Thursday, March 31, 2011

the good life?

I've been thinking about what I'll call the "Ebenezer Scrooge" dynamic, this scenario where someone lives the majority of their life in wealthy self-indulgence, driven primarily be ego-centrism, but undergoes some transformation late in life and "realizes their folly" with some consequent refocusing on "what really matters".

It's a wordy thing to describe, but I feel scenario recurs often in our story-telling culture.

My question is this: do we (the audience for these stories) secretly long to share that experience?  Does that story resonate with us because we want the opportunity to live a selfish (and comfortable) life with the chance of some sort of moral redemption before we die?

Consider the opposite situation: where are the stories warning against living a life of quiet and kind humility in the service of others, only to swing to a wealth obsessed selfishness in the twilight of life?

My current theory is that we, in Western cultures, (not so) secretly sympathize with the Ebenezer Scrooge model.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A little runner

He said he wanted to go bear-foot running with Dad. 

Month 3

Every new day brings something new, and every month turned leaves me feeling like time is flying by.  I see you every day, and for nice chunks of time, but you change so much and so quickly that I often feel like I am missing out by blinking.

You have always been a pretty good sleeper, and you still are, but this month we have noticed you trying harder to stay awake during the day, as though you are afraid of missing something important or fun.  But occasionally you still zonk for a nice nap; here you are asleep on our bed (I know it was an unplanned nap or you would have been on a more Jude-approved surface).

I love your naps.  But the big revelation of month 3 has been your personality.  It seems like it just happened, all of a sudden one day, that you would actually notice us and break out in the occasional smile.  And it's awesome, that smile, and it changes everything.

That's you in your zoo print shirt, hanging out in a bassinet made for a doll that we keep in my office for those times I get to visit with you during the day.  This is probably an opportune time to point out that you are pretty consistently cool for ~ 10-15 minutes at a stretch, and if we had enough new places to park you for 10 minutes at a time we could probably cobble together a couple of hours of total peace, but we only have maybe 3 entertaining options, and a circuit does not work.

I should also point out that while I LOVE having you around while I'm "working", the reality is that you bring those quotation marks with you...I can type an email, or look at some info scrolling by on my screen, but there is no focusing on anything but you when you are around.

You have fully discovered your hands this month, and when you are awake one of them is likely in your mouth, at least when it's not batting at some tinkling toy we have suspended over your head.  It's fun to watch you play; your mom is afraid you will soon tire of your few toys, but I'm pretty sure that they are new to you pretty much every time you see them.

And while you have grown A LOT this month, I should probably point out that the angle of the shot in the photo above makes you look a little more jolly than in real life...even so, I have decided that you are probably going to be an fun and easy going dude that everybody loves.  

We took out first "away from home for the night" trip this weekend, and it went surprisingly well.  Besides delaying this post for a day, you got to attend your first wedding and your first wedding reception; you met old friends of dad's from my high school days, you got to dine out at some hip Atlanta eateries, and you got to interfere with a long tradition of hot hotel sex for mommy and daddy!

We also got you to sit upright in a chair long enough to get this shot of you all dressed up for the wedding; your mom and I are following a strict regime of not wishing for you to be older too soon, but when you get around to being able to hold your head up consistently in the next month or so, I will be glad.  I think you will find there is a lot more of the world to see once you are upright more often.

You travel well, and I'm excited about that.  You may not know this, but your parents love to travel and used to get out for interesting trips on a regular basis - it's been our secret hope that you will be that rare child that takes to airplanes and train rides and long walks through new cities and that you can accompany us on future adventures.

Anyway, month 3 wasn't too revolutionary, but you are developing a personality and I like it.  You're sweet, and you laugh at my jokes, and one night you even slept from around 11 until about 7, and once we had determined that you were still alive and healthy, we (prematurely) rejoiced that we had made it through the sleepless nights!  Alas, that one night was a tease, but we still hold on to the hope that the coming days will bring a trends of 7 - 8 hours of nightly rest.  It's a slim hope, but still.

I love you, Jude, and I can't wait to see what happens in month 4.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Month 3

Today's the day, and our family is celebrating. Tomorrow,  I'll write the post.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ha! Plato's Cave in XKCD

(don't forget to hover your mouse over the strip - there's always a bit of commentary or more to the joke)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Impossible Germany, Unlikely Japan

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky album features a song called "Impossible Germany"; the song begins with the lyric quoted in the title for this post.  It came to mind this morning when I was reading the latest updates on the scenario that continues to unfold in Japan.

The devastation wrought there by the earthquake and tsunami is scary for all of us bearing witness, and the loss of life and pain experienced by the Japanese is heartbreaking to consider.

It also strikes me as a stark reminder of randomness and how we humans are prepared to deal with the random.

My friend AdanA and I exchanged a number of emails last week, some in a connected series and some stand-alone items, and about a variety of topics, but when I look back I see the imprint of the Japan disaster on all of them.  We discussed Japan's adherence to a higher standard in their building codes, and how that decision that assuredly cost more on the front end has ultimately reduced the cost to human life; one has only to look to the recent earthquake tragedies in Haiti and Chile to see what lower standards and lesser quality building materials can lead to (and this is not to be taken as a criticism of the people of Haiti or Chile, but a discussion of randomness and its outcomes.)

AdanA also offered up a question/suggestion, wondering aloud if there may be some mechanism we (people) could employ to compensate for an inbuilt flaw in our statistical understandings...while he did not specifically call out the events in Japan, I felt a connection.  See, even with Japan's relatively robust level of preparedness for both earthquakes and tsunamis, had you asked the average "man on the street" in the days before the 'quake hit what might happen to their nuclear reactor facilities in the event of a "double whammy" scenario, where the area got hit by a 9.0 Richter earthquake and massive tsunami waves, they would likely not have an answer at hand.

I read this morning that the nuclear facility that is in fact failing was built to withstand a quake in the mid 7s on the Richter scale (earthquake magnitudes are measured on a logarithmic scale - a 2.0 is 10 times larger than a 1.0); the quake in Japan clocked in at a 9.0, and the measures in place to keep the reactors cool failed in succession.  Radioactive clouds are escaping from the reactor.  This is a terrible thing.

But is it possible to plan for every contingency?  Is it possible to ever move forward when each step is subject to endless scrutiny and consideration?  How do we train ourselves to be aware of the existence of the highly improbable and to make an explicit accounting of the impact of that highly improbable?  Is it human (I mean in keeping with the way we conceive of our humanity) to say: "Some number of people will die of radiation exposure due to nuclear reactors failing in some number of scenario iterations."?  Is the question of our humanity contingent on the ratio of people dying vs the number of iterations being low enough?

I don't know the answer, but I know these are questions we all need to consider.  Now, for a palate cleanser:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Friday, March 4, 2011

intra-personal conflicts

I generally consider myself a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  This approach is not unique to me, and my friends and family would likely show no surprise at my position.  And for the most part, these two macro components of my political world-view do not clash.

But in recent days I have been seeing an increase in the media coverage of a possible unwinding of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with speculation as to what this unwinding will mean for the mortgage market.

First, a brief bit of background.

Fannie and Freddie are "Government Sponsored Enterprises", sometimes called "agencies"; they were charted by the Congress but created as private companies charged with providing liquidity in the US residential mortgage markets.

Fannie and Freddie were never intended to be direct extensions of the Federal government, and the market (various markets, really) generally treated the two agencies as related to, but distinct from the government.  Things hummed along more or less well for years, and then during the Clinton administration, in the midst of a prolonged period of economic growth, the government made home ownership a priority and expressed a desire to expand mortgage liquidity to people at the lower ends of the socio-economic strata.

We all know now how this turned out, but this push (begun in the Clinton years, and taken up and amplified under Bush 2) towards home ownership for everyone had it's heart in the right place, I think.  If you see the "middle class" itself as having three tranches (upper, middle, and lower), it's fairly easy to argue that through the 80s and 90s access to the residential mortgage market helped lift the upper- and middle-middle class families onto a new plateau of relative wealth and economic comfort.  Having reached that plateau, these families were then able to fuel that next phase of prosperity in the mid-90s.  (this is just one component theory, sort of between a macro and micro approach to late 20th century economic development...reality is never fully explained by one theory).

Anyway, one of the bits of speculation in the news these days is that without Fannie and Freddie (and the shadow of the government behind them), the market for the 30 year fixed rate mortgage may dry up.  And this specter is what has my fiscal conservatism warring with my social liberalism.

On the one side, I can see how the two mortgage agencies leveraged their implied government support into super-normal profit margins for their space in the market, and how their presence in that market "crowded out" the potential for truly private industry to develop.  I also strongly suspect that Fannie and Freddie effected a parallel shift in the market clearing price for all mortgages.  Even minor shifts in this price would bring about massive shifts in wealth in the economy - we are talking about trillions of dollars.  So, to summarize this side, I think that the two agencies (and the government through them) distorted the true market for homes and rates, and that this distortion kept the market from "working" towards a healthier efficiency.

OK, but on the socially liberal side of my brain I can offer some severe criticisms of the markets and can easily see how a world without Fannie and Freddie would have resulted in an even more pronounced inequity in our society.  In particular, the availability of a 30 year, fixed rate loan has been one of the core drivers of the "American Dream" for 1000s of middle class families over the last 20+ years.

Consider a couple of numbers from today's mortgage market:

  • The average 30 year fixed mortgage rate today is ~ 4.88%; financing $200,000 at this rate for 30 years works out to a principal and interest monthly payment of ~ $1059

  • The average 15 year rate is 4.15%; financing that same $200,000 house purchase at this rate gives a payment of $1494
The difference in payment represents a 41% higher monthly cost for the shorter loan; this additional $400+ could easily be the difference between affordability for a middle class family.  Now, bear with me for a minute; I'm not suggesting that owning a home is a universal human right on par with freedom.  But what I am suggesting is that housing will always be a central concern to folks (along with food, and along with greater attained wealth, increasingly discretionary spending on things like entertainment, education, and healthcare), and so I think it not unreasonable that a person of modest means could be expected to budget around a fixed monthly payment that ensured them a place to live.

If unwinding Fannie and Freddie does in fact lead the market to leave behind the 30 year fixed rate loan, I expect the ramifications to include cutting off one proven way forward for middle-middle class people to attain a reasonable level of financial security.  This scenario will ultimately affect the rest of the economy in deep and wide ways that are tough to predict.

It's a problem with one simple solution, but it is my hope that the next 50 years will provide an opportunity for people of lower incomes to improve their lot, while at the same time allowing private industry to efficiently employ capital.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

the man period

Can we talk about my cycle for a minute?  There have been volumes written about ladies' menstrual cycles, but I'm not aware of much in popular literature about hormonal periods in men (or really much about other types of cycles in women beyond those associated with their monthly ovulation and expulsion.)

I know a little about circadian rhythms; I have heard some theories about Seasonal Affective Disorder, but in my experience of living my own life, I have come to recognize a fairly consistent ebb and flow of certain feelings, desires, moods, and motivations that are suggestive of a system at work.

I suspect that I am not alone in the experience of these macro and micro cycles.

just for visual interest...still trying to address super long blocks of text.  and it's a nice shot!
So what types of cycles am I talking about?  Maybe a bullet point list will provide an anchor for the discussion; the following is not an exhaustive list, but shows several that come to mind right away:
  • sexual desire / libido
  • motivation to exercise
  • "productivity"
    • clean the house (nesting?)
    • increase effort at job
    • home improvement
    • give time to creative pursuits
  • attention to diet
  • tend to extra-family relationships
  • general mood
The language in the above is mostly tilted to "positive" sounding ideas, mainly because I'm in an upbeat cycle today; I could have easily bulleted a cycle of "laziness" in place of "productivity."

In terms of sexual desire, I think there are some generally recognized, macro-level cycles...can we agree here that most young men enter a period of heightened sexual energy and desire in their mid-teens that persists into the mid 20s?  And it's not like there is a continental shelf-style drop-off thereafter, but by the time a man gets into his 50s, he can still be sexually active in a healthy way while still having half as much drive as at 16 years old.

phone cam snap while hiking in the Presidio
I believe there is a generally accepted similar cycle for the ladies, supposedly "peaking" in the late 20s / early 30s.  But what I'm interested in here are sub-cycles, material rises and falls in libido during the course of a month or quarter or a given year...

I love my wife, and I'm consistently attracted to her and by her, so let's assign a baseline level of sexual interest for me at a level 5 (level 1 being "I have the flu, she has the flu, and we're staying the night at my grandmother's house" and level 10 being "it's the second night of a vacation in San Francisco and we are fully rested and have just enjoyed hyper-fresh seafood and just enough Sonoma red wine and we have nowhere to be in the morning and no distractions tonight and my breath smells just fine, thank you very much and several additional things are just right so get over here right now or we may both explode apart instead of together").

So if a normal day is a 5, why is that I find myself cycling through days-long periods of sustained 7s or a week or so of 3s?  To date, I have not found any consistent correlation to exercise or diet or good days / bad days at work...

Binder Park Zoo in MI, a must visit
I have found similar cycles in my friends and family can surely attest (thank you to not do so here in this space with too much volume) that every six to nine weeks I enter these foul mood periods, where my sensitivities spike and my relationships feel the strain.  As easy as it would be to make this all about me, I really do suspect other people have similar cycles (maybe to a greater or lesser degree than my own experience), and in that commonality, I see an opportunity to learn some things about human nature.

In terms of productivity, I have these bursts of thoughts that lead to things like the laundry shelf, and other ideas about expanding my business, or landscaping the yard, and while having these thoughts it all seems so clear: the way forward, the value of the idea, the desire to start right away.  But if life's practical considerations prevent an immediate start, often a few days after the idea struck, the inspired momentum fades...and then a sort of self-perpetuating depression cycle sets in as I try to regain that original inspired feeling.

I guess what I want is to better understand my cycles, to get a better sense of the normal duration and intensity, with a goal of managing or anticipating both the valuable opportunities and also the troubling aspects.  Sort of like how by 17 or so, young ladies start figuring out whether menses makes them too crazy (I've known women who have virtually no emotional volatility around their period, and those who really could benefit from a visit to the menstrual hut; what further complicates the situation is that some of the emotionally volatile category recognize this challenge and try to accommodate while others always seem to be surprised by those days...I'm now thinking about the possible repercussions of this parenthetical aside).

I imagine that it's not "healthy" to try to prolong the "good" periods too long, and I further imagine that the "down" parts of the cycle are also important to our emotional development...but I have to think that there are mechanisms we (I, in the event that this sort of cycle is something unique to me) could employ to amplify the positive that comes out of the "up" cycles and to mitigate the damage caused by the "downs".

my wife's first attempt at ikebana - great huh?
So?  Do you have cycles?  Do you have ideas on how to measure or manage them?