Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More on Caro

I'm making my way through volume 3 of Caro's bio of LBJ.  With about 1600 pages of this opus under my belt, I can tell you that I'm getting a little tired of LBJ, and I'll be damned if I don't think Caro is too.  He really gets to swinging when he is writing about Johnson's allies and antagonists.  The section of Coke Stephenson -- Governor of Texas, Mr. Texas -- was brilliant, and the 40 page introduction to Richard Russell, the Senator from Georgia, was also great.  Same with the portrait of Sam Rayburn.  The same thing, honestly, was true of the book on Robert Moses.  You could feel Caro growing tired of his protagonist, a little, while getting excited about the other guys:  Fiorello LaGuardia, even FDR got interesting treatment.

Or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting.  Certainly one can learn a lot about US history in general by reading Caro, even if you have to put up with a lot of detail on the sociopaths that make it chug.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Zipless travel

A piece in the Wall Street Journal today informs us that Hilton has developed apps to let travelers perform many key travel functions on their smartphones:  check-in, check-out, open door, etc.  Sounds pretty cool, and you know it will hold appeal to the jeunesse doree of the corporate world, ever-focused on expediting processes on the road.  I know, I used to be one of them, and sometimes still am.  Automation and process streamlining has done wonders for things like checking in at airports and picking up and dropping off rental cars, etc.

But doing the same thing at hotels would just remove another piece of human contact when traveling to a region, and cut jobs from one of the few sectors that has been experiencing job growth in the post-Great Recession world.  Which could be good or bad.

The canonical argument is that automating lower-value-adding functions frees up productive capacity to things that add more value.  In principle, in down with that.  I believe that anybody who is working in less remunerative positions has the potential within themselves to grow into someone who can do something better and more valuable.

At the same time, we as a society haven't shown a dedication to putting the pieces in place to facilitate that growth.  It's not just public schools.  For-profit companies are not incented to develop talent broadly when labor is treated as an entirely fungible commodity, when labor is plentiful, not scarce.

On the other hand, there is the specific possibility that Hilton will take the money it saves and focus on providing better and more differentiated services.  Hampton Inns usually have halfway decent cookies available at check-in, and the ones at DoubleTree are even better. The guidance we got from the Mexican-American concierge at the DoubleTree in San Antonio was superb. He directed us to the best and cheapest breakfast taco place nearby.  Yum!

We will see if markets help us reallocate the savings gleaned from this level of automation to everyone's ultimate benefit.  In 2014 America, I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

the delicate balance

After a lengthy spell of reading this morning, which included a lot of NY Times and even a little Pushkin, I came upstairs intending to bang out a quick blog post.  But then I heard the rarest of sounds -- Natalie, home for less than 48 hours after 3 weeks at Duke's TIP, on her way to a Spanish immersion camp up at New Hope on the way to Hillsborough -- had emerged from her room and intended to eat lunch.  During her brief stay at home, she has not surprisingly reverted to her traditional ways of cocooning in her room, mostly on her beanbag chair with her earbuds on, texting with her friends, and reading.

So I had no real choice but to go downstairs and observe her eating the leftover rice and beans that she claimed as her own, and to try to get her to talk.  But I didn't try too hard, better to let her chill and enjoy this brief spate at home.

She loved her time at Duke.  She made a number or new BFFs, from Texas, New Mexico, and -- just as if not more exciting -- from across town, girls who will go to (go Tigers!) Chapel Hill High School as opposed to East Chapel Hill High School.

In any case, any shards of deep insight I might have had, inspired by this morning's reading, have been dissipated by the prosaics of parenting.  But, honestly, I think that's what you, my readers, seem to prefer anyway.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


While we were "hiking" on the Appalachian trail the other day, I remarked at some point in time that one of the concerns with riding bicycles long distances was culture conflict between bikers and people in pick-up trucks.  Mary remarked that she didn't really believe that anyone on the road really meant to hurt bikers.  Not long thereafter we passed a solitary hiker in full through hiker regalia, including some pretty funky rigging to keep his pack dry, and I made a comment about how the long-distance hikers looked with disdain upon those of us who were out on the trail for short jaunts.  Mary, again, noted that I had no way of knowing that.

And, indeed, I had to admit that she had me, and that maybe it is some quirk in me that imputes aggressive and other ill motives to others.  Is it maybe just a guy thing, or does it have to do with being extremely and continuously competitive (even though I'm not all that obsessed with winning and conquest)?  Is it tied, indeed, with the same quantitative focus that makes me ever-attuned to the mileage my car is getting?

Hard to say. 

In any case, I need to go mow the lawn before going for a swim.  Natalie is home between summer camp/school sessions, and there will be family dinner to be grilled and eaten before long.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ghost parks

Mary and I hiked down from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Crabtree Falls today.  Good hike, lovely falls.  Up near the Parkway there were port-a-potties, but the visitor's center was closed.  Meanwhile, the camping sites -- conveniently next to individual parking spaces and with little level platforms to pitch your tent comfortably -- were all seemingly derelict, as was an "amphitheater" used for god knows what back in the day.  There was a "store" back up there by the parking lot which presumably used to sell stuff to people at the 100-odd camping sites that now sit empty.  Hard to figure if it was ever feasible business-wise.  A water fountain down down near the trail head no longer worked.

It's hard to figure if one should be sad about all this decay.  On the one hand, it's nicer to see things not falling apart, once money has been spent on them.  On the other hand, is a modest decline in car camping really such a bad thing?  Are people actually being more rugged and camping out in the woods?

Not in these woods, I don't think.

In any case, I know I ain't no camper.

Up on Roan Mountain the day before, the visitor's center was also closed.  Maybe because it was a weekday, or is this reflective of a general de-funding of the National Parks?  Hard to say.

They had surely spent some money sending a bunch of heavy-set lads up on the balds of the roan to rev up some weed-eaters and keep the bald closest to the road nice and bald.  I can't help but think it would be better for all concerned if they'd shut off those 2-stroke engines and give those dudes some freaking scythes.  It would be much quieter, much gentler on the air, and those fellas would get some much-needed exercise.  Have them all read the chapter from Anna Karenina in which Levin learns to mow with a scythe from the peasants so they could catch the groove.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Brain extensions

So I got a new smart phone a few weeks back, and haven't really had a chance to play with it and grow into it much.  One thing I'm happy to have begun doing is merging the address books of a couple of gmail accounts I have.  I could explain why I have two, but it would be oh so boring.

And it is good that Google and the interweb and even the phone itself (is it Android, or the phone's instantiation of it?  I don't know and don't care) have tools in there to help me with this process. But the synch up hasn't been perfect and I've delayed fixing it till I took my exam, which is done.  And I could tell you about that, but that would be even more boring.

So today I'm reading in the paper and see there's a start-up called Humin as well as others -- including so Google platform -- that are trying to take this to the next level and integrate all of our social networks and think ahead of us.  So, do things like keep track of who I know across my address book, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. in a given area, and when I'm there (say, I'm in Boston) give me a heads up and say "why don't you call Jimmy and Johnny?"  Which is interesting.  The kind of feature I've thought about myself.

But to me it raises and interesting question:  when we automate these processes, mnemonic associations, ways of navigating in the world, and we grow dependent on our devices, do the old habits we had before we had the devices atrophy, and does that make us less able to think for ourselves?  Or does it free our minds up to do other work?

Certainly, I can tell you that the more I've grown dependent on navigation devices on my phone or on my dashboard, the less I pay attention to learning and remembering where I'm going.  After I graduated from college, I began developing a science of what I called at the time "semi-idiotics", the science of road signs and road signifieds.  I was kind of joking, but kind of not.  I in fact became rather adept at getting around, and developed a light science.  So, for example, when driving in the country, a road named after a man-made thing "Merritt Mill Road" or "Fayetteville Road" is likely to be a through road, while one named after a natural thing "Springbrook Road" or "Green Meadow Drive" is more likely to be lead into a crazy subdivision which will get me nowhere.

I also know that I'm less good at remembering people's names and the names of their kids now than I once was. Could just be aging.

We know there are natural constraints on what we can hold in memory. The Dunbar Number tells us that the number of people anyone can know reasonably well at any point in time is about 150.  Research.  David Laibson of Harvard did research which shows that people's ability to make financial decisions declines from somewhere around the age of 53.  And so on.

So, how much does it behoove us to extend our cognitive capacity using tools like social networks, CRM platforms, and new layers we will see continue to built on them over time?  And how much will it hurt us, make us lazy? 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

And so

Tomorrow I sally forth for day 1 of this big test, and then we will dine on rice noodles with ground pork and thai basil, upon which Graham will douse considerable amounts of soy sauce, his favorite food.  And then, day 2.

At that point in time, I will be done with this ordeal for now, and it will be none too soon.  I am about ready to get out of this anchoritic mode here in my study, looking at a full wall of Mary's crap.  Having ground through some 5,000-odd pages of text about financial this and risk management that, and worked through many thousands of individual test items, I'm about done.  And ready to spend my brain looking into things that are intrinsically interesting, as opposed to just useful, maybe.

I'm ready to hit the streets and talk to some damned people.  Much like I was after finishing my dissertation.

Just read through an article about Nick Cave, who's always been a guy I've liked to listen to, from the days of rats in paradise forward, and it portrays a guy with manic energy and discipline to range across genres and basically do whatever felt right.  Sounds good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where I'm at

In wind-down mode prepping for the CFP exam on Friday and Saturday.  I don't know how much I've blogged about this.  In some sense, there's not that much to write about.

I have been working in this room, on this hard wooden chair, for most of the last year.  Working through a boring, dreadfully detailed curriculum, building towards this two-day exam.  There is much to complain about, but to do so would be so dreadfully boring.

In recent weeks, I have integrated a bit of a standing desk into the mix, which has been good for my back and my body overall, why didn't I ever think of that.

And now, the exam itself looms, and it's not gonna be easy.  Mostly, I have to make peace with the fact that, though I'm a damned fine test-taker and I've worked hard, it is conceivable that I might fail it, simply due to the vastness and aridness of the subject matter, not unlike the steppes of Siberia or, dare I say it, the Serengeti.  And yes, it is populated by numerous beasts of prey, from the hyenas of trust law to the rhinos of retirement plan selection, to say nothing of the leopards of the miscellaneous itemized deduction phaseouts.

One thing that has kept me more or less sane throughout it all has been 30 Rock, and so it is to them that I now turn for a few yux.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The triple package and the double winner

Reviews of the recent book by Tiger Mom Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld The Triple Package.  The authors argue that the success in America of certain immigrant groups (including the ones to which they conveniently belong) can be explained by 3 shared traits:

  1. A superiority complex
  2. Insecurity
  3. Impulse control
Without going into the merits of her argument -- which has been convincingly savaged elsewhere, it got me thinking a little bit about my own background, which is shared with a lot of other alcoholics and children of alcoholics, known fondly as "double winners."  From growing up in alcoholic households, we inherit a healthy dose of insecurity, because it is, after all, very difficult to compete for parental attention with an addiction.  So you start off feeling very small indeed.

But then, when you get your own bottle and/or other substance of choice, you quite often inherit (and seek to emulate) the grandiosity of your parent, and come to believe that laws of nature don't apply to you.  So smoking, drinking, junk food, not flossing, these things do not touch you.  You are too large.

But, because of your insecurity, you will try hard to charm.  And often you will.

But impulse control, one would think, is a problem for substance abusers, and in some sense it is.  However, impulse and compulsion are very different things.  A pothead does not seek out marijuana in an impulsive manner, but a compulsive one.  And because compulsion is such a strong driver, it crowds out other desires, so one learns to budget.  That $18 entree?  No thank you.  I'll have two $1 slices of pizza, so I'll have money left over for what I really need.

And so, perversely, a double winner can easily develop a surprising discipline which, when combined with the other traits, makes us pretty kick-ass.  The trick is to figure out which ass to kick. Or, rather, not.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Havana Blue

This book by Leonardo Padura has been languishing around my study for weeks now, waiting to be reflected upon.  I don't know where I heard about this Cuban mystery writer, probably the New Yorker or the Times.  Wherever it was, I think the praise was overexuberant.

That said, now that it has stewed a bit, I won't say that I won't keep reading the series.  The guy has a gift for writing about pork with garlic, memories of high school rivalries, and long-simmering lust.  Which are important things.

In fact, it made me reflect upon the fact that these root pleasures are ones that are difficult to take away from people, even in dire circumstances.  We see that as well in Alan Furst's novels of WWII and the period preceding it, where European resistence fighters eat and fuck and snuggle in cold drafty rooms all around the continent, ever mindful of the fact that the next day could be their last.

That said, it would be interesting to see novels analogous to Padura's coming out of North Korea or Rumania in the peak of the Ceausescu era, would we see similar stories?  Now that I think about it, the Rumanian New Wave, from Lucian Pintilie's The Oak forward, which looks backwards at the Ceausescu times, suggests that it is in fact may be possible to squelch even these carnal pleasures. And the literature and films of the concentration camps (with the perhaps singular exception of the must-see The Night Porter) certainly does not trend towards the celebration of food and sex as ways of maintaining a sense of presence in the face of pain.

At any rate, back to Padura, the guy has a gift for conjuring, if not "the real Cuba" -- and even years of detox from literary theory have not made me begin to believe in that -- then certainly a Cuba he knows, loves, and values.  And that's worthwhile.

The mystery part of the book was surprisingly wooden.  But, after all, the mystery novel has long since been a favored way to move a narrator around an environment to let the author write about the latter.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Einstein's Happiest Thought

I took Natalie to see this piece by Adele Myers and Dancers last night at the American Dance Festival.  I remember mom taking me and Leslie to see stuff at the ADF:  Pilobulus, Chuck Davis and the African-American Ensemble, maybe Alvin Ailey, back when we were young.  Sometimes I was like:  WTF?  But I remembered it.  It was different from the other cultural production we were exposed to.  It wasn't on MTV, that's for sure, or American Bandstand.

So Adele Myers and Dancers.  It was a fine introduction to modern dance.  Abstract, but not too abstract.  Pretty at times, but certainly not all the time.  Strong women, not pretending to be happy.  It was great that there were long stretches that were unaccompanied by music, and you could really hear the women breathing hard when they hit resting poses after expending a lot of energy.  They were working hard, and they wanted you to know it. You could see them sweat.

And they had those awesome modern dancer bodies.  Graceful but strong.  Serious.  That was the overall message.  Strong, serious, women, sweating, doing mysterious and abstract things.  What was it about?  That.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Rooting for the favorites

As wonderful as it is to see underdogs play above their heads and challenge favorites (see Algeria-Germany, Switzerland-Argentina etc), if I don't have a bias I am often rooting for the favorite, in my heart of hearts.  Why is this, I wonder?

At first glance you could say that it's a conservative impulse, that I want the established order to triumph, because it provides certainty in an uncertain world.  And maybe there's some of that.

But what I really think/feel is this.  If I like the player, and, for example, in the absence of a lot of negative stories I find it hard not to like Lionel Messi (he's cute, he celebrates goals and victories in a seemingly genuine way), then I want them to succeed.  Or, rather, I want them not to fail, because I identify with them and the burden of expectations that they carry.  I feel bad for them when they fail.

For sure, when someone is eliminated from a major tournament, be it March Madness, Champions League or the World Cup (and those are the only ones I really think of as major), there is a finality to a loss that makes it poignant to watch anyone once they have been eliminated -- excepting those teams and players one can genuinely dislike (Duke, Louisville, Italy, or the Dutch playing the way they played against Spain in 2010).  When you watch a UAB or a or an Algeria or a Ghana get knocked out, it's sad, but you know they played hard and it's a genuine achievement to have been there.

But at the end of the day, I have a mild bias towards the favorite, because I hate to see people fail, because I identify with them too strongly.