Pushing ahead in an era of distraction

As 2017 comes to a close, I realize that this blog has seriously fallen by the wayside. Chief among the reasons is undoubtedly distraction. I’ve never discussed politics much on this blog before, and this may be as poor a time to start as any, but I have to say it:America is going downhill fast under Donald Trump. I could go on about all the many flaws of our current Commander in Chief, but it’s not worth it. More gripes would just add to the problem. The modus operandi for celebrities is “any press is good press,” and the Trump presidency is an extreme manifestation of this.

The man just needs to trounced in election after election — first in the 2018 mid-terms, and then in the 2020 presidential election. I seriously hope decency in America can resurface in America to the extent that we one day discuss “the Trump era,” the way that folks in my parents’ generation (the boomers) discuss “the McCarthy era” or “the Watergate era.”

Meanwhile, thoughtful people who believe in civility and the possibility of reasonable policy-making just need to push forward.  Rather than being intimidated or distracted by the latest shiny object dropped into the news-cycle, Americans need to rebuild our crumbling society brick by brick. I may get into what that might entail in future posts — now that this blog has taken up what’s honestly on my mind.


Swensen’s plain and effective advice for individual investors gets lost in the guru mystique

The New York Times recent feature story about David Swensen, “The money management gospel of Yale’s endowment guru,” paints a picture of one of the hardest-working and most ethical institutional investors on the planet.

The article, however, fails to point out that the type of investing depicted in the article, with a palette of  hedge fund managers selected by a committee of astute market analysts, isn’t what Swensen would recommend for individual investors. For us, Swensen’s advice is far simpler.

Swensen’s book for everyday investors, Unconventional Success—not mentioned in the article, but covered by the Times back in 2005—is a cornerstone for understanding how to assemble a reasonable and low cost investment strategy.

Bogleheads has a good one-page summary of this strategy, which is one of the so-called “lazy” portfolios, since the investor can set it up and then tune-out market news. Once or twice a year, funds can be re-balanced by buying and selling holdings to their strategic allocation.

The allocation, in a nutshell, per Bogleheads, is:

  • US equity:  30%
  • Foreign developed equity: 15%
  • Emerging market equity: 5%
  • US REITS: 20%
  • US Treasury bonds: 15%
  • US TIPS: 15%

I follow this allocation for all of my investments, with one slight tweak. Since the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund contains a proportional amount of the word’s emerging market stocks, I invest 20% in that fund, which makes my investing that much simpler.

You can learn to put together this portfolio without reading the book, but the advantage of reading Swensen is the strategy begins to make sense. Each of the elements is there for a reason, and in concert these elements work together nicely (except perhaps in a market free-fall, where everything is losing value, but the only words that matter in that situation are ‘stay the course’). Since the allocation makes sense, it’s easier to stick to it.

This echoes Warren Buffet’s maxim not to invest in anything you cannot understand. Buffet, perhaps the word’s most successful investment manager, also unironically advises everyday investors to keep it simple by buying index funds.

Unconventional Success is also kind of fun to read if you can get past Swensen’s dry prose style and the formulaic (like class notes) way the chapters are structured. He is absolutely brilliant at skewering rip-off artists in the market, and he does so plainly with a certain vehemence I enjoy. You can see shades of this in the recent Times article when Swensen criticizes how the interplay of a hedge fund and a pharmaceutical company (Valeant) resulted in skyrocketing drug prices.

Although I wish the article contained a bit more education for the general reader, I welcomed its appearance nonetheless. Having read that Swensen’s been battling cancer for a few years, I wish him well. Our nation needs more wise teachers like him.


Sapiens changed my life. This book by Yuval Noah Harari offers the widest possible aperture on human history. It focuses on our species’ favorite subject: ourselves. It also points to the devastation we’ve wrought on other human species (now extinct) and every other species we plunder. I cannot recommend it more highly.

My favorite aspect of the book is how it contextualizes big ideologies that dominate human affairs (Christianity and capitalism, to take two big examples). Rather than take sides about their merits, he points to their function for our species. This macro-scaling, while stepping aside from petty dogmatic questions, allows for his arguments to be simultaneously sweeping and well-founded.

This is a book to be read and re-read.

The Q Bus Lives

Today I checked the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “better bus” webpage and clicked on the slate of upcoming service changes for 2016. To my surprise and delight, the Q bus I ride each day between Rockville and Silver Spring will survive and live another day, at least for the time being. Metrobus will put aside a plan to chop the line in half and force folks to transfer at Wheaton Station.

Last fall they collected feedback the plan that would have ended the eastern (Georgia Avenue and Silver Spring) portion of the Q line, which extends to Shady Grove at its Western end.  The plan would have stopped the line at Wheaton Station, and passengers traveling to Silver Spring would have gotten a free transfer onto the Metro line. Going the other way, passengers transferring on to the Q line from the Metro line would ride the bus free.

Why was this idea seriously considered and almost implemented? Beltway traffic on Georgia Avenue north of Silver Spring is predictably snarled, particularly during the evening northbound rush. With Y line buses already covering this part of the route, why not remove the cross-county Q buses from the congestion?

I disagreed fundamentally with the plan. The buses are a engulfed in a sea of passenger-less cars. They are a rafts of sanity and fiscal sense on these nasty currents of wasteful driving. Why punish those trying to make a positive difference by taking public transportation? I realize something has to give, but cars can’t just win because they are harder to control. Seemed like punishing those with the weakest voice (poorer riders) to accommodate people rich enough to drive solo.

Along with 473 other riders, I filled out survey on the proposed change (in my case by going to their website). The results of the survey reflected some of my own concerns and are nicely summarized in the service change document, and I quote them below:

Route Q1,2,4 Service and Tariff Proposals (referred to as Q Line)
Q Line customers weighed two proposals which at first blush are offsetting: the first is to receive a free transfer between Q Line and Red Line and the second is to cut the Q service back at Wheaton station forcing a transfer. As you might expect, Q Line customers rated the free transfer as positive and the service reduction as negative.
A closer look was taken to segment customers who were positive of both changes, one or the other, or were negative about both changes.
Just 11 percent of Q Line customers were positive about both the free transfer and service proposal. Another 46 percent preferred one or the other, mostly positive toward the free transfer and negative by the service reduction. Finally, 43 percent were negative toward both proposals.
Written sentiments seem to echo this negativity. An additional in-house survey was conducted by the CSCM team on-board the Q2 and Q4 bus lines between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 to collect additional data for the equity analysis. The survey results were consistent with the predominantly negative
sentiments reflected in the feedback gathered through the online survey, as described above.
Overall, service changes to the Q line would affect 76% of the riders surveyed on-board. The results showed a strong preference for bus over rail, with only 19% of respondents saying they would switch to the Red Line for access between
Wheaton and Silver Spring, if the Q Line service were to be cut. In terms of ridership, empirical evidence showed the north-bound Q line buses to be mostly full between 7:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m., while the south bound buses were generally full throughout the day.
At the end of the document, Metrobus staff give their recommendation: “do not implement.”
To put this in a larger context that’s easier to understand, I believe this represents a significant win for poorer riders–those who don’t have cars or can’t afford parking in particular–who need to commute across Montgomery county. Those going almost the entire route won’t be forced to transfer. Although this doesn’t solve the problem of snarled traffic, it at least doesn’t punish those who contribute to a more sensible commute for everyone. Now let’s start working on a better, cheaper, cleaner, transportation system.
Reading the document was also a refreshing taste of democracy in action. I learned how seriously Metrobus takes socioeconomic equity issues, and support the methodology overall. I might be signing a slightly different tune had the decision been opposite, but I still believe I’d respect the amount of work they put into their surveying (including sending out surveyors to capture the voices of riders unlikely to fill out online forms).

What is my risk profile?

Sophisticated algorithms are constantly gauging us online, calibrating the likelihood of various outcomes without our knowing about it. In financial life, these computations mostly involve risk. But they are hidden. What if, as financial citizens, we were able to view our own risk profiles? It would be an effective educational tool to know exactly where we stand. Too much debt to income? You might get a heads up about that. Something tells me this stuff is hidden because few people have asked for it. I think a startup could launch a  free “scan me” risk profile feature for those who don’t mind inputting their data using some of the industry-standard stuff that businesspeople use.

If this post seems short, it’s because I’m composing it while riding on a bus, and I just got to my stop.

Aristotle is my writing coach

Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)
Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

“The beginning is more than half the task, and throws a flood of light on many aspects of the inquiry” (p. 17, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

This echoes something that Jon Franklin, my literary journalism professor at the University of Maryland (undoubtedly quoting someone equally famous as the philosopher of old) always said:

“The definition of writer’s block is not knowing what you are doing.”

Because I work as a writer, I interpret Aristotle’s statement in my own terms, and what he says is true. The hardest work is arranging a plan of attack, an illuminating principle, a beginning. Even if you don’t follow the classic “inverted triangle” of writing the most important facts first, the first sentences of any piece are Aristotle’s “flood of light.” If these sentences are no good, they leave the reader in the dark. If they cast the right light, the reader can sense they are in good hands.

It strikes me that good writers–particularly non-fiction writers, reporters, and essayists–fit Aristotle’s definition of the “sincere man”

“Such a man is to be commended. His inclination, if any, is toward understatement, because this seems to be in better taste, since exaggeration is wearisome” (p. 106, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

Exaggeration and hyperbole are everywhere, a function of much of the language we encounter being crafted by marketers and not artists. A worthwhile artist doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence with hollow claims, which are “wearisome” to sort through.

The Mother of All Goals – Dropping to “Normal” Weight with StickK


By Dan Wilcock

Weight loss is a great American pastime, or perhaps a great American folly. Oceans of money are spent on it. Entire forests are cut down to publish guidebooks. The only times I’ve been fairly successful at it have been when I’m not particularly paying attention to it.

I set a goal for myself this week: drop enough weight to achieve normal BMI. I’m a 5’10” male, so that means 172 pounds. Right now I’m around 200, of which I’m not particularly proud. But there it is.

What makes me think I have a chance in hell of reaching weighing what I did when I entered college?

I’m going to nudge myself my using StickK, where I’ve created a commitment page and pledged to contribute $5 to charity each week I don’t meet my weight goal. The first few months of .5 pounds/week reduction targets probably won’t be that tough. I imagine that toward the end it will be a lot harder and I may need to cough up the cash.

Why aim at so-called “normal” weight when there are good reasons to be skeptical of BMI in the first place? Why try to be what Americans perceive as skinny when some studies suggest that being a little overweight is healthier over a lifetime? I agree with this skepticism. Muscle-bound people are sometimes considered obese using BMI since it’s such a crude measurement. Being a little overweight may be just the margin we need against wear and tear and the ravages of time.

All that being said, the goal and its attainment matter to me. Dropping to 172 would provide a lifetime benefit. Getting there will require setting a lot of new baselines from which to live—in terms of daily exercise (I love to run), nutrition, and sleep. I’m also fond of StickK’s methodology—setting up iterative real consequences over time for success or failure (your get to keep your money or fork it)—such that progress occurs in dripping drops. There’s a very popular social science book behind ideas like this called Nudge, which I recommend.

Failure is a real possibility, and I’m happy to pay for it. But, as I’ve written before here, archers aim high to hit distant targets. I’ll let you know how proximate to the mark I am as I go.

Have you tried using StickK or similar programs to meet a goal? Have you succeeded or failed? Drop a comment if you’d like.

Rediscovering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Almost at Random

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2011 photo by Bloomberg via Taleb’s website fooledbyrandomness.com)


By Daniel Wilcock

A random mistake at the airport earlier this month—checking in the book I intended to read along with the bag that contained it—reintroduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Incerto” series of books. Even though I’d read and loved the Black Swan a few years back, the other three volumes, Fooled by Randomness, the Bed of Procrustes, and his latest Antifragile, somehow hadn’t caught my attention despite my knowing about them. How foolish. Taleb is an intellectual of the street fighting variety. His books pull brains out of stupid mode and light them on fire. They awaken readers to errors and misperceptions everywhere. That for me is the mark of a good philosopher. Yet a grain of salt or two may be needed. His stridency and dismissiveness of others are also the marks of an egotist cult leader, which I don’t think he is, but more on that later. How did I figure that his other books weren’t worth reading? Consider this blog post a way to make amends for this error.

By good fortune, but not randomness since the book is a perennial bestseller, a bookstore at Dulles International Airport happened to have a copy of Taleb’s second edition (2005) of Fooled by Randomness. Purchase made. Thus instead of reading the third volume of Lord of the Rings on the flight to Tokyo, an equally fine endeavor, I had the pleasure of jolting my worldview a bit. In Taleb’s hands, the hours ticked by pleasantly despite the cramped conditions, bland food, and impossibility of sleep.* If you enjoy non-technical philosophy and contrarian viewpoints, I’d say give this author a try.

Each of Taleb’s books is a fractal component his larger oeuvre, which argues that the “knowledge” and advice we encounter fail to adequately take into account the random, the opaque, and the unknown. This turns most modern human beings, particularly those who pay attention to mass media, into suckers and turkeys. His focus is on how to make decisions in an environment where we are continuously deluded and blind to the big disruptions he calls “black swans.” He thinks that these big events, which we never can predict, end up running our lives. He prefers negative to positive advice. These lessons, heavily informed by ancient philosophers like the stoics and contemporary behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman, mostly boil down to “don’t be a fool.” This is ultimately an impossible edict for humans, but archers aim high to hit distant targets.

Fooled by Randomness is the humblest and perhaps the most endearing of Taleb’s works. It shows how he gathered the bearings of his world view and contains the key admission that contextualizes the brash and seemingly arrogant way he battles with status quo thinkers. He admits repeatedly that he is a fool himself. One thing he attacks in others is their lack of similar humility, which is risky and ultimately destructive. Without this baseline caveat, it’s easy to misinterpret as self-righteous Taleb’s attacks on most other professional thinkers, particularly financial analysts, economists, journalists, and academics.

Fooled by Randomness is Taleb’s initial takedown of professional predictors. Like all of his books, it’s a mélange of autobiography (he worked as a trader for 20 years, then as an academic who writes books and doesn’t seem to like the academy much, and now as a flâneur, which is French for an idler who lives well by not making plans), philosophy, real-world observation and fictional narrative. It introduces a semi-autobiographical character called Nero Tulip (a name suffused with wry references), a financial trader who follows a seemingly lackluster “barbell” investment strategy of bonds plus small bets that pay off big in the event of market crashes. Despite having a risk-adverse worldview, Nero envies the flashy lifestyle of his neighbor, a fellow trader getting rich quickly with the latest financial trend. The neighbor “blows up” in the end and leaves the market. Nero is vindicated and remains in the market before he randomly ends up crashing a helicopter.

Later, in the Black Swan, Taleb introduces other semi-autobiographical characters like Fat Tony, another trader (and a necktie-free wise-guy gourmand that judges people subconsciously by smelling them) who functions as a comical mirror image of the experts Taleb attacks. Despite his argument that narratives pull the wool over our eyes, he calls it the “narrative fallacy,” Taleb uses these little stories nonetheless since humans’ brains function through narratives and also because he savors their artistic side. He appreciates style and intellectual pleasure, and finds great value in novelists and thinkers whose works have withstood the erasure of time. He’s a man who since his teens has read voraciously—40 to 60 hours a week, which reminds me of the number of miles run by marathoners each week—and I think these “Incerto” books are the output of his idiosyncratic inputs.

After putting down Fooled by Randomness, I picked up both the Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile. The former is a collection of Taleb’s aphorisms, pithy little sayings that contain his wit and wisdom, and I think best enjoyed piecemeal, perhaps a page a day. Antifragile is another beast altogether, but similar in structure and content to the Black Swan. Taleb writes that Antifragile contains his main argument, the central idea of the Incerto. The title is a new word he invented. Antifragile refers to the quality of things that benefit from randomness, volatility, damage. These things have convex shape rather than concave when plotted on an axis. They have more of an upside than a downside when stressed. Examples can include the human body (up to a certain limit), the world of small businesses, barbell-style investors, and authors. In other words, he’s come up with a philosophy based on his own path to the good life. Again, he favors negative advice, a time-tested school of thought called “via negativa.” He finds wisdom in the concept of “small is beautiful” since larger size makes things more fragile. I could go on, but if you find these ideas tantalizing, the best thing to do is pick up the original.

As promised, a grain of salt. I think any thinker who warns you off most other thinkers, and one who is so clearly impressed with his own pathways in life, runs the risk of being an egotistical cult leader. Were Taleb more of a religious fanatic, rather than what I perceive to be a very erudite and broad-minded deist, his brash denunciations of others would come across (to me) as highly suspect. He’s a rich and confident man making sweeping statements. You might argue that being a notoriously cantankerous philosopher is his retirement hobby. His words often lack much humility other than his early admission (and not often repeated by the time he gets to Antifragile) that he’s human and fooled by life just like the rest of us. I think his arguments in each book are highly worthwhile, but need to be placed in the deeper context of all four books taken together. Taleb says the books can be taken in any order, but I think Fooled by Randomness is the best place to start. Just reading the Bed of Procrustes, one might legitimately ask “who is this jackass?”

Taleb’s a self-confessed fool, but he’s grappling with the tools that illuminate his foolishness and even provide the chance for a good life. That’s why I won’t repeat the mistake of sleeping on his work. As Taleb the flâneur would argue, and as my mishap with my copy of Tolkien suggests, we gain from being open to randomness.



ANA economy-class does have a few good things going for it, such as the opportunity to savor Japanese beer such as Premium Malt’s (sic), but trans-pacific travel is still a grind. Having a good book for the 13 hour flight is an indispensable remedy for the pain of temporary captivity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a humorous fellow, but no fortune-teller

“A man’s learning dies with him; even his virtues fade out of remembrance; but the dividends on the stocks he bequeaths may serve to keep his memory green.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., from The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Boston, 1872

Here is the quote in context (the entire e-book is free) on Google Books.

While his words are good for a chuckle, clearly the fact that I’m blogging about professor Holmes more than thirteen decades later undermines his reputation as all-wise soothsayer—unless the time period being considered is geologic.

His son’s “learning” and “virtues” were arguably even more indelible. When the quote was published, his son, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., was around 31-years-old. Thirty years later, Holmes, Jr., became a member of the Supreme Court, where he served for 30 years. I wonder whether the second Holmes, more famous to contemporary Americans, would agree with his father’s quote. My guess is that all those dividends from stocks probably weren’t as valuable to him as his father’s words, particularly after the “panic of 1893” and then, a few decades later, “black Thursday.”

I read the quote in The Wench is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery novel by Sir Colin Dexter (Dexter’s early novels are filled with great quotations). More recently, I came across discussion of Holmes, Jr., in Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s excellent prohibition history, which contains yet another great Holmes quip, proving that humor probably ran in the family. Here’s the quote along with the context that Okrent sets:

The [Supreme] court’s senior member, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was known to appreciate his whiskey (in 1927 he registered his gratitude for an illegal gift bottle with a characteristically Holmesian aphorism: “I have not forgotten the prayer ‘Lead us into temptation.”

So, in short, Holmes was a humorous fellow, but he was no good at wisely predicting the future. Maybe that’s a reason why his son was even wiser, and appreciated a glass of whiskey now and then.

Capital in the 21st Century: A Review

By Dan Wilcock

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press, 2014)

In my opinion, the worldwide success of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is something to cheer. Wealthy individuals, middle-class, poor, policymakers, bankers, and even artists can see themselves in these pages. They can trace their life trajectories set against the historic patterns of wealth (usually at least 100 years in scope, sometimes much longer). In a few words, the subject matter strikes a chord with most everyone these days.

Last month I bought one of the hastily printed  subsequent editions (the initial print run woefully underestimated popular demand) of this 577-page tome and just finished reading it. The book has a lot to teach about the nature of capital and its place in different types of economies. Everything boils down to two very simple equations that a middle-school student could understand. Probably the most important, to which Piketty consistently refers is:

β = s/g

This is the “capital/income ratio,”the meaning of which Piketty is really good about reminding the reader every time he uses is. β is calculated by dividing savings (s) by growth (g). He shows that throughout history, savings (which reflects the total value of accumulated capital) in rich countries has usually been larger than the rate of growth (the increase in national income). In rich countries today β is often somewhere around 6, which means that total wealth owned (almost entirely in private hands) is worth around 6 years of a given country’s income.

The other equation measures the share of national income that goes to capital’s owners:

α = r×β

r is the rate of return on capital. So, in the case where capital is worth 6 years of national income (β=6), and the rate of return (r) is 5%, then the amount of national income going to capital holders if 30%.

When r is greater than g, wealth begins to accumulate. The rich get richer. R has almost always been greater than g, according to Piketty’s analysis, except for a period of time in the 20th century (when growth was high and capital was subject to a series of shocks related to WWI and WWII). Those days are over. I won’t bother to recap his results specific here, but suffice to say they are food for thought.

OK, enough with the equations. If you could read what I just wrote and get it somewhat (and not to worry, Piketty reintroduces the equations almost every time), then you won’t have any trouble reading his book.

That’s a good thing, because I get the sense that Picketty would like his book to be read and understood by those who have the least proportion of α and β—most likely the low wage earners and asset poor individuals who make up more than half of rich countries peoples but own virtually no capital whatsoever.

That’s what’s great about Piketty. He genuinely cares about human outcomes, and his book’s value lies in showing to everyone that human outcomes are diverging radically. The inequality he presents throughout the book is a reversion to an earlier historical norm, which he ingeniously evokes by quoting from the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen—works of art from an era when the nature of capital was better defined and more commonly understood.

He doesn’t only look at the big picture. He also takes along look at the even more disturbing (particularly in the US) pattern of individual inequality. He makes a compelling case for the amazing rise in top executive pay in America and the spectacular drop in top income tax rates during the 80s and 90s.

This points to some of his suggested solutions: Progressive income taxes topping out at around 80% (as seen in the 20th century) for the highest incomes, an annual progressive global tax on large fortunes (combined with intepol-like global cooperation to stamp out tax havens), or a one-time global tax topping out somewhere around 25% for the largest fortunes. Compared to readjusting the economic balance through inflation or controls on capital (as seen in China), Piketty argues that a return to confiscatory taxation on oligarch-level wealth is the most just and equitable course.

Try telling that to the wealthy who increasingly control politics. Just saying.

I think he makes a strong case, although if I were President I don’t think I’d go as far as he advocates. The wealthy he wants to tax would remain wealthy. The forces he describes would help that wealth to grow again. But then again I’m just above that “50%-and-owns-nothing” category.

What a marvel to have this book explaining the big picture of wealth, in clear prose and without too much math/theory. A highly recommended book.