Sunday, December 29, 2013

Frozen, and drenched

Yicky rainy day here in Westchester, so I went and saw Frozen with Sadie and the kids.  I was told that it was animated, and that I reminded Sadie of the reindeer, so I figured it couldn't be all bad, but my idea of animated was something along the lines of Despicable Me or Toy Story, not one of these things containing pseudo-people.  But, in truth, it was pretty earnest, and there was a lot of singing, and I mean singing from the heart.  It was in fact an animated chick-flick.  And in the middle of it I got a bad attitude, and I thought of running out in the middle of the movie to go to the sporting goods store there in the complex to snatch up some post-holiday bargains.

But I stuck it out.  And although there continued to be singing, it turned out to be not so bad.  Natalie declared it to be one of the best movies ever, and Graham liked it too.  Sadie had already seen it twice, so we knew her opinion. Altogether a reasonable way to spend a blustery winter Sunday.

Meanwhile, poor Mary is stuck out in the rain somewhere in the city.  At least she is with her near-BFFs from grad school, presumably with warm beverages.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tennis and scallops

Went and played tennis today for the 5th time in recent months, after playing soccer thrice in the fall.  And running 9 miles or so yesterday.  And swimming a lot in the summer.  And a lot of frisbee with Graham.

I think that both quantity and diversity of exercise are -- in the charming language of management consultants -- absolute success metrics for me.  The more I exercise, and the more different ways I do it, the better I feel.  Full stop.

Now, it is true that Kevin and I went out for an absolute, pull out all the stops fish feast frenzy last night at Sammy's Fish Box out on City Island.  We got both a fried platter, which had basically a smattering of everything except belly clams, and a broiled platter, with a couple of everything else. The scallops were particularly kicking in both cases.  Sammy's pretty much blows your mind with quantity, and it was good too.

And it was nice to see that we were minorities there.  The clientele was largely African-American and/or Hispanic. Man, I really don't need to go too far into this, it was all good, America at its best, though if you had plunked a couple of Europeans down there I'm sure it would have occasioned lengthy lectures about the excessive portion sizes served by American restaurants. Bloomberg himself might have tried to pass a law.  Whatever.  I'm going back.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Egads

Sitting here in the Bill Blass Reading Room (formerly the Main Reading Room, or somesuch) within the Stephen Schwartzman Building of the New York Public Library.  I know the library has been the beneficiary of largesse in the past (I also saw the name Astor on something, and that is a much older vintage of money, and I'm sure a Carnegie or Rockefeller funded the place from the jump), but this is a lot of naming rights.  Particularly noteworthy in view of the level of aggression we have seen from Schwartzman's firm Blackstone in the rental housing markets of late.  America's rental dollars, paying for the grandeur of this reading room.


It is also rather ironic, given the role the main staircase of the library played in the movie Network, in which the protagonist talk show host Howard what's his name ascends those stairs before being ushered into a large old school conference room (maybe also here in the building), in which Ned Beatty - the personification of corporate America - reads him the riot act:  "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you must atone!"
It does, in fact, take a lot of money to maintain a place this nice, and it is easier for the private sector to pony it up than a municipal government, particularly in a place like New York where the wealth disparity is so constantly IN YOUR FACE. But still.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A new path

Of all the times I've been running or walking in Larchmont, I would have thought I'd been down every road in the neighborhood between the Post Road and Manor Park at least once, but today, on my way back from a longish run, as I was cooling down while walking, I spied a short lane I hadn't been down.  An old service alley between some of the rather large houses that populate the streets.  And I'm thinking:  it's a short little street, what of note could I possibly see in the 3 or 4 backyards I'm likely to pass. But for the sake of exhaustive inventorying, I sallied forth.

And there it was, as I came past a hedge, back to my left, standing at the edge of his shiny garage with what I'm sure was nice cars in it, was some handsome investment banker-looking guy, dressed in his around the house wear in expensive shirt and jeans, sneaking a cigar.  He was visibly taken aback, wasn't expecting anyone to come by and disturb his stinky reverie, and I nodded hello and then faced my eyes forward, because, hell, let the guy smoke his cigar in piece.

But there was, in any case, a vignette around every corner, as there so often is.

Long day

I have meaty and thoughtful posts to write, but for now I am still processing yesterday's drive up the East Coast so I will just go stream of conscious on it.

The day began well.  Although we left, typically, some 45 minutes later than our nominal start time, we did it without anybody getting particularly mad with anybody else about running behind schedule.  I won't name names.  It is an intricate dance between family members between those running late and those getting mad, normal co/interdependency that makes us a family.  The main thing is getting better about it.

There was a lot of traffic on the 95 corridor.  I'm sure that surprises no one.  As a change of our normal arrangement, I had Mary do the driving through the crucial Fredericksburg, VA to ~Delaware Memorial Bridge segment of the trip so I could concentrate on a new, data-driven navigation methodology.  Which is to say, I more or less stayed glued to Google Maps/Traffic and attempted to do real-time route adjustment in response to traffic conditions as they arose.  And it actually worked pretty well.  We skipped the nasty piece of 295/Balt-Wash pkwy just north of DC, where for some reason it's always backed up, hopped back over to 95, and probably shaved 20-30 minutes off of total drive time.

And then, after taking 895 under the Baltimore harbor, we hopped on 40 and missed a lot of the volume as the 95 ecosystem goes back to a single pipe (after the considerable redundancy of 95 tributaries in the Washimore delta).  Not that that there wasn't traffic there.  Nor, for that matter, was there a Starbucks, as the demographics don't support it, but at least we kept rolling, for the most part.

But it was tiresome.  And then we took 95 north through Philly, which seemed rational, and the traffic kept flowing until, for seemingly no reason, there was a bunch of backup near Yardley, PA, normally a sleepy Bucks County seat of ruling class good taste.  And we, worn the hell out, were like "what's up with this?"  And as we passed the exit for Yardley, we saw:  a massive, industrial-strength installation of Xmas lights.  Not naturally occurring, for sure.  The most uber-Griswoldian thing I ever saw, and at the same time just another gross commercialization of the season ($20/$25 a carload)*.  And here it is:


Monday, December 16, 2013

Recent moments

I was just reading Josh Hilberman's (aka Josh Carmen) very funny blog when I realized that, dammit, I was supposed to be writing myself.

I was at somebody else's house yesterday for a kitchen-warming party and found myself blathering on at length about the adventure of our lost cat and the impostor who sought to usurp his place in our household (read here if you missed that episode).  I found myself almost unable to omit details, and I even asked the person I was speaking to if I should speed up.  "I'm enthralled," she said.  She has a dry wit, but she seemed relatively earnest, or in any case just earnest enough.

But I have to wonder why it is I feel drawn so inexorably into what I can only think of as "narrative recursion," a feeling that no story can be really complete without going back a step or two to give the reader some tasty background tidbit.  On the other hand, it is getting late, so I should really just stop before I start theorizing at length.


As an aside, let me just say that we just watched Jane Campion's Top of the Lake on Netflix.  A seven-part mystery for the BBC, it is in many ways a transposition of much of the basic material of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- minus the technophilic genius of the female detective -- into the jaw-dropping beauty of some mountains in New Zealand.  It is good watching, some nasty sexual violence implied but never too graphically onscreen, and lots of cleavage and sex from our refreshingly normal-looking if fit heroine. I displayed the virtues of having a PhD in literature by guessing two key plot twists several episodes in advance.  Not that it's too hard.  Worth watching.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sitting down

Just finished a piece by John McPhee on structure, from the New Yorker exactly 11 months ago, now that I look at the cover.  I found it by Mary's side of the bed, where the magazines often pile up mightily, and it is one of my spousal roles to cut the piles down to size and to sneak them into the recycling.  It is an ongoing battle against one of the elemental forces of nature, much like those McPhee himself liked to chronicle.

Of late Graham has been slowing this process, as he has shown considerable enthusiasm for the cartoons in the New Yorker.  Somewhat hastily, I offered to start explaining them to him.  It would be, I thought, a rather restful process, when compared to the somewhat primal wrestling matches I have described here.  Problem is, the cartoons can be a little complicated, so I end up needing to do a lot of translating to make them comprehensible to the 10-year mind. For example, the magazine has certain set gags it likes, like a person coming into or already into a shrink's office.  Or the man crawling through the burning sand of the desert. Situations that are perfectly easy to understand for those of us who have been imbibing media all our lives, but less clear to those who survive, as Graham does, on a pretty steady diet of the Military Channel, comic books, and Wikipedia articles about tanks. 

Just as often there are cartoons about sex, often with a couple getting into or already in bed and some elaborate sight gag about the man trying to convince his mate to have sex, which is a concept we haven't gotten around to yet with Graham.  So I just describe it as "kissing and snuggling under the covers." He gets that.

So, anyway, the McPhee piece reminded me to write.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Discipline

I am now in the middle of studying for my 6th exam of the last 10 months, which is the fifth in the CFFP/CFP series, after doing the Series 65 back in February.  This process is a valuable lesson in submission and humility.

All too often -- maybe 15-20 times a day -- I read through some unbelievably boring and granular point and I think "why in the hell would I ever need to know this?"  Each time it is like a little paper cut to the brain, and each time I just have to remember that there is absolutely no profit to resisting.  I have to read it, make a reasonable effort at comprehending it.  Maybe I underline it in the book.  And move forward.  If I need it to pass the course exam, it will probably show up in the review materials.  Ditto for the final final exam. If I need it to help clients later on down the road, that will become apparent too, in due time.

But, I tell ya, the temptation to bitch is hard to fight.

Friday, December 06, 2013

People walking by

One of the fine things about our house is that, despite the fact that it's back in the woods in a confusing subdivision with hilly and winding roads, people are always walking or running past.  It's on a natural circuit for getting around the lake, since there's a crucial cut-thru path just next to our house.  So we get lots of traffic.

Like the really old guy who walks backwards down the hill, always wearing a baseball cap.  Or the guy I call "Sal", for his resemblance to the character Sal from Dog Day Afternoon, who gets waxed by the cops in the end.  This Sal look-alike speaks Russian, I heard him speaking it with what I presume to be his daughter one day when I was out running.  I need to talk to him sometime, but I'm always so durned busy.

Anyway, today it's like 70 degrees out, so I've got my windows open.  A little while back, this woman who lives over the hill apiece -- like me a Chapel Hill native, CHHS circa '98 -- was walking with her 4-year-old daughter, in a tank top.  They were singing "Up on the rooftop Old St Nick" or however that goes.  What's not to like?

Monday, December 02, 2013

El Indio

Our family went to the Florida Keys on spring break in 1981, even though I think my dad was on crutches at the time from having injured his knee at a party.  While we were in Key West, he discovered a little bodega-type place called El Indio, where they served a Cuban-breakfast sandwich on really fresh and crunchy bread. I'm sure it was ham, cheese, and egg.  As I said above, it was 1981, so just having bread with any character to it whatsoever was already a huge check-mark.  We may still have been eating Roman Meal "whole wheat" bread at the time, or we could have followed the Steins' lead and moved up to Pepperidge Farms by then, which was the height of elegance for us back in the day..

In any case, both the bread and the sandwich were very good.  I remember going to get them first thing in the morning and then eating them standing outside next to the car while they were hot and fresh.  Before taking ones to mom and Leslie.  I seem to recall this being a guy thing we did, a "son-father activity," in Graham's terminology.

My dad was a complicated figure in many ways, but he had a good nose for a sandwich, or other snack foods.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Elena gave us a set of DVDs based on this series of novels, and while we, quite typically, forgot that we had them because they ended up in the back of some dusty drawer -- and now we don't even have a working DVD player -- when I saw one of the novels on one of the used shelves at Flyleaf Books I snapped it up.

And I just read it. It's not like your typical mystery novel.  Instead of having one big mystery with a lot of sleuthing and red herrings and a good bit of plain old luck, there are a bunch of little mysteries which our heroine, one Mma Ramotswe.

One of the Russian Formalist critics from the 1920s, I forget if it was Viktor Shklovsky or Iurii Tynianov or even one of the others, had the clever idea that certain types of fiction, first and foremost quests like those of Huckleberry Finn or Gogol's Dead Souls or Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs, weren't really about their plots at all.  The plots were really just devices for letting the main characters travel around and see a variety of stuff in society high, low, and middle.

Often detective novels are just that, and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency falls right into that bucket.  The little mysteries Mma Ramotswe solves are of no consequence at all, though they do show us some of the foibles of a rising Africa, different types of shysters and criminals as well as the decent people they harm.  And it's much about letting us get to know our heroine as she herself figures out what this whole private eye business is about, having no experience in it whatsoever, and no predecessors to learn from.  And, to be sure, it's hard to not like her.  I like her.

One thing I was struck by is how comfortable and bourgie her lifestyle is there in Botswana.  She's not super rich, but she's perfectly comfortable, and she travels amongst a set of equally comfortable small businesspeople.  They drink a lot of tea and they all know each other.  It's hard not to be reminded of the Agatha Christie world, plopped down in Africa.

So I jumped over to Wikipedia and did a little sleuthing of my own. On the one hand, Botswana is pretty durned affluent.  This was written in 1998, but in 2013 nominal GDP in Botswana is around $9500 and adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) it's closer to $17,500, which by African standards is not shabby at all.  However, income distribution in Botswana is exceptionally uneven (although the only available data on that is stale -- from 1994), which is almost certainly because fully 62% of its exports are from "Not mounted diamonds," and a further 18% from nickel,  copper, and "gold, not monetary."  That ain't the kind of wealth that gets spread around real good.

But what the hell do I know?  I've never been there.  The author, Alexander McCall Smith, was born in Rhodesia and, though he spent a lot of his later life in Edinburgh, went back to the region to help found the University of Botswana in 1981.  So at least it's not some white guy just projecting an idealistic vision onto the country.

I'll read more of the novels, and if I ever go over there to visit, I'll report back.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Competition

Of late, because I am considering hanging out my own shingle as a sole practitioner and I have to get better accustomed to the notion of self-promotion, I have taken for the first time ever to wearing something with my alma mater's name on it.  OK, not even that, just the letter "Y", along with "1988" or something like that and then "25th Reunion" on the back.  I have always shied away from that kinda stuff, including bumper stickers, though I have defaulted to an alumni email address because I want to be prepared to switch from Yahoo mail at the drop of a hat if it keeps degenerating and because the "yale.edu" has looked good during spates of job searching.  Not that I am necessarily shy to discussing where I went to college, or even where I got my PhD.  I am both proud of it and insecure enough that I lean on that shit sometimes when I feel threatened.

It's been interesting to see the response to my new hat.  At a neighborhood association meeting, this CEO guy who moved down from Larchmont not long ago and is in the middle of the most epic multi-million dollar teardown rebuild cycle in world history, this guy looks at my hat and says something like "I'm sorry." And when asked it turns out he went to Princeton, and then quickly I learn that he spent time at McKinsey.  So, desired effect had, in that case. He now regards me as kind of a peer.

So this morning I ran into a guy from my high school down at the coffee bar at the local grocery store.  A high-powered guy, works for a big law firm in DC, ran for elective state-wide elective office here in NC and almost made it.  Went to law school at Yale himself.  Good guy.  He'd been for a run.  We're chatting and he says to me "I just went for a 5-mile run."  I moved on to catch up with my family, and it occurs to me "why do I care how many miles he ran?  what moved him to inform me of that?"  And I thinks it because that guys like us are just competitive, and whatever we may achieve we're always half-trying to one up the other.

Was my hat setting the tone for the encounter?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ready for the holiday

Rainy day, started in the most anodyne of settings, a white room testing center on the outskirts of corporate Greensboro, near the collisseum and some random LabCorp business unit.  Not a fun place to be first thing in the morning, people nervous, and there I was joined by Monet and his waterlillies on not one but two walls. Like the waiting room of a notional dentist.

Then I took the test, did fine, on to the next.

And the next was, in fact, barbeque.  Chapel Hill's Bill Smith of Crook's has been periodically serving bbq brought in from other parts of the state, and a month or so back it was from Stamey's, in Greensboro.  A quick check showed me it was close to my test center and voila!  A plan was hatched.

By the time you are in Greensboro you have crossed the border from the green slaw part of the state (the East) to the red slaw part (the West).*  Red slaw is vinegar and ketchup based and, from the perspective of a green slawer such as the Grouse, does not provide as effective a dialectical foil to the spicysmokiness of the meat itself.  But nevermind, when in Rome one shows props. If you don't eat the local food, it won't be there when you come back.  And it was OK, and the meat was excellent, the hushpuppies so so.  But the place itself was the joint, exactly what a bbq place should be.  Homey, old tables and very old school counter.  And all washed down with Cheerwine.  What's not to like?

Before getting back out on the high school, I stopped into a used vinyl, videotape (!!!) and CD store, which, it turned out, tilted towards the oldies.  In the small "punk" section there was a compilation CD circa 1985 featuring songs by Let's Active, The Bronsky Beat, and Miracle Legion.  Hardcore.  I snapped up a collection of Yardbirds appearances on the BBC's Top of the Pops.  I had no idea that in their early days they were such a hairless pop band, pale shadows of the Beatles.  You could definitely hear how old black blues guys would have been pissed off, so lame were some of the covers of things like Muddy Waters' "I'm a Man."  Later on they got better.



* There are some establishments, such as Clark's of Kernersville, a good spot, which hedge by offering both red and green slaw.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Grinding

Apologies for mild radio silence.  Am deep in the throes of prepping for the CFP Retirement Planning exam.  I thought, "Oh, I know about 401ks and IRAs," but not like a professional, nosirree Bob.  Many layers of learning to do. Am summoning levels of discipline I haven't touched since studying for my PhD writtens, and at least then I was reviewing Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, good stuff, as well as some fairly boring stuff.  But at least the arc of literary history and evolution has a pretty clear general trend to it.

Finance is different.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Wrestling

Before bedtime Graham and I often wrestle.  We used to do it on the floor, or sometimes the couch, but over time I have found it to be more enjoyable on the bed.

This is when I usually discover that it's time to cut his nails.

Somehow, Graham always ends up winning the aggregate count of rounds, usually by something like 5-3.  I don't know how he does it.

It used to be, in fact, that I had to put up a fair amount of effort for him to win by that margin.  That is becoming less and less the case, as he gets bigger and develops more effective techniques. Particularly when I'm threatening to pin him, he gets quite inventive. I have progressively gotten him used to not doing some specific things, such as gouging my eyes or ripping my nostrils to one side or the other, but he still is quite determined in clawing into my neck and/or exerting pressure with his thumbs right behind my ears.  You see, he doesn't like to lose, even though he suspects he perhaps should.  One specific technique that he has developed is that, when I'm on top of him beginning to count to ten, he either holds my mouth shut so I can't count, or maybe just sticks his hand in my mouth, for the same effect.

It won't be long before I'm not faking it at all. Or very much, as the case may be.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Chainsaws

It is the 3rd day or so of intensive and near continual chainsaw use right near our house as these guys from Asplundh make their way up the house cutting down all branches within 7 feet of the power lines.  Often this means whole trees.  It is not ideal for trying to jam in material for the CFP Retirement Planning exam I take 6 days from now, but thankfully we've got a fine public library and I was able to arrange for a private study room for most of today.

In general, it's a pretty astounding, downright monumental undertaking to manage the above ground power lines on the east coast.  If we think back to August, 2003, the big blackout that took down the grid on so much of the East Coast, it was caused by some random trees somewhere in upstate NY near Canadia.  Now, since then, I like to think that some kind of circuit breakers have been put in place to limit the systemic impact of similar events -- and I think there have been -- but still... we have lots of little outages with no explanation, and we did in Princeton too.  Which is not to complain.  We haven't had anything in our fridge go bad in years, and if you go to sleep by flashlight once in a while, hey, it's kind of a fun family thing, it's good for the kids, I think.

Now, think about the monumental reforestation of the East Coast since WWII.  I remember reading in the New Yorker, probably an article by Elizabeth Kolbert, about how spring on the East Coast is totally viewable from space and meteorologically impactful in the sense that there's this huge carbon sink that reappears and starts pumping oxygen back into the global system.

So there's a lot of trees and a lot of power lines.  And these guys in front of our house are moving slowly, maybe 50-100 yards up the street a day.  They have to. Big trucks with cherry pickers, four guys.  They are probably union or, if not, at least relatively skilled labor, and paying to insure them is expensive too.  Map that out across the whole wooded portion of the United States, and the cost of maintaining lines is huge.

But they could have picked a better week!  Oh well, back to the coal mine I go.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The global robs from the local

OK, I got sucked into a time-sink and looked at an article on LinkedIn by Michael Lazerow, of Salesforce, talking about how big mobile is and how companies without mobile are dead, how CEOs everywhere want to be in touch with their customers and it's all about mobile.  I kinda scanned it.

Tucked in there was this gem:

Social technologies keep us connected to our friends and collaborating with our colleagues at all times. This is why social media is the number one activity online. And mobile lets us do it all as we wait for our kids outside their school on Friday afternoons.
I'm sorry, if there is one time, one time at all, when you should put your freaking phone in your pocket and make eye contact with someone else and chat in the old-fashioned way, it is when picking up your kid from school. That is when you should be building relationships not because it's good for your employer or your career or whatever, but because it's good for your life, and your soul.  The parents of the kids your kids go to school with can be, if you make the effort, companions on the great journey through life.  Sharing with them, watching their kids play with yours, watching their kids grow, there's really nothing better, nothing more to aspire to.

But yes, you stand there and worry if your boss has lobbed something at you that is "urgent" or if someone posted a clever nugget and that little monster in your pocket calls to you.

Just thinking about standing outside of Community Park Elementary in Princeton after school and seeing friends there makes me sad right now, and it makes me feel guilty for pulling Mary and my kids away from there, from the sandbox to graduation continuity they might have had.

So I'll say right now that Facebook died on my phone not long ago, and I tried to reinstall it and it didn't work, and I think that's for the best. And I'm not gonna let that rush me to get an upgrade on my phone, though Verizon Wireless really wants to push a new phone on me now that I'm out of contract. The little social world in your pocket distracts us all too frequently from the one around us.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Unconnected thoughts about benefits

There was an article on Bloomberg last week about how progressive Wall St was being about recruiting from the LGBT community.  Which is swell.  But I guarantee you, somewhere there is a consultant or flock thereof circulating with a deck of slides demonstrating that the queer community is a cheaper set of employees, that they are statistically significantly less likely to grow their households and acquire dependents for whom large employers must provide health insurance, etc.

-----

In general, people significantly over value dental benefits.  After basic health insurance, dental insurance is one of the things that employees value most, but policies are designed so that it's difficult to get your money's worth, and benefits are capped. My family and I are big dental users, and last year (when we were paying our own premiums, admittedly) we didn't come close to getting our money's worth.  Our premiums were in the neighborhood of $2400 and we got maybe $1600 of benefit out of it, and the most we could possibly have gotten was $4k.

Now, most people don't buy on the individual market, so they don't see the full cost of dental insurance come out of their own pockets.  Since their employer pays maybe 50, 60, 75%, it seems like a cheap benefit.  But every dollar an employer spends on dental is not spent on something else:  a better basic health policy, group life, disability, a better 401k match, a bonus, something.

In general, your spending $2k for something that -- if you brush and floss -- you have odds of 1 in 20 of some sort of bad event that might get you $4k.  Even if you don't take care of yourself, your odds are low that you'll get your money's worth.

By contrast, people dramatically undervalue disability.  There, a small outlay could cover you for a 1 in 50 chance of a significant income disruption $50-$100k and up.

I think the issue is that tooth pain is very "top of mind" because your teeth are right there next to your brain, and if they hurt, you're hurting all the time.  They are also right there in the middle of your face, so if they look bad, you look bad, and you feel badly about yourself. 

This is why dental insurance is such a fine business.  It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Uighur beleavers

Read a story today in the Economist about a terrorist attack in Tiananmen Square in which an SUV mowed down a crowd in front of the big portrait of Mao, killing 5, injuring 38.  It is being blamed on a terrorist organization from the Xinjiang region, home of the Uighurs, non-Chinese Muslims.  The organization is said to have ties to Al Qaeda.

This would make good fodder for an espionage novel, in which the CIA cofunds Islamic terrorists to make China focus on them as a threat, rather than us.  It could be DeLillo-esque in terms of pitting the interests of a resolutely and holistically economic vision of the world against one that is "spiritual" in nature, vs. the older world-political model of nation-states and national-isms.

Somebody has probably already written this book in connection with something else and even made it into a movie, and I just missed it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Color on the Lake

This time of year, we are beneficiaries of the most spectacular displays of color anybody could imagine. As the son rises in the east, our windows -- facing WNW or something like that down the hill onto the lake -- captures the reflection of the trees across the lake as the sun rises in soft soft light.  On a good day there's mist rising off the lake.  Really, this is best quite early, as we get the kids ready for school, and it changes quite rapidly.  Sometimes when I get back from the bus stop with Graham, at 7:17 or so, the best has passed.

I can see what drew Monet to those waterlilies. Not that I like the paintings themselves. As the 80s drew on and impressionism became the middle browest thing of all and we were progressively suffocated by it, it became difficult to look at an impressionist painting and think of anything other than the middle class seeking to demonstrate its upward strivingness through its taste for "culture."  It has long since been superceded by alt-country (which I can't yet hate) and pork bellies (which I think I've had enough of, except when our friend Sharon makes them at Chinese New Year). I should probably revisit the Waterlilies with fresh eyes, come to think of it. But I digress.

Now, I realize I'm one to talk about markers of class affiliation.  I was just going back to the Stuff White People Like website to retrieve the piece about Living by the water, when I chanced to scroll through the whole list of Stuff White People Like, only to see how embarrassingly it nails me. Oh well.

In any case, it is really nice to look down the hill at the lake.  In general, our neighborhood really is very lovely, if not as stylish and shiny as some of the newer, more aspirational nabes here in town.  As I have tried to manage the miles we drive down and as traffic has gotten worse and worse around here, I have gotten so I leave the neighborhood less and less.  I run here, play sports in the park off my backyard, etc.  From an emissions perspective, this is good.  From a being in touch with the rest of the world perspective, it is bad.

Like a good bourgeois, I kind of turn up my nose at WalMart and think that somehow shopping at Target makes me somehow superior.  But, in fact, I should spend more time at WalMart, probably, just watching people. For it is, in fact, America.

Monday, November 11, 2013

More about Caro

I continue to make my way through Caro's bio of LBJ, coming to the end of volume 1, when our hero is about to lose his first senatorial campaign. One of the most striking thing about Caro's modus operandi is the sheer thoroughness of it.  Talking about the extension of electricity under the Rural Electrification Administration, Caro doesn't just tell us about how it's gonna be a big deal, he spends maybe 20 or 30 pages describing how Texas hill country people lived before they had electricity.  Particularly the women.  The sheer volume of water that had to be carried by hand from streams typically 50-100 yards away from the house, bucket after bucket, for lack of electric pumps. The cooking all day over hot stoves in the sweltering heat of summer.  The backbreaking labor of laundering on Mondays, followed by a full day of ironing on Tuesdays.  It's exhausting just to read about it, and astonishing they could get through the week at all.

And then he tells us at length about LBJs affairs, and the incredible composure and diligence of Lady Bird in the face of a wandering jackass of a husband, a dinner-party boor and narcoleptic.  And whatever else seems pertinent.

More than anything, Caro gives the lie to the whole mantra of "critical thinking."  Humanists are, to a person, up in arms about how "critical thinking" will suffer under the coming neo-functionalist regime of goal-oriented MOOC-enabled content delivery.  And don't get me wrong, critical thinking will suffer, as it has suffered for some time, but not in the way many fear.  People fear the loss of a tenured soapbox from which to peddle their own flattened versions of reality, their single angle that makes them feel smart.

But, by digging in deep to whatever seems pertinent, and by keeping on digging, Caro shows us what critical thinking really is. It's a matter of keeping going beyond the obvious points where one could stop and find something to confirm one's way of viewing the world. Embracing the layers of contradiction.

In so doing, Caro brings the reader as close to the life of others as one is likely to get.  The only problem is, it gets exhausting at times, and we have our own lives to live, now don't we?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Detritus

Mom and I were up in her home town on Friday and ended up going in a trailer somebody had abandoned in the one park we still own, needing to get a serial number to get wheels in motion to get title to the thing. I thought it was gonna be empty, but that was far from the case.

In fact, despite the fact that it's been vacant for over a year now, it was as if it had been vacated last week.  There were clothes in closets, shoes hanging in shoe holders on doors, with mold growing on them.

But mostly there were videotapes.  Hundreds of them, mostly junky horror movies with psychopaths holding scythes and blood dripping off of this or that. I looked them over quickly, searching for recognizable titles and starts, but there was really little to hold on to, it was the leftovers of another culture altogether.

It smelled in there from being vacant for a while, and the bedrooms are little, but if it had been neat you can totally see how somebody can live in there.  We had a single-wide down at the beach in the late 70s-early 80s. The really depressing thing was the movies, all that blood and gore, and that they had collected them.  They could have spent $3000-5000 amassing that many videotapes, unless they snatched them up at thrift stores (really the only place to buy videos).

Next door, our hispanic tenants had erected a nice new shed to give themselves some storage.  We always like to see that, tenants not just putting down roots, but adding things, showing some pride.


Later, we were driving around through another neighborhood looking for something, we kept passing by all these old abandoned houses, and some of them had huge piles of trash out in front of them.  Nobody cares. And then we went through a mobile home park we had developed in the late 80s, where we (mostly mom) took great care to lay out the lots to preserve trees and pave nicely so there'd be good drainage.  We sold this in 2004 and it has gone downhill since then, it is now reputed to be gangland.  One woman is said to sleep in her bathtub to protect herself from stray bullets.  Occupancy is now down around 50-60%.

Things are complicated.  It's not easy being poor in a rural county, far from an interstate. Unemployment is high there, above 9%.  There's lot of drugs, not much industry.  The police have in recent weeks trumpeted a big wave of arrests of drug dealers and users, over 100. It gives them something exciting to do, and to print in the newspaper, but the root causes run deep.  And both the Democrats and the Republicans have points in this debate:  education is hugely important, as are jobs, and dense regulations are a indeed a disincentive to investment, as we ourselves saw in discussions with local officials on Friday. I could type all day on this, but it's nice out, so I'm gonna stop.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Carolina North and the cloudy future of brick and mortar higher ed

Went running at Carolina North yesterday, the old area those of us growing up in Glen Heights used to refer to as "The Woods," because of all the trees there.  To catch glimpses of fall foliage from afar (check out all that alliteration, kids!  Do try that at home), I ended up running on the trails around the Horace Williams Airport, which is either closed or slated to close to make way for the proposed Carolina North Campus of UNC.

This campus will add, in phase 1, 800,000 square feet to house the schools of Law and Public Health, and other stuff, and will eventually expand to 3 million square feet for who knows what.  As Natalie used to say:  "Thassalot!"

However, it's all held up right now, there's no budget for it, not even real architectural drawings, according to profs at the Law School, which is Phase 1. And the abstemious NC General Assembly is not big on shelling out ducats.

And Carolina North is one of the key strategic drivers for the Central West redevelopment plan in Chapel Hill, which is currently being pushed through process in our municipal government.  In principle, it espouses a lot of smart pro-density policies which are good.  But it's in pretty sensitive ecological areas (Airport Road/MLKJ Blvd and Estes), perching atop pretty steep drops to a key creek which floods.

But here's the question that came to me as I ran:  does UNC really need this new campus?  A friend was recently telling me that the Kenan-Flagler Business School is losing money, and I was on campus there during the middle of the day sometime last year and it was a ghost town, all these nice facilities empty, hear a pin drop quiet.  Couldn't Law or Public Health use some of that excess capacity?

From a strategic perspective, there's a general feeling that the broad recalibration of the economy and the place of higher ed within it, the emergence of MOOCs, and most importantly the shift in the dependency curve occasioned by the retirement of the Boomers means that there will be huge competitive pressures brought to bear on higher ed, and that 10, 15, 20, 25% of higher ed institutions will go out of business.  That's a lot of brick and mortar lying fallow.  Why shouldn't the UNC system wait for some of this creative destruction and shift functionality to one of them?  Yes it would mean uprooting some faculty, and might be bad for Chapel Hill.  But I think in our heart of hearts we know that the intense clustering of smart and affluent people in narrow ZIP codes really isn't good for society.  Better to "spread the wealth around a little."  Send some professors to Zebulon, what the hell.  It will pull up their economies, tax bases, and school systems, and would be good for NC.

OK.  I'm rambling and procrastinating.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The withering of repairs and the great divergence

There is much thought and hand-wringing all around about the divergence of wealth in the last few decades.  The other day, I found myself wondering:  could a minor contributor to this process be the rise of quality control in manufacturing and the withering of the repair sector?

Before the rise of TQM, Kaizen, Six Sigma, and whatever other methodologies took root from the late 70s forward, driven by Toyota, manufactured goods used to break, and we would fix them.  Remember when there was a TV repairman?  Remember when Maytag had commercials featuring its reliable repairmen (yes, it was primarily men)?  That was a differentiator for Maytag. Now things are better made, they break less, and they are fixed less.

Having a repair shop used to be a good skilled trade, and for the more ambitious, it was a way to own a business and learn the skills of being a businessperson.

Then manufacturing got better, as management developed methodologies to relentless decrease defects, and management consultants and MBAs generalized these ways of doing things and carried them across industries. Now cars and all other things break much less often, and when TVs, etc break, we just get new ones.  More often, they don't break before they have been obsoleted by product development cycles.

And when they do break, the repair supply chains have been more tightly corporatized.  Auto dealers, in particular, have been successful, at bringing the repair ecosystem back under their own rooves, where it is a huge component of profitability.

Compare how it was back in the day.  My grandfather owned a couple of auto parts stores in an NC small town (Roxboro), and made good money by doing so. I was just talking the other day to a lawyer in that same town (who now lives in Chapel Hill for the better schools) whose dad owned a garage and general store out in Bushy Fork, and who got his parts from my grandad's store.  The store building was bought by the municipal government not long ago, and now there are Autozones/Carquests etc. to source parts (and ANSI and other standards organizations to make sure that many standard parts are not branded).

So these things make it harder to carve out a niche within which to make money and found a small business.

On the other hand, the improvements in product quality do to a certain extent support the conservative argument for the incorporation of hedonic considerations into inflation calculations:  if cars and other things break less frequently, last longer, and offer more functionality to consumers, than one is getting objectively more for one's money, however little it is, than one did 10 years ago.

What is lost is social capital and the ability to feel good about oneself, which is not chopped liver.

OK. Back to the coal mine.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Haiku

Rifling through some piles of papers in the room I like to call my office, lest Mary pull rank on me and kick me out, I found a book of haiku that Natalie composed sometime in the last few years, and which might as well be captured for digital posterity.

Ocean
Blue, or is it green?
stretching far as I can see
Shining in the sun

Seagulls
Soaring in the sky
Feathers white, short beaks curved tight
Pleading for some bread
Not too shabby.

It makes me proud of my daughter, and also reminds me how fortunate we are to live in a place where this kind of thing is valued in education, making kids aware of different forms of expression and thereby fostering a sense that there are different modes of apprehension of being. This may be all swallowed up by the narrow functionalism of the Common Core, the Race to the Top or whatever, and their bastard stepchildren. Just as likely, we're going through one of those cyclical swings that we do, and if the schools come to provide less for the soul, the slack will be taken up elsewhere in the ecosystem, in houses of worship, on the Interweb, somewhere.  Not by bread alone.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Quietly seething in the comfort of my home

We haven't gone anywhere as a family for foliage season, nor have we been to the beach pure and simple for a long time. The reasons for this are various. We are lazy, for sure, but also because it's pretty nice off our backyard.  There's the terraced park leading down to the lake with its own little beach, behind which rises hills covered with trees, which change with the season pretty durned nicely.  So we've kinda got the summer and fall vacation options baked into our backyard.  And because it's nice, people come to us.  People walking or biking round the lake, or people from around town and/or out of town wanting to go swimming or whatever.

And, since in the natural order of our weeks, we drive around quite enough, thank you, hopping into the car to burn extra carbon seems kinda wasteful.  With our old cars, I used to be proud of how many miles we drove, as if tending to the cars and keeping them for a long time was a demonstration of virtue. With this generation of vehicles, I'm now into how few miles we're driving.

I've also tried to manage down the amount I/we fly on planes, also for emissions reduction reasons. From an environmental point of view, it all makes sense.

But when I look out on Facebook at people's pictures from the beach, the mountains, the Caribbean, the Caucasus, I'm often like:  "man, that looks good.  I wanna go there," which can quickly translate into "I am such a failure, how is it we don't go there."  A large part of it is just sheer competitiveness and envy, which is just silly, and can devolve into outright counterproductivity.  Though I suppose it gets me thinking, and gives me a little something to write about on an otherwise slow brain day.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Reading Mike Mayo

When I first heard Mike Mayo had come out with a book called Exile on Wall Street, I was a little miffed, because I had thought of that as a potential title for a book of my own.  Now that I've made my way through his book, I think he's earned the title.

I was, truth be told, prepared to not fall in love with the book. Something about Mayo had always rubbed me the wrong way, maybe it was just the stridency with which he got his voice out there, or the sheer regularity of it. But as I read on, and understood the level of battles Mayo was fighting -- with bank CEOs on the pages of the Journal, and in the rumor and gossip mills of the Street -- it became clear that he needed a certain brashness and a thick skin just to be in the game. In the end, it's a good book, well-written and well worth the time it takes to read it, especially because it clocks in at a pretty lean 175 pages, well shorter than the thousand page reports he has apparently put out at times.

I was hoping to learn more about banks, and I did.  But I learned as much about the world of the sell-side analyst as I did about banks, and that's good too.  I found it pretty informative that, when Mayo started at UBS in 1992, the analysis of bank stocks was extremely rudimentary: 

"I wanted to dig into the financials and spot things that no one else had seen.  To that end, I came up with a new model for valuing banks, calling it an 'adjusted book value model' and later a 'bank franchise value model.  This approach involved going through a bank's balance sheet and correcting each item, up or down, for everything you could possibly know about it....  The approach didn't seem extremely radical to me but was considered a big advance for the process of analyzing banks (p. 32)"
Now, maybe I'm naive, but this is some 58 years after Ben Graham's Security Analysis was published, laying the groundwork for this kind of analysis, and over a quarter of a century since the efficient market hypothesis had come out, postulating that all known information should be reflected in stock prices, presumably because analysts and investors were actually working and digging into this kind of stuff.  It's not improbable that Mayo's exaggerating and self-aggrandizing here a little, but the speed with which he became a preeminent bank analyst kind of speaks for itself.

And so, disciplined, workaholic, bank-junky analyst Mike Mayo, living in Manhattan, Street denizen, should have known what was going on at the banks in the run-up to the Crisis, right?  Being privy to all of that information, and trained to dissect bank balance sheets and earnings, he should have understood their businesses and seen the crisis coming in 2005, 2006, 2007, no?  The thing is, he didn't.  He left a "buy" rating on Lehman right up till the end, and he frankly admits here in the book that it was a huge mistake. But why not, you may ask?  Why didn't Mayo understand the crap quality of all the loans being warehoused on and around bank balance sheets, this big game being played by thousands across Wall Street?

Partly because the game was too big for any one person, or any one team, to process it all. But it was partly as well because the information just wasn't there.  Strive as Mayo might to provide a window into the banks, they were too opaque to be seen into, like financial Kaabas.  I worked as a consultant at one of the big banks back in 2008, and I worked in functions close to information security, and I can tell you that InfoSec is gospel. Information is gold to the banks, and they monitor and control information flow across their borders as tightly as they can. The culture of that time and place is best summed up by a true story a guy told me about a couple of quants managing a strategy at a pretty well-known but particularly tight-lipped hedge fund.  One of them got married, and the other one didn't find out about it till months after the fact. When the ignorant one asked the newlywed why he had been kept in the dark, he was told "You didn't have a need to know."

And this is, in a nutshell, the paradox of the Efficient Market hypothesis in a nutshell.  The guy as well equipped as anyone in humanity to process information related to banks -- didn't have the information he needed. But we need guys like him around, because at least he tried, and tries, and he's got considerably more insight into banks than I have.

Friday, November 01, 2013

A Separate Peace

As I may have mentioned, the deer have been making occasional, ill-advised incursions into the garden into which Mary poured her heart, soul, and the last two springs. This despite the fact that the plants are supposed to be not deer friendly, as per the landscape architect we commissioned to help us plan this thing, whose plans Mary has so diligently implemented, with really pathetic support from your dear blogger.

At first, I took considerable umbrage at the little bambies coming into the garden, and would run at them and chuck rocks at them to impress upon them the Grand Order of Things, specifically, that they should keep the hell away, lest their nibbling cause discord in my house.

Of late, however, it appears that they have figured out that, in fact, those are plants they indeed just don't like. So the poor things have been reduced to nuzzling round the side yard, underneath the canopy of trees, searching for green shoots amongst the heavy leaf litter. The silly things are just starving.  I'm not a gun-toting man, but their population really does need to be culled.  I suspect that, secretly, the auto body shops all around North America try to encourage the robust deer population, which are so baked into their business model by now.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Highlight of the week

It was a day off from school (if not from the CFP curriculum), and in the afternoon I played frisbee with the kids on Monday.  Both of them.  I play pretty often with Graham, and as Natalie is between field hockey and ultimate season, I was able to coax her out to prep for the latter.

Graham was a little excited to have his sister out playing for him, so he started demonstrating some of his silly throws, like when he throws overhand and then does a backwards roll. And Natalie started laughing.  Really laughing.  Laughing in a way that it was really clear that she is fond of her little brother, actually loves him.

Now, as those of you who have more than one kid know, or who have siblings, kids aren't always that demonstrative towards one another.  And Natalie, who, prior to Graham's arrival on the scene a decade ago, had been the first grandchild on Mary's side of the family, the little golden-curled sweetheart and center of attention, was dislodged from her position at the center of a pretty large universe at Graham's birth.  And then he had some special needs, which made him an attention vortex at times.  So she has in particular not always been so lovey-dovey with Graham.

So Monday was particularly nice.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Input/Output, or, return to Protuberance

I woke my computer up this morning with the full intention of writing.  I have the most energy relatively early in the morning -- though certainly not first thing, not these pre-autumn time change days when we rise well before the sun -- and often it is "squandered" in reading and musing, or, worse, worrying and kvetching. I consider writing to be a "strategic" activity for myself and therefore should really devote some time to it, if only the measly 15 minutes I try to squeeze it into.

But today, when my computer finally deigned to show its screen, I was hijacked by a lot of activity on Facebook.  What's going on over there?  I thought.  I had sent out an invite last night, a post or two, and somehow had to see what had bounced back.

All too often this is the case, Facebook draws me in, and it cuts into my writing.  And is this a bad thing, necessarily?  Here I am on my own, asserting my ego, as it were, laying myself out. Over there, at its best, I am participating in a conversation with many, a flow of ideas, sometimes global.  Right now I have friends around the US, and in Spain, Russia, Italy, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Japan, Germany, Sweden, France, and probably other places too, if I stop to think about it.  There's a lot going on. There is flow.
Gay people are being beaten in the streets, and friends' kids are doing silly stuff and winning volleyball games.

So what is more important, in the long run, to push myself out, or to participate in flow?

We are right back to the question which I deemed "Protuberance" some years back, to Ramsay at the dinner table in To the Lighthouse running his mouth but all the time saying "I, I, I, I....."

(Commenters, please begin)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Vitamins

Mary has been in the habit of picking out multi-vitamins for me, and I trust her, absolutely.  So when, a year or two back, she came back from the drug store with a multi that said "Men's Senior" on it, I didn't take offense, even though on the face of it it seemed a couple of decades premature.  I figured she had done some sort of research that had told her that was the one for me.



But when she brought back a bottle that said "Men's Mature" on it yesterday, I had to wonder:  what's the difference. So I figured I would look on the labels to see what the difference was.

Alas, the print size is too small for me to read it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Breakin the law

Was listening to NPR on the way to the Central West Planning meeting last night and they were interviewing those two people who just published a book about Lance Armstrong and doping. They were talking about how over the top and outrageous the drug abuse was on the US Postal Service team, and I found myself ranting in my own mind about how absurd the culture of cheating was in sports and business and how it's absolutely correct that Armstrong should have every possible book thrown at him and his wealth confiscated, and Stevie Cohen too, and Barry Bonds.... and how necessary it was for our children to see that rule-breaking has consequences and how important it is to play fair...

And then, I remembered how, not two hours before, when a blonde field hockey player for Culbreth had a breakaway and was threatening to score (Phillips was up 4-1, with maybe 8 minutes left), and I found myself advocating to the other parents standing there that our defender should, in that situation, take the Culbreth player down, foul her intentionally to stop the breakaway.  Which is, tactically, the correct thing to do when there's a real threat of a goal in a low-scoring sport.

But, though it is tactically correct, it's not really rule compliant.  It is, in fact, the type of consequence-weighing behavior we all engage in all the time:  I'll break a rule if the legal recourse is not onerous and/or the probability of getting caught is low.  So, drive 67 in a 55 but not 74.

We do this all the time.  Armstrong was just gambling at a higher level, and in such a global way that it called into question the integrity of his sport.

I can't help but to think back to Luis Suarez reaching up with his hands to block the shot that the Ghanaians had headed over the goal line in the dying seconds of the World Cup quarterfinal in 2010 in South Africa. Ghana had done an incredible thing, had brought honor upon Africa, and what Suarez did seemed so dirty. And then the regal Asamoah Gyan stepped up and missed the penalty off the crossbar, and Uruguay won in a shoot out.  And, in retrospect, Suarez did the absolute right thing.  He did the only thing he could do, and he got a red card, but Uruguay advanced.  And that's how it is.  Perhaps the most dramatic moment I have ever seen in sports, and I hope to never see it again.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

At a Bat Mitzvah

Went to the Bat Mitzvah of Natalie's friend S yesterday.  We were able to plunk Graham over at granny's, which was a fine thing, because he offered the opinion that Bar and Bat Mitzvah's are even "drearier" (his actual word) than funerals because of all the Hebrew.  And the service was, in truth, on the long side, though sung beautifully.

But I find that there's a special freedom to religious services conducted in languages you don't know.  Sometimes I try to figure out something about the language.  I'll never forget the time that I figured out that "Baruch" means blessing, hence the 17th century philosopher Spinoza (whom I've been meaning to read for 25 odd years) is alternately referred to as Baruch and Benedict. This was at Tanya and Jamie's wedding at Bard back in '94 or 5, where the rabbi had the most lovely voice and really had the literal enthusiasm of great clergy of any faith, or none. "Barack" is etymologically linked to Baruch.Yesterday I deciphered that Melech means king.

But mostly I just let my mind wander freely and ponder things, much like I used to in church, when the sermons might as well have been in a foreign language. I thought about other stuff too, some of it deep, which I may find time to get back to, though now I think I've gotta go feed Graham lunch.

What I will say is that there was a girl sitting right in front of us who was continually futzing with her hair.  She kept trying to braid it in one way or another, but it wouldn't stay back, and she was totally doing it obsessively the whole time.  I must say that I found this annoying, as it was interfering with my piece of mind and my ability to think extremely profound thoughts, the processing and recording of which is of the utmost importance to humanity.

Then, lunch was delicious.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Soccer dad

So, because I can, I have been going to as many of Natalie's field hockey games as I can, because I can.  And they haven't been winning.  Quite the contrary.

The big problem is that the other teams are, you see, better.  There are relatively few experienced players at Phillips, and only a few who are really dogged in wanting the ball and contesting for it.  Natalie is not one of them. She is largely content to be in the area where the ball is, close enough to the action to not feel guilty about shirking, but not actively interjecting herself into the flow.  The problem is, I believe, reaching back through the years to my own early and uncertain times playing sports, that she doesn't believe she can influence the play, or, that if she does, it will be in the wrong way. So why run the risk of messing up if you can be close enough where you appear to be trying?

And, honestly, it's no biggie, because she's having fun and maintains a really good attitude. Making the high school team will probably be difficult, this may be her last year at this sport, and that's OK, because at this level, and not on turf, it's frustrating sport to watch. Ultimate is so much better.

But sitting there on the bench, watching the team underperform, watching the few aggressive girls play their hearts out, is challenging for me. I keep my yelling entirely positive, but under my breath, in my skull, it's difficult to do.  In my mind, I am the soccer dad of parodies, yelling out, correcting the coach (though not berating the ref). And I get it. I know I am playing out insecurities of my youth in there.  I just try to keep it there.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Long day

Was in Greensboro bright and early for the income tax planning exam of the CFP.  In the bag!  Box checked.

After a traditional Carolina burger at a NC Diner (vaguely an oxymoron?) I planned to make my way home via back roads, to with, what is known in Chapel Hill as Old Greensboro Highway.

Then I talked to my mom, who told me my uncle Ballard had passed away over the weekend.  Ballard was my dad's older brother, about whom I really need to write a little more, I see, having looked through the archives quickly.  But, as I was west of town, I stopped in to see his sister Frances on my way back, who lives out that way. Was greeted at my car by no fewer than 7 dogs, one of whom (Duncan), weighs about 135 pounds.  But, once they saw that I was kin, they all simmered down and begged to be pet.

In any case, would love to write more, but may not get back to it today.  My friend who's helping with some home repair stuff has gotten here, gotta go confer with him.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cease to cherish opinions

Saw a great quote today: "Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions."

Turns out it is from a certain Hsin-hsin-ming, or so the Almighty Interweb tells me.

I may have blogged before on the subject of the fragment.  In western culture, the fragment has been a very fruitful form from Heraclitus forward, and one I have always been partial to.  There is a certain appropriate humility to the short form, an absence of overreaching and self-aggrandizement.  Plus it's impossible for the individual mind to try to hold the totality of something like the Critique of Pure Reason in mind, or the Bible or whatever grand text seems to be the big one for you.

Similarly, there's a certain justice in the fact that Alice Munro just won the Nobel for Literature, the first pure short-story writer to ever do so.  Certainly the short story is denigrated relative to the totalizing pretensions of the novel.

And yet, I am mindful of what Franco Moretti once said, somewhat sotto voce, about a certain globe-trotting rock star theorist in his department.  "(S)he has never written a book, only collections of articles."  I get that.  For personal development, for saying what you believe in and trying to bring threads together, there does seem to be a drive to write a book which hangs together and presents a unified argument.  Or is this also but a chimera?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Tax code

Studying Income Tax Planning module for the CFP course given by CFFP.  This is not more exciting then it sounds.

Some notes.  On the one hand, I can see how deucedly complex is US tax code.  It is layer upon layer of inducements, put on their year after year as the IRS caught up with those who would willfully dosey-doe with it and/or to incent or disincent behaviors at moments of economic stress.  So I get simplifying it.

Then again, it's equally hard to imagine actually doing it, because at any different moment, a million taxpayers might be planning, over the course of years, to take advantage of one provision or the other.

In time, thought, something will give. Simplification will need to happen.  The cost of complying with the Code is manifestly unproductive, and consumers a non-trivial chunk of GDP.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Reason I Jump from subject to subject

I just read The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida.  The author is a Japanese kid who wrote the book when he was 13, and he is, by most measures, apparently somewhere around the middle of the functioning range of the autism spectrum, I guess. I'm hedging because, although he apparently doesn't speak much, it's really an amazing book.  Through an arduous process of spelling out words using a special grid, he's given the reader fairly astounding access to the inner realms of his thinking, which is by no means simple for a 13-year old.  It is articulate and well-considered.  I really recommend the book to anyone, but particularly to others who have kids or other relatives on the spectrum.  It is more direct and human than anything else I've read, including John Elder Robeson and Temple Grandin.

There's a final story in it which doesn't address any specific questions of autism, but is incredibly sweet, so don't skip it.


And, having been schooled in literary criticism during the heyday of high literary theory, or maybe soon after it, I gotta tell you this throws a big brick through the window of any theory that calls into question the representational power of language.  I mean, it ain't perfect, but it's pretty damned good, and a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Theory is/was one of those intensely seductive things.  It takes so much work, and when you're enveloped in it it feels like it gives you so much power, but then you go to talk to somebody who's not bought into it and they're looking at you like:  "what the fuck are you talking about?"  In many ways, those most seduced and caught up in theory are not unlike the Tea Party, trapped in their own little self-referential self-reinforcing world.

Which isn't to say it's all bad.  It just must be leavened and tempered with an open mind.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Russia and the intelligentsia

When Boyzu and I went swimming the other day he was asking me about Russia.  To wit:  "What's up with Russia?  Why are they so angry and reactionary."

In the moment, all I could think of was to say that many of them were thugs, which is a gross oversimplification, to be sure.  Only slightly less crassly, I think it's fair to say that Russians have lived for a long time in a harsh environment which periodically becomes harsher for reasons both external (invaders like Napoleon and Stalin) and internal (tyrants like Stalin and the at times rather harsh autocracy of Tsars, to say nothing of Serfdom).  So Russians have learned to do what they need to to survive.

They are also naturally pissed off at having felt like they were a world power, and then to have been brought low and ground in the mire after the end of the Cold War. So the Russian Man, writ large, doesn't feel too good about himself.  Right now, to survive in his mind as a "man", he perceives that has to have somebody to kick around.  He's been kicking around the "black" people of the Caucasus and Central Asia for sometimes, the colonies they brought to heel from the 17th century forward that have now said "uh uh".  And they've had nasty wars and major incidents of terrorism blow back on them from that.



Women are already pretty much under control, and, in the absence of a bunch of Jews, many of whom have left for Israel or the US, homosexuals make an easy target.  They aren't likely to launch coordinated attacks on theaters full of adults or schools full of children.  Get drunk, bash some homos, what could be easier in terms of feeling like a man, and a righteous man at that?  The Klan used to love this, still does in some parts.


So what's the attraction of Russia for me?  The intelligentsia.  This is a special group.  From the 19th century forward, around the time of Pushkin, a group of Russians figured out that the way they could pull themselves out of the Ghetto of Being was through study and trying to live true to their principles learned thereby.  And the tradition has pretty much held up. They are people, yes, so prone to foibles, but it's a pretty extraordinary group of folx, very pure in their own way.

Anyway, I thought this post was gonna be more about them but I kept blathering about the mass of Russians, so more later.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Vanishing of the Agora

There's a story in the NYTimes this morning about new ways retailers and payment companies are dreaming up zipless shopping:  read an ad, point, click, and one of those hunky brownshirts will show up at your door with it.  Or meet you in a parking lot at a precisely appointed time.

Great.  Last night, after being at my desk for almost the whole day -- save for a brief trip in the morning to a LabCorp phleb lab for some bloodwork where I got very pleasant service from a couple of nice young African-American women, one of them of near runway quality loveliness -- I went out to my neighborhood RiteAid to pick up some prescriptions and some dental and shaving stuff.  I could have saved my time and asked Mary to do it for me, there could have been noniminally more highly value-additive functions for me to perform at home.

Thing is:  I wanted to go to the store. To see people. And, when I got there, the eccentric guy with the funky moustache and the half gloves took good care of me, even made a joke about how many prescriptions people my age sometimes pick up.

The fact is, as more and more stuff gets delivered to our homes, we go out and rub shoulders with other people (or, as we used to say in the theory world -- The Other), less and less. Which makes us narrower and narrower as souls.

Marketers bemoan this fact. It becomes more difficult to sell things to us as we venture out less, and in more predictable ways. And this is true of politics and the marketplaces of ideas as well, as gerrymandering gets more and more extreme, it's harder and harder to communicate diversely with a diverse group, and less and less necessary to think in terms of crossing boundaries.

Do you remember when Bruce Springsteen sang about "57 Channels and Nothing On," and we all nodded our heads at the absurdity of it?  Well, how many channels are there now?

The big boxes are the great levellers.  WalMart, Target, CostCo, IKEA, each of them appeals to segments, but they are pretty broad segments.  For many reasons, I'm not a fan of WalMart, and yet the experience of going to WalMart is important, because America is there.  I think Whitman would like it.  But Bezos has it squarely in his sights.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Graham on the fall of Eike Batista

So there's a cover story on the fall of Eike Batista in Businessweek, about how he managed to lose a fortune of $34.5 billion.  And I have to admit that's a pretty good question. Graham was likewise intrigued, and I found the magazine next to his bed as we got in to read and snuggle a bit.

So I asked him if he had read the article or if I had left it there myself, and he allowed that he had read it, but still couldn't figure out how he had lost all that money.

"Did he build a cruise ship?"  he asked, because there had been some talk of Batista's lavish yacht in the article..
"Well," I said, "you couldn't really spend that much on a cruise ship."
Graham paused, and then said, "Well, if it was an intergalactic one the size of Australia...."
And I had to admit that he had me.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Shall the Twain Meet?

Saw these two pix from the Courier-Times of Person County yesterday, they kind of jumped off the page at me in the theme of two Americas. In a sense, they both speak for themselves.  The first is very sweet, except for the angry hunting duck at left. Obviously fans of Duck Dynasty, which I watched once to see what the hullabaloo was about, and it's pretty clear what the show offers: strong validation of the rebel, rural white guy who both has dominion over nature and coexists with it, with the irony that these (to the well-heeled and well-shaven corporate man) guys look scary but have real "family values," which involves kind of respecting women, especially with big hair and tight clothes.

The second picture is obviously a whole nuther kettle of fish.  This is ruling-class nostalgia distilled to a purity I see only rarely. Forget about the shoe, just look at the diction, the luggage the girl is sitting on, and her coat.  This is culled from a timeless vision of the lady setting off on the "Grand Tour" of Europe, where she will acquire all the culture and refinement she will need to make her a good wife, mother, and hostess.


In a town as small and not particularly affluent as Roxboro, I've been surprised at the healthy persistence of the gentry class. A fundraiser for the local historical society with a $50 plate cost drew 300 a couple of weeks back, and the high school girls' tennis team (a bunch of classic tanned blondes) has done quite well, thank you.

So there's a big class divide here, which is no shocker, but nonetheless pretty well leaps off the page at you. All the same, it's not inconceivable that these people go to the same church, and by and large they vote the same way, as Fox News has successfully united them against their common enemy...  And therein, I would say, lies the problem.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Cary

Today saw the mighty Falcons of Phillips doing battle at Cary Academy, which is quite a jernt indeed. In actual fact, it looks like a small, well-heeled, Christian college, with all the appropriate athletic facilities, including a synthetic track. Sitting next to the SAS campus, and feeling like an extension of it, I was by no means surprised to learn that Jim Goodnight of SAS is one of the founders/funders.

In any case, on the field it was the traditional battle between good(us) and evil(them). They had it all over us in terms of skill, experience, ball control, etc., but our girls showed a lot of scrappy heart and fought them to a 0-0 tie.

I was so glad that I took Natalie out to Michael's last night to buy some ribbon, since special ribbon in the hair for each game is a proud Falcon tradition. Natalie bought awesome sparkly silver ribbon, so all the girls were covered in wee glitter afterwards. What's not to like about that?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Carrboro Music Festival, take 1

So I had never made it up there before, but yesterday was a beautiful day and I was determined to get up to the Carrboro Music Festival. I assumed that parking would be hell, so I rode my bike, which took a little cleaning, as she had been in the basement all summer, all year, just sitting there, getting a little dusty and moldy.  But nevermind about that.

So I got up there, and stashed the bike in the closet of an office building I conveniently have keys to, and set to galavanting about. There were many folx.  In front of Weaver Street, there was some pretty decent funk breaking out.  Imagine my surprise to go over there and see that the band that was belting it out was pretty much old folk, the woman on guitar was heavy set and maybe 50-55... but she was ripping.  And there was another woman up on stage painting on a black canvas with bright reds, oranges, purples and whatnot. That didn't do much for me.

Age would become a theme for the day.  Back in the day, it seemed like I would go to street fairs and all the people I would meet were young people. Now, everybody I know has grey hair or is balding, and sports a paunch or a poncho, or both. I just can't figure it out.

And many of the bands fit the bill.  Old grey-haired dudes belting out blues of ZZ Top songs or something.  Which is cool, but not all that exciting.  Many of them were accompanied by women of a certain age is day-glo tie-died stuff, dancing eccentrically with handsome-looking beers in plastic cups. Also kids,  and couples dancing together in that "I'm too old to care" way.  All good.

But I was yearning to get beyond just acceptance to a place of being actively stoked to be there. By Glass Half-Full I came across a band playing reggae and soul, with a guy with long dreads, a flute, a sax, and a fine singing voice.  This was the Tim Smith Band, and I thought, this is plenty good, I'll call it a day and go home and see my kids.

But as I was crossing main street, I espied a mini-donut truck over by Cliff's, which I had to investigate, so I crossed over to check it out.  They looked good but were overpriced and sold in too large a unit, but I looked past the truck and saw a bunch of folks clustered by a corner. And there, under a little bit of shelter, was a fine 4-piece bluegrass quartet with two guys who had great singing harmony.  I caught their last two songs, and over my right shoulder, on the roof behind Cliff's, I saw a duo rocking out.  So I went over there.

And it turned out it was Aussies.  A real small woman playing a stand-up base, and a guy, apparently her husband, on guitar, and they had beer in cozies, a couple of small amps, and were rocking out. And she could yodel.

video 

I stayed for 5 songs, but, clearly, it wasn't getting any better than this, so it was time to head home and hang out with the kids.

On the way out of Carrboro, I ran into Glenn from Local 506, and he told me that I had seen the Red Hot Polka Dots, transplants to our fair shores.  Here's a better video.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

The US of AA

Just got back from an AA meeting.  There's really nothing quite like it, those without substance abuse issues don't, can't get it, from the perspective of coming to an understanding of being a human at a very root level.

Today there were lots of shares from black women of limited means.  First, one I'll call D talked about being at a dance last night and feeling shy and embarrassed about getting out on the dance floor, because she always used alcohol and drugs to push through that, and then finally going out and dancing and having a great time.  And then she shared about how happy she was to have 30 days sober, having made it to 27 and 28 on previous occasions but never 30, and how proud she was to have gotten there, and I remember that pride too, how awesome it was to just get some days under your belt.

And then another black woman I'll call N shared.  I remember a few weeks back at this meeting, a pretty big meeting, a lot of people had their hands up and an older white gentleman I'll call X -- a sage fellow whom I always looked forward to hearing -- had had his hand up and was having trouble getting the attention of the chair.  And I thought of putting my hand up just to get the floor and then ceding it to X.  And N did just that.  She pushed up her hand with huge enthusiasm, got the floor, and then passed the mike to X. It was beautiful.

But today she held the floor and talked about what she was going through, and she shared about how she picked up trash randomly to do a good deed and to feel good about herself (I do that too), and that she had picked up a little black baby doll, which she bathed and combed its hair, and had gotten a little bed for it.  And that she had been sitting at a bus stop the other day and there was a baby bottle lying on the ground, and she thought, God has left that their for my little baby, so she picked it up and took it home.  All good in my book.

And a bunch of other stuff, from a guy just out of the joint frustrated that he couldn't get a job and couldn't get back to Texas where he could, and a country white guy who took back a money order that had been made out for too much money and then bought a lottery ticket and won $75. Basically there are very few other places and circumstances where one can go and feel deep connectedness to people very different from oneself that are on par with AA, and in that it's a great blessing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mr Johnson goes to Washington

It is 1931, and LBJ, having made it through college by a circuitous and curious path, after frenetically teaching public speaking and debate in Houston for one year, has over a few short years passed from Cotulla, Texas, in the middle of nowhere between San Antonio and the Mexican border -- to the US Capitol building.

At times Caro lingers, fairly wallows, in so much detail that you think, like your subject, that you may never move on, but when the tide turns, he generates momentum and interest like no other. So when Johnson's debating team improbably makes its way to the Texas State Championship only to.... (win? lose? I will not be a spoiler), and Johnson passes from nothingness into somethingness with improbable speed, Caro has you, or me, and each paragraph snowballs in importance.

I almost can't believe I took time out to write about it.  Back to the drama.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The gentle riddims of the suburbs, part N, v 2013

A somewhat rough day here at my desk, as down across the gully I am continually serenaded by chain saws and their accompanying base line, the chipper. So, I think, I'll go running, figure out where the sound is coming from, and calm the noggin.  And so I do, and as I'm in the last mile, headed back home, I am passed on the curvy road by a loud, slow-moving truck carrying... mulch!  And so on one side somebody's using a two-stroke engine to cut and break down tree matter, while on the other more carbon is burnt delivering the same, maybe 3/4 of a mile from the chainsaw.

And then, and here's the kicker -- as I come into my yard I see a bunch of deer -- whose numbers have multiplied of late, brazenly grazing in Mary's hard-tended garden, which is ostensibly planted with plants the bambi set don't like. Problem is, it would appear, that the expanded population is hungry, and there's not enough wild underbrush to support them on things they like, so they eat things they don't.  It's as if Graham was hungry enough to eat something he really hates, like, maybe, cooked cabbage.  That's tough to imagine.

All of this makes it difficult for the Grouse himself to really bite down on such tender fare as the tax treatment of partial annuitizations, or the use of Qualified Personal Realty Trusts in estate planning.

I know, I know, you may well be thinking:  what the hell did you expect?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Making peace with the rural church

Almost certainly it's because I spent too much time as a management consultant, but my mind increasingly turns to the concept of alignment (earlier ramblings), and the lack thereof, to explain many of our society's woes these days. I.e. we aren't forced to a shared conception of direction by an external threat (Nazis, Communists, etc.), nor do we have a strong internal mission (right wrongs caused by racism, sexism, etc.).  In this situation, we need leadership to galvanize us, and in a fragmented million-channel landscape of the internet, cable TV, etc., it's very hard to get there.

Amongst the clearest indications of lack of alignment is the profusion of big-assed tattoos all over people's bodies, and in particular in places where they can't be hidden:  necks, arms, etc. I can't back this up statistically, but they seem to occur most frequently amongst those that feel they have no hope of joining the corporate ruling class. Similarly, idiosyncratically-spelled Afrocentric names are a pretty big lifetime commitment to self-marginalization. It's as if to say:  "I have no hope or concern with ever doing something where I'm going to have to integrate with the homogenizing corporate norm, so I might as well BE MYSELF, ie. way outside of the mainstream."

And if you drive through the country, by which I mean the country, not places that are within the fields of influence of major metropolitan areas where pumpkin, plaid and cider is served quick as you like from farm to table, you can see that there is a hopelessness rivaling that of those in the urban center.  Schools suck.  Try listening to the radio, it's nothing but Christian music and talk and commercial country, pop and, yes, rap.

And sure, it's hard as hell to farm for a living, factories have been shutting down, it's all the stuff you hear about in country music. In the land of oxycontin and methmouth, the church provides a reasonable alternative. As in the inner city, where black churches often feed homophobia, and Latino churches probably espouse a whole lot of stuff white liberals would disagree with if we weren't too lazy to figure out what it was, there's much to not like about rural churches. They too often oppose gay marriage and women's rights and support other aspects of conservative agendas, but in the end, they're often the only well-established alternative to nihilism and Sportzone.

So Democrats need to figure out a way to build bridges to them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Read, pray, love

Just read the NYTimes magazine profile of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and other books, who (by coinkidink) has a new book coming out. So the article was pretty glowing, but I must say I'm buying.  She sounds like a rather energetic and cool human being.  Her new book (I'll watch for reviews) can join the queue with the many other books I've got to read.  I'm somewhere around the 3% mark of Caro's total published stuff on LBJ, but there will be many other tomes interspersed with each of those doorstops.

There is really no wealth quite like a fat backlog of reading material.

At the same time, I'm mindful of the curmudgeonly would-be sage and sometime Grousereader known as Blue who pointed out that, if you read other's stuff all the time, you don't do your own writing.  There is much truth to that, and it's one of those tradeoffs. On the one hand, you don't get to see your own ego and its yearnings objectified in words, and you don't get the so greatly desired attention and praise that comes from stroking by readers. On the other, there's just so much worth reading, and one is arguably more in the "flow" of the great stream of knowledge and being by continually dangling one's legs in it.

It is, as the tech geeks would say, about optimizing I/O ratios.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Carolina Way is Dead, pt II

There has been a lot of chatter on Facebook about the Chapel Hill Town Council or whoever giving a thumbs up to the long-awaited plans for the redevelopment of University Square. First off, University Square is no beauty, though I have plenty of fond memories of the place, esp. around Time Out and Looking Glass and soccer camp and what's the name of that ice-cream place where Brooke used to work?  But it ain't pretty.  So in the end, it's no big loss.

What is proposed for the site should be better.  Moreover, the loss of character is minuscule compared to what happened when U Square went in in the first place, after the old high school got ripped out and the new CHHS was built way out on Homestead, which was nowheresville back then.  And the town survived.

The larger discussion swirls around the question of whether Chapel Hill is becoming a less distinctive, less funky place to live, whether it's even cool any more.  From my perspective, it is clearly lost some of its character, is less distinctive.

But, you gotta remember, we, or at least I, used to be such snobs. I thought I was cooler than sliced bread in the 70s, when I could go to Fats for my birthday and get a big plate of nachos (minus the hot peppers, since I was after all only 10 or so) with a candle on it.  Getting beef teriyaki at street fairs, even eating at Blimpies, I thought it all proved that we were the worldly sophisticates and therefore inherently superior to those who had to go to McDonalds because there was nothing better.  And this from a guy who liked his McMuffin no less than anybody else.

And so, much of Chapel Hill's becoming less cool has to do with the more even spread of goodness around the state and the country.  Even Kinston now has an apparently innovative restaurant.  What's not to like about that?

And, yes, as new buildings and more chains go in Chapel Hill loses its groove and its sheen, and as rents get jacked up it will be harder for indie entrepreneurs to establish toeholds and interesting businesses. Such is life, we have to patronize the more interesting ones, that's just it, and/or landlords will need to be less market-driven themselves.

So the interesting stuff gets pushed out to Durham, Saxapahaw, Hillsborough, Pittsboro (where it may soon be flattened by the massive development proposed there).  I just read on Facebook about a new brewery in Clayton! Hopefully one of these days it will get to Roxboro (actually, there's even a somewhat ambitious restaurant that just opened there).

Anyway, before we wring our hands too much we need to stick to our knitting and focus on what's important to us, doing the right thing on a moment to moment basis.  Support local businesses to the extent that it makes sense, be wierd, and Chapel Hill will be just wierd enough.

Or maybe one day Pembroke State will become the seat of the state's cultural life.  Would that be all bad?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Carolina Way is Dead, pt 1

For those of you who haven't  watched this video, do so.  It's funny.  If you're not a Duke or Carolina fan, or don't follow sports, you may not get it all, but trust me, it's funny.



So the other day I was talking to a guy who works at UNC about retention.  Time was, when a Stanford or a Princeton would swoop in and try to buy up a UNC faculty member, UNC did pretty well retaining them.  Of late, the numbers have been slipping.  One of the big factors cited by departing faculty in why they left?  Athletic scandals.

And, indeed, they have been difficult.  They ended up besmirching a good Chancellor, who fell on a knife not of his own forging and skipped town for a less stressful job.

Meanwhile, up in Raleigh, another Carolina Way is threatened, not just with eclipse, but with extinction.  For all our lives NC has been the state that provided a winning formula of investing its own money in public education and attracting private money to exploit the synergies offered by its universities, thereby becoming a place where a range of educated people would like to live, allowing the state to rise up the value chain in its core exports, from tobacco to intellectual capital.

How does this all tie together, you may ask. Well, it ain't one neat package, but certainly there is a common theme of short-mindedness and narrow instrumental-functionalism to it all. The university has been too focused on the short-term glory of the light blue, as if Dean's great legacy was on the court more than off it, when I think the converse is, if anything, the case.  And the legislature, and the electorate with its support of Amendment One -- have turned their attention to restoring some mythical North Carolina of the past that has made us the laughing stock of the nation and the world.

At this point in time, the university has a to lead and reestablish a tone. It should forget about trying to keep up with Duke on the court and focus on being a center of learning and strength.  Fire Roy Williams. Anybody who can compare a bad season to a catastrophe-ripped nation doesn't belong in Dean's chair.  Get a coach in with his priorities in the right place, and have the university turn back to its core competency.... blah blah blah

(this so often happens.  What feels like a cogent blog post in the morning degenerates in the afternoon into a half-baked rant.  Oh well.  At least the video was funny)