should we all have done same?

from NYT piece on Gullah cook Emily Meggett.


Falklands anniversary

The Falklands War emphasized an important lesson of all international affairs: There is no one universal reality. Every nation has its own narrative, as we are witnessing yet again today, in the conduct toward Ukraine of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Max Hastings writing in Bloomberg:

Nonetheless, given the excellence of the Argentine air force, Thatcher took a huge gamble by dispatching her fleet. Very little would have needed to go wrong for the British, and right for the junta, for an aircraft carrier to be sunk by Exocets, almost certainly with catastrophic consequences for the whole naval operation.


Austin and Houston

Stephen Austin’s father Moses, who knew something about lead mining, got a contract to roof the Virginia legislature building with lead. But he lost money on the deal and ended up almost broke.

The Austin family wandered into what was then Spanish territory in what’s now Missouri. Spanish and French claims in this area went back and forth during Napoleonic tumult in Europe. While the Austins were in [now] Missouri, Napoleon ended up with it. Napoleon needed money to fund various losses, including slaves taking over what’s now Haiti, so he sold these lands to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase, and the Austins became US citizens again.

(TJ and Napoleon making a real estate deal. James Madison and marquis de Barbé-Marbois doing the agenting. Is that not one of the best dealmaking stories of all time?)

Young Stephen Austin was sent to boarding school in Connecticut and then college in Kentucky.

During his lonely years in boarding school, which he loathed, every letter from his father, which he tore open in a search for encouragement and affection, badgered him about how to become a great man.*

Meanwhile Moses Austin went broke again. His education complete, Stephen Austin left the family and became a judge in Arkansas.

Moses got the idea to head down to Texas, in what was then Spanish Mexico. He’d once been a Spanish citizen after all. Moses went to visit his son Stephen, who, though he was struggling himself, lent his dad fifty dollars, a horse, and a slave named Richmond.

A few years later, Stephen was in New Orleans. He wasn’t prospering. His dad wrote to him from Texas, and Stephen decided to join him. By the time he got to the town of San Antonio, Stephen learned Mexico had declared independence and was now a new nation. He was no longer in Spanish territory but in the Mexican state of Coahuilla-Tejas.

Stephen Austin conceived of a real estate scheme. He would become a developer. He would get land granted from Mexico and give it to Americans who would move to Tejas. Stephen taught himself Spanish out of a book and went to Mexico City to work out a contract. He got an amazing deal: he was offered 783,757 acres to distribute to 300 families. The head of each family would get 4,428 acres for ranching and 177 acres from farming.

The native Karankawa people had no say in any of this. Austin claimed these people were cannibals and should be killed on sight. He hired ten seasoned fighters and made them into a company that would ride the range. This unit is sometimes considered the first version of the Texas Rangers.

At first Austin could sort of control who came to his colony. But it got out of hand. The area between the Sabine River and the Neches, “the Neutral Ground,” had never been under the control of any government, falling between Spanish, American, and French claims. This area had become a lawless wilderness zone, a notorious hideout for murderers, convicts, outlaws, desperados of all types. Some of that element came into Austin’s zone. So too did the desperate or the ambitious from Tennessee, Louisiana, elsewhere. The word on Texas was out. “Going to Texas” became kind of a mania in the United States.

The government of Mexico tried to get a grip. They passed the Law of April 6, 1830, which banned any new American immigration into Mexican territory, including Texas (and what’s now California). The law also banned the importing of slaves into Mexico. Austin, who had good relationships in Mexico City, managed to get an exemption on this one.

It was around this time that Sam Houston showed up.

Part two to follow.

* source for that quote and much of this info James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History Of Texas


A Pirate Looks At Fifty by Jimmy Buffett

How many of Jimmy Buffett’s Big Eight (now the Big Ten) could you name? A few weeks ago I could’ve gotten two for sure, maybe three, I’m no Parrothead.  When I thought of “Jimmy Buffett,” I thought of MW’s story of listening to his greatest hits on cassette on their way to family vacation, with his mom reaching over to frantically fast forward whenever “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” came around.

In Mile Marker Zero I loved the origin story of Jimmy Buffett: down on his luck in Nashville, goes to Miami for a gig, only to find either he or the club owner got the dates wrong.  Stuck, he calls his friend Jerry Jeff Walker, whose girlfriend suggests they take the unexpected week and go down to Key West.  When Jimmy Buffett sees the lifestyle there he knows he’s in the right place and never turns back.

The Margaritaville retirement community was profiled in The New Yorker.  How many of the singer-songwriters of the ’70s have a retirement community based on their worldview? John Prine? Kris Kristofferson? Only one. At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting they sold a Jimmy Buffett boat. The man is a phenomenon. Why?

On a warm spring morning driving from Chapel HIll to Wilmington, NC in a rented Ford Escape armed with Sirius Satellite XM, I put on Parrothead Radio.  They were playing a live concert from March 2001.  “Before 9/11,” I thought.  The contagious fun of this man came through, and the joy of the audience. It’s strange since, can you even really picture Jimmy Buffett?  You can picture what kind of shirt he wears.  

He’s in that kinda shirt on the cover of the mass market paperback of A Pirate Looks at Fifty. On a sunny beach obviously.  Behind him is an enormous Albatross seaplane, the Hemisphere II. 

This is a travel book, and a great one.  I’d rank it up there with Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, which it references a few times.  I bet more of A Pirate Looks at Fifty is true.  I saved this book to read on the beach in Malibu – perfect setting. The book, leisurely, describes a trip around the Caribbean Sea to commemorate his fiftieth birthday, with stops in Grand Cayman, Costa Rica, Cartagena, St. Barts.  A treasure map opens the book, you can follow the voyage.  Along the way, Buffett tells of his rise and his adventures.  He desired to be a Serious Southern Writer, but that wasn’t him.  As a boy he was struck by a parade at Mobile Mardi Gras of Folly chasing Death.  That was him.  Catholicism plays a bigger role than you may suspect, with St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans his home church, but plenty of bad behavior to balance the ledger.  A friend at Auburn teaches him the D and C chords on a guitar. He busks on the corner of Chartres and Conti in New Orleans.

My talent came in working an audience.

Buffett begins the book with four hundred words summing up his life to present. An excerpt:

I signed a record deal, got married, moved to Nashville, had my guitars stolen, bought a Mercedes, worked at Billboard magazine, put out my first album, went broke, met Jerry Jeff Walker, wrecked the Mercedes, got divorced, and moved to Key West. I sang and worked on a fishing boat, went totally crazy, did a lot of dope, met the right girl, made another record, had a hit, bought a bought, and sailed away to the Caribbean.

Having brought us up to speed, he gets going. This is a memoir more of flying and fishing than of music. Buffett is a pilot, and recounts many adventures in the air, usually flying somewhere to fish or surf.

In looking back, I see there wasn’t that much difference between Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner at dawn at Woodstock and Jimmy Stewart playing Charles Lindbergh in “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Memorable meals are described: cucumber and tomato sandwiches at the brassiere on the Trocadero in Paris for example.  And bars: Buck Forty Nine, New Orleans; Trade Winds, St. Augustine; The Hub Pub Club, Boone NC; Big Pine Inn; The Hangout, Gulf Shores; The Vapors, Biloxi; Le Select, St. Barts. 

Of a visit to paintings of Winslow Homer and Frederick Edward Church:

I can’t put the feeling into words; the closest I can come is to say that the sights and sounds of such things may enter the body through the senses but they find their way to the heart, and that is what art is really about.  

Buffett says:

Anyone bellying up to a bar with a few shots of tequila swimming around the bloodstream can tell a story. The challenge is to wake up the next day and carve through the hangover minefield and a million other excuses and be able to cohesively get it down on paper.

Mission accomplished.


How To Be Rich by J. Paul Getty

Couldn’t resist purchasing this handsome volume in the bookstore of the Getty Center (cheers to MLo for the invitation). I like that the title isn’t “How To Get Rich” but “How to BE Rich.”

On page 2 he gives away one of the formulas: have a rich dad!

I’ll report back when I finish the volume. First: Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography.


More on sugar ruination

Reading up on the Pintupi Nine, a band of Australian Aboriginal people who walked out of the desert and encountered white people and their creations for the first time in 1984. More evidence on the power of sugar over the human mind:

McMahon did not want to put the group under any pressure to join the community, but he witnessed the moment they were persuaded. “It was unthinkable that they would stay out there because the modern world was so seductive. One of the fellows suggested, ‘Give them a taste of the sugar and they’ll be in for sure.'”

Indeed, the taste of sugar had a big impact on the Pintupi Nine and it is this aspect of their story which now animates them most. “I tasted the sugar, we didn’t know what it was, but it was so sweet. I tasted the sugar and it tasted so sweet – like the Kulun Kulun flower. My mother tasted it and it was so sweet. It was good,” says Warlimpirrnga.

That was that for bush life.


I am in a game

the game is very very easy if you have the right lessons in your mind.

Buffett says that to succeed at the game you need an IQ of about 120, but more than that is a hinderance.

Nothing shocking in Warren Buffett’s interview with Charlie Rose if you are a Buffett student. He drinks a Coke. That this interview exists is perhaps the most interesting thing: Charlie Rose is back? In this form? It’s not shot like Charlie’s PBS show.

Could this room be more generic?

Warren:

I think about what the company’s gonna be worth in 10-12 years.

and:

most of them [Berkshire investors] give it away when they get through

What does “get through” mean here? Die?

Buffett mentions pitching some doctors at a place called The Hilltop House in Omaha. Sadly it no longer exists, I find this photo of it on the post “I Wish I Could Have Gone To: Hilltop House” on MyOmahaObsession and I share the sentiment.


Confederate Surrender Day

Everybody knows about Appomattox, Lee and Grant, that whole story. But the larger Confederate surrender began on April 17, 1865, when Joseph Johnston met William Tecumseh Sherman near Durham, North Carolina. They met at the Bennett farmhouse, and after a few days of negotiation, 89,270 or so Confederate soldiers surrendered.

Some years later, John Sergeant Wise, a former Confederate officer whose father had been a Confederate general, went with a friend to visit Johnston.

One cold winter night about 1880, Captain Edwin Harvie, of General Johnston’s staff, invited me to join him in a call upon the general, who was then living in Richmond. Harvie was one of his pets, and we were promptly admitted to his presence. He sat in an armchair in his library, dressed in a flannel wrapper, and was suffering from an influenza. By his side, upon a low stool, stood a tray with whiskey, glasses, spoons, sugar, lemon, spice, and eggs. At the grate a footman held a brass teakettle of boiling water. Mrs. Johnston was preparing hot Tom-and-Jerry for the old gentleman, and he took it from time to time with no sign of objection or resistance. It was snowing outside, and the scene within was very cosy. As I had seen him in public, General Johnston was a stiff, uncommunicative man, punctilious and peppery, as little fellows like him are apt to be. He reminded minded me of a cock sparrow, full of self- consciousness, and rather enjoying a peck at his neighbor.

Johnston told Wise and his friend an anecdote about the surrendering, which Wise recorded in his book, The End of an Era.

Johnston had known Sherman well in the United States army. Their first interview near Greensboro resulted in an engagement to meet for further discussion the following day. As they were parting, Johnston remarked: “By the way, Cumps, Breckinridge, our Secretary of War, is with me. He is a very able fellow, and a better lawyer than any of us. If there is no objection, I will fetch him along to-morrow.”

Sherman didn’t like that idea, not recognizing any rebel “Secretary of War,” but agreed to allow Breckinridge to come in his capacity as a Confederate general.

        The next day, General Johnston, accompanied by Major-General Breckinridge and others, was at the rendezvous before Sherman.

        “You know how fond of his liquor Breckinridge was?” added General Johnston, as he went on with his story. “Well, nearly everything to drink had been absorbed. For several days, Breckinridge had found it difficult, if not impossible, to procure liquor. He showed the effect of his enforced abstinence. He was rather dull and heavy that morning. Somebody in Danville had given him a plug of very fine chewing tobacco, and he chewed vigorously while we were awaiting Sherman’s coming. After a while, the latter arrived. He bustled in with a pair of saddlebags over his arm, and apologized for being late. He placed the saddlebags carefully upon a chair. Introductions followed, and for a while General Sherman made himself exceedingly agreeable. Finally, some one suggested that we had better take up the matter in hand.

        ” ‘Yes,’ said Sherman; ‘but, gentlemen, it occurred to me that perhaps you were not overstocked with liquor, and I procured some medical stores on my way over. Will you join me before we begin work?'”

        General Johnston said he watched the expression of Breckinridge at this announcement, and it was beatific. Tossing his quid into the fire, he rinsed his mouth, and when the bottle and the glass were passed to him, he poured out a tremendous drink, which he swallowed with great satisfaction. With an air of content, he stroked his mustache and took a fresh chew of tobacco.

        Then they settled down to business, and Breckinridge never shone more brilliantly than he did in the discussions which followed. He seemed to have at his tongue’s end every rule and maxim of international and constitutional law, and of the laws of war, – international wars, civil wars, and wars of rebellion. In fact, he was so resourceful, cogent, persuasive, learned, that, at one stage of the proceedings, General Sherman, when confronted by the authority, but not convinced by the eloquence or learning of Breckinridge, pushed back his chair and exclaimed: “See here, gentlemen, who is doing this surrendering anyhow? If this thing goes on, you’ll have me sending a letter of apology to Jeff Davis.”

Afterward, when they were nearing the close of the conference, Sherman sat for some time absorbed in deep thought. Then he arose, went to the saddlebags, and fumbled for the bottle. Breckinridge saw the movement. Again he took his quid from his mouth and tossed it into the fireplace. His eye brightened, and he gave every evidence of intense interest in what Sherman seemed about to do.

        The latter, preoccupied, perhaps unconscious of his action, poured out some liquor, shoved the bottle back into the saddle- pocket, walked to the window, and stood there, looking out abstractedly, while he sipped his grog.

        From pleasant hope and expectation the expression on Breckinridge’s face changed successively to uncertainty, disgust, and deep depression. At last his hand sought the plug of tobacco, and, with an injured, sorrowful look, he cut off another chew. Upon this he ruminated during the remainder of the interview, taking little part in what was said.

        After silent reflections at the window, General Sherman bustled back, gathered up his papers, and said: “These terms are too generous, but I must hurry away before you make me sign a capitulation. I will submit them to the authorities at Washington, and let you hear how they are received.” With that he bade the assembled officers adieu, took his saddlebags upon his arm, and went off as he had come.

        General Johnston took occasion, as they left the house and were drawing on their gloves, to ask General Breckinridge how he had been impressed by Sherman.

        “Sherman is a bright man, and a man of great force,” replied Breckinridge, speaking with deliberation, “but,” raising his voice and with a look of great intensity, “General Johnston, General Sherman is a hog. Yes, sir, a hog. Did you see him take that drink by himself?”

General Johnston tried to assure General Breckinridge that General Sherman was a royal good fellow, but the most absent- minded man in the world. He told him that the failure to offer him a drink was the highest compliment that could have been paid to the masterly arguments with which he had pressed the Union commander to that state of abstraction.

        “Ah!” protested the big Kentuckian, half sighing, half grieving, “no Kentucky gentleman would ever have taken away that bottle. He knew we needed it, and needed it badly.”

Wise had the opportunity to tell that story to Sherman later:

On one occasion, being intimate with General Sherman, I repeated it to him. Laughing heartily, he said: “I don’t remember it. But if Joe Johnston told it, it’s so. Those fellows hustled me so that day, I was sorry for the drink I did give them,” and with that sally he broke out into fresh laughter.

(wikipedia user Specious took that photo of the reconstructed Bennett Place)


Lizzie (2018)

We were talking about ax* murders after a visit to the Villisca ax murder house in Villisca, Iowa. Someone asked me if I’d ever been to the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, MA. I had to sheepishly admit I never had. Massachusetts is blessed with more cultural and natural attractions than southwestern Iowa, thus we didn’t have to fixate on one century-plus-old ax murder site, so I never made the pilgrimage.

Uncle-in-law Tony mentioned that there was a movie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloë Whatsername about the case. I was stunned, how could such a movie have passed me by?

Back home, I watched it immediately. I wouldn’t exactly race to see it, it’s a bit stylish and slow at times, but Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny are fantastic in it. These are incredible actresses doing stunning work. The version of the case presented in the film (spoiler) seems somewhat plausible to me as a non-student: that Lizzie (Sevigny) and Irish housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) had a sexual relationship. Lizzie took the lead on the murdering, and Sullivan covered for her.

In Popular Crime, Bill James posits that Lizzie was innocent, or at least that she shouldn’t’ve been convicted, citing some timeline discrepancies. Lizzie had no blood splatter on her clothes. James dismisses the idea (presented vividly in the film) that she might’ve done the murders in the nude.

Again, this seems to be virtually impossible. First, for a Victorian Sunday school teacher, the idea of running around an occupied house naked in the middle of the day is almost more inconceivable than committing a couple of hatchet murders. Second, the only running water in the house was a spigot in the basement. If she had committed the murders in the nude, it is likely that there would have been bloody footprints leading to the basement – and there is no time to have cleaned them up.

I dunno, I think Victorians – should that term even apply in the USA? – were weirder and nudier than we may realize. And maybe there wouldn’t be bloody footprints, I’m no expert on blood splatterings and footprint cleanings. In my own life I’ve found you can clean up even a big mess in a hurry if you’re motivated. Even James concedes that it does seem Lizzie burned a dress in the days after the murders. This doesn’t worry him though and he refuses to charge it against Lizzie. He proposes no alternate solution to the case.

The famous rhyme is pretty strong propaganda. If you’re ever accused of a notorious murder, you’d be wise to hire the local jump rope kids to immediately put out a rhyme blaming one of the other suspects. It may have been too late in Lizzie’s case, but here’s what I might’ve tried:

A random peddler walking by,

Chopped the Bordens, don’t know why

or

Johnny Morse killed his brother-in-law,

Used an ax instead of a saw.

When he saw what he could do

He killed his brother-in-law’s wife too.

These are not as catchy. On the second one for instance you may need to add a footnote that Morse was brother to Andrew Borden’s deceased first wife, Lizzie’s mom.

True crime has never been a passion of mine, but I can see the appeal. You’re dealing with a certain set of known information which you can weight as you see fit, balanced with aspects that are epistemically (?) unknowable. In that way it’s a puzzle not unlike handicapping a horse race.

I’m reading Bill James (with Rachel McCarthy James) The Man from the Train now, centered on the Villisca murders. It’s very compelling. James is such an appealing writer, and he’s on to a good one here. One way or another, there was a staggering number of entire families murdered with an ax between 1890 and 1912. Something like 14-25 events with 59-94 victims. That is wild. In these ax murders, by the way, we’re talking about the blunt end of the ax. Lizzie or whoever did the Fall River murders as I understand it used the sharp side.

The people I spoke with in Villisca seemed more focused on possible local solutions, the Kelly and Jones theories in particular. Maybe they don’t want to admit that their crime, which did make their town famous, was just part of a horrible series, rather than a special and unique case. The Man From The Train put me in mind of the book Wisconsin Death Trip, which is nothing more than a compiling of psycho events from Wisconsin newspapers from about 1890-1900, awful suicides, burnings, poisonings, fits of insanity, etc., plus a collection of eerie photographs from that time and place. The thesis is that the US Midwest was having something like a collective mental breakdown during the late 19th century.

Anyway, if you like creepy lesbian psychodramas, Lizzie might be for you! The sound design is good on the creaks of an old wooden house.

* I’m using the spelling ax that is used on the Villisca house signage, although axe is more common in the USA


Zen and the Comic Spirit

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover maybe but what a great cover.

Looked up Choju-giga:

Gotta get some more Conrad Hyers in my life.


all time best vacation?

In the history of most relaxing vacations, Goethe’s 1775 trip to Switzerland gotta be up there:

if you don’t make a decisive break with your past did you even go on vacation??


Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison by Howard Green

Over his career Hunter Harrison ran four railroads: Illinois Central, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and CSX. His gospel was Precision Scheduled Railroading. He’s usually credited with the PSR idea, although we can’t overlook the role of “Pisser Bill” Thompson in formulating the concept. “Pisser Bill” was called that because wherever he was on the railyard, if he had to piss, he would take his dick out and piss all over the place. That’s what railroading was like when Hunter Harrison began his career oiling traincars.

Harrison kept score by one main metric: operating ratio. Operating expenses divided by revenue. He cared about other numbers of course, but only as to how they’d affect operating ratio. You want a lower operating ratio: less dollars spent for every dollar earned.

Harrison focused on the numerator: expenses. He was obsessed with smart use and purchase of assets. One of his sayings was that an unused asset is a liability. When he found unused assets he shed them. On the Illinois Central, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans, there were two parallel tracks. Hunter got rid of one of them. He wanted to save the cost of maintaining it.  (Sidings were kept so two trains didn’t run into each other). He knew pricing would take care of itself because the railroad is almost a monopoly. He didn’t care much about customers. He saw some stickers once at a BNSF yard that said “the customer is always right.” He had them torn down.  Ignoring customers caused him some problems politically, especially in Canada, but it didn’t stop him from getting the operating ratio down. 

Harrison was a fanatic about trainyard efficiency. He rose up as a trainmaster in the Frisco yard in Memphis. Although he never went to college, Harrison had a pure mind for railroad management. When Sue Rathe introduced him to a new world of computerized data at Illinois Central, he immediately understood the potential and how to use it.  (Although no one would argue Harrison could not be gruff, Rathe tells us not to miss the gentlemanly side. Harrison encouraged people with potential. His bookshelf was full of memoirs of great coaches, he viewed himself as a coach, he used coaching metaphors.)   

As CEO, Harrison got the Illinois Central’s OR down from like 90% to mid 60s. The employees didn’t always like him for it. But they came to respect him. The alternative might’ve been bankruptcy.  

What produced results was the approach he would preach for the next two and a half decades – what train velocity does for efficiency, what longer trains mean for efficiency, and on and one. He saw better processes for everything, base hit after base hit.

There’s not much about this point in the book, but I wonder if Harrison had one key world historical insight. Railroading had changed. The Staggers Act of 1980 deregulated railroads. After that there was some nominal oversight but really the railroads could charge whatever they wanted. (The Staggers Act was meant to be anti-inflationary, it was signed by President Carter).    

The news that railroads were now, like, businesses hadn’t caught on. Railroads still acted like federal bureaucracies. Everything was inefficient.  The labor force was notoriously lazy, naps and “leave earlys” were common, drunkenness not unknown.  

That was in the US. Up in Canada mind, CN at this time was still nationalized! In fact not even nationalized, it was a “Crown corporation,” legally speaking it was more or less Queen Elizabeth’s personal plaything.   

Harrison realized (if I understand the book right) that pricing would take care of itself. Don’t even think about it, charge whatever.  Focus on cutting costs and moving cars (cars, not trains, a key point). You’d make huge gains in operating ratio. That would get reflected in the stock price, and ultimately in Harrison’s personal compensation. By the time he was done he’d personally made something like $500 million, which he used on estates for show horses in Connecticut and Florida, filling trophy rooms.

It wasn’t just having the insight though. Harrison had the combo of skills to execute. No easy job.  There was a lot of what he called mud to scrape away.  He was not shy about confrontation. During some lost years as a young man he once woke up in a pool of his own blood after a bar fight. He took that attitude into his railroads.

Activist investor Bill Ackman saw the possibilities. He took a big position in Canadian Pacific and fought to get Harrison appointed CEO. After some board room battling, Ackman succeeded.

When Harrison took over CP in 2012, he went up the offices in Calgary. It was the week of the Calgary Stampede. Hardly anyone was at work.

“It’s Stampede,” said one of the secretaries.

“Who gives a shit it’s Stampede? This company hasn’t made a penny and we’re worried about Stampede, having a few shooters at noon?”

Harrison turned CP around, starting with the mailroom, where he was disgusted to find a box being FedExed to a destination eight miles away. By then he’d run two railroads. He had a playbook. It was almost too easy for him. In eighteen months he brought the OR down from 81% to 65.9%. Two and a half years later, CP’s OR was 59.8%. He had the railroad using 40% fewer locomatives, he’d closed yars, he was increasing velocity and train length without sacrificing safety (although absolutely sacrificing love from the work force, which he reduced by about four thousand).

For this reader, the least engaging part of Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison by Howard Green came as Harrison was exiting CP to run CSX for a final act of his career. The details about board politics and compensation packages just weren’t as thrilling as turning around a railroad. I can see why Green devoted so much time to this period, however. He’s an anchor on Canada’s Business News Network, and he had access to Harrison during this time. There was some resentment of Harrison’s manner at CP. Harrison himself acknowledged to Green that he’d mistakenly assumed Canada was just like the USA, and Canadians just like Americans, but the business culture there was smaller, closer, and more sensitive, less blunt.

By the time Harrison left CP and went to fix up the “spaghetti-like” CSX*, his health was in rough shape. He took over CSX in March, 2017, and died that December. His ashes were scattered in the Memphis railyard.

Green sums up Harrison’s worldview on page one:

He reshaped an industry by literally making the trains run on time. While Sir Richard Branson advised executives to focus on employees first, customers second, and investors third, Harrison reversed the priorities: investors came first. For him the game was capitalism, pure and simple. You either played it or you didn’t.

Harrison’s legacy lives on. His protege Keith Creel is now CEO at Canadian Pacific. Bill Ackman is taking another bite of that apple. The question is: has Harrison’s Insight is already played out?  The operating ratios for all the major railroads now are in the high 50s and 60%s.  Some of those numbers include real estate sales. The railroads were given a great deal of land to induce them and help them build, much of it indigenous land, a continued resentment.

Are these railroads just now juicing their numbers by scrapping off their parts?  Is that the ultimate end of capitalism, for a corporation to achieve ultimate efficiency and then begin consuming itself, or rather allowing the shareholders to consume it in a cannibalistic ritual?

I should confess/disclose I myself am long CP and UNP and (through Berkshire) BSNF. Good luck building another transcontinental railroad. Canadian Pacific was built in five years. California will take longer than that to go from Bakersfield to Merced, although in fairness we’re not importing 15,000 Chinese laborers nor will the deaths of 600 people be acceptable. Both CP and the UNP were built with the aid of corrupt schemes. Corrupt schemes may still be rampant but they’re less effective, at least in North American railroad building.

Throughout this book are accounts of high stakes dinners and meetings at places like the Mount Royal Club in Montreal or The Breakers in Palm Beach. I know I’m not cut out to be a railroad CEO because I was reading and thinking, sure, sure this is a faceoff over control of the board but: what’s the food like? What’re people eating? I wanted the flavor! One meal that got my attention was a hasty conference at a Chick-Fil-A near Atlanta. That was the kind of food Hunter Harrison liked.

Cheers to Alex Morris, @TSOH_investing on Twitter, I think that’s how I heard about this book. I read it because I wanted to learn a bit about running a railroad, and I did!

* an example of Harrison’s mind: he could look at the map for CSX railroad and see that “stripped down, CSX wasn’t spaghetti; to Harrison it was more or less a square” with the corners being Selkirk, NY near Albany, Willard Ohio (60 miles south of Toledo), Nashville Tennessee, and Waycross, Georgia.


Carolinas Campaign

After marching through Georgia, Sherman convinced Grant to let him drive up from Savannah tearing up South Carolina. The Confederate general Joseph Johnston tried to intercept Sherman before he could link up with Grant, but Johnson’s forces were torn to pieces after John Bell Hood’s invasion of Tennessee and the disastrous battles at Franklin and Nashville.

Though Davis wished strongly to continue the war, Johnston sent a courier to the Union troops encamped at Morrisville Station, with a message to General Sherman, offering a meeting between the lines to discuss a truce…

The first day’s discussion (April 17) was intensified by the telegram Sherman handed to Johnston, informing of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. They met the following day, April 18, and signed terms of surrender.

With the fall of Fort Fisher and thus Wilmington in late January 1865, the Confederacy had no open ports. The armies could not be resupplied. The Union had achieved a version of their Anaconda Plan.

(source on that)

That top map I found over at Hal Jespersen’s Cartography:

This page offers over 200 maps I have created for American Civil War battle articles in Wikipedia, almost always for articles I wrote myself. They are available to anyone to use or publish under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, which means that if you use them—either modified or unmodified—you must abide by the terms of that license and attribute the images to me with the text “Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com.” It is not necessary for you to contact me in advance for permission to use the maps under these terms, although I always enjoy hearing about how my maps are used.

The best Civil War book I’ve read recently by the way is Vicksburg, 1863 by Winston Groom, who wrote the novel Forrest Gump. The book functions as a history of the Civil War in the West, where Grant with the help of the Navy bored down until the Mississippi from New Orleans up was under Union control, Vicksburg last to fall. Then he moved East to finish the job. Groom gives a very readable account of the difficult to follow campaign, much of it conducted in shifting swamp. I’ve been meaning to write a review but here is a short one: real good.


Dodge City Kansas

seen from the train, back in December. Maybe you’ve heard the American colloquialism, let’s get the hell out of Dodge.


Checking out the news

That’s over at the Wall Street Journal. Am I supposed to use this information to trade stocks?

Now that one’s tradable. (Imagine being the couple chosen to illustrate this headline!) Observed this phenomenon in Santa Fe, overrun with flush Boomers on Indigenous Peoples Day weekend, threatening the very specialness they were seeking (or was it the other way round?)


East Coast Greenway

I gotta check the ECG out next time I need a three thousand mile stroll. Do we need a West Coast Greenway? (obv). Idgar Sagjedev gets credit for this picture from the American Tobacco Trail segment:


My heart laid bare

Poe told us to expect [humiliation], too. When, near the end of his career, he laid out a formula for making great art, he said:

If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple— a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.”

There’s just one catch, Poe said: “this little book must be true to its title.” And that is why “no man ever will dare write it.”

“No man could write it, even if he dared,” Poe concluded. “The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”

Catherine Baab-Muguira, author of the fantastic Poe for Your Problems, in a post about Edgar Allen Poe and “Why you should aim for 100 humiliations a year.”


Evacuation Day

Today is Evacuation Day in Boston, the day the British finally quit the city, giving up on the siege. Conveniently, it falls on Saint Patrick’s Day, so it’s Brits Out all around.

“Had Sir William Howe fortified the hills round Boston, he could not have been disgracefully driven from it,” wrote his replacement Sir Henry Clinton.

I thought this was interesting in this plaguey time:

Once the British fleet sailed away, the Americans moved to reclaim Boston and Charlestown. At first, they thought that the British were still on Bunker Hill, but it turned out that the British had left dummies in place. Due to the risk of smallpox, at first only men picked for their prior exposure to the disease entered Boston under the command of Artemas Ward. More of the colonial army entered on March 20, 1776, once the risk of disease was judged low.

How about Howard Pyle’s painting of Bunker Hill? (I can hear a Bostonian voice correcting me: “you mean Breed’s Hill?)

Can’t have been a fun time for British troops, half of whom were probably Irish recruits anyway. And what of the Dublin born Crean Brush, who met a sad fate for his Loyalism?

While imprisoned in Boston, Brush was denied privileges. He consoled himself with alcohol.


our number came up

“Now through the very universality of its structures, starting with the code, the biosphere looks like the product of a unique event,” Jacques Monod wrote in 1970. “The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like a person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel a little strange and a little unreal?”

quoted in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick, a nutrient-rich book I am working my way through.

On Monod:

During World War II, Monod was active in the French Resistance, eventually becoming the chief of staff of the French Forces of the Interior.Monod became a member of the French Communist Party after the end of the Second World War, but distanced himself from the party after the Lysenko Affair.

His quotations are intense:

  • “The first scientific postulate is the objectivity of nature: nature does not have any intention or goal.”[4]
  • “Anything found to be true of E. coli must also be true of elephants.”[25]
  • “The universe is not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. … Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”[26]


March forth

Pretty good start to a book:

Here’s how the Penguin translation warms us up:

I’ve found both editions of The Persian Expedition to be a bit of a slog. I do enjoy a work based on Xenophon, 1979 film The Warriors, which begins with a summons from Cyrus.

Here’s what Benet has to say in his Reader’s Encylopedia:

(Two Benet brothers won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry!)

Xenophon was pals with Socrates, and wrote a book about horsemanship and one about hunting with dogs.

historians disagree on whether his nose was actually like that

The Greek verb exelauno, meaning “to march forth,” occurs frequently in Xenophon.