Sunday, September 30, 2012

A perfect fall day

By all accounts, the Carrboro Music Festival was lovely, and the weather was perfect for it.  Unfortunately, the weather was equally nice at our house, and we neglected to make it up there. Got a lot of stuff taken care of around here, and Natalie and I shared a nice coffee at the mall while waiting for Graham to pick out library books. This has become a weekend habit for us, and an excellent one at that.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Update from the front

So I went with Henning Mankell, then fell asleep and overslept going to pick Natalie up from Susannah's bday party.  Woke up not sure where I was. I'm fairly certain I've seen the BBC version of this book on Masterpiece Mystery, and am in any case bothered by the fact that I clearly see Kenneth Branagh in the role of whatever his name is, the detective guy.

Later, Mary put on Fleetwood Mac, and started dancing around like a nerdy mom.  Graham, not to be outdone, displayed some of his breakdancing moves.

Being Frank Bascombe, or not

I'm about halfway through Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, the third novel in his trilogy about Frank Bascombe.  So far, maybe 12 hours have passed. On the one hand, not a ton has happened, on the other, it's been a pretty eventful 12 hours. But still. It's dragging on.  The guy has seems to have never met a doorknob he didn't know from earlier in his life, and which reminds him of something.

It's raining outside, and I might have to take a break to read a mystery novel. I kind of wish I had one about someplace sunny, though I think what I have in my to be read stack is Henning Mankell, Josephine Tey, and Alan Furst, all of whom are kind of North Atlantic and brooding. Hmmm.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Those cray cray kids

Natalie is in a phase where she and her friends in school are coining phrases fast and furiously, or are perhaps watching iCarly on the sly or somesuch and picking up slang.  For example, "totally" is "totes" (now I know that's in broad circulation), which has mutated into "totes m'goats".

Today she was saying "cray cray" instead of crazy.

Gotta love it.

Her new glasses are also making it easier for her to read the whiteboard from the back of science class, also awesome.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A few quick notes

  • Had a good support experience with Mozy yesterday.  Mary's computer hadn't backed up for months, exposing a lot of photos to risk of technical outage or computer theft, either of which could have been my ass. I got chat support from a certain "Tommy J", uninstalled and reinstalled, and now we're backing up.
  • Pulling out of the parking lot near Whole Foods and the thrift shop where I had picked up shirts from the cleaner, I saw a Ferrari couple pulling in. Made a mental note, "don't see so many of those around here."  Right behind it was a Maserati 4-door, which had a bewitching purr. Not that I'm into cars, or anything.
  • Apparently this "Call Me Maybe" song is a big hit, I had never heard it.  The teachers at Natalie's school (also my middle school, but there were different teachers then) made this video and stuck it on YouTube.  Natalie was really into it. I must say I think it's really cool that the teachers did this, it really puts them on the same page as the students. It's literally heartwarming.

  • For the record, even Graham was into Gangnam Style.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book list

A couple of people have either asked for book recommendations or cited the blog as a source of reading ideas recently, so I'm gonna share a list of recent reading (last year or so) I drew up the other day when prepping for a question from a humanist regarding a job at UNC (the question, malheureusement, never came).

Peter Hessler, River Town, Oracle Bones, Country Driving (all 3 are great, the middle is the best, read in order)

Ron Susskind, The Price of Loyalty (awesome), Confidence Men (stopped 80 pages in, too much rehash of crisis)

Tom Friedman, That Used to Be Us (utterly unreadable)

Alice Schroeder, The Snowball (on Warren Buffett -- good book, a little too gushing and gawkish maybe)

Howard Bryant, The Last Hero:  A Life of Henry Aaron (very good, slows down in the middle, but solid detail on both the man and race relations in our lifetime)

Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker (re-read it, still good), Boomerang (good, but he's coasting)

Books by people I know
Wade Graham, Jesus is My Gardener (A Kindle Single, very good), American Eden: from Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards, (A very ambitious book.  I'm stalled about 70 pages in, maybe because it's too academic, or maybe I just don't care enough about gardening to push on through)

Frank Ryle, Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros (on the nature of project management, allegorized to golf.  In the vein of 7 Dysfunctions of a Team. Not the best book in the world, but still as readable as you're going to get and still learn something about project management.)

Jay Leutze, Stand Up that Mountain (both an infectious paean to nature, a tale of life lived otherwise, and a solid procedural on what could be the most boring stuff in the world -- how state and federal regulation work -- but it works here)

Olen Steinhauer, The Confession (mystery novel set in cold War Slovakia or something like that. Builds slowly, but in the end it's really good)

Alan Furst, I don't know which one of his novels I read. They are all similar, and similarly good.

PD James, Original Sin (I read it because Ruth Rendell said it was the greatest mystery ever. I don't know about that, but it's pretty good)

John Lanchester Capital (A good novel, aspires perhaps to be The Novel of The Financial Crisis. Doesn't quite get there, but is nonetheless worth reading. He creates characters you can care about, which is saying something).

Business books
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto (an important and useful book. Gawande has a brain, a heart, and the ability to write)

Vivek Ranadive, The Two-Second Advantage (he really wants to be Malcom Gladwell and sell Tibco's software at the same time.  Somewhat convincing, lightweight)

Eric Ries, The Lean Start-Up (good, solid, well thought out book bringing process and discipline to the wooliest of domains)

Ellen Schutz, Retirement Heist:  How Companies and Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers (an important book written, sadly, by a journalist without enough editorial help to turn it into a good book.  I am 60 pages in and should finish it, though it's just so boring)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The end of civilization

After I got done with my run and had cooled off, I went in the rec room where Graham was sitting amongst the bootie from his birthday party. I saw that he had been crying.  "What's wrong?" I asked.  "I don't like that 39 Clues book at all, I read the first five sentences and they were horrible."  So I read it and it didn't seem too bad, it seemed like we were getting set up for a pretty good mystery.

"What's the problem?" I asked again.  He said he didn't like it that, when the old lady who's dying changes her will, the book says that it "threatens civilization as we know it." That idea freaked him out. I assured him that it was a dramatic overstatement, that civilization wasn't going to end, and that it was just make believe anyway. But he wasn't consoled.

I remember when I was his age or so there was some movie made by the CTW in which Kermit and the Sesame Street gang get somehow involved in a tragic love story. I must have had to stay up very late to watch it, because the ending was very foggy for me even way back then. But I know it was tragic, and that the impression of overwhelming melancholy stuck with me for a while, though I couldn't remember exactly why.  Hell, I obviously still remember it.

But back to Graham, we must bear in mind that this is a kid who watches all manner of WWII shit on the Military and History Channels, and that I've walked into the room to see scenes of bulldozers pushing emaciated Holocaust victim corpses into pits, and he sits there unphased (though that's admittedly not his favorite part of the war). Yes, I know, we're bad parents for letting him watch it at all.

Later, Mary and I watched Stephen Soderbergh's Contagion, in which civilization does nearly end.  We won't tell Graham about that one.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Are crawlers creepy?

Watching my traffic, it's interesting to see that Google's "crawler" -- the code that goes out across the web seeking to catalog everything that's out there -- visited my most recent post a minute and forty-one seconds after it was posted. This should come as no surprise, since Blogger/Blogspot is owned by Google. It makes sense for Sergei and Larry to have arranged a script to catalog every post that comes out as quickly as it does so, particularly as posting Google adwords on blogs is a revenue stream for them. I dunno how big these dollars are.  Probably small for Google in toto, but big in the incentive comp of the Adwords team, who may well have cut a deal with the crawler team to get such quick service.

But I don't think it's creepy.  I'll take all the traffic I can get for free.

Dr No

I keep getting approached by entrepreneurial types who Thave ideas, or I have ideas of my own. My natural tendency is to try to think of the things that could trip them up, make them fail, etc.

There is undoubtedly an inherent value to healthy skepticism in this context. The statistics around start-ups are not all that encouraging. Over the last couple of days in the Wall Street Journal I saw a story that said that something like 3 out of 4 venture-backed start-ups fail. And those are just the ones that are lucky enough to get venture money. So many start-ups are of the type that used to sleep in a shoebox on a lake bed, and wake up in the middle of the night to lick the lake bed dry with their tongues.

In any case, internal team members need to kick the shit out of the tires of any new enterprise on a continual basis to make sure they are road ready.

On the other hand, my deeply ingrained critical inclination may be informed by the fact that I'm the child of an alcoholic dreamer, someone who had business ideas all the time that were going to change the world, but brought very few of them to fruition. Even more so, I have a pretty strong bias towards believing that almost nothing is going to work out for the best. I basically am catastrophic in my thought patterns. As my sister and I have discussed, this would make us good risk managers.

However, there's a risk of this thought pattern degrading into a version of Zeno's paradoxes as described by Parmenides, back in the day. Basically the idea is that, because to traverse any distance, you must first traverse half of it, you can never get anywhere, because this is true for even the smallest increment. I.e. to go 8 meters, I must first go 4. To go 4, I must first go 2. To go 2, I must first go 1, etc.According to Parmenides, this proved that all motion was illusion. I wonder if my bones don't half agree.

I think that to play in the entrepreneurial world there is a need to suspend disbelief and just dive in, which is something I have been somewhat loath to do, perhaps because I spent so much time treading water in the pool of Russian Literature. Not that the water wasn't great.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The little black menace persists

Try as we might, we cannot seem to entirely shake the fleas from our homestead.  Or, perhaps, we have. I haven't actually seen one in several days, though I did see two in successive days up here in the splendid isolation of my elevated man-cave, though no cat has graced it for weeks.

And we've been putting out soap-laced water under a reading lamp, as instructed by friends and the mighty, all-knowing internet, and collecting seemingly no fleas but a sweet little collection of gnats and other winged things.

But the perception of flea risk lingers on longer than the little things themselves, or is it that they are so crafty, as if trained by the equally skitterish squirrels. Every time I feel a little itch on my arm or leg, I look. And, probably, I imagine itches that might not even rise to the attention of my brain, had it not been for the initial fleas. Oh when will they disappear from our minds?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

From Princeton

I recently finished Peter Hessler's River Town, which is the first of his three books on his time in China, though I read it last. In fact, I read the books in reverse order. Allow me to recommend reading them in order. They were plenty good read backwards, but I suspect the sweep of narrative would have worked better the other way. I'm sure I would have appreciated seeing the narrator grow, even as his subject shifted.

In the middle of River Town, I stopped off and re-read Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker, which I think I blogged about. For some time I've thought Lewis one of the best writers writing in English, but I now believe that Hessler is better. Lewis is more pyrotechnics, more writerly pizzazz, and more at home with the mover and the shaker. Hessler is able to sit calmly, observe, and pull narrative out of seeming nothingness, simply because he pays attention.

Of course, I'm well aware that I share much with both of them:  we're all white boys from middle America who went off to Ivy League schools and drank our fill there (I, for sure, literally, as well as figuratively), though we weren't insiders when we got there. Wikipedia tells me that Lewis was a prep school kid, which I could have guessed simply from the fact that he's from New Orleans, but Hessler is a public school kid from a university town, like me.

I think what that means is that I probably need to read something written by a non-white, non-male, non-straight and/or non-Ivy League person before I keep piling on superlatives.

However, I've started in reading Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, which is itself set in and around Princeton (takes me back) and is all about being white, male, and middle-aged. But he's really good, I swear, or at least he knows how to push my buttons.

What all of these guys have in common with each other, and with me, is no doubt that they seek to rise up and take a really abstract, high-level view of Things In General. And that's something us white Ivy League guys want to feel good at, it's what we aspire to. Most likely because we were brought up going to church and looking at God depicted as a white guy.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Today, as I was rushing downstairs to fix one thing on Graham's birthday Evite I spilled coffee on the stairs, so I got a paper towel to clean it up. As I was cleaning, my mind was on about 30 other pressing things related to some disturbing news I got yesterday, and I got distracted. I neglected to put my lower foot down on a step, and I actually fell backwards onto the floor, just a couple of steps below. My cat Rascal was like "WTF," and as I looked in front of me I could see that my flip flop, dragging along the floor, had left a black skid mark about 18 inches long.

But luckily, I think that was about the worst of it. Years of training as an athlete/klutz have given me good falling skills, and I fell on my butt, which has some cushioning.  There may be a little bruising and soreness, but that should be it. The skid mark wiped up good.

This, I think, is what they mean by "staying in the moment." Elsewhere, you can get in trouble quickly.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Today -- as we rushed to get ready to go out and meet the bus -- I was trying to show Graham how to twist the top off of his water bottle and quickly got frustrated with my inability to do so. What is the problem?  Is it that the thing (and bottle tops in general) are optimized for a right-handed population, hard for lefties like him?  Is it that he wasn't trying hard enough (possible), because he expects that we'll do it for him in the end (moral hazard)? Or does he really lack the hand strength, as a result -- partly of his " low tone" condition, partly because he only exercises outside of school if we actually go out and do something with him (this is partly a zeitgeist thing, as all parents comment these days, but to some extent has been exacerbated by our settling in a neighborhood which has a lower density of children, partly by virtue of extended longevity amongst the educated/affluent population here, partly by virtue of the hills and largish wooded lots -- which create micro-neighborhoods cut off from one another).

At some level, then, it's kinda complicated.  One thing's for sure.  I can get frustrated with this kind of thing, and did a little today. And Graham senses my tension and surely can't sort out all the complex shit I just laid out up there. He probably assumes at a gut level I'm just mad at/frustrated with him. In a best case scenario, he's just can't figure out what's up with dad.

This crazy mind-spinning is typical Al Anon behavior, and worthy of attention if, at the end of the day, not all that big a deal, which is what I must remember in my bones.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

It's my party

and I'll cry if I want to.

Friday, September 07, 2012


Mary is in New York. It was a calm day here at my desk.

In the evening the kids and I had Thai food and sat at the dining room table, as opposed to the island.

I'll take it, after the violent drama of the rains yesterday. The lake was maybe 18-24 inches higher than it's ever been before, and the water poured over the dam in cascading torrents (man I'm tired if I can't think of better phrases than that, but whatever). The creek was a high as I've ever seen it, maybe 50 feet across, and the little islands in the middle were complete subsumed by the rush of it all.

After I told Graham how intense it was, he wanted to go down and check it out. We walked over to the dam and I showed it to him and held his hand while I talked to him about the deadly power of rushing water. I think he got the point.

Then we played some frisbee, for the first time in months.  It was so wet I didn't want to run after the damned thing for fear I'd slip and my phone would fall out of my pocket. My legs got wet and covered with nasty grass cuttings and, as we're still paranoid about the fleas, I did some very diligent rinsing on the way in. All told, it was good.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Natalie thinks of Sadie, and more

Mary is headed to New York today for a few days, and will be staying with Beth, Kevin, and Sadie. In the morning, before school, Mary reminded Natalie of that, and she immediately said "oh, let me see if I have a little something I can send to Sadie." This made me very proud.

Addenda:  On the way to the airport for Mary's flight to New York for Laura Letinsky's opening and birthday (won't quote a number here), I brought up Natalie's thoughtfulness with her and Mary noted that it was very sweet of her but that, when Natalie searched her room, all she could find to send to Sadie was a small shell. This is probably because Natalie, like all tweens, keeps her room very neat and tosses away old possessions as soon as she stops playing with them regularly..... JKLMFAO!

Around dinnertime, Graham noted that Mary's birthday was coming up fast and that we had better start planning for it. That is also very sweet.

We have good kids.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Reading back

Just read some entries from 2005, straight transcriptions of things I did with the kids.  Really precious. Must get back to doing more of that.

It's late now, but must narrate the trip Graham and I took to the second raft out in the lake over the weekend. Great memories.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Self-Googling of the elite

Sometime yesterday, the name "Peter Hessler" was entered into the blog search engine Icerocket by someone whose ISP is in a suburb of Cairo. Judging by some of Hessler's recent writings at The New Yorker , he could well have been the visitor himself, as he moved there sometime last year after having spent many years in China and as a China hand, and after having won an entirely well-earned MacArthur.

I certainly like to think it might have been him stopping by, for one, because I like all visitors, and particularly those I admire, and for two, because it's nice to think that even those who've reached the highest levels of attainment in their fields are curious about what's being written about them.  Hell, that's how I got a meeting with the former CEO of the biggest and most powerful insurance company of all time, perhaps the most storied insurance exec ever.  He was googling himself or, more likely, he had one of his admins do it.  Same diff.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The little black peril

The cats were scratching themselves a lot the other day, and Mary quite perceptively noted that it was fleas. So Saturday we were off to the races, give the cats pills, then vacuum the whole house top to bottom and wash every single piece of bedding, etc. It was hell.

Fleas are like communism. They're hard to see, crafty little buggers jumping around and all, and once you suspect they're around you try to root them out everywhere. Because you can't see them, and in particular you can't see their eggs, they insinuate themselves into your every waking thought.  Was that a tick? Is there something on my leg?