Author: William Birdthistle


Triple Playing

Let’s say you’re certain that the stock market is about to climb dramatically in the next few days — how can you (or the average person) cash in on such a hunch to the greatest extent possible?

Buy stock in some prominent blue chips? You’ll need a lot of cash and some luck to pick the right ones. Buy an S&P 500 index mutual fund? Possibly, though market timing rules may crimp your ability to bounce in and out of the fund. Buy an S&P 500 index ETF? Not a bad idea, but if you’re sure about the spike, how can you win the biggest returns possible from your certainty?

According to John Spence in the W$J, soon you may be able to buy shares in a new crop of highly leveraged ETFs that promise as much as three times the return of the underlying index. So if the SEC grants Direxion’s pending application for its S&P 500 Bull 3X Shares fund, for example, you could gain 3% on every 1% of the S&P’s rise.

Of course, if the S&P happens to fall 2% instead, you’ll lose 6% — that’s the nasty side of leveraging.

And if you really want to roll the dice, you can always buy these shares on margin (as indeed is possible with ETF, though not mutual fund, shares).

So, to what extent does the SEC have the responsiblity to prevent retail investors from fiddling about with impressively volatile investments? Is it the SEC’s job simply to approve all applications containing adequate disclosure or instead to put some sort of cork on the fork?



If you have small children you are going to see, you must sacrifice gracious living.

That pithy epigram was the answer of one recently tenured professor and parent of two young children to my question about balancing a successful family and scholarly life. Living graciously appears to have involved, inter alia, hosting dinner parties, writing thank-you notes, reading (not just subscribing) to the New York Review of Books, &c.

She noted further, in response to my question about a fitness regime, that the children have also taken that away.

Having a family, of course, might just be the single greatest challenge to producing scholarship while meeting the other obligations of being a professor. And waiting until after tenure to start a family can be a very risky business, particularly for women, as it will almost certainly require postponing things until what might turn out to be the twilight of fertility.

So what suggestions are there for junior professors hoping to balance work and family? Not many easy ones, I’m afraid:

1. Learn to embrace travel: Several parents told me that they have become incredibly efficient while on the road for conferences and talks, away from their children for a few days in a quiet hotel room with a well-behaved laptop.

2. Cut out the electronic indulgences: One parent told me that she had reduced her web consumption to a diet of “seven blogs in seven minutes” each morning – and applied a similarly ruthless trimming to email checking, headline refreshing, and other electronic twitches.

3. Accept help: If you’re lucky enough to live within striking distance of family, by all means grasp hold of their polite offers to babysit.

Unfortunately, these suggestions aren’t much better than the ones dieters most hate to hear: eat less, exercise more. Here we have the professorial equivalent: dawdle less, concentrate more.

Where is our academic Dr. Atkins who can promise us scholarly success on a buffet of intellectual cheeseburgers?


Productivity: Scheduling the Week

For junior professors acutely aware of their chosen vocation’s professional expectations, the academic routine presents an awkward dilemma: tasks that thrust themselves to the front of the daily queue with regular urgency are – in the grand tenure plan – less critical than the momentous obligations smoldering in the background. So while being called upon to teach scores of expectant students in an hour or two is sure to capture the immediate attention of a new professor, the responsibility for producing scholarship lurks silently nearby, patiently lying in wait, never far away.

Perhaps the most important logistical project for new professors, then, is devising a schedule that ensures time will be devoted to the writing enterprise, while realistically accommodating the inevitable slew of daily alarums.

The experienced professors with whom I discussed this topic offered a bountiful if somewhat contradictory crop of suggestions about the ideal way in which to structure one’s teaching schedule:

Clumpers: This school of thought advocates grouping one’s teaching load into as compact a bolus as possible, to be digested in a few rapid bites, thereby leaving a broad expanse of uninterrupted writing time. So, for example, three days of teaching should be scheduled on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, to leave Thursday and Friday entirely clear.

Spreaders: Taking the contrary view, this school suggests instead that the three days should be evenly dispersed across the week as Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays.

Clumpers emphasize that writing requires sustained and uninterrupted time and that clumping, when appended to weekends, will create large blocks of time. Spreaders counter that teaching three days in a row for a new professor can be brutal; so much so, in fact, that the open days will be spent (a) recuperating from the teaching clump and (b) taking care of administrative tasks otherwise ignored during the teaching maelstrom.

A related axis is when, intraday, all this teaching should be done:

Farmers: This school believes in rising early, tackling the teaching in the morning so as to leave the rest of the day free. The emphasis here is that teaching for new professors is a source of worry that will expand to occupy any amount of time open to it – so teaching later in the day will only fill junior professors with greater amounts of nerves while still preempting writing time with class preparation.

Afternooners: Since writing is the task that requires the most discipline, argue the contrarians, juniors should begin the day with that project. Once class prep, emails, phone calls, and colleagues begin trickling in, it’s never easy to regain the concentration necessary to write. Far better to try writing before the machinery of distraction fires up. As for preparing for class, the panic that process inspires ensures that professors will still find reserves of concentration for an afternoon-heavy teaching load.

So, are there other approaches that can bridge these binaries and offer the ideal schedule for junior professors?


Productivity: A General Response

Before discussing specific topics in the great quest for productivity, let’s begin with one general response that I received from an interviewee who is on the faculty of a great law school, a prolific publisher of academic books and popular articles, and a parent to young children:

Reading your questions, I realize I have none of the however-many-there-are habits of effective people.

With the help of excellent childcare, I take primary responsibility for my kids. But apart from setting aside time to be with the kids – every morning from wakeup, every evening until they fall asleep, one extended weekday morning, and on weekends – I basically don’t spend any time planning out my schedule.

Instead I try to do what crosses my desk when it crosses it. I’m not very good at replying to emails promptly (or, I fear, ever, in some much-regretted cases). I have a phone that intermittently tells me when I have appointments to keep, and often I actually remember to put them in there first.

I prepare for class the night before class and the morning of class. I read the New York Times. I write essays when an idea hits me.

At one time I tried to follow the Graham Greene method of writing a fixed number of words a day, and had mixed success with it. I read novels before bed, and since I was denied tv as a child, I treat it as a guilty pleasure. I play basketball in the gym near my office (pickup and on an intramural team) twice a week when I’m lucky, usually in the middle of the day.

And the truth is I never read the blogs.

I am getting better at saying no to things I won’t be able to accomplish. I try to remind myself that (like all of us), I got into this line of work because I love to read and reflect. And I thank my lucky stars for the summers!



So how do those tremendously productive professors in our midst manage to get so much done? I’m fascinated by this inquiry and – in a terribly unproductive procrastination technique – spend a good deal of time wondering about where they write, how they write, and so forth. This piece on Writers’ Rooms, for example, sucked up an entire afternoon.

Perhaps if we attempt to examine a day in one of their lives we’d gain more insight. But one day is probably too small a sample size, inasmuch as the goings-on of a single day could easily omit regular obligations (if the day in question, for instance, doesn’t include routine though not daily teaching, writing, exercise, &c.) while giving undue weight to relatively rare tasks (if it happens, for instance, to include an irregular faculty meeting, doctor’s appointment, &c.). A year in their lives would be far more revealing, if clearly impractical, but perhaps we might get the right balance from a single week.

So I asked a few very well-known academics who strike me as self-evidently productive and successful scholars to tell me a little about their typical week. Several declined, given the onerous nature of the request for so much information, while others responded with a request for anonymity. The habits of some, such as Richard Posner, are already publicly documented. But I did gain a number of interesting insights into tackling some of the unique challenges that face academics.

In the next few posts, I’ll address the major topics that I raised with my interviewees (my questions are listed below, after the jump) and intersperse their responses accordingly.

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Naming Rights.

Someone by the name of Benjamin Black has recently published a pair of entertaining novels – Christine Falls and The Silver Swan – about an atmospheric and cigarette-fumigated Dublin in the 1950s (with a third, The Lemur, serialized in the NYT magazine). Perhaps the quirkiest plot twist in each book was the inclusion of a picture of John Banville on the dust cover, followed by this explanation:

Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville, who was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. His novels have won numerous awards, most recently the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. He lives in Dublin.

Clearly, it’s not too terribly pseudonymous to own up to your own subterfuge in the very first, hardback printing of your novel. So Banville must be up to something else with this exercise. In a recent NPR interview, he confessed to enjoying an identity that allows him to write a very different kind of novel with great facility. Presumably, he would like to enjoy the commercial success of these genre novels while cordoning off – and keeping intact – his literary reputation.

Perhaps law professors could adopt a similar technique: for anything less than tenure-quality work, we can just affix a different name – but if it turns out to be entertaining or widely acclaimed, we then publicly acknowledge it in a different segment of our c.v.


The Corporate Law Conference.

What and where is the major annual corporate law conference?

This weekend, the American Law & Economics Association is holding its annual meeting in New York at Columbia with a program featuring – depending on how you count – six or seven corporate and securities law sessions. But the majority of sessions are not on these topics; they focus, instead, on torts, litigation, property, labor, IP, &c.

The annual Canadian Law & Economics Association features a very similar format, as do regional associations (e.g., Midwest Law & Economics Association).

The AALS annual meeting has a session for corporate law and one for securities law – but, of course, they are only small components in an otherwise huge and ecumenical program. Something similar is true for the Law & Society Association.

Is there an enormous yet oddly shy corporate conference out there – or is this a curiously large gap in the academic calendar?


The Life Aquatic.

Since overestimating the value of oil no longer seems possible – especially with Goldman projecting prices of $200 a barrel – the chances of making a profitable investment in the stuff appear to be drying up. Evaporating? Trickling away? [My apologies, evidently it’s also no longer possible to write about oil without suffering an infestation of moist puns – must be a variant of the syndrome that afflicts the owners of hair salons.] For those seeking an alternative liquid investment (forgive me!), perhaps the fluid with a higher potential upside these days is water.

According to IndexUniverse:

Water has emerged as the new “new” thing in investing. People gaze out at a growing global population and envision the Kevin Cosner [sic] flop WaterWorld come-to-life. They do the math on limited water resources and creeping pollution and they see dollar signs. There’s even a new name for the stuff: blue gold.

Starbucks and Fiji have long since figured out that any old liquid can be sold for outrageous amounts, but evidently the upside for water is even greater than imagined. Beyond just the standard drinking, cooking, bathing applications, hydrogen hydroxide turns out also to be a vital component in global infrastructure. According to Friday’s WSJ:

It takes 62,000 gallons of water to make a ton of steel. The typical car requires 39,000 gallons during its manufacturing phase. It takes 3,000 gallons to produce a single semiconductor before it’s placed into a computer.

So, how does one invest in the stuff? Start filling the tub . . . for a rainy day? How about investing in a company that makes the pumps and valves needed to move all this water around? But if you do invest in ITT (the industry leader), you’ll worry about company risk, country risk, and all the standard problems with a focused investment.

Perhaps that’s why the standard diversified investments – mutual funds and ETFs – are stepping up with a slew of new water funds (including two launched this week), which hold ITT as well as water utilities, equipment manufacturers, and purification businesses from around the world.

Lest you fear we’re speeding down the road to a new addiction, this one has something of an upside: America has some of the world’s largest water reserves.

For more on water – and it’s importance in the English constitutional system – here’s Monty Python:


The Buffoonery of Crowds.

Speaking of productive folk, George Soros appears to have rousted himself from the torpor of retirement and uncountable wealth to retake the reins of his investment empire, all whilst dabbling in new economic theory on the side.

In his interview with NPR yesterday, Soros discussed his new book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, which takes issue with the orthodoxy most recently capitalized upon by James Surowiecki, et many al.

Far from seeing the wisdom of crowds, Soros fears what he views as their propensity simply to regurgitate and amplify mistakes.

For my own part, I have a profound distaste for the coercive power of standing ovations, drunken soccer hooligans, and enforced clapping in unison during any live music. Soros probably has a more pointed view, given his childhood in wartime Hungary and firsthand experience with the Nazis and Soviets, so perhaps he has good reason to be suspicious of crowds.

Of course, if his voice in the crowd happens to be the correct one and he succeeds in persuading a lot of people to agree with him, then perhaps he will pardoxically prove himself wrong.


Exam Time.

As the academic year comes to a close, the calendar treats those of us in the educational lark to our semi-annual blend of relief and alarm. (My commiserations to those on the quarter system!) Each passing day brings our students closer both to the respite of holidays and the horror of another exam. Until recently, I didn’t appreciate that professors quaffed a similarly pungent brew. The flurry of review sessions, exam composition, exam grading, recommendations, faculty meetings, &c., seems to reach a violent crescendo before the halls fall silent.

For diversion during this tumult, I turn to this kind of thing:

The British (and Irish) seem partial to peddling things with comedy, while Americans apparently prefer the more earnest pitch of upward mobility. And while American soap operas are filled with beautiful people living successful lives, the British gobble up decades of bleak dramas featuring unemployed people kippering themselves in the cigarette smoke of their local pub. But enough pop transatlantic sociology.

What really fascinates me at these busy times is how some of our colleagues in the field manage to sustain an incredible pace of productivity throughout the year: a feat that requires the unusual talent of staying focused through frenzied times such as these as well as during the wide open spaces of mid-summer.

So I’ve attempted to make something of a ludicrously unscientific study of what a week in the life of a super-productive academic looks like. I’ve asked a few people who strike me as fitting that description to describe how they combine the central academic requirement of scholarly output with all the peripheral administrative and personal demands of this business. I’ll report my findings in the coming few posts.