Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Month That Was - April 2008: Another month with no travel. There are two reasons for that. 1) Work. The day job. Been hellacious, and I have just not been in a position to take time off. But more importantly, 2) I've actually been making good progress with fiction. Misspent Youth keeps going and going, but I finally feel like I am getting somewhere. I have known for a while how I wanted it to end, but I was stuck dead in the middle. Now I have a decent sense of how it's all going to pull together which has given me new motivation. Plus, I have started a new writing project -- something that I have never tried before, and so am not ready to discuss yet. The point is that however much I want to get back on the move, I don't want to break whatever routines have gotten me back into the swing of writing. Thus, I remain geostationary for the moment.

Another problem I have been having is that I fall asleep at the drop of a hat lately -- that is, unless I'm trying to fall asleep. What's been happening is that I've been coming home in the evening, sometimes directly after work, sometimes after hitting the gym or a drink with friends, and I start to sort out everything I have to do, then I sit back on the couch and fall asleep for an hour or so, then I can't get to sleep later when I really need to. I can't seem to break the cycle. I bet travel would do it.

I hope to pull out of this and have something more substantial for next month. Maybe even a trip report.

Art Consumption Down
Detroit Apocalypto
Your Five Years Are Up
Ann Arbor Snaps
Fairness, Idealism, and Other Atrocities
Art Consumption Down: Reading, Movies, TV, all seemed to dissipate of late. I can't think of a single movie or TV show I saw this month worth mentioning.

For months now, I've been reading bits and pieces of Tender is the Night and will likely finish it this month. I certainly understand why it has always had such a mixed reputation. Fitzgerald's drawn a very compelling lead character that has really hit home strongly for me. But the story and structure are something of a jumble, and if you don't identify as strongly with the lead, I doubt there would be much of interest.

I've also been struggling through John Derbyshire's Unknown Quantity, which is a history of algebra for the layman. Of course, by layman I mean someone who can still solve quadratic equations and can grasp concepts as abstract as matrices and fields and all sorts of stuff that I have not encountered since undergrad. It's a mental challenge, certainly. Derbyshire makes the valid point the algebra = abstraction in its purest form and even in a layman's tome like this, your powers of abstract thinking will be challenged to the utmost. Derbyshire writes exceeding well and clearly and interjects biographical stories of the key algebraists to humanize the topic, but unless you're the kind of person who solves brain teasers for kicks, you may find yourself in over your head. I know I have.

My reading list is quite full. Next up will certainly be less intellectual reads. I have my eye on a mystery (Thus Was Adonis Murdered, by Sarah Caudwell) and a spy thriller (The Devil's Alternative by William Forsyth).

Actually, what I said above is not entirely true. HBO re-ran the entire series of John from Cincinnati in a marathon (it was only nine episodes, I think) and I watched it. The show's problems were not diminished on a second viewing and, frankly, it deserved cancellation, but I liked it even more than I did the first time. It helps to view it as an absurdist ensemble comedy, which it was, at least as much as anything else. I still think Ed O'Neill deserved an Emmy.
Detroit Apocalypto: As my birth city continues its devolution into primitivism, over at the Wall Street Journal they have written up a good summary of the current situation. It's nothing you haven't already read right here, but it's an excellent quick intro. Here's a telling prognostication:

A recent study by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimated that, if current trends continue, the city's population will shrink to 770,000 in seven years, from about 900,000 when Mr. Kilpatrick became mayor.

That's about 18,500 people leaving every year. I still maintain that the end for Detroit will come when the population is reduced to about a dozen people wearing rat pelt loin cloths who, in turn, die out when they finally have to resort to cannibalism. At the current rate of population loss, it could happen in my lifetime. Alternatively, we could wall off the city into a big prison and send in Kurt Russell to rescue any innocents.

A perfectly telling video is now available on YouTube. City Councilwoman Monica Conyers derogatorily referred to the (noticeably bald) president of the city council as "Shrek," because that's what mature, reasonable council members do in the course of policy debate. For doing this, she got a dressing down from a 13-year-old school girl, Kierra Bell, about her bad manners, so she then proceeded to engage the child in strident lawyerly debate. Mind you, this is the same woman who has threatened to have her "brothers" attack council members who have crossed her. Good god, what a horrible woman.

Conyers eventually backed off and even arranged for Kierra to get some sort of award, which I'm sure was totally sincere and had nothing to do with damage control. Kierra seems like a sharp cookie; the kind of citizen the City of Detroit needs. Here's hoping she gets out ahead of the cannibals.
Your Five Years Are Up: The adage about technology is that we overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in five. It's remarkable to think back on how many things have changed forever since back when the internet consisted of a handful of nerds with 9600 baud modems. Entire industries have withered, or at least been completely redefined, in this light. For example, does anybody remember Tower Records? Border's Books is close to bankruptcy. Paper newspapers are dropping like flies, destined to survive as vanity toys for rich egos. Landfills are chock full of fax machines. Try to buy film for your old camera and see how many options you have left.

What brought all this to mind was dealing with my father's finances. He is no longer capable of managing his investments so we are working to keep on top of things. In the course of this I've had a lot of interaction with his stockbroker. Now, I haven't used a stockbroker in close to ten years. I manage all my investments online through accounts on E-trade and Fidelity. His stockbroker is a very good sort of fellow -- attentive, a good listener, doesn't seem to shill for easy commissions. If I was going to have a stockbroker, he would be the guy. But it's worth asking the question: Is the stockbroker's five years up?

Your basic run-of-the-mill old school stockbroker is no more. The kind of guy who you called every once in a while to place a buy or sell order is toast. A robot can place a stock order, and they do so much more cheaply and accurately than some yuppie Peter Lynch wannabe. If you are old enough to remember Olde Discount Brokers, who were the kings of the discount brokerage houses way back when, you know the type of clowns I'm talking about. It's good that they are gone, they were pretty much useless and often dirtbags to boot.

So placing the order is of zero value. What about providing company/industry/market research and information? Well I can get the same information from Google Finance and MSN Moneycentral, gratis, 24/7, no strings attached. Unless you've been living in a cave, Osama, providing financial info is of zero value.

What about opinions and advice? I suppose it is possible that you could find a broker who is a true wizard of stock picking, but I feel completely safe in saying you won't. That's because there is the statistical equivalent of zero such people in the world. It would be like adopting a random Chinese baby in the hopes of him growing into Yao Ming. Advice is better weighed in the aggregate than from one individual and, as with information, you can get an ocean of advice for free on the web.

Furthermore, as study after study shows, the best and safest way to get long term gains is to buy index funds and hold them for years. Anything else is a gamble that, historically speaking, is not worth the risk. So however you happen to get advice, it may not be in your best interest to listen.

Where does that leave us? However kind and supportive a stockbroker is, what is the value in retaining one?

If you just never got comfortable with online life, well, you need one for all those reasons I don't. (Interestingly this is where my father and my family fall.) If you have a great mountain of money you don't really need a stock broker, but an investment manager -- a kind of super stock broker, and a well connected to get you in on large scale deals, IPOs, etc., as well as handling your transactions. That's about it.

Actually there is one other class of people who do need stockbrokers: Verbalists. There are people for whom communication needs to be verbal, and often, person-to-person direct. You can hand them perfectly written documents in any form, but the mere act of having to read decreases its effectiveness. The written word in any form just doesn't register. This is not a criticism; it is just a way a brain can be wired. I am the exact opposite. The written word is my preferred means of acquiring information. Talk, to me, is inexact; a roadblock to understanding. A phone call is the most tedious, unproductive thing I can imagine. I'll respond instantly to email, but a phone call goes right to voice mail because it's extra psychic energy for me to grasp. Verbalists are my opposites; the sorts of folks who still call travel agents, movie theatre hot-lines, and 411. They need stockbrokers too.

In deference to my family we are keeping the stockbroker on. That's fine. Who knows, maybe the day will come when I have a big mountain of cash I need help with. (Sure...)

By the way: One occupation whose demise I am looking forward to is car salesmen. Horrendous, mealy-mouthed, four flushers, the whole lot of 'em. Why do we need these people? Anybody can check the web and find out exactly how much a car is worth, what the dealer paid for it, the average time it has been sitting in inventory, get carfax repair reports, determine resale value -- so you are not going to squeeze and extra few hundred out of some poor sap just by jawboning him anymore. Not to mention the insulting customer experience they provide. It's a wonder any dealerships have repeat customers. These guys should be out on the street hustling for loose change within a year or two. I will snicker at them as I pass.
Ann Arbor Snaps: I did my first spring walkthrough of Ann Arbor a couple of weeks ago. Hit all the basics. Spent the afternoon writing at Sweetwater's, then wandered up to Zingerman's for a sandwich with some nasal cavity clearing mustard (Zing's is still overrated, and still delicious), then back to the heart of town and a visit to the original Borders. I'm pretty sure I am going to make a Sunday tradition of this. Here're a handful of snaps taken with my el cheapo Kodak point-and-shoot.

• We still have brick streets in the historic district (I used to live on this street many years ago).
• There is a street performer downtown who sets up his boom box and cranks Thriller-era Michael Jackson while moonwalking and otherwise getting funky. Sometimes the sorority girls join in.
• Painfully hip signage for the Metro Cafe and the Monkey Bar.
• The last vestiges of hippie-dom survive in stores and street art.
• Soon, these vines will be green.
• Zingerman's outside seating is just gearing up.
• What's playing at our historic Michigan Theatre; also viewed from Border's across the street.
Fairness, Idealism, and Other Atrocities: It's graduation time, so all around the country poor, unsuspecting shlubs are being given sheepskins and maudlin advice from semi-famous people. As usual, you can't do better than P.J. O'Rourke. My favorite lines:

Idealists are also bullies. The idealist says, "I care more about the redwood trees than you do. I care so much I can't eat. I can't sleep. It broke up my marriage. And because I care more than you do, I'm a better person. And because I'm the better person, I have the right to boss you around."


I am here to advocate for unfairness. I've got a 10-year-old at home. She's always saying, "That's not fair." When she says this, I say, "Honey, you're cute. That's not fair. Your family is pretty well off. That's not fair. You were born in America. That's not fair. Darling, you had better pray to God that things don't start getting fair for you."

I wish I could sum things up so perfectly.