaneously control freaks, assholes, saints, and heros.

Similarly with government.  The idea and promise of the Giving Pledge is that all these people who got super rich -- aided by effective tax rates made low by accountants who help the affluent and corporations minimize tax bills -- can aggregate capital and then disburse resources in a way that's more cost effective than can government: Let the Gates Foundation assume the functions of the NIH and, eventually, HHS.

It has not been demonstrated that they do a better job.  Non-profits can, in fact, cherry-pick the causes that are more amenable by focused solutions.

There is a bubble just now in start-ups and social entrepreneurship specifically just now, ironically at a time when the IPO market has dried up, making it more difficult to build a business and exit. If a social entrepreneur venture cannot scale effectively, it is, as we say in IT terms, "lossy." Markets will weed this out in time, as they should.

This shouldn't all be taken to mean that I am anti-bottom up, pro top-down, nor do I think that the government will or should solve everything.  There is a healthy ferment of ideas in the entrepreneurial world that can at once help governments and non- and for-profit enterprises deliver services more efficiently and scale more effectively and at the same time pressure them to do so.  But just having a start-up should not earn someone a gold star.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Due process

Your blogger thought he was being all slick in preparing for a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting regarding a proposed development, spending half an hour on the phone trying to piece together a clever argument or two with which to dazzle the audience.  But, oh no, that was not to be the case.  I arrived there to find a meeting packed with lawyers making arguments based on hair-splitting procedural arguments, referencing obscure precedents dating back to 1976. Other concerned citizens -- who had been fighting an aligned but different battle with the same developers for years now -- arrived with well-thought out powerpoint.

In the end, your scribe saw fit to raise his hand to show that he was a member of a potentially impacted group, and that was all.  Actual arguments were left to those who knew WTF they were up to...

Earlier in the day, while meeting with somebody in Carrboro for coffee, I let Natalie loose upon the town with several weeks worth of allowance and her cell phone. I thought to ask her if the durned thing was turned on, but decided that was patronizing.  But no, it would have been a good idea, for when I called, I went straight through to non-existent voice mail.  After a few minutes of anxiously rooting around for my first born, I found her in the place one would have expected, the children's/young adults' section of a used book store, loading up on printed matter.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Two words Graham said today

"Easilier" -- i.e. "more easily"
"Averagely" -- I think that needs no explanation.

These are, I think, keepers.

Saturday, June 09, 2012


At the National Museum of the American Indian, an exhibit made a big point of how the original inhabitants of our fair continent did not call themselves Indians or Americans or anything like that.  So there were quotes from some guy and at the end it said "nmai" and I thought "oh, maybe that's what they call themselves, like the gypsies call themselves Roma." So I Googled it, and it turns out that NMAI stands for
... National Museum of the American Indian.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Checklist and the frontier

(This post violates my 15 minutes of writing rule, and I keep delaying its publication thinking about it, so I'm just letting it rip)

At the end of Atul Gawande's "Checklist Manifesto", the author calls attention between the simultaneous importance of checklists and the discipline required to adhere to them and peoples' resistance to them.  "Discipline is hard -- harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness.  We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures.  We can't even keep from snacking between meals.  We are not built for discipline.  We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at." Indeed. We hate for some little piece of paper to tell us what to do, no matter how beneficial their potential effects.

At the extreme end, this called to mind the resistance to the Direct Instruction methodology that Ian Ayres details in "Super Crunchers."  Direct Instruction, for those to whom the term is new, is a methodology for teaching kids math and reading and other core blocks of learning using extremely scripted techiques, like teachers metronomically tapping out a beat on the blackboard and having kids read along one word at a time to the teacher's beat.  Ayres claims that many studies show it to be the most effective way of teaching kids a lot of basic stuff. I'm sure this is debatable, I don't have time to do any kind of review of the literature on the topic, but the key thing is that it sounds horrible for the teacher. Where's the carpe diem in beating out a beat on the black board? Where is the teacher's ego?  Checked at the door. The teacher becomes a mere vessel for the delivery of rote learning. However effective it may be, it sounds horrible.

I suspect that, particularly for Americans, a lot of this aversion goes back to the basic dynamic that Frederick Jackson Turner laid out in 1893 in his landmark "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."  The 1890 census had shown that the frontier, defined as a realm of unsettled land into which Americans might move when the mood so struck them -- had disappeared, and that this would profoundly alter the American character:  "That coarsenees and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes with freedom -- these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier." Again, there are many critiques of Turner, but this rings true.  This is how we are raised to think of ourselves.  Having lost the physical frontier, we kept looking for others, eventually finding space, the final frontier, where Kirk, Spock, Bones McCoy and the crew could act out the dialectic of constraint and individuation for us.

I remember working at that big investment bank back in 2008, being disenchanted by the extreme transactionality of the people:  they would never sit back and talk to you qua you. It was all "nice to meet you, what are we doing here, what do you need from me?"  I found it very demeaning, but in fact it was just that they were in tune with what their organization was there for and focused on doing it. They were trying to optimize their status as cogs in a wheel because they believed in the wheel and that it would bring them more money and even fulfillment.

Over time, I see that that's what truly high-achieving people are like.  They figure out what they're up to and then the subordinate their personality to it, or integrate their personality with it.  You just have to. At the end of the day, you need to get home to your kids and take care of things and chill. Different cultures tolerate different degrees of "play" in this principle, or deviation from it.

A really extreme example would be Keith Ferrazzi's concept of the "deep bump." Ferrazzi, master networker of the world, tells us that to develop real and deep relationships with the people we come into contact with, we should be ready to be vulnerable with them quickly and share some deep memory from our development to create an emotional bond with them and loosen them up. Having created such a "real" relationship, one is better positioned to transact.

Anyway, back to Gawande.  The guy is great. He's very focused on his concept and makes a strong case for it, but by the time I finished the book, I was sitting outside of University Mall by the temporary public library, crying copiously. It was embarrassing. Thankfully, nobody was there to see me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The early time

So often when I have something coming up during the day, I wake up a little early and start obsessing about some aspect of it.  Today, this happened again, but instead of being counterproductive, what I was thinking about actually made a lot of sense and was helpful.  I have no idea how that happened.  Sheer dumb luck I reckon.  It had to happen sometime.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Fruits of the bush

Nothing quite like the blackberry bush.