Monday, September 15, 2014



Gold is a classic safe haven in times of monetary uncertainty. It's interesting to see that the price reached a peak plateau in 2011 and has been falling since 2012 - down now by about 25%. Still high relative to history, even allowing for inflation, but falling.

Despite the fact that the US is getting dragged back in to Iraq and Russia is trying to show it has strength by bullying its weaker cousin, stability seems to be in the air. Are we just collectively tired of being in a crisis? Or is the tide really turning?



The VIX is showing a similar trend. The VIX, an index based on changes in options contracts on the S&P 500, measuring expected volatility in the S&P. Its nickname is the "Fear Gauge". This gauge seems to indicate increasing confidence as well. We'll see.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Leadership through the Great Books


One of the accomplishments I am most proud of from my time at the Army-Baylor Graduate Program in Health and Business Administration is developing a course called Leadership through the Great Books with some of my colleagues.

The way the course works is the professors take turns giving introductory lectures that set the stage for the reading of each book. We talk about the historical, political, and literary movements around the time of the story and around the time of the author. None of us are literature Ph.D.s. My Ph.D. is in economics as some of you know, and colleagues who have worked on this project with me have had backgrounds in organizational psychology, operations management, policy, and law. We do this course to stretch ourselves, and to learn along with the students. It's really a rewarding experience for all of us. The list of books evolves each year. This year's list is as follows:



Machiavelli – The Prince

Aristophanes – Lysistrata

Franklin – Autobiography

Seamus Heaney (translator) – Beowulf

Hemingway – Old Man and the Sea

Simon Armitage (translator) – Death of King Arthur
           
            Shakespeare – King Lear       

Shelley – Frankenstein

Heinlein - Starship Troopers

one book of the students' choice, presented by the students (last year it was The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro)

One of the great things about this course is that most of our students do not come from a liberal arts background, or at least not one that includes reading this kind of literature. Many of our students are nurses, doctors, physical therapists, and former business majors. They take this course because they have a genuine desire to engage with the literature. Most of them have not read the majority of the books on our reading list, so it is really wonderful to share these great books with them. 

Yesterday I gave the introductory lecture for Beowulf, and for the first time I recorded the lecture. I was able to figure out how to post it to Youtube, so it is embedded below.



(here is the link in case the embed fails: http://youtu.be/15cKhNMlhg4)

A link to the slides, which include all the citations for the images and text, is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_i6n1cpkLYwSllKYlBMd2NJdG8/edit?usp=sharing

I'll miss being involved with this class when I leave in a few months. Hopefully UNH with have something similar that I can participate in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

freight shipment increases


The CASS Freight index measures the volume of commercial shipping in the US. Increasing commercial shipping is usually regarded as good news for the real goods portion of the economy. If more stuff is moving, it means consumers and businesses are buying either end goods (consumers) or intermediate goods (producers).

There is cyclicality to this data, but it looks to be improving.

life as a project

I was looking for some uniform paraphernalia in my junk drawer and I came across an old journal. It appears to begin in late 1993, about a year after I came on active duty, and ends some time in 1994. I only flipped through a few pages because it was kind of hard to look at. This was a time when I was transitioning to adulthood from the extended adolescence of college. The voice I used was fairly detached and clinical, which at once made me wince and smile as I reread my own words from a distance of 20+ years. I was obviously trying to analyze my own feelings and experiences - to make sense of this new adult world I found myself plunged into. It's not a very exciting document from what I saw. I didn't have much time, so I put it back.

weeds

I have to admit, I didn't just put it back because I didn't have time to look through it. I also put it back because I felt a bit of shame at reading it. The clinical voice was quite critical. I clearly had high expectations of what I was supposed to be accomplishing and what I should then go on to accomplish, and even at that point I was not living up to my inner critic. Someone should have told that inner critic that reality is much more complicated and challenging when met in person than when dreamed about.

I kept journals for years, on and off. Journaling was like blogging, except you knew no one was ever going to read it. I guess now that I have this (and other blogs, and twitter, and Facebook) I don't feel the need to journal anymore. Unfortunately I think I destroyed all the other journals except the one I found in my drawer. I wish I could go back now and look at some of my thoughts from when I was 17 or 20. Or maybe not.

One thing that became clear as I was skimming through the pages was that I have always looked at my life as a project, and still do. It may be healthy or unhealthy depending on your perspective. I don't suggest anyone else should. Except perhaps my kids, but since that's a vanishingly small share of the the rest of the human community, roll with me. But I would even pass it on to my kids with a warning label attached.

Success is not defined for me by wealth. Nor is it defined by power or the attainment of high social status. Though I have admit, these things both tempt me and attract me - I am human and vulnerable to their allure just like most other people. Ultimately I think success is defined by how you live your life. Life is a project. Are you striving to make as much as you can with the raw materials you were given? We all have different endowments and life opportunities, and there is a great bit of luck that intervenes. But there is always a great bit that we can control. I think of the parable of the talents frequently. One thing I have learned repeatedly in the years intervening between the journal I looked at and today is how few talents I actually have. Encounters with real life will quickly teach you that you cannot do all things, that you do not have the ability to do most things even passably well. But life also teaches you that if you try and work hard, the few talents you do have can be put to good use. They can be quite productive. And even in the areas where you have little or no talent, you can make marginal progress. You should strive to let your life speak, as the Quakers say.

I misused the Quaker phrase, "Let your life speak" in a pointless argument I got into yesterday on social media. I misused it in the sense that I used it as a weapon, not as a personal discipline for myself. To use it in that sense, to say, "look at my life" as proof for some argument is to completely and totally miss the point. Because at that moment your life is indeed speaking.  Unfortunately, it is doing so in a foul manner, negating with arrogance all that might have been good before that moment. I have since apologized to the individual for my arrogance. However, the encounter has left me pensive today. I use the word encounter because there were three parties to that argument - myself, the other individual, and my ego.

I have spent more time than I should have today reflecting on letting my life speak, and my life as a project, but I feel like it is necessary when you have an encounter with your ego like that, and you realize you need to re-evaluate.

I'm a management guy and a comptroller by training, so I can't help wanting to categorize and measure things when something seems to be out of whack. So I jotted down some areas that I feel summarize the project of life. I feel like I should be able to articulate where I am and what I am doing to improve each of these categories:
  1. Physical - physical health, physical fitness, diet, exercise, etc.
  2. Mental - am I challenging myself to learn as much as I can? Am I learning broadly enough? Am I venturing outside of my comfort zone?
  3. Spiritual - am I expending enough energy finding harmony and meaning?
  4. Financial - am I ensuring, to the best of my ability, that I will not be a burden on my family, friends, and society? am I ensuring that financial well-being will not interfere with my other pursuits? that I have enough, but that financial goals are not becoming ends in themselves?
  5. Creative - am I actively cultivating my creative nature? am I engaged in creative pursuits regularly enough to continue to develop those skills?
  6. Family - am I investing in my family? am I investing in my extended family of friends as well as relatives?
  7. Community - am I contributing to the social capital around me beyond my family?
There are a lot of I's in these statements, but I recognize that only I can directly influence myself. Only I can do each of these things for myself. Many of them can be and must be done with other people, but I bear responsibility for my contribution.

The Quakers have "testimonies" - guidelines for how they should live. I think they are all admirable. Since I'm not a Quaker, nor aspiring to be one, I sat and thought about what my testimonies would be. I think they are as follows:
  1. humility
  2. curiosity
  3. attentiveness
  4. generosity 
  5. discipline
  6. duty
I think you need your guiding principles to be at a center point from which the other things you value can flow from.  I want to define these, but I think I need to think further on them. I might change them some more. I just changed commitment to duty. Duty is a loaded word and not one we hear about much in contemporary American discourse. We're much more interested in our rights than our duties, but there are no rights without duties. Obviously I've failed at humility, and perhaps by even having the audacity to write this down I am committing an even greater failure. It's a thing to think further about. Also, six is probably about three too many.

Life is a project; I want mine to speak, and speak well. I've made many errors, some more grievous than others. I know I would have disappointed my 23 year old self.  However, while he was idealistic, he was also quite naive. Making a life as a project is a continuous process. I think its important to step back and ask, have I done all I could with what I was given?

At the end of our days, will the Lord say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

g.d. weed whacker

I hate changing out the G.D. weed whacker twine. It never works right again. It's like a one time thing. You buy a new weed whacker, it comes with the twine loaded, you do a little trimming and run out, and when you re-load the cartridge, it never works right again.

weed whacker twine

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Packaging

I'm not a hoarder but there is something about these altoids boxes that makes me want to hang on to them. Surely I have a need for a whole pile of them.

I've been trying to develop an understanding of graphic design over the last year or so, and as a result I have been paying more attention to packaging. I love the old timey feel of getting your candy out if a little tin box. The product wouldn't be the same if you shook them out of a clear plastic container. The tin box changes how you interact with the product.  It makes me value it more. And when the candy is done, it seems a shame to throw away the box.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Stock Market Par-te!


Killing time while my students take their final exam, so I thought I'd cruise over to FRED and look at some data. Above is a snapshot of three stock market indeces: the S&P 500, an index of the 500 largest US stocks; the Wilshire 5000, an index of 5000 US stocks meant to replicate the returns of the whole stock market; and the Wilshire Small Cap total-market, meant to replicate the returns to the small company portion of the stock market.

The rates of return are really quite remarkable. What is interesting though is to see just how much more strongly the small company portion of the market is performing vs. large companies. With all these incredibly low interest rates, you would think large companies would be investing in all sorts of improvements. And they do seem to be doing well, but not nearly as well as the small cap companies.


There has been a lot of discussion about how investors have been shifting to equities from bonds because bonds are paying such low returns, with rates held artificially low by the Fed's easy money policies. Yellen, the Fed Chair, has indicated that those easy money policies are ending. If rates start to rise, presumably some of these investors will sell their stocks and shift back to bonds. Will this precipitate a broad sell off of stocks? Or just a slow down? Or will the fundamentals remain strong and sustain current prices? It will be interesting to watch.