Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Contrary Indicators

A great term I learned from reading Barton Biggs' book "Hedgehogging" was this: contrary indicator. A contrary indicator is something investors use in order to determine what NOT to do with a particular stock, bond, or commodity.

A contrary indicator can be anything -- it can be a numerical index, a trend you notice, magazine covers, a even a person himself or herself.

A good example of a contrary indicator that Biggs actually used when he ran Traxis (a major hedge fund based in Greenwich) was his own mother-in-law. So if his mother-in-law said something like, "Google just keeps getting more and more popular, it seems like a can't-lose stock," he would short it. If his mother said, "Oil is just out of control, it will hit $200 a barrel by next month for sure," he would dump it. If she said that railroad stocks were a sure loser because "they just ain't what they used to be," he would throw the long ball.

Savvy investors have used things like the cover of "Business Week" as a contrary indicator for years.

You get the idea.

I think of contrary indicators when I re-assess my decision to become a Civil Affairs Officer. I admit I have thought a lot about some other fields, including some that are flashier, sexier, or even let me wear a funny-colored French-looking thing on my dome.

But when I tell people about CA, I get one of two reactions:

"Wow, that's sweet, man. I just got back from [insert locale] and the CA guys were doing great work. Best of luck, bro."

Or, the second reaction, "Wow. That sounds pretty lame, man. So you're really just going to end up living in a mud hut sipping tea and handing out soccer balls in Afghanistan. How gay is that? Why not just do something where you can blow stuff up?"

Inevitably, the second reaction comes from someone who doesn't really *get* what CA is all about (democracy-building and establishing basic services in places that don't have 'em). It's usually not a combat-arms person who says it, either. It's someone who wants to talk like a big tough guy about what he'd do with the "hajjis" but doesn't know any real hajjis, let alone the definition of the term.

To be blunt, it's coming from a tool.

That tells me one thing -- come next spring, when I'm eligible to do it, it's going to be time to start making my move over to my new career branch, Civil Affairs.

Because when I get that second reaction, I just think about it for a second, and say, "Thanks very much for the contrary indicator."

CA is the right mix of my interests and abilities -- even way more than Military Intelligence (MI). That's the right reason to do it.

But sizing up the character of the person who thinks it's lame to build schools in Tall Afar, or to assist local elections in Helmand, or even just to provide humanitarian relief after a crisis in the third world (i.e. Indonesia post-tsunami or Pakistan post-quake), is what truly seals the deal in my own mind that it's the right choice.

I know there are contrary indicators that you could use to guide your decision-making processes. And I bet they're right in front of you.

Find them, and use them.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Call Me Naive..

I read the story in the Sun about the scandal at the Dubliner (the bar across from my house), and I honestly don't know what to believe.

It's clear that the owner was serving drinks after hours. It's not entirely clear that a prostitute or drugs were involved.

Until the facts really come out, it's not my place to judge.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Farewell, Cafe Aiello

I heard this week about the closing of Cafe Aiello up on Gorham Street: http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_9957718

Definitely not a great moment for downtown, and I know there are people far more affected by it than I am. I really loved the place when I first popped in there (while I was scouting out real estate and staying at the DoubleTree), but what makes me a Brew'd Awakening partisan comes primarily down to location but also to the way that the owner (Andy) and the employees (too many to list, but I'll say here that Theo comes to mind quickly) welcomed me. Then what sealed the deal was the hard-core Brew'd Awakening Crowd -- Brandon, Nancy, Theresa, Brenda, Mike, Angel, Laura, and all the rest -- to include the official canine chapter, headed up by Francine, Houston, and Austin.

So if anything ever happened to Brew'd, I'd be beside myself.

And as a supporter of and believer in downtown Lowell, it sucks to see any place go.

The chatter on the Sun bulletin board included plenty of mentions of the location problem, and a handful mentioned the problem posed by the anemic foot traffic often witnessed downtown during the day and sometimes at night (and of course the 'chicken-or-the-egg' question that comes up...is foot traffic so bad because businesses are shuttering up, or vice versa)?

Still, ever the optimist, I'll just say that the full development of the Hamilton Canal District (http://www.hamiltoncanal.com/) is going to help revitalize the entire area on the other side of the Pawtucket Canal from where I live (Market Street).

Obviously, there are going to be conflicting visions for the future of the city.


I'd be more worried if there were a lack thereof and don't plan on moving to North Korea anytime to see their version of consensus.

But one thing I noticed on the Sun bulletin board was the way the whole "blue-collar folks v. condo owner" speech got squashed pretty quickly. I was happy to see the triumph of reason, because I believe that's a textbook example of a false dichotomy. Lowell is a big city. There are 100,000 residents and probably room for plenty more. Even if the downtown demographic were magically transformed into that of the Back Bay tomorrow (and it won't), the Acre would still be the Acre. Centerville would still be Centerville. And so on.


I'll give you three reasons just to start -- Chelmsford, Andover, and Lexington.

As long as there are places to live with big lawns and great public schools, there isn't going to be some sudden pricing squeeze that's somehow going to force all Lowellians out of their neighborhoods. The Merrimack Valley's economy is only going to support so many single people, young DINK* couples, retirees, and so forth to come live in downtown Lowell.

And in the meantime (and for plenty years to come, given the looming Hamilton Canal plans --forgive me but yes the 'loom' pun was intended) what may be best for downtown, and the city in general, may be more of those people coming in to burn up that disposable income on beers, burritos, and Spinners tickets.

The neighborhoods will still maintain their character, the sky won't fall, and the earth will maintain that neat little rotation-on-the-axis thing it's been doing so well for all these years.

*Dual Income, No Kids

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Joy of Texts

I saw a news story on-line last night about a new service that allows you to go straight to voicemail without running the risk of actually having to talk to someone you call.

The service, by the way, is called Slydial. It either subjects you to a short advertisement or a nominal fee: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/21/AR2008072102493.html

I think everyone *gets* what this is all about. I don't necessarily think there's anything *sly* or fake or shady at all about it -- in myriad personal or professional situations, there are perfectly good reasons not to want to get into a phone conversation. Maybe you're about to get in your car and drive, maybe you need to run to a meeting, or maybe you really just don't feel like talking at the moment, but need to just convey some information.

I guess the major advantage here over text messages is that you can get a lot out plenty faster. As a fairly recent convert (but a zealous one at that) to the text world, I know I used to find them highly annoying because of the time they required of me to type what I could say in just a couple seconds. Another advantage might be a linguistic one -- if you speak a foreign langugage that doesn't use the Roman alphabet, you ain't going to be able to text message unless you're sure you can transliterate in a mutually intelligible way.

But anyway just hearing about Slydial reminded me of why I love texting so much in the first place.

Let's go back to the blog themes. For now, we'll shelve the "it's-difficult-to-be-in-charge-but-really-easy-to-sit-in-the-back-and-take-pot-shots-at-the-guy-who-is" theme and just go with the other two big ones -- (1) social connectedness and (2) keeping your footprint light when you can.*

*I'll use this theme in the future to talk about two major counterinsurgencies the U.S. is helping to fight but that you might not fully appreciate in scope -- Colombia and the Philippines.

Text messages are simultaneously a great tool for connectedness and a super-non-intrusive sort of way to do it. They're cheap and dispensable so they don't necessarily *beg* a response the way a phone call or e-mail usually does. They also save all parties the tremendous hassle of trying to carry on a conversation amidst overwhelming background noise, like at an airport, a club, bar, or baseball game.

They convey information in a way that voicemails or phone calls don't always do, thanks to poor explanation/enunciation (as I wrote about in an earlier entry, I think the single best one-word piece of advice I would give a young person entering the real world is this -- 'enunciate.') I'm not kidding about that -- full enunciation not only makes you sound smarter and more confident, it makes you far easier on the ears of others around you.

Texts aren't perfect -- they may be too impersonal for certain situations, they can be strangely ambiguous sometimes (as they're obviously lacking in tone, inflection, and true conversational flow), and they can be annoying when overdone.

However, there's just no better way to say, "We're here at the bar. If you can come, great."

That's a simple offer for all parties.

No one is forced anywhere, no one feels obligated to do anything, no one gets cornered.

I love it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Can't It Be So Simple?

I saw the new "Batman" movie on Sunday. I'm not much of a moviegoer, but the offer came to head down to Lowell Showcase and see the matinee, so I took it -- more for the chance to spend time with -- in my best Peter Falk now -- "the missus" than out of any desire to see comic book folk on the big screen.

I spent the entire last forty-five minutes or so of the movie just thinking "When is this thing going to end?" which is probably never a good thing to be thinking during a movie. It was partly my own fault for chugging a huge Pepsi and then two waters right before the movie (eventually, I just ended up making the head call I thought I could stave off).

So this morning I was talking about it with a Senior Chief at work who reminded me that the entire point of a movie is to let you escape/suspend disbelief and not be thinking about other things or, worse, just anticipating the sight of credits. So what went wrong?

First and foremost, length. My attention span is probably somewhere near the average for Americans, which is to say not very long. Two hours is pretty close to my max for an action film or comedy...and if possible, I'd prefer to err to the side of ninety minutes. Two-and-a-half plus a gaggle of previews is just honestly too much.

Second, complication/intricacy. Too many times in the past, I've blamed myself for missing plot twists and turns during movies. But as Senior said, the best movies are usually the simplest ones. Screenwriters, or fiction authors in general, may be tempted to show the great inner workings of their minds by adding in endless twists, turns, and variations on the aforementioned. But, he cautioned, "Even my eight year-old daughter can write a story that just endlessly turns in new directions with no central plot. That's not really impressive."

That got me thinking about action films I really liked. Two that suddenly jumped to mind were "Spiderman" and "The Rock." I think both kept to the formula pretty well -- not too intricate, not over-the-top in terms of effects, and not too long.

I think a few key themes have emerged from this blog and it's neat to see it happen. One of the major, overall ideas is this -- just don't overdo it. Of course, it doesn't mean not to give your best in everything you do -- cliched as that is, it's absolutely the truth that you should. But it really just comes back to an intuitive, can't-be-put-down-in-words sort of sense you have to get when something is just enough, no matter what it is. Push just enough to where it's appropriate, and then back off a little bit and see what happens.

So the Joker is really bad and he likes to blow stuff up.

Batman is a good guy but he sometimes feels conflicted about what he does.

Normal folk fall somewhere in the middle, but are generally good and want to do the right thing.

Got it. Check. You don't have to beat me over the head with it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Skill Sets

On Saturday night, a neighbor and I were having noodles at the Vietnamese-Chinese place on Gorham (next to the video store). He mentioned that he was doing a firearms certification class at the place on Andover Street and would be purchasing a personal firearm.

"Sweet," I said, "Weapon familiarity -- what an awesome skill to add to your palate."

That wasn't so much his line of thinking -- he saw it more as an expression of patriotic duty. However, in my not as high-minded spirit, I immediately just kept ticking off the reasons why some kind of basic handgun or rifle familiarity is just a neat skill to have, because you just never know.

I personally don't ever want to own a weapon of any kind. Not while I'm still single, but especially not once I'm married and have little ones running around. But in the meantime, it's a comforting thought that I can recognize and identify different types of weapons (and the threats they pose), could load or unload and dismantle several of said weapons, and, if the fit really hit the shan, could possibly help win one for the home team (of course, I'm thinking John McLean in the first Die Hard...but you already knew that).

The point is, it's a neat skill.

So is driving a stick shift. I've never owned a manual transmission, I've never driven one full-time, and I hope I never do. From what I hear, advances in automatic transmissions have made them even more efficient, not to mind less of a pain in the posterior when you're caught in stop-and-go traffic.

Still, why have the skill?

Let's say your buddy is inebriated and you can save him from a DUI or something far worse. Let's say a pregnant lady is going into labor and needs to be rushed to the hospital. Let's say [you insert the 'save-the-day' contingency here].

Let's say the only auto available is a stick shift. I hope you learned this one beforehand, because it's not suddenly going to come to you while you're stuck in the middle of an intersection.

I was talking about skill sets with another friend this week and we both instantly recognized CPR as another to be added to this list.

Basic vehicle maintenance and home improvements come to mind, too. Maybe not as instantly critical, but the same principle applies.

As much as time allows, I'm always trying to work on the skill sets, and I recommend you do the same.

The one piece of advice I have is that the best (albeit the most expensive) way to really commit yourself to something is to formalize it. Unless you're part of a class or a group, you're never really going to practice your Tae Kwon Do Poomsae maneuevers, declinations of your Russian verbs, ability to resuscitate fellow humans, or maybe just to make a mean Cuba Libre.

Plus, it might be a fun way to meet your neighbors.

Monday, July 14, 2008

...And I'll Show You a Liar

Show me a person who says, "I don't care what other people think about me," and I'll show you a liar.

We all care, just in different ways. There's no one who doesn't care. If someone just absolutely insists that they're somehow the exception, plaster flyers all over town stating that they're a twice-convicted serial killer/sex offender and see if they care about the way the neighbors react.

Trust me, they'll care. And they should.

Because your professional and personal reputation may be the most important thing you have. If someone knocked my professional integrity, work ethic, or sense of purpose towards work, I would care quite a bit, given the importance of reputation in my field. I would want to nip whatever was being said in the bud before it took root.

So to reiterate, yes, I would care.

Qualitative statements that can't be proven right or wrong are a little bit different, I'll admit. For instance, let's say someone said, "No one can be that friendly all the time. He must be fake." (If you're wondering, this has been said about me...more than once).

That's a hard one to respond to, and honestly I don't really get all that worked up over it. No one can define what makes someone 'fake' and there's nothing that could be said, or maybe even done, to challenge that opinion.

But if someone said something factually false (i.e. 'I heard that guy plays Nintendo in his office and takes a three-martini lunch every day at the Officers' Club') I would feel an absolute compulsion to find the source and shut him up.

To not care about something like that would be downright irresponsible.

So as a small step forward, let's all just start by admitting that we do -- and should -- care what other people say about us, and then we can start to diverge when we get down to the specific nature of the speech in question.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

3rd-Best Northeast Getaway Destination: Lowell

I didn't know about it until I caught the headline in the Sun today at the Brazilian place in Kearney Square, but the New York Times recently ranked the top 25 Northeast getaways, and put the Mill City third among all the listings, which included everything from beach towns in New Jersey to Civil War battlefield sites to breathtaking national parks. (In case you're wondering, the two that came out ahead of Lowell were "Maine's southern beaches" and "Newburyport, Mass."

Here's the Sun piece:


And here's the Times article, too: http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/travel/escapes/04short.html?scp=1&sq=Lowell%2C+MA&st=nyt

The article was pretty short and each destination only got a paragraph or so. But one thing I'll tack on to what it already said was something I heard two friends remark after coming up here for the long Fourth of July weekend -- the type of diversity.

I say 'type' of diversity because I think in some contexts, 'diversity' can easily just become another buzzword that lacks any real meaning. It can become something forced (i.e. in a city like Cambridge, where you have to be either really rich or really poor to 'afford' to live there, if that makes any sense), or it can become something obnoxiously self-referential, as it is at an elite university that constantly highlights its 'diversity' in a self-congratulatory sort of way.

No, something they both witnessed -- at Community Christian Fellowship but also in Lowell in general, is that the place just sort of 'is' diverse.

As a couple of my neighbors have already observed, Nick and Frank quickly noticed that people who live here run the gamut of national backgrounds, religions, races, and ideologies and they aren't separated by any clear geographic fault lines.

Of course, there are some neighborhoods and establishments with a predominant ethnic representation, but that has more to do with natural clustering than with some type of a "this is our table, you go sit at yours" mentality.

The 'type' of diversity that is allowed to just sort of happen on its own is what I'd call the real thing.

And it's too bad that it's not more common in other communities.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Showing That You Care

"The only ones for me are the mad ones..." -- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I'll withhold name and rank to write this, and I'll just say that someone I work with tends to be VERY intense, and I can see where it often rubs people the wrong way -- it's the kind of thing where you can look around and see that everyone in the room *gets* it but him.

The conventional wisdom is that he overdoes it, needs to let go, needs to *chill out*...you get the idea.

I, however, take the opposite tack.

In fact, I'm inspired by it. All it shows me is that the man loves his life's work, cares tremendously about it, and hates to see anyone else screwing it up in any way -- trivial or great, real or imagined.

I don't necessarily enjoy being chewed out, but when it comes, it's usually for good reason. I don't necessarily enjoy seeing someone else lose his temper, but I'd rather work with someone who sometimes gets teed off than someone who never does. It's no different with friendships, relationships, or anything else...when I see someone who's upset, I see someone who cares.

By contrast, when I see someone who never seems to get upset -- or even excited at all -- about anything, I worry. I start to wonder whether there's any spark there. At some point, I wonder whether the person even gives a rip to begin with.

I'll own the fact that I'm passionate, that I care about things that I become involved with, and that I wear it on my sleeve. It's in my nature and I can't help it.

I don't think it spills over onto others in a negative way, but if I were in the position of the person I was describing in the first paragraph, it might. As I said a couple entries ago, it's tough to be the one in charge. From the lieutenant level on the food chain, I realize it and respect it.

And if I ever become *that* Colonel someday, I'll be coming from the same place.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Oh, Those Leadoff Walks

The great debate of "What's the percentage chance a leadoff walk will lead to a run?" came up at a recent Spinners game, and I just did some research to find out.

Someone actually studied 10 seasons of Red Sox games and (among other things) found that any time a Red Sox batter walked to lead off an inning, there was a 42% chance that he would score. For opponents, the percentage was a statistically similar 41%.

That still doesn't answer the question of what the chance is that any run would score in that inning...I have no idea what that is, I just know it must be greater than 42%, even if not by much.

The moral of the story is that leadoff walks are a great thing when you're up and cringe-worthy when you're in the field.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Obama and Poli Sci 101

I saw a headline this morning which stated, "Obama may moderate Iraq Stance after visit" (or other words to that effect).

I get it.

One of the very first lessons I remember from Poli Sci 101 was that you always run hard left or hard right in a primary because you're after only a) your party, and, really b) the subset within your party that actually cares enough to vote in a primary.

Once you're in the general election, you then just have to be one shade towards the center on the major issues, and bam, you should be successful.

Well, this model works really well in an abstract, theoretical world of statistics, but in the real world -- on real issues -- there's not often a clear stake in the ground you can hold that puts you that little bit towards the center.

On Iraq, however, there is, and now it's up to Senator Obama to take it.

All he has to do is say that we should have some type of phased drawdown and then stand by for flex options on an "as-needed" basis (i.e. his advisors will assess based on the reality on the ground). He should capture everyone on the left anyway, but the real key is grabbing the moderates.

I'm not a single-issue voter, but it's close. I'm looking at 16+ more years in uniform, so the last thing I want is a President who's going to pull the plug on something based on politics or current rhetoric that will lead to an abandoning of allies (hmmm...where have we seen that before) or, worse, bloodshed far beyond anything we've seen to date in Iraq. As a would-be nation-builder, I'd obviously rather walk into a stronger, more stable Iraq or Afghanistan in 2010-11 than the reverse.

Some will call him a flip-flopper.


One man's flip-flopper is just another man's "enlightened mind-changer."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

That's Quite an Assumption There, Mister

Last week I attended a brief that was rather complicated. It was someone describing a rather byzantine process we might use in the event of a particular contingency and the accompanying instructions in a rather dry fashion.

Towards the end of the allotted time, he left room for questions. There were one or two from the floor, but despite his repeated entreaties after those, no one asked any more.

After the brief, a Mustang (that's a prior enlisted officer) Lieutenant said to me, "I'm surprised there weren't more questions. I guarantee not everyone understood what he was saying. That just goes to show that people are afraid to admit when they don't know something."

I'm not sure that I buy that line of reasoning. What's more, I find it a bit presumptuous.

There are lots of reasons people might not ask a question following a brief. First of all, they might have zoned out and don't want to show it by asking something that's already been covered. Second, they may not want to take up everyone else's time -- remember, if there are 30 people in the room, and your question (and its answer) take up 10 minutes, that's 5 total person-hours (that was for you, kd!) of government time that you've taken up -- it might be easier just to look the answer up or ask a buddy later. Third, they may not even know enough to ask.

If someone spoke about something I was very familiar with (say, U.S. military actions since the fall of the Berlin Wall) I could sit there, rapt, for as long as the speaker could go, and would probably have several thoughtful questions ready to go by the end.

But let's say the topic were something I had no knowledge whatsoever regarding -- say, how to get around Indianapolis using only the public transit system. It would be very hard for me to follow for more than five minutes. So after about thirty minutes, if someone asked me if I had any questions, I wouldn't, because I'd be so lost that I wouldn't even know what to ask in the first place.

Or it could be something else entirely. I can easily recall a time when I was in a new situation, a bit intimidated, and thought the best way to get through it was to just maintain a low profile and stay as quiet as possible. That failed badly, as the senior officer in charge interpreted the initial silence as something nearly 180-degrees out from what it really was (and of course things only went downhill from there).

To tie this entry back to a bottom line, and a bigger picture, my point is this: I'm not a big fan of any broad-brush statement that claims to have a person -- or group of people -- psychologically "dialed-in" based on a tiny sample of anecdotal evidence that may be falsely interpreted in the first place.

You may relate to this, or you may not. But what I'll promise you is that if you don't have any questions about the above text, I won't make some grandiose claim about the connection to your inner psyche!