Monthly Archives: September 2009

Movie: The Informant

Last weekend I saw The Informant starring a chubby Matt Damon. It was good, but nothing like what I expected. When I bought my ticket, I was expecting to see a movie along the lines of one of the “Bourne” films. The Informant is about price fixing and corn, not international spies.(Link)

This confusion in expectations threw me. When I left the movie, I was underwhelmed. I said that the movie was good, but not what I expected. I was tempering my reaction, because I felt taken. If I had watched a preview, I would have known that the movie is based on a true story and tells the tale of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a bipolar executive at Archer Daniels Midland, who is forced into becoming a whistle blower on price fixing schemes performed by ADM and its competitors. The movie goes from there.

Reflecting on the movie, I liked it very much. The story is interesting and the dialogue is compelling. The audience is constantly hearing Whitacre’s grandiose, absurd, creative, self-indulgent thoughts, which provide most of the laughs during the couple hours of run time.

I recommend the movie to those who appreciate a creative adaptation of a real-life story. I liken the feel of this movie to Thank You For Smoking.

A Moment of Regret as a Leader

For all of the great memories I have from playing golf in high school, there is a lingering moment of regret that I am reminded of each night before I fall asleep. On the wall of my bedroom is a framed display with a picture of me swinging a golf club, my scores from that year’s state finals tournament (73-80) and a list of the top ten finishers (I believe I finished tied for 5th with my co-captain, Casey Smits). The moment of regret comes not from the second day 80, although I wish I could have played better. Nor does it come from losing ground either as a team or as an individual on the second day of competition – sometimes you just don’t have your best game when you need it. I played my heart out both days and have no complaints about my play.

What I regret is not speaking to my four teammates between the first and second rounds. There are specific points I would have made to each individual teammate – forget that your dad is following you; you’ll be the leader next year, so be one today; reign in your temper because every stroke counts; etc. I would have also spoken to the team as a whole and told them that I was proud of them, we’ve won before, and that I knew we could do it again. At least that is what I imagine I would have said – something positive and encouraging. I was, after all, the co-captain.

I vividly remember both holding my tongue at the team meeting the night before the final round and wishing that, when the tournament was over, I had spoken to the team the night before when I had the chance to. I’ll never know whether my words would have done anything, but it would have made me feel better about the outcome.

It’s been ten years since the fall of my senior year of high school, and there’s always a little bit of me that wishes I could go back, if just for a moment, to tell my younger self to say what I was thinking. Going forward, when I’m in a leadership position, I’ll never again make the mistake of being quiet when I should say something.

All It Takes Is Two Questions

College is my first recollection of experiencing choice, and looking back I got it wrong. I majored in economics and should have majored in English. This mistake was caused by making two errors. First, I was thinking long term and not living in the moment. Second, I was not following my heart. The problem was one of choice. Unless I was pursuing a trade major – engineering, computer science, art, music – I had to be vigilant about pursuing that which I loved doing. A liberal arts concentration is an extremely vague pursuit, and to get any value from it, I had to know exactly what I wanted each and every day. Even narrowed down from liberal arts to economics, there was still a vast leniency of choice within my major. I was unable to critically evaluate this as an eighteen to twenty-two year old boy.

If I were given the chance to redo college knowing what I now know, I would ask myself two questions as often as possible:

  1. Do I love what I am doing?
  2. Do I excel at what I am doing?

As long as I was able to answer both of these questions with “Yes” I would know I was on the right track – and I would not have taken Accounting I and II. There would be no room for BS – then or now. The long run would not matter. I wouldn’t have to think about what would bring me the most money or be the best major to get me into law school, because the focus would be on present day happiness.

And now, for the rest of my life I hope to learn from my mistakes in college and ask those two questions of myself – Do I love what I am doing? and Do I excel at what I’m doing? If not, then I hope I have to courage and means to change for the better.

Traverse City’s Heart Graffiti

tc_hearts

Has anyone else noticed the heart graffiti that is becoming increasingly visible around Traverse City, Michigan? I searched the Record-Eagle website and on Google for any coverage of this graffiti phenomenon and found no mentions.

If you’re a local resident or if you have visited within the last year and walked around downtown, you can’t help but notice dozens, if not hundreds, of six to twelve inch two-toned hearts painted on walls, posts, sidewalks, and other surfaces around the city.

Personally, I like it. The hearts liven up otherwise plain spaces. If the city is deliberately ignoring the graphic decorations, I hope they leniency is not abused. Some decoration is clever and cute, but too much could become unsightly.

Have you noticed? If so, what do you think of it?

Update on October 11, 2009: I was quoted by Vanessa McCray in her Record Eagle article, “Someone Hearts TC.” What I said:

Chris Rogers of Traverse City blogged about the phenomenon, which he first noticed in a plaza off East Front Street.

Since then, he has spotted the hearts frequently. Like others, he said your creations straddle “a fine line.”

“I think it adds an interesting texture, and, fortunately, they are hearts and something not more controversial,” he said.

My Take On Obamacare: Part 1

I’m not so quick to buy into throwing out the status quo just because it’s the status quo. Nothing is perfect, I’ll give you that, and we do need to change the healthcare system. However, I don’t think that allowing the federal government to both regulate the private system and become (more of) a market participant is the best long-run solution. I simply don’t agree with allowing the federal government to sit back and watch during good times and then intervene when things go bad. I believe the free markets should actually be free of regulation and bad ideas allowed to fail.

As I understand it, there are two noble goals proposed by the new healthcare bill:

  1. Expand healthcare coverage to more American citizens; and
  2. Reduce the cost of healthcare to those Americans. (Correction: I intended to say that the goal is to reduce the cost of healthcare for all Americans.)

Other changes will include more government regulation of the private market to prevent the private insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. I assume the companies will be allowed to have some flexibility in setting higher premiums for high-risk individuals, otherwise I don’t see how this is a winning idea.

There will also be a “public option” in which the government will become a player in the market by offering a low-cost healthcare alternative to the private offerings. This is absurd to me, especially when combined with the above increased regulation. Not only will the government have control over its competitors, but the government will be in the game too. (Not that it isn’t already.)

So far this all sounds like a petri dish for corruption and increased debt.

I heard yesterday that eighty-three percent of people are happy with their healthcare and that sixty percent receive healthcare from their employer. Those two statistics, crude and unsubstantiated even, give me a whiff of why there is resistance across the board to the healthcare bill. Why change something decent and certain for something questionable and uncertain?

A principal by which I live is to question whether the band wagon is drivable before jumping on. The noble goals set out above would indeed make the United States a better and stronger nation, however I am not sold on the means of achieving them.

In the meantime, I’ll be eating well and exercising to decrease my chance of needing healthcare for a preventable self-induced condition. You should be, too.

Golf Course Development In China

“All the Tees in China: The Chinese Go Golf Crazy” (Link) does not paint a good picture of the state of golf in China or the state of China in China. I could have told you this from personal observation. What I saw when I visited was a bustling culture, but it seemed like the wheels were turning fast and going nowhere. While the Chinese economy may be growing at dangerous rates…

The economic slowdown means things are not as they were a couple of years ago, but China’s economy is still expected to expand by around 8 per cent a year.

…the way of life for many of its people has not improved dramatically.

With regard to both housing and golf, I saw little of either during my visit. I remember remarking at how few houses I saw -neither city type houses on a small lot nor larger country estates. I don’t know where everyone lived, but there were not many visible houses. This is why the golf course development strategy being employed in China is absurd:

The primary motivation behind developing the game of golf in China is property, not bashing a little white ball around a course. Plush villas pay the green fees.

What make money in most clubs are the villas and apartments ringing the courses. The golf itself is a loss leader, and many of the courses in China are chronically underutilized.

In extreme cases, developers buy up large tracts of farmland on the outskirts of the boom towns of New China: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai. They then start building flashy villas – reasonably priced by UK standards but more than most Chinese families would earn in a lifetime. The courses are often an afterthought, hastily-constructed – even unplayable. The developers don’t care; they can charge a lot more for property near a course.

Sometimes this land is taken illegally with the connivance of corrupt local officials, leading to social unrest as disenfranchised farmers take to the streets and demonstrate, attacking building sites and picketing government offices. China’s arable land is scarce, and the government is worried about a growing wealth gap between the rich of the cities and the poor in the countryside.

Now that sounds like the China I know. Forget the growth, technological advances, and health improvements. It’s about ravaging the masses by taking arable land and replacing it with unaffordable developments that only an elite few can use. I want to know who buys the houses on the courses! Better yet, I want to see the courses and houses!

Thoughts on Trust & Estate Law

Towards the end of law school I became interested in Estate Planning, so today I was pleased to find in my Google Reader a post titled, “Small Law Firm Open Thread: Trusts & Estates.” (Link) The meat of the post is in the comments section, which was surprisingly thoughtful and focused for a popular blog comments section. I’ve noted below some of my thoughts on points made in the comments which I found insightful.

  • Tax and Real Estate Knowledge is a Must – This should be obvious to anyone who knows even the slightest amount about Estate Planning. In school it was often difficult to distinguish tax planning from estate planning, especially when we started talking about bigger numbers. I can only imagine the levels of tax that must be considered on some larger estates.
  • Billing – There’s mention in the comments of fixed fee billing as opposed to hourly billing. For example, charging a client per will or trust as opposed to billing for the number of hours put in. This is irrelevant as far as I am concerned. A more experienced attorney will be more efficient and will thus complete more work – whether it’s more hours or more completed projects, it matters not. (The concern about not getting enough work seems to come from those attorneys commenting from “BigLaw.”
  • Referrals – The comments emphasize the importance of developing solid referrers of work. Initially, making connections who then, via word of mouth, refer business to you, is more about marketing than legal skills. However, doing good work may be the best marketing you can do for yourself, so we kind of have a “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation.
  • Criticism – There is some criticism of the Trust & Estate area as being soft, stuffy, or proper. I can understand this, however, because, regardless of the client, what they are discussing is both very private and very important to their livelihood and that of their family. It doesn’t seem too much to ask of a lawyer dealing with such clients to come off as professional and reserved if that’s what it takes.
  • How to Break In – “One way to get into a trusts & estates practice from a non-law firm profession is to try to get a position with a bank that has a trust department. Many banks have them but call them “private client” groups. That is also a good way for trusts & estates lawyers to take a break and learn how to properly administer a will or trust. Also, once you have had to administer crappy documents because the lawyer who drafted it did not think outside the box when he said to keep a house or business in trust, you will never make that same mistake.” ~ Comment 23
  • Small/Medium Firms – It seems that most estate planning takes place in small/medium firms. This appeals to me as I’ve never been interested in BigLaw. (I was spoiled by working for a start-up company out of college.)

Why I Am Online

I’ve made significant changes to my online identity lately in an effort to tighten my personal brand. I did this because it seems like the right thing to do at this point in my life. I’m currently searching for work as an attorney, and hope that anything a prospective employer finds online will strengthen my image, not hurt it.

Managing one’s online brand is no easy task. The privacy settings on Facebook, alone, require a graduate degree in Gen X to decipher. Add to that Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Delicious, Flickr, and a dozen others and there is significant room for negative exposure.

I’m taking three steps to ensuring I have the positive and respectable online brand I wish to have:

  1. Socialize with upstanding individuals – I read once that you’re only as good as your five closest friends. If they’re not going anywhere, it’s likely that you’re not either. This passes double for the internet. I friend true friends whom I know in person and I trust their level of maturity.
  2. Vigilant use of privacy settings – When number one fails, it’s nice to be able to contain the damage. By setting the privacy settings such that only friends can see comments I don’t like, I can keep them from the public.
  3. Abstinence if necessary – Sometimes it’s just not worth it to be on a certain service, either because of the people attracted to it, a lack of privacy settings, or another reason. In these cases, I would rather sign off permanently and not have to worry about it.

Some people fear having an online presence, and I’ve always fought that. There are two main reasons I like sticking my neck out:

  1. Having an online brand is a reality of today. It’s easy to connect and communicate online. I’ve kept up with far more friends – even on a digital level – than I otherwise would have.
  2. Another positive specific to blogging is that I am able to establish myself on dozens/hundreds of topics. No other medium would allow me flush out my thoughts or you to access them. I can take a stance, argue it, and create discourse – for better or worse. Whether my beliefs change or are strengthened by the process, only time will tell.

Blogging, twittering, and facebooking are worth it, to me, for those two reasons.