Monday, January 26, 2009

Surmounting Surmounted Stature

At this very moment, at least a billion people (myself included) must be wondering what the hell happened to the US over the past fear years. Our global preeminence economically, politically, and militarily seems less impressive and less assured today. Of those billion people, sadly, many simply blame one man. The US President is powerful, but he's not all that and a bag of chips. Other people, even more sadly, blame the overall US way of life: our culture, our youth and exuberance, our taste for risk, our ADD, our wealth, our celebsessions, our fast food.

To me, it's adolescent logic to argue that our strengths are our greatest weakness.

The perception that the US has fallen is exaggerated by half, but clearly execution failures, spectacular to mundane, are all too pervasive. Have we just gone pear-shaped? Tits over tea kettle? Lost our mmmmmojo?

One theory is that the rate of failure is unchanged, but in this age of information, they are spectacularized whereas century ago they would have been squelched.

Another theory is that the US has run out of easy wins. Once, oil literally oozed out of the ground in downtown LA. Now, we install rigs in the harshest of locations and must poke miles down into the earth ... or just deal with the Devil. When electricity was first harnessed, options for exploitation were limitless. Gains were huge. Now we must conserve. Innovation used to happen in leaps and bounds as we thought up brand new things. Now it's a slow climb up a steep mountain, figuring out how to do the same old things incrementally cheaper, faster, better.

Or perhaps a social evolution theory applies: Humanity was once, by necessity, survivalistic, decisive, ends-justify-means, hunter-killer, red meat, Western, wanderlust, and masculine. With innovation and social organization, that necessity has abated, being replaced by new imperatives: collaborative, change-averse, risk-averse, non-confrontational, agrarian, vegan, Asian and emasculated. We've evolved (socially) to a point where we believe that our best chance for survival lies not with our individual abilities, but is tied to our capability to integrate within, and enjoy the shared bounty of a larger society. In order to push the whole society to produce and achieve, each member must first endure the necessary overhead of "connecting" with the other members. To "connect" one must spend time communicating, documenting, justifying, persuading, organizing, planning, coordinating, motivating. I'll lump these societal requisites together under the term "connecting."

As the theory goes, people now focus so much on "connecting" that they run out of time to actually produce. This sea change in the way of getting things done (or not) causes a black hole which swallows great people, ideas, laws, and businesses before they can create anything of value.

If you don't like that theory, you could just say that we've just become rich, fat, and lazy. In his case, you must conclude that, just as the Romans, the Akkadians, the Hun, the Mali, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the Spanish, and the English, so will the American empire fall.

Alternatively, you could decide that we've consolidated power in the hands of a few, and left hoi polloi impotent to look after their own best interests.

Or you could conclude that the human brain has found information overload, that life is just too fast, and that we've thus become irrational and random our their decisions.

It doesn't much matter which justification you prefer. What I would like to figure out is where we go from here!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Grumpy Old Man Quotes: Parenting

You're a corporate monkey. Let me see if I can put it in terms you'll understand. When your kids are born, you're their manager. When they hit adolescence, you're fired! The goal from that point forward is to get re-hired as an independent consultant.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fashion in North America

Between work and play, I've spent an inordinate amount of time on the road lately.

In my business, you're in front of new people every day. The way you connect (or don't) in the very first few augenblicks pretty much locks in your relationship, and consequently how much trust and attention they allow you ... and consequently how successful you are in the long run. To say it bluntly, if they think you're "cool," they want more of you. Sadly, it's just as grade-shool playground as that.

Sitting in a sardine can hurdling through space this week, I got to thinking about what's cool or fashionable in the places I've been lately ... stewed down to a single word:

Montreal :fashionably preened
Toronto: fashionably concerned
SF: fashionably superior
Seattle: fashionably ambiguous
DC: fashionably frumpy
LA: fashionably connected
Vail: fashionably chill
NY: fashionably rushed

Just stereotypes of the images people project, of course. In reality, everyone just wants to get laid.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Great Canadian Oil Spill (Sprawl?)

I recently took a trip to the Canadian Rockies to enjoy the pure, spectacular pleasure of Mother Nature's creations as she meant them. Ski the glaciers. Spot moose. Or whatever people do up there.

Then I landed in Calgary. Oil may have paid for the incredible boom ... but it's not oil oozing over all the hills surrounding this former cow town.

It's houses. Scores of thousands of them. I've seen urban sprawl like this in the wastelands surrounding LA, Phoenix, and more recently Dirty Vegas, but it's absolutely shocking to see in sleepy western Canada.
And if you believe, as I do, that sprawl needs to be managed, it's downright sickening. Undeveloped land is becoming as rare a commodity as the black ooze underground. The externalities of greenfield development have never been properly priced. I've spent my entire adult life trying to balance my libertarian tendencies with my desire to see preservation of large swathes of unadulterated nature. Can development be controlled using natural mechanisms without infringing on the basic capitalist tenet ensuring the capitalist's prerogative with his assets?
So far, so bad. So I turn it over to you. What's the answer?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Buy!/Sell! #5: 2008 Annual Report

Happy 2009! This January will bring you a number of really ugly annual reports. I suggest that you don't read them.

However, here's a fun one: the annual report on my Buy!/Sell! model portfolios to date.
The idea is to see which of my prediction-market bets were right, or at least more likely to be right now than when I made them (=in the money in derivatives-speak) or not (=underwater).

As I mentioned at the outset of this project, prediction markets are thin (=not many transactions) yet, so most of my bets couldn't be made or priced on an actual prediction market. The only thing they were focused on this year was the Presidential election. Thus, my bets were "model" bets, the same riskless cheat used by hedge funds, economists, investment advisors and analysts to show how smart they are without actually putting their money where their mouths are. So, I'll also steal another cheat from the financial industry. I'll plead helplessness on marking these bets to market. No market means no market price, means no marking-to-market to quantify the Dollar gains/losses.

All the same, I can at least compare the predictions I made to the events which actually transpired to see if someone woulda made or lost money on my model portfolios.

So here goes:

Friday, January 02, 2009

Yeah, What HE Said: Lee Edition

Even a good Republican will agree that mistakes have been made by the current administration. Mistakes are made by EVERY administration. But this time around, 99.9% of the world is enjoying making a sport of blaming Bush for every evil and ill. We can thank the talking heads on the irritainment-news for spurring this on and on. In response to them, I give you another vilified man, Robert E. Lee.

"It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers. In fact, I discovered by reading newspapers that these editor/geniuses plainly saw all my strategic defects from the start, yet failed to inform me until it was too late. Accordingly, I am readily willing to yield my command to these obviously superior intellects, and I will, in turn, do my best for the Cause by writing editorials - after the fact." - Robert E. Lee, 1863

Apparently, talking heads are not a recent a phenomenon.