Sunday, March 29, 2015

On teaching chess to Graham

I wrote about this a month ago, but it happened again yesterday.  There we were playing, in the waning light of an early spring afternoon, and I discovered that I had accidentally put my queen in a place where she was actually trapped by Graham's pawns.  All he had to do was move one pawn and there was nothing I could do, I'd have to trade my queen for a bishop.  Not a good trade.

And I felt actual shame and fear:  oh my God, I thought, my queen, how could I do this.  So I resorted to subterfuge, I moved some things around on other places of the board and distracted Graham so he didn't realize the opportunity that he had.  And I got out of it.

Again, in retrospect, I could have shown him how much power and opportunity he had, but the drive to win was too strong.

I shared about this in an AA meeting this morning, and several people identified, including a grandmother who had recently been playing chess with her granddaughter and had a similar thing go on, she was overcome by the lust for battle and dominance.  The very nice male-to-female trans-person who sits in the corner came over to me and said that she plays and coaches some chess and that actually I should not let Graham win, that he would know and it is demeaning to him.  I was glad to have that vote of confidence.

But the shocking thing is, of course, the actual fear I felt at putting my queen in a stupid situation. It is not, in essence, dissimilar to the hypertrophied level of commitment that drove me to foil a goal-scoring opportunity in a soccer game last September -- and thereby sprain my hand pretty badly.  I'm still not 100% healed.

The question is:  why do I care?  and should I?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On science, Yale, and linear pragmatism in higher ed

Having yesterday complained about somebody waxing macro and pretentious, I'm gonna turn around and do it myself.  So shoot me. It's my blog.

There was an interesting article in the most recent Yale Alumni Magazine about science coming to Yale, starting from 1802 forward.  It's hard to fathom, but before that there was literally no science.  Zero.  Then Ben Silliman went out and collected some curios, self-educated about chemistry, and became a one-man science faculty.  OK.

It's astonishing to see the progress of universities generally over the last couple of centuries.  I'm reading Meena Webb's Julian Carr, right now, about Carr, who grew up in Chapel Hill, later was one of the drivers of the growth of tobacco in Durham (and of Durham in general), and, presumably, will have something to do with the founding of Carrboro before all is said and done.  Apparently UNC had student bodies of something like 40, 50, 70 throughout the 19th century, and was almost done for when the Reconstruction government basically defunded it after the Civil War (admittedly, nobody had any money), and the faculty worked for free.

Things are better now for sure.  And, as the article on science at Yale continued, it moved towards the present, when President Rick Levin made efforts to raise the profile of the sciences at the university, in response to a perceived lack.  Which brings us back to recent uproars in New Haven about the university's underinvestment in science and computer science specifically, which Yale has in recent days addressed by funding an expansion of the CS department.

Whew!  That's a lot of prefatory rambling.  Here's my main point: society overall and universities in general have gone overwhelmingly over towards focusing on the practical in education, at the expense of pure enquiry into values, upon which the humanities and social sciences have historically focused, and in which they have excelled.  And yes, to create economic value you have to be able to do pragmatic stuff, we know that.

And yet the fundamental questions we struggle with most are not how to do things, but what to do, and how to get people to do them.  Overwhelmingly the world struggles from a lack of alignment on core values and leadership to create that alignment.  The world needs universities and other institutions of mind and spirit that focus on the big questions and developing people who can bring others together around approaches if not answers to those questions.  Hence the huge interest in TED talks.  We're like lost puppies.  And the genuine excitement when a skinny kid with a funny name struts across the stage, or a new pope changes the focus of the Catholic church.  Yale, and UNC too, should stay strong around their core missions and not kowtow to narrow-minded pragmatists.  But that's much more easily said than done.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The free-range public intellectual

I checked Megan McCardle's The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success out of the library some many weeks ago.  I have liked her work on Bloomberg pretty well, and I liked the looks of the book from the intro.

I'm now about 80 page into it. As many of you faithful readers (I love you all!) know, this is often an inflection point for me with books, and I may just need to return this one to the library soon.  My core issue with the book is this: I was connecting with McCardle well when she reflected on her own challenges and how she overcame them.  But then she veered off into abstracting about the nature of human experience using a wide range of materials drawn from anthropology, business anecdotes, behavioral economics, and I can't remember what else.

It seems to me that the influence of Malcolm Gladwell as well as a general trend towards interdisciplinarity in academia hasn't been all that felicitious for the reader, necessarily.  The temptation for a writer to draw together disparate strands of discourse into one big narrative is huge, it makes us feel big and mighty.  Lord knows I fall victim to it.  At least the bite-sized snippets I serve up here on the blog steer clear, to some extent, from the temptation towards aggrandizement.

But all too often it's easier to connect to people writing about things that are nearer to home.  The dictum for years has been to "write what you know," and it's deucedly hard to have true command of a lot of stuff, and harder yet to bring it all together coherently.

Yes, that is the goal in the end, to make sense of it all.  To communicate that sense is terribly hard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Repetition and identity

So I was about to blog about the most recent Inspector Wexford novel I read, when I thought, "I wonder how many times I've blogged about Ruth Rendell?"  I did a quick search of the blog and discovered that the answer is:  many.  Dating back to 2009.  Though I have been reading her since before that.  As attentive readers may have noted, I highly recommend Rendell's novels, especially those about Wexford and his sidekick Mike Burden.  I have probably now read 3,000-4,000 pages about these two and a bunch of murders in and around their fictional town of Kingsmarkham.

Then I looked at my post from two days ago "Squirrelling biomass," and I thought:  "that phrase sounds familiar."  So, after a quick search, I found another post with exactly the same title here, from just over a year ago.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that I repeat myself.  I am, after all, me, and my brain has not changed dramatically in how it works, nor how it thinks about things. If anything, this points up the need for me to push outside of my comfort zone and do other things.

But hell, I'm doing that every day, these days. Sales, by god, selling financial advisory services.  It's new for me.  I'm used to thinking about markets and money and finance etc. etc., and have been getting better at it all the time, but convincing people to entrust their life savings to me and our firm, that shit is new.  So I guess it is natural that, come bedtime and weekends, I tend towards continuity, reading the same things, doing the same things, thinking similar thoughts, being myself.

Certainly my commute is not feeding me flavor like it used to in the Northeast.

One thing I'll tell you is this:  often, at bedtime, I find myself fantasizing about biscuits from the Biscuit Kitchen. I know I am on record as not finding them as good as the food press makes them out to be. They are not that much better than Time Out or even Biscuit Kitchen, but they are damned convenient in that drive-through format.  So I lay my head on the pillow and fantasize about a sausage, egg and cheese.  And then, in the morning, I eat the same cereal that I eat every day, and then carry on.

Bored bots, what they mean for Google

(I wrote about this a month ago, it's still going on.  Here's a new thought)

For some now, an absolute majority of the traffic to my blog has been Google bots going over old posts.  I wonder if this has something to do with the thinning of the internet as so much interaction has migrated to social media and people and businesses stop maintaining traditional sites with their own domains.  So that the bots have less to do, and keep traipsing over the same old internet, perhaps looking for new connections.  Good luck with that.  I think it also has implications for Google's core search business and legacy business model. Not that Google doesn't find ever more ways to be everywhere. But making money off of ever new offerings may get more challenging.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

squirrelling biomass

After all the recent storms, many trees are down around here, and as I run I often look at fine-looking piles of wood and think, "if only you could be mine."  Today my mom had me over to her house to help her and David and his son Ethan take care of a big holly tree that had come down. I got there a little late, though about when I said I would, and saw that the big tree had already made its way out to the street.  So there were these good-sized logs just sitting there. A little longish, perhaps, but then I have a big fireplace, now don't I?

So I loaded those puppies into the conveniently present Prius and carried them back around town to the crib.  But there in the wood stack were big sections of the Poplar that the people from the electrical company took down in November of 2013 because branches were encroaching on the electrical lines (here's what I wrote about it then).  I burned a bunch of that bad boy this winter, but there are huge sections of it that had just not wanted to split, even when I tried 4-6 weeks ago before we got our big snows.  But I didn't want to pile new wood on top of them if there was hope for them yet.  So I got out the old axe to give them one more chance.

And they split.  I guess 16 months is kind of a magic number for curing wood, or something about the change of the seasons loosened them up.

Meanwhile, I have been converting the seeming "yard waste" of branches taken down by the storm into what I like to think of as "yard bounty," by breaking em down into short sections and piling them up as kindling up under the deck getting ready for next year.  Soon, I will need to take all the ashes out of the fireplace.  I was going to put them in the compost, as I have on occasion in the past, but the internet just told me not to.  Sigh.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Racism and UNC football

I was talking to a guy last week whose son had played football for UNC.  He told me about the incredible level of racial tension on the team, of how black and white players do not sit together for meals and how the black players flat out hate the white players.

Presumably, the coaching staff does little to manage this situation.  I don't know about you, but this strikes me as less than ideal.  Time was, the American core culture sports -- basketball and football for the most part, to a lesser extent baseball, at least in the south -- acted as a great melting pot, the test nucleus for integration.  They weren't universally successful in terms of providing a path to integration and economic progress for everyone, but at the very least lifetime relationships were forged between black and white players.*

The week before, I had been to a talk by Duke football coach David Cutcliffe.  Not caring much about football, I had never heard of the guy.  But he talked a good talk about focusing on the character of his players when recruiting, on looking specifically for kids who didn't just do well in school, but who had shown character in getting their butts to class on time. I must say I was impressed.

*As an aside, I should note that I've always felt a bit of guilt that, as a soccer player, I was, unbeknownst to myself, part of the leading edge of resegregation. I just knew I was too scrawny to play football and somehow never developed into much of a basketball player.  I tend to put my basketball underperformance down to late-blooming and poor fine motor skills, but who knows, maybe that's just excuse making.  Other skinny white kids did OK.  Like our boy Riguz.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I made Natalie cry at the dinner table

This week one evening when Mary was out at a meeting of some sort, Graham, Natalie and I were having dinner.  Natalie and I were talking about her course selection next year, and she said she wanted to take Theater.  I asked if it was honors, and she said no, that Theater 1 and 2 didn't have honors options.  Then we got into the whole GPA discussion and how this would hurt her GPA and thus her class rank, all of that.  I wasn't being heavy-handed, was trying to keep an even keel.

But she was getting upset, tears started welling up, she was really stressed out. "Just tell me what to do," she said.

This whole college admissions psychosis is the hardest thing in the world.  Frank Bruni's piece in the Times today was very good.  It made me cry. We have tried not to guide her too much, to let her find her own way, because she makes such good decisions and is doing so well and is so smart and is generally pretty happy.

And the problem is, we don't know what is the best thing for her.  On the one hand, I went to fancy schools, and though college in particular was a difficult time in my life for a lot of reasons, I'm glad I went to the college of my choice and I really enjoyed the quality of education I was able to access there.  And it was hugely validating to my ego to have set the goal of getting in there and then doing it.

On the other hand, too much of my ego is tied up in educational prestige.  That all happened 25-30 years ago, and it has limited influence on my happiness today.  Except I do still like books and learning and I appreciate having intelligent friends who are good human beings that I made back during college and grad school.  But it also put me in a peer group of people who have gone out and ruled the world, and sometimes I fall victim to measuring myself against them and feeling like shit about myself.

I also made some wacky career decisions that have at times complicated my life later.  Part of me wants to counsel her to be practical in her career decisions so that she doesn't live her life like a temporal pretzel, as I sometimes feel I have.  But she's not even 15 yet.

There are lots of people I know who didn't go to fancy schools and who seem to have done just fine in life.  Who knows if they are confused on the inside. One must be careful not to judge one's insides against other people's outsides, as I am at times wont to do (for example, 2 paragraphs ago)

My dad, particularly in his later poet phase, and probably when we were younger and I was tuning him out, often espoused living the simple life and eschewing materialism.  When we moved back to NC, he told me that Chapel Hill was basically corrupted by the rat race and that Hillsborough was a better place.  Sometimes I wonder if he was right.  But it was impossible to listen to him because he was so overbearing and insufferable in so many ways, he listened so poorly.  Most likely, there's probably a "grass is greener" aspect to that argument.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

A portrait of Ellie

I was told by my first girlfriend Mary that I should really go to Chapel Hill Sports Club to meet people for business purposes, and that the path to that went through Michelle's dad Charlie.  So I called up Charlie, formerly head of the state high school athletics association, and he informed me that the Durham Sports Club was in fact better, and that it met at the Croasdale Country Club and I should come there.  So I did.

When I got there at 11:30, I discovered that the mode, if not the median, age of those attending, was about 75, and that therefore 11:30 was a little bit late to show up for a lunch buffet.  There was a spot at a table with some fellows of about that age and one a good deal younger, so I sat down with them. I introduced myself, and a couple of them said "you're not Mike Troy's son, are you?"  I allowed that I in fact was.

So most of the people at the table knew my dad, had gone to high school or junior high school with him, and remembered him fondly, if not in elaborate detail.  One of them was the same class at Durham High as my dad's brother Ballard, and asked after him, and I had to inform him that Ballard had passed away a year or so back....

Which made me think back to our visit with Ballard in the summer of 2013, when the fam and I stayed with him in College Park, Maryland, using that as a base for traipsing through our nation's capital.  Ballard had a portrait of his wife Ellie -- who had predeceased him some years back -- out on the piano, and when we came home late in the afternoon we found him enjoying a healthy glass of whiskey and sitting with her portrait.  It was part of his daily routine, this communing with her likeness.  I don't know whether he disclosed this habit with the lady friend he was courting.

Monday, March 02, 2015

At the Nasher

Last Wednesday went to an opening of a show at the Nasher, curated by my friend Joe. Modern and contemporaryish art, stuff I'm not in contact with much and haven't really been for some time.

Now, time was, I used to roam the galleries of Soho, checking stuff out, particularly when there was free wine and, when that became less relevant, snacks.  I liked to rub shoulders with all the good-looking and fashionable people because it made me feel -- you guessed it, good-looking and fashionable.  Not that I think all that many people were convinced.

By being near all that art and occasionally reading a critical journal about it, I was able to sometimes actually have an informed opinion about it, which would allow me to talk about it, thereby enhancing the impression of my being well-informed.  Some of it actually made an impression on me and made me think. Other times, I was just playing the game.

Wednesday, however, I was well-removed from the game, as I have been wandering the caverns of finance and raising children for some time.  So I was able to view the art as a garden-variety philistine.  Some of it was thought-provoking, other parts of it less so.  Honestly, I was there to work the room and look for paths towards potential future clients, so it was difficult for me to maintain a calm and genuine focus on the art.  I also wanted to eat the ribs, which were perfectly decent, and the seared tuna doohickeys.

But it was good to go back in amongst the art and at least check it out, note my distance from it, and know that I had to come back.

In particular, there's a room-size installation of flowers blowing in the wind projected onto the wall that was beautiful and meditative, and a wall of mostly aerial photography by Ed Ruscha.  I will try to get back there with more time before the show closes.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Tweaking the Code

Towards the end of a generally thoughtful piece in today's NY Times about how finance continues to attract too much talent to developed economies, Gretchen Morgenson notes that "one way we subsidize debt in this country is by providing tax deductions for mortgage interest.  That policy encourages borrower to take on bigger home loans than they otherwise might."

Reform of the mortgage interest deduction has been on the table of tax reformers for a long time.  I think everybody just assumes that it is one of those quirky giveaways in the tax code, but in fact is a restriction of the principal once enshrined in the tax code from the 1913 passage of 16th Amendment empowering Congress to levy taxes that all interest was deductible from income.  I just looked it up, it was news to me.  It wasn't an issue back then because at that time, almost all interest was incurred by businesses, so financing costs were legitimate business expenses.  People paid cash for houses most of the time, and/or got land given to them by the government through homesteading provisions as the nation moved west, and then built a house out of some trees and rocks, godammit.

In any case, the mortgage interest deduction does at this point in time feel a little distortive and like a middle-class entitlement. If it is ever going to be taken away, now is the time to do it.  With interest rates at an all-time low and with almost everyone who can refi already refied, the dollar impact of the mortgage deduction to government revenues and household balance sheets should be at a cyclical low.

This is similar to what the Economist and others have argued about that explicit and implicit subsidies (i.e. tax rates too low to cover actual externalities) on petroleum.  That is, with the price of oil so low, now is the time to reduce subsidies to it (as Indonesia, India, and Malaysia have done).

If we're gonna do it, get er done.