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


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.