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


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.