Tuesday, May 27, 2014

More bragging on my daughter -- and reflections thereupon (you knew there had to be more)

So I chanced to open a bulk email from the middle school principal, as I rarely do, and there I saw results of some competition.  Without bragging too hard, it turns out that Natalie has overachieved in another domain, doing something that is in line with the 90th percentile of high school juniors and seniors nationwide.  While she was in 7th grade.  And coming in the top 3% of a competitive hoard of kids her age.

And we perhaps didn't recognize quite how exceptional her results were when she achieved them. Though we did praise her, to be sure.

Then again, there is a danger that we overfocus on praising her academic results.  We certainly do not want her thinking that our love is dependent on them.  Finding time and means to communicate well with ones teenagers is not simple, it's a universal problem, and it's compounded in households like our own where one of the kids has a technical "special need," whereas the other is just special in the same way that all of us are.

And, as I've posted here recently, I'm well aware that Natalie works really hard, sometimes verging on too hard, to excel, at times I fear to the detriment of her social life.  But even there, I have to be careful not to project my own insecurity onto her.  I think that when I was younger, I somehow perceived that "popularity" was important, so I worked hard on that front as well, to have bunches of friends. And sometimes I'd do stupid shit to be friends with lots of folx, just to outperform in that domain as well.  Whatevs.  It's all good.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day from a college town kid

As most of you know, I grew up in Chapel Hill from the early 70s forward.  Being a college town at that time, it was a pretty anti-war, pro-peace place, and this sentiment permeated the culture pretty thoroughly, including our schools.  I don't remember specifics, but I know we weren't humming no Star-Spangled Banner etc. a whole lot. Very little flag-waving. The general attitude towards the armed services was one of suspicion.  It was like they were a foreign country, and there values were, if not quite inimical, then very distant from our own.

If they ever told us what Memorial Day was about, they certainly didn't get their back into it.  It's possible I may have spaced it out once or twice, but 13 years, K-12?  Same deal in college.

So I literally think I got through to adulthood not knowing what Memorial Day was about. Which is a shame, if not downright pathetic. Although I am not a hawk at this point in my life, and may often question specific uses of our military, I tend to do so from a recognition that my perspective on things is far from complete:  if I had wanted to be part of that world and have a more active say in it, I would have made it my career. And I understand much better what the armed services do for us, particularly after having an immersion in things military via Graham's special interest in them, especially World War II.

Here's an anecdote of how far I am from the mindset of members of the armed services.

On September 11, I was at Midtown Manhattan.  I've probably recounted some of this before, so I'll keep it spare. I was up on the 16th floor of my firm's offices, which had windows facing north, east, and west, but not south, towards the towers.  At some point in time, maybe 9:45, I went down to the street and looked down 5th Avenue, and you could see all the way down to the towers.  I could see them burning, obscured in smoke, and as I looked around me and saw people crying and freaking out (as I was), I realized that if I stayed down there watching, I would start smoking again, and I had quit 3 years before.  So I went back upstairs. And my colleagues and I kept touch with goings on around the country by radio.

So we were in shock, in denial.  Since there weren't confirmed reports of death tolls, we kept trying to convince ourselves that maybe few people had died.  At around 4, being hungry, we decided to go out and get food and drinks, and we ended up at a TGI Fridays.  Whatever.  We had some nachos.

And on a TV screen there, they flashed the faces of a couple of firemen, who had died.  And my first thought was, I'm ashamed to say it but it must be said:  "But it's those guys' jobs to go into danger, what about the other people who died?"

There were lots of people, including a family friend who is a NYPD guy, who when they heard of the attacks got on whatever truck they could and got downtown, put themselves at risk.  The First Responders.

I was not amongst them. It didn't cross my mind to do that.  I am not trained to do that, I am not wired to do that.  Is it a fault of my upbringing?  Is it a "social skills deficit" in line with the fact that I've got a kid on the autism spectrum and maybe I've got a little bit of that going on myself?  Or am I just a (insert derogatory epithet here). I don't know.

But there are those that did, who have that wiring, that training, those belief systems, that character.  Many of them lost their lives that day, and on others in far-flung places before and since. We, and I,  owe them a immense debt, and it is meet and right that they should be commemorated with reverence and respect.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


I haven't been watching much soccer this season -- no matter what Mary tells you.  I basically missed all of the Champions League matches, so I was astounded to see the progression as Atletico Madrid made its way to the final, even as it sneaked through and won La Liga.

So I had to watch the final against cross-town rivals Real Madrid.  And it was a freaking classic, with Atletico muscling its way to a 1-0 goal, only to have victory snatched from it in the 93rd minute by Sergio Ramos' header.  And then get pummeled.

I don't have much to say, but I will say this.  There was no reason to give Christiano Ronaldo that penalty as the 2nd overtime was drawing to a close with Real. The game was done.  Atletico had been humiliated enough by Marcelo's effortless goal to make it 3-1.  The guy who was guarding Ronaldo was basically playing on a sprained ankle.  Yeah, he fouled him, but they shoulda let it go.

And Ronaldo ripping off his shirt and showing off his big bad muscles?  Please.  He squandered the good will he had built up with me over the last year or so.  It's not like he was the player who made the difference.  That was first Angel di Maria and then Gareth Bale, who had created opportunities all game, and then at long last finished.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Back from Gotham

Had a fine week in the NY/NJ/Philly region, featuring lots of good meals with friends.  Some highlights:

  • After dinner on Monday in SoHo, Kevin and I walked back down Greene St.  I repeat, it was Monday, over in the Design Within Reach store, there was what looked very much like an art opening, only it was in a furniture store.  And so on down Greene St, which is now entirely taken over by furnishings purveyors.  There were openings, parties.  In the front window of one, a buff model ran on a treadmill.  That's one way to get attention.
  • Spent an unseemly amount of time in Bryant Park, owing to the very pleasant weather
  • This evening, after my 3 o'clock coffee got cancelled because of my date's illness, I realized I should get to the airport before the predicted storms hit and try to get on an earlier flight standby.  So I hopped in the subway, then took the M60 bus at 125th St, and made it from Tribeca to LGA in 55 minutes or so, all for the cost of a subway ride.  Gotta love MTA!
  • Today after lunch with Ted, he took me in the new Goldman Sachs building on West St.  While sitting in the "Sky Lobby" on the 11th floor, I saw no fewer than 3 former colleagues rush past, intent on their next respective meetings.  Coulda said hello, but was talking to my boy.  Man, I don't miss that place.
  • Saw too many good friends to list, and ate a lot of good food.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Out on the field today, we lost two players -- two of the young guys who score the goals for us -- with about 20 minutes left.  They had to go ref a game.

So were were one man down, playing with 10, but we were leading pretty handily.  So when the ball went out and our people were running to get it, I called out to them to walk, to use the clock to our advantage.  This did not endear me to the other team.  "Cmon, it's the last game of the season, we just want to play soccer."  Which was an entirely fair point.  Though they had been eating into our lead a little bit, and we didn't want them coming back all the way..

The main thing for me was, I am continually surprised to find out how competitive I am (Mary would flat out guffaw at that statement.  She thinks I am obviously ridiculously competitive).  I generally perceive myself as, well maybe a little competitive, but someone who is not obsessed with winning.  And yet I see myself on the soccer field at times instinctively calling out for strategies that occasionally shade over close to rules arbitrage.

Certainly it is made much worse by the presence of refs.  If it's just a pick-up game, I legitimately don't care, don't even try to keep score.  Though I do hate a lopsided game, no matter who's crushing whom.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

My greying anarchism

At "business meetings" after a couple of separate 12th-step meetings I found myself in very mild disharmony with a specific woman who moved down here recently from Boston.  On each occasion, she advocates adhering to the recommendations of and best practices derived by World Service Organizations, whereas I am guided by an impulse that, as autonomous bodies, each individual 12th-step meeting can do whatever it likes.

I talked to her about it yesterday.  I've talked to her about specific instances of this several times, because it's always a worthwhile discussion.

Thinking about it, I realize that what bubbles up in me in these situations -- aside from wanting to move on with my day and not get involved in lengthy discussions of small matters (except, of course, on my blog) -- is a deep-seated bias towards anarchism. That's where my thinking/feeling about governance begins.

But then I have to admit that I live in a society, and in a place where the population density continues to rise.  And that I choose to live here, and reap the benefits of doing so.  And that means that I am always in a state of interdependency and compromise, working together with others.

I remember around the time of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when they were talking about anarchism and its role in the OWS modus operandi, they mentioned that 12th-step groups were a model for how they ran.  Hadn't really thought about that before.

(I do hope the blog is not getting too boring for yall.  Will be in NYC/NJ/PA next week.  Hopefully I'll see some funny/crazy shit on the streets)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Working too hard?

Natalie is always coming home and telling us that she got a 99 on this or a hundred on that, and she gets straight As, and we are always pleased as punch and happy etc.  So when she told us that she was in the 99th percentile on the National Spanish Exam, we were a little jaded, I suppose.  And then the principal sends around an email to the whole school community talking about how well the school had done, with a bunch of kids doing well, etc.  But there was Natalie at the top, the only one with a 99, and the only one with a couple of exclamation points next to her name.

She is rather clever, and she works really hard.  She had me read a complete draft today of a 4-page book report, that is the 3rd part of a project that is due on Friday.  When I picked her up from the Battle of the Books end of year party today, she had another draft of it marked up in red ink.  I asked if it was the teacher who had marked it up, and she says no, it was a friend.  Two readers, two days before it is due.


I worry, if anything, that she works too hard, doesn't have enough fun.  Gotta work on that. As it were.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A zit on my boy

Every morning I walk with Graham up over the hill and down the other side, to the bus stop.  He's 10 and a half, I don't need to, really, but it's a nice part of my day, and it's generally a nice part of the day to be outside.

We get there a couple of minutes before the bus comes, and that gives me time to review him.  Invariably, his hair is standing up a little, his shoes a little too loosely tied.

Today, there was a reasonable-sized zit on his nose, and it was a little wake-up call.  Oh no, I thought.  My darling little boy.  I know that puberty is coming on, I can smell it forebodings of it when we wrestle or snuggle at night.  Pubic hair will be a total shock.

Zits.  I had forgotten about them.  This sweet little guy with pretty serious social challenges, at least has the protection of a generally kind and bouncy manner, an infectious laugh, an encyclopedic command of military history, modern weaponry, and Star Wars trivia, and a cherubic face.  I think even the girls think he's cute, if goofy.  But zits!  Oh no!

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Food Truck is Dead

The moment of the food truck has passed.  You go to a food truck rodeo and there are taco trucks staffed by gringos, selling decent if commoditized Mexican food.  You have to stand in line for a long time, and then there's no place to sit.  Even the community component of it doesn't happen, because people are just staring at their phones or burnishing their flannel.

And it has been a long time since I saw anything new from a truck.  Korean BBQ is one of the few legitimately interesting things spread by them, but it too has become watered down as it has spread.

I think there needs to be a new kind of food court, ideally outdoors.  One where the vendors rotate.  Pizza place A is there Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, pizza place B the other days.  Or whatever.  The point is some variety.  And vendors could go between them over the course of a week or month.  And then space for a burger place/grill or two and other food types. With toilets, picnic tables, playground, etc.

It might be difficult to optimize the infrastructure (i.e. the right kind of food prep and short-term storage areas, etc., for different types of food).  But I think it's by no means an insurmountable problem.  Somebody has probably already done it.

I think food trucks still have legitimate uses, for example bringing the sad occupants of office park glass boxes some variety over the course of a week.  But they are no longer engines of innovation.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Flash Boys

With Michael Lewis, you never really know who's going to show up.  Will it be the Michael Lewis who is one of the best non-fiction writers in the English language, or the Michael Lewis who's all too aware that he is just that?

I saw the latter guy give a talk at a Sungard conference sometime back in 2010 or so, not so long after The Big Short came out.  I was excited, as I was hoping the first guy would show up and give us something we hadn't heard before.  But Lewis preferred to slouch back in his comfy chair on stage, wave his arms around a little, and give sort of a condensed version of the book, adding not even a fresh anecdote. I was, truth be told, rather disappointed, I felt like I hadn't gotten my money's worth, even though it was free.

The curious thing was that, when I talked later to my colleagues from an industry analyst firm dedicated to financial services and the technology that undergirds it, nobody had read the book.  Not a single person.  I was a little shocked by that, as The Big Short was, by consensus -- including me -- one of the more important and best books about the financial crisis, so this was our home turf.  What's more, there's really no good reason not to read one of Lewis's good books, because when he's clicking, he's the most readable guy in the world. They're the kind of books that the only reason not to read them in bed is that they'll keep you up late, wanting to turn pages to see what happens next.

At the end of that conference, in front of 300-400 members of the slightly tawdry demimonde that is financial technology, one of my colleague's faces was shown up on an enormous screen.  He said something like "high-frequency trading is good for markets because it provides liquidity."  The party line.  Somewhere inside I nodded, because really it was words on a page to me, I knew nothing.

Fast forward a few years to a month ago. I was on vacation in Texas when Lewis released his most recent book Flash Boys, on the subject of high-frequency trading (HFT) and what it's doing to the markets. There was a lot of press coverage, no little hue and cry, and the New York State Attorney General and the SEC both hustled up to the microphone to tout their own efforts to curb the excesses of the HFT crowd.  On the one hand, it's unseemly to see our regulators whipsawed by the publishing industry.  On the other, that's what a free press is for, and we should maybe be proud to see this kind of thing happen.

It took me a few weeks to get my hands on a copy of the book.  I was too cheap to buy it at an independent bookstore at full price, but I also didn't want to stick it on my iPad Kindle, because I hate for Bezos to have all my money.  I compromised and bought it at 30% off of cover price at B&N, because they too are hurting and the book ecosystem needs more than one big player so it is not entirely captive to Amazon.  But I digress.  Imagine that.

So now I have read the book.  I will confess that I was initially inclined to think Lewis was overblowing things in his focus on how the HFT players are racing in and skimming pennies off of each trade, seeing orders pop up on one exchange and racing off to the next or a convenient dark pool, microseconds in front of the order, to buy the stocks cheaper and then fulfill the order.  How, I asked myself, could this happen in the wake of Reg NMS, which was supposed to fix this problem?  Lewis bats that one down, showing how Reg NMS paradoxically made things worse in its ham-handed attempt to create a national best price for each security.

Flash Boys is a traditional story of good and evil.  The evil is obviously the high-frequency traders, and the good is no less evidently Brad Katsuyama and the motley crew he assembles first at the Royal Bank of Canada, and then at the new exchange they opened to level the field against HFT.  Part of me hesitates to fully embrace these guys, perhaps because I know them only from this one book, and Lewis is so very breathless in support of them.  I'll learn more, time will tell.  He paints a pretty convincing picture, but then so do trompe l'oeil painters, now don't they?

And, on the one hand, I'm not really sure that HFT is worse in aggregate than other forms of mediation.  Trading costs are lower now than they were in the days of open outcry in the pits, and in the days before prices were decimalized, right?  Then again, if HFT isn't serving a useful purpose in the markets and there's a chance to root it out, we might as well.

Lewis has written a number of important books:  Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, and now this one.  Having read it, I can at least have a semi-intelligent conversation on the topic of high-frequency trading.  The key for most of us is, as always, to know ourselves, and trade less.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The old dance

This past Saturday was as perfect an instance of the oft-noted dance of entropy and flux as can be imagined. For starters, it must be owned, the weather was lovely.  And after ferrying Natalie to field hockey and then Graham to martial arts, where he tussled with a neighbor boy who's a year older than him and I worked up the strength to approach his seemingly ultra-shy mom, we settled back into the homestead.

There, I did battle.  First, with pollen on the screen porch.  For the second time this year, I took the big-assed push broom out there and nudged the yellow stuff around.  That helped a little, made me a big old pile of pollen.  Then I brought the hose in there, put it on the "jet" setting, and tried to wash the stuff through the cracks of the deck.  That seemed to help, but upon closer inspection, mostly it got everything wet.  When it dried an hour or so later -- and the cats were practically clawing at the door to get out there on the porch, but I didn't want them all drippy -- there were the little yellow dots again.  Pollen. So I swept again.

And then some light composting, and the collection of kindling and the making of small piles, in squirrel-like preparation for winter.  Next, a little basement organizing.

At last it was time to sit in the chair I found on the street a year and change ago that Mary really doesn't like much, to drink iced coffee and scroll through my phone looking for friends I hadn't talked to in a while, and then to actually make those calls that I am always saying I should make.

Meanwhile, Graham was having a friend over and they -- and this was maybe an all-time historic first -- did not go in the house at all.  They were over in the ravine, then did a little excavating in the back yard, then went all the way down to the creek.

Textbook, I tell ya.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Family viewing

First, a word about Natalie.  We were most annoyed when NPR decided to show the most recent season of Sherlock immediately after Downton Abbey earlier this year.  Natalie was, if anything, more excited for the former than the latter.  Being too cheap to have a DVR, we did the only natural thing:  we had my mom record it. However, mom accidentally recorded over it.  I feared that Natalie would be pissed, but no.  She was entirely satisfied that I bumped the Sherlock discs up to the top of our Netflix disc list.

Problem was, so many people wanted to see it that it was months before they could get the discs to us.  No problem.  Natalie, unflappable as ever, was cool with waiting.  She expressed it like this: "I figured that if we didn't get it by my birthday, I could ask for the discs as a birthday presents."  How the ever so slightly neurotic Mary and I (OK, I'll just speak for myself) could raise such an emotionally balanced young lady, I struggle to explain.

Act II.  The Discs Arrive

So this week, we got both the Season IV discs in the mail. Graham, who has by now heard a lot about this version of the show, and has of course read all the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was game to watch them.  So we settled down and watched the first one we hadn't seen.  Very good indeed, and Graham was into it.

So I suggested that he and I go back to the beginning of the series and watch from there.  And last night, we did just that, going back to the first episode:  "A Study in Pink."  Now, I forget plots pretty easily, but it turned out this one was pretty disconcerting, involving a series of connected apparent suicides.  I won't say more, but I do recall that of all instances of death, suicide was the most disconcerting to me as a child.  It was very hard to wrap my brain around it.  Still is, frankly. Graham's word for things of this sort is "creepy," and he found last night's episode creepy.

So, despite the fact that it was well after his bed time, he asked if we could read a little before turning out the light.  I said sure, and we did.

Now, while all of this was going on, Natalie and her two best friends had returned from a shopping trip to a distant mall to buy graduation dresses.  After eating some pasta with butter and parm (I like it too!), they settled in to watch Frozen.  Regular readers will recall my initial assessment of this film, which, when I look at it again, was rather gentle and politic. But I watched a little of it again with them, and found myself much more forgiving of it.  It's a nice little movie, even the songs are pleasant and well-crafted. Natalie sang along.  How happy we should be that she is into this and not obsessed with some nasty movies about supernatural bloodsuckers and meth dealers.

And, in the morning, Graham asked if the girls had been watching Frozen.  I inquired if it had kept him up, and he said that, quite the contrary, it had helped him go to sleep, because he was still creeped out by the Sherlock, but when he heard the song "The First Time in Forever," it calmed him.

Score another for Disney.

As an aside, we really do need to read Ron Suskind's recent book Life, Animated, about how Disney provided a common language for communicating with his profoundly autistic son and helped him learn to function in the world.  The outtake in the Times Magazine was amazing.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Getting psyched

For the new Sharon Van Etten record.  In fact, I meant to buy it today when I was uptown with Niklaus, but got to running late and forgot to.  I had to drop the 3 kid bikes jammed into the back of the car off at Clean Machine so they could pass it to some guy who'll clean em up and give them to some lower income kids. So much easier than driving out on 15-501 to Goodwill or Re Store or whoever would've taken them.

Yes, I could order it from Amazon, I just like to patronize the local record store with appropriately haughty and surly bastards at the register.

And, yes, I could just have it delivered via the so-called "internet" to my phone.  But I have no way of plugging that into my stereo at home, so old and cheap is it, and I don't like the way the think skitters around in the car and skips.

Oh, I could listen to it on my phone using headphones, but I've never liked listening to music that way.  I can drift off into the nether regions of my own mind easily enough without any headphones, thank you very much.  And how then would I hear the world around me?  So many nice birds this time of year, or the gentle lulling of this fan off behind me.

Mostly, what good is music if you're not imposing it on your teenager?