Saturday, October 29, 2016

A beautiful fall day but....

So much to do, so many commitments, I am exhausted just thinking about it all.  Graham's martial arts, then a soccer game, then a Halloween party out by the lake.

Plus I have a client situation to take care of, have to get money to somebody in Europe so he can rent an apartment.  Overall, it leaves no mental bandwidth for the reflection it takes to write a good blog post.

In fact, I should make a call right now.

I have to keep telling myself I am living the dream, because in a sense I am. Certainly it will be an excellent day to be outside.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Whistling and annoyance

Graham and I are well into season 6 of Star Trek: Next Generation by now. The plot-generating algorithms for the show, once so fertile, are seeming to wear down a bit, but the fundamental appeal of the characters remains. Picard and Data especially.

One of the highlights for me is when, during the opening credits, when the theme song plays.  I whistle along with it, and it drives Graham crazy and he kicks me and squirms and says "stop it Dad, stop it," laughing the whole time. I laugh too, which makes it hard to whistle. It is almost as enjoyable as singing along to the theme music at the beginning of Parks and Rec with Natalie, but not quite.

Yesterday there was an episode in which Picard becomes enamored of a red-headed space cartographer who is also a very accomplished pianist. There is a lot of very meaningful eye contact and even a fair amount of smooching as these two fall in love and, dare I say it, consummate. This all made Graham rather uncomfortable, and he pulled the blanket up over his head and turned away from the TV screen. Ah yes, the joys of early pubescence.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


I have blogged before about the difficulty I have remembering names sometimes. This is primarily, I think, a function of needing to to meet lots of people all the time, to have a broad "funnel" (as we say in sales) in one's "pipeline," though I worry at times that it is early onset Alzheimer's (which killed my maternal grandmother).

I use the frameworks I have (lists, notes, stacks of business cards, CRM, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) to keep track of people as best I can, but it is hard, and there are natural limits.  First and foremost there is the Dunbar number, about which Gladwell has written, and I think he and it are right:  most people can handle a network of about 150 people, and of course they don't "know all of them well."  Second there is the tendency about which Gawande writes in Being Mortal, that people, as they age, typically don't want to meet more and more people, they want to focus on being close to family and longtime friends, the people who have been important to them in the past. I feel that, that rings true.

And yet, professionally, it is my job to expand the tent of people to whom I am providing service and adding value as best I can. And one needs to have a broad "funnel" to get clients. At the same time, I have to keep honing my ability to help people. Thankfully, at least, the process of meeting people, talking to them, and listening to them typically exposes me either to new problems or to ones I have learned about but my recollection of the specific approaches to and rules around fixing them might be fuzzy, and/or know nothing about.  So I learn more about my job, even if holding on to the specifics of each person I meet can be challenging.

Then again, nobody said it was gonna be easy.

Time to take Graham to martial arts.  Will read Buffett.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Heros and process

A week and change ago a couple of stories were juxtaposed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal which spoke volumes about what we value as a society.  On one side was yet another chapter in the continuing clusterfuck of a story around Theranos, the poster child unicorn with a Steve Jobs clone/wannabe founder, the transformational value proposition ("all your blood testing from a finger prick") the gold-plated board and advisory team (Henry Kissinger, Bill Frist, Richard Kovacevich, David Boies, Sam Nunn, George Schultz), and the most ignominious crash and burn since Enron and Arthur Anderson fell to earth at once. Theranos is the Lance Armstrong of corporations, and, as such, calls to question the general ethos of hero-worship to which we have devolved as a society, the extent to which we are dependent on larger than life figures (Obama, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett) to help us figure out how to do the right thing.

On the other page, a story about the seeming success of grid hardening, lots of money being spent over years of gruelling, slow, thankless process improvement and project management to reduce the amount of power outages caused by weather events and other disruptions. As someone who was first in Manhattan on 9/11, and then in Albany -- hundreds of miles away from an 8-month pregnant Mary -- when the power went out up and down the East Coast in August of 2003 (and yes, we all thought it was terrorism at the time), I appreciate the effort of all the slide-rule and pocket-protector types who made this happen, and totally applauded this story.  It is difficult to pay attention to this kind of work, but it is big, and we all benefit from it, and the government is the only stakeholder that can begin to make it happen.

So let's just keep this in mind, and to hell with all the charismatic shysters like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. It don't always happen like that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mixed feelings

I have recently read stories about how Russia's farming economy has recovered and made Russia a leading exporter of grains.  After all the nastiness that has come out of Russia in recent years -- aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine, violent homophobia, corruption, the assassination of Nemtsov and the repressions of others -- it has become easy to root against Russia on all fronts, even for those of us with a long historical engagement with the region. But I find myself somehow heartened by the idea that Russia might actually have an economic 3rd act that is not related to extractive industries and general petrokleptocracy.

The fact is, Russians are not all bad, and in general people don't understand the sacrifices that the nation made in WWII. Estimates run as high as 26 million Russians dead in the war.  This out of a population of about 200 million at the beginning of the war.  Estimates run as high as 1.3 million of Russians born during the war who died before 1945. Ponder that.

These are big numbers, much bigger than any other nation in absolute terms (I'm not sure how it nets out on a percentage basis).  Gotta hop.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

His struggle is my struggle

Just came to the end of volume 5 of Knausgaard's My Struggle. Surprised though I am, I eagerly await the finishing of the translation of and then publication of volume 6.  Somewhere in there I thought I had gotten sick of it, but then was miraculously refreshed by the narrative's return to relevance.

So over the course of this year I've now spent something like 2500 pages with Karl Ove, and have gone through most of the phases of his life with him, from the early days to the death of his father, with which began the "novel," and to which we have returned at the end of this tome.  I clearly strongly identify with his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from his alcoholic father, though in his case his dad was clearly "irredeemable," to quote one of Hillary's more ridiculous statements from the campaign trail (if she can survive that, it's pretty amazing). The guy pretty literally drank himself to death, and the hints of violence around his death are never fully resolved. Might his mom have clocked him with a frying pan?  It's not inconceivable, though it's never explicitly suggested either.

The important thing in riding shotgun with Karl Ove is seeing how he reacts.  Let's recount some of the highlights of the last volume.

  1. His dad can't be bothered to show up at his wedding
  2. He gets jealous of his brother having a lively conversation with his soon-to-be bride at a bar, so, getting progressively drunker as the evening winds on, he goes in the bathroom and repeatedly cuts into his face with a shard of glass, but his brother and fiance don't notice till later
  3. His dad dies
  4. Just then, his first novel is published, after years of excruciating self-doubt, writer's block, and self-destructive blackout drinking.  It wins a big Norwegian Critics Prize. He still kind of thinks it's a piece of shit
  5. He descends into writer's block/alcoholic stupor again for a couple of years, and somewhere in there, wasted, he has a one-night stand which later comes out, not good for his marriage, but not (yet) fatal to it
Thankfully, I worked through the alcoholic part of the equation early in life, which helped me keep away from other ladies.  But I get a lot of this cycle. I totally feel him.  And it's hard not to, because he is laying it all out there in a degree of detail that is pretty incredible in every way.

Anyhoo, time to get ready for soccer.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Division of labor

This morning there is an article in the Wall Street Journal  about the science of standing in line. I read it, thinking that it was going to give me some useful answers to that question. Instead, it provided the most basic, thumbnail-level introduction to the thinking behind, history or, and multiple applications of queuing theory, a discipline I had never heard of, presumably a subset of operations research. Really interesting stuff.

After reading the article, it occurred to me that it is much better to have been exposed to a new discipline than to have been provided with answers to a specific problem, because it opens my brain to a new way of thinking about something and gives me a greater appreciation for the overall concept of division of labor, and the value of a well-articulated division of labor across global society as a whole.

Which is to say, to the extent that we can surmount problems of time, distance and -- in non-physical or intellectual disciplines -- siloing, which is the notional equivalent of time and space, we benefit from the presence of extreme specialization.

The trick is to facilitate idea flow across disciplines, to have enough of and the right types generalists and cross-fertilizers -- to bring the ideas of specialists to bear on new problems.  This is one of the quintessential problems of management per se, to facilitate idea flow and achieve a proper balance of generalists and specialists.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Racing in

At an Al Anon meeting recently, someone shared about how his or her child (gotta keep this anonymous) of 23 had recently had a "diagnosis" which had really challenged the parent to maintain his/her composure and serenity.  That's all the detail that was shared, and that's all I need to share.

Sitting there listening, I felt a little teased, the part of me that wants to rush in and fix everything, the part that thinks that -- for some odd reason, that's what I'm supposed and expected to do -- really wanted to know what the diagnosis was for.  Cancer?  An affective disorder?  I don't know why I think it matters, but I was sitting there, yearning within me for the answer, which never came.

Which was a valuable lesson for me. Because this person didn't need for me to race in and save the day, (s)he just needed to share, to speak, to release, and move on. Stepping further back and looking at my reaction, I think it reasonable to say that my fix-it instinct derives from a deep-seeded belief that if I don't try to do something, to fix almost anything (global warming, inequality of wealth distribution, a client's lack of savings), I am somehow worth less, if not worthless.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

A dream, moving forward

Just before I woke up this morning I had one of those dreams.  I had spent some outlandish amount of money, I think it was $5400, fixing something stupid, and I had basically been ripped off and was very ashamed of the mistake I had made. But it was just a dream.

On the other hand, as I push towards the last third of volume 5 of Knausgaard's My Struggle, I had found myself getting a little sick of it. Karl Ove getting drunk, having blackout after blackout, cheating on his girlfriend, basically squandering his student years in the perpetually rainy Norwegian town of Bergen. It was a little bit close to home.

But now they have moved off to Iceland for a semester, Gunvor and Karl Ove, and he has begun to actually get some writing done and have coherent thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, he will break out of this rut. I mean, obviously, he will, and will become a Eurolit sensation, and mostly justifiably.  But this tome and the one before have been at times like pulling teeth.

Hilary (no, not that one, my friend Hilary) told me that, having finished volume 5, she was planning on going back to volume 1. Which is pretty extreme.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Good salesmanship, but not quite

After grabbing lunch at Whole Foods, I stopped in to get my shoes shined. The guy had closed up shop for lunch, but I promised to buy him lunch in five minutes, and he took me up on it. So I went in, took off my shoes, handed them over, and sat down.

But who should come in but JR, from the barber shop down the hall, who stopped in and noted that he hadn't seen me in a while, which was true.  By some standards, I was and am certainly in need of a trim, and if it was hotter outside and I wasn't already running late, he would have had me dead to sights. With the cooling of the days, however, I am less susceptible to the compulsion to buzz, so I decided to hold off for a couple of weeks.

This was, after all, the same fellow who says he's using a 2 on my back and sides, but I'll be damned if it feels as short as it does after Sunny, the Asian woman around the corner, gives me a cut.  I think he actually uses a 3 or even -- dare I say it -- a 4 on my head, as a means of getting me back in there more quickly. 

So I went on my way, though I was impressed and even flattered at the personal appeal. It means something for people to want your business.

Sunday, October 02, 2016


Just got the family up to Hillsborough to walk the River Walk, which is a nice thing, though I will confess and advise my readers that the part east of downtown, by Ayr Mount, is really the prettier part, and we had to turn around before we could really take it in, sadly. It was good to get the family out, as we honestly have all too few full group excursions, something we need to work on.

On the way up we listened -- as we are oft wont to do (love that phrase) -- to NPR, Radiolab, to be precise, and it was an interesting episode. The most fascinating part was some guy who had done quantitative analysis of Agatha Christie novels, and found that there was a strange shift from her 73rd novel forward, where the frequency of vague terms like "anything," "something", "someone" increased dramatically, and that she was generally using 20% fewer words than she had before. (just Googled this, it is apparently an old show, so many may have heard it before)

I will confess that I fear this at times myself, when I find myself grasping for words -- I struggled momentarily to find the word "Alzheimer's" when recounting the story later.  Oh well. It's not like I don't try to keep the old noggin nimble. I think what I'm experiencing is likely just normal aging.

Little of which was apparent on the soccer field yesterday, though. It wasn't my best game, mind you, but I was pretty darned mobile and effective in the back keeping a couple of much younger guys under control.

So there. Time to go enjoy the waning of this lovely fall day before I have to fire up the grill.

Saturday, October 01, 2016


At Al Anon this morning, which I had missed for weeks because of soccer game conflicts and then going to the beach, I found my mind drifting to the situation with Deutsche Bank, and other financial stuff, I don't recall what it was, none of it particularly troubling, mind you, just the waxing and waning of things. This despite or perhaps because a client of mine was leading the meeting, and was in tears sharing about recent very serious health crises that have befallen her husband, also a client. So often this Saturday meeting is a safe space where my mind runs free and slowly processes things that I have been watching during the week, and/or bounces off its own walls. Much like church used to be, a place where I can do nothing but sit there quietly and try to listen and learn and relate but allow myself to drift.

I thought of how another client up in New York had posted something on Facebook last week from a Buddhist priest about the problem of monkey brain, the mind scrambling around desperately from one thing to another. What he said was this: "so long as you can focus on your breathing, inhaling, exhaling, monkey brain is fine.  Just keep coming back to your breathing." That makes sense.

Now must take Graham to martial arts. Will try to get back to reading Buffett's annual shareholder letters, a project that has fallen off a little over the last couple of months.

Summer is over, praise the Lord.