Sunday, July 26, 2015

Role Models

After it was suggested by our friend Lisa K, who in fact bought us a copy, we watched the movie Role Models the other night.

It is, no doubt a silly movie, implausible in a wide variety of ways, so many it's not even really worth listing them.  And yet I liked it. It was emotionally satisfying.  The good guys overcome some challenges and then triumph.  There were goodly yux.  It was a perfectly decent evening in front of the television.  1.5 thumbs up.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Rose-colored glasses

Natalie had some old pictures from Princeton of herself and Graham on her bookshelf, ones taken by Mary, so better than this, to be sure.  Looking at them I thought, "oh how cute, what an idyllic period of our lives," and so on.

Then I reflected again that, in fact, at the moment when Mary was taking them I was probably being pissy with her and in a hurry, stressed out about work, irritated that it was taking her so long to take them. Probably trying to figure out how to get my next snack. Because that is part of how we operate. She takes a long time to do things, and I get cranky, but the results are nice.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Big River and goals

Out on the lake today for a long swim before the afternoon storms rolled in, I realized I was getting a lot of sun, and was reminded of Big River Man, a documentary about a Slovenian guy who sets out to swim the Amazon from its source to the sea.  He does in fact achieve his goal, but he goes kinda nuts in the process and ends up pretty much back where he started, broke and half-broken.

Which struck me as kind of a cautionary tale to all the one reads about goal-setting, the importance of having clear and well-defined goals if you're going to achieve anything noteworthy.  Case in point: there was an important and oft-cited study involving Yale (or was it Harvard) grads about goal-setting that showed that those who had written down their goals early in life were more likely to achieve them.... or was there?

Here's a blog post that suggests that this famous study is in fact apocryphal, though the blogger did find another small study that validated the basic idea.

Whatever. If in actual fact an unexamined life is not worth living, and I buy that hypothesis, setting goals early in life and mindlessly following may help you reach your goals, but at considerable cost.

In any case, it is time for lunch.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Free stuff, enjoyment, and productivity

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday about how economists in Silicon Valley, including and especially Hal Varian, Google's Chief Economist, believe that standard measures of productivity don't adequately account for the improvements to our lives that technology has ushered in.  How much easier it is to search for things, get directions, to do any number of other things that the web and smartphones other technologies have let us do.

There is some merit to their arguments, though they are awfully reminiscent of how neo-Austrian and other economists argue that products are so much better (dishwashers and cars break down less often, etc.) that we should adjust how we measure inflation, and thereby reduce the annual increases to government benefits such as Social Security, which will therefore make it easier to balance the budget.

In essence, the argument is:  if a unit of production or productivity (the ability to find a movie, cool milk, or drive a mile) is cheaper over time, people need less money to maintain their standard of living.

This flies in the face of all the research that indicates that people's perception of their economic well-being hinges less on their absolute ability to do live in a certain way than in how they compare to their neighbors.  I think, in a sense, that people feel well off if they feel that they are in a position to influence the arc of their life: that there is hope that they and their children can do and get better.

I had lunch with a guy who spends a lot of time in China a couple of days back, and I asked him if he would rather be poor in the US (where they objectively might have higher income and be able to buy more stuff) vs. rural China, and he said probably the latter.  China, messed up as it is, perceives itself to be moving forward, whereas we don't.

The other big issue with the Silicon Valley argument that the internet makes us better off because it gives us more information and more choices about a variety of things is that, as behavioral economics has taught us, more choices is not necessarily better than fewer ones.  More choices complicates decision-making, on average.  That's why there is consensus that the right number of investment options in a 401k is 10 or 12 max, because otherwise people sit around second-guessing themselves.

Oh yeah, one other thing.  If we are all sitting around looking at the internet researching and choosing and shopping, it decreases local interdependency.  People are less inclined to walk next door and ask a neighbor's opinion, and thereby get into a conversation about a thousand other things and get to knoiw one another better.  Facebook etc. facilitate complex peer-based decision-making, but in a virtual, rather than a physical model. Jane Jacobs thought that Le Corbusier and Robert Moses were the death of the neighborhood and the city, but maybe it's the internet.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The end

So after 3 months or so I have come to the end of my re-reading of A Suitable Boy.  Certainly, I am glad to have read it again, no doubt.  But I confess I was a little disappointed in the denouement, I thought it was going to go in another direction, towards the ideal, rather than what Vissarion Belinskii -- back in the 1830s -- called the "reconciliation with reality," and Franco Moretti, much later, termed "The Way of the World."  That is, the way that fictional characters grow up and come to grips with life as it is, as opposed to how we would like for it to be. I am being deliberately cryptic, and I won't spoil it any more for those of you who haven't read it yet.

But I am nonetheless excited for the sequel to come out in the fall of 2016, if all goes according to schedule.  A Suitable Girl, it will be called. I remember vividly how I wished for the sequel when I came to the end of it for the first time.

Perhaps I should go back and re-read The Golden Gate in the interim.


Between home and work today I heard of two recent deaths:  the expected one of the 93-year old mother of a client's husband, and the shocking one of the 36-year son of a friend.  It is in the nature of things at this stage of my life that, as someone who talks to a lot of people both by inclination and profession, I hear more and more of these things as I age (admittedly, I heard from the father of the 36-year old of a wedding too, so it wasn't all doom and gloom).

But it does put things in perspective, and reminds me to keep facing forward and staying positive, wherever possible, because I profit little if at all from going the other direction.

Before either of those conversations, let me add, I had a very interesting conversation with a dental hygienist about epigenetics and leaky guts and food allergies (she had lots) and Celine and, now that I think of it, my growing preference for happy endings in books as I age.  Which is right on topic.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The root of all...

So Natalie was just recounting to us her experience her first week at Duke TIP, where she's taking Criminal Trial Advocacy, and she told us that she had won best in the class for some argument they presented, even though many of the kids in there are older than her and have copies of the Declaration of Independence and/or the amendments to the Constitution posted above their beds.  She also said that nobody's arguments had been particularly water-tight, including her own which she considered rather half-baked.

And within me I felt swell up at the same time tremendous pride, and deep below that a sense of relief that "my child will be OK."

This, I submit, is at the root of the hyper-competitiveness for our children to achieve at the absolute highest level, to get into Ivy League schools and then keep going, it is this fear that if they don't, they will not be OK later in life, that they will be subsumed within the wave of global competition and automation and shifts in the competitive landscape (you should hear doctors talk about the projected impact of Obamacare on their earnings prospects going forward) that continues to eat up once seemingly safe white-collar professions.

I don't think this is a new insight on my part, but I felt it pretty viscerally just then.

But the idea that my daughter-- super-smart, born into a family and place that prioritizes education and with other socio-economic advantages -- is at particular risk is, well, silly.  Compared to kids from truly at risk populations?

But we, members of the chattering class, are nonetheless driven by a deep-seated need to protect our littluns.  And, lord knows, we do.  We wear ourselves to the nib driving them to activities and paying for enrichment opportunities. We advocate for gifted programs in already high-achieving school systems.    And then we wonder why there is an achievement gap and blame the school system.

Anyway, today on the phone I did what I considered the most important thing for my daughter: I encouraged her to not be hard on herself for any imperfections in her legal arguments, because she had done great.  And when she said that she had been fighting a little cold and hadn't been running in the mornings as she had planned (because she wants to stay in shape for an ultimate tournament she has the day the summer school ends), I told her to rest, hydrate, and have fun and don't beat herself up.

Because, lord knows, I am all too good at that, and that's what I don't want her to learn to do.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Having short hair is an addiction of sorts, and it can be expensive.  For years I have been going to barbershops, rather than to hair stylists, to feed this addiction, and also because barbershops tend to be a little less rarefied than their upscale cousins, and as such they are places where I can dialog with less fancy people than those who are my natural cohort, having gone to fancy schools and gotten advanced degrees.

My most recent barber is kind of country, though he went to the same schools as I did (Seawell, Phillips, CHHS), his household had a different educational/socio-economic profile than my own. But once he had to leave his old location because of price, his prices have crept up to where I've been paying $23 after tipping him out.

And that's expensive, since I have to go in monthly or so to keep it tight.  So yesterday Crabill and I had lunch at Jamaica, Jamaica, out where 54 hits 55, and I had noticed that there was a barber school next door.  Like the one in Durham I went to a couple of years ago, this one appeared predominantly African-American, judging from the guys who hung out outside it at lunch time, as I had seen before on other occasions when I had ducked in for jerk chicken or fish in gravy.

But it is cheap, only $5 a cut, so I decided to give it a shot. I went in, paid my fiver, and was assigned to, shockingly, the only other white person in there, a skinny white guy with longish hair pulled back tight in what looked like a hairnet but wasn't. Low melanin count notwithstainding, he was very African-American in his diction. As he cut my hair diligently and with great attention, we talked, as one often does. Turned out he had seen tours of duty in in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had another part-time job over at Syngenta.

The place had great music and a great vibe, Marvin Gaye and the like, and I watched all the other guys (it was almost all guys) working with clippers, being very attentive to detail as they cut people's hair. There was much more attention to detail then to speed.

I had to wonder if I potentially messed with the groove of the place by being a rare white business guy going in there.  There's only one real way to tell:  keep going back. On day 2 he seems to have given me a fine cut, a little bit shorter off the top than the country guy I usually go to, but that's good.  I had been meaning to see what it looked like if we went shorter up there.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Territory and deterritorialization

I was listening to My Bloody Valentine's collection of EP's from 1988-1991 this morning, the couple of songs that fit into a short drive.  The first song is really good, but then it drops off a little.  I find myself wondering if it was worth the money to buy it, even if it was given to me as an Xmas gift. Then the fourth song comes on, and at first I think "this is a pretty good song," then it occurs to me that, indeed, the song is no more than pretty good, and that I am cutting it some slack because I like the band and, as I said, I don't want to feel like the money or even the time spent listening to it has been wasted.

It occurs to me that a large part of aesthetic judgment is just like this:  we really root for our own stuff, the home team, because it's just so much easier for us and it justifies our own behavior.  So, for instance, all the players on Manchester United or Chelsea seem like big stars because we see them on TV all the time, they are familiar.  It is much more difficult to be objective in evaluating players on minor teams who you don't see all the time.  And we have to like or appreciate what we see, or we must admit to ourselves that we have been wasting our time watching crap.

So much of life is like this.  You have to pull for what you know, for what you do, because that's all you have to go on, and the alternative is to go around beating yourself up continually for doing or buying the wrong thing.

The world needs for people to specialize, to have a well-articulated division of labor, in order to have some efficiencies of scale.  How screwed would I be if Mary and I had to both build and maintain my living structure, raise and prepare all my own food, be 100% responsible for raising my kids and curing them of maladies, etc.

But specialization by its nature creates silos, and to be firm and secure in our ever deeper ensconcement in our own silos, we have to keep digging in.  But the deeper we go, the less oxygen and perspective their is, so we must diversify too.  Or, rather, we must always seek a balance between specialization and generalization, a mix of desk time and interaction with others.

To bring it back to culture, we need particularity and local culture, folk music and landscapes and landmarks and street food and barbeque regional chauvinism and dialect and all that.  We need a sense of place.  But if that was all we had, we would be screwed. We also need a healthy interaction with the big Other.

Finding the right mix is the crux of it.

I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari and their talk of deterritorialization.  It was always a bad-assed sounding word, though I never really knew what they were talking about, because it was so impossible to read them.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The jungle

As a member or the LFA Board, and the one living closest to the dam, I have been made responsible for overseeing the dam.  Which fits squarely within my qualifications as a rusty scholar of Russian Literature and a financial advisor to a growing host of wooly Chapel Hillians, Brooklynites, and the like.

Soon, we will have an engineer come and examine the dam, which was apparently put there in the 30s as part of a CCC project.  Because it was so far back, and there aren't really great records, we're not really 100% sure how it's constructed.  But we do know it has been faithfully restraining 70-odd acres of water, going as deep as 16 feet, for a long time.

The thing is, this being the south, and it being rather moist, plants like to grow.  And since there are little crannies in the stones and mortar which form the exterior of the dam, plants like to grow there. In particular vines. Rather aggressive ones at that. I'm sure they have a name, I'm just not very good with plant names.

What I have gotten rather decent at, however, is ripping the plants from the face of the dam. It is difficult, however, to kill the bastards.  I took all that crap down sometime last year, maybe September, and I looked at the dam today and the damned things had grown right back up the face of the dam.  So I weed-whacked a little, and got down to the roots as best I could, but I know that the fact of the matter is that they'll be growing right back up the dam, because there's no way I can really get down to the roots, which are hidden down beneath a bunch of rip-rap.  Together with, if I am to believe the young fisherman with rather ornate moustaches who was there today, at least one copperhead.

It really is a freaking jungle out there, in short.  Plants just grow. And we have to cut them back, and then do something with the stuff we cut off.  It's a never-ending process, a no-win situation.  Which is why I sometimes think it would be better to get out of this land-owning business.