Jo Mora

jo mora yosemite

Jo Mora has to be in the conversation about top Uruguayan-Californian artists, yet I’d only heard of him a few weeks ago when co-worker Charles called my attention to the cover art for The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album:

drawn from a Mora poster of a rodeo in Salinas:

rodeo poster

Here is Mora’s 1946 book Californios: The Saga of The Hard-Riding Vaqueros, America’s First Cowboys:

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Look at these fucking hipsters.

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“He won added renown for his beautifully executed and historically accurate dioramas.”  What a thing to say about a man!  Let’s have a look at the dioramas for his friend Will Rogers:

 

 

will rogers diorama trip advisor

These dioramas look so great, and there aren’t many photos of them online.  This one is fantastic, and so is this one.  And don’t miss this one!  I didn’t copy them here because Flickr user Todd Carr has all his rights reserved.  I feel pretty ok about reproducing most widely-available photos, but I dunno, Todd went to the trouble of going to Claremore, Oklahoma, and since he’s pretty much the only source on these,and he did a great job, it doesn’t feel quite right.  Still, I hope Mr. Carr doesn’t mind me showing just this one, of what must be the plane crash that ended Will’s life:

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Hope you don’t mind Todd, you are a great photographer!

Mora was also a gifted sculptor — he made, for instance, these guys for the Pacific Mutual Building, right here at 6th and Grand in downtown Los Angeles:

mora sculpture

Here’s a list of Mora’s public artworks.  The list was put together by Peter Hiller, curator of the Jo Mora Trust Collection, and we thank him for his help and great work!  You can see and learn more about Mora over at their website, and Peter Hiller tells us he has the Los Angeles map for sale.

Mora began his career as a cartoonist in Boston.  Here’s an early cartoon, The Foolish Walrus:

the foolish walrus

How about his map of Los Angeles?

Jo Mora LA

Or this menu?

menu

Mora visited many Spanish missions in California that summer by horseback. He followed the “Mission Trail”, also called the “Kings Highway”.

What a boss.

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Reedy, The Twilight of the Presidency: From Johnson To Reagan

former Nixon and Reagan aide has just told his Miller Center oral history interviewers a long story about the Nixon administration:

Young
So, what is the moral of that story?

Anderson
The moral of the story, I think, is in the White House people don’t realize the extent to which the President of the United States is forced to delegate enormous authority. You know how busy you can get during the day, try multiplying that by 100 times, 500 times. The pressures that come in are incomprehensible. So when he says, Do something, he usually thinks, Well, maybe it will get done. Most of the time, it doesn’t get done, but he says, Maybe it will get done. And he doesn’t have time to follow up.

He doesn’t have time to sit down and say, Ehrlichman, what happened with Anderson? And whatever Ehrlichman tells him, he may say, Well, Anderson wasn’t interested, which is probably what he told them. Now, he’s not going to pick up the phone and call me and say, What happened? and follow through on all this. You can talk to Dick Allen. Similar things happened to Dick Allen, in terms of he gave instructions to have Dick do certain things, and Dick was never told and then the President was told that Dick hadn’t done it.

There’s a wonderful book called The Twilight of the Presidency by Reedy. You ever read that?

Young
George Reedy.

Anderson
In which he says, If you try to understand the White House—most people make the mistake, they try to understand the White House like a corporation or the military and how does it look, with the hierarchy. He said, The only way to understand it, it’s like a palace court. And if you can understand a palace court, then you understand the White House. I think that’s probably pretty accurate. But those are the things that happen. So anyway, I didn’t go back. So I missed Watergate.

Asher
Darn.

Reedy’s book is fascinating, Reedy was himself Press Secretary and a special assistant to LBJ.

This is the bitter lesson we should have learned from Vietnam. In the early days of that conflict, it might have been possible to pull out. My most vivid memories are the meetings early in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in which his advisers (virtually all holdovers from the Kennedy administration) were looking to him for guidance on how to proceed. He, on the other hand, felt an obligation to continue the Kennedy policies and he was looking to them for indications of what steps could carry out such a course. I will always believe that someone misread a signal from the other side with the resultant commitment to full-scale fighting.

Reedy argues that the presidency is such a powerful and weird job that in effect it always creates something of a monarchy, dependent on the personality of the (so far!) man.

When stories leaked out that Richard Nixon was “talking to the pictures” in the White House, it was taken by many as evidence that he was cracking up. To anyone who has had the opportunity to observe a president at close range, it is perfectly normal conduct.

The tone of Reedy’s book is pretty scholarly, but he’s also a skilled, entertaining presenter:

For many years, a corporation sold a popular mouthwash to the American people on the basis that it would inhibit bad breath. The slogan under which the product was merchandised – “Even your best friends won’t tell you” – meant that the subject was too delicate to mention and that a person could exclude the foulest odors without being aware of the fact. As far as the mouthwash was concerned, the slogan was somewhat misleading: not only your best friends but your worst enemies will tell you if you have bad breath. But the concept that “even your best friends won’t tell you” about unpleasant things applies with tremendous force to the president.

Reedy argues that, even in his boyhood, the President wasn’t really that important, or at least not a constant topic in national life:

For those who have lived long enough to have some political consciousness from the pre-Franklin Delano Roosevelt ere, there will be memories of local politicians who had far greater name identification than the president, even among educated people… the press spent very little time covering presidents.

What changed that? The radio, and TV cameras, and national level communication. Reedy mentions how the TV crews in the Johnson White House started keeping the cameras “warmed up,” a huge advantage that gave LBJ the power to give a TV briefing whenever he wanted. What would Reedy make of Twitter?

On the rise of Henry Kissinger:

When a crisis would break out anywhere in the world, Nixon would call his Secretary of State, who would promise to get “my people” together and report back. The president would then call Kissinger, who would give him at least ten answers before hanging up the phone. Presidents like answers.

would hang out w


John Lanchester

One example I saw when I was researching Whoops!, my book on the crisis, was in Baltimore. There people going to buy houses for the first time would turn up at the mortgage company’s office and be told: ‘Look, I’m really sorry, I know we said we’d be able to get you a loan at 6 per cent, but something went wrong at the bank, so the number on here is 12 per cent. But listen, I know you want to come out of here owning a house today – that’s right isn’t it, you do want to leave this room owning your own house for the first time? – so what I suggest is, since there’s a lot of paperwork to get through, you sign it, and we sort out this issue with the loan later, it won’t be a problem.’ That is a flat lie: the loan was fixed and unchangeable and the contract legally binding, but under Maryland law, the principle is caveat emptor, so the mortgage broker can lie as much as they want, since the onus is on the other party to protect their own interests. The result, just in Baltimore, was tens of thousands of people losing their homes. The charity I talked to had no idea where many of those people were: some of them were sleeping in their cars, some of them had gone back to wherever they came from outside the city, others had just vanished. And all that predatory lending was entirely legal.

strikes again in LRB (link, free).

Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. I think there’s a lot in that.

[…]

I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.

 


Mora update

Bridal veil falls

Peter Hiller, curator of the Jo Mora Trust, writes in with a few points and corrections, duly incorporated on our post about Jo Mora.  Thanks so much, Peter!

Co-worker Charles picked up a reproduction of the Salinas rodeo poster.  So many fantastic details:

rodeo 2

Jo Mora could’ve done a fantastic Where’s Waldo I bet.  (Why did they feel the need to change the American title from the original English “Where’s Wally?” I wonder?”

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Jo Mora probably would’ve been good at wimmelbilderbuch of all kinds, a term I just learned from the Where’s Wally? wiki.

Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Hans Jurgen Press are regarded as the fathers of the format.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Brueghel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs.  Can you spot all 112?

 


Alice Marble

(Paul T. submitted this photo to FourSquare)

Several times in walks around San Francisco I’ve stopped at the Alice Marble Tennis Courts, at the top of Russian Hill, for the view from Alcatraz to the bridge.

Alice Marble was a tennis champ of the 1930s and ’40s. Wikipedia informs us:

For a brief time after retirement, she worked on the editorial advisory board of DC Comics and was credited as an associate editor on Wonder Woman. She created the “Wonder Women of History” feature for the comics, which told the stories of prominent women of history in comic form.

In her second autobiography Courting Danger (released after her death in 1990), Marble mentions that, back in the 1940s, she had married Joe Crowley around World War II, a pilot, who was killed in action over Germany. Only days before his death, she miscarried their child following a car accident. After an attempt to kill herself, she recuperated, and in early 1945, agreed to spy for U.S. intelligence. Her mission involved renewing contact with a former lover, a Swiss banker, and obtaining Nazi financial data. The operation ended when a Nazi agent shot her in the back after chasing her while she was trying to escape in a car, but she recovered. Few details of this operation have been corroborated by journalists and authors who tried to investigate this part of her life in the years from the time of her death to the present. No Swiss banker has been discovered, leading to suspicions that this man of mystery might have been a Nazi, someone who Marble may have been trying to avoid having had an association.

Marble greatly contributed to the desegregation of American tennis by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson for the July 1, 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis Magazine. The article read “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.” 

Alice Marble

Female tennis champs of that era are honored all over San Francisco. Alice Marble’s career followed that of Helen Willis Moody, painted by Diego Rivera in his mural inside the former Pacific Stock Exchange. It’s cool that California is still producing world class tennis champs.

The Alice Marble courts are surrounded by George Sterling Park:

Kevin Starr (1973) wrote:

The uncrowned King of Bohemia (so his friends called him), Sterling had been at the center of every artistic circle in the San Francisco Bay Area. Celebrated as the embodiment of the local artistic scene, though forgotten today, Sterling had in his lifetime been linked with the immortals, his name carved on the walls of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition next to the great poets of the past.

Lots of people around George Sterling’s life died of poison, including finally the man himself, who poisoned himself inside the San Francisco clubhouse of the Bohemian Club. Next time I’m up there, I’ll have to stop by the Bohemian Club and see the bronze relief by Jo Mora.

The style of poetry Sterling practiced is no longer really in fashion:

The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
And the western ocean breaks in thunder,
And the western stars go slowly under,
And her gaze is ever West
In the dream of her young unrest.
Her sea is a voice that calls,
And her star a voice above,
And her wind a voice on her walls—
My cool, grey city of love.

How did the Bohemian Club go from being a scene of outré artists to having like Richard Nixon as a member? Probably the same way Carmel went from being an out there semi-commune to being a rich person retirement place. And the same way San Francisco was a cool place to drop out in 1965, and is now unaffordable unless you’re making mid six figures programming algorithms.

A lesson from California history: wherever the outcast artists are setting up camp, you’d be wise to buy real estate, and hang onto it for a hundred years. Although maybe that kind of thinking is contrary to the Bohemian Club motto:

Weaving spiders come not here.


Top Ten HelyTimes Posts Of The Year

Watching the America's Cup Race. Mrs. Kennedy, President Kennedy, others. Off Newport, RI, aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. by Robert Knudsen

Watching the America’s Cup Race. Mrs. Kennedy, President Kennedy, others. Off Newport, RI, aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. by Robert Knudsen

Hey, thanks for voting in this year’s HelyTimes Awards!

By reader vote, these were considered

The Top Ten Helytimes Posts Of The Year

black-eyed-sue

10) Shorter History Of Australia

about Geoffrey Blainey’s book on how that country became what it is, and their national cry Cooo-EEE!

jo-mora

9) Jo Mora and Mora Update

about how the Uruguayan-Californian artist influenced almost a century of design

8) Travel Tips From Bill and Tony

Conversations between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton

rivera

7) San Francisco

A visit to that famed city and the Diego Rivera murals hidden around it

khipu

6) Khipus

On Incan rope counting systems and their decipherment

5) Jackie Smoking Pregnant

An investigation into a photo of the former first lady

platypus

4) Twenty Greatest Australian Accomplishments of All Time

This was by far our most popular post by views

the-playa

3) Death Valley Days

A trip to the national park, and its place in our national consciousness

lady-xoc

2) Lady Xoc

About the Mayan queen of the 8th century

The definitive winner for the year?:

coram

1) Boyd, Trump, and OODA Loops

A review of writing by and about fighter pilot John Boyd, who offers a way into DT’s thinking.

Honorable mentions:

Understanding Politics,

a brief look at Sanders and Trump

Four Bits About Donald Trump,

about you know who, comparing him to Tim Ferriss.

Sunday Takes,

a big wild roundup.

Nestle,

on how a Swiss chocolatier came to own freshwater springs in Southern California

The Death of Michael Herr,

about the Vietnam War correspondent, Kubrick pal and Zen Buddhist

Microsociology,

on the work of Randall Collins, an underappreciated hero

A Description of Distant Roads,

extracts from a 1769 description of California,

Cape Flattery,

a dispatch from rainy New Zealand,

and a personal favorite,

O Pioneers,

about Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and America.

The most popular post of the year

by views, was

American Historical Figure Who Reminds Me Of Trump

Thanks for reading Helytimes.  We really appreciate all our readers.  We write it just out of graphomania and a compulsion to work out, catalog and channel puzzles, curiosities and questions of interest.  It’s wonderful to know there are people who enjoy the results.

You can email us anytime at helphely at gmail.  Let us know what you think.

All the best for 2017.

Buy this book on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore:

sent by reader Katrina

sent by reader Katrina

 

 


The Open

(Gordon Hatton for Wikipedia)

What with The Open going on I was reading up on The Old Course. Bobby Jones:

After he received the key, he said “I could take out of my life everything but my experiences here in St Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life.”

I believe that monument you can see in the background commemorates some Protestants who were burnt at the stake.


A Pirate Looks At Fifty by Jimmy Buffett

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

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

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

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

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

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

My talent came in working an audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffett says:

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

Mission accomplished.


Needles

LA Times

One of America’s hottest cities is down to one water well. What happens if the taps go dry?

Thought this was an interesting story, by Ralph Vartabedian, reposted on Yahoo News and then to Drudge. it’s about Needles, California, famously home to Snoopy’s brother Spike.

What’s interesting, as you can see in the photo, is that the Colorado River runs right by Needles. The Colorado forged the Grand Canyon, it’s one of the great rivers of the world. A great quantity of water, but claims on it by different states, and the taking of the water by the USA before it gets to Mexico are famously a source of controversy and dispute. The river is mercurial, and powerful.

I thought one of the more memorable parts of Into The Wild (the book) was about McCandless trying to paddle to the Colorado’s end, into a messy maze of marshland and silt that dissolves into the Gulf of California / Sea of Cortez.

A town running out of water while a river runs through is a very 21st century kind of problem, feels like.

In related river news:


A lack of rainfall in South American farming regions has left the Paraná River too shallow for fully loaded boats to pass from Argentina’s interior to Atlantic shipping lanes, contributing to high prices for soybeans and corn. Flooding in Germany last week forced the closure of a plant owned by Aurubis AG , a major metal producer and recycler, as copper prices hover around all-time highs.

from “Western Wildfires Are Hitting Lumber Prices” by Ryan Dezember in WSJ.

I realize this is “bad news,” which I try to avoid here on Helytimes, there being plenty of giddy bad news tellers and everybody has heard that the climate is being weird. But the good news is: these stories of compounding effects and complex systems are interesting!


The fix is in

I haven’t been following boxing but I don’t like anything about the Floyd Mayweather / Logan Paul fight, except maybe the pleasure of an obnoxious person getting hurt, and I don’t like to cultivate that taste in myself. This is not a sporting event, it’s an exhibition. The prescripted outcome isn’t known to me but I suspect it’s known to others as well.

“The fix is in,” in other words. Looking into the origin of the term I find, among other things, a spay and neuter clinic in Wisconsin.

Some time ago I got pretty interested in boxing both as a workout routine and spectacle. In both it was rewarding. The world of writing about boxing is wonderful: AJ Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates. The Fight is the only Norman Mailer book I ever finished, I suspect it may be his best. I found a copy in a youth hostel in Ireland and ate it up. Of course When We Were Kings is unreal on the same tale, a story so good you could hear it told many times and not get bored. Best of all might be Pierce Egan.

The quality Egan most admires is “bottom”:

Boxiana is worth getting just for the fitness regimens.

That’s for a pedestrian, one who competed in long walking competitions like a thousand miles in a thousand hours, that kind of thing.

Once I contemplated going for an MA at Cambridge on the topic of Pierce Egan, but then I realized that would be a most un-Pierce Egan thing to do.

During my boxing period I got a press pass, maybe after pitching an idea to Slate, for the second fight of Manny Pacquiao against Morales. In my memory, I wrote the article, and Slate didn’t publish it, but that may be inaccurate. What I remember is seeing Freddie Roach at the press conference. Impressive man. Dedham kid. He spoke of his own fighting career, and said he was never the same boxer after he’d been knocked out.

Having attended a Pacquiao fight made me a superstar among the Filipino sailors when I sailed on the Hanjin Athens cargo ship from Long Beach to Shanghai.

Here is a chart I made tracing back boxers into the past by who fought who. Having shaken the hand of former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, I wanted to see how far I could get back. Looks like I made it to Jem Mace,

Forgive the poor quality photo, the original is somewhere.

I wondered if I could connect all the way to Cribb vs. Molineaux:

(that print is at the Met, which I think may be in error, or at least in conflict, with the WBA about how many rounds this fight went. I’ll mention it at the ball.)

That fight went 44 rounds (rounds were shorter in those days. Egan has accounts of 100+ round fights). From a WBA writeup by Robert Ecksel:

The morning of the championship, Molineaux ate a boiled chicken, an apple pie, and drank a half-gallon of beer.

Was the fix in on that one?

SPOLER ALERT! Ecksel again:


Buffett and Munger speak: Berkshire Hathaway 2021 oddities and highlights

Augy18400 for wikipedia

I always feel like I’m getting both nutrition and entertainment when I read the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting transcript, found here at Rev.com

Asked about the morality of owning an oil and gas company like Chevron, Charlie Munger poses and then answers a strange hypothetical:

You can imagine two things. A young man marries into your family, he’s an English professor at, say, Swarthmore, or he works for Chevron. Which would you pick? Sight unseen? I want to admit, I’d take the guy from Chevron. Yeah.

Did not know this about the origin of the rear view mirror:

Warren Buffett: (01:35:54)
Maybe that’s why they called it Marmon. And that we’re proud of the fact that the company in 1911 named one of the first Indianapolis 500. It also was the company that invented the rear view mirror. I’m not sure whether that was a big contribution to society. And certainly around your household rear view mirror, you don’t want to emphasize too much. But they, the car that was entered in Indianapolis 500, the guy who normally sat next to the driver and looked backwards to tell what the competitors were doing, he was sick. So they invented the rear view mirror. So let’s just assume that you had decided that autos were this incredible thing. And someday there’d be an Indianapolis 500 and someday they’d have rearview mirrors on cars. And someday 290 million cars would be buzzing around the United States or autos or trucks there.

On BNSF railroad:

15% of the interstate goods move on our railroad

Competition for BNSF, and for Geico:

This question comes from Glen Greenberg, it’s on the profitability of GEICO and BNSF. He said, “Why do these companies operate at meaningfully lower profit margins than their main competitors, Progressive and Union Pacific? Can we expect current managements to at least achieve parity?

Warren Buffett: (02:33:25)
Was it GEICO and-

Becky: (02:33:27)
BNSF.

Warren Buffett: (02:33:28)
Oh, actually, if you look at the first quarter figures, you’ll see that the Berkshire Hathaway/Union Pacific comparisons has gotten quite better. Katie Farmer’s doing an incredible job at BNSF, and it’d be an interesting question whether five years from now or 10 years from now, BNSF or Union Pacific has the higher earnings. We’ve had higher earnings in the past, Union Pacific passed us. The first quarter, you can look at and they think they’ve got a slightly better franchise. We think we’ve got a slightly better franchise. We know we’re larger than Union Pacific, we will do more business than they do. And we should make a little more money than they do, but we haven’t in the last few years. But it’s quite a railroad, I feel very good about that.

 And it’s a very interesting business, both Progressive and GEICO were started in the ’30s. I believe I’m right about Progressive on that, and we were started in ’36. We have had the better product for a long, long time, I mean, in terms of cost. And here we are 80, 85 years later, in our case, and we have about 13% or so of the market, whatever it may be, and Progressive as just a slight bit less. So the two of us have 25% of the market, roughly, in this huge market, after 80 something years of having a better product. So it’s a very slow changing, competitive situation, but Progressive has done a very, very good job recently. We’ve done a very, very good job over the years, and we’re doing a good job now, but we have made some very significant improvements.

Is Flo just more appealing than the Geico Gecko? Ajit Jain doesn’t think so:

Progressive has certainly done better, but when it comes to branding, GEICO is, I think, miles, excuse me, ahead of Progressive. And in terms of managing expenses as well, I think GEICO does a much better job than anyone else in the industry.

On interest rates:

I mean, interest rates, basically, are to the value of assets, what gravity is to matter, essentially. …

I mean, if I could reduce gravity, it’s pull by about 80%, I mean, I’d be in the Tokyo Olympics jumping. And essentially, if interest rates were 10%, valuations are much higher. So you’ve had this incredible change in the valuation of everything that produces money, because the risk-free rate produces, really short enough right now, nothing. It’s very interesting. I brought this book along, because for 25 or more years, Paul Samuelson’s book was the definitive book on economics. It was taught in every school and Paul was… he was the first Nobel a prize winner. It’s sort of a cousin to the Nobel prize, they started giving it in economics, I think, in the late ’60s, he was the first winner from the United States, Paul Samuelson. Amazingly enough, the second winner was Ken Arrow, and both of them are the uncles of Larry Summers. Larry Summers had the first two winners as uncles.

Weird, did not know that. Buffett goes on:

But if present rates were destined to be appropriate, if the 10 years should really be at the price it is, those companies that the fellow mentioned in this question, they’re a bargain. I mean, they have the ability to deliver cash at a rate that’s, if you discounted back and you’re discounting at present interest rates, stocks are very, very cheap. Now, the question is what interest rates do over time. But there’s a view of what interest rates will be based in the yield curve out to 30 years and so on.


It’s a fascinating time. We’ve never really seen what shoveling money in on the basis that we’re doing it on a fiscal basis, while following a monetary policy of something close to zero interest rates, and it is enormously pleasant. But in economics, there’s one thing always to remember, you can never do one thing, you always have to say, “And then what?”

Buffett goes on to invoke the St. Peterburg paradox.

On, basically, what’s cool about the stock market:

we’ve got the greatest markets the world could ever imagine. I mean, imagine being able to own parts of the biggest businesses in the world and putting billions of dollars in them and take it out two days later. I mean, compared to farms or apartment houses or office buildings, where it takes months to close a deal, the markets offer a chance to participate in earning assets on a basis that’s very, very low cost and instantaneous, huge, all kinds of good things, but it makes its real money if they can get the gamblers to come in because they provide more action and they’re willing to pay silly or fees and all kinds of things.

On the market as a casino:

Well, the stock market, we’ve had a lot of people in the casino in the last year. You have millions and billions of people who’ve set up accounts where they day trade, where they’re selling… Put some calls, where they, I would say that you had the greatest increase in the number of gamblers essentially. And there’s nothing wrong with gambling and they got better odds than they’ve got if they play the state lottery, but they have cash in their pocket. They’ve had action. And they actually don’t have a lot of good results. And if they just bought stocks, they do fine and held them.


But the gambling impulse is very strong in people worldwide, and occasionally it gets an enormous shove and conditions lead this place where more people are entering the casino than are leaving every day, and that creates its own reality for a while. And nobody tells you when the clock is going to strike 12:00, and it all turns to pumpkins and mice. But when the competition is playing with other people’s money, or if they’re playing foolishly with their own money, but the big stuff is done with other people’s money, they’re going to beat us. I mean, we’re not… that’s a different game and they’ve got a lot of money, so we’re not going to have much luck on acquisitions while this sort of a period continues.

Charlie Munger saying Bernie Sanders “has won,” but he didn’t mean it in a complimentary way:

MUNGER: And I think one consequence of the present situation is that Bernie Sanders has basically won. And that’s because with the, everything boomed up so high and interest rates, so low what’s going to happen is the millennial generation is going to have a hell of a time getting rich compared to our generation. And so the difference between the rich and the poor and the generation that’s rising is going to be a lot less. So Bernie has won. He did it by accident, but he won.

Charlie is asked, given high tax rates, what keeps him in California?

MUNGER: Well, that’s a very interesting question. I frequently say that I wouldn’t move across the street to save my children 500 million in taxes and stuff. So I have that, that’s my personal view of the subject, but I do think it is stupid for states to drive out their wealthiest citizens, the old people that don’t commit any crimes, they donate to the local charity. Who in the hell in their right mind would drive out the rich people? I mean, Florida and places like that are very shrewd and places like California are being very stupid. It’s contrary to the interest of the state.

I love the dodge here on a question about Bitcoin:

Yeah, I knew there’d be a question on Bitcoin. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve watched these politicians dodge questions all the time.” I always find it kind of disgusting when they do it. But the truth is, I’m going to dodge that question because we’ve probably got hundreds of thousands of people watching this that own Bitcoin, and we’ve got two people that are short. We’ve got a choice of making 400,000 people mad at us and unhappy and/or making two people happy. That’s just a dumb equation. I thought about it. We had a governor one time in Nebraska, a long time ago. He would get a tough question, what do you think about property taxes or what should we do about schools? He’d look right at the person, and he’d say, “I’m all right on that one,” and he’d just walk off. Well, I’m all right on that one and maybe we’ll see how Charlie is.

A quality of a great business:

Well, we’ve always known that the green business is the one that takes very little capital and grows a lot, and Apple and Google and Microsoft and Facebook are terrific examples of that. I mean, Apple has $ 37 billion in property, plant, equipment. Berkshire has 170 billion or something like that, and they’re going to make a lot more money than we do. They’re in better business. It’s a much better business than we have, and Microsoft’s business is a way better business than we have. Google’s business is a way better business.

I thought this was funny. The question was re: Robinhood.

But they have attracted, maybe set out to attract, but they have attracted, I think I read where 12 or 13% of their casino participants were dealing in puts and calls. I looked up on Apple, the number of seven day calls and 14 day calls outstanding. I’m sure a lot of that is coming through Robinhood and that’s a bunch of people writing… They’re gambling on the price of Apple over the next seven days or 14 days. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing immoral. But I don’t think you would build a society around people doing it. If a group of us landed on a desert island, we knew that we’d never be rescued, and I was one of the group and I said, “Well, I’ll set up the exchange over and I’ll trade our corn futures and everything around it.” I think the degree to which a very rich society can reward people who know how to take advantage essentially of the gambling instincts of, not only American public, worldwide public, it’s not the most admirable part of the accomplishment. But I think what America has accomplished is pretty admirable overall. And I think actually, American corporations have turned out to be a wonderful place for people to put their money and save, but they also make terrific gambling chips.

Odd anecdote from Warren, Munger is talking about state lotteries (he doesn’t approve):

Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
The states in America, replaced the mafia as the proprietor of the numbers game. That’s what happened.

Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
Yep.

Charlie Munger: (04:40:03)
They pushed the mafia aside and said, “That’s our business, not yours.” Doesn’t make me proud of my government.

Warren Buffett: (04:40:03)
When I was a kid, my dad was in Congress, they had a numbers runner in the house office building, actually.

On the potential CP/KSU railway merger, which would strengthen a rival to Berkshire’s own BNSF:

In terms of the price that’s being paid, like I say, if you can borrow all the money for nothing, it doesn’t make much difference to people. This would not be being paid under a different interest rate environment. I mean, it’s very simple. There’s no magic to the Kansas City Southern. I think their deal with Mexico ends in 2047. It’s the number of carloads carried. I mean, it’s not going to change that much, but it is kind of interesting. There’s only two major Canadian, what they call Class I railroads, and there’s five in the United States. This will result in, essentially, three of the units being Canadian, four being U.S., which is not the way you normally think of the way the development of the railroad system would work in the United States.

We looked at buying CP. Everybody looks at everything. We would not pay this price. It implies a price for BNSF that’s even higher than what the UP is selling for. But it’s kind of play money to some degree, I mean, when interest rates are this low. I’m sure from the standpoint of both CP and CN, there’s only one K.C. Southern. They’re not going to get a chance to expand. They’re not going to buy us. They’re not going to buy the UP. The juices flow, and the prices go up.

Charlie Munger: (03:37:15)
They’re buying with somebody else’s money.

Warren Buffett: (03:37:18)
Yeah. It’s somebody else’s money, and you’re going to retire in five or 10 years. People are not going to remember what you paid, but they’re going to remember whether you built a larger system. The investment bankers are cheering you on at every move. They’re just saying, “You could pay more.” They’re moving the figures around. The spreadsheets are out, and the fees are flowing.

The juices flow, indeed.


Marilyn Monroe’s best ever

They trade sex stories. Capote tells of a homosexual fling he had with Errol Flynn. Marilyn: “It’s not as if you told me anything new. I’ve always known Errol zigzagged. I have a masseur, he’s practically my sister, and he was Tyrone Power’s masseur, and he told me all about the things Errol and Ty Power were doing…. So let’s hear your best experience. Along those lines.”

Capote: “The best? The most memorable? Suppose you answer the question first.”

Marilyn: “And I  drive hard bargains! Ha! (Swallowing champagne)  Joe’s not bad. He can hit home runs. If that’s all it takes, we’d still be married. I still love him, though. He’s genuine.”

Capote: “Husbands don’t count. Not in this game.”

Marilyn (nibbling her nail, really thinking): “Well, I met a man, he’s related to Gary Cooper somehow. A stockbroker, and nothing much to look at– sixty-five, and he wears those very thick glasses. Thick as jellyfish. I can’t say what it was, but–”

Capote:  “You can stop right there. I’ve heard all about him from other girls… He’s Rocky Cooper’s stepfather. He’s supposed to be sensational.”

Marilyn: “He is. Okay, smart-ass. Your turn.”

That, from Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons, quoted in this fantastic post about Marilyn’s social networks by the always interesting Randall Collins, frequent Helytimes subject.

Who was this mysterious man?

Veronica “Rocky” Cooper. From her Wikipedia:

Veronica Balfe was born to Veronica Gibbons and Harry Balfe, Jr. Following her parents’ divorce, she lived in Paris with her mother. Balfe did not see her father for many years, but kept in touch with her grandfather, who owned a ranch in California. Balfe saw her father a few years before his death in the 1950s. Her mother married Paul Shields, a successful Wall Street financier.

An avid sportswoman, Balfe was known to her friends by the nickname, “Rocky.” [1]

Source. “Discusses Wall Street reforms with Roosevelt. Washington, D.C., Oct. 29. Paul Shields, New York Utilities expert, shown leaving the White House after conferring with President Roosevelt in relation to Wall Street reforms growing out of the Richard Whitney case. Shields, recommends greater safeguards for brokerage customer funds, 10/29/38”

Aside from that and this, the man seems to slip through the internet. But what else do you need to know, really?

Always the possibility that Truman Capote made all this up for whatever reason.


Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West by William McKeen

This is a book about a scene, and the scene was Key West in the late ’60s-’70s, centered on Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and some lesser known but memorable characters.  I tried to think of other books about scenes, and came up with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, and maybe Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh, about Van Morrison’s Boston.  Then of course there’s Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, referenced here in the subtitle, a mean-spirited but often beautiful book about 1920s Paris.

I was drawn to this book after I heard Walter Kirn talking about it on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (McGuane is Kirn’s ex-father-in-law, which must be one of life’s more interesting relationships).  I’ve been drawn lately to books about the actual practicalities of the writing life.  How do other writers do it?  How do they organize their day?  What time do they get to work?  What do they eat and drink?  How do they avoid distraction?

From this book we learn that Jim Harrison worked until 5pm, not 4:59 but 5pm, after which he cut loose.  McGuane was more disciplined, even hermitish for a time (while still getting plenty of fishing done) but eventually temptation took over, he started partying with the boys, eventually was given the chance to direct the movie from his novel 92 In The Shade.  That’s when things got really crazy.  The movie was not a big success.

“The Sixties” (the craziest excesses bled well into the ’70s) musta really been something.

On page one of this book I felt there was an error:

That’s not the line.  The line (from the Poetry Foundation) is:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
but maybe I’m being a hopeless stickler and we can translate Burns from Scots into English whenever we feel like it.
After that small bump, I got swept up in the rhythm and the fun of this book and enjoyed it very much.  A vacation in book form.  From this book I learned that it was Jerry Jeff Walker who introduced then-failing country singer Jimmy Buffett to Key West, when Buffett went to Miami for what he thought was a gig, found out he wouldn’t be playing for two weeks, so the two of them took an impromptu road trip.

Part of what these writers found special about Key West, beyond the Hemingway and Tennessee Williams legends, was it just wasn’t a regular, straight and narrow place.  Being a writer is a queer job, someone’s liable to wonder what it is you do all day.  In Key West, that wasn’t a problem.

Key West was so irregular and libertine that you could get away with the apparent layaboutism of the writer’s life.

Some years ago I was writing a TV pilot I’d pitched called Florida Courthouse.  I went down to Florida to do some research, and people kept telling me about Key West, making it sound like Florida’s Florida.  Down I went on that fantastic drive where you feel like you’re flying, over Pigeon Key, surely one of the cooler drives in the USA if not the world.

The town I found at the end of the road was truly different.  Louche, kind of disgusting, and there was an element of tourists chasing a Buffett fantasy.  Some of the people I encountered seemed like untrustworthy semi-pirates, and some put themselves way out to help a stranger.  You’re literally and figuratively way out there, halfway to Havana.  The old houses, the chickens wandering, the cemetery, the heat and the shore and the breeze and the old fort and the general sense of license and liberty has an intoxicating quality.  There was a slight element of forced fun, and trying to capture some spirit that may have existed mostly in legend.  McKeen captures that aspect in his book:

 

Like McGuane, I found the mornings in Key West to be the best attraction.  Quiet, promising, unbothered, potentially productive.  Then in the afternoon you could go out and see what trouble was to be found.  Somebody introduced me to a former sheriff of Key West, who helped me understand his philosophy of law enforcement: “look, you can’t put that much law on people if it’s not in their hearts.”

I enjoyed my time there in this salty beachside min-New Orleans and hope to return some day, although I don’t really think I’m a Key West person in my heart.  I went looking for photos from that trip, and one I found was of the Audubon House.

After finishing this book I was recounting some of the stories to my wife and we put on Jimmy Buffett radio, and that led of course to drinking a bunch of margaritas and I woke up hungover.

I rate this book: four and a half margaritas.

 

 


Buffett bits (and Munger)

Did not watch, but read a transcript of this year’s Berkshire Annual Meeting. Even though he tends to repeat himself, especially once you’ve gone over a few of his letters, there’s something comforting and eternal about going over the wisdom again, like reading The Bible.

 

Is there simpler investment advice?

I would love to talk to Ajit Jain for a few minutes:

I didn’t know about this event:

from the National Archives:

The morning after was an archivist’s nightmare, with ankle-deep water covering records in many areas. Although the basement vault was considered fireproof and watertight, water seeped through a broken wired-glass panel in the door and under the floor, damaging some earlier and later census schedules on the lower tiers. The 1890 census, however, was stacked outside the vault and was, according to one source, “first in the path of the firemen.”(11)

Could be a good clue in a National Treasure style mystery.

Speculation and rumors about the cause of the blaze ran rampant. Some newspapers claimed, and many suspected, it was caused by a cigarette or a lighted match. Employees were keenly questioned about their smoking habits. Others believed the fire started among shavings in the carpenter shop or was the result of spontaneous combustion. At least one woman from Ohio felt certain the fire was part of a conspiracy to defraud her family of their rightful estate by destroying every vestige of evidence proving heirship.(15) Most seemed to agree that the fire could not have been burning long and had made quick and intense headway; shavings and debris in the carpenter shop, wooden shelving, and the paper records would have made for a fierce blaze. After all, a watchman and engineers had been in the basement as late as 4:35 and not detected any smoke.(16) Others, however, believed the fire had been burning for hours, considering its stubbornness. Although, once the firemen were finished, it was difficult to tell if one spot in the files had burned longer than any other, the fire’s point of origin was determined to have been in the northeastern portion of the file room (also known as the storage room) under the stock and mail room.(17) Despite every investigative effort, Chief Census Clerk E. M. Libbey reported, no conclusion as to the cause was reached.

previous coverage of Buffett and Charlie Munger.

Charlie Munger unfortunately couldn’t be in Omaha, but looks like he had interesting things to say as always at the Daily Journal annual meeting in February:

Question 28: You talk frequently about having the moral imperative to be rational. And yet as humans, we’re constantly carrying this evolutionary baggage which gets in the way of us thinking rationally. Are there any tools or behaviors you embrace to facilitate your rational thinking?

Charlie: The answer is, of course. I hardly do anything else. One of my favorite tricks is the inversion process. I’ll give you an example. When I was a meteorologist in World War II. They told me how to draw weather maps and predict the weather. But what I was actually doing is clearing pilots to take flights.

I just reverse the problem. I inverted. I said, “Suppose I wanted to kill a lot of pilots, what would be the easy way to do it?” And I soon concluded that the only easy way to do it, would be to get the planes into icing the planes couldn’t handle. Or to get the pilot to a place where he’d run out of fuel before he could safely land. So I made up my mind that I was going to stay miles away from killing pilots. By either icing or getting him into (inaudible) conditions when they couldn’t land. I think that helped me be a better meteorologist in World War II. I just reversed the problem.

And if somebody hired me to fix India, I would immediately say, “What could I do if I really want to hurt India?” And I’d figure out all the things that could most easily hurt India and then I’d figure out how to avoid them. Now you’d say it’s the same thing, it’s just in reverse. But it works better to frequently invert the problem. If you’re a meteorologist, it really helps if you really know how to avoid something which is the only thing that’s going to kill your pilot. And you can help India best, if you understand what will really hurt India the easiest and worst.

Algebra works the same way. Every great algebraist inverts all the time because the problems are solved easier. Human beings should do the same thing in the ordinary walks of life. Just constantly invert. You don’t think of what you want. You think what you want to avoid. Or when you’re thinking what you want to avoid, you also think about what you want. And you just go back and forth all the time.

How about this:

Question 30: My question is about electric vehicles and BYD. Why are electric vehicles sales at BYD down 50 to 70 percent while Tesla is growing 50 percent? And what’s the future hold for BYD?

Charlie: Well, I’m not sure I’m the world’s greatest expert on the future of electric vehicles, except I think they’re coming generally and somebody’s going to make them. BYD’s vehicle sales went down because the Chinese reduce the incentives they were giving to the buyers of electric cars. And Telsa’s sales went up because Elon has convinced people that he can cure cancer. (laughter)

And then by Question 33 he really gets going.

 Lots of luck if you’re an impulsive person that has to be gratified immediately, you’re probably not going to have a very good life and we can’t fix you. (laughter)

Buffett is like beer, Munger is like whiskey.

(via latticeworkinvesting)


The Supernova pictograph

Regular readers of this website will know I’ve expressed some reservations about whether the Peñasco Blanco pictograph actually depicts a supernova from the year 1054 AD.  It’s an exciting theory.  For background, here’s what Timothy Pauketat has to say about it in his excellent book on Cahokia:

On that morning, recorded by a Chinese astrologer as July 4, a brilliant new luminary appeared in the sky.  It was a “guest star,” a supernova, a visitor in the constellation Taurus, visible today with a high-powered telescope as the Crab Nebula.  One of only fifty supernovas ever recorded – only three in our own Milky Way galaxy* – this nuclear detonation was the last gasp of a dying star.  The inaudible explosion discharged a billion times more energy than the small star had previously emitted, and that morning a brilliant beacon – four times brighter than Venus – appeared in the daylight adjacent to a crescent moon…

Whatever i might have meant to the native peoples, a New Mexican Mimbres valley potter commemorated the celestial event by painting a pot with a star ad the foot of a crescent-shaped rabbit, a representation of the rabbit many indigenous North Americans believed resided in the moon.  Ancient rock art in Arizona also appears to illustrate the supernova, as do petrogylphs in Missouri, which show the moon and supernova astride rabbit tracks.  And in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky in July 1054 was painted on the sandstone cliffs above a palatial-sized, multi-story Great House called Peñasco Blanco, under construction at about the same time in the middle of the eleventh century.  The pictograph shows the exploding star next to a crescent moon and a human hand, the later possibly representing a group of stars still known among Plains Indians today as the Hand constellation.  Also in Chaco Canyon, construction began around this time on a massive new kiva, an underground ceremonial building, now called Casa Rinconada, just south of the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito.

There was a “big bang” culturally in North America around 1000 AD, and it is interesting that around that same time, there were two supernovas, bright new stars in the sky.

Recently I had the opportunity to have a look at the so-called Supernova Pictograph in its location in Chaco Canyon, New Mex.  Seeing it myself provoked some thought.

One observation is that there’s a huge amount of rock art in Chaco Canyon.  I consider myself kind of a petroglyph enthusiast, but even for a passionate fan, there’s a lot.  You’ll actually get pretty bored of looking at petroglyphs.  Much of the rock art in the canyon is striking and weird.

Some of it feels pretty crude and amateur, or could be attributed to later visitors.

But the Super-Nova / Peñasco Blanco pictograph really stands out, both in vividness and in the drama of its location.

It’s almost upside down.  Was it painted Sistine Chapel style?

The pictoglyph is on what I guess? could be a very old trail, that leads up from Chaco Wash to a mesa where the Peñasco Blanco “great house” sits.  The Peñasco Blanco site is huge:

It was three stories tall and had 300 rooms.  Construction had begun by the 900s, so before the appearance of the supernovas of the 1000s.

The structure was laid out with some thought to north-south alignment, as most Chaco sites seem to have been.  To me it does suggest something like an astronomical theater:

On the day I was there I was the only person around, which is a spooky feeling.

The site reminded me of Irish monastic sites from the same era:

Certainly whoever was hanging around Peñasco Blanco was interested in the sky.

The park service is not shy about identifying this pictoglyph as depicting a super-nova:

Note the sign, bottom right.  But I’m just not sure the evidence is there.

Krupp’s investigations have ultimately caused him to dismiss all of the connections between Southwest cave paintings and the Crab supernova. “I am certain that star-crescent combos have absolutely nothing to do with the 1054 A.D. event,” he said. While some may indeed be celestial symbols, “their meaning varies with culture and time.”

from a 2014 Scientific American piece, “‘Supernova’ Cave Art Myth Debunked,” by Clara Moskowitz.

On the other hand:

from a 1979 paper, “The 1054 Supernova and Native American Rock Art,” by Brandt, J. C. & Williamson, R. A. in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, Vol. 10, p.S1

There’s no way to reliably date a work like this.  Chaco Canyon was occupied or had at least semi-frequent visitors around 1054 AD, and these visitors were absolutely interested in sky events.  The dating of the pictograph is usually attributed to nearby pottery shards.  You can still find ancient pottery lying around all over the place.

obviously reader I left this where I found it.

One thing is clear: if these people had a message they wanted to leave for us from one thousand plus years ago, it is “hand – crescent – star.”

A day before visiting this site I had lunch with a friend of mine who works on shooting lasers at rocks on Mars to determine their chemical makeup.  We’re still OBSESSED with the sky!


Munger speaks

Looking forward to getting a transcript of Charlie Munger yesterday at the Daily Journal shareholders’ conference.  Here the 95 year old former meteorologist and HelyTimes Hero talks to CNBC’s Becky Quick:

BECKY QUICK: Anything that rises to your radar screen now that may be under the radar for other people?

CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, nobody knows how much of this money printing we can do. And of course we have politicians who like– and are in both parties, who like to believe that it doesn’t matter how much you do. That we can ignore the whole subject and just print money as convenient. Well, that’s the way the Roman Empire behaved, then it was ruined. And that’s the way the Weimar Republic was ruined. And– it’s– there is a point where it’s dangerous. You know, and of course, my attitude when something is big and dangerous is to stay a long way away from it. Other people want to come as close as possible without going in. That’s too tricky for me. I don’t like it.

BECKY QUICK: In terms of possibly getting sucked up into it?

CHARLIE MUNGER: Yes. I– I– if there’s a big whirlpool in the river, I stay a long way away from it. There were a bunch of canoeists once that tried to– to run the Aaron Rapids. I think they were from Scandinavia. And– and the fact that the whirlpools were so big made them very eager to tackle this huge challenge. The death rate was 100%. I regard that as a normal result.

Are we in The Great Stagnation?

CHARLIE MUNGER: The opportunities that we all remember came from a demoralized period when about 90% of the natural stock buyers got very discouraged with stocks. That’s what created the opportunity for these fabulous records that my generation had. And that was a rare opportunity that came to a rare group of people of whom I was one. And Warren was another.

BECKY QUICK: So you’re talking–

CHARLIE MUNGER: And people who start now have a much less– they have lower opportunity.

BECKY QUICK: Do you think we saw a generational low after 2008, beginning of 2009?

CHARLIE MUNGER: Generational? Maybe.

Life advice:

BECKY QUICK: Charlie, so many of the people who come here come because they’re looking for advice not on business or investments as much as they’re looking for just advice on life. There were a lot of questions today, people trying to figure out what the secret to life is, to a long and happy life. And– and I just wonder, if you were–

CHARLIE MUNGER: Now that is easy, because it’s so simple.

BECKY QUICK: What is it?

CHARLIE MUNGER: You don’t have a lot of envy, you don’t have a lot of resentment, you don’t overspend your income, you stay cheerful in spite of your troubles. You deal with reliable people and you do what you’re supposed to do. And all these simple rules work so well to make your life better. And they’re so trite.

BECKY QUICK: How old were you when you figured this out?

CHARLIE MUNGER: About seven. I could tell that some of my older people were a little bonkers. I’ve always been able to recognize that other people were a little bonkers. And it helped me because there’s so much irrationality in the world. And I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, its causes and its preventions, and so forth, that I– sure it’s helped me.

I noticed a glitch in the transcript, btw.  It’s written as follows:

BECKY QUICK: Do you think we saw a generational low after 2008, beginning of 2009?

CHARLIE MUNGER: Generational? Maybe.

BECKY QUICK: We–

CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah, I don’t think the market is going to be cheaper.

But if you listen closely it’s pretty clear Munger says “I don’t think Bank of America is going to be cheaper.”  Almost exactly nine years ago today, Feb 2009, BAC was trading at $5.57.  Today it’s at $29.12.

 


On Tactics by B. A. Friedman

This book is an excellent size and weight.  Small, portable, yet solid.  It’s published by the Naval Institute Press, they who took a chance on an unknown insurance man named Tom Clancy who’d written a thriller called The Hunt For Red October.

Amazon suggested this book to me as I was browsing translations of Sun Tzu.  Military history has interested me since I was a boy, maybe because 1) the stakes are so high and 2) the stories are so vivid.  Metaphors and similes drawn from famous war events are powerful and stark.  Consider for example Friedman’s description of the Battle of the Bulge:

… Although the Germans had caught the Allies at their culminating point, the Germans reached their own far too early.  Newly created infantry units were filled with hastily trained and inexperienced conscripts.  These green units could not effectively hold the territory gained by the leading panzer units.  On 22 December the fog cleared and Allied air units hammered the German formations from the skies.  Despite the prestaged fuel reserves, panzer units still ran out of fuel, just when they needed it to escape the Allied aerial counterattack.

Buried in there is a tactical lesson, and also an intense story about some poor children getting blown up right before Christmas.

The author was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.  If I understand right, might make this book the equivalent of a book called like Writing A Hit TV Show by a staff writer.  But Friedman seems like he’s gone deep on the knowledge, and there’s a quote from Gen. Anthony Zinni on the back.  Good enough for me.

Alexander The Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying — studying, vice just reading – the men who have gone before us.  We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience.

So goes a quote from James Mattis that opens this book.  Friedman cites the example of Cortes in 1520 CE, referring to written accounts of Alexander’s battle at Gaugamela eighteen hundred years before to design his tactics against the Mexica/Aztec.

What is strategy?  What is tactics?  Where do they divide?  Friedman summarizes Clausewitz:

Clausewitz divided warfare into tactics, actual combat between opposed military forces, and strategy, the latter being the overarching plan for using tactical engagements to achieve the ends as set forth by policy… The strategy acts as a bridge between the tactical actors (military forces) and the desired political end state of the entity those forces serve.

Much of this book is summaries of Clausewitz, really and Sun Tzu as well.  How could it not be?

What I thought I remembered most of all from Clausewitz is the concept of Fingerspitzengefühl, fingertips-feel, a sensing of what’s going on, and where.  But I don’t have my copy of Vom Kriege at hand, and searching for fingerspitzengefühl it seems possible the term may be of later origin.  Maybe it was discussed in the introduction.

Clausewitz is very concerned with will, the imposing of one’s will on the enemy, breaking the will of the enemy.  Given the time and place where Clausewitz was coming from, 1800s what’s now-Germany, I can’t help but think this idea of will was connected to other philosophers like Kant who were pondering the meanings and dimensions of will around then.

Friedman picks up on the idea of will, or what he refers to as moral cohesion.  He digs in on the idea of destroying the enemy’s moral cohesion.

Clausewitz defined the destruction of an enemy as “they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight” (emphasis added).  This does not mean that the enemy force must be totally destroyed.  Indeed, he went on to say, “when we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must be considered.  In other words, breaking the moral cohesion of the opposing force is destruction of that force as an effective unit and the true goal of tactics.

In a whole chapter on moral cohesion, Friedman quotes Marine Major Earl “Pete” Ellis speaking of how important it was to marines fighting insurgents in the Philippines to believe that the United States was acting from “purely altruistic motives.”  Jim Storr’s The Human Face of War is quoted as well: “In general, defeat occurs when the enemy believes he is beaten… Defeat is a psychological state.”

Friedman brings out Clausewitz’s concept of “the center of gravity,” too, and points out, in a thought-provoking way that it’s not totally clear what Clausewitz meant or understood by “gravity,” and what Clausewitz understood about physics.  Clausewitz died in 1831 — have we even figured out gravity now?  Clausewitz noted that the center of gravity could be a capital city, an ally, the shared interests of an alliance, particular leaders, or popular opinion.  The North Vietnamese correctly located the center of gravity of the US in the Vietnam War as American political will.  They destroyed our moral cohesion.

Friedman is tough on the U.S war in Iraq, which he says is “a glaring example of tactics, strategy, and policy in disarray.”  We need to maintain our sense of moral cohesion.  It’s slipping away from us.

We get some Boyd, too, a favorite here at HelyTimes.  As a bottom line lesson on tactics, this is pretty clear and cool:

Boyd says if you move and decide faster than your enemy, you will win.

Friedman concludes by pointing out that tactics are subordinate to strategy.

The tactician employs tactics that will best serve the strategy, but he must also know when a flawed strategy cannot be achieved with reasonable tactics.  Duty might still demand that he try to accomplish the mission, but he will need to inform the strategist that his aims are improbable.

Taking on a big concept like tactics and attempting to codify and create a short, comprehensible theory or unified system is a nobel mission.  I found On Tactics profitable to read and full of stimulating ideas and examples.


Promise and glamour

You’re not gonna get what you were promised.  

An angry making idea.  Maybe one of the most angry-making ideas possible.

I’ve been wondering if anger about the feeling of a broken promise is a major driver in US politics.  We were promised something, and we’re not gonna get it. 

But what, exactly?

The United States is the absolute best as promising.  All of our greatest politicians were great promisers.  Our founding fathers were great promisers.

 

John Lanchester, writing in LRB:

Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. I think there’s a lot in that.

[…]

I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.

But it’s not just politics.  If you live in the USA and you turn on your TV, you are being tempted, teased, and promised.

The illusionary promise.

There’s a connection here, I believe, to the world glamour.  What is glamour?

Etymology

From Scots glamer, from earlier Scots gramarye (magic, enchantment, spell).

The Scottish term may either be from Ancient Greek γραμμάριον (grammáriongram), the weight unit of ingredients used to make magic potions, or an alteration of the English word grammar (any sort of scholarship, especially occult learning).

A connection has also been suggested with Old Norse glámr (poet. “moon,” name of a ghost) and glámsýni (glamour, illusion, literally glam-sight).

A magic spell.  An illusion.

Here is Larry McMurtry talking about glamour, and its lack:

Kids in the midwest only get to see even modest levels of glamour if they happen to be on school trips to one or another of the midwestern cities: K.C., Omaha, St. Louis, the Twin Cities.  In some, clearly, this lack of glamour festers.  Charles Starkweather, in speaking about his motive for killing all those people, had this to say: “I never ate in a high-class restaurant, I never seen the New York Yankees play, I never been to Los Angeles…”

He was teased with something he could never have.  Here is Andrew Sullivan on Sarah Palin:

One of the more amazing episodes in Sarah Palin’s early political life, in fact, bears this out. She popped up in the Anchorage Daily News as “a commercial fisherman from Wasilla” on April 3, 1996. Palin had told her husband she was going to Costco but had sneaked into J.C. Penney in Anchorage to see … one Ivana Trump, who, in the wake of her divorce, was touting her branded perfume. “We want to see Ivana,” Palin told the paper, “because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.

Interested in readers’ takes on glamour and glimmers.

 


Training Literature Field Unit No. 1

Helytimes began in 2012.  Our idea was

  1. become good at writing for the Internet
  2. a writer should have a website
  3. 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:

  1. No On Measure S (by guest Hayes)

The moral here is probably that we should start a local LA news-and-takes site written by other people.

  1. Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot (1974)

  2. Mountaineering Movies on Netflix Instant, Ranked

  3. Fred Trump

  4. Cinderella and Interrogation Technique

  5. The Great Debates 

  6. Karl Ove Knausgaard

  7. Fascinated by: Ray Dalio

  8. How Big Was Mexico City in 1519?

  9. American Historical Figure Who Reminds Me Of Trump

  10. Losing The War by Lee Sandlin 

  11. Conversations With Kennedy

  12. Oil Wells In National Parks

  13. THE WONDER TRAIL 

  14. Gay Hobo Slang

  15. Vertigo Sucks

  16. Jackie Smoking Pregnant

  17. The story of Cahokia

  18. Ireland should take in two million refugees 

  19. Twenty Greatest Australian Artistic Accomplishments of All Time 

  20. The White House Pool 

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

Record Group 80: Series: General Photographic File Of the Department of the Navy, 1943-1958 

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:

Everything is something.

and

Special Snowflakes

This has been the annual performance review and address to the Helytimes readership:

That photo taken by one of Steichen’s guys, Wayne Miller:


What can we learn from Lee?

source, wiki photo by Cville Dog

Lots of conversations about history, how we should remember our history, etc.  Amateur historians love arguing about Lee, how can you not, he is interesting.

Robert E. Lee had many noble personal qualities, as did many officers in Hitler’s army.

If there’s anything to learn from him, might it not be that a man of principle and dignity can end up on the outrageously wrong side of the most important moral issue of his time?

Nobody should judge John Kelly without reading this Washington Post profile of him by Greg Jaffe.

About 12 hours later, the elder Kelly e-mailed his extended family in Boston, preparing them for the possibility that Robert might be maimed or killed. Kelly knew that Robert went out on almost every patrol with his men through mine-filled fields. One of the Marines at Bethesda told him that Robert was “living on luck.”

“I write you all to just let you know he’s in the thick of it and to keep him in your thoughts,” Kelly typed. “We are doing a Novena a minute down here and there is no end in sight.”

On Oct. 31, Kelly sent a second e-mail to his eldest sister, the family matriarch. “I am sweating bullets,” he confided. “Pray. Pray. Pray. He’s such a good boy . . . and Marine.”

This is painful to watch:

What a dilemma: the American people have elected a mean angry fool, do I try and do what I can to contain him or resign knowing he might do more damage without me around?

What’s the point of a statue of Lee if not to learn from him?

From this take on Lee by Roy Blount Jr. in Smithsonian mag:

We may think we know Lee because we have a mental image: gray. Not only the uniform, the mythic horse, the hair and beard, but the resignation with which he accepted dreary burdens that offered “neither pleasure nor advantage”: in particular, the Confederacy, a cause of which he took a dim view until he went to war for it. He did not see right and wrong in tones of gray, and yet his moralizing could generate a fog, as in a letter from the front to his invalid wife: “You must endeavour to enjoy the pleasure of doing good. That is all that makes life valuable.” All right. But then he adds: “When I measure my own by that standard I am filled with confusion and despair.”