Monthly Archives: October 2011

Everything is on Fire…Slow Fire

I'm reading The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, his unfinished novel. There are lots of dark passages. Here's an excerpt which addresses, as DFW often does, terrible truths:

I'm talking about the individual US citizen's deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we've lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it's all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it's not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than "die," "pass away," the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday

And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have heven heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money toh ave put in to make sure we're remembered, these'll last what — a hundred years? two hundred? — and they'll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I'm cremated the trees that are nourished by my windbown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, to only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1863, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that's why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.

Have a great day!

What Finance is About

I thought Jerry Webman, the chief economist at Oppenheimer Funds, captured the essence of finance nicely and simply in his op/ed in the FT the other day:

At its core, finance is about linking people with savings to those that can put them to productive use. Performed correctly, it can fund retirement accounts, foster growth in emerging markets and support the technology companies that help protesters assemble in a flash. A well-functioning financial system is critical for economic growth. Investments that support worthwhile projects can build the human and physical capital that generates growth and raises standards of living around the world.

I've been negative on the finance industry and bankers in a couple recent tweets, quoting Nassim Taleb and Michael Lewis. It's good to go back to the basics, as Webman does, and be reminded of what finance is really about–when it functions correctly.

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Not to be negative again on banks — just when we were being positive! — but a point about those Goldman Sachs / Citibank magazine advertisements and pre-roll online video commercials that talk about how Goldman/Citi help communities flourish, how they empower small business owners, etc. They've been in heavy rotation ever since the '08 crisis. And they are stylistically just like the Exxon and Shell Oil commercials that claim that oil companies are leading the way in finding renewable energy.

Our Ability to Forget

"We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were." – Joan Didion

But it's our ability to forget that allows us to move forward.

The Effects of Going Off the Grid and Exploring Nature

Is going off the grid and retreating into nature sure to be relaxing and rejuvenating? Not for Rob Horning, who spent some time in Idaho for a nature trip awhile back. He reports:

Contra Thoreau, retreating into nature, instead of bringing me back to myself, made me feel like less of a self and a bit more like one of the many undifferentiated bison one encounters out there. I don’t feel replenished for the assault on the backlog of posts I intend to read and write. Instead, as I was out hiking, I would think of this dormant blog and wonder how I’ll ever manage to catch upa nagging thought that filled me with vague, unshakable uneasiness.

Being adrift in the natural world had come to feel very unnatural; the serenity seemed like a taunt. This seems to me the inverse of the interconnected feeling I take for granted in the time I spend online, and I understood for the first time why people would do something as inane as Twitter their hikes from their iPhones or something. I tried to feed this anxiety by taking lots of pictures with the idea of sharing them later, but this only aggravated the feeling. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures. Eventually I had to try the opposite tack and take no pictures at all.

There are two points here. The first is that if you take a vacation but spend the vacation time worrying about all the work that's piling up, it may cause more stress than you had in the first place. A valid point, which is why off-the-grid vacations need to be long enough so that you pass by that anxiety, so that you get you a point where so much work has piled up that you essentially say, "Screw it, time to relax." 6-7 days a couple times a year seems a good number for formal vacation; a couple days of stress, a few days of relaxation.

His second point is that being disconnected from technology–and out in nature–makes you feel adrift, perhaps lonely. I think this is a benefit from unplugging for stretches of time. Something that feels unnatural in the modern age is not necessarily a bad thing.

I wish I spent more time in nature and off-the-grid. That, and meditating, are two things I aspire to do more of in the year ahead in order to lower stress, improve health, and improve clarity of thought.

Impressions and Lessons from Greece

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I spent last week in Athens, Greece. It was my first time to the country. I didn't have time to make it to the islands, but I did have time to meet many students, NGO leaders, and businesspeople in Athens. Some assorted impressions and lessons.

1. History. Seeing the stadium that hosted the first Olympic games; seeing the place where Socrates was forced to commit suicide; seeing where a stage play was first performed; learning about the numerous English words and images (like the logo/insignia of pharmacies) that have their origin in a Greek god or Greek word…Athens really is the birthplace of western civilization and western democracy. 

The Parthenon and related antiquities are well-kept outside, and an architectural wonder of the world, obviously. Inside, the new Acropolis museum shows off many other sculptures and art. Christopher Hitchen wrote a piece in Vanity Fair a couple years back (which I happened to read in the Best American Travel Writing of 2010 that I brought along on my trip) about the musuem. He covers the dispute over the British Museum holding various Greek art that ought to be in Athens. Hitchens thinks it's an outrage–though, to be fair, issues of national sovereignty over long-ago stolen art is a tricky one. Missing pieces notwithstanding, Hitchens raves about the new Acropolis museum. I generally don't like museums, but I'm with Hitchens on this one — the facility does a splendid job at showing off the millenia-old history of the country.

2. Athens beyond antiquities. Besides the Acropolis, there isn't a ton to do or see in Athens. There's plenty of traffic and pollution, meanwhile. While the Acropolis sitting up high is always a sight to behold from wherever you are in the city (especially at night when it's lit up), I wouldn't say the city built for Athena is especially stunning in the 21st century.

3. Motivated students. I wasn't dealing with a representative sample of the population, that's for sure, but the several hundred students who I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to seemed driven to take control of their future, innovate, and overcome the massive economic challenges facing their country. With youth employment soaring (40% according to some numbers), the savvy students are aggressively trying to build a career without relying on the usual industries (e.g. government) or strategies. That's the good news.

4. Brain drain risk. But the potentially bad news is that these savvy students might not stay. I gained no great insight into the macroeconomic situation in Greece — and I didn't have much insight to begin with. But an observation I did have is around a long-term risk more significant than the country's debts: the possible population brain drain of the students mentioned in point #3. Many smart young people are thinking about leaving the country; they told me so themselves. There's a self-fulling dynamic here. If the smart people perceive there's no future for them in Greece, then they leave, and when the smart people leave, there really is no future for the country. It needs to find a way to keep them. 

The common approach elders take to keeping talented youth in a country is appealing to notions of civic duty and national pride. That's one approach. But a grittier entrepreneurial approach is to focus on the business opportunities that are the flip side of societal problems. If taxi drivers strike constantly, why not start Ubercab for the businesspeople of Athens? Maybe not a great business idea, but it's an example of emphasizing practical self-interest over high-minded ideals when urging the best and brightest to stay.

5. Labor strikes. There are strikes every day in Athens thanks to the severe government cuts that are part of the austerity measures. Garbage men were on strike–so garbage was piled high on every street corner. Public transit and taxi drivers went on strike–so nobody could get around. Archaeologists and museum security guards went on strike–so nobody could go to museums. Tax collectors and government officials went on strike–so nobody could use basic government services. Apparently, daily strikes have been going on for about two years, and are now a certain occurrence. There's a web site in Greek that each day shows who is striking and for how long–it's become a must-read in Athens. Everyone I spoke to about the strikes agreed that the protesters were against the austerity measures, but were not for any specific alternative approach.

6. U.S. Diplomats and local staff. Once again, I was super impressed with the quality of the U.S. diplomats (who helped host me in Athens). The foreign service officers and the local staff they hire are truly a cut above your average federal government employee. I was also honored to spend some time with the American Ambassador to Greece and participate in a reception at his residence. What a challenging and exciting post right now. Again, just impressive all around.

7. Building entrepreneurial communities. A question we were batting around at dinner one night was how certain places (like Athens) might become hotbeds of entrepreneurship. I've thought a lot about this question over the years, particularly when I wrote an article on how Boulder, CO became a start-up hub. One point I make in the article–it's really Brad Feld's point, as he is a thought leader on the topic–is the need for leadership from individuals within the community. Not government officials, but private citizens who step up and try to galvanize the community to support the entrepreneurial process.

But the leadership or entrepreneurial push can't be momentary in response to a crisis. It has to be enduring. In Boulder, Brad's been there for more than a decade, and it's only in the last couple years that the city has emerged on the national map as a viable place to do a company. Leadership is needed over a long period of time; as Brad says, it's a 20-year journey. Government programs are prone to lose patience with programs that don't produce immediate gain; start-ups rarely produce immediate gain no matter how you measure it. It's another reason why governments cannot provide the long-term leadership necessary to drive entrepreneurial activity. (I'm fascinated to watch for how long the Chilean government funds Start-Up Chile.) In any event, for a local entrepreneur to be a true leader in the entrepreneurial community, it does seem like s/he needs to commit to leading/organizing/rallying the troops for decades, not years.

8. Being abroad. I hadn't traveled outside the U.S. for more than a year. It was great to get back out there. Though I had to camp out in my hotel room for a majority of the time, being out and about for meals, walking through Munich and Frankfurt airports, seeing the International Herald Tribune on Athens newsstands–these little things were enough to trigger the high one gets from being in a new place. And it's an energy that endures even when you return home…

Remembering Steve Jobs

There has been so much written about him already. I wanted to share a few random, personal reflections.

— Jobs was an icon to me, though he was not a role model, mentor, or muse. It's interesting how people differ in where they find inspiration; the most inspiring people in my life are people who seem within my reach. Jobs always seemed in a different orbit–so astronomically more creative and talented than I was/am/will be that I never followed his life in the obsessive maybe I could be him/her way that I follow some people. He was certainly aspirational, but not relatable. And that's why, while I feel a lasting sadness over his death, I do not feel like I've lost something as profound as a personal pole star. 

— I've written about the Think Different ad. I've spoken the text dozens of times to people over the years, and have begun nearly every public speech with the story of being forced to memorize it while in school. The text of the ad has been hanging in my childhood bedroom for years. The newly released video of Jobs narrating the ad, embedded below, is so moving. 

— When I was very young, I mailed a letter to Steve Jobs asking if he could donate a computer to help me start a company. My family had a couple computers (early Macintoshes), but I figured maybe I could get a new fancy one for free, if I asked nicely. A few weeks later, I received a letter back from an Apple spokesperson. It was two sentences long. The first sentence said Apple doesn't make donations. The second sentence requested that I remove Apple from my mailing list. Looking back, that's a pretty amusing reply.

— There's so much pessimism about politics and economics in the world right now. The celebration of innovation that accompanied Jobs's death reminded me why I love the technology industry.

— As with all breaking news events, the best action that day was on Twitter, for the raw emotion.

RIP, Steve.

Book Review: Loyalty by Eric Felten

41+acjhZqgL._SL500_AA300_ Browsing in a book store a couple months ago–something I wish I did more, to introduce serendipity that doesn’t happen when buying books online–I noticed an item that caught my eye. Beautifully packaged in a dark blue jacket cover with a gold-font title: Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Wall Street Journal arts columnist and musician Eric Felten. I bought it.

In the introduction, Felten says “loyalty is the virtue of being trustworthy.” It means keeping your word. In each subsequent chapter, he complicates this basic definition by exploring how loyalty operates in different contexts: romance, business, politics, and others.

Felten says loyalty is essential in human affairs. Without loyalty, trust disappears and relationships crumble. The problem is, loyalties conflict. For example, when friends commit immoral acts, should you stand by them (loyal to friend) or uphold moral principles (loyal to principle)? Felten says, “Try not to renounce your old friends except when they exhibit an excess of wickedness.” An excess of wickedness was Aristotle’s trigger for disloyalty. Or as Sir Walter Scott said, “I like a highland friend who will stand by me not only when I am in the right, but when I am little in the wrong.” A lot in the wrong is different; too much loyalty and soon we’re talking about a vice, not a virtue, Felten says.

What’s the difference between a little and a lot of wickedness? That’s up to you. Figuring it out is an example of a tough decision Felten says we need to make, case by case. If we’re not willing to untangle loyalty conflicts as they arise, we give up on loyalty altogether, and life becomes impossible.

The chapter on adultery and monogamy is strong. Couple quotes:

…the “passion-fidelity dilemma.” It’s a long standing struggle, and we still haven’t been able to decide whether passion and fidelity are compatible. We want love that lasts, but we also want passionate intensity, and we suspect that we will at some point have to choose which love is worth having, the epic but brief romance, or the companionship that goes the distance. Many facing this choice look at passion like ripe peaches–short lived, but much to be preferred over fruit canned in cloying syrup.

So which is it? Is loyalty love’s friend or its enemy? Does love bind things together or rip them apart? The advocates of passion celebrate Eros’ tendency to smash the crockery. Real love, they argue, is unconstrained by stodgy, boring old notions of fidelity; real love proves its primacy by transgressing the petty boundaries of bourgeois morality; real love demonstrates itself by transcending inhibition and propriety. This is a view that aggrandizes the destructive tendencies of love and betlittles loyalty as a wet security blanket. It is also a narrow, impoverished view, one with adolescent enthusiasm made possible by an adolescent understanding of what gives life satisfaction and meaning. As alluring as the passion principle may be, mistaking romance for love is one of the most common calamities known to humankind. And, as we’ll see, the difference between the two is marked by loyalty.

I mostly agree, though I think many believe in the idea of monogamous romance–and agree with Felten that the passion principle gets tiresome as lifelong practice–but still commit occasional physical betrayals. In other words, many agree that fidelity in romance is the way to the happiest life, but many of those same people still occasionally act in pursuit of momentary passion.

The topic of loyalty has been an interest of mine for awhile. Hearing people exalt others for their “loyalty”–to a person, to an organization, or a cause–has never quite sat well with me, probably because there is a dangerous, unthinking sort of loyalty that is called to mind when I hear the word. The ambiguity of it all has also bugged me. Almost two years ago, I wrote a post titled Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue:

Loyalty is better viewed as a phenomenon of other traits and virtues: trustworthiness, empathy for fellow humans, investing in a relationship in good times and bad, variations of the golden rule, etc. These are constitutive virtues of loyalty. For example, fidelity is its own virtue. You should be faithful in a relationship. To describe this concept, I say use the word “fidelity” and not “loyalty.”

I still would rather people use other more specific words to describe certain positive traits. But Felten refreshed my understanding of the essential role of the virtue(s) at work when we use the word, without arriving at any easy or clear conclusions. My own conclusion from reading the book is that I maintain staunch loyalty to certain people, institutions, and ideas, and must be prepared to negotiate conflicts accordingly.

This is a book to give to anyone who too quickly celebrates loyalty or to someone tempted to too quickly dismiss it.