Thursday, August 17, 2017

Working vacation

It is of course a contradiction in terms.  I come up here to the Northeast in August with a few goals. First and foremost, to see family. All of Mary's people are here, and after 23 years or so they are my people too. The kids are used to seeing uncles, aunt, cousin, grandma, the sound, a play in the city. It is part of the rhythm of our life.

But, I already took a couple of weeks vacation in July. My practice is still not entirely at cruising altitude. Thankfully I don't have pressing and immediate client issues, except for figuring out how best to service my non-standard clients. But there is tons to do.

And I wake up first most mornings, and the air is cool, and I'm looking out over the water in a pretty chill locale, and days are shortened by the need to do family things in the evening... And we're having pizza tonight, so I should really exercise.

This is all layered on top of the general conflict within me of trying to figure out how best to allocate my time, feeling like I need to make good use of myself. And it is all within the context of operating within an extremely rarefied cohort in an atmosphere of extreme white privilege. So there is guilt.

Trump is 15 miles away to the south. This weekend there will be an attempt at a "March on Google" in New York. It will be interesting to see who turns out. Should I go?

Probably not. My instinct is that direct engagement with, or acknowledgement of, the extreme right is right now playing into Bannon's hands, giving Breitbart et al fodder to rile people up. This weekend, it is better to ignore them.

Or keep reading JD Vance,'s  Hillbilly Lament which I started last night. Pretty easy reading.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Finding coffee

I have written of the extent to which we, as a family, are held hostage by the tradition of afternoon coffee. It is really a little pathetic, but it's true.

Last summer we were in Normandy and, it being France, you would think that each village has a perfect little sidewalk cafe where one could get a cafe au lait and a flaky pain au chocolat while seated in the shade. But that is complete bullshit, it turns out.

Tourist bullshit. There were days when we found ourselves driving around for like 45 minutes to find something vaguely resembling this ideal. In many small villages, there is maybe a pizza place and a smelly Bar/Tabac, which would have worked for me, but not the kids. Sometimes there's not even that.

There is also no Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. Just as many small American towns may just have a Pizza Hut or perhaps just Hunt Brothers pizza available at a convenience store (actually not horrible pizza, better than Papa John's or Domino's, and a pretty good business).

In so many ways, we constantly forget how good we have it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Leaving it on the court

Played tennis last night, doubles, didn't play well. Last week I had played singles and had played well.

I know I know, why should you care? The point is, dear reader, that tennis has always been and continues to be an object lesson for the Grouse in self-control. I feel crappy when I play poorly, and it becomes hard to distinguish between performance and self-esteem, it gets hard to remember that having played poorly doesn't reflect badly on me as a person. In fact, upon reflection, I can see that letting it get to me reflects slightly badly on me as an adult, whereas the actual playing does not, except to the extent that it is impacted by my poor self management.

The key thing is getting some exercise, meeting and hanging with some folx, and so on. I get that as soon as I get home and nestle into the couch for some family viewing. (Right now "Stranger Things" on NetFlix, a production of some Durham boys and a woman I went to college with, oddly enough)

In the end, all I can really say is praise allah that I don't play golf. That would be a mess. Especially for you readers.



Tuesday, August 08, 2017

More on Ferrante

There is a temptation to call the Neapolitan novels a Bildungsroman, a narrative of personal formation and growth, and to an extent it is true. But in some sense it is the tale of the de-formation of personhood, the excessive and lifelong interdependency of two persons, namely Lenu (our narrator) and Lina, her best friend, rival, and other half.

The question that naturally arises is: how much is this norm, how much exception?  I.e. are we all like that, or is this a little extreme. As so many questions, I think the answer is probably: both. That is, the Lenu/Lina relationship is over the top, but in so being it digs into the heart of many human relationships, that many of us skate on the edge of excessive "enmeshment" (a term a counsellor friend I was talking with yesterday suggested) as we go through life, ever charting our own courses and being pulled back into the orbits of our key partners in life, our parents, spouses, friends, children, etc.

This is before we even begin to discuss Lenu and Lina as "types" representative of historical courses, Lenu, like a leftist/literary Forrest Gump, travels out and everywhere, becomes through her spouse and kids a global citizen, Lina never goes anywhere, but delves deep into the historical roots and bowels of Naples, all the while becoming ever more complex, deeper and richer. Or not.

It is a big burgeoning troth of food for thought. Them belly full but me hungry.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Neapolitan Novels

I'm not sure when I started them, not all that long ago, it's kind of a blur, but I pushed through to the end of volume 4 of Elena Ferrante's quartet yesterday.

It is a remarkable series of books. To fully encapsulate it, I have to resort to Tolstoy's perhaps apocryphal rejoinder when someone asked him what Anna Karenina was about. He started to recite the book from the beginning. And Tolstoy is, in the end, the best analogy to Ferrante, though her project is closer to War and Peace than it is to Anna Karenina in the sheer breadth of its scope and ambition. It is closer to Faulkner, though, in the intensity of its focus on place, in this case Naples.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that, although it is told from the first person, Ferrante resists the temptation to have what Forster calls "flat" characters. Instead, the characters are all more or less "round," complex, with multidimensional motivations for their paths in life. While there's no doubt that some are more fully-fleshed than others, there's at least an attempt at some depth wherever possible, which is not chopped liver, as far as novel-writing goes.

And for this reason, having finished it, I am ever so slightly tempted to go back and read it again. Not that that's gonna happen, it's kindred to the urge to have another baby long after you've really sworn it off and can see the finish line of emptynesterdom.

But I will read more Ferrante in time, to be sure.

For now, Deep Space 9 beckons.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The vanishing of labor, continued

Building on this theme from a few weeks back.

The whole idea that all jobs can be automated away and that therefore there will be no work in the future is predicated on the idea that the only work worth doing is the jobs that are being done. So, if groceries can be rung up, or assets allocated, or loans underwritten by bots, then everybody should be sitting around.

Meanwhile, climate change continues apace, there is food insecurity in Africa and food deserts in lower income neighborhoods, obesity is on the rise everywhere, everybody feels like they need a gun because everybody else has one, especially those bad people over there. There is horrific inequality all over the place, health care cannot be equitably provided, etc. etc. Globally, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Palestine, amongst others, present seemingly insoluble challenges.

I am reminded of Giuliani's sneering branding of Obama as a "community organizer." It seems to me that community organizing is the thing we need most, only we need it at a much higher level than Obama was doing it in Chicago. In 2008, he seemed like he might have raised his game to do it at a global level, but that proved to be too great of a challenge even for him. The Nobel Committee fell flat on its face fawning before him, even as McConnell and the Tea Party threw up a wall of white resentment. Boehner may have represented a bridge not taken.

This is not Obama's fault. It is our fault, and our problem, and our path out.

It is not that work is vanishing, but that there is so so very much work to be done, and the very best work. We just need to figure out how to do it. Melinda Gates is doing a pretty good job showing white Americans an ideal of how it might be done. She is the new Princess Diana.

Time to swim.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thank you, Jesus

I went to a pig picking out west of Yanceyville yesterday, and was guided in my way there by the ever faithful Sergei and Larry, appearing in the guise of Google Maps. They took me down many a country road that I ne'er had seen. I was intrigued by many things, but first and foremost by the "thank you Jesus" signs that I saw in many yards. They were so uniform, I assumed that they must have been distributed in a top-down fashion, and that it couldn't have come from just one church. I assumed as well that, if WalMart or some other retailer was selling them, there would be more than one variety.  And since there was punctuation absent, to wit, a comma that should have been there, I assumed that it must have come from somewhere within the Trump organization. It seemed like Bannon's work, most likely.

But when I got home later and had sufficient bandwidth, I put the question to Sergei and Larry directly, and they informed me that it was in fact a bottom up effort, founded by a kid from nearby Asheboro who has founded a movement to put these in many yards.


So I guess my suspicions were unfounded.

However, given that they appeared to be perched in the yards of many presumed Trump voters, I still don't get it. It would be good to have more discussions with rural Christians to understand how they square Trump with the savior.  I just don't get it.

Today, at RiteAid, I took my blood pressure from the little machine there. When I was done, it said something to me and I was like: "what?"  I thought it had said "Praise God." Then I reflected, and decided it must have said "Great job." I guess I am a little jumpy on the question of Christian theocracy these days. But who could blame me?

Clearly, this week's events show that the Mooch, if no one else, walks in the footsteps of Jesus.

Discussing rugs

I have been encouraging Mary to make a decision about a rug for the rec room for some time. Just now she called me in there to help her look at some options, and there were many variables to consider, culled from design web sites she had looked at and imagined scenarios of guests in the home that happen infrequently.  Also perceived budgetary constraints, she thinking that she needs to spend little money because many months ago I suggested that we should have a budget for the overall project of redoing the rec room.  In my mind, having a budget doesn't mean doing everything as cheaply as possible, it just means having some sort of framework in place for the overall spend. I like spreadsheets.

She makes me crazy with some of this shit, and I don't necessarily articulate my craziness well. I think the root issue is that I have my own loopy cogitations I am continually trying to sort through, so that being dragged into her overthinking just adds insult to my own already bad enough injury.

Also, she wants everything to be perfect because she's afraid she'll be locked in forever, whereas I want to have it good enough so we can move forward and achieve the ultimate aim -- having it look good enough so we can host more.

All in all, it's just marriage, as complex an evolutionary process as one is likely to find.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Levanter

I read through this 1972 Eric Ambler novel between volumes 3 and 4 of Ferrante. A palate-cleanser, as it were.

At first it seemed sort of slow to get going, kind of quaint in the degree of technical detail into which it delved around various matters concerning the manufacture of this or that (the Levanter in the title is an industrial exec with an engineering background), and in the scale of evil contemplated by the neerdowells he runs into and must foil, as of course he must.

But Ambler was one of Hitchcock's core writers, and not for nothing. From improbable material, by 2017 standards, he was able to weave an impressive set of conflicts and plot. Relative to the hyperactive and explosive plots we are used to from novels and movies today, it is slow, but worthy reading. This is one of his best.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Quick fix

I have been kvetching about the interior of our old Volvo off and on for about two years now, judging by the blog (I see entries from November 2015 mentioning it). A couple of times I have been on the point of plowing money into it, then held back for this or that reason.

Just yesterday, Natalie went and got her "after 9s" license, meaning she is now just as adult a driver as I am, in the eyes of the law. To celebrate, she went out to a movie and then hung out with her friend's Dora and Susanna.  So she merits a car, according to the law of the suburbs.

The other evening I was looking at places where the header (interior fabric) of the Volvo was hanging down by the front and rear windshields, and I thought:  I wonder if a stapler could help with that?  So I went inside and got a stapler, and I'll be damned if it didn't do a good job addressing the basic problem.

The main thing that had been bothering me in the interior had been the fabric hanging down from the sunroof, which just looked crappy and filled me with a little shame. I thought:  "There's no way the stapler will work here." But I tried it anyway and, though it doesn't look good if you look right at it, it does hold the fabric up.

Which just goes to show you that people, me in particular, should not overthink and overfeel things.

And, with the money I saved, I was able to make a small contribution to the website tracking Susanna's dad's battle against leukemia, or, rather, informing the community around him. Not that I actively thought about it that way, but that's what I did.

Moving on now.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reality check

Headed to lunch today, was right on time, which means I wasn't 5 minutes early, which in business circles is optimal. So I was rushing, and I was thinking the place I needed to pull in was 100 yards down the way, when in fact it was right there. I could have just gone further down and pulled in to the other end of the parking lot, but I didn't.  I had accelerated needlessly, and I veered into the parking lot and slammed on the brakes.

The people at the Subaru dealership had recommended that I go ahead and get new brakes, while the people at AutoLogic said I had another 7500 miles before I did. At that moment, it felt like the people at the dealership were right.

The moral to the story, if you hadn't gotten there, was that I should have left earlier. I have, in fact, been taking silly risks to carve 15-30 seconds off of things, like being one lane to the right of where I need to be 300 yards down the road, making it necessary to beat the car to my left off the line. This is not a hard thing to do if I focus on the light and utilize the newfound advantages of my stick shift. But it is still stupid. Bad for gas mileage, bad for the car, and it makes me focus on beating somebody off the line, which is an idiotic waste of attention.

Note to self. Leave earlier.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back from the hills

Our flight got in at around midnight last night, so I am in the wierd time warp of West-East jet lag during daylight savings. If feels like it's about 10:30 to me now, but it is past noon.  Hopefully by the time evening rolls around, I will be better synched up.

There are times when I wonder whether I would be better off with a more thematically-focused blog, and am a little envious of peers who do have more unified online presence, Anne Applebaum, say. They can freely promote themselves under their own name and build a "brand", not even as it were, for realsies. But they lack the freedom to go offroad and just wing it, which I have preserved. Sort of.

My friend Steve, a rather practical fellow, once said that he always read the Economist from the front: upon receiving it, he would read the four to five leader articles in one sitting. The Grouse, ever the contrarian, decided it made sense to read it from the back, always beginning with the weekly obituary, because this is the best way to keep things in their ultimate perspective and consider the long view of what is a life well-lived. Last week (I am two weeks behind) featured a consideration of the life of Heathcote Williams, a British poet of whom I had never heard.

In a poem called "Autogeddon," Williams referred to car travel as the "TV of travel." After almost two weeks and maybe 700 miles in the car over the last couple of weeks, I hear that. We blew in air-conditioned comfort (often not needed, given that the temp outside was 65ish much of the way) through a lot of landscape, some of it glossy, much of it less so. But I'm not gonna sit around and flagellate myself. We saw a lot of America that few people see. Flying over is even worse. Riding a bike is better from the perspective of engaging with one's surroundings, but few are those who have the time to do long bike rides, particularly when accompanied by 79- and 13-year olds. That ain't happening.

We saw some places well off the beaten path. The day before yesterday we drove from Mendocino to Sacramento to fly out, and our trip took us on Rte 20 along the northern shore of Clear Lake, California, through towns with aspirational Euro-monikers like "Lucerne" and "Nice." Clear Lake is, to be clear, a big lake, and it's pretty, but fancy it ain't. Rte 20 hugs the northern shore, skirting through communities of small houses, mobile homes, and modest eateries and hotels. Rooms at the Lake Marina Inn in Clearlake Oaks, with spectacular views across the lake at what we would consider mountains back east, can be had for $69 a night.  On the internet they look clean.

It's reminiscent of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, and a reminder that there is much beauty and comfort to be had for the American middle class, if it can just figure out how to keep a job that will let it schedule vacation time. And stave off obesity and opioid dependency and death by 300 million firearms. No mean feat.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

In the hills

We have now made our way down the Pacific Coast from central Oregon to Little River, CA, right near Mendocino. Between the two we have gone through some of the most starkly beautiful, and at the same time intensely isolated, places in the lower 48. Many's the time I'd gaze through the windshield and think:  "man, it would be cool to live out in these hills, away from the pushes and pulls of civilization, yatta yatta yatta".

Thing is, I am apparently not alone in this thought.  Thing is, it would appear that these wilds up here attract all kinds of eccentrics. There were lots of dirty, bearded hitchhikers (an objective description, mind you), and other wild-eyed types walking on the sides of roadways off in the middle of nowhere. Lots of hardscrabble mobile home communities.

Up near Eugene, CA, we stayed in a Hampton Inn out near the highway (a mistake, by the way, the old town was cure and there were some groovy looking inns that were probably cheaper. I just didn't have the energy to research cool lodgings for every night). Between our hotel and the breakfast place we hit, maybe 150 yards away, we passed 4 homeless people. And another guy sitting alone in a pickup truck with a covered back with a bunch of crumpled up Bud tall boys thrown back there.

I think it not implausible to guess that many come up hear for the promise of an independent, living off the land lifestyle, and end up having economic difficulties. Mary thinks I am overgeneralizing, but I think I have some experience at the intersection of substance abuse and mental illness.

In Garberville, CA, in the heart of Humboldt County -- an area much-mythologized in my younger days -- we had lunch at a little deli. Sitting there waiting for our sandwiches, we saw every stereotype of a pothead ever dreamed up by Hollywood central casting. Getting gas after lunch, I remarked to my mom what I joy of a sight I must have been when I came home from college back in the day, and she had a good laugh. Moving on.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On the coast, with a novel

We are here at Waldport, Oregon, in a beach house that looks like it is right out of the Brady Bunch, looking out at the ocean in the distance, down the bluff.  It is a perfect beach house, Mary did miraculously well to find it.

I am making my way to the end of the third volume of Ferrante's neapolitan novels. Although I have resisted the temptation to try to learn about the author, out of respect for her desired anonymity, I am understanding the urge to look into it. In so many ways, these books are the perfect bookend to Knausgaard. He of the north, she of the south. He purportedly autobiographical and true to life, narrator and author entirely fused as one, but so often stretching credulity, in the sense that it seems impossible that one could remember so much detail, so we often find ourselves asking: could that really be true?

Ferrante, on the other hand, is the opposite.  It is all supposed to be fiction, but it seems so real that the question that constantly pops into my head is: "could this be anything but autobiographical?" And yet I feel as if it is only right to let the question hand in the air, and just keep going.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Theme music

As Graham and I have made our way through the various serieses within the Star Trek universe, or whatever you want to call it. One thing that has remained consistent is how enjoyable it is to whistle the theme music, particularly because Graham doesn't like it at all when I do it. Or even when I sing along. Recently, he has taken to climbing on top of me and trying to hold my mouth shut and otherwise squash my head in a mostly vain attempt to stop me from joining in the theme to Deep Space 9. So much so that I have learned to prophylactically remove my glasses and put them on the little end table/bookshelf, lest they fall victim to Graham's aggressions.

Natalie, by way of contrast, very much enjoys singing along to theme music with me, a tradition which we kicked off back when we were watching Parks and Rec together, and which has continued on as we make our way through Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Let me just say that season 3 of Kimmy has them reaching fairly hard with the old plot generation algorithms, though the last one (episode 11) was nothing short of genius, primarily due to a tremendous guest performance by Rachel Dratch plus Tina Fey too.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Moving things out

No martial arts for Graham today.  There has been a lot of crap piling up around our rec room and mud room for months. I often look at it and think "why doesn't Mary get this shit out of here?" The fact is, by so doing, I am really ignoring the hard facts of sedimented gender roles in our household: it is 99% a male function to carry things out of the house. It just is. Trash, compost, stuff headed to the thrift store, even bags when we head out on family trips. It is mostly the job of me and, to the extent I can draw him into it, Graham.

Mary does much of the carrying things in, specifically groceries, and to a lesser extent mail.

If I let this bother me, and am just letting myself get foolishly sucked into a mental and psychic battle that does me no good at all.

So my Subaru is now jam-packed with stuff and I just need to figure out which lucky thrift store will be the winner. Mary saw a nice little informal jacket for me at the Goodwill on Weaverdairy just the other day. Why she didn't snap it up, I can't tell you. I must coach her to trust her instincts more.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Flowers in the crevasses

On the front page of the Journal today there is a story about Nike and Amazon. Basically, Nike hadn't let Amazon sell its branded products directly because it didn't want to give up control of its branding and also wanted to maintain higher margins, but lots of 3rd party resellers had been selling Nike on the Amazon platform anyway. What is interesting is where they got their products. Many of them apparently scour discounters like TJ Maxx, Walmart, even Nike's own website, hoover up stuff, and then sell it on Amazon.  Really small players, like one person with two or three helpers.

It is truly astounding how markets work, how people can be disciplined about pricing, see opportunities, and dive in their and make things work. In aggregate, the third-party resellers were in effect eroding Nike's power over the presentation of its own brand, which in turn pressured, if you will, Phil Knight to toodle up from Beaverton, Oregon and do a deal with Mr. Bezos up in Seattle.

The economy will continue to change. As AirBnb, Uber, and Lyft change lodging and transportation, new niches will appear. Already the question of little amenities in AirBnbs arises. If shared soap and shampoo is not attractive, who will scale up the delivery of miniatures to AirBnb owners? (thinking for just a second: Amazon) What about new kinds of hostels for Uber and Lyft drivers who spend 4 days a week in higher rent locations like the Bay area then retreat to where they live? (Probably someone on AirBnb) I'm pretty sure this is happening. Uber and Lyft should be gathering data (or someone should) to help drivers shift between metro areas in response to shifts in volume, perhaps for events, or for seasons. If, for example, there are parking constraints around beaches in summer, and a lack of public transportation, we should see Uber/Lyft van services arise that can provide fluid, variable capacity between places on, say, Long Island, and Jones Beach, for example. I just read that institutional buyers have been buying houses and apartments in choice neighborhoods and turning them into AirBnbs, which has in turn impacted the availability of housing in some markets. And has riled neighbors.

On the other hand, friends in Princeton just built a spare room on the back of their house and are clearing $3k a month from it. I stayed there in March (for free, thank you). It was nice.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

No NPR in the car

Driving Graham to chess camp in the mornings this week. Although NPR is often a constant companion for our family in the car, I have been leaving it off this week, to foster conversation.  I have to start most of it, which is fine.

Things we hit today:

  • There are apparently no attractive girls in the 7th grade at Phillips. I find that surprising. There were a bunch when I was there. We discussed my first girlfriend, also named Mary.
  • Graham didn't really understand that I went to both AA and Al Anon, doesn't know the difference between them.  We will continue this discussion, maybe tomorrow.
  • Graham is not ready to learn to shave the little bit of peach fuzz off his top lip. I didn't expect that he would be. We left it that he will tell me when he wants to. I will try to come back to it in a few months if I don't hear from him (I doubt I will). 

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 airport ones 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 reasonable value.

Then yesterday I went to Makus, a new empanada place out where 54 hits Garrett Road and 751. The empanadas were passable 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, much less blog...

If I didn't have a bigger point to make, that is. 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 brick and mortar restaurant would. The workers suffer in the heat of the truck, sweating profusely into their goatees and multiple piercings.

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 ipso facto.

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 plane 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.