Saturday, June 24, 2017

The bubble in hand held devices

No, not those.

What I mean is the ones containing, meat, cheese, and the like.

At the airport in DC I had breakfast bao, steamed Chinese buns like the roast pork buns available at Chinese bakeries.  I used to snag them for breakfast near Penn Station back in the day, ones with traditional Chinese fillings, and they were good. These had bacon, egg and cheese, egg and spicy sausage, etc. They were fine but not exceptional. Not as good as the traditional Chinese versions, nor as good as bacon, egg and cheese on a hard roll or biscuit. Admittedly, the portion size was not excessive and, in the combo of two with a perfectly decent cup of coffee, they offered decent value.

Then yesterday I went to Makus, a new empanada place out where 54 hits Garrett Road and 751. The empanadas were decent and looked cute, but were nothing special from a taste perspective. The rice and beans side was probably from enormous cans of beans. But basically they were nothing to write home about, and even less blog...

If I didn't have a bigger point to make. The food truck bubble has long since passed its apogee. Food is not better because it comes in a truck. The movement is basically a cost and regulatory arbitrage deal: you don't have to pay rent, AC, plumbing, all these costs that a fixed location restaurant would. The workers suffer in the heat of the truck, sweating profusely into their goatees.

I think the same thing is happening with the street food scene. Empanadas can be great, as can burrito-like things from many cultures (we had good Asian quasi-burritos in New Haven in March, and the Chinese burger I had in Oxford last year was delish). But they have to be done well and distinctively. If you just wrap meat, cheese, veggies in a different shape of bread product and denote it with a foreign word, it doesn't become better just because.

There will be a shake out, these places will fail if they don't get better.



nb. This is not to say that all food trucks or hand helds are bad, many are products of diligent and creative foodies. But they don't win just cuz.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Self management

In DC this morning, stayed in a very lovely AirBnB in Mt Pleasant, then had to make for Reagan National Airport, so conveniently well-served by the yellow line. Left at 7:30 to walk to Metro, but the heat was rising already so I was sweaty by the time I got to the station.  I will spare you the details about my minor technical issues with the Metro save to say that, when I bought a day pass for the Metro the day before, I asked and was told that the pass worked on both Metro and buses.  THIS IS NOT TRUE. It messed me up and cost me a little money. Nuffsaid on that.

Anyhoo, I was sweaty when I got to the Columbia Heights station, but I had built in a pretty good margin for error for my flight. Or so I thought...

Actually, I had, but managing the uncertainty of whether or not that was the case is always challenging.  On the train platform there was a mob and the train was standing there empty. Medical emergency. The train moved soon enough.

I got to the airport an hour and 40 minutes before my flight, and walked down to the gate and saw there was no line whatsoever at security. Great. Except that the woman who was letting people into the line said:  "No, you've got to go down to the other concourse, your flight's down there."  So I turned around and walked the 200 yards or so down the way. And as I did, I looked, and in the distance I saw lots of bodies in silhouette down the way and had a moment's "oh no!" flash through my brain. Not a freak out, just a little warning.

And I recognized what was happening, and just kept walking at a reasonable pace till I got down there and saw that the lines weren't really long.

I wasn't really worried about missing my plain by now, mind you.  It was more about getting food and coffee.

But the main thing is that airport experiences give me/us opportunities to observe myself in moments of potential stress and use data to manage myself. Yesterday I checked the status of parking at RDU online and realized that I was going to need to park in an offsite lot, so I left 15 minutes earlier than normal. And probably needed no more than 10 of those 15.  Last night I asked my host about typical lines at National, and he gave me a departure recommendation, then checked to see that there weren't big delays on the Metro line.

And so, by asking lots of questions and using data, I managed through nicely. And even had time to blog. And try out some of the breakfast bao (chinese rolls) here on the concourse. OK, not great. But different, and not expensive by airport standards.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The vanishing of labor?

Some years ago, it must have been five or so because he passed away in 2013, I was sitting with my dad in Hillsborough at Weaver Street and dad said: "There's going to be a huge problem because all the jobs are going to disappear as technology takes over all the simple tasks." Of course, since dad said it, I immediately thought: "that's total bullshit" and began ruminating on why it must not be so.

Over the last few days, a couple of very smart people advanced the same argument, and indeed this way of thinking has more or less entered the mainstream. One guy I was talking to speculated that idle males would become a problem in America just like it has in the Arab world, where it is often considered a key factor in facilitating the rise of first Al-Qaeda and then, presumably, ISIS

Reading the recent survey in The Economist of the evolution of the drone really does cause me to think about how the global supply chain of services is being dramatically reshaped, and predictions about driverless trucks in the not-too-distant future also make it easy to envision a world in which there is not much of a place for quasi- to semi-educated men.

Indeed, there is a parallel thread out there around the opioid epidemic and more broadly the "deaths of despair" most convincingly brought to light by the work of Angus Deaton and Ann Case of Princeton, suggesting that people are dying because they have no place in the world. And the was indeed presaged by the declining population in what was once the Soviet Union owing to alcoholism and smoking as people were flummoxed from loss of place in the world and the failure to find a viable economic model, all of which created the opening for Putin.

I am not so jaundiced about the whole thing. Yes, plenty of jobs are going to be destroyed. And yes, plenty of people, many of them men, are going to have to figure out what the hell to do with their lives to feel decent about themselves. And yes, the easiest way to do that is to give them uniforms and guns and let them go out and shoot, beat or oppress somebody. But it doesn't have to be so. People are educable, and they are not all evil, even the white guys who voted for Trump. In some ways, the opioid epidemic is bringing them to their knees and making them recognize that there is a place for government and for new paradigms that offer a hope of life.

This piece in today's Times was inspiring in particular along these lines.

Anyhoo, it's Father's Day. Time to go downstairs and start complaining about being hungry. 5 more hours to indulge my inner slacker, who has actually been grinding through an intermittently interesting book on a chapter in the history of finance.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Me, the screen, and you

Just got back from my Saturday morning meeting, prime blogging time, to find my browser clogged with tabs: hotel booking, other peoples' portfolios, calendars, all about planning for the future, near-term and short, except the New York Times, which I had opened to try to figure out what kind of crazy shit Trump had tweeted this morning. I suppose I could use Twitter or just Google "Trump tweets." I had to close all of that stuff down to get back to this screen, to be alone with my keyboard, in preparation for the Deep Thoughts with which I have tasked myself to produce, all for you, dear reader.

Busy busy week, though it may not have looked at it to see me in my office. Talked to a former employer about taking over their largish 401k, prepped for and met with a client (an '84 Tiger who lives elsewhere), finished up all of the requirements for my CFP, took Graham to the pool and got thundered out but ate a freaking burger anyway, took mom in for a doctor's visit, swam, played tennis, went running, did due diligence on vacation... frankly, I can't remember what all I did, but I know I was busy!

Somebody is trying to recruit me to run for Town Council. On the one hand, it could be very interesting. On the other, a huge potential time suck, when I have manifold other commitments.

Ah well, right now it is Saturday, and tomorrow is Fathers' Day, and I am therefore declaring it extended Fathers' Day weekend. Graham will have a badly needed haircut along with a little lunch after martial arts, just because. Last night at dinner he said that it was funner to do many things with me than with mom, which should be a lesson to her: make things funner (what a fine word it is!).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Memorial

I took Natalie to NC Girls' State at Catawba College in Salisbury today. On the way we stopped at the rest area at Exit 100 to do what one does in such places, while there we noticed it was the home of the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which we duly checked out. It was a nice enough memorial, and will get nicer as the trees grow taller over time, but I had to wonder, "what the heck is it doing out here at a rest stop?" It's not really a destination kind of place.

I tried to take a picture, but my phone was being sketchy, I need to create some room on it, so it balked.

Then we proceeded on to Salisbury, the home of Cheerwine, to check it out and have lunch. Salisbury is a nice old town, the county seat of Rowan County, with a significant physical downtown. They are doing all the things municipalities do to bring people back downtown, but with limited success. There were a number of places open serving food, we ate at one of them (Sweet Meadows Cafe, I'm 90% sure we made the right choice). The place has tons of potential.

So if you're going to spend a couple of million dollars building a memorial, why not put it in a place where it might serve as a destination? Where you could have a little center that educates people about the war?  Where there could be some synergies with the local economy.

As it is, it just seems like a waste. The only people who benefit from the memorial, month in month out, are the landscapers who cut the grass and trim the hedges. Really, it's not particularly memorable.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Palliative care and medical costs

At a panel on life sciences venture capital and life sciences in the Triangle the other day, there was a guy from the venture arm of Blue Cross Blue Shield NC and some other Blue umbrella corporation. One thing he discussed was palliative care as a big opportunity for cost reduction in our healthcare system.

It is a hard thing to talk about, but we all know it's true. Healthcare is something like 18% of GDP in the US, and we've seen stats on end of life care and how expensive it is.  I could Google them now but don't have time to, I don't need to prove this point. As Boomers continue to retire and move through retirement towards death, the problem will get worse.

A big problem with end of life costs is people and family members failing to accept the writing on the wall, that death is nigh. It is normal and natural for any organism, humans especially included, to seek to perpetuate itself. As the curve of probability tilts progressively against any given human, it's hard to accept or define the point at which it's best to throw in the towel. If there is a 15% chance of two years' survival at the cost of $300,000 and a lot of pain, is it worth it?  People answer this question differently, based on where they are in life and where they are with loved ones.

My mom's husband David just went through this process, fighting cancer until he was out of treatments, then sustaining himself in a hopeless situation for a very short time, really until all of his family had been able to come and say goodbye and come to grips with the situation. Then he let go.

Around the time of the Obamacare debates there was a lot of discussion of "death panels" and government stepping in to make these decisions. In practice, as I understand it, "payers" (insurers) do have discretion to fund or not fund treatment based on a probabilistic assessment of whether the treatment is likely to work for a given patient. Also, health care is effectively rationed structurally: people living close to major medical centers are able to get the best care simply by virtue of having access to doctors who are closer to the center of information flow for their disciplines. On average, they get better care.  On average, these are more affluent people.

Anyway, back to the point about end of life spending. The better people are oriented towards death, the less pain and suffering they will, perhaps, choose to put themselves through as the probability charts bend against them late in life. In this regard, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal and other books that help us think about this issue are good, as is a family culture of staying in touch and talking throughout life (so there's less unfinished business), and, for that matter, religion can help too.

Ultimately, the problem will solve itself.  People won't spend 10% of GDP on weeks of misery in hospitals.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Count pointercount

Rarely do I see a pair of stories as emblematic of where we are these days on two facing pages of a newspaper as a pair in today's Wall Street Journal. On one side of the fold, a story about how deferred maintenance at old buildings at universities has grown into a huge problem:  one example was how the leaking roof of a building at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign threatens the integrity of federally-funded research going on inside the building. I should note that upkeep of existing buildings fairly typically coexists alongside the building of shiny new facilities that look good on brochures and help with marketing. I will also admit that the fetishization of oldness, tradition, and ivy in higher education in America probably results in the maintenance of many old buildings that could probably be torn down and replaced with modern ones that function better and more efficiently over time.

Back to my original contrast, however.  On the other side of the fold there is a story about artisanal balloons, which is to say, the amount of money people are willing to spend on their kids' birthday parties.

So there you have it. Long-term investment that could pay gains long-term suffers, while short-term flourishes. This need not be 100% an endorsement of high vs. low taxes. Money could make it into university buildings just as easily through endowments as through government funding mechanisms. But contributions to a university's general fund are much less easy to showcase than balloons. And, admittedly, it is less fun.


Also, I should note that I made my way to these two stories via a front page story detailing how many universities -- including if not especially flagship state universities (because only data for public universities was available for analysis) -- were failing to demonstrate an increase in their students' analytical abilities over 4 years. Less prestigious universities were showing more improvement in student critical thinking skills. Which could argue that we shouldn't spend so much money on universities at all, but I don't think so.

At any rate, I have now blogged for too long and need to go to work.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Moving on many fronts

Monkey brain is where I'm at all too much of the time. Here's what's on my mind now:

  • The kids are out taking standardized tests right now. Graham taking the SAT for the first time in case we can talk him into doing Duke TIP (presuming he qualifies), Natalie is taking subject tests. She is done with basic SAT/ACT tests, having done well enough. We naturally worry that Graham will fuck up and get disheartened, given some of his organizational issues.
    • Should I take them to sushi afterwards?  Esp. given that Natalie will have pizza at her birthday party this evening?
  • Booking summer travel:  we have dragged our feet, since we knew Granny was likely going to be solo this summer and should join us, but we didn't know when. No we are getting organized finally and hopefully won't have to stay in dumps.
  • Etc. etc.
I realized it's not really much of an escape to list all this stuff that is oppressing me out. And it's not necessarily very entertaining for you, dear reader.

Last night my mom and I watched Moonlight. I had no recollection that it had won best picture, I just remembered it had been nominated for something.  It was magnificent, though not light watching, and by no means easy to understand all the dialogue/dialect. But it was the fullest, richest character portrayal I have seen in a long time, rarely have I rooted for a character so hard, which probably reflects the fact that we have been subsisting on a steady diet of TV shows, if that, for some time now. Mary grew jaded on films some time ago. I don't know why, given that we have only watched maybe a thousand or so of them together in the last 22 years in the comfort of our own couch.

We have, in fact, on at least one occasion gone halfway through a movie and then realized we had seen it before. In fact, that happened to me with a Wallander novel I started reading on the flight back from Seattle last week. But I kept reading it because I had so many hours invested in it and I wasn't sure I fully remembered the ending (turned out, I pretty much did). That was downright silly.  I should have dropped that puppy like a hot potato. Such is my foolish, deeply ingrained work ethic. Even as pertaining to leisure.


Monday, May 29, 2017

I'm back

Just spent 4 excellent days out in Seattle, hanging with my boy Mark, kicking a new client relationship with another old college friend into gear, and seeing other excellent people I know from high school and grad school. But now I'm back.

I can feel my age. There is pain in my hip and, oddly, still in my groin from where I kicked too many goal kicks three weeks ago. Also in my hamstrings, and in my left hand (which I use on the fretboard, my picking hand is pain-free).

Looking out into my yard, I see two things:

1. The grass has been growing the whole time I was gone. No surprise there. Mary used to mow the lawn sometimes, but in later years has reverted to traditional gender roles, which designates this as man's work. Maybe it's time to train Graham on this. Natalie may be hard.
2. The sun is rising. On the one hand, that means the grass is drying and is probably cutable. It is also becoming a hotter chore.  It also means the lake is getting warmer by the minute, and less pleasant for swimming.

Which means it's time to get my ass in gear.  Just saw my neighbor Caroline walk by not too long ago, with her dog Pearl, a collie who is the sweetest dog in the world.  I heard a few weeks ago that Pearl had cancer, and may not be long for this neighborhood.  It will be a loss.

For now, it's time to get moving.  One thing I know is that movement eases the pain.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Magnolia

In a little patisserie in the relatively upscale Magnolia neighborhood in Seattle, having walked here from the home of my friend Mark. Despite my hosts' downplaying the relative quality of the pastries, I would have to say they are pretty good.

In fact, everything here verges on perfect, especially since it seems like I bring sunny weather to Seattle and the region generally (I've never seen it rain here, though my sample size is small). Everyone is affluent, perky, of a non-deprecated ethnicity. It is the kind of place where a young person willing to work reasonably hard, take direction, smile, and make eye contact would find it hard to fail.

And in that regard, we might as well be on another planet from Morven, NC, which I drove through a couple of weeks ago, or even my mom's hometown of Roxboro, where I canvassed last fall. We all know this. There is no simple answer.

I was at a comedy show in Chapel Hill last week where this comic, a kind of manic guy (they all were) was talking to some of the young people in the front row, high school seniors and UNC freshfolx, and he kept saying "Oh, you're from Chapel Hill, you feel safe all the time, that must be nice." It is of course hard to impart his tone here on the blog, but there's a fundamental truth to that.

And I guess I have circled back to talking about the "Bubble" we were all talking about back in the fall. I live within it. But the military mom seated across the row from me on the flight out does not. She had three kids, infant, toddler, and big girl, 5ish, who held the infant when her mom took the toddler to the bathroom. I can't imagine doing that at that age. Her husband was just being transferred from Ft. Bragg to somewhere in Alabama. I wasn't about to start talking politics with her.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

End of the season

Though hot, we closed out the season in fine form today.  Neither of our top scorers were there, including the guy that pretty much dominates for us and probably scores an absolute majority of our goals, and we still won. Despite having an average age of 45 or so on the back line, we allowed no shots on goal.

Admittedly, the other team wasn't very good. But still.

And I am in no more pain, really, than I was when we started the game. No additional injuries. Not too shabby.

Though I had no huge highlight plays, I am still playing highlight reel in my mind.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Karma

The other day I had lunch with this nice Nepalese guy I had met at an event. In paying for lunch, I forgot to use the credit card I have made, here in 2017, my business card.

Knowing that I will have a difficult time remembering this at tax time next year, I used the business card to buy my sandwich at my favorite deli (less expensive than the business lunch) today. However, I was distracted by doing so, and by the mild dishonesty baked into this maneuver, and I forgot to get my frequent eater card punched, thereby depriving myself of one-twelfth of a sandwich.

However, this lapse was made up for by Monday's lunch when, back at my favorite deli (Cheerz, at the intersection of Alexander and Miami, where they roast their own roast beef and chicken and bake their own rolls), I got the frequent eater punch of the guy in front of me, who was visiting from out of town.

And so, there is order in the universe.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dating

So Natalie went out on a date with a boy from her high school. Her experience with the young fellas has been limited to date, owing to their clear lack of good taste and perception of what should be attractive in a young lady, which she of course exemplifies. Perhaps she is too petite for them, perhaps too clever. Who knows.

At any rate she was clearly pleased to have been asked out, and rightly so. Nothing is more validating than to be shown that you are attractive by a member of your desired gender. She had to adjust the time of their outing because her beloved cousin Caroline was in town for less than 24 hours for the memorial service, but she did it, and it was fine.

We too are happy. This is something that has been missing in her life. Of course, I do feel the territorial gene welling up from inside me, She was maybe 45 minutes late getting home from her date and Mary and I kept looking out the window. This is new territory for us. I would certainly like to lay eyes on this fella and talk to him for 90-120 seconds, but mostly out of curiosity. I think. I won't force it for a little while.

I thought about this this morning as Natalie and I were making breakfast, and I was briefly moved to tears. I turned away so nobody could see, because that would be embarassing.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Eulogy for David

Good morning, I’m C......T....., the son of Joan Ontjes, David’s wife.
                                                       
By 2004, plain old dating and Match.com had not produced the perfect -- let alone the right – guy for Mom. So when my sister Leslie and I heard that she had met this doctor fellow David Ontjes, whose kids we knew from junior high and high school, we were intrigued. That spring my wife Mary and I came down to NC for an event, bringing our newborn son Graham. We didn’t yet know that Graham was allergic to milk. So we left him with mom, David and a bottle and headed out for the evening. We got home around midnight and found that Graham had thrown up his milk all over David, who had nonetheless carried on dutifully dandling and rocking him around to keep him calm.

At that point in time, we knew he was a keeper.  But Mom and David weren’t even “going steady”. They had been on a number of dates, but David kept saying that he was “seeing other people.” Mom eventually said to him, “Well so am I and, if you don’t decide quickly, I may not be an option.”  A couple of days later, David invited her over for a glass of wine. Mom expected him to break up with her. When she got there, David asked her to stay for dinner, and she agreed. Light conversation continued. Finally, after dinner, David, a little nervous, got down to business, saying “I just can’t date two people at the same time. Would you like to date me exclusively?” She said yes, and 13 wonderful years began.

In 2006 they were married here at University Presbyterian. Because they were married late in life, David and mom knew that, according to standard protocol, they wouldn’t have as many anniversaries as they would like. So they crafted a system of 5 anniversaries
1.    First date
2.    Going steady
3.    First trip
4.    Engagement
5.    Wedding
And so they celebrated some 50-odd anniversaries together. And David, frugal though he may have been, even agreed to go to nice restaurants every time.

David and Mom did a lot of fun things together: they kayaked together, and they biked up and down the East Coast and in Europe. In fact, they were so photogenic a couple that their smiling faces graced the cover of the catalog for VBT Bicycling tours.

They performed together in a variety groups, including the choral group Voices, and the musical comedy company the Prime Time Players. Both of them really loved singing, so I know this brought a lot of joy to each of them. Check out the videos at the reception.

David was a wonderful presence in the lives of our children. He had great trips with them to places like Lake Matamuskeet and the Virginia Creeper trail. He genuinely loved to share entirely age-appropriate TV shows with them. David and Graham spent many happy hours together watching “Popeye” and David’s personal favorite, “Spongebob Squarepants.”

David was a fine presence at the table. He loved to make waffles and to grill, and was always a hearty consumer of whatever was served, especially dessert and chocolate. Leslie’s son Daniel marveled at the number of Dove chocolates he could snarf down. In dinner table conversations, he provided our typically liberal Chapel Hill family with a valuable conservative counterpoint. He was also fond of dredging up tales of yore of dubious veracity, like a fishing tale he retold several times over one weekend, in which the fish he caught grew in each retelling, from a guppy on Friday to a monstrous hundred-pounder by Sunday dinner.

The long and short of it is that, over these thirteen years, David grew to be a full-fledged member of our family, from a minnow to a scale-breaking prize winner.  We will all miss him dearly.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

A long, full week

It has been a long, full week. As some of you know, my mom's husband, David Ontjes, passed away. I'll post the eulogy I wrote for him as evidence that I have not fallen down entirely in my scribal duties to Being.  As if Being gave a fuck.

Since Mary has been reading the New York Times on her laptop, even on Sunday mornings, just in case He Who Must Not Be Named and his lunatic chronies in the White House have done something earth-shattering overnight, I have been reading the front page on sundays once I finish up the sports section, instead of going straight to Week in Review.

There is a lot of stuff on the front page.

This week there's an article about Google's very successful efforts to take over the education market. Part of the thrust has been to nudge students to use online sharing tools like Google docs to learn to collaborate better, as part of an overall Zeitgeist shift away from the mastery of arcane facts and methods towards learning to work as teams.  Here's what one Google exec says:  "I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don't know why they are learning that. And I don't know why they can't ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there."

My guess is, that if kids don't learn the quadratic equation, they ain't getting no jobs at Google. By and large. Certainly not as programmers. Fundamentally, kids need to be pushed to master challenging intellectual material both to learn to think and to master complexity. Period.

The fact that they aren't forced to memorize multiplication tables, to develop a basic proficiency with numbers, is scandalous. How are they going to be able to estimate things and, most practically, know if they are getting ripped off if they can't work with numbers in their heads?

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Morven, NC

Thursday took me down to Columbia, SC.  Google Maps said it would be 3:36 by interstate, or 3:56 by smaller roads. That was an easy choice. Somewhere along Rte 1 south of Sanford, my phone said that Rte 1 and some other backroads route would be about the same. I took the road lesser traveled, per Sergei and Larry.

Driving along state road 145 towards the South Carolina border, there was a sign on a tree, featuring a fetching, seemingly hand-painted picture of a sandwich. "Cheese Steak, 1 mile on right." It was speaking my language, though sadly I had lunch plans in Columbia with Jack Pringle so I couldn't really investigate as I would have liked to. You know what I mean.

But one mile passed, and there was no sign of a cheese steak. Then two miles. I began to think it was some sort of cruel joke, or that somehow the sign had outlived its signified. Finally after three or fout, I came into the town of Morven, NC. The old main block of downtown was more forelorn than most by a degree: every business was shut down. But then, on the right, I saw it: Mama Noi's, featuring Philly Cheese Steak, Hamburgers, Fresh Pizza, and Fresh Hot Subs. What's not to like?

And then it was over. I passed through the south end of Morven. An African-American woman was out in her yard. I waved to her. She waved back.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

All the fish in the ocean

"Foreigners complain about African migrants coming to their countries, but they have no problem coming to our waters and stealing all our fish."  Moustapha Balde, 22, Senegal in this article in the New York Times.

Basically the idea of this story is that China's fishing fleets -- deeply subsidized by the government -- are putting intense pressure on the ocean's stock of fish. This on top of the already sufficient hunger of affluent populations in "the developed world", which we already knew were doing this.

A couple of weeks back in the Economist there was this piece on pressure to fish down to the Mesopelagic layer of the ocean, where a bunch of tiny wierd-looking creatures that we've never tapped into live. They are part of the oceanic food chain, and taking them for humans will disrupt it further, but just as importantly they are part of the cycle of by which the oceans sequester carbon, so that harvesting them will further exacerbate global warming.

All of which led me to thank Mary, as I don't always do, for continuing to nudge us in the direction of a more plant-based diet. Beans, vegetables, lentils, whole grains. Ughh. It is honestly hard to get excited about it, unless I can slather it in melted cheese. But I know that it is right from a sustainability perspective.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Yield, supply chain, and hunger

On Wednesday I was at an event sponsored by the AgBioTech team at the NC BioTech Center, and there was a lot of discussion of food insecurity in the world. As agriculture vendors, the speakers were very focused on food production as the bottleneck that causes food insecurity, which in turn leads to people dying of hunger. 

But spoilage and waste are huge issues in getting food to people.  We have all seen or read about how much food gets wasted in America because of portion sizes, etc. Supply chain inefficiencies are huge issues too, check out this article on the path of an onion from grower to end user in India from The Economist. If supply chains could be made more efficient in the developing world, more food would make it from farm to mouth.

But an awful lot of jobs and ways of human interaction would be disrupted too. We have lost a lot of that in the West, and indulge in nostalgia by going to farmer's markets and buying a few choice things to get "back in touch with the land," etc. In Marxist terms, we attempt to de-reify a few commodities, and we feel good about it.

Meanwhile Amazon eats the world, and it's so hard to fight it. It's so convenient to order everything from there.

Anyway, back to the food question. At the highest level, from a capital allocation perspective, we have to ask ourselves whether, if food insecurity is the big issue, it is better to focus on production or distribution and supply chain management. A lot of which revolves around building better roads and/or rail as well as ports in the developing world.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bus routes

Because it had been raining for something vaguely like forever, I went and sat at the bus stop with Natalie and a friend this morning. There I learned that the bus often comes half an hour late and just barely gets them to school on time.

They also said that, on the first day of school, when the other girl there accidentally got on the bus headed to the middle school, that the bus driver didn't even know how to get to the correct middle school and the students had to give her directions.

An outrage! Well, actually, it's just a natural outgrowth of labor and real estate markets. It has gotten so expensive to live anywhere in Chapel Hill that no bus drivers can afford to live there. In fact, I was having breakfast with a judge the previous morning and I learned from her that there were only two Chapel Hill police officers who lived in town:  the police chief and her husband, who could afford to because she was an attorney in private practice before being elected to her judge position.

And bus drivers don't even get paid as well as cops. In fact, Chapel Hill is apparently having difficulty recruiting bus drivers.

So there you have it. Labor markets.

The situation is at least in some regards better than it was when I was in high school, when high school students could drive buses, and they were often stoned. Or, at least, that's what they told me 25 years after the fact.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My book?

In recent week I've had encouraging feedback from interesting directions. A career counselor type suggested I should be a speaking nationally on some topic on which I had expertise, A professor at Stanford whose class I had guested in via Skype likened my perspective to that of a public intellectual and said I should have my own podcast. It's all very flattering.

But what should I focus on?  I have to spend a lot of time keeping up with client stuff, details of people's lives, and it's fulfilling in its own way. I'm reading all the time, and broadly, and that has its own joys. I like being out in the streets talking to people, to a degree, though I do get worn out by it and also by the very breadth of what I'm exposed to.

Again, where to focus to build a real brand? That's the question.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Return to the creek

Towards the end of my run I dipped into the forebay area where North and South Lake Shore come together. It's hard for me to believe I didn't blog about it a month or so ago when we were working on it. In short, we had to drop the level of the lake about 2.5 feet (by opening some valves at the base of the dam using a ridiculous 14 foot fork which we poke around till we hit metal). Then we had to bust up all these places where the creek between the forebay at the lake was plugged up, largely by hard-working beavers who just put all kinds of shit in the creek.

The work was cold and filthy and disgusting. One day I lost my wedding band while I was digging down into the muck with my arms and basically throwing bunches of branches up on shore.

It was, in short, awesome. And by hook or by crook, we got the water in the creek to flow and lowered the water level in the forebay significantly -- we literally drained a swamp -- so a contractor could bring in heavy equipment and dig out 10 foot tall, 50 foot long pile of muck, which was deposited alongside the forebay.

So, a month and change later, today, that is, I stopped in to see how things were going with the creek.

Astonishingly, all of our hard and good work is pretty much a thing of the past. The swamp was no longer drained. The creek was barely flowing. It seemed in one place that a beaver had been back starting to build up a dam, being a beaver, in short. In one place we had brought in a mini-backhoe to help us unplug a particular plugged up spot in the creek, and there had been heavy and visible treadmarks.  No more. They are filled in with grass.

Overall, this being Earth Day, I was reminded of how utterly indifferent nature is in the end about our presence. It could give a flying fuck. It will be just fine when we are gone. We needn't worry at all about the planet.

I thought back to McPhee's The Pine Barrens, which I just read, where he details all kinds of settlements from the 18th and 19th centuries back in the Barrens, of which scarcely a trace remains. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Me and the park

Yesterday morning I was headed to an event at the Frontier, a space owned by the RTP foundation on 54 between Davis and Alexander.  I have been there many times before, but somehow I can never quite get it straight in my head where it is.

Partially this is because of the placelessness of the park, all the glass boxes set back behind trees off of 45 mph roads and highways.

Partially it is because I have become so dependent on Google Maps for everything and somehow my brain just doesn't internalize space and directions the way it used to. Is it because dominion over this subject matter has become less compelling to my ego?

Partially it is because I was spaced out, listening to a book in the car (Abundance, by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis).

In any case, I got off 40 onto Davis and was in the left turn lane, about to head towards Miami Blvd, when I realized I needed to turn right to go towards Alexander Drive.  I should have turned left and gone up and hung a u-ey, instead I backed up, put on my right turn signal, and made my way across the lanes to make a right turn thanks to the very kind people in the lanes in the middle.  It was a silly thing to do, really rather irresponsible, as close as it was to 9 am.

Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Taking it all in

It is unreasonable to expect that anyone should read everything and be on top of everything pertaining to one's field, yet that is in some sense the expectation I put on myself. I have stacks and stacks of books, am managing a constant flow of periodicals through the house and links coming through my social media feeds, I know that I can't read it all. Yet somehow I feel like I'm supposed to.

I have internalized pretty good discipline with regard to the New Yorker over the decades. I have recognized that I will never even begin to keep up with it, and that to try basically impoverishes me via a steady diet of fast casual narrative, optimized for cocktail party chit chat, so basically read very little of it. Though I do let it pile up and then go through the piles. This weekend I recycled maybe 20 of them.

Same with the New York Times magazine, only more so. I just rarely read it, and rarely miss it.

This year for my birthday Mary asked if I had updated my Amazon list. Half paying attention, I grunted yes, meaning to go back and pare it down and prioritize it. Then I forgot. For my birthday she bought me some 8 books from the list, some of which I would have moved to the "business books" list had I made the time to look at my list, instead of watching endless Federer and Messi videos on YouTube before going to bed, or learning to strum new songs on my guitar.

So now I have a stack of even more books that I only kind of want. Though, honestly, when I turn my head and look at them, they look pretty good, and I know there is much to learn from them.

Sales gurus would say that even sitting around thinking about what I should be reading is a means of avoidance of going out and talking to people and learning what they need, that that would be more instrumental in helping me build my business. And there is some truth in that. But it is also true that I am building my product, one page at a time. And it's working.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Birthday, still recovering

On Friday I turned 51. It was most welcome for my birthday to coincide with Good Friday, which was most opportunely a market holiday, so I have been able to really milk this birthday thing all weekend.

It's a good thing too, as I was dead tired and sick after the two weeks of traveling for college trips and then again back to New York last weekend, I have been very happy to just lie around and do nothing. And mostly have few thoughts. I am still trying to find traction in a new book since I worked through the Wallander.

In fact, I went up to the Bookshop on Franklin, whose upcoming disappearance I am bemoaning almost somatically, and bought up all of the Wallander books we didn't have, since Mary is getting into them too. I even bought two copies of one book by accident, and several books by Mankell that don't have Wallander as hero. I hope they don't suck. I was sort of in a hurry to get home for dinner.

While at the Bookshop I placed a hold on one of the bookshelves there. Mary doesn't think they are very nice, but that place has been a big part of my life and I will have one of those bookshelves up here in my office, though I'm pretty sure we will have to bring it in through the window, since there's no way that it's gonna fit round the corner at the top of the stairs.

OK. It is now time to get the Easter baskets from the attic and put jelly beans in them.  Graham informed me that the "sibling rivalry Easter egg hunt is the only thing that makes Easter special."  So we gotta do that.

Meanwhile, an owl has alighted on a branch just outside the window of my office up here. It seems to have just swooped down to the ground and grabbed some sort of snack, perhaps a vole. Mary is now checking it out.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

If you can go home again

For the first time in twenty years, I saw my friend Katya yesterday.  She hails from Kiev, Ukraine, but then was educated in Tartu, Estonia. She came to New York on a Fulbright in '94, and I was flattered to learn that she had heard of me from people I had met the summer before in Kazan'. We ended up hanging out some in '97-'98 in Moscow, and she memorably took excellent care of Mary one day when we went on a boating expedition to some island somewhere up the Moscow River somewhere.

So we had seen pix on Facebook, and were kind of generally up to date on the highlights of one another's lives. Children. Her move to Berlin with husband Tobias and her winning of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for a book she had written in German, of all things. In my mind, this all seemed pretty swank.

I told her how, being home in North Carolina, I was able to hang out with people I had known since I had been five, six, seven years of old, and she became rather melancholy. This rootless cosmopolitanism, she explained, is anything but glamorous. That Kiev is a beautiful town, how it had been larger than Paris in the 11th century, but that it was right at the crossroads of too many historical forces. How, the day Russia had invaded Crimea, she had stood in a store in Berlin with a woman from St Petersburg and they had both broken into tears, because they were from the same country, after all, it just didn't exist anymore.

It occurred to me that my family has not been forced to move anywhere for a long time. We have been in the Piedmont since before the Revolution, and though I went away, I came back. In this regard I am extremely lucky, and it is an effect of other people in my family scrimping and saving and earning and squirrelling, that I can.

Over the course of history, sometimes people are fortunate and can put down roots. At other times, they must move. In post-war America, it seemed like we pretty much had things squared away, and people could nestle in, mine coal, work in factories, buy trucks, watch football, bake cookies, what have you. It seemed like it was other people that had to move. At least since the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Otherwise, it was a voluntary thing to do, an option, albeit one that the higher-earning portion of the population understood was what one did to move forward.

These days, not so much. The Trump electorate is effectively asking the government to vouchsafe their ability to rest in place. They will be disappointed.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Tips by Venmo, or something like that

Flew into Newark this morning. At the airport, I wasn't in a rush, and my old black boots have a few cracks in the leather, and I knew it was gonna be damp again in the Northeast (again 😡), so I stopped to have my shoes shined and tended to.  A little shoe spa.

Turned out, my shine professional also had NC roots, and was planning to head down to Charlotte via Amtrak tomorrow to see his 91-year old father, who wasn't doing well. He needed to make another $120 today over 15 hours to get the cash needed for his ticket, and was concerned the inclement weather would mess with his volume and therefore revenue. He treated my shoes good, so I gave him a $3 tip on a $7 shine. He mighta fed me a story, but it sounded good and was convincing, and my shoes look great.

I was rather hungry, having had only a banana at RDU (where, by the way, I ran into Rhett Autry, whom I hadn't seen in 30-odd years. She also got a banana with her coffee). So I went to Wendy's, the best option. There the very friendly associate upsold me from the Artisan Breakfast Sandwich to a Panini. Good work! It was OK.

The big difference between the two transactions was I couldn't tip her.

Now, as the economy is hollowed out, as manufacturing is outsourced and then 3D printed away, as Amazon destroys dry goods retail, increasingly only service jobs will be left. And, as the advantages of larger corporations play out, there will be fewer entrepreneurs, presuming that people continue to vote with their wallets for cheaper options. So the share of people working in fast food etc. contexts will rise.

Service will continue to be an important component of this world, but we will be unable to pay for it, and thereby incentivize its thoughtful and chearful delivery and improvement.  But it would be easy enough, in the age of platforms like Venmo, to shift this a little. Why shouldn't I be able to tip the woman at Wendy's a little if I like her? Why couldn't she have a button with a QR code that I could scan and shoot a tip to? If she's a team player, we could imagine that she might like to pool her tips and pass fractions of them to teammates, as is the culture of restaurants with wait staff. This would incentivize not just good individual instances of service, but attempts to improve service.

It would be difficult to integrate this into a top-down, hierarchical management framework.  In a sense it would involve the disintermediation of management. But it would certainly be interesting, and it should be tried.

It would be good, as well, if an analog to the QR code could be found that would let one do the same thing for call center workers, It probably exists, I just can't think of it right now.

I think we all at some level understand that the progressive automation and granularization of large value chains debases human labor, but that the people doing the work are on balance good people trying to get by. The more we can find ways to individually reward the people who provide us with services, the better.

BTW, I bet someone is already working on this.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The first person

Just finished Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. Much has been written about it, I won't dive deep now, a fine book.

What to read next? I can't read book two in Ferrante's series, because I don't have it. In principal I should probably start reading something non-fictiony and edifying. But it is rainy, I am sick, and I have been borne on the wave of an engaging first person narrator for some time now, so I will continue with that, in the form of a new Wallander novel. Back to it!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Reflections of the prior

I remember when, back in '86, after I had discovered there was this thing called literary theory that all the self-respecting intellectuals were studying, I was informed by my girlfriend Hilary that I had to take Lit 130 with Andrzej Warminski and Kevin Newmark. Somewhere in there we read Gerard de Nerval's Daughters of Fire, and I remember that Newmark, who I think led discussion of this book, made the point that the protagonist, as he loved women over the course of his life, always found himself trying to recapture the image and sensation of his first love. He made some very high-falutin theoretical point about this, about how this was the basis of knowledge or experience or something, how we are always already removed from experience in itself, working our way back to some ideal.

It seemed deep.

And it is, kinda, but I think that the significance is really less epistemological than just experiential. Of course we have nostalgia for the past, for moments of extraordinary ripeness and fullness, and the fact that our hormones are raging and eyes are being opened by new experiences during our college years make it only natural that we try to recreate them for ourselves... and our children.

Somehow I was reminded of this when, after touring Swarthmore today and having a little bite to eat, we had to dip into the college bookstore to find something for Natalie to read because she had finished the book she had started the day before. There weren't really many obvious young adult candidates, but since she had just read another Jane Austen novel earlier in the trip it seemed to me that Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel might be something she might like. So we snapped that up, and I'll be damned if, by the time we touched down at RDU three hours and change later, she wasn't a hundred pages into it.

It occurred to me that I have been raising the kind of young woman who I might have gone out with in college -- smart, positive, conscientious, comfortable in her own skin if somewhat unnecessarily shy -- if I hadn't been out there trying to be CLARK TROY, DAMNIT, and thereby in need of women with a little more... projection.

In any case, I'm very proud of her. She will make someone happy one day, first and foremost, herself, one hopes.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Coming to a close

And so, it is nearly done. BU, Northeastern, Harvard, Tufts, Smith, Amherst, Wesleyan, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Penn. There remains only Swarthmore in the morning.

Though they have run together, they remain surprisingly distinct, and I think Natalie retains relatively clear impressions of them. Often on trips like this I have deep thoughts. This time, not so much, instead, it has been an orgy of logistics, getting from here to there, eating, sleeping, drying off after standing in cold rain while listening to some perky sophomore prattle on about the meal plan or the honor code. It was all crowned by a masterful transition, stepping off the New Haven train at 6:22 at Grand Central, then settling into our seats on the 6:39 out of Penn Station to Princeton. That took perfect execution, and subways doing what they do at rush hour.

Through it all, Natalie has maintained characteristic good spirits. Just today, she has read through maybe 250 pages of some book she can't seem to put down, reading even when I could not restrain myself from watching Coming to America on the Family Channel for, I don't know, the 10th time, because it is such a perfect little film.

She will go far.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The lovely grind

In New England, seeing colleges with Natalie. A weird exercise in joyous anticipation and anxiety, self-judgment and letting go, caloric indulgence and walking a lot. Like going to art museums on the calves, but cubed.

Must hustle now. We are due in Cambridge shortly.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bezos and the millions of empty chairs

Jeff Bezos famously insists that there be an empty chair at all conference tables to remind Amazon employees of the missing person: the customer.  Which is swell.

Another independent local store announced it was closing this week, a toy store, owned by the family of a friend. Meanwhile a new Chipotle rises across just across 15-501 from a new CVS, which is itself near a longtime pub that closed not long ago, really the only watering hole on this side of town. Other new chains are coming in soon, you can tell from the outlines of the buildings going up. Great.

Meanwhile Anne Case and Angus Deaton released new research this week building on the research they published in 2015 demonstrating that mortality amongst white people, especially related to suicide, substance abuse, and mental health, continues to rise.

I don't want to pose a causal relationship between the corporatization and scaling up of retail and services represented by Amazon and chains and the hollowing out of the middle class, but there is a correlation, and I think the former is a factor in the latter. The continual destruction of the merchant class, for one thing, pulls people out of the public sphere in which they used to interact as peers, as opposed to seeming lords and minions.

In fact, the corporate class of the top 2 to 3 income deciles are squeezed themselves, working their butts off to earn the dollars it takes to buy the houses, cars, and, most importantly, college educations that form the bulwarks of fortress upper middle. But is not necessarily always apparent, save for when we are self-righteous and glued to our phones, airports and interstates like zombies.

At some point in time, Bezos's empty chair merges into Eastwood's.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Robot caregivers

Listening to Diamandis and Kotler's "Abundance" in the car. They were just talking about how AI would let robots take better care of old people. It seems to me that fulfilling the aged and infirm's basic functions is not the issue. It is having someone there to love, care, and be present for them (see Gawande). To the extent that robots can feed and clean and allow family members to do the important stuff, it's good. Otherwise the technology is just a way to allay guilt of not being there for loved ones.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Making it in New York

Somewhere over the weekend I read something about making it in New York, and how doing so really allows one to prove to onesself that one is capable, blah blah blah. How hard it is, and therefore what an accomplishment it is.

This is all true, in a sense. But it is ultimately a false god, and this mentality drives all too many people to grind themselves themselves to parch at its alter.

I am reminded of a scene from some movie about a young actress in LA, beautiful, slim, who gets out of bed with her lover and stands in front of a mirror and regards her body critically, then asks of her lover: "I look OK, right?" or "Do I seem fat to you?"

The soil is indifferent to where you made it, as is whatever maker might stand in judgment over us. Can you imagine God going "Well, he was kind of an asshole, but New York is a dog-eat-dog kinda place, so I'm gonna cut him some slack?" Doubtful.

Much better to drive yourself less and sleep better.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A good weekend

Usually I would have blogged on Saturday, when I was feeling deep. But that got run over.

It was a good, if busy weekend. Friday night Natalie and I went to Twelfth Night at Playmakers'.  The show was good, if long. On the way in I was reminded of how, between college and grad school, mom would come with me to movies out at the Chelsea, whatever ridiculous art film I wanted to go to, she would take me to, mostly to spend time with me, I'm sure. She often fell asleep during the movie, and who could blame her? I have no recollection of any of the films, but I'm sure they were slow and pretentious, by and large, and she was working hard to earn money. I told Natalie about this on the way in and, despite the Diet Coke we shared before the show, I did find myself about to doze off a little in there. But it was fun.

Then, on Saturday, soccer. Then mom told me she had some salmon for me, so I went and got that, and therefore bagels to eat it with. Then I started making some headway into Elena Ferrante in the afternoon, but took time to push through Buffett's 1996 shareholder letter.

Today, tennis, where I played not so well. Then more salmon, and a nap, and Ferrante, and taxes.

Then I took Graham and a friend to a sports bar to watch Carolina play Arkansas, and we barely pulled it out.  We were doing a lot of triangular, two-handed high-fiving, and ate an enormous chocolate chip cookie. Carolina pulled it out.

And now, back to Ferrante, whose groove I am catching.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Abundance

I have been listening to the 2012 book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis in the car recently.  Markus suggested it to me over lunch not too long ago, and I had heard of it before.

It's a good book, pretty heavily geeked out, draws on a lot of strands in contemporary thought (Matthew Ridley, Hans Rosling, Daniel Kahneman, blah blah blah) to argue that we have what we need to provide for everybody on the planet.

Then somewhere in there, he lists out 8 key themes that lead us to the possibility of abundance, how they were the disciplines represented in the Singularity University that one of the authors was part of founding, and that the rest of the book will be devoted to them. They were all techno-oriented, and they all made sense, but I forgot what they were between the car and coming into the building to work.

Because the point is, that though we have the tools to make the future better, our ability to do so is severely constrained by our ability to get the world to agree on what it is we should be doing.  I am reminded of the beginning of Kierkegaarde's Fear and Trembling, where he basically says there is no progress in ethics, that we all begin at the beginning in each lifetime, each consciousness. And he is right.

Which by no means makes me a pessimist. There was a video circulated on Facebook recently of a kid at McDonalds working the drive-through window who, upon noticing that the woman who had just pulled through was having some sort of health emergency as her car drifted past the window, vaulted through the window, assessed the situation, rushed back inside, found someone who could do CPR, and saved the woman's life. There were two kids in the back of the car, I should note. Or there was the story in the Washington Post last week about an African-American nurse practitioner working in a clinic in a small town in West Virginia, tending to a bunch of white Trump voters who had healthcare due to Medicaid expansion made possible by Obamacare. At the end of an exhausting day, she rested in her chair and prayed for President Trump. Crazy stuff,  but beautiful, and these are the things that give us hope, as much as any technoutopian strands of thought. Both are needed for hope.

The fundamental problem then is - again - alignment.  Getting everybody on the same page, more or less. Or, maybe, coming to understand that we are all kinda there already.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sister Schools?

Lunched yesterday with a nice young CPA from Hyderabad (by way of Australia, Canada, Boston) recently settled in Morrisville. Having people like that move to the Triangle and to America is a good thing. At the same time, there is truth to the "bubble" meme, i.e. coastal elites are cut off from parts of the county that are hurting. The concept of "sister cities" around the world was once popular. Today, why not have "sister cities" or even "sister schools" that are closer? Have affluent public schools develop relationships with specific, less-fortunate schools not so geographically distant. Have affluent PTAs raise money for them, I know there are downsides (seeming patronizing, exciting envy, etc.) but might there not be value? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

The tyranny of afternoon coffee

Both Mary and I have gotten in the habit of drinking a little coffee in the middle of the afternoon. Which is great, so long as we don't go too late.  The problem is that figuring how to space out lunch, exercise, and other stuff we need to do gets complicated, because we don't want to push the coffee back too late in the day, lest it mess with our sleep schedules, which are themselves rather imperfect.

I am well aware that this is not the greatest of habits, that many fault caffeine as being one of the great crazymakers of modernity.  I know, I know.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Requiem for Oleg Kireev

(I came across this in my "drafts" folder. Thought this was long since published)

I was looking at Mary's pictures of Moscow this afternoon and working on a brief written piece to accompany it when they are "published" as an "online book" sometime soon, and I was trying to figure out someone in Russia who might comment on them, and I thought of my old roommate Oleg Kireev.  He and I hadn't been in touch for some years, so I googled him.  I was shocked and saddened to learn that he had died, apparently by his own hand, back in 2009.

The various tributes to him I've found on the internet focus on his rad seriousness as an intellectual, theoretician, artist, what have you.  A performance piece he did in Amsterdam, pre-9/11, when he wandered around dressed like a Russian policeman and demanded to see ID was the best example I could find of him in action.

Honestly, when I knew him, back in '97, he just seemed like a smart kid, just out of college, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with himself.  He was hanging out with Tolya Osmolovsky, starting a journal named Radek, raving about their idea of running for office under the "Against All Parties" moniker, just trying to make a little noise for himself.

Mostly, he hosted.  I think he was one of the rare ones in his peer group who had his own apartment (it actually belonged to his grandfather Senya). He and Tolya and the rest of their crew liked to hang out, drink vodka, smoke, eat smoked fish, and pontificate. They were, in short, a pretty regular bunch of Russian guys and gals, who took themselves pretty seriously. Also a Russian trait.

I remember exchanging emails with him somewhere in the years in between, he had become a dad, not entirely according to plan. I don't know what eventually brought him down. He was a good kid.






Off to the races

Very full day today, with my normal morning meeting followed by a political organizational brainstorming session for someone thinking of running for Congress, then Mary and I hustled up to Raleigh to watch Natalie participate in the State Mock Trial finals. They won the round we saw, but had the misfortune of being paired in the morning against some home schooled team made up -- legend has it -- only of the children of lawyers -- who live, eat, breathe, shit and sleep Mock Trial. These kids have States every year since the dawn of time, as it were.

Frankly, I don't know how parents who have kids who do sports all the time do it. Driving from tournament to tournament all the time. When do they read? Nap? Blog? Recharge for the next week at work?

And then, to add insult to injury, tonight is Daylight Savings Time night, the evening of springing forward, when we lose an hour of sleep.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Random reflections on readings

This is an honest title for a post, that could have been the title of many.

A couple of weeks ago The Economist had a story about unexpected effects of the adoption of renewable energy on the fundamental economics of providing electricity.  Basically, the argument is that renewables bring down the cost of electricity and make it harder for utilities to make the investments they need to maintain the infrastructure needed to make sure everybody has electricity whenever they need it. Because when the sun ain't shinin and the wind ain't blowin, it's gotta come from somewhere. Increased storage capacity (see Tesla's superbatteries) and usage optimization can help, but only to a point. In sum, it turns out that somebody's got to plunk down a lot of money to make this transition. And realistically, that can only come from the public sector.

Which means somebody is going to have to make some complex sales to make that happen. Again, it will be a question of leaders creating a shared vision and making society feel like its interest will be aligned with it. It is so complex it's hard to see it happening. Most likely, a non-trivial number of poor people will need to die from our failure to do this before people will be able to get it.

Today in the Wall Street Journal there's a story on restaurants adding labor surcharges to checks to account for rises in wages rather than raising the prices on entrees, appetizers, etc. There is perceived price inelasticity for food. Some restaurateurs are even calling the surcharge things like "California Mandate" as a political statement to let people know why the cost is rising. I get that, sounds like a first amendment thing to me.  I can even envision other restaurant-owners putting in surcharges like "Charge for driving out illegal immigrants" on their bills.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  For one, from a process and accounting perspective, rather than folding all the costs into the cost of food, adding a line item adds complexity, it could even stretch the capacities of many Point of Sale systems at restaurants.  Secondly, and more importantly, it poses the question of how much sausage-making and transparency people really want. With financial advisors, there is a great hue and cry at all times about all the various fees and how outrageous it is, but people are not as interested in seeing line-itemization of costs for other things. Imagine if, for every cheeseburger and fries plate, if providers broke out all the different labor and materials charges that went into it. It would be insane. Nobody but nobody wants that. I predict that the labor surcharge in dining establishments will be short-lived.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Being heard

There have been times over the last few years when I have had low inbound email and phone traffic and have felt more or less like I didn't exist, it was really hard on the ego. Probably this traces back to growing up as the son of a charismatic alcoholic, the life of many a party, who sucked a lot of oxygen out of many rooms, so that the rest of us had to fight for the remainder or feel suffocated.

Right now that is not where I'm at. There are a lot of demands on me, and I am having to prioritize things to figure out what I should be doing at any given moment. One of the hardest things is making sure I have time to myself to just chill out and read.

This afternoon, for example, I was thinking of going for a long run in the woods at Carolina North, then a guy just asked me to play tennis. First, however, I need to figure out if there are any movies that Graham might like to go see. Natalie is out of town for Model UN, and Graham and I haven't done anything special on our own for a while, except, of course, watch Star Trek episodes.  We are making our way through Deep Space 9 and, while it is certainly not Next Generation, it's better than nothing. So I hope there's a movie for us to watch, and that it does not suck. Kind of a tall order.

I should also keep reading Buffett's letters, but I need to prep for a workshop on entrepreneurial finance on the 22nd and I'm getting a little behind on thinking that through, so maybe I should be reading a book for that.

I also need to allocate a little energy to supporting Mary in the decision-making process for some furniture purchasing. I wish we could just pull the trigger, but she likes to think things through very thoroughly, which may mean a trip to High Point in the near future. I need to look at that as an opportunity to spend time with her outside of the normal flow of day to day, week to week blocking and tackling, as opposed to a burden. Hell, High Point is kind of interesting, in its own way. I know they have a nice little taqueria there.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Good signs in labor market

The woman at the sandwich place where I go for lunch -- one of two primary sandwich makers on their line -- recently left because she found a role as an admin assistant. Yesterday a new hire, an African-American woman with a bunch of tattoos, made my sandwich. She had never used a pepper mill before, but the other guy showed it to her and it barely slowed things down at all. You could tell she was a little nervous as the line of balding guys in blue shirts got longer as noon approached, but she was gonna do fine.

Over the weekend a friend of mine complained about the level of service in a restaurant owned by another friend.

This is all good. It shows that people are being drawn into the labor force. Food service and hospitality are not the greatest jobs, but they are jobs, and people learn valuable skills and habits in them. I know I did. People are coming back into the workforce.

Much of this is due to tailwinds from the Obama years, but it is not being hurt by a revival of animal spirits and expectation of a more favorable regulatory climate under Trump.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

game of throwns

Up at the lake this weekend with some fellas, While many of us engaged in our statutory one game of basketball a year, a certain R------ C-----ll chose not to play, because he was too concerned about getting injured. Sadly, our friend's delicate ego proved equally susceptible to injury to some light ribbing from your present correspondent. To exact his revenge, this friend proceeded to booby trap the Grouse's bed with some items of clothing in pillow cases and under sheets, and to loosen the bulbs in my reading lamps. But, utilizing my estimable powers of observation and deduction, I discovered these subterfuges (OK, not the socks added in pillowcases) and got a fine night of sleep.

However, this morning, my back was killing me from jumping up and down on the concrete basketball court, suggesting that there was indeed wisdom in refraining. Wisdom shmisdom though, ballers gonna ball.

Postscript: against all commonsense, my back got better on the ride home, and now my attention will be focused on facing down Z on the tennis court come Wednesday. And then soccer season.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Opioid penetration

Saw this story on Facebook last night. We have all heard about the opioid epidemic, but I was shocked to see that, in a range of places, many of them in NC, the incidence of opioid dependency exceeds 8% of the population, going as high as 11.6%. That is insane.

I have separately seen stories about how counties that went for Trump showed higher incidence of opioid overdose deaths.  Here's one.  This really points up the depth of despair which has collectively driven a group of people to vote for someone so manifestly unqualified for his job, such a willingness to flirt with fascism. People in these places perceive themselves to be under mortal threat, and then look across the interstate at blue states and counties where people are sipping lattes and driving Lexi, Prii, and Audis and are pissed beyond measure.

OK, the work day is underway. Gotta hop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Soap slivers

In the shower just now I was using the last slivers of a bar of soap (itself part of a great war chest of hotel size bars that I built up over years of staying in hotels and bringing the soap home. Don't remember the last time I/we bought soap).  I was reminded of Ballard, my dad's brother, who showed us with pride when we visited him a few years ago how he saved up all the little slivers of soap, dissolved them in water together, and then redesiccated them to make a new bar of soap. That, my friends, is good old Scots-Irish frugality.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Presence on court

Went out and played tennis this morning at the Farm.  Mostly doubles. I kind of prefer singles, but doubles is often what is available in a free-form, pickup format, so doubles it often is.

Tennis is perhaps the most perfect demonstration of both mean reversion and the role that the psyche can play in it. Which is to say, it is all too easy to hit a few winners or win a few points or games, get on a roll, get excited, and start screwing up. Conversely, it is all too difficult at times to play one point at a time, forgetting the prior point or points or games, to remember that each point is a new game which is only impacted by the prior ones if you allow it to be.

The ante is upped considerably in doubles, where you and your teammate are interdependent.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sam Stone


One day in college, I was sitting on the couch of Wayne, the a non-Yale student stoner who hung out and played a lot of hackeysack and to a lesser extent frisbee. He had some good weed, I'm sure, and we were smoking it while listening to some music. I didn't know what it was, but then I heard the chorus:  "There's a hole in daddy's arm, where all the money goes" -- and in an instant I was transported back to childhood. This was John Prine, "Sam Stone," and it was a record my dad had played a lot, in some ways his answer to mom's Carol King Tapestry, a record that I associate strongly with him.

At the time I was, of course, not paying attention to the lyrics, I had no idea what it was about.  I was a kid. When I listened to it again as an adult, I got it. Vietnam vet, heroin addict, overdose. Done. But the chorus reaches back to childhood to say: this is in fact the story any kid, and the transition from innocent child to dead addict is seemless and invisible and is in fact not the insertion of one thing in place of another, but different stages of the same thing, or, rather, the commingling of two seemingly mutually exclusive things.

Last week I went to an AA meeting and a woman shared about her son, who had been off at a rehab, then spent time in a halfway house. On his first night home, he overdosed and died. She went out and got drunk. When she told the story, all the oxygen went out of the room, but then the next person raised his or her hand and shared another experience because that is what we do.

It is hard for those of us who live relatively stable lives to grasp the seriousness of the opioid epidemic now. I won't trot out statistics, but it is very real and present. I buried a friend last Friday who had many years of sobriety after some years of serious drug addiction, but we don't know what killed him in the end. In some sense, it doesn't matter, in other senses, it does.

In the years following the end of the Soviet Union, as the metanarrative of a great and successful Communist society -- which had seemed plausible following WWII and the end of Stalin's years for a couple of decades but then eroded through the 70s until it collapsed under Gorbachev -- Russia began to experience very negative demographic trends. Under Yeltsin, Russia basically smoked and drank itself to death. People had fewer babies. Putin came along and changed the game. He is evil and a kleptocrat, but he gave and gives Russians something to be proud of and hang their hat on.

The West has seen some of the same things happen. Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton have shown that, for the first time in history, mortality for white American males is going backwards: white men are dying younger, and substance abuse and mental health are the big drivers. Branko Milanovic of CUNY has provided a broader framework for causality around this:  median incomes for the middle classes in the developed world have stagnated over the last few decades while the middle classes in emerging markets have made progress, and the rich have gotten richer.  Small wonder that kleptocrat populists are able to gain power while blaming immigrants.

I may have made some of these points before, and I don't have time to tie it all together because, as is the case every Saturday, it is time to take Graham to martial arts. And then it is time to get outside and enjoy the day.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Differentiation and being onesself

One of the received doxas of management theory of the last quarter century or whatever is that providers of goods and services should always be seeking to differentiate themselves from their competition, to demonstrate how they are different. This is reminiscent, on the one hand, of young people trying to mark themselves off as distinct by how they dress, piercings, tattoos, the music they listen to, etc. Amongst individuals, this quest to differentiate onesself has pushed itself forward as the Boomers have aged and Madison Avenue has gotten smarter, to where people at ever higher ages are still trying to be cool. By the time they are at death's door most but not all people are over it.

People often ask me, how do you differentiate yourself from other advisors? And it is a tiresome question, because what they are really asking is "how are you better?" and the subtext is "how are you going to beat the market?"  Given that beating the market consistently is more or less statistically impossible, what they are really asking is "how can you lie to me to give me the impression that you, and by extension I as your client, are privy to a special sauce which is available only to the select wealthy few?" Which is silly, but it is what some people want, and those people are looking for someone other than me to take care of them.

I am focused increasingly, in all domains of life, to trying to stop demonstrating that I am different than other people and just being myself. It is, in fact, a good deal easier to do that.

I recently bought some new jeans and also black jeans.  I have been wearing them more and more during work hours, and enjoying it. Wearing jeans is more who I am. Tomorrow I am going to Duke Law School to meet a prospect, a referral, and since people in universities have gotten oddly more formal in their dress even as universities have drifted ever leftward in their curricula, I am going to make and exception and wear some khakis. Black ones. Such is life.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Undoing Project

I just finished Michael Lewis's new book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.  As with many Michael Lewis books, it was a little uneven;  I feel like Lewis has license to write basically whatever he wants because he is Michael Lewis, after all, and he writes so well and has been so successful and has such incredible access.  In a sense, this is evidence of the sort of mean reversion that is observable in all human endeavors:  you can't be great in everything you do.

And part of my reaction to Lewis is, as I think I've shared before, jealousy and envy because I feel like I should be Michael Lewis, out writing about whatever the hell I want to and getting paid for it, as opposed to writing about whatever the hell I want to and not getting paid for it.

And so, the book. It is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their groundbreaking work in psychology that has impacted so many domains. Funny, I had always thought of them as psychologists whose main impact has been in economics, under the banner of behavioral economics, but it turns out that's just one epiphenomenon of their work, the one I've run into.

I have read other books about behavioral economics, usually I don't finish them. This one I finished, because, in the end, it was the story of the remarkable friendship between these two guys and its growing pains, how the one who appeared to be transcendentally brilliant (Tversky) got all the prizes as the two of them got traction, how his brilliance made him a difficult person which spoiled their theretofore incredibly tight friendship and partnership, then how they stuck together to the end nonetheless when Tversky got cancer that killed him fast and young. In the end, Kahneman got the Nobel, and has become more famous.

I cried at the end, and it made me appreciate my excellent friends. I called one today, whose dad is dying of cancer and is in the country for a few weeks. I had been too busy to do it of late, and couldn't make it to New York to see him. But it's OK.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Here I am

It's a typical Sunday morning.  We made pancakes, and were reading the paper.  After looking at the sports page, the one time a week I look at one these days (I get soccer news on weekend nights online), I started in on the Sunday Review section. Very quickly I could see myself getting sucked into the mire of the Trumpmania from which we all suffer now.

I had to pull back and come upstairs to try to lengthen my perspective here on the blog, to try to remember that the world is happening in cycles other than  those dictated to us by our lunatic Tweeter-in-Chief, the oracle of logorrheic bile pent-up within so many. See, there I go. It's hard to escape it even for a few minutes,so thoroughly does it permeate our every pore.

And indeed, there's really not much else of note going on in the world, though I should pause to note that Natalie and her team won their first mock trial competition yesterday, that Graham and I are making headway on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and that, though the show does not compare with Next Generation, I am glad that we have something decent to watch while sharing a blanket in the rec room and that, in particular, I am delighted to have side-stepped a need to watch season three of Avengers Assemble, which would surely have been more of Hulk, Thor and the gang smashing and crashing against an ever-wider array of new and rehashed supercriminals hell bent on destroying the universe as we know it.  I should also say that I went out and played basketball with a couple of guys including Skeet Baldwin yesterday, and that I pretty much shot him out. Today, both of my wrists are sore and one quad where this guy kneed me, but that's the game.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Listening

The other day I met with a couple of prospects who had been referred to me by not one, but two clients, independently.  A nice thing.  We sat and talked for an hour or so, and I walked away from the conversation with about half a page of notes about them.

Which is not really enough. The problem was, of course, that I had been talking more than I had been listening and asking questions, which is really my job. I need to know who they are and what they value so I can offer them good counsel.

I realized that quickly, then thought about it in my meeting yesterday morning. After the meeting, a few of the guys and I repaired to the chilly Starbucks in the foyer of the Harris Teeter by the mall, as we do sometimes. I decided to resist the temptation to talk and to just ask questions and listen to the other guys.  I lasted about 15 minutes, before I started holding forth about something.

This is a facet of the problem of Protuberance (as already documented in these posts).  I.e. the need for the fragile male ego, to wit, my own, to assert itself to establish dominance in the domain for which it is best suited.



It is hard right now to sit back and listen to anything quietly, as Trump and his crew seem hell-bent on wreaking as much destruction as possible as quickly as they can.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A girl and her cat

This morning Natalie started singing one of her more recent songs about our more social cat, Rascal.

Rascal has four paws,
Rascal has four paws,
Rascal has four paws,
And Bingo was its name-o

Earlier tunes include

Rascal cat, is wearing a hat (sung to the tune of "Jesse's mom" (has got it goin on)).

Other highlights of this girl/cat relationship include Rascal sitting on Natalie's lap at the island in the morning when she is having her cereal, and at her desk in the evenings (and daytime) when Natalie is doing her homework.

Natalie also likes to raise Rascal in the air over her head, look up at her, and cry out "Simba!", in the manner of The Lion King. Rascal does not object.

We are not the only ones who will miss her when she is gone, all too soon.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The open kimono and alignment

I just read through an interesting article on the use of body cams by police in the New York Times Magazine that Graham had been saving for me on the floor of his bedroom. Basically, the article revolved around the experience in Seattle, where some hacker kid used freedom of information laws to compel the police department (SPD) to release all of its body cam videos.

Of course, the first problem is the sheer quantity of data, which is huge. Then there's the issue of confidentiality for the citizens in the videos. And there are lots of other issues too, nothing is simple in this life.

The hacker kid eventually ended up working with the SPD to develop automated methodologies to redact video to protect confidentiality and manage the huge volume of requests, and then, having an aggrandized conception of himself as a "change agent" and low social IQ for working within large organizations (really not an easy thing to do, certainly not my forte), he ended up pissing off the team that ran the 911 unit and got himself banned from SPD HQ.

So he went back to being a complete pain in the ass and writing automated scripts to put in innumerable freedom of information requests for other stuff, crippling the SPD again.

Fundamentally, our whole paranoia about police overreach is a problem of alignment. People don't trust their motives, so want to micromanage them, but really don't have the disposition or skillset to do so, but the problem starts with poor lines of communication between PDs and the populations they serve. Again, the fragmentation of the media universe is a big part of the problem. Time was, all there was to watch was local news and then Cronkite, Brokaw, etc. So people watched that. And when the chief of police came on and discussed a big case, they were able to communicate out effectively.

But maybe we also didn't hear about many Eric Garners, Alton Sterlings, Freddy Grays,....

OK.  By now I have been writing too long and my discourse is falling victim to the blog form, which is to say, the need to oversimplify to get on with my day.

Let me say this. I ordered some firewood a few weeks back and it turned out the guy I was talking to was somebody who went to high school with me, a good guy who had had a career on the local police force and then had gotten injured on the job, discharged as disabled, and totally screwed by the police pension plan because he didn't quite make 20 years. Our views are very different on gun control and perhaps on many things, but he teaches courses on gun safety and is a 100% excellent human being. He told many stories of being on the job, being in danger, trying to help people of color, and I think he is entirely earnest, and certainly took much more risk than I ever have and has served the public nobly and honorably. I look forward to talking to him more as life moves on.  It was, frankly, one of the highlights of recent months. I probably already blogged about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Do rag on the floor

On Friday at a Vietnamese place on Miami Boulevard, there was an African-American guy wearing a do rag with some piercings who waited on us. Really he was more in a backwaiter/bussing role, but still he was on the floor.

This is a very rare thing for an establishment not specifically serving a black population, particularly with the head gear, and speaks volumes about the tightness of labor markets here in the Triangle right now. Populations that used to be outside the labor market are being drawn into it, and in new roles. Let us hope this continues.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Barack and Michelle move on

What with it being Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- I hope you all enjoy the holiday! -- and with everyone in the world weighing in on reflections on the Obama years, I will join in a little while my brain is still in writerly mode, before it has been overly sullied by the manifold claims on my time and attention that pile up over the course of any and every day.

First off, I will confess to bias. I basically love Barack and Michelle. They strike me as fine, public-spirited people who have done incredible things, and who I think have long and admirable lives in front of them. As others have noted, they've gone through 8 years without a hint of anything scandalizing, in distinction to the Clintons.

The "red line" moment with Syria may have been his biggest blunder. He presented something that sounded very much like an ultimatum, and then he didn't back it up. There are certainly cogent analyses arguing against this, like this article on Politico, but in this case perception is more or less reality: after his vacillation Syria got much much worse. Overall, those on the Right who lay chaos in the Middle East at Obama's feet conveniently forget the fact that it was Wolfowitz's vision for the region that really accelerated the decline under W.

I sometimes wonder if Obama hasn't to some extent informalized the office of the Presidency excessively. All this hanging out with Jimmy Fallon, coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, sitting between two ferns with Zach Galifianakis, it made him seem cool and hip to a certain portion of the populace and electorate, but mystified others and made him more distant. Yes, a man of the people, but of only one set of people. I know it's hard for a sitting President to go to tractor pulls, etc. Maybe if he had gone onstage with the redneck comics like Jeff Foxworthy etc. I dunno, maybe they were shooting bile at him. Certainly it paved the way for Hillary going on "Between Two Ferns" during the campaign, which was certainly not her best moment. If I was Steve Bannon, I would have pushed that out hard across my platform to demonstrate how distant she was from middle America. I mean, I know she was going for Bernie voters with that stunt, but still.

One small thing. I've read about how, after dinner -- which he tried to do at home as much as he could to provide a stable atmosphere for his girls to grow up in, which is awesome -- Obama liked to retreat into his office and read, think, and watch Sportszone at 11. I think this image of the philosopher-President is appealing, it's a nice way to live life and certainly he is an exceptionally well-informed and cerebral human being. In retrospect, he might have been well-served by spending more time with Republicans to understand their issues better and figure out how to move his agenda forward. The drinks Reagan often shared with Tip O'Neal are often cited as a model. He could have done more of that.

In the end, it appears that he had a difficult time getting as much done as he would have liked through legislative channels because Republicans dug in their heels and opposed him from day 1. McConnell said as much, as did others. Thinly veiled or out and out racism, a brilliant ground game by the Koch brothers and their allies at the state level, and a steady stream of vitriol from Fox News and its social media spawn made this not just a no risk strategy by the  Republicans, but a winning one. In the business sphere, there was an element of a capital strike, in which businesses chose to do stock buybacks rather than take risks to invest in R&D, CapEx, or hiring. Everybody else was doing it, why not?  As a theme, "capital strike" flowered the most in 2011-2012, but as a phenomenon it never really went away.

OK. By now I'm just rambling. There is so much more to say, for the most part, others are saying it, and I'm sure others have said these things too.

For now, we move forward. We have a new Citizen in Chief who has great promise as a leader in whatever he does, so long as he doesn't get sucked too far towards the flame of wealth and privilege. And Michelle can change the world too.  I think they just need to be careful not to suck up too much oxygen and camera-time to help Democrats find a new, electable President, cuz Barack can't be elected again, and Michelle doesn't want the job.  And who can blame her?