Distracted by a report by an analyst I do not know about a company I do not own in an industry I do not cover, with Claudio Arrau playing Chopin in my head, oblivious to a truck backing out of a hidden garage, I felt the nudge of a fellow pedestrian’s shoulder just in time to look up and veer out of the way.
It’s a relief when unseen forces erase danger, reinforcing that child-like feeling that God or the government or some all-knowing future mentor exists, solely for my protection and guidance.
Of course before I reached Fifth Avenue the magical thoughts were gone and I knew that I had better keep either my eyes or my ears on the road ahead. So I clicked away the analyst report and let the music play.
I like Chopin when played on an almost out-of-tune piano half an hour before last call in an nineteenth-century Parisan tavern, drunken and romantic. My near collision with the truck coincided with the horn fanfare that transitions the Andante Spiniato to the Grande Polannaise. Soon after the piano returned: a sad song from the right hand balanced by ringing, triumphant chords from the left. The two themes danced around each other, sorrow and triumph; the pianist taunting us with almost-missed entrances and barely audible notes. The music floated to an inevitable conclusion of sprints up and down the keyboard, and grand chords that pushed open the revolving door to my building and made me smile. I arrived at work, chastened for my inattention but grateful that triumph and sorrow together can still equal joy.
Van Gogh and Prime Numbers, Manhattan Preschool Admissions and Long-Lost Love in the Netherlands: Investor Letter 2013
Before I summarize the 2013 fund performance, a brief anecdote:
Tarana was four.
We sat at the kitchen counter, admiring Van Gogh's "Starry Starry Night" on a computer screen. Using crayons and old stationary, we each drew our own versions. Although I stayed within the lines, Tarana saw and better captured the wonder of Van Gogh's swirls, and while we used the same crayons, her colors more closely matched his.
When we finished, I wanted to expand the moment, to create an experience -- one that she would remember (and that we could use to illustrate her creative early childhood when the time came to fill out Manhattan preschool applications.) I played and told Tarana about Don McLean's "Vincent" -- but that failed to make an impression on her, and reminded me how depressing the song sounded on the radio when I was twelve.
Tarana ultimately made it into a good New York City kindergarten, no clumsy help from me needed.
Regarding the fund: 2013 was a good year.
My thoughts about 2014? The number suggests stability. It is equidistant from the nearest two prime numbers, 2011 and 2017, and the two nearest sets of twin prime numbers, 1997/1999 and 2027/2029.
Volatility emerges when you dig a little deeper; 2014 sits far from the midpoint between the average of the prime number squares on either side. The average of 43 squared and 47 squared is 2029.
We won't know how predictive any of this analysis is until 2015 (a number whose prime factorization -- 5 x 13 x 31 -- adds up to 49, the square of a prime, a characteristic that I prefer to ignore for the time being) but it's as predictive of the coming year as any other macro trend I have heard of or read about.
So, to sum up--
2014: stable, but with an underlying instability that may take fifteen years to resolve.
Meanwhile, in August, at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, Tarana stood for a long time in front of "Country Road in Provence by Night," a painting that -- for reasons possibly related to something she saw or heard as a young child -- she seems to love as much as I do.
Which suggests -- to me anyway -- that even with a macro strategy based on primes, twin primes or squares of primes, something beautiful eventually happens when you share your stars, your swirls and your colors with someone you love.
To my dear friends and colleagues-- wishing you happy holidays and the best for 2014 (prime factorization 2 x 19 x 53.)
There’s a scene in “Night at the Opera” where Groucho checks into his little cabin on the ocean liner and then hears a knock on the door. A porter enters. Another knock. Room service. Another knock. Another. Five people, then ten-- all in the little cabin, and they keep coming.
Fall, 2007. I sat slumped on the couch, Tarana tucked lazily under one arm, Nikhil lying on the other side, the top of his head brushing against me. One window was cracked open and the air felt like leaves on the ground and smelled like pine needles in a campfire. It was a dark and rainy late afternoon, a ways to go before dinner. By now all four Marx Brothers were in the little cabin, surrounded by assorted plumbers, housekeepers, and lost travelers all repositioning themselves around suitcases, toolboxes and silver serving dishes with steam escaping from under the lids. More knocks on the cabin door, and more people: sea captains with monocles, women with bumpy blond hair parted on the side.
The scene reached a critical combination of too many people in too little space and the kids started laughing, and the laughter ratcheted up a little with each new knock on the door. The camera caught Harpo’s big eyes and nutty smile, the kids got on their knees on the floor to be closer to the screen. I forget how the movie scene ends, but I remember the black and white from the screen lighting their faces. Tarana laughed and bit her lower lip. Nikhil was catching the light in his mouth like a snowflake.
Our children fly past us, riding on a star. But every once in a while we get to ride along.
The arbitrary grouping of tens places our number system at odds with what’s real and true in the world. Suppose evolution had left us with four fingers instead of five, would we have adopted an octimal instead of decimal system? Would we count “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” while writing “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-10?” And would that convention be better, worse, or just different?
A couple of years ago I overheard a friend toss off the phrase “the difference between a first and second derivative” with a familiarity that made me jealous. I started reading books with titles like “Infinite Ascent” and “A Tour of the Calculus,” books about numbers. Not numbers of things, but numbers themselves: squares and square roots, series and patterns, the philosophy of zero and the inevitability of pi.
There are many truths buried in numbers, but the way we write them down obscures them. Prime numbers are real; counting on our fingers is not. Square roots are true in and of themselves, counting down from ten to liftoff is pure artifact.
I turned 49 yesterday. 49 shouldn’t matter. 49 is the last exhibition game before the start of the season, the dark theater before the movie, the vice-presidency of ages. Fifty – now there’s a momentous year. Fifty, as in half a century or a diamond anniversary or “sorry – I can’t break a bill that large.”
But the brave 50 is a fraud: five groups of ten, two groups of twenty-five, like one of those toys that changes from a truck or a plane into a robot. 49, on the other hand, is number royalty: a square of a prime number, part of the noble series 1-4-9-25-49.
The squared prime number series makes a lot of sense. Years go by too quickly now. The narrative breaks down: each year things are different but they’re not different enough. Are you better off now then you were a year ago? How can you tell what’s background noise and what will ultimately pass the “So what” test? Decades are pretty speedy too, and worse, they are inconsistent. Decade identity fizzles out over time: Teens and twenties are periods of tumult and revolution, of emerging identity, of atmospheric highs and fall and cut your forehead on broken glass in the parking lot lows. But the thirties don’t roar and the forties just…. happen.
Take the prime squared intervals, however, and it all makes sense. Sure 9 to 25 is huge but 25 to 49 is epic: we create families, make and lose fortunes, we matter. We fall, redeem, shine, disappoint, lose ourselves for months at a time in minutiae and emerge with perspective and the vaguest sense that wisdom and peace may ultimately be attainable.
Way too much for ten years to handle.
1-4-9-25-49. 49 is the last of the line, but that’s not a bad thing. None of us will make it to 121. 49 is the black belt of years: everything really starts from here.
(from March 2008)
David Sable MD
writer, teacher, fund manager and retired reproductive endocrinologist