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


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 "" 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


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


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


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


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


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.

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

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.