27 May 2012

Rachman's Imperfectionists - an excerpt about drifting from the present

This odd notion in Tom Rachman’s delightful The Imperfectionists appealed to my fondness for the absurd. The novel revolves around characters somehow linked through an international, English language newspaper based on Rome. This is about a reader.

She has read every copy of the paper since 1976, when her husband, Cosimo de Monerecchi, was posted to Jeddah. He, the Italian ambassador, traveled without restriction in Saudi Arabia. But she, as a woman, was effectively detained in a guarded zone for Westerners, while her two sons attended the international school all day. From boredom, she took to reading the paper, which in the 1970s was one of the few foreign periodicals available in the kingdom. She had never learned the technique of newspaper reading, so took it in order like a book, down the columns, left to right, page after page. She read every article and refused to move on until she was done, which meant that each edition took several days to complete. Much was confusing at first. At night, she posed questions to Cosimo, initially basic ones like “Where is the Upper Volta?” Later, her queries grew more complex, such as “If both the Chinese and the Russians are Communists, why do they disagree?” Until she was posing questions about the Palestinians’ role in Jordanian affairs, infighting among apartheid opponents, and supply-side economics. Cosimo occasionally referred to an event that she hadn’t reached yet, spoiling the surprise, so she gave him strict orders not to leak anything, even in passing. Thus began her slow drift from the present.

One year into her newspaper reading, she was six months behind. When they returned to Rome in the 1980s ,she remained stranded in the late 1970s. When it was the 1990s outside, she was just getting to know President Reagan. When planes struck the Twin Towers, she was watching the Soviet Union collapse. Today it is February 18, 2007, outside this apartment. Within, the date remains April 23, 1994. 

26 May 2012

Ryan Adams - When the Stars Go Blue

Of all the superlative adjectives (wonderful, genius, heartfelt, etc..)  I could use for Ryan Adams music, I think that tonight I'll use the term "authentic." I love his songs.

Why You Should Buy Facebook

I have little doubt that the Facebook team's software could be duplicated or even improved on. I have serious doubts that your network of friends within Facebook can be so easily duplicated.

I travel quite a bit. I also talk to strangers.

One thing that I've learned as I chat with various folks is that while many people move for love or career - move long distances for a new job or true love - most folks tend to settle where they've got a network. They may feel ambivalent or fond of their area, but they know that if they move elsewhere they won't have the network of friends and family that they do in this place. It's not that they don't acknowledge better weather or job prospects across the country. What keeps them in place is the stickiness of networks that are hard to replace. It takes less artistry and effort to be in a web than spin one.

Facebook is partly a social platform. Better ones may come along. But Facebook has become something else: it is now a network where you can find your friends. They are there already. It could be that someone will soon come up with a better place to live, or network. The question is, will the stickiness of the Facebook network be hard to escape? You see, it is not just a matter of some team surpassing what Zuckerberg and the Facebook team have done. Each user has to duplicate the creation of their network of friends and family in this new social network. That suggests an orderly exit and re-entry onto a new site. Imagine that it is not just you deciding to move from Cleveland to Chicago for a new job; in order to make your wife happy with the move, you also need to find homes in Chicago for her family and friends.

Tuesday I'm buying shares of Facebook. Partly because I like what they've already done with the product and because of its potential to become the hub and entry point for the Internet for the average person, but mostly because it seems like a sticky network that's already too much effort to escape.

Why Voters are Angry at the Politicians

Politicians embody the inherent contradiction in voters' minds, a contradiction which they would prefer to ignore. For this politicians are - at the least - a source of irritation and - at most - a target of rage.

Voters want to cut government spending, but never for their programs. I've worked with retired military, many of whom think that government spending should be cut. Yet not one of them I've ever talked to has said that given no private company could afford retirement pension and medical benefits after a mere 20 year career, the military should save money by making its policies more like those in the private sector. I know farmers who think that the government spends too much but who would never give up their subsidies. Many retired people think that government spending is out of control but never volunteer to accept a cut of even a penny to their social security or medicare payments. I don't say this to pick on the military or farmers (one should never offend people who feed you or who have guns) or the elderly, but to make a claim that everyone knows that spending should be cut but everyone believes that the spending on their behalf is barely adequate.

Politicians who promise to cut spending (in accord with what everyone wants) but refuse to cut specific programs (in accord with what everyone wants) anger voters who do not want to be confronted by the inherent contradiction of their own thoughts, unwilling to reconcile their own thinking.

Voters are angry at politicians because they've clearly asked them to raise spending and lower taxes and deficit but politicians just won't.

The average voter seemingly wants spending on their own programs maintained or increased, wants their own taxes cut, and wants to see the deficit reduced. The reason they are so angry at politicians is that politicians' inability to make this impossible thing happen is proof of two things: one, their own thinking is contradictory, and two, they do not have political clout enough to shift all the cuts and tax hikes over to the other guy.

24 May 2012

Van Gogh, Capitalism & Art

Van Gogh reportedly sold only one painting in his life. Since then, his paintings have sold for tens of millions, sums that would have surely boggled his mind.

Between Michelangelo (1475 to 1564) and Picasso (1881 to 1973) art patrons shifted, from popes and monarchs to private collectors and foundations, art financed by tithes and taxes to art financed by profits and equity.

Van Gogh (1853 to 1890) lived and worked his short life in a time when capitalism was rising to displace nationalism and religion as the new force that bestowed wealth and power. Capitalism was rising; religion and kingdoms were falling but neither were particularly strong.

During Michelangelo's time, popes and kings financed art. The Renaissance was funded by a surge in economic growth that benefited secular and religious rulers like the Medici and Pope Leo.

During Picasso's time, another economic surge - one that benefited banks and corporations - helped to provide investors and company founders with ridiculous sums of money.

Van Gogh worked during a time when art had not yet become a way for the rich to prove that they had culture. And for the most part, many of the very rich were just emerging during his life. Kings and popes weren't in command of quite as many resources in this age of growing religious diversity and democracies. But by the time that Picasso was working, money was again available for art from capitalists.

What is one reason that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life? His short life hit a gap in funding. Today, few investments have gained as persistently and as impressively as art. A piece of art from Van Gogh would probably cost you $100 million or more. Not because his art has suddenly gotten better since his death but because there is money enough to pay that sum. During his life, there simply was not.

You wouldn't think that timing would matter for a still painting.

23 May 2012

What if Knowledge Work Is No Longer the Limit to our Economy?

The Atlantic reports that 

For the 1st Time Ever, a Majority of the Unemployed Have Attended College

This might mean universities are failing. It might. It might also mean that maybe we ought not to plan on a future economy in which everyone with a job has graduated from university. 

During the industrial revolution, it may have looked - for a time - as though everyone would eventually work in a factory and that gains in income and productivity depended on a steady rise. Fortunately, this trend reversed and manufacturing jobs declined. 

So what if not everyone is suited to be a knowledge worker? What if not everyone can graduate from university even if the steady growth in college graduates during the information economy of the 20th century would have suggested that such a thing was either inevitable or desirable? 

Perhaps policy makers will soon decide that it's time to move from a focus on the information economy that depended on a steady increase in the number and productivity of knowledge workers. Perhaps they'll realize that we've moved into an entrepreneurial economy, and knowledge workers are no longer the constraint to progress. 

Is Absurd the New Criteria for Credible?


The state of Hawaii has verified President Barack Obama's birth records toArizona's elections chief after a nearly three-month back and forth that Arizona officials said could have ended without the incumbent's name on its November ballot.
It seems as though reality is forcing on us some new criteria for determining credibility: a touch of the absurd. 

100 Day Student Protest in Quebec

There is a certain force of will required to sustain a unique identity in the midst of a foreign culture. This might just save the students in Quebec.

I'm in Quebec this week. Northern Quebec, actually, but working with folks who mostly live in Montreal and Quebec City. (A typical work schedule might be to work up here in the far north 14 days in a row and then return to Montreal to live - unencumbered by work - for 14 days in a row.)

One thing that seems odd is the absence of English. Signs that in, say, Vancouver would be posted in both English and French (in spite of the paucity of French-speaking people in BC) are posted only in French here. One gets the sense that in some ways, the folks in Quebec are less tolerant of "Anglais" than are the folks in France. But there seems to be a benefit to this sort of defensiveness as well.

As I came off the plane in Montreal, I was met by TV screens announcing riots and arrests. Later I learned that the Quebec students had reached day 100 of their protests against austerity measures that included the rise in tuition fees that now seems universal. These protests have been met by emergency measures that include, (quoted from here, occupytheory.org)

  • Fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for anyone who prevents someone from entering an educational institution.
  • Steep penalties of  $7,000 and $35,000 for anyone deemed a ‘student leader’ and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student associations. Fines double after the first offense.
  • Plans for public demonstrations involving more than 50 people (originally 8) must be submitted to the police eight hours in advance, and must detail itinerary, duration and time at which they are being held.
  • Offering encouragement, tacitly supporting, or promoting protest at a school, either is subject to punishment.

Tuition fees have soared in recent years in the US. The last time it seemed to me that we were pursuing policies so obviously wrong was when we invaded Iraq.  Globalization has made education more of a necessity, not less. The penalty for making university more expensive is simple: communities will have fewer university graduates and will have less revenue. 

The students in Quebec, protesting even in the face of fines for being protesters, should be lauded. They are making an attempt to stop what certain forces in government are trying to sell as policies for which we have no choice. True progress always results in more options, more choices. Any attempt to go backwards seemingly must start with the excuse that "we have no choice." 

Cutting education in tough economic times is like eating your seed corn during a famine; it does little to mitigate an already bad situation but it guarantees that you'll carry this bad time into the future. 

21 May 2012

The USPS - monthly bills like any other utility

Recently, the US Postal Service cancelled plans to cancel service to hundreds of rural areas throughout the US. The problem remains, though. Their costs are greater than their revenues.

It seems to me that one simple innovation could increase revenues enough to cover most any kind of operating costs.

Why does the USPS simply collect the mail and capture data, billing households and businesses at the end of each month based on usage, like other utility companies, like water or gas and electric companies? This would make it easier for customers to "buy" postal service and - I'd argue - make it easier for the USPS to earn money. You just leave mail in the outgoing box and it is billed to you, whether personal letter or bulky package.

Just think. No trips to the post office to wait in line to weigh packages and pay. No need to order stamps or get stuck without stamps when you need to put a bill in the mail.

It's certainly too late to recapture a great deal of the business that has already shifted to online, from emails to bill paying. But that, it seems to me, is all the more reason to make it easier to use their services.

Accelerating Self Consciousness

I saw the most curious thing on a flight today. Mothers everywhere do what they can to calm fussy babies whose crying can raise the stress level for everyone but I witnessed a new strategy.

I noticed a mother whose toddler (16 months old) was fussing was holding up an iPhone with video clips that quieted him. The clips seemed to be of that very baby playing, bathing, interacting with its mom and dad. It might just be that the baby was calmed by the sight of familiar routines in the midst of a strange plane, but the baby seemed to be studying the images with a particular kind of concentration, something that almost looked like self-awareness. Babies at about this age can find a mirror mesmerizing, why not videos of themselves?

So what does this mean for development? Does this make us more self-aware, self-consciousness, self-absorbed? It's hard to believe that it won't find some way to leave its fingerprints on the development of self, I'm just not clever enough to imagine what that might be.

18 May 2012

Observations of an American Tourist

Our hotel was at the base of the London Eye, across the river from Big Ben and Parliament. We watched Andrew Marr interview Prime Minister David Cameron and our hotel window was just over Andrew’s shoulder. The first morning we came out through the lobby, super models were posing on our front steps. We inquired about this and were told that it was a piece for Mexican TV that was being made in anticipation of the London Olympic Games.  The following morning, the rain had eased up but, alas, there were no supermodels on our front steps. Not wanting to come across as boorish Americans, we decided not to complain to the front desk about this lack.
We visited Churchill’s War Rooms. On one wall was a remarkable hand-made chart showing the daily casualties (the sum of deaths and serious injuries) from Nazi bombing of London. During one two-month period shown, casualties ranged from 80 to 600 per day. Imagine the trauma of 9-11 every week. I suspect that our generation would have snapped like a Xanax tablet in these conditions.
The UK’s recession officially began its second dip while we were there, GDP growth dropping below 0. David Cameron – the sort of intelligent and articulate conservative one might wish for in this country – is struggling with a 29% approval rating. He looked beleaguered in his interview. “So if we’re doing the right thing by cutting spending and the Americans are doing the wrong thing by stimulating, why is the American economy doing so much better than Britain’s,” Marr asked.
In the British Library, the Treasure’s Room, there are a number of remarkable handwritten documents. Among them is a piece of music by Beethoven that seems to capture his energy almost as much as his music, even to the frenetic energy in the crossed out sections.
Whenever it was convenient, I asked young people throughout our trip whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their economy, about its ability to create jobs for them and their generation. Every single European – even the Germans  - was pessimistic. The only exceptions? Two Argentinians and one Brazilian. It might be mere coincidence that Argentina and Brazil have female presidents.
Westminster Abbey is a stunning cathedral, but obviously a national tomb, in contrast to St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Not just kings but war heroes, poets, and scientists are buried here. Charles Darwin and men who led troops are buried here. It truly is the Church of England.

It may be unrelated to the euro, but while Blake and I were decoding Paris’ subways, we couldn’t help but notice that about 50% of the folks coming to street level just jumped the turnstiles. This did not strike me as a culture particularly constrained by rules, whether about paying a euro to ride public transit or paying taxes to support said euro.
It is no wonder that the French riot when their 35 hour work week is threatened. The French word for work is “travail.” Who wants more of that than absolutely necessary?
Unemployment rates are stubbornly high in France and Italy – nearly 10% if measured as we do, and their youth unemployment rate tends to run about double that. Spain’s youth unemployment is about 50%. If you offer people a system that offers them nothing, it is no wonder that they’ll seek alternatives. The day after we left, Hollande won the presidential election; for the first time in 17 years, France has a socialist president.
It turns out that Sarte’s favorite café was directly across from our hotel. It was the place where he redefined philosophy and modern relationships, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and waxing eloquent about existentialism. For all of my story telling to Blake, this moment of explaining existential philosophy over an omelette seemed the most oddly gratifying.
There are times when clichés play into the theater of our lives in ways that leave me confused. I’m never sure whether to reject them as serendipitous or embrace them as emblematic. As we wheeled our suitcases down the street in search of our hotel, we passed a sidewalk café with a beautiful young woman sobbing as she told her story of – presumably – heartbreak to an older man who seemed insufficiently moved by her beauty, her sorrow, and her story. I was moved to see that not everyone in a sidewalk café is empty with existential dread. Romantics still inhabit this city.
Speaking of romantics, the charm of Paris seems to resonate more with females. Nowhere on my travels have I seen more single women with suitcases, backpacks, and guide books. This is the city of love and apparently women still come in search of it.

As I came into Paris through the subway, I got the sense that I should stay on the alert for criminals; coming into Rome, I got the sense that I should be on the alert for the businessmen.
Rome is shabby. Broken sidewalks, pot holes, graffiti, and trash were everywhere. The Vandals invaded Rome and apparently never left.
What Starbucks outlets are to cities in Canada or the US, churches are to Rome – only bigger. I don’t think that we ever walked more than 3 blocks without seeing another fairly remarkable church.
I wonder if an economy dependent on ruins doesn’t do something to the psyche. It felt like great deference to the past, to the point that fallen Roman columns were simply left lying in fields, property in the heart of Rome left idle because someone had built a structure there 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps it is part of the make work mentality that the ruins have almost no signs; for information about what you are seeing, you are dependent on guide books and guides. Few objects have even simple labels.
Augustus’ palace is in ruins near the Forum (you know you’re something big when a month gets named after you – everyone for thousands of years living 8% of their lives in your shadow, as it were), as is a truncated version of the Stadium where 250,000 fans could watch chariot races (Roman NASCAR). The only signs I could find in the area explained what type of flowers are planted in the beds.
They say that all roads lead to Rome, but apparently it’s harder to find a pithy saying to help you to navigate the city once you’re there. The only thing that people seemed to spend more time doing than look at ruins was looking at maps. There’s little that seems predictable or intuitive about the city’s layout.
The sense I got of Italy is that it’s a place where far more passion is expended in protecting jobs than creating them. The entrepreneurial spirit seemed largely subdued, seemingly finding its only expression by what struck me as African immigrants selling suspect products on the sidewalk. As an example of how jobs seemed to be protected, we got processed at the gate for boarding the plane out of Rome and then – inexplicably – about halfway down the ramp to our plane, we were stopped by two women in uniform who – again – checked our boarding passes and ID. Unsurprisingly, no one new had entered the line.
Like Disneyland, the Vatican is an independent kingdom completely surrounded by a foreign city. Unlike Disneyland, it is an absolute monarchy, the world’s last. A place where the fact that 12 is the legal age of consent (the lowest in Europe) is irrelevant for the simple fact that its roughly 800 citizens are all clergy or Swiss guards.
Blake raised an interesting question. If the Vatican is a foreign city, does that mean that every Catholic Church is technically an embassy? I’m sure there are priests who would welcome diplomatic immunity.

11 May 2012

Today's Market is Like Navigating Rome

The market continues to be incredibly volatile. Within weeks we get as much movement up or down as some generations saw in a typical year. 

Only there about four days, I never did get a good feel for Rome's roads. They curve, they change direction, change name ... do just about everything except run straight, in the grids that I'm used to here in California. And in this I got a new metaphor for the market. 

The advice used to be to buy and hold. If you want to get to your retirement destination, you find where you want to be on the grid and you navigate a fairly straightforward route. "Go down to 3rd St, turn left, and then follow it to B. You've arrived." Or, buy 85% stocks when you're young, gradually change that percentage downwards as you age, and then put most of it into bonds when you retire." 

In today's market, it is not nearly as obvious what will work. Companies rise and fall within a decade or two. The sure deal of a Microsoft or Apple becomes a stagnant stock that doesn't move. Meanwhile, the market is full of promise and danger, as sometimes sectors that once moved separately now move in tandem (domestic and international stock, for instance), and other sectors that once moved together now diverge. Today's market is more like navigating Rome than the stereotypical American town. In Rome, if you want to move in a straight line, you are forced to take numerous turns. There are no straight lines; you have to create them by frequently changing. 

We've moved from the modern American city to ancient Rome. I guess this is supposed to be progress. To me, it just feels more confusing. 

[Blog author acknowledges that while this metaphor may be descriptive of a change in how markets now behave, this description offers nothing in the way of practical advice.]

06 May 2012

Sarkozy Gone?

Today, the French choose who will be their president for the next five years. The polls suggest that the Socialist Hollande is a narrow favorite to frustrate Sarkozy's attempt at re-election. Things are worse than when Sarkozy took office, but to be fair that seems true of most every European country. Just as it is not obvious that God belongs to any religion, so it seems that global recessions have no regard for political philosophies or parties. Still, it seems little surprise that after years of trumpeting the benefits of free markets there would be a reaction against them after a major, prolonged recession that has left swaths of Europe in double-digit unemployment.

Still, Sarkozy got to be president of one of the most powerful countries in the world. And let's not forget that it was only after he became president that he won Carla Bruni. There is no suggestion but what he'll get to keep this crown jewel of France. In fact, if voters thought that he became president merely to win her hand and then was caught up in a global recession, they might be more inclined to vote for him.

03 May 2012

Musing at the Museum

A few thoughts prompted by a visit to the Louvre today. I'm pretty sure that some are - with proper twists - actually metaphors for the broader experience of life outside of museum visits.

There are fabulous statues of Athena, Greek goddess of war. You have to love a people who use a goddess rather than god for war. One has to believe that if women were in charge of war we'd have less of it.

So many statues from ancient times are, unsurprisingly, missing pieces. Time is unkind to extremities: noses, arms, penises .... all lost to time.

I think it would be wonderful to have an exhibit of museum visitors. Pictures, videos of reactions to particular pieces, interviews with museum patrons about the pilgrimage to a museum, asking questions about their expectations about seeing particular pieces, their delight, disappointment, and musings.

Today the painting Scream sold for $120 million. If that's a fair market value, the total value of the Louvre must be some multiple of the world's annual GDP of $50 trillion. The quantity of quality art boggles the mind. It is no exaggeration to say that any 20 items from the British Museum would instantly create one of the most notable American museums and any 20 items from the Louvre would instantly create the most notable American art museum.

An exhibit by either Jean-Philippe Toussaint or Sebastian Leclerc at the Louvre features a booth with what appears to be an odd little EKG cap put onto the heads of folks who read a book while the resultant brain waves become a form of abstract art, a rather brilliant play on the intersection of abstract art and hard science in the depiction of imagination, passion, and thought.

Context is everything. Without a sense of history, some knowledge of culture, these amazing bits of art are just pictures. The more context, the more one experiences in this experience. A museum is partly a place of imparting culture but, it seems too to be a place that reveals it - both its presence and absence. Art and culture, ultimately, is like language: it can be shouted or whispered but what is heard depends on prior preparation.

There seems to be a kind of tyranny in guides - audio, books, or docents. They can too easily dictate where your attention should flow, to what pieces, what details, and what techniques.

Visiting a museum with someone is like reading a book while engaged in conversation.

Many people seem to go through the museum driven by the need to report back to family and friends that they saw the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa rather than the desire to actually experience pieces as they appear.

01 May 2012

What Helps is What Hurts

The first civilizations we know of emerged in the Middle East. It's easy to see how the fact of being at the intersection of Asia and Europe and Africa would lend itself to an emergence of something new and innovative, product of the convergence of various and different cultures, technologies and ideas that might swirl about at the intersection of massive continents.

It also makes sense that the Middle East - for these very same reasons - would be a place of turmoil and conflict. What helps can hurt.

It makes you wonder if the fact that our consciousness is under constant bombardment of books, websites, radio, TV, and tweets representing so many different cultures and philosophies might result in something extraordinary and novel, emergent reality that can become us. It also makes you wonder if after a certain point in our own personal development, our own journey, this very same bombardment might not disrupt the proper development of a self that requires at least some modicum of remove from these very same forces.

This need for a remove from the many forces around us might explain why the fastest growing type of household throughout the West - and already the most popular form in many countries and big cities in the US - is the single person household. Our reaction to this constant bombardment is a retreat.