I don’t think my pictures do justice to the Wild Rose Pass. In fact, I know they don’t.
I was distracted listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, which I’d never listened to:
I would say “Atlantic City” is my favorite song on this album. I was never super-into Bruce Springsteen. But: respect:
Initially, Springsteen recorded demos for the album at his home with a 4-trackcassette recorder. The demos were sparse…
Springsteen then recorded the album in a studio with the E Street Band. However, he and the producers and engineers working with him felt that a raw, haunted folk essence present on the home tapes was lacking in the band treatments, and so they ultimately decided to release the demo version as the final album.
Complications with mastering of the tapes ensued because of low recording volume, but the problem was overcome with sophisticated noise reduction techniques.
“Nebraska” itself is an interesting song, about Charlie Starkweather:
The song begins with Starkweather meeting Fugate:
- I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just a-twirlin’ her baton
- Me and her went for a ride, sir…and 10 innocent people died
Springsteen was inspired to write the song after seeing Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands on television. The portrait in the opening lines of the girl standing on her front lawn twirling her baton was taken from the movie.
Starkweather himself was [supposedly] influenced by James Dean:
After viewing the film Rebel Without a Cause, Starkweather developed a James Dean fixation and began to groom his hairstyle and dress himself to look like Dean. Starkweather related to Dean’s rebellious screen persona, believing that he had found a kindred spirit of sorts, someone who had suffered torment similar to his own whom he could admire.
Charlie Starweather killed eleven people. Ban movies, I guess.
From 1854 to 1891, Fort Davis was strategically located to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail …
During the Civil War,Confederate States Army troops manned the fort which was attacked on August 9, 1861 by MescaleroApaches. The native warriors attacked the garrison’s livestock herd, killed two guards and made off with about 100 horses and or cattle.
At Fort Davis they have an audio program, where they play announcements of the sort that would’ve been heard on the parade ground, years ago. The day I was there the audio program was a list of ceremonies and salutes to acknowledge the death of former president Andrew Johnson. Gun salutes every hour, and then at sundown.
In the reconstructed barracks, I came upon some National Park Service Personnel discussing the site, and the reproductions they’d used of guns and quilts and so forth. They got quiet and respectful when I came in, and said if I had any questions they would answer them. Then they got back to joking about how someday someone would sell the reproduced guns on eBay as “authentic! from Fort Davis!”
A poignant obituary:
At lunch a guy came up to me and mistook me for Dave. “You look just like Dave – in profile!”
A house I saw in Balmorhea. I sat right down in the middle of the road to take a picture of it.
In Balmorhea there’s a spring:
Between 20 million and 28 million US gallons (90,850 cubic meters) of water a day flow from the springs.
There was a sign nearby offering snorkel rental:
The cienega now serves as a habitat for endangered fish such as the Comanche Springs pupfish and Pecos gambusia as well as other aquatic life, birds and other animals.
I did not take a picture, because you can’t take a picture of everything. But here’s one from the Texas Parks Department:
Later a friend of mine described the drive from Marfa to Austin, seven hours away.
“The first time I did it,” he said, “I was bored because I thought it was nothing. But then, as I got used to it, I realized everything is something.”
In Fort Davis I wanted to visit the rattlesnake and reptile museum. I walked in, and there was no one there. So I walked around. A Spanish language radio station was playing. Then, as I was leaving, I realized it cost $4. I only had two singles or a twenty. I debated what to do. I left the two dollars, and figured that was good enough since no one had been there to explain the various lizards and scorpions anyway.
But then, driving out of town, I thought, “Steve, you know better. This man went to all the trouble of collecting these snakes. All he asks is four dollars.” In my heart I knew it was right. So I got change and went back. The snake man was there this time, and he thanked me for my honesty. He’d been watching my car the whole time, he said.
Helytimes began in 2012. Our idea was
- become good at writing for the Internet
- a writer should have a website
- have a space to collect, digest and share items of interest.
We’ve tried to come up with a mission statement or guiding purpose, but the truth is, this is stuff we had to get out of our head.
The healthiest thing to do was share it.
The best way to put it might be a place to share crazy interesting things we’ve come across.
Since then we’ve published over 1,050 posts. We’re just now starting to get good at it, in our opinion.
Here are the twenty-one most popular posts:
The moral here is probably that we should start a local LA news-and-takes site written by other people.
One lesson here might be to have more local LA journalism written by other people. Keep meaning to start a whole site for that but I do have a full-time job plus several other projects.
In our opinion the most successful post on Helytimes was
although it didn’t crack the top 21, just felt like a time where we added something of value to the Internet and readers responded.
It’s about the work of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, also known as the Training Literature Field Unit No. 1, assembled by the great photographer Edward Steichen.
One thread of Helytimes is attempts to reach into the past and find the sources that give us understanding of the past.
Two personal favorites:
This has been the annual performance review and address to the Helytimes readership:
That photo taken by one of Steichen’s guys, Wayne Miller:
Wait! You can’t be shut down for summer! I need my Helytimes!
writes reader Melanie in Nashville. Aw, thanks! Don’t worry, there’s tons to read… in the archive!
There have been over 560 posts on Helytimes. Here are the ten most popular:
Off the charts most popular post, because of people googling supposed inspiration/John Belushi partyfriend Cathy Smith
Those’ll keep coming over the summer!
Disney + Nazis will bring ’em in.
A personal passion
Feel like this is my wheelhouse, summarizing dense history of the general reader, but it’s a lot of work to write posts like this.
6) Ships’ Cats
I mean, for Convoy alone.
The “it man” of Norwegian literature!
Just a real great story.
This blew my mind, some of the best writing I’ve ever read on WWII.
About Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, and Bill Belichick
Now, here are just some personal favorites:
Here’s stuff related to a current project:
Here is some backstory on Donald Trump, lately in the news:
You can also browse yourself by category. Probably the deepest holes are
See you later!
See if you can guess the name of this feature
Watching this mesa melt away
Why take pictures of Monument Valley? Someone’s taken better pictures of it. Why take pictures on vacation at all? To show someone else how incredible it is? In a way I felt dumb driving around, stopping, taking pictures. The park is really geared towards taking pictures, even steering you to particular viewpoints (“John Ford’s Point” for example). You become part of a parade of people taking pictures. It gets to feel kinda silly. Aren’t I taking myself out of the moment of experience when I snap away? Couldn’t there be some more meaningful or meditative way to experience this?
When you see something staggering, there’s a need to engage somehow, to do something to mark the occasion, and I guess taking pictures can be an act of acknowledgement.
The act of taking the pictures, too, framing them and composing them, can help you focus on what it is, exactly, that’s giving you the emotion. Hemingway:
Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise.
Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course, the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not “realistic.” Instead, they are an imprint of my visualization. All of my pictures are optically very accurate–I use pretty good lenses–but they are quite unrealistic in terms of values. A more realistic simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms but what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.
Looking at my photos later maybe what I was chasing was how the fallen snow revealed the depths of the landscape. Where snow had fallen, where it had stayed, where it was melting. And the way the shadows moved, making a movie out of time, light, place.
Snow, water, mud, sand, rock. Different degrees of permanent but all of it in a process of melting away.
Monument Valley is so epic it feels “timeless” but you are watching temporary freak abnormalities wash and erode back to dust.
Spontaneous Helytimes Travel Prize to The View Hotel, a Navajo-owned property with a one of the best in all planet Earth location. Look at how the building is set into the landscape.
(Note to readers with mild to severe alcohol dependency: there is no alcohol served at the hotel.)
WARNING in three photos there will be a photo of a dead horse
Everybody wants one of a few things in this country. They’re willing to pay to lose weight. They’re willing to pay to grow hair. They’re willing to pay to have sex. And they’re willing to pay to learn how to get rich.
If you buy something because it’s undervalued, then you have to think about selling it when it approaches your calculation of its intrinsic value. That’s hard. But if you buy a few great companies, then you can sit on your ass. That’s a good thing.
– Charlie Munger.
When I was a kid I played this Nintendo game. It was kind of just a bells-and-whistles version of Dopewars.
One significant flaw in the game as a practice tool for the individual investor is it does not account for the effect of capital gains taxes, which would make the rapid fire buying and selling of this game pure madness.
In 2018, my New Year’s Resolution this will be the Year of Business.
Hope and greed vs sound business reasoning
On the speculative side are the individual investors and many mutual funds buying not on the basis of sound business reasoning but on the basis of hope and greed.
So says Mary Buffett and David Clark in Buffetology: The Previously Unexplained Techniques That Have Made Warren Buffett The World’s Most Famous Investor.
By nature I’m a real speculative, hope and greed kinda guy. My mind is speculative, what can I say? Most people’s are, I’d wager. I don’t even really know what “sound business reasoning” means.
The year of business was about teaching myself a new mental model of reasoning and thinking.
Where to begin?
Finally, when young people who “want to help mankind” come to me, asking: “What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world” and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level. My suggestion is:
1) never engage in virtue signaling;
2) never engage in rent seeking;
3) you must start a business. Take risks, start a business.
Yes, take risk, and if you get rich (what is optional) spend your money generously on others. We need people to take (bounded) risks. The entire idea is to move these kids away from the macro, away from abstract universal aims, that social engineering that bring tail risks to society. Doing business will always help; institutions may help but they are equally likely to harm (I am being optimistic; I am certain that except for a few most do end up harming).
so says Taleb in Skin In The Game.
Taleb’s books hit my sweet spot this year, I was entertained and stimulated by them. They raised intriguing ideas not just about probability, prediction and hazard, but also about how to live your life, what is noble and honorable in a world of risk.
Do you agree with the statement “starting a business is a good way to help the world”? It’s a proposition that might divide people along interesting lines. For example, Mitt Romney would probably agree, while Barack Obama I’m guessing would agree only with some qualifications.
I doubt most of my friends, colleagues and family would agree, or at least it’s not the first answer they might come up with. Among younger people, I sense a discomfort with business, an assumption that capitalism is itself kind of bad, somehow.
But could most of those who disagree come up with a clearer answer for how to help mankind?
As an experiment I started thinking about businesses I could start.
My best idea for a business
Selling supplements online seems like a business to start, I remembered Tim Ferriss laying out the steps in Four Hour Work Week, but it wasn’t really calling my name.
My best idea for a business was to buy a 1955 Spartan trailer and set it up by the south side of the 62 Highway heading into Joshua Tree. There’s some vacant land there, and many people arrive there (as I have often myself) needing a break, food, a sandwich, beer, firewood and other essentials for a desert trip.
The point itself – arrival marker of the town of Joshua Tree – is already a point of pilgrimage for many and a natural place to stop, while also being a place to get supplies.
Setting up a small, simple business like that would have reasonable startup cost, aside from my time, and maybe I could employ some people in an economically underdeveloped area.
However, selling sandwiches is not my passion. It’s not why I get out of bed in the morning.
Starting a business is so hard is requires absolute passion. I had a lack of passion.
Further, there was at least two big obstacles I could predict one: regulatory hurdles.
Setting up a business that sold food in San Bernadino County would involve forms, permits, regulations.
What’s more, there’d probably be all kinds of rules about what sort of bathrooms I’d need.
This seemed like a time and bureaucracy challenge beyond my capacity.
Work, in other words. I wanted to get rich sitting on my ass, you see, not working.
Plus, I have a small business, supplying stories and jokes, and for most of the Year of Business my business was sub-contracted to HBO (AT&T).
That was more lucrative than selling PB&Js in the Mojave so I suspended this plan pending further review.
Time to pause, since I had to pause anyway.
What can you learn about “business” from books and the Internet?
No way you can learn more from reading than from starting a business, far from it. But in the spare minutes I had that’s what I could do: learn from the business experience of others.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.
What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.
It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.
And the models have to come from multiple disciplines—because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.
Fantastic book, it was recommended to me by an MBA grad. Reviewed at length over here, a great cheat sheet and friendly intro to basic concepts of sound business reasoning.
The most important concept it got be thinking about was discounted cash flow analysis. How to calculate the present and future values of money. How much you should pay for a machine that will last eight years and print 60 ten dollar bills a day and cost $20 a day to maintain?
That’s a key question underlying sound business reasoning. How do you value an investment, a purchase, a property, a plant, a factory, or an entire business using sound business reasoning? The prevailing and seemingly best answer is discounted cash flow analysis.
However, the more one learns these concepts, the clearer it becomes that there’s an element of art to all these calculations.
A discounted cash flow analysis depends on assumptions and predictions and estimates that require an element of guessing. Intuition and a feel for things enter into these calculations. They’re not perfect.
A few more things I took away from this book:
- I’d do best in marketing
- Ethics is by far the shortest chapter
- A lot of MBA learning is just knowing code words and signifiers, how to throw around terms like EBITDA, that don’t actually make you wiser and smarter. Consider that George W. Bush and Steve Bannon are both graduates of Harvard Business School.
- To really understand business, you have to understand the language of accounting.
Accounting is an ancient science and a difficult one. You must be rigorous and ethical. Many a business catastrophe could’ve been prevented by more careful or ethical accounting. Accounting is almost sacred, I can see why DFW became obsessed with it.
The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations by MacArthur winner Jacob Soll was full of interesting stuff about the early days of double entry accounting. The image of a dreary Florentine looking forward to his kale and bread soup stood out. There are somewhat dark implications for the American nation-state, I fear, if we take the conclusions of this book — that financial accountability keeps nations alive.
However I got very busy at the time I picked up this book and lost my way with it.
Perhaps a more practical focus could draw my attention?
Warren Buffett and the Interpretation of Financial Statements: The Search for the Company with a Durable Competitive Advantage by Mary Buffett and David Clark was real good, and way over my level, which is how I like them.
The key concept here is how to find, by scouring the balance sheets, income statements, and so on, which public companies have to tell you and are available for free, which companies have a durable competitive advantage.
The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense For The Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks.
are the two that my friend Anonymous Investor recommended, and they pick up the durable competitive advantage idea. Both books have a central understanding the fact that capitalism is brutal competition, don’t think otherwise. To prosper, you need a “moat,” a barrier competitors can’t cross. A patent, a powerful brand, a known degree of quality people will pay more for, some kind of regulatory capture, a monopoly or at least and part of an oligarchy, these can be moats.
What we’re talking about now is not starting a business, but buying into a business.
There are about 4,000 publicly traded companies on the major exchanges in the US, and another 15,000 you can buy shares of OTC (over the counter, basically by calling up a broker). You can buy into any of these businesses.
Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family.
so says Buffett. Oft repeated by him in many forms, I find it here on a post called “Buy The Business Not The Stock.”
But how do you determine what price to pay for a share of a business?
Aswath Damodaran has a website with a lot of great information. Mostly it convinced me that deep valuation is not for me.
Extremely Basic Valuation
Always remember that investing is simply price calculations. Your job is to calculate accurate prices for a bevy of assets. When the prices you’ve calculated are sufficiently far from market prices, you take action. There is no “good stock” or “bad stock” or “good company”. There’s just delta from your price and their price. Read this over and over again if you have to and never forget it. Your job is to calculate the price of things and then buy those things for the best price you can. Your calculations should model the real world as thoroughly as possible and be conservative in nature.
Martin Shkreli on his blog (from prison), 8/1/18
The simplest way to determine whether the price of a company is worth it might be to divide the price of a share of a company by the company’s earnings, P/E.
Today, on December 29, 2018:
Apple’s P/E is 13.16.
Google’s (GOOGL): 39.42.
Netflix (NFLX): 91.43.
Union Pacific Railroad (UNP): 8.99.
This suggests UNP is the cheapest of these companies (you get the most earnings per share) while NFLX is the most “expensive” – you get the least earnings).
But: we’re also betting on or estimating future earnings. These numbers change as companies report their earnings, and the stock price goes up and down. Two variables that are often connected and often not connected.
Now you are making predictions.
The most intriguing and enormous field in the world on which to play predictions is the stock market.
What is the stock market?
The stock market is a set of predictions.
Buying into businesses on the stock market can be a form of gambling. Or, if you use sound business reasoning, it can be investing.
What is investing?
Investing is often described as the process of laying out money now in the expectation of receiving more money in the future. At Berkshire we take a more demanding approach, defining investing as the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future.
More succinctly, investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date.
Warren B., in Berkshire’s 2011 Letter To Shareholders.
A great thing about investing is you can learn all about it for the price of an Internet connection. All of Buffett’s letters are free.
How to assess a public company as an investment with sound business reasoning
In researching a specific company, Buffett gathers these resources:
- most recent 10-Ks and 10-Qs
- The annual reports
- News and financial information from many sources
The authors said he wants to see the most recent news stories and at least a decade’s worth of financial data. This allows him to build up a picture of
The companies historical annual return on capital and equity
Management’s record in allocating capital
(from The New Buffetology, Mary Buffett and David Clark).
Cheap stocks (using simple ratios like price-to-book or price-to-sales) tend to outperform expensive stocks. But they also tend to be “worse” companies – companies with less exciting prospects and more problems. Portfolio managers who own the expensive subset of stocks can be perceived as prudent while those who own the cheap ones seem rash. Nope, the data say otherwise.
(from “Pulling The Goalie: Hockey and Investment Implications” by Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown.
This sounds too hard
Correct. Most people shouldn’t bother. You should just buy a low cost index fund that tracks “the market.”
What can we we expect “the stock market” to return?
The VTSAX, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, has had an average annual return of 7.01% since inception in 1992. (Source)
10% is the average, says Nerd Wallet.
9.8% is the average annual return of the S&P 500, says Investopedia.
Now, whether the S&P 500 is “the market” is a good question. We’ll return to that.
O’Shaughnessy has thought a lot about the question, it’s pretty much the main thing he’s thought about for the last twenty years or so as far as I can tell, and comes in at around 9%.
Some interesting data from here.
Munger cautions against assuming history repeats itself, in 2005:
Why Bother Trying To Beat The Market?
A good thing about the Buffettology book is they give you little problems for a specific calculator:
The Texas Instruments BA-35, which it looks like they don’t even really make anymore,. You can get one for $100 over on Amazon.
This calculator is just nifty for working out future values of compounding principal over time.
One concept that must be mashed hard into your head if you’re trying to learn business is the power of compounding.
Let’s say you have $10,000. A good amount of money. How much money can it be in the future?
9% interest, compounded annually, $10,000 principal, 20 years = $61,621
15% interest, compounded annually, $10,000 principal, 20 years= $175,447
9% interest, compounded annually, $1,000 principal, 30 years= $13,731
15% interest, compounded annually, $1,000 principal, 30 years= $86,541
9% interest, $10,000 principal, 40 years= $314,094.2
A significant difference.
Any edge over time adds up.
Let’s say the stock market’s gonna earn 7% over the next years and you have $10,000 to invest. In twenty years you’ll have $38,696.
But if you can get that up to just 8%, you’ll have $46,609.57.
A difference of $8,000.
Is it worth it? Eh, it’s a lotta work to beat the market, maybe not.
Still, you can see why people try it once we’re talking about $1,000,000, and the difference is $80,000, or the edge is 2%, and so on.
Plus there’s something fun just about beating the system.
Lessons from the race track
This book appeals to the same instinct — how to beat the house, what’s the system?
Both Buffett and Munger are interested in race tracks. Here is Munger:
This might be the single most important lesson of the Year of Business. Buffett and Munger repeat it in their speeches and letters. You wait for the right opportunity and you load up.
“The stock market is a no-called-strike game. You don’t have to swing at everything – you can wait for your pitch. The problem when you’re a money manager is that your fans keep yelling, ‘swing, you bum!'”
“Ted Williams described in his book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ that the most important thing – for a hitter – is to wait for the right pitch. And that’s exactly the philosophy I have about investing – wait for the right pitch, and wait for the right deal. And it will come… It’s the key to investing.”
“If you find three wonderful businesses in your life, you’ll get very rich. And if you understand them — bad things aren’t going to happen to those three. I mean, that’s the characteristic of it.”
OK but don’t you need money in the first place to make money buying into businesses?
Yes, this is kind of the trick of capitalism. Even Munger acknowledges that the hard part is getting some money in the first place.
“The first $100,000 is a bitch, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do—if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.”
The Unknown and Unknowable
One of the best papers I read all year was “Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable,” by Richard Zeckhauser.
David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.1
This essay discusses how to identify good investments when the level of uncertainty is well beyond that considered in traditional models of finance.
Zeckhauser, in talking about how we make predictions about the Unknown and Unknowable, gets to an almost Zen level. There’s a suggestion that in making predictions about something truly Unknowable, the amateur might almost have an edge over the professional. This is deep stuff.
“Beating the market”
When we talk about “beating the market,” what’re we talking about?
If you’re talking about outperforming a total stock market index like VTSAX over a long time period, that seems to be a lot of work to pull off something nearly impossible.
Yes, people do it, but it’s so hard to do we, like, know the names of the people who’ve consistently done it.
There’s something cool about Peter Lynch’s idea that the average consumer can have an edge, but even he says you gotta follow that up with a lot of homework.
Lynch, O’Shaughnessy – it’s like a Boston law firm around here. I really enjoyed Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Twitter and his Google talk.
Sometimes when there’s talk of “beating the market,” the S&P 500 is used interchangeably with “the market.” As O’Shaughnessy points out though, the S&P 500 is itself a strategy. Couldn’t there be a better strategy?
is full of backtesting and research, much of it summarized in this article. Small caps, low P/S, is my four word takeaway.
Jim: Sure. So when I was a teenager, I was fascinated because my parents and some of my uncles were very involved in investing in the stock market, and they used to argue about it all the time. And generally speaking, the argument went, which CEO did they feel was better, or which company had better prospects. And I kind of felt that that wasn’t the right question, or questions to ask. I felt it was far more useful, or, I believed at the time that it would be far more useful to look at the underlying numbers and valuations of companies that you were considering buying, and find if there was a way to sort of systematically identify companies that would go on to do well, and identify those that would go on to do poorly. And so I did a lot of research, and ultimately came up…
says O’Shaughnessy in an interview with GuruFocus. I’m not sure I agree.
Narrative can be a powerful tool in business. If you can see where a story is going, there could be an edge.
I like assessing companies based on a Google image search of the CEO, for instance.
O’Shaughnessy suggests cutting all that out, getting down to just the numbers. But do you want to invest in, I dunno, RCI Hospitality Holdings ($RICK) (a company that runs a bunch of Hooters-type places called Bombshells) or PetMed Express ($PETS) just because they’re small caps with low p/s ratios and other solid indicators?
Actually those both might be great investments.
I will concede that narrative investing is not systematic. I will continue to ruminate on it.
Charlie Tian’s book is dense but I found it a great compression of a lot of investing principles. It’s also just like a cool immigrant story.
The service that Charlie Tian built, GuruFocus, is a fantastic resource.
Premium membership costs $449 for a year, which is a lot, but I’d say I got way more than that in value and education from it.
J. R. Collins
His book is great, his Google talk is great.
Investing doesn’t have to be all Munger and Buffett. Towards the end of the Year of Business I got into Sir John Templeton.
His thing was finding the point of maximum pessimism. Australian real estate is down? South American mining companies are getting crushed? Look for an opportunity there.
This guy worked above a grocery store in the Bahamas.
Great-niece Lauren carrying on the legacy.
Thought this was a cool chart from her talk demonstrating irrational Mr. Market at work even while long term trends may be “rational.”
Why bother, again?
At some point if you study this stuff it’s like, if you’re not indexing, shouldn’t you just buy Berkshire and have Buffett handle your money for you? You can have the greatest investor who ever lived making money for you just as easily as buying any other stock.
It seems to me that there are 3 qualities of great investors that are rarely discussed:
1. They have a strong memory;
2. They are extremely numerate;
3. They have what Warren calls a “money mind,” an instinctive commercial sense.
Alice Schroeder, his biographer, talking about Warren Buffett. I don’t have any of these.
Even Munger says all his family’s money is in Costco, Berkshire, Li Lu’s (private) fund and that’s it.
In the United States, a person or institution with almost all wealth invested, long term, in just three fine domestic corporations is securely rich. And why should such an owner care if at any time most other investors are faring somewhat better or worse. And particularly so when he rationally believes, like Berkshire, that his long-term results will be superior by reason of his lower costs, required emphasis on long-term effects, and concentration in his most preferred choices.
I go even further. I think it can be a rational choice, in some situations, for a family or a foundation to remain 90% concentrated in one equity. Indeed, I hope the Mungers follow roughly this course.
The answer is it’s fun and stimulates the mind.
A thing to remember about Buffett:
More than 2,000 books are dedicated to how Warren Buffett built his fortune. Many of them are wonderful.
But few pay enough attention to the simplest fact: Buffett’s fortune isn’t due to just being a good investor, but being a good investor since he was literally a child.
The writings of Morgan Housel are incredible.
You can read about Buffett all day, and it’s fun because Buffett is an amazing writer and storyteller and character as well as businessman. But studying geniuses isn’t necessarily that helpful for the average apprentice. Again, it’s like studying LeBron to learn how to dribble and hit a layup.
Can Capitalism Survive Itself?
The title of this book is vaguely embarrassing imo but Yvon Chouinard is a hero and his book is fantastic. Starting with blacksmithing rock climbing pitons he built Patagonia.
They make salmon now?
Towards the end of his book Chouinard wonders whether our economy, which depends on growth, is sustainable. He suggests it might destroy us all, which he doesn’t seem all that upset about (he mentions Zen a lot).
The last liberal art
Have yet to finish this book but I love the premise. Investing combines so many disciplines and models, that’s what makes it such a rich subject. So far I’m interested in Hagstrom’s connections to physics. Stocks are subject to some kind of law of gravity. Netflix will not have a P/E of 95 for forever.
Compare perception to results:
Dominos, Amazon, Berkshire, and VTSAX since 2005.
Stocks Let’s Talk
The stock market is interesting and absurd. The stock market is not “business,” but it’s made of business, you know?
The truth is the most I’ve learned about business has come from conversation.
To continue the conversation, I started a podcast, Stocks Let’s Talk. You can find all six episodes here, each with an interesting guest bringing intriguing perspective.
I intend to continue it and would appreciate it if you rate us on iTunes.
- you can get rich sitting on your ass
- business is hard and brutal and competitive
- you need a durable competitive advantage
- if you are unethical it will catch up to you
- we’re gonna need to get sustainable
- the works of Tian, Lynch, O’Shaughnessy, Templeton, Chouinard, and Munger are worth study
- accounting is crucial and must be done right, even then you can be fooled
- I’m too whimsical for business really but it’s good to learn different models
which I’m finding fantastic. I’m not THAT into The Searchers the movie (I mean I think it’s cool) but this book is amazing as Texas history. I’d put it on a shelf with God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright. They can split the Helytimes J. Frank Dobie Texas History Prize for 2018.
Billy Dixon was there:
By August a troop of cavalry made it to Adobe Walls, under Lt. Frank D. Baldwin, with Masterson and Dixon as scouts, where a dozen men were still holed up.:247 “Some mischievous fellow had stuck an Indian’s skull on each post of the corral gate.”:248 The killing had not ended, however; one civilian was lanced by Indians while looking for wild plums along the Canadian River.
This wasn’t that long ago.
Maybe some day I’ll get to that part of Texas. Long Texas drives have formed an important part of my life. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sure, we’ve all heard of Chaco Canyon. It’s one of the 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the USA. But I tended to lump it in with Mesa Verde and the other cliff dwellings and move on.
Then an ad in High West (“for people who care about the West”) caught my eye. $25 for a year’s subscription to Archaeology Southwest, PLUS the Chaco archaeology report? Yes!
Once you get going on Chaco Canyon, it’s hard to stop.
What was it? Who built it? How? What happened? What were they up to? Why there?
One of the most important conclusions that leaps out of this book is that most of the societies examined had attitudes toward nature that were fairly compatible with a responsible, sustainable relationship with the environment, but that nearly all of them ended up destroying their environment anyway, either because they lacked the scientific and technological knowledge to know how to act best or because they let their values change as they became wealthier and more powerful through exploitation of natural resources.
from this post.
Sometimes you start looking for something, more information, help, and you find exactly what you’re looking for. You find a guide who can give you exactly the information you’re looking for, in a digestible way.
That’s what I found when I found The Gambler’s House. A dense, rich blog about Chaco by a former Park Service seasonal guide, he / she seems to know this stuff at a deep level. Here are two of the closest I find to autobiography.
The author, who signs the name Teofilio, writes with clarity, patience, intelligence, respect for the reader, restrained but confident style, and a steady, calm voice, walking us through questions, debates, and controversies within the scholarship:
So if great houses weren’t pueblos, what were they? Here’s where contemporary archaeologists tend to break into two main camps. One sees them as elite residences, part of some sort of hierarchical system centered on the canyon or, alternatively, of a decentralized system of “peer-polities” with local elites who emulated the central canyon elites in the biggest great houses. In either case, note that the great houses are still presumed to have been primarily residential. The difference from the traditional view is quantitative, rather than qualitative. These researchers see the lack of evidence for residential use in most rooms, but they also see that there is still some evidence for residential use, and they emphasize that and interpret the other rooms as evidence of the power and wealth of the few people who lived in these huge buildings and were able to amass large food surpluses or trade goods (or whatever). The specific models vary, but the core thing about them is that they see the great houses as houses, not for the community as a whole (most people lived in the surrounding “small houses” both inside and outside of the canyon) but for a lucky few.
On the other side are those who see the difference between pueblos and great houses as qualitative. To these people, the great houses were not primarily residential in function, although they may have housed some people from time to time. Most of these researchers see the primary function of the sites as being “ritual” in some sense, although what that means is not always clearly specified. In many cases a focus on pilgrimage (based on questionable evidence) is posited. This group tends to make a big deal out of the astronomical alignments and large-scale planning evident in the layouts and positions of the great houses within their communities. They tend to see the few residents of the sites as caretakers, priests, or other individuals whose functions allowed them to reside in these buildings. Importantly, they don’t see these sites as equivalent to other residences in any meaningful way. They are instead public architecture, perhaps built by egalitarian communities as an act of religious devotion. Examples of monumental architecture built by such societies are known throughout the world (Stonehenge is a famous example), and this view fits with the traditional interpretation of modern Pueblo ethnography, which sees the Pueblos as peaceful, egalitarian, communal villagers. There is a long tradition of projecting this image back into the prehistoric past based on the obvious continuities in material culture, so while these scholars are in some ways breaking with tradition in not seeing great houses as residential, they are also staying true to tradition in other ways by interpreting them as a past manifestation of cultural tendencies still known in the descendant societies but expressed in different ways.
(from this post).
While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency. This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco. The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think. Meanwhile, the mystery remains.
I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved. There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons. That’s not necessarily a problem, though. At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics. Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco. One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe. The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent. There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be. But that’s okay. Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.
What of the Gambler legend for the origin of Chaco? Alexandria Witze at Archaeology Conservancy tells us:
Navajo oral histories tell of a Great Gambler who had a profound effect on Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloan capital located in what is now northwestern New Mexico. His name was Nááhwiilbiihi (“winner of people”) or Noqóilpi (“he who wins men at play”), and he travelled to Chaco from the south. Once there, he began gambling with the locals, engaging in games such as dice and footraces. He always won.
Faced with such a formidable opponent, the people of Chaco lost all their possessions at first. Then they gambled their spouses and children and, finally, themselves, into his debt. With a group of slaves now available to do his bidding, the Gambler ordered them to construct a series of great houses—the monumental architecture that fills Chaco Canyon today.
What was up with Chaco Canyon’s roads? They were thirty feet wide, perfectly straight, and seem to go… nowhere?
Once you’re into Chaco Canyon before you know it you’re into Hovenweep.
and where does Mesa Verde fit into this?
So what was the relationship between the two? The short answer is that no one knows.
This is a great post with a possible Chaco theory:
Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.
The “sexiest” post title:
In 2011 Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger came to visit The Office to film a video for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I hadn’t heard of Charlie Munger. From the Internet I learned that he was a brilliant dude in his own right, as well as a guy Warren Buffett trusted, learned from, and considered his closest partner.
At lunchtime, everyone was huddled around the more famous Buffett, while Charlie Munger was sitting by himself. In this way I ended up having lunch with Charlie Munger.
From his Wikipedia page I knew he’d been a meteorologist in World War II, so I asked him about that. His job was hand drawing weather maps to make predictions as the US was sending planes over the Bering Strait to our then-ally the Soviet Union.
Ever since this encounter I’ve read everything I can find by Charlie Munger.
This is a good place to start.
In my hunt for Munger deep cuts, came across this speech he gave in October 1998 at the Santa Monica Miramar Hotel to a group of institutional investors. Stunningly blunt and direct advice on how to invest:
In the United States, a person or institution with almost all wealth invested, long term, in just three fine domestic corporations is securely rich. And why should such an owner care if at any time most other investors are faring somewhat better or worse. And particularly so when he rationally believes, like Berkshire, that his long-term results will be superior by reason of his lower costs, required emphasis on long-term effects, and concentration in his most preferred choices.
I go even further. I think it can be a rational choice, in some situations, for a family or a foundation to remain 90% concentrated in one equity. Indeed, I hope the Mungers follow roughly this course. And I note that the Woodruff foundations have, so far, proven extremely wise to retain an approximately 90% concentration in the founder’s Coca-Cola stock. It would be interesting to calculate just how all American foundations would have fared if they had never sold a share of founder’s stock. Very many, I think, would now be much better off. But, you may say, the diversifiers simply took out insurance against a catastrophe that didn’t occur. And I reply: there are worse things than some foundation’s losing relative clout in the world, and rich institutions, like rich individuals, should do a lot of self insurance if they want to maximize long-term results.
If only stupid Harvard had listened!
My controversial argument is an additional consideration weighing against the complex, high-cost investment modalities becoming ever more popular at foundations. Even if, contrary to my suspicions, such modalities should turn out to work pretty well, most of the money-making activity would contain profoundly antisocial effects. This would be so because the activity would exacerbate the current, harmful trend in which ever more of the nation’s ethical young brainpower is attracted into lucrative money-management and its attendant modern frictions, as distinguished from work providing much more value to others. Money management does not create the right examples. Early Charlie Munger is a horrible career model for the young, because not enough was delivered to civilization in return for what was wrested from capitalism. And other similar career models are even worse.
More Munger deep cuts from the 2017 Shareholders Meeting of Daily Journal Co., (I found here on the wonderful Mine Safety Disclosures website but it’s in a couple places). Daily Journal Co is a business that, as I understand it, exists on the fact that companies have to publish legal notices somewhere, and this company more or less has a monopoly on the business.
Munger gets real:
the Mungers have three stocks: we have a block of Berkshire, we have a block of Costco, we have a block of Li Lu’s Fund, and the rest is dribs and drabs. So am I comfortable? Am I securely rich? You’re damn right I am.
Could other people be just as comfortable as I who didn’t have a vast portfolio with a lot of names in it, many of whom neither they nor their advisors understand? Of course they’d be better off if they did what I did. And are three stocks enough? What are the chances that Costco’s going to fail? What are the chances that Berkshire Hathaway’s going to fail? What are the chances that Li Lu’s portfolio in China is going to fail? The chances that any one of those things happening is almost zero, the chances that all three of them are going to fail.
That’s one of the good ideas I had when I was young. When I started investing my little piddly savings as a lawyer, I tried to figure out how much diversification I would need if I had a 10 percentage advantage every year over stocks generally. I just worked it out. I didn’t have any formula. I just worked it out with my high school algebra, and I realized that if I was going to be there for 30 or 40 years, I’d be about 99% sure that it would be just fine if I never owned more than three stocks and my average holding period is three or four years.
Once I had done that with my little pencil, I just…I never for a moment believed this balderdash they teach about. Why diversification? Diversification is a rule for those who don’t know anything. Warren calls them “know-nothing investors”. If you’re a know-nothing investor, of course you’re going to own the average. But if you’re not a know-nothing —if you’re actually capable of figuring out something that will work better—you’re just hurting yourselves looking for 50 when three will suffice. Hell, one will suffice if you do it right. One. If you have one cinch, what else do you need in life?
Li Lu is himself a super interesting character.
A student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, escapes China (with the help of Western intelligence?) ends up penniless at Columbia, hears about a lecture by Warren Buffett and misunderstands that this has something to do with a “buffet” and becomes of the most successful investors in the world?
More from Munger on a range of topics:
on Lee Kuan Yew and the history of Singapore:
Lee Kuan Yew may have been the best nation builder that ever lived. He took over a malarial swamp with no assets, no natural resources, nothing, surrounded by a bunch of Muslims who hated him, hated him. In fact, he was being spat out by the Muslim country. They didn’t want a bunch of damn Chinese in their country. That’s how Singapore was formed as a country—the Muslims spat it out. And so here he is, no assets, no money, no nothing. People were dying of malaria, lots of corruption—and he creates in a very short time, by historical standards, modern Singapore. It was a huge, huge, huge success. It was such a success, there is no other precedent in the history of the world that is any stronger.
Now China’s more important because there are more Chinese, but you can give Lee Kuan
Yew a lot of the credit for creating modern China because a lot of those pragmatic communist leaders—they saw a bunch of Chinese that were rich when they were poor and they said, “to hell with this”. Remember the old communist said, “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white, I care whether he catches mice”. He wanted some of the success that Singapore got and he copied the playbook. So I think the communist leadership that copied Lee Kuan Yew was right. I think Lee Kuan Yew was right. And of course, I have two busts of somebody else in my house. One is Benjamin Franklin, and the other is Lee Kuan Yew. So, that’s what I think of him.
on real estate:
MUNGER: Real estate?
Q: Yeah, real estate.
MUNGER: The trouble with real estate is that everybody else understands it and the people who you are dealing with and the competing with, they specialized in a little 12 blocks in a little industry. They know more about the industry than you do. And you got a lot of bullshitters and liars and brokers. So it’s not that easy. It’s not a bit easy.
Your trouble is if it’s easy—all these people, a whole bunch of ethnics that love real estate,. You know, Asians, Hasidic Jews, Indians from India, they all love real estate; they’re smart people and they know everybody and they know the tricks. And the thing is you don’t even see the good offers in real estate. They show the big investors and dealers. It’s not an easy game to play from a beginners point of view; whereas with stocks, you’re equal with everybody if you’re smart. In real estate, you don’t even see the opportunities when you’re a young person starting out. They go to others. The stock market’s always open, except venture capital. Sequoia sees the good stuff. You can open an office—Joe Shmo Venture Capitalist—startups come to me. You’d starve to death.
You’ve gotta figure out what your competitive position is in what you’re choosing. Real estate has a lot of difficulties. And those Patels from India that buy all the motels, they know more about motels than you do. They live in a god damn motel. They pay no income taxes. They don’t pay much in worker’s compensation and every dime they get, they fix up the thing to buy another motel. Do you want to compete with the Patels? Not I.
on Sumner Redstone:
Well, I never knew Sumner Redstone but I followed him because he was a little ahead of me in Law School, but Sumner Redstone is a very peculiar man. Almost nobody has ever liked him. He’s a very hard-driven, tough tomato, and basically almost nobody has ever liked him, including his wives and his children. And he’s just gone through life. There’s an old saying, “Screw them all except six and save those for pallbearers.” And that is the way Sumner Redstone went through life. And I think he was in to the pallbearers because he lived so long. So I’ve used Sumner Redstone all my life as an example of what not to do.
He started with some money, and he’s very shrewd and hard-driven. You know he saved his life by hanging while the fire was up in his hands. He’s a very determined, high IQ maniac, but nobody likes him and nobody ever did. And though he paid for sex in his old age, cheated him, you know always had one right after another.
That’s not a life you want to admire. I used Sumner Redstone all my life as an example of what I don’t want to be. But for sheer talent, drive and shrewdness, you would hardly find anybody stronger than Sumner. He didn’t care if people liked him. I don’t care if 95% of you don’t like me, but I really need the other 5%. Sumner just…
on the movie business:
And the movie business I don’t like either because it’s been a bad business-—crooked labor unions, crazy agents, crazy screaming lawyers, idiosyncratic stars taking cocaine-—it’s just not my field. I just don’t want to be in it.
on copying other investors:
Q: On the topic of cloning, do you really believe that Mohnish said that if investors look at the 13Fs of super investors, that they can beat the market by picking their spots? And we’ll add spinoffs.
MUNGER: It’s a very plausible idea and I’d encourage one young man to look at it, so I can hardly say that it has no merit. Of course it’s useful if I were you people to look at what other—what you regard as great—investors are doing for ideas. The trouble with it is that if you’d pick people as late in the game as Berkshire Hathaway, you’re buying our limitations caused by size. You really need to do it from some guy that’s operating in smaller places and finding places with more advantage. And of course, it’s hard to identify the people in the small game, but it’s not an idea that won’t work.
If I were you people, of course I would do that. I would want to know exactly what the shrewd people were doing and I would look at every one of them, of course. That would be a no-brainer for me.
on Li Lu:
I got to tell you a story about Li Lu that you will like. Now General Electric was famous for always negotiating down to the wire and just before they were at close, they’ll add one final twist. And, of course, it always worked, the other guy was all invested, so everybody feels robbed and cheated and mad, but they get their way in that last final twist.
So, Li Lu made a couple of venture investments and he made this one with this guy. The guy made us a lot of money in a previous deal and we’re now going in with him again on another—a very high-grade guy and smart and so forth.
Now we come to the General Electric moment. Li Lu said, “I have to make one change in this investment.” It sounds just like General Electric just about to close. I didn’t tell Li Lu to do it; he did it himself. He said, “You know, this is a small amount of money to us and you got your whole net worth in it. I cannot sign this thing if you won’t let me put in a clause saying if it all goes to hell we’ll give you your money back.” That was the change he wanted. Now, you can imagine how likely we were to see the next venture capital investment. Nobody has to tell Li Lu to do that stuff. Some of these people, it’s in their gene power. It’s just such a smart thing to do. It looks generous and it is generous, but there’s huge self-interest in it.
on Al Gore:
Oh, I got another story for you that you’ll like.
Yeah get that thing (peanut brittle out of here or I’ll eat it all).
Al Gore has come into you fella’s business. Al Gore, he has made $300 or $400 million in your business and he is not very smart. He smoked a lot of pot. He coasted through Harvard with a Gentlemen’s C. But he had one obsessive idea that global warming was a terrible thing and he understandably predicted the world for it. So his idea when he went into investment counseling is he was not going to put any CO2 in the air. So he found some partner to go into investment counseling with and he says, “we are not going to have any CO2”. But this partner is a value investor. And a good one.
So what they did was Gore hired his staff to find people who didn’t put CO2 in the air. And of course, that put him into services-—Microsoft and all these service companies that were just ideally located. And this value investor picked the best service companies. So all of a sudden the clients are making hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re paying part of it to Al Gore, and now Al Gore has hundreds of millions of dollars in your profession. And he’s an idiot. It’s an interesting story and a true one.
Most scholars seem to agree that Mark, Luke, and Matthew used a common source, a sayings source. A list or record of Jesus sayings. This now lost source is called Q, from the German Quelle, meaning source.
The stories about John Belushi in this book were written down at about the same time distance as the stories about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
Though the oldest written fragments of the Gospels are on papyrus from 100-200 CE, most scholars seem to agree Mark was written around 70 AD.
Richard Bauckham, author of this book:
and this one:
makes a strong case, I believe, that one of Mark’s main sources was Peter. Directly or indirectly, who knows. But in Mark we’re getting something like Peter’s version. Peter himself is a character in the story. Mark tells stories only Peter (or only Peter and a few others) could have known.
There are times in Mark when Jesus is angry and frustrated with Peter. In a way Mark tells Peter’s version of a story of a complicated bromance with Jesus.
How much was Mark getting his stuff from Peter? Or other eyewitnesses to Jesus? Here is a lowkey fiery debate on this topic. Gets very hot around 19:54 as these guys try to jab each other over how many people were literate in Palestine two thousand years ago. (Hard not to root for the American tbh.)
Luke alone has receipts:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
It feels infuriating that Paul says that the time he’s writing 1 Corinthians (15:6) there are 251 at least (?) eyewitnesses still alive who saw Jesus after the crucifixion:
New International Version
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
New Living Translation
After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
and yet Paul doesn’t bother interviewing any of them! Paul was a better philosopher than a reporter I guess.
Going back to the source is a passion here at Helytimes.
Watching (and enjoying) HBO’s Succession. Reminded me of something I heard Francis Ford Coppola say in an interview (with Harvard Business Review of all places) about how he tries to write down the theme of a project in one word on a notecard.
ALISON BEARD: And when you get stuck creatively, if you don’t know where a script should go or how a movie should end, how do you get yourself unstuck?
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, if my intuition and asking the question just what feels better to me doesn’t give it to me, I have a little exercise where any project I work on, I have what the theme is in a word or two. Like on The Conversation, it was privacy. On The Godfather, it was succession. So I always have that word, and I encourage my children to do the same, to break it all down beyond everything else. Don’t tell me it’s a coming-of-age story, because that’s not specific. What, specifically, is it?
And if you have that word, then when you reach an impasse, you just say, well, what is the theme related to the decision? Should it be this or should it be that? Then I say, well, what does the theme tell me? And usually, if you go back to that word, it will suggest to you which way to go and break the roadblock.
Is succession the one-word theme of Succession?
How about this part:
I’ll explain it this way: Both William Henry Jackson and Edward Weston photographed the American West extensively. But in my opinion, only Weston’s photographs qualify as art. Jackson, for all his devotion to the subject, was recording the scene. Weston, on the other hand, was actually creating something new. In his work, subject is of secondary importance to the total photograph. Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course, the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not “realistic.” Instead, they are an imprint of my visualization. All of my pictures are optically very accurate–I use pretty good lenses–but they are quite unrealistic in terms of values. A more realistic simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms but what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.
Playboy: Give us an example.Adams: My Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico has the emotion and the feeling that the experience of seeing the actual moonrise created in me, but it is not at all realistic. Merely clicking the camera and making a simple print from the negative would have created a wholly different–and ordinary–photograph. People have asked me why the sky is so dark, thinking exactly in terms of the literal. But the dark sky is how it felt.
When photographer Alfred Stieglitz was asked by some skeptic, rather scornfully, “How do you make a creative photograph?” he answered, “I go out into the world with my camera and come across something that excites me emotionally, spiritually or aesthetically. I see the image in my mind’s eye. I make the photograph and print it as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” That describes it well. What he called seeing in the mind’s eye, I call visualization. In my mind’s eye, I am visualizing how a particular revelation of sight and feeling will appear on a print. If I am looking at you, I can continue to see you as a person, but I am also in the habit of shifting from that consciously dimensional presence to a photograph, relating you in your surroundings to an image in my mind. If what I see in my mind excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense and also an ability that comes from a lot of practice. Some people never can get it.
Playboy: When did you know you could accomplish it?Adams: I had my first visualization while photographing Half Dome in Yosemite in 1927. It was a remarkable experience. After a long day with my camera, I had only two photographic plates left. I found myself staring at Half Dome, facing the monolith, seeing and feeling things that only the photograph itself can tell you. I took the first exposure and, somehow, I knew it was inadequate. It did not capture what I was feeling. It was not going to reflect the tremendous experience. Then, to use Stieglitz’ expression, I saw in my mind’s eye what the picture should look like and I realized how I must get it. I put on a red filter and figured out the exposure correctly, and I succeeded! When I made the prints, it proved my concept was correct. The first exposure came out just all right. It was a good photograph, but it in no way had the spirit and excitement I had felt. The second was Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, which speaks for itself.
They were the ones Weston called the fuzzy-wuzzies. They would go out into the street and find some old bum with a matted beard, and they’d get a tablet of Braille and make the old man put his fingers on the Braille. They would place him in an old chair, looking up through a cloud of cigarette smoke that was illuminated by a spotlight. The title would be Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. That must have been done a thousand times. There were also slimy nudes.
I am an Ansel Democrat:
Playboy: You said that earlier. We assumed you were speaking rhetorically. Weren’t you?Adams: Definitely not. We are on a disaster course. A revolution may happen first; and, of course, that may be a disaster anyway. I don’t say it would be a Soviet revolution, but it could very well result in a different order of society. It could be a socialist setup that might work for a while. We don’t know. The point is, I think there may be a revolution if there is not greater equality given to all citizens. We have consistently considered the employer, especially the large corporations, as the most valuable part of the American society. We have consistently overlooked the enormous importance of the farmer, the technician, the educator, the artist, the laborer. I’m not calling for a revolution; I’m calling for greater equality to all citizens. If that doesn’t happen, something will.You see, I believe in a Federalism under which you would pay your taxes to a properly elected and conducted central Government that would, in turn, provide essential services–which would include medical care and other essentials–to the population. I do think there is a basic obligation for everyone to make his maximum contribution to society, but we talk about opportunity for everyone, and the fact is that it is perfectly obvious that equal opportunity does not exist. It’s about time we woke to that fact and clarified the whole social-political structure. Or we’ll be awakened.Remember, ten percent unemployment, no matter how high that is, is an average. There are places and segments of the population with much higher unemployment. People will not continue to tolerate those conditions. What we need is a new set of political commandments that call to attention some of the basic provisions of the Constitution that are often overlooked by our contemporary leaders. There are inalienable rights that are supposed to be guaranteed. It is absolutely criminal that our Government has consistently supported rightist governments that deny citizens’ rights while being paranoid about any liberal concept, which is the concept upon which our country was founded. But, remember, it took a revolution here.
And finally, his martini recipe:
Playboy: While we’re on the subject, that is some strong martini we’ve sampled. Will you share your recipe with us?Adams: The martini I am drinking now is simply diluted–that way, I can have several. But the ones you’re sipping come from a Hotel Sonesta bartender in Cambridge. You take a good-sized glass and fill it with fine vermouth. Then you marinate some big lemon peels in there for days. As the vermouth evaporates or is used up, replenish it. All you need is a glass, ice, vodka and a lemon peel. Rub the lemon peel around the rim of the glass, drop it in, and you have a very dry martini.
from the Paris Review interview with Michel Houllebecq
You have a bit of a scientific background. After high school, you studied agronomy. What is agronomy?
It’s everything having to do with the production of food. The one little project I did was a vegetation map of Corsica whose purpose was to find places where you could put sheep. I had read in the school brochure that studying agronomy can lead to all sorts of careers, but it turns out that was ridiculous. Most people still end up in some form of agriculture, with a few amusing exceptions. Two of my classmates became priests, for example.
Did you enjoy your studies?
Very much. In fact, I almost became a researcher. It’s one of the most autobiographical things in The Elementary Particles. My job would have been to find mathematical models that could be applied to the fish populations in Lake Nantua in the Rhône-Alpes region. But strangely, I turned it down, which was stupid, actually, because finding work afterward was impossible.
In the end you went to work as a computer programmer. Did you have previous experience?
I knew nothing about it. But this was back when there was a huge need for programming and no schools to speak of. So it was easy to get into. But I loathed it immediately.
So what made you write your first novel, Whatever, about a computer programmer and his sexually frustrated friend?
I hadn’t seen any novel make the statement that entering the workforce was like entering the grave. That from then on, nothing happens and you have to pretend to be interested in your work. And, furthermore, that some people have a sex life and others don’t just because some are more attractive than others. I wanted to acknowledge that if people don’t have a sex life, it’s not for some moral reason, it’s just because they’re ugly. Once you’ve said it, it sounds obvious, but I wanted to say it.
Talking about his novel The Possibility of An Island:
Why did you make your main character a comedian?
The character came from two things. First of all, I went to a resort in Turkey and there was one of those talent shows produced by the guests. There was this girl—she must have been fifteen—who was doing Céline Dion and clearly for her, this was very, very important. I said to myself, Man, this girl is really going for it. And it’s funny because the next day, she was sitting alone at the breakfast table and I thought, Already the solitude of the star! I sensed that something like that can decide an entire life. So the comedian has a similar experience. He discovers all of sudden that he can make whole crowds laugh and it changes his life. The second thing was that I knew a woman who was editor in chief of a magazine and she was always inviting me to these hip events with Karl Lagerfeld, for example. I wanted to have someone who was part of that world.
On Anglo-Saxons (apparently including the Irish) and Americans:
And what do you think of this Anglo-Saxon world?
You can tell that this is the world that invented capitalism. There are private companies competing to deliver the mail, to collect the garbage. The financial section of the newspaper is much thicker than it is in French papers.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that men and women are more separate. When you go into a restaurant, for example, you often see women eating out together. The French from that point of view are very Latin. A single-sex dinner would be considered boring. In a hotel in Ireland, I saw a group of men talking golf at the breakfast table. They left and were replaced by a group of women who were discussing something else. It’s as if they’re separate species who meet occasionally for reproduction. There was a line I really liked in a novel by Coetzee. One of the characters suspects that the only thing that really interests his lesbian daughter in life is prickly-pear jam. Lesbianism is a pretext. She and her partner don’t have sex anymore, they dedicate themselves to decoration and cooking.
Maybe there’s some potential truth there about women who, in the end, have always been more interested in jam and curtains.
And men? What do you think interests them?
Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too.
You’ve said that you possibly had an American side to you. What is your evidence for this?
I have very little proof. There’s the fact that if I lived in an American context, I think I would have chosen a Lexus, which is the best quality for the price. And more obscurely, I have a dog that I know is very popular in the United States, a Welsh Corgi. One thing I don’t share is this American obsession with large breasts. That, I must admit, leaves me cold. But a two-car garage? I want one. A fridge with one of those ice-maker things? I want one too. What appeals to them appeals to me.
Devoured this book after reading Tyler Cowen’s endorsement. Here are two samples:
How freaking interesting are the Beatles?! Even their names. John and Paul.
If you had a Catholic boyhood like I did and Paul did how can it not have some meaning that these guys are named John and Paul?!
The world these guys came out of!
Mentioned reading Dreaming The Beatles to my buddy, who looked at me like I was an adorable if foolish schoolchild and suggested I get serious and read The Love You Make, written by Peter Brown, who was Brian Epstein’s assistant.
My God, this book! Incredible tale! Brian Epstein:This pained, tragic, wonderful man! Born in to a Jewish family that owned department stores, frequently beaten and hurt after soliciting rough gay sex in public restrooms, one day walks into the Cavern Club and essentially falls in love with the Beatles, who perceived him as somehow fancy and posh, they could not have become what they did without him, his devotion was unquestioned and yet his naivety and inexperience cost them millions.
Both books talk about how phenomenon of being the Beatles almost overwhelmed the Beatles, and everyone around them. At its best it felt something like living in a yellow submarine with all your friends aboard, suggests Sheffield.
At its worst it seems so oppressive and scary it nearly / did kill them. At least once the Beatles were almost crushed to death in their car from the pressure of fans.
Started listening on Spotify to all the Beatles albums, in order.
I would say the biggest leap that hits me is when you get to the third song on this one. You’re listening to like two hours of very solid pop music, and then you get to You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.
Then, you get to this:
and we’re on another planet.
On their first album the Beatles covered this:
Hard to find some Beatles songs on YouTube. The hash that was made of the Beatles’ finances and rights is a whole interesting story on its own. Epstein meant the best for the Beatles, can he be blamed for not realizing that lunchbox and doll rights would be worth millions?
The predators that descended on the Beatles later are a dark parade. When Allen Klein heard on the radio that Brian Epstein had died at 32 of a drug overdose, his reaction was to snap his fingers and say “I got em!”
The Beatles were taxed at something like 94%. Various tax avoidance schemes like investing in “related businesses” were somewhat doomed by John’s, especially, disgust at the idea of becoming anything like a businessman.
A publicly traded company, Northern Songs, owned the Lennon-McCartney songs for awhile:
During 1965 it was decided to make Northern Songs a public company to save on capital gains tax. 1,250,000 shares were traded on the London Stock Exchange, which were worth 17 pence each ($0.28), but were offered at 66 pence ($1.09) each. Although the trade was scoffed at by various financial institutions, it was expected that the application lists would not remain open for more than 60 seconds, which is exactly what happened, as the lists were oversubscribed. After the offer was closed, Lennon and McCartney owned 15% each, worth £195,200 ($320,000), NEMS a 7.5% interest, and James and Silver (who served as Northern Songs’ chairmen), controlling 37.5%, with Harrison and Starr sharing 1.6%. The remaining shares were owned by various financial institutions.
At some point Paul bought up more shares without telling John, a bit of sneakiness which Peter Brown treats very harshly. Peter Brown is, in my opinion, a little too brutal on Paul, but then again he was there and I wasn’t. It does seem like all the Beatles could be rather heartless to Brian Epstein, who meant a lot to Peter Brown.
To me, a degree of forgiveness comes in when you think that everything we think of as The Beatles happened to these guys by age thirty. When they were recording the White Album, George Harrison was twenty five. How would you be at twenty-five if you’d been world famous since you were eighteen?
None of them were from stable homes. Ringo’s childhood, in particular, was like some cruel Roald Dahl story. (OK fine it was Dickensian). At age six he’d regularly be left at home all night alone while his mom was at work. Says Brown:
At the age of six, only a year after starting St. Silas’s Junior School, Ritchie developed what was thought to be a simple stomachache. But when the pain lasted through the night he was finally taken to the hospital in an ambulance. It was too late; his appendix had already burst and periontis had set in. He remained in a coma for ten weeks, and with various complications including falling out of his hospital bed on his seventh birthday, he spent a solid year in the hospital. By the time he was back in school he was so far behind the other children he couldn’t read or write, and what little he learned from that point on was taught to him by a sympathetic neighborhood girl.
One rainy morning a big black car came to fetch him in the Dingle and took him away to the Heswall Children’s Hospital, a huge, gray children’s sanitorium in the Wirral. There he was put to bed, where he remained for the next two years.
Ringo is underappreciated, in my view. I’m not qualified to speak to his drumming, which was believed by Paul at least as well as some producers to be not too great. Ringo was treated rather cruelly by the other Beatles but without his good-natured willingness to play diplomat and either forgive or ignore slights and insults it seems clear the Beatles probably would’ve collapsed.
Now it’s time to declare what I consider to be the single most beautiful Beatles song and I declare it to be:
I may be projecting but I believe in the runup to the White Album you can feel a competition of insane excellence between John and Paul. With Blackbird the competition is over. In my opinion some subsequent tension between Paul and John had to do with John’s belief that it was semi-criminal a guy who could write Blackbird would also write some of the stuff Paul McCartney later put out. Thus what was best and greatest about Paul was, to John, tangled up with what was most frustrating about him, as can so often happen with lovers and friends.
Three provocative reads about Trumptimes.
First up, this one, from Medium: “4Chan: The Skeleton Key To Trump” by Dale Beren, about 4Chan, Gamergate, and young male Trump supporters:
They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, “forever alone”) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other words — that you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was “for the lulz” (lols). Like (by comparison the tame and sophisticated precursor) “Something Awful” board that spawned it, 4chan defined itself by being insensitive to suffering in that way only people who have never really suffered can — that is to say, young people, mostly young men, protected by a cloak of anonymity. The accepted standard was a sort of libertarian “free speech” banner, in which isolated man-boys asserted their right to do or say anything no matter someone else’s feelings. This meant generally posting pornography, swastikas, racial slurs, and content that reveled in harm to other people.
It was almost as if all these disaffected young men were waiting for a figure to come along who, having achieved nothing in his life, pretended as though he had achieved everything, who by using the tools of fantasy, could transmute their loserdom (in 4chan parlance, their “fail”), into “win”.
Section 5 of the article is where it really gets going, if you’re strapped for time:
Trump, of course, has made his fortune in a similar manner, with casinos, correspondence courses, and pageants, swindling money out of aspiring-millionaire blue collar workers, selling them not a bill of goods, but the hope of a bill of goods, the glitz and glamour of success, to people who don’t win, or in Trump’s parlance, “don’t win anymore.” As if once, in the mythic past he invented, they did once and soon will again, since at the heart of what he promised was, “you’ll win so much you’ll get sick of winning”. In other words, if we are to understand Trump supporters, we can view them at the core as losers — people who never ever bet on the right horse — Trump, of course, being the signal example, the man obsessed with “losers” who, seemingly was going to be remembered as one of the biggest losers in history — until he won.
The older generation of Trump supporters the press often focuses on, the so called “forgotten white working class”, are in this sense easier to explain since they fit into the schema of a 1950s-style electorate. Like the factory workers in Factotum, the baby boomers were promised pensions and prosperity, but received instead simply the promises. Here the narrative is simple. The workers were promised something and someone (the politicians? the economy? the system itself?) never delivered. Their horse never came in.
This telling of the story ignores the fact that, as Trump often points out, “it was a bad deal”. The real story is not that the promise was never fulfilled. Manny and Hank’s deal with the workers was the same as the factory’s deal with them: the empty promise was the bargain. The real story is not that the horse didn’t come in, it’s that the bet was never placed.
In the first presidential debate, Hillary evoked her conservative father as a way of appealing to the electorate, “My father was a small-businessman.” she said. “He worked really hard… And so what I believe is the more we can do for the middle class, the more we can invest in you…”
No one noted how wildly outdated Clinton’s picture of the average voter was (her father, a suburban business man in the 50s) because we are used to every politician holding up the same faded 65 year old snapshot anytime he or she regards the American electorate. Just like how images of Christmas on Coke bottles and catalogs are forever stuck in the 30s and 40s, so we expect politics to be eternally frozen in the 1950s. That is to say, as a nation still (somehow!) defined by its baby boomers, we understand this era as the baseline for understanding ourselves, considering it, “where we are from”.
But what does the American electorate look like if we put down the snapshot? Peel away how we perceive ourselves from what we actually are? How has that image of a 1950s business man who owns his own home in the suburbs changed after decades of declines in wages, middle classdom, and home ownership?
To younger generations who never had such jobs, who had only the mythology of such jobs (rather a whimsical snapshot of the 1950s frozen in time by America’s ideology) this part of the narrative is clear. America, and perhaps existence itself is a cascade of empty promises and advertisements — that is to say, fantasy worlds, expectations that will never be realized “IRL”, but perhaps consumed briefly in small snatches of commodified pleasure.
Thus these Trump supporters hold a different sort of ideology, not one of “when will my horse come in”, but a trolling self-effacing, “I know my horse will never come in”. That is to say, younger Trump supporters know they are handing their money to someone who will never place their bets — only his own — because, after all, it’s plain as day there was never any other option.
In this sense, Trump’s incompetent, variable, and ridiculous behavior is the central pillar upon which his younger support rests.
This made me think about the Chapo Dudes. Though from the opposite side of the political aisle, their failson language and busted, depressed tone seems somewhere on the same spectrum. Their Twitters are really funny but kinda hopeless and nihilistic.
Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no center is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds.
Trump’s bizarre, inconstant, incompetent, embarrassing, ridiculous behavior — what the left (naturally) perceives as his weaknesses — are to his supporters his strengths.
Next up, “Sanctimony Cities” by Christopher Caldwell in the Claremont Review, “the bible of highbrow Trumpism” says the NYT. (I first found Claremont Review back when Mark Helprin was writing for it, where’s he been? Too much Mark Helperin, not enough Mark Helprin if you ask me). Thought this insight about tribalism was worth hearing:
Any place that has political power becomes a choke-point through which global money streams must pass. Such places are sheltered from globalization’s storms. They tend to grow. Austin, Texas, adds tens of thousands of residents a year, and is now the country’s 11th-largest city. The four richest counties in the United States are all in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Resources are sucked from almost everywhere into political capitals and a few high-tech centers and university towns allied with them, where ambitious people settle and constitute a class. The Democratic Party is the party of that class, the class of the winners of globalization.
There are now just three regions of the country in which Democrats dominate—New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise, the party’s support comes from the archipelago of powerful New Economy cities it controls. Washington, D.C., with its 93-to-4 partisan breakdown, is not that unusual. Hillary Clinton won Cambridge, Massachusetts, by 89 to 6 and San Francisco by 86 to 9. Here, where the future of the country is mapped out, the “rest” of the country has become invisible, indecipherable, foreign.
And the rest of the country belongs to Trump. Pretty much all of it. Trump took 85% of America’s counties; Hillary Clinton took 15%. Trump even won a third of the counties that voted for Barack Obama twice. In November the New York Times had the idea of drawing up a topographical map for each candidate that showed won counties as land and lost counties as water. Trump’s America looks almost exactly like the actual United States, diminished a bit on the coasts and with a couple of new “lakes” opened up in urban areas. Hillary’s looks like the Lesser Antilles. It is possible to travel coast to coast—from, say, Coos Bay, Oregon, to Wilmington, North Carolina—without passing through a single county that Hillary Clinton won. Indeed there are several such routes. This is the heart of the country and it is experiencing a kind of social decline for which American history offers no precedent. (The economic crises of the 1870s and 1930s were something different.) Here people fall over, overdosed on heroin, in the aisles of dollar stores, and residential neighborhoods are pocked with foreclosures. This country, largely invisible to policymakers until the 2016 election, is beginning—only just beginning—to come into view. Trump was the first candidate to speak directly to the invisible country as something other than the “everyplace else” left over when you drive away from the places that are powerful, scenic, or sophisticated.
Trump intuited that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was a tribal one. Feminism and anti-racism had become successful policies not because they convinced voters logically or struck them as sensible, although in many cases they did, but because they conveyed loyalty viscerally. “Breaking the glass ceiling,” for instance, was supposed to be the theme of Hillary Clinton’s victory party on election night at New York’s Javits Center. Her staff chose that venue because it literally has the largest glass ceiling surface in New York. Glass-ceiling rhetoric was not an ethical argument but a war-cry. It was not about women but about our women. When, shortly after the election, Trump named his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway a White House counselor, his press release announced she was “the first female campaign manager of either major party to win a presidential general election,”—which indeed she was! Had ideological feminism rather than tribal loyalty been at issue, this would have been considered an achievement worthy of extensive coverage. It was not.
Last, “The Shallow State” by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy:
The shallow state is in many respects the antithesis of the deep state. The power of the deep state comes from experience, knowledge, relationships, insight, craft, special skills, traditions, and shared values. Together, these purported attributes make nameless bureaucrats into a supergovernment that is accountable to no one. That is a scary prospect. But the nature of bureaucracies, human nature, inertia, checks and balances, and respect for the chain of command makes it seem a bit far-fetched to me. (The bureaucracy will drive Trump, like many presidents, mad, and some within it will challenge him, but that’s not the same thing.)
The shallow state, on the other hand, is unsettling because not only are the signs of it ever more visible but because its influence is clearly growing. It is made scarier still because it not only actively eschews experience, knowledge, relationships, insight, craft, special skills, tradition, and shared values but because it celebrates its ignorance of and disdain for those things. Donald Trump, champion and avatar of the shallow state, has won power because his supporters are threatened by what they don’t understand, and what they don’t understand is almost everything. Indeed, from evolution to data about our economy to the science of vaccines to the threats we face in the world, they reject vast subjects rooted in fact in order to have reality conform to their worldviews. They don’t dig for truth; they skim the media for anything that makes them feel better about themselves. To many of them, knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman. The same is true for experience, skills, and know-how. These things require time and work and study and often challenge our systems of belief. Truth is hard; shallowness is easy.
It is convenient to blame Trump and write this off as a flaw in his character and that of his acolytes and enablers. But, honestly, you don’t get a reality TV show president with no experience and no interest in big ideas or even in boning up on basic knowledge (like the nature of the nuclear triad — after all, it has only three legs) without a public that is comfortable with that … or actively seeks it. Think about the fact that two out of the last four Republican presidents came from show biz (and a third gained a chunk of his experience as a baseball executive). There is no doubt that the rise of the cage-match mentality of cable news has undercut civility in American political discourse, but it has also made politics into something like a TV show. You switch from the Kardashians to Trump on The Apprentice to Trump the candidate in your head, and it is all one. Increasingly shows are about finding formulas that produce a visceral reaction rather than stimulate thoughts or challenge the viewer. That’s not to say that not much is wonderful in the world of media today … but attention spans are shrinking. Social media contributes to this. But the way we consume even serious journalism does, too. Much of it is reviewed in quick snippets on a mobile device. The average visit to a news website is a couple of minutes, the average time spent with a story shorter still. We skim. We cherry-pick.
There’s a beautiful Picasso lithograph of a bull, and it starts off as this beautifully rendered, three-dimensional bull and he just takes stuff away from it. There’s several in the series, but by the end of it, it’s just four or five lines that really evokes “BULL.” There’s something artistically sophisticated about it that also suits me as a person. I had such an early love for the Charles Schultz comics, and those TV specials. It sounds kind of embarrassing to say, but those Halloween and Christmas specials were really important in terms of giving me the artistic bug. There was an under-indication on the surface but then a quite capacious moral world behind it that really intrigued me.
so says George Saunders in Vulture. Happened to see some of these at the Norton Simon Museum one day this fall:
I dunno, third is pretty good. Also not bad:
In his biography Chuck AmuckChuck Jones claims that he made this cartoon after producer Eddie Selzer burst into Jones’ workspace one day and announced, for no readily apparent reason, that bullfights were not funny, and they were not to make a cartoon about them. Since Selzer had, in Jones’ opinion, consistently proven himself to be wrong about absolutely everything (having once barred Jones from doing any cartoons featuring Pepé Le Pew, on the grounds that he perceived them as not being funny, which led to Jones and Maltese to do For Scent-imental Reasons, which won an Oscar, which Selzer accepted), the only possible option was to make the cartoon.
Discussion Question: is George Saunders influenced at all by Bugs Bunny?
A real hero of mine died over the weekend, Kevin Starr, writer of a multivolume history of California. What a dapper gent! (Also love when you read an obituary of a guy like this and on top of everything he spent two years as a tank lieutenant in West Germany). Among his books:
What great covers! On that alone he’s a contributor and deserves his place in the California Hall Of Fame! In this great interview with Patt Morrison, Starr says that he never got to the ’60s:
Is this the last “Dream” volume?
I don’t know. My God, I’m 68. I’ve got this [other] beautiful book about Catholic culture coming to a Protestant nation, and I’ll get criticized because I’m emphasizing how nice the Protestants were to us! Someone else will have to write the ’60s, although I can give them the title: That would be “Smoking the Dream.”
The only one of these I’ve tucked into is Coast Of Dreams:
A big, deep book, but I love how Starr includes cultural and personal details:
Johanna Boss indeed:
or this about Hmong immigrants:
Starr boiled his multivolumes down into this attractive one volume:
without losing any of the flavor:
Couple more gems from the interview:
How do you keep all your research organized?
They talk about San Francisco sourdough bread, that the yeast in the bread is alive since 1849. I started a bibliography of California that I have kept alive for over 45 years, every time I come across a reference. I’ll read something by you, and that’s a reference.
It seems like you keep most of it in your head too.
The Irish didn’t read and write for a couple of thousand years, and I think we developed good memories and recall. We have a sense of the revelatory detail. I look for them.
It’s a funny thing — when I go “blah, blah, blah” argumentatively, that’s when my editor cuts me the most. One reviewer said, “Oh, he’s got great description, great narrative, but he doesn’t give us the great explanation.” I try to let the reader get his own explanation. That becomes part of the discourse the book engenders. But if you tie yourself up with a big explanation, it’s dated in six months.
On looking at old yearbooks:
Is there a part of this book you especially liked doing?
For the chapter on my own generation, I went through hundreds and hundreds of yearbooks, from the late ’40s until ’63, ’64. It’s not scientific research; it’s very impressionistic. I always thought the women of my age group got short shrift because the women’s liberation movement came slightly after. You look at the yearbooks and you see the future homemakers of America — hurray for that — but you also see them in the engineers club. You see minority kids as student body presidents at a time when everyone was supposed to be terminally racist. Yearbooks are genres; they’re also folk art, folk documentation.
You still dress like Harvard, not Hermosa Beach.
When I was a boy, I delivered newspapers to Brooks Brothers. I looked in the windows and saw those things. At Harvard, when my professors came to class, it was showtime. So possibly that was it.
What are the canards about California that you hate most?
That everybody’s just sitting around being sloppy and a slacker.
Seventy percent of the population is between San Diego and Marin County, and 70 miles from the coast. That’s an extraordinarily prized and privileged Riviera of universities, homes, etc. It’s got its problems, and it’s not perfect; there’s lots of poverty too.
It’s highly competitive to be here. People don’t come to California to drop out anymore. It’s a very striving place.
Who should be on California’s money?:
If we had our own currency in California, whose faces should be on it?
Josiah Royce, the great Grass Valley-born philosopher who first formulated what California would be about. Isadora Duncan — her grandparents came here in a covered wagon. The young Native American woman stranded on San Nicolas Island, the “Island of the Blue Dolphins” story. Gov. [Jose] Figueroa, who died trying to redistribute land to the Native Americans. There’s all kinds of wonderful people. If we had living people, I’d put Joan Didion there.
You grew up in an orphanage?
My mother had a nervous breakdown, and my parents separated. Roman Catholic Social Services put us [Starr and his brother] in an orphanage for five years. I loved the place. It was a tremendous education, great nurturing. There was a great pool table, a great library, a camp up in the mountains. My experience was very different from some of these horror stories you hear.
From a 2004 profile by Susan Salter Reynolds in the LAT:
Starr is a man who believes in institutions and speaks about them with a kind of lofty, creative reverence. The office of state librarian, for example, “expressed the dignity of the state.” USC is “an ark that lifts all boats.” He talks about being a citizen and about civility with the same almost innocent, 19th century passion.
He is a self-described centrist, a conservative Democrat of the old school. The current election, because it is so divisive, seems to have already slammed a door in Kevin Starr’s face. “We need liberals to point out where power relationships might be going wrong and conservatives to remind us that there are cycles in history,” he says. “I won’t go to either camp.”
A supporter of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starr is a firm believer in the importance of business vitality. But he leans toward a liberal social democracy on issues such as day-care for children, healthcare and housing. Democracy depends, Starr warns, on a “de-escalation of the cultural agendas of both parties.”
Read this Bloomberg profile by Joshua Green of the president-elect’s “chief strategist and senior counselor,” Steve Bannon:
And then, serendipitously, Bannon wound up in the entertainment business himself. Westinghouse Electric, a client, was looking to unload Castle Rock Entertainment, which had a big TV and movie presence, including Billy Crystal’s films. Bannon reeled in an eager buyer: Ted Turner. “Turner was going to build this huge studio,” he says, “so we were negotiating the deal at the St. Regis hotel in New York. As often happened with Turner, when it came time to actually close the deal, Ted was short of cash. … Westinghouse just wanted out. We told them, ‘You ought to take this deal. It’s a great deal.’ And they go, ‘If this is such a great deal, why don’t you defer some of your cash fee and keep an ownership stake in a package of TV rights?’ ” In lieu of a full adviser’s fee, the firm accepted a stake in five shows, including one in its third season regarded as the runt of the litter: Seinfeld. “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” says Bannon. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
That’s where Bannon popped up. He had left Goldman Sachs to start Bannon & Co., a boutique banking firm specializing in media companies. His firm was representing Westinghouse, and when Turner didn’t have the cash to close both deals, he offered as partial payment the right to participate in some of Castle Rock’s TV shows. Most were unremarkable titles that even insiders can’t quite recall (though some say The Ed Begley Jr. Show and Julie Brown: The Show were included). There also was Seinfeld, which was struggling to find an audience even in its third season. Bannon advised Westinghouse to accept Turner’s terms. Westinghouse executives countered that if Bannon was so confident, he should also accept participation rights instead of a portion of his bank’s $3 million fee. Bannon took the chance. Neither Seinfeld, Horn, Reiner nor anyone at Castle Rock were even aware of the arrangement.
What lessons are in this profile?
But this “conspiracy,” at least under Bannon, has mutated into something different from what Clinton described: It’s as eager to go after establishment Republicans such as Boehner or Jeb Bush as Democrats like Clinton.
Engineered Weiner downfall?:
Tipped to Weiner’s proclivity for sexting with female admirers, Bannon says, the site paid trackers to follow his Twitter account 24 hours a day and eventually intercepted a crotch shot Weiner inadvertently made public. The ensuing scandal culminated in the surreal scene, carried live on television, of Andrew Breitbart hijacking Weiner’s press conference and fielding questions from astonished reporters.
Let us be careful about punditry with oversold conclusions:
For Bannon, the Clinton Cash uproar validated a personal theory, informed by his Goldman Sachs experience, about how conservatives can influence the media and why they failed the last time a Clinton was running for the White House. “In the 1990s,” he told me, “conservative media couldn’t take down [Bill] Clinton because most of what they produced was punditry and opinion, and they always oversold the conclusion: ‘It’s clearly impeachable!’ So they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber.”
In response, Bannon developed two related insights. “One of the things Goldman teaches you is, don’t be the first guy through the door because you’re going to get all the arrows. If it’s junk bonds, let Michael Milken lead the way,” he says. “Goldman would never lead in any product. Find a business partner.” His other insight was that the reporters staffing the investigative units of major newspapers aren’t the liberal ideologues of conservative fever dreams but kindred souls who could be recruited into his larger enterprise. “What you realize hanging out with investigative reporters is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story,” he says. “And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re f—ing badasses, and they’re fair.”
Used the media outlets of his opponents to his advantage:
“It seems to me,” says Brock of Bannon and his team, “what they were able to do in this deal with the Times is the same strategy, but more sophisticated and potentially more effective and damaging because of the reputation of the Times. If you were trying to create doubt and qualms about [Hillary Clinton] among progressives, theTimes is the place to do it.” He pauses. “Looking at it from their point of view, theTimes is the perfect host body for the virus.”
The takeover boom:
Bannon landed in Goldman’s New York office at the height of the hostile takeover boom. “Everything in the Midwest was being raided by Milken,” he says. “It was like a firestorm.” Goldman didn’t do hostile takeovers, instead specializing in raid defense for companies targeted by the likes of Drexel Burnham and First Boston. The first few years, he worked every day except Christmas and loved it: “The camaraderie was amazing. It was like being in the Navy, in the wardroom of a ship.” Later, he worked on a series of leveraged buyouts, including a deal for Calumet Coach that involved Bain Capital and an up-and-comer named Mitt Romney.
Two big things were going on at Goldman Sachs in the late ’80s. The globalization of world capital markets meant that size suddenly mattered. Everyone realized that the firm, then a private partnership, would have to go public. Bankers also could see that the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial and investment banking was going to fall, setting off a flurry of acquisitions. Specialists would command a premium. Bannon shipped out to Los Angeles to specialize in media and entertainment. “A lot of people were coming from outside buying media companies,” he says. “There was huge consolidation.”
Breitbart’s genius was that he grasped better than anyone else what the early 20th century press barons understood—that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains. Breitbart excelled at creating these narratives, an editorial approach that’s lived on. “When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site,” says Alex Marlow, the site’s editor in chief. “Our whole mindset is looking for these rolling narratives.” He rattles off the most popular ones, which Breitbart News covers intensively from a posture of aggrieved persecution. “The big ones won’t surprise you,” he says. “Immigration, ISIS, race riots, and what we call ‘the collapse of traditional values.’ But I’d say Hillary Clinton is tops.”
Schweizer grew disillusioned with Washington and became radicalized against what he perceived to be a bipartisan culture of corruption. “To me, Washington, D.C., is a little bit like professional wrestling,” he told me. “When I was growing up in Seattle, I’d turn on Channel 13, the public-access station, and watch wrestling. At first I thought, ‘Man, these guys hate each other because they’re beating the crap out of each other.’ But I eventually realized they’re actually business partners.”
Mission… accomplished? How about this:
Hillary Clinton’s story, they believed, was too sprawling and familiar to tackle in its entirety. So they’d focus only on the last decade, the least familiar period, and especially on the millions of dollars flowing into the Clinton Foundation. Bannon calls this approach “periodicity.”
“The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”
More insight from this Hollywood Reporter article:
The Democratic Party betrayed its working-man roots, just as Hillary Clinton betrayed the long-time Clinton connection — Bill Clinton’s connection — to the working man. “The Clinton strength,” he says, “was to play to people without a college education. High school people. That’s how you win elections.”
To say that he sees this donor class — which in his telling is also “ascendant America,” e.g. the elites, as well as “the metrosexual bubble” that encompasses cosmopolitan sensibilities to be found as far and wide as Shanghai, London’s Chelsea, Hollywood and the Upper West Side — as a world apart, is an understatement. In his view, there’s hardly a connection between this world and its opposite — fly-over America, left-behind America, downwardly mobile America — hardly a common language. This is partly why he regards the liberal characterization of himself as socially vile, as the politically incorrect devil incarnate, as laughable — and why he is stoutly unapologetic. They —liberals and media — don’t understand what he is saying, or why, or to whom. Breitbart, with its casual provocations — lists of its varied incitements (among them: the conservative writer David Horowitz referred to conservative pundit Brill Kristol as a “renegade Jew,” and the site delighting in headlines the likes of “Trannies 49Xs Higher HIV Rate” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”) were in hot exchange after the election among appalled Democrats — is as obtuse to the liberal-donor-globalist class as Lena Dunham might be to the out-of-work workingman class. And this, in the Bannon view, is all part of the profound misunderstanding that led liberals to believe that Donald Trump’s mouth would doom him, instead of elect him.
“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver—” by “we” he means the Trump White House “—we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed, they were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”
Much of this is the same kind of stuff which can be found in this book:
A good detail from it:
The closing note from that HR Bannon profile, btw:
“I am,” he says, with relish, “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.”
How did it end for Cromwell, I can’t remember?
In New Zealand I got invited to participate in the Great New Zealand Crime Debate, which was a blast. I was on a team with Christchurch lawyer Kathryn Dalziel and sociologist Jarrod Gilbert, who got badly beaten several times while writing this book:
My job it turned out was to roast the members of the other team, namely New Zealand broadcaster Paula Penfold (who was lovely and a good sport):
Anyway, afterwards they had the Ngiao Marsh Crime Awards. Who was Ngiao Marsh?
She was a New Zealand writer of detective stories, mostly starring Roderick Alleyn. Some of the covers of her books are great:
Marsh never married and had no children. She enjoyed close companionships with women, including her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, but denied being lesbian, according to biographer Joanne Drayton. ‘I think Ngaio Marsh wanted the freedom of being who she was in a world, especially in a New Zealand that was still very conformist in its judgments of what constituted ‘decent jokers, good Sheilas, and ‘weirdos’’,’ Roy Vaughan wrote after meeting her on a P&O Liner.
It sounds like her mysteries, which revolve around poison on darts and that kind of thing, are exactly what Raymond Chandler was ranting against in his essay “The Simple Art Of Murder“:
This, the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is the story you will find almost any week in the big shiny magazines, handsomely illustrated, and paying due deference to virginal love and the right kind of luxury goods. Perhaps the tempo has become a trifle faster, and the dialogue a little more glib. There are more frozen daiquiris and stingers ordered, and fewer glasses of crusty old port; more clothes by Vogue, and décors by the House Beautiful, more chic, but not more truth. We spend more time in Miami hotels and Cape Cod summer colonies and go not so often down by the old gray sundial in the Elizabethan garden. But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flat-feet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.
Chandler calls for something a little harder edged:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
Wow. The world’s big enough for both kinds of mystery I guess.
This year’s award was won by Paul Cleave:
For his book Trust No One:
Into The Night Of, reading this Richard Price interview in Paris Review online.
Just the first question and answer:
What started you writing?
Well, my grandfather wrote poetry. He came from Russia. He worked in a factory, but he had also worked in Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side of New York as a stagehand. He read all the great Russian novelists and he yearned to say something. He would sit in his living-room chair and make declarations in this heavy European accent like, When the black man finally realizes what was done to him in this country . . . I don’t wanna be here. Or, If the bride isn’t a virgin, at some point in the marriage there’s gonna be a fight, things will be said . . . and there’s gonna be no way to fix the words.
How about this?
Do you want to keep writing both novels and screenplays?
Every screenwriter loves to trash screenwriting. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. They trash the calculatedness, the cynicism, the idiocy, the pandering. But if they’re really honest, they’ll also admit they love the action, the interaction. Depending on whom you’re working with, screenwriting is fun up to a point. And movies have such an impact on people. Thomas Kenealy once told me about a time he was with the guerrillas in Eritrea during the civil war in Ethiopia. They were sitting on the cusp of the desert under the moon. They all had their muskets; they were about to attack some place. Wanting to chill out before they mobilized, they watched The Color of Money on video. So every once in a while the hugeness of Hollywood gets to you—the number of people who see a movie compared to the number of people who read a book. So as a screenwriter you keep hoping against hope—just because they screwed me the last time doesn’t mean they’re going to screw me this time. Well, of course they will. They’re just going to screw you in a way you haven’t been screwed before.
The first draft is the most creative, the most like real writing because it’s just you and the story. The minute they get a hold of that first draft it ceases to be fun because it’s all about making everybody happy. Raymond Chandler said that the danger of Hollywood for a writer is that you learn to put everything you’ve got into your first draft and then you steel yourself not to care what happens because you know you’re going to be powerless after that. If you do that time and time again, the heart goes out of you.
How many interesting things are in sociologist Randall Collins’ latest post (which is maybe the text of a speech or something?) Let me excerpt some for us. I have highlighted some nuggets:
I will add a parallel that is perhaps surprising. Those who know Loic Wacquant would not expect to find silent harmony. Nevertheless, Wacquant’s study of a boxing gym finds a similar pattern: there is little that boxers do in the gym that they could not do at home alone, except sparring; but in the gym they perform exercises like skipping, hitting the bags, strengthening stomach muscles, all in 3-minute segments to the ring of the bell that governs rounds in the ring. When everyone in the gym is in the same rhythm, they are animated by a collective feeling; they become boxers dedicated to their craft, not so much through minds but as an embodied project.
A large proportion of violent confrontations of all kinds– street fights, riots, etc.– quickly abort; and most persons in those situations act like Marshall’s soldiers– they let a small minority of the group do all the violence. Now that we have photos and videos of violent situations, we see that at the moment of action the expression on the faces of the most violent participants is fear. Our folk belief is that anger is the emotion of violence, but anger appears mostly before any violence happens, and in controlled situations where individuals bluster at a distant enemy. I have called thisconfrontational tension/fear; it is the confrontation itself that generates the tension, more than fear of what will happen to oneself. Confrontational tension is debilitating; phenomenologically we know (mainly from police debriefings after shootings) that it produces perceptual distortions; physiologically it generates racing heart beat, an adrenaline rush which at high levels results in loss of bodily control.
This explains another, as yet little recognized pattern: when violence actually happens, it is usually incompetent. Most of the times people fire a gun at a human target, they miss; their shots go wide, they hit the wrong person, sometimes a bystander, sometimes friendly fire on their own side. This is a product of the situation, the confrontation. We know this because the accuracy of soldiers and police on firing ranges is much higher than when firing at a human target. We can pin this down further; inhibition in live firing declines with greater distance; artillery troops are more reliable than infantry with small arms, so are fighter and bomber crews and navy crews; it is not the statistical chances of being killed or injured by the enemy that makes close-range fighters incompetent. At the other end of the spectrum, very close face-to-face confrontation makes firing even more inaccurate; shootings at a distance of less than 2 meters are extremely inaccurate. Is this paradoxical? It is facing the other person at a normal distance for social interaction that is so difficult. Seeing the other person’s face, and being seen by him or her seeing your seeing,is what creates the most tension. Snipers with telescopic lenses can be extremely accurate, even when they see their target’s face; what they do not see is the target looking back; there is no mutual attention, no intersubjectivity. Mafia hit men strike unexpectedly and preferably from behind, relying on deception and normal appearances so that there is no face confrontation. This is also why executioners used to wear hoods; and why persons wearing face masks commit more violence than those with bare faces.
NOTE THE POLICY IMPLICATION: The fashion in recent years among elite police units to wear balaclava-style face masks during their raids should be eliminated.
How does violence sometimes succeed in doing damage? The key is asymmetrical confrontation tension. One side will win if they can get their victim in the zone of high arousal and high incompetence, while keeping their own arousal down to a zone of greater bodily control. Violence is not so much physical as emotional struggle; whoever achieves emotional domination, can then impose physical domination. That is why most real fights look very nasty; one sides beats up on an opponent at the time they are incapable of resisting. At the extreme, this happens in the big victories of military combat, where the troops on one side become paralyzed in the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute, massacred by victors in the 140 heartbeat range. This kind of asymmetry is especially dangerous, when the dominant side is also in the middle ranges of arousal; at 160 BPM or so, they are acting with only semi-conscious bodily control. Adrenaline is the flight-or-fight hormone; when the opponent signals weakness, shows fear, paralysis, or turns their back, this can turn into what I have called a forward panic, and the French officer Ardant du Picq called “flight to the front.” Here the attackers rush forward towards an unresisting enemy, firing uncontrollably. It has the pattern of hot rush, piling on, and overkill. Most outrageous incidents of police violence against unarmed or unresisting targets are forward panics, now publicized in our era of bullet counts and ubiquitous videos.
Another pathway is where the fight is surrounded by an audience; people who gather to watch, especially in festive crowds looking for entertainment; historical photos of crowds watching duels; and of course the commercial/ sporting version of staged fights. This configuration produces the longest and most competent fights; confrontational tension is lowered because the fighters are concerned for their performance in the eyes of the crowd, while focusing on their opponent has an element of tacit coordination since they are a situational elite jointly performing for the audience. Even the loser in a heroic staged fight gets social support. We could test this by comparing emotional micro-behavior in a boxing match or a baseball game without any spectators.
(among the photos that come up if you Google “crowd watching a duel”:
Finally, there are a set of techniques for carrying out violence without face confrontation. Striking at a distance: the modern military pathway. Becoming immersed in technical details of one’s weapons rather than on the human confrontation. And a currently popular technique: the clandestine attack such as a suicide bombing, which eliminates confrontational tension because it avoids showing any confrontation until the very moment the bomb is exploded. Traditional assassinations, and the modern mafia version, also rely on the cool-headedness that comes from pretending there is no confrontation, hiding in Goffmanian normal appearances until the moment to strike.
All this sounds rather grisly, but nevertheless confrontational theory of violence has an optimistic side. First, there is good news: most threatening confrontations do not result in violence. (This is shown also in Robert Emerson’s new book on quarrels among roommates and neighbours.) We missed this because, until recently, most evidence about violence came from sampling on the dependent variable. There is a deep interactional reason why face-to-face violence is hard, not easy. Most of the time both sides stay symmetrical. Both get angry and bluster in the same way. These confrontations abort, since they can’t get around the barrier of confrontational tension. Empirically, on our micro-evidence, this zero pathway is the most common. Either the quarrel ends in mutual gestures of contempt; or the fight quickly ends when opponents discover their mutual incompetence. Curtis Jackson-Jacobs’ video analysis shows fist-fighters moving away from each other after missing with a few out-of-rhythm punches. If no emotional domination happens, they soon sense it.
Anne Nassauer, assembling videos and other evidence from many angles on demonstrations, finds the turning points at which a demo goes violent or stays peaceful. And she shows that these are situational turning points, irrespective of ideologies, avowed intent of demonstrators or policing methods. Stefan Klusemann, using video evidence, shows that ethnic massacres are triggered off in situations of emotional domination and emotional passivity; that is, local conditions, apart from whatever orders are given by remote authorities. Another pioneering turning-point study is David Sorge’s analysis of the phone recording of a school shooter exchanging shots with the police, who nevertheless is calmed down by an office clerk; she starts out terrified but eventually shifts into an us-together mood that ends in a peaceful surrender. Meredith Rossner shows that restorative justice conferences succeed or fail according to the processes of interaction rituals; and that emotionally successful RJ conferences result in conversion experiences that last for several years, at least. Counter-intuitively, she finds that RJ conferences are especially likely be successful when they concerns not minor offenses but serious violence; the intensity of the ritual depends on the intensity of emotions it evokes.
High authorities are hard to study with micro methods, since organizational high rank is shielded behind very strong Goffmanian frontstages. David Gibson, however, analyzing audio tapes of Kennedy’s crisis group in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, penetrated the micro-reality of power in a situation in which all the rationally expectable scenarios led toward nuclear war. Neither JFK nor anyone else emerges as a charismatic or even a decisive leader. The group eventually muddled their way through sending signals that postponed a decision to use force, by tacitly ignoring scenarios that were too troubling to deal with. This fits the pattern that conversation analysts call the preference for agreement over disagreement, at whatever cost to rationality and consistency.
How about how social interactions affect job interviews?:
We have a long way to go to generalize these leads into a picture of how high authority really operates. Does it operate the same way in business corporations? The management literature tells us how executives have implemented well thought-out programs; but our information comes chiefly from retrospective interviews that collapse time and omit the situational process itself. Lauren Rivera cracks the veneer of elite Wall Street firms and finds that hiring decisions are made by a sense of emotional resonance between interviewer and interviewee, the solidarity of successful interaction rituals. Our best evidence of the micro details of this process comes from another arena, where Dan McFarland and colleagues analyze recorded data on speed dating, and find that conversational micro-rhythms determine who felt they “clicked” with whom.
OK what about sex?
I will end this scattered survey with some research that falls into the rubric of Weberian status groups, i.e. social rankings by lifestyle. David Grazian has produced a sequence of books,Blue Chicago and On the Make, that deal with night life. This could be considered a follow-up to Goffman’s analysis of what constitutes “fun in games” as well as “where the action is.” For Grazian, night-life is a performance of one’s “nocturnal self,” characterized by role-distance from one’s mundane day-time identity. By a combination of his own interviewing behind the scenes and collective ethnographies of students describing their evening on the town, from pre-party preparation to post-party story-telling, Grazian shows how the boys and the girls, acting as separate teams, play at sexual flirtation which for the most part is vastly over-hyped in its real results. It is the buzz of collective effervescence that some of these teams generate that is the real attraction of night life. And this may be an appropriate place to wind up. Freud, perhaps the original micro-sociologist, theorized that sexual drive is the underlying mover behind the scenes. Grazian, looking at how those scenes are enacted, finds libido as socially constructed performance. As is almost everything else.
In conclusion. Will interaction ritual, or for that matter micro-sociology as we know it, become outdated in the high-tech future? This isn’t futuristic any more, since we have been living in the era of widely dispersed information technology for at least 30 years, and we are used to its pace and direction of change. A key point for interaction ritual is that bodily co-presence is one of its ingredients. Is face contact needed? Rich Ling analyzed the everyday use of mobile phones and found that the same persons who spoke by phone a lot also met personally a lot. Cell phones do not substitute for bodily co-presence, but facilitate it. Among the most frequent back-and-forth, reciprocated connections are people coordinating where they are. Ling concluded that solidarity rituals were possible over the phone, but that they were weaker than face-to-face rituals; one was a teaser for the other.
Conceivably future electronic devices might wire up each other’s genitals, but what happens would likely depend on the micro-sociological theory of sex (chapter 6 in Interaction Ritual Chains): the strongest sexual attraction is not pleasure in one’s genitals per se, but getting the other person’s body to respond in mutually entraining erotic rhythms: getting turned on by getting the other person turned on. If you don’t believe me, try theorizing the attractions of performing oral sex. This is an historically increasing practice, and one of the things that drives the solidarity of homosexual movements. Gay movements are built around effervescent scenes, not around social media.
I will try theorizing the attractions of performing oral sex, Professor!
I recommend Collins’ book written with Maren McConnell, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy, which I bought and read though I do wish there was a print edition.
Previous coverage about Collins’ work. Shoutout to Brent Forrester, who I think put me on to him.