Mark Two

Miniature 2427, “Archaic Mark,” turns out is actually a forgery?

Why Mark?”, I asked. “Because it’s short“, he replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took the vicar’s advice and read it and the Gospel of Mark just swept me up.

So says Australian musician Nick Cave

in his intro to the Gospel of Mark, which I found on this Italian Nick Cave fan site.

The Gospel of Mark has to be one of the weirdest and most compelling books ever written.  Nick Cave continues:

Scholars generally agree that Mark’s was the first of the four gospels to be written. Mark took from the mouths of teachers and prophets the jumble of events that comprised Christ’s life and fixed these events into some kind of biographical form. He did this with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole worlddepended upon it – which , of course, to Mark it did. ‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter of factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.

Couple things about the Gospel of Mark:

  • there’s no Christmas.  Jesus just turns up one day down by the river where John The Baptist is doing his thing.
  • the oldest gospel.  “Most scholars agree” is a term you come across again and again when you read into Bible stuff, especially New Testament stuff.  Let’s acronym that as msa.  As far as I can tell most scholars do agree on this one.
  • the shortest gospel.  11,304 words.  Very cool.
  • simple language.  Mark is written in Koine Greek which I can’t read.  I’m told this was a simple version of Greek that people could use all over the Mediterranean.  “Koine” just means “Common.”  Mark wrote Common Greek.

I’m told Mark’s Greek is “rough”:

(from:

Now, “rough” sure but “unrehearsed”?  Isn’t it likely Mark was writing down stories and quotes that had been transmitted orally, and thus were quite rehearsed?)

The version I’m reading is:

Here’s what J. B. says:

J. B. seems more confident than others that Mark = John Mark, but who cares?

It’s cool to imagine in the rubble of burned out Rome Mark starts going around saying “guys, I got some good news.”

“Who wants to read my book?”

Other scholars insist that Mark was written after 70 AD, because that’s when the Temple was destroyed after the Roman Siege of Jerusalem:

David Roberts’ lost painting of the siege of Jerusalem, source

which was a traumatic time.  That chronology is the one Reza Aslan believes:

Me personally? I’m no expert but I think it’s possible someone like the writer of Mark might’ve been obsessed with the idea of the destruction of the Temple before it happened.

Maybe Mark saw things coming the way the Simpsons saw President Trump coming:

But let’s say Mark was written in 70.  He’s writing about Jesus, who msa died around 33.  So it’s like writing a book, today, about a guy who died in 1980.

John Lennon, say, or Colonel Sanders.

 

Mark isn’t writing a biography of Jesus though, he’s writing the “good news.”  A good point by theologian Marcus Borg over at HuffPo:

  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

Here’s the craziest part about Mark imo.  The last sentence of the original version, msa, is 16:8.

The women were shaking and confused. They went out and ran away from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

What a freaky ending to your book!

Learned a lot about the Gospel origins from the PBS series From Jesus To Christ.  Li’l snippet from this essay by Marilyn Matthews on their website:

What message did Mark intend to send to his audience? Scholars do not agree. Some argue that Mark deliberately constructs a bleak and frightening picture because that was the experience of the people for whom Mark composed his work. Elaine Pagels offers a different interpretation: “And the last words of the original gospel are ‘and they were terrified.’ It would be very bad news if it weren’t that underneath this rather dark story is an enormous hope . . . that this very promising story and its terrible anguished ending is nevertheless not the ending. That there’s a mystery in it, a divine mystery of God’s revelation that will happen yet. And I think it’s that sense of hope that is deeply appealing.”

This is Helytimes so next time we will have a look and see if we can find the oldest source of Mark.

 


The stock market is pretend until it isn’t

Sometimes, calls get called. When the stock market becomes real, it becomes very real.

Consider the naked short, explained in this medium post, “GameStop: Power To The Market Players,” by Nope, It’s Lily:

If you’ve been anywhere in the trading universe, it’s been partly a meme and partly a higher calling to long $GME since about July/August 2020, when everyone suddenly realized the short interest on $GME actually exceeded its available float. In English, this meant that there were more shares sold short (a strategy to benefit from the stock price going down, this involves borrowing a share to sell with the intent to repurchase it at a lower cost later) than actually available to buy. How does this happen exactly?

This can happen one of two ways:

Naked shorting — This is a mostly illegal practice in which an individual or institution first sells shares without locating that they well, actually exist. This is fairly sneaky, but works as long as they can find the shares before the settlement period (delivery date) of the shares actually occurs. If they find it before then, no one is the wiser (except the SEC, when it decides to do anything ever).

Despite what idiots online believe, naked shorting isn’t always illegal (hence the word mostly). In particular, the ban on naked short-selling (Regulation SHO) isn’t because the government thinks you’re a meanie for doing it, but because of its hypothesized connections to the 2008 financial crash (actual data on it is mixed). In general, the belief was that naked short sellers helped destabilize investor confidence in the banks, leading to that fun period best remember by watching The Big Short accompanied by a full handle of Svedka.

Naked shorting, however, is legal by bona-fide market makers, which according to our SEC friends means simply it is done to hedge an option position sold (as part of market making duties, to buy and sell a security at publicly stated prices) rather than for speculation. If you want to read boring legal stuff, here’s a link to Regulation SHO.

Similarly, despite what your favorite rocket-emoji’ing internet guru believes, causing an actual short squeeze is hard, and almost always mostly illegal. The last public short interest (the next one should be released on January 27th, per FINRA reporting) on GME was released on Dec 31st, 2020.

Second bold mine.

I can’t say I understand the article. My first experience with this journalist. I’ll be interested to see what happens on January 27th.

The GameStop story is very compelling. Matt Levine’s take as always definitive. Comparisons to what Trump and Trumpians did to the GOP (and then the country) in 2016: an ebullient Internet-centered group of trolls realize there are tricks they can use to mock and demolish the establishment players, moving faster than the other guys can say “hey, what a second, that isn’t how we play!” The end result of that gleeful message board based takeover was (glances at Washington) huh looks like establishment people with 40 plus year careers are back in control of all branches after a brief reign of chaos (though they are rattled by what happened).


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.

 

 


Mark Five: Weird

Fifth in our series about the Book of Mark: 

Mark One, about the scraps of Mark on Papyrus One. 

Mark Two, an intro to Mark, and what’s going on with it. 

Mark Three,  about “The Secret Gospel of Mark.”

Mark Four, about J. B. Phillips.

As a kid the first time I heard The Book of Mark was read aloud to me, in deliberate boring tone, in Catholic church, a notoriously stiff and elderly kind of place, not all that appealing to the average child.

On the plus side, you did get a good education in a way in the Bible and some aspects of human behavior.

Wanted to stand up and cheer when I got to this part of Ross Douthat and Tyler Cowen’s conversation.  Connecting Catholic theology to what the Guy says on the hillside in Galilee in the Gospels takes insane mental labyrinth building.  A fun project in a way but not what the Guy himself seems to describe as the way forward.

Take, for example, Mark Five.  (Turns out we’ve discussed it before).

Here’s what the NIV gives as the rough sections of this chapter.

Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man

Jesus Raises a Dead Girl and Heals a Sick Woman

JB Philips gives it:

Jesus meets a violent lunatic

Faith is followed by healing

Weird, supernatural type stuff.  How’re you gonna deal with this?  Unpacking the events of Mark Five could probably be a career for a theologian.

Hard to make your church last 2,000 years without sanding the edges down a bit I guess but when you go back to the source you can sometimes feel like what’s missing is the compelling, almost alarming strangeness of the story.

Let’s say only that by Chapter Five of his book, Mark’s Jesus is unstoppable, coursing with power that flows almost like electricity.

If Mark is avail they should hire him for a Marvel movie.

Next time:

 


Mark Four

this is the fourth in our series on the Book Of Mark.

Mark One, about the scraps of Mark on Papyrus One.

Mark Two, an intro to Mark, and what’s going on with it.

Mark Three,  about “The Secret Gospel of Mark,” and now Mark Four, about J. B. Phillips.

Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

That’s how the King James Version does Mark 4:21.  Here’s how J. B. Philips does it:

Then he said to them,

“Is a lamp brought into the room to be put under a bucket or underneath the bed?  Surely it’s place is on the lamp-stand!  There is nothing hidden which is not meant to be made perfectly plain one day, and there are no secrets which are not meant one day to be common knowledge.  If a man has ears he should use them!

Wanting to know more about the guy I was trusting to translate my Mark for me, I read J. B.’s book:

It’s good and short and clearly written, much like Mark.  J. B.’s strongest point is that the Gospels seem true to him because, well, who could make this stuff up?

 

That kind of reminded me of the several times in the Quran where Allah says, hey, if you don’t believe this, let’s see you write a Quran.

Surprised to find, in the next Phillips I picked up, a description of my workplace.

I can’t say The Price Of Success was exactly a page-turner.  JB Phillips had a hard childhood, but through diligence earned himself a place at Cambridge, became an Anglican churchman, and started translating The New Testament during World War II.

No surprise that he was pals, or at least sometime correspondents, with C. S. Lewis.

I often heard Lewis’s Screwtape Letters recommended for young Christians in my youth.  When I finally got to the book (audiobook) I found it a really stiff and unattractive vision.  How did Christianity, which, when you get back to the source, was unquestionably weird, get claimed by stiff collar types like C. S. Lewis?

I found Ring Of Truth to be a more compelling read.

In Price of Success, Phillips is very open and honest about his struggles with depression.
I

No doubt hearing this, from a respected Christian leader in 1984, was really helpful to people.  The book was published two years after his death.

Am I allowed you quote you by the way, J. B.?

Thanks!

NEXT TIME:

Mark Five: Strange Tales Of Jesus!

 


Mark Three: Secret Mark?

Latest posts in our series on the Book of Mark, one of the weirdest and most popular books of all time.

Mark One

on Papyrus One

Mark Two

Why Mark?

and now:

MARK THREE

Did Mark look like this? by Bronzino

Or like this?

or this? by Mantegna

Here we see the Mar Saba monastery in Israel, twelve miles outside Jerusalem:

Cool structure.  Would make a dope boutique hotel.

This is where Morton Smith supposedly found a

 previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria transcribed into the endpapers of a 17th-century printed edition of the works of Ignatius of Antioch

The letter, which would’ve been from like the year 200, says (I paraphrase) “hey there’s a more spiritual, weirder version of the Gospel of Mark floating around, heads up.”

Was there a “Secret Gospel Of Mark”?  Says Wiki:

Ron Cameron (1982) and Helmut Koester (1990) argued that Secret Mark preceded the canonical Mark, and that the canonical Mark is in fact an abbreviation of Secret Mark. This would explain the narrative discontinuity above. John Dominic Crossan (1985) has also been supportive of these views of Koester: “I consider that canonical Mark is a very deliberate revision of Secret Mark.”

An interesting question for sure.  As Wiki says:

The process of canonization of the New Testament was complex and lengthy.

The version I’m using is this one:

I don’t think the late J. B. will mind my excerpting his helpful introduction:

When J. B. talks about “the manuscript of Mark,” I’m not sure what he means.  Wiki tells me the oldest complete version is the Codex Vaticanus,

and the Codex Sinaiticus, which they found at St. Catherine’s Monastery:

which would also make a cool boutique hotel.  The Codex got taken to Russia, and then:

In 1933, the Soviet Union sold the codex to the British Museum for £100,000 raised by public subscription (worth £6.5 million in 2017)

You can read it if you want online.

The oldest known written scrap of Mark appears to be Papyrus 45:

which came from who knows where.  American-Anglo-Irish industrialist Chester Beatty, the “king of copper,” was mad for papyri apparently and bought tons of them from illegal dealers.

His first job in the mines earned him $2 per day as a ‘mucker’, clearing away rock and soil from mine tunnels.  He was quickly promoted to supervisor of the Kektonga Silver Mine.

Alfred Chester Beatty by Colin Colahan.
© Mrs. Monique Colahan.  From the Chester Beatty Library website.

Papyrus 45 is now in Chester’s library/museum in Dublin:

source: Wiki user Charles Curling

So, that’s how we get to Mark.

 

NEXT TIME in our series on Mark:

Translator J. B. Phillips, who started working on the New Testament in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz.


Mark One

1: 1] genealogy library YY YY YY yyyid [YY] Abraham [1: 2] Abraham [Heaven] nor did he [be] present in [his] [1: 3] take care of him and take him out of him they did not greet the embassy [1: 4] did not give birth and they have been in the midst of the sea

1: 5] Salvation shall not [be] of the rabbi did not recognize him from the p [o] y [to be] s een [1: 6]  the dairy farm has been re-established it was the sausage of the sky. [1: 7] nor is it possible to do so ạμ does not enforce the [lacuna] you will be able to find [ gap [1:12] gap the man who gave birth to [n and he did not have the olive tree, [1:15] [Oliver] ḍε̣ [[in] η̣̣̣ [σ] ε̣ [ν] ο ελέξΑζζάρ ελέ [and] he did not do [the] knowledge of [ [1:16] and [he] is not [ [to] enforce the law of the [ ̣̣̣̣̣ []] ξ </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> </s> [1:17] ̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣ ̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣ I have been born and I have been born [d] ạ [υ] ι̣δ̣ [ε] ω̣σ̣ τ̣η̣ [ς] (s) of [b] the weight of the toilet seat [to] of the YYYYyyyyyy [I] D [1:18] and YYYYY genera so that it can not be misinterpreted he shall have [his] name before the [e] found that this is the case of a gypsy [1:19] [ωσηφ̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣̣] and [those] who do not desire it, compass [t] e [is] [1:20] [th] thou hast thou vnto him, []] [[]] [] [] [] [] that] [appears] [to] say [h] φ son] ḍ [da] ṃ [η] φ̣̣ β β β</s></s></s></s></s></s> [receive] [make] the [you] know [your] name the birth of [t] ns [estin] α̣ [son] [1: 21-23] the gap with [heat-treated methane]

Put some of Papyrus One through Google Translate and this is what I got.

Probably a li’l jumbled between the 2nd century Greek and the modern Greek.

Wiki tells me that what’s on Papyrus One is, in fact, Mark 1 1-9.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

The papyrus skips over Mark 10:

1Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

Cool edit.  The dove is a little much, too John Woo.

Then it continues:

11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,

13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

That from the New International version via Bible Gateway.

Grenfell and Hunt found Papyrus One at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, along with a lot of other paperwork:

Administrative Documents assembled and transcribed from the Oxyrhynchus excavation so far include:

  • The contract of a wrestler agreeing to throw his next match for a fee.

  • Various and sundry ancient recipes for treating haemorrhoids, hangovers and cataracts.

  • Details of a corn dole mirroring a similar program in the Roman capital.

Plus some comedy scripts:

The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342–291 BC), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments.

The Grouch at the Louvre by Wiki’s Rennet Stowe

Menander’s most popular character was a kind of proto Oscar the Grouch it sounds like.

Menander or literally me:

photo by Wiki’s Dave & Margie Hill of a relief of Menander choosing New Comedy masks.

Papyrus One is dated to the early 3rd century.  Is Papyrus One the earliest fragment of Mark known to exist?  We’ll take that up another time.

It’s interesting that there’s no birth of Jesus (“Christmas”) in Mark.  Mark just jumps right in.

Here are the things Jesus says in Mark, Chapter One.

The time has come at last – the kingdom of God has arrived.  You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.

 

Come and follow me, and I will teach you to catch men!

 

(to a demon) Hold your tongue and get out of him.

 

Then we will go somewhere else, to the neighboring towns, so that I may give my message there too – that is why I have come.  

 

(to a leper) Of course I want to – be clean!

 

(also to a leper) Mind you say nothing at all to anybody.  Go straight off and show yourself to the priest, and make the offerings for your cleansing which Moses prescribed as public proof of your recovery.

NEXT TIME:

Mark Two: what is the oldest version of Mark?


Public Land, Part Two: What Happened with H. R. 621

We can’t all be experts on every outrage that’s going to come along.  At Helytimes we’ve taken on the issue of

Our Public Land

up in the national forest

up in the national forest

the land owned by the US government in the form of national parks, national forests, national monuments, and much more.’ The land we, the American People, own together, in other words.

Part One covered HJ Res 46, which proposes to ease up the rules for oil, gas, and mineral drilling and extraction in our national parkland.

Part Two: 

Victory on H. R. 621 and What We Can Learn From It

Meet Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz

You may have heard of him, he was in the news this week catching hell at his town hall:

You may have seen some these videos on Twitter.

Chaffetz is an interesting character.

  • Born to a Jewish family in California
  • he was the placekicker on BYU’s football team.
  • Married a Mormon woman and converted to Mormonism.
  • Utah campaign manager for Michael Dukakis in 1988
  • at some point he became a Republican.  Possibly after meeting Ronald Reagan in 1990 (when, remember, Reagan had a decent degree of dementia)
  • Ran an aggressive Tea Party-style primary campaign in 2008 against a longtime Utah Republican, Chris Cannon, and knocked him out
  • An aggressive Benghazi investigator
  • Was all over the map on Trump: endorsing, unendorsing.  In the end he did vote for him
  • Has made it difficult for the residents of Washington DC to implement the legalization of marijuana they voted for

Here’s a funny article by Thomas Burr in the Salt Lake City Tribune about Chaffetz involving himself in DC local politics, and then getting payback where some DC politicians are like “fine Utah bitch you gonna tell us how to run our city then help us fix our potholes.”

Today though, we’re going to focus on a bill he introduced that comes up in the town hall.

H. R. 621: Story of a Victory

On Jan 24, Chaffetz introduced H. R. 621, which he titled “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017” which proposed to “dispose” – sell off – some land that is owned by you and me.

The Cosumnes River Preserve is home to California’s largest remaining valley oak riparian forest, and is one of the few protected wetland habitat areas in the state.

“The Cosumnes River Preserve is home to California’s largest remaining valley oak riparian forest, and is one of the few protected wetland habitat areas in the state.” Photo on BLM instagram by the legend, Bob Wick

 

Let’s back up.

Do the Republicans Want To Sell Off Our Land?

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-9-53-07-pm

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-6-51-29-pm

Is this true?  Will Trump / The GOP Sell Off Our Public Land?!

Joshua Tree

JTree by Helytimes

My take: they definitely tried to do so.  Given nearly complete power after the 2016 election, it was a top priority for several Republicans.

The rush to sell off public land has been beaten back, for now.

There’s a lot to learn from what went down about how to win against the Republican Party of Donald Trump.

Bias: Love for national lands

I love national lands.  I love national parks and national forests and national historic sites and national seashores.  I love national monuments and national battlefields.

hartwells

Minuteman National Historical Park

from Acadia National Parks Instagram

from Acadia National Park’s Instagram

crater

Crater Lake

The best of the United States is on display in a US Park Service uniform.

from the NPS instagram

from the NPS instagram

The National Parks are the gems.  Most federal land is not like this at all.

How much land does the federal government

– the US –

– us –

own?

The federal government owns a huge amount of land.  For instance, the federal government owns about 84% of the total land area of Nevada.

Here is federal land ownership in California:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-8-27-35-pm

The federal government owns 47% of California.

As you can see, this is a much different issue for some states than others.  Here is Utah:

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-9-55-57-pm

The feds own 66.5% of Utah.

from Boston Kayaker

from Boston Kayaker

The feds own a mere .8% of Rhode Island, mainly coastal scrubland.

Getting all that from this great piece in the Deseret (UT) News by Jackie Hicken.

All told the federal government owns about 28% of the nation’s total surface, 2.27 billion acres.

Isn’t that crazy?

Here is a reasonable position:

The federal government shouldn’t own that much land.  It’s not in the Constitution as a job for the federal government to own a buncha land.

Here’s a sample of that take:

Now: I think Lars Larson may even have a point about cutting down forests.  Forestry is a science, I’m not well-informed enough to opine on it except to say I believe any forester will tell you burns are part of a life cycle of a forest.

But I disagree with Lars Larson on his first part.  Because when we say “the government owns this land,”  really we mean we own this land.  What could be more “the people’s land” than land we all own together?  “Give the people’s land back to the people?”  It already is ours!

You and me.  The taxpayers.  The voters.  The government is just us.

 

 

What Are The Kinds Of Our Lands?

Here are the percentages of our land, broken down by which agency manages them for us.  The  “Big Five”:

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-15-40-am

Proud of this chart I made.

(getting my data from here, from 2013.  The pie would be slightly bigger if we included the Department of Energy, and there’s the Indian reservations, but that’s a whole other thing.)

As you can see, the National Park Service owns a mere 13% of US federal land.

National Park Service handles:

  • National Parks
  • National Monuments
  • National Preserves

Plus battlefields, historic sites, seashores, etc.  As I understand it, the only way to get rid of these would be to pass a bill through both houses of Congress and have the president sign it.  A cool power of the President is that he can create a National Monument out of any existing federal land.  Obama did this often.

The Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture handles:

our National Forests.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service handles:

our National Wildlife Refuges.  (Their slice of the pie gets way bigger if you count marine acres.)

There are National Wildernesses, administered by various different folks because they’re usually part of some other land.

There’s lots of land owned by the Department of Defense,

Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army bases and such.  The Navy owns a surprising amount of inland land here in California for dropping bombs on.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-19-34-am

And there is a bunch of leftover extra land, BLM land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM owns about 47% of the west and one-eighth of the land of the United States.

(Here’s a good Gizmodo article by Wes Siller about this same topic).

blm

The biggest chunk of public land is BLM land

On a trip to California in 2002 or so the Jeppson-Gamez brothers took me to some BLM land.  I learned you can shoot a gun and drive a Jeep and do whatever the fuck you want on BLM land.  What a great privilege as an American.

Here’s some BLM land in California:

from BLM's instagram

from BLM’s instagram

Here are some facts:

A lot of federal land is already used, mined, logged, grazed, and exploited now

There’s logging in national forests, and mining and grazing on BLM land.  The major operating principle for BLM land law is “multi use.”  Please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m no expert just an interested citizen, but I believe most BLM rules stem from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

The National Forest Service, National Park Service, and now, the Bureau of Land Management, are commissioned in FLPMA to allow a variety of uses on their land (of greater concern for the BLM, who is the least restrictive in terms of uses) while simultaneously trying to preserve the natural resources in them. This concept is best summarized by the term ‘multiple-use.’ ‘Multiple use’ is defined in the Act as “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”

Who should handle this junk land has a long, contentious history

Here is a readable summary of some history on the subject.  Who should own and manage land that looks like this?:

sagebrush

Should the states manage it?  In the Depression the states didn’t want it.

Fights over which of the multiple uses should be favored come up all the time.  The most newsworthy fight in recent years on this topic, the weird Oregon standoff originated with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s dispute with the BLM over grazing his cattle on their lands:

the dispute started in 1993, when, in protest against changes to grazing rules, Bundy declined to renew his permit for cattle grazing on BLM-administered lands near Bunkerville, Nevada. According to the BLM, Bundy continued to graze his cattle on public lands without a permit. In 1998, Bundy was prohibited by the United States District Court for the District of Nevada from grazing his cattle on an area of land later called the Bunkerville Allotment.

Cliven Bundy refused to recognize federal ownership of the land, claiming it rightfully belonged to Nevada, which would maybe be chiller about letting him graze his cattle there.

Cliven, found on this CNN piece about him claiming he's not a racist

Cliven, found on this CNN piece: Cliven Bundy says he’s not racist

This being the USA, Cliven’s stand led to, a few years later, Bundy’s sons sitting around with guns at a remote bird refuge while Dad reflected on his views on “the Negro“:

they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?

fullsizerender-13

Where does the GOP Congress stand on federal land ownership?

All over the place, is the answer.

1) the Republican Party’s platform supports returning some federal land to the states.

See here for a Snopes breakdown of this.  Here’s the language on federal land transfer in the Republican Platform:

The federal government owns or controls over 640 million acres of land in the United States, most of which is in the West. These are public lands, and the public should have access to them for appropriate activities like hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. Federal ownership or management of land also places an economic burden on counties and local communities in terms of lost revenue to pay for things such as schools, police, and emergency services. It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington. Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live. They practice boots-on- the-ground conservation in their states every day. We support amending the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish Congress’ right to approve the designation of national monuments and to further require the approval of the state where a national monument is designated or a national park is proposed.

Key word there is “certain”?

I think it’s possible to be passionate about maintaining our treasured national land, and still think some federal land could be better managed by the states.

There’s a lot of wack stuff in the GOP platform, like this:

A Republican administration should streamline personnel procedures to expedite the firing of bad workers, tax cheats, and scammers.

Obviously they’re not worried about the Commander in Chief who won’t release his tax returns.  Maybe they will be similarly hypocritical about conveying federally controlled land to states.

Ah-Shi-Sie-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico

Ah-Shi-Sie-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico

2) the Republican Congress changed rules to allow the federal government to give up land while counting it as “budget neutral”

Meet Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah:

rob-bishop

A Republican Congressman.  He is apparently responsible for a change in House of Representatives rules.  Now, I don’t know anything about House budgeting rules. This article, from The Salt Lake City Tribune, written by Juliet Eilperin, seems fair and clear:

Under current Congressional Budget Office accounting rules, any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury — whether through energy extraction, logging, grazing or other activities — has a cost. If lawmakers wanted to give land-generating receipts to a given state, local government or tribe, they would have to account for that loss in expected cash flow. If the federal government conveys land where there is no economic activity, such as wilderness, there is no estimated cost associated with it.

But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman [Rob] Bishop [Republican Congressman of Utah], who backs the idea of providing state and local officials with greater control over federal land, has authored language in the new rules package saying any such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays.”

This was the same rules package that had the ethics loosening thing that got people to call their reps in an effective show of democratic displeasure.  Here is a much-tweeted Guardian article on the topic.

There’s lots about public land on Rob Bishop’s website. One issue that seems to bother Rob Bishop in particular is Wilderness Study Areas.  And I agree they represent the complex mess of interests when you deal with public land.

A Case Study: How A Wilderness Study Area Becomes A Wilderness

The Wilderness Study Areas are roadless sections of land that the BLM puts a hold on until Congress decides whether to designate them as wilderness or not.

Here’s my personal favorite:

fullsizerender-4

Here’s what Rob Bishop says:

For decades, unsettled land-use designations, such as wilderness study areas, have fueled distrust and acrimony. The uncertainty about the future of these lands created conflict amongst those favoring differing types of uses. The diverse uses of public lands have an important role in making Utah healthy, viable, and inviting. The future of the state depends on a responsible balance of both conservation and development.

There are 86 Wilderness Study Areas in Utah.  Myself, I think we should err on the side of keeping wildernesses — once they’re gone, they’ll never come back.

Once you’re a WSA, you either become a Wilderness, federally protected, or you get dropped and you can get chopped up and mineraled and whatnot like any old BLM land.  Or you get downgraded to Conservation Area, or some other designation.

The most recent Wilderness Study Area bill I can find in Congress was from last year, when some WSAs inside federal conservation areas were proposed to get dropped.  It’s been referred to committee.  Here’s an article about it, it sounds like a complicated issue.

You can see how this all gets pretty slow-moving and bureaucratic.

Maybe Rob Bishop has a point

The bottom line of what Rep. Bishop wants to do is made pretty clear on his website:

Congressman Bishop’s views on public land use differ from mine, why should I trust that this is a good faith effort to make new conservation areas?

Congressman Bishop is committed to conservation and economic development as part of the Public Lands Initiative. Throughout his career, Congressman Bishop has had a strong record of both conservation and development. The Cedar Mountain Wilderness area was created in 2006 after Congressman Bishop facilitated a locally-driven, collaborative process similar to the Public Lands Initiative. As a former high school teacher, Congressman Bishop also has pushed for increased energy production in Utah to help support and fund public education. Congressman Bishop is committed to elements of both conservation and development as part of any Public Lands Initiative legislative proposal.

How will the state of Utah benefit from this?

The state of Utah’s public education system will benefit from increased energy and mineral production. Public land users will benefit from the regulatory certainty that comes from congressionally designated lands. Local governments will benefit from revenue generated from multiple use of the land, including recreation, mineral development, and energy production. The outdoor recreation businesses will benefit from the improved certainty about land use and conservation. Future generations will benefit by having responsible policies that utilize the land in the most responsible and reasonable ways that make sense now and into the future.

Here’s more:

Proponents argue, however, that taking the federal government out of the picture will help the budget and offer economic benefits for the many communities located near federally-guarded land.

“In many cases, federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities,” Molly Block, spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee, said. “Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues.”

That’s from this UPI article by Stephen Feller and Doug C. Ware.

Look, Rob Bishop’s there in Utah.  Maybe he knows best what should happen with this land.  In tough Western areas he could see roped off federal preserves with no clear purpose, and point out those could be jobs and money for his district, or even just better managed wilderness under local control.

BUT:

Why shouldn’t disposed-of land be marked as a loss to the federal revenue, when it is?  Isn’t this a form of the federal government lying to itself?  Lying to its citizens?  As an American taxpayer, I don’t see how this rather sneaky accounting change is at all good for me.

Plus what the hell?!  This land belongs to us, American citizens.  These guys want to sell away our inheritance?

High Desert News‘ Elizabeth Shongren puts it clearly:

Previously, when Congress wanted to transfer public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agency, the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ research arm, calculated the cost to the U.S. Treasury by computing what revenues the lands provide over 10 years, such as grazing fees or oil and gas royalties. Under House rules, before a bill approving a transfer could be adopted, budget cuts would have to be made in other federal programs equal to the value of that land. The rules change eliminates that budgetary barrier to land transfer bills.

I’d have to explore this more, but I have a feeling the House somehow tied itself into knots on spending and budgetary rules to make various political points, and is trying to untangle this particular aspect so they can get rid of public land.

Can the government sell off our treasured national lands?

Yes, but it’s not that easy.

Let’s start with the BLM.  Can the BLM sell off their land?  From their website:

How are these lands selected for sale?

The law states that the BLM can select lands for sale if, through land use planning, they are found to meet one of three criteria: 1) they are scattered, isolated tracts, difficult or uneconomic to manage; 2) they were acquired for a specific purpose and are no longer needed for that purpose; or 3) disposal of the land will serve important public objectives, such as community expansion and economic development.

More:

The BLM does not offer much land for sale because of a congressional mandate in 1976 to generally retain these lands in public ownership. The BLM does, however, occasionally sell parcels of land where our land use planning finds disposal is appropriate.

Of the Big Five Agencies, only DoD and BLM lost land between 1990 and 2013 (again, source here).  In those years, the BLM went down by 24, 777, 190 acres.

Where did those acres go?

This decline in Alaska is largely the result of the disposal of BLM land, under law, to the State of Alaska, Alaska Natives, and Alaska Native Corporations.

Seems fine to me.  The Congressional Research Service goes on:

With regard to disposal, the NPS and FWS have virtually no authority to dispose of the lands they administer, and the FS disposal authorities are restricted.

Last big push to dispose of national lands failed.  It was HR 350: State National Forest Management Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Don Young of Alaska.

don-young

Didn’t pass.

 

HR 621: Story of A Victory

Let’s return to Utah rep Jason Chaffetz:

jason-chaffetz

Which land did he try to sell away?

Great question.

It’s not immediately clear.  Chaffetz’s website links to a 1997 report of disposable lands.   Ryan Krogh at Men’s Journal identifies some of the choice land included in the 1997 report:

State: Wyoming

County: Sheridan

The Potential Land: 35,200 acres of BLM-managed land in the Powder River Basin, which is just east of the Bighorn Mountains, popular with hikers, campers, horseback riders, and hunters.

Here’s what’s going on on BLM land in the Powder River right now:

Powder River, from a BLM website

Powder River, from a BLM website

State: Wyoming

County: Park

The Potential Land: 27,300 acres surrounding the Shoshone River, a popular fly-fishing stream in northern Wyoming. Most of the BLM-managed land in Park County is downstream of the town of Cody, which sits between the Big Horn, Owl Creek, Bridger, and Absaroka mountain ranges. Tourism is the town’s primary industry.

State: Oregon

County: Harney

The Potential Land: 44,000 acres in a county that’s home to Steens Mountain, a 9,733-foot peak that’s popular with campers and hunters, and Malheur National Forest.

State: New Mexico

County: Catron

The Potential Land: 25,000 acres that contain “cultural resources,” meaning it’s probably home to pueblo ruins. The land is most likely a giant tract southwest of the town of Quemado, and some of the land abuts the Gila National Forest, home to the endangered Mexican gray wolf, the Gila trout, and some of the best elk hunting in the U.S.

State: Colorado

County: Montrose

The Potential Land: 2,105 acres that is home to endangered species and “historic/cultural resources.” The surrounding area contains the Gunnison Gorge, famous for its rafting and fly-fishing trips, and Uncompahgre National Forest, which is home to elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat.

State: Nevada

County: Elko

The Potential Land: 208,900 acres that contains endangered species, historic resources, and is home to “wetlands/floodplain.” BLM-managed land makes up a giant percentage of land in Elko County, but exactly what land is up for consideration is unclear, or what the effects might be.

State: Arizona

County: Mohave

The Potential Land: 23,525 acres with mining claims and historic resources. A comment attached to the description notes that the land is “classified as habitat for the Desert Tortoise (a sensitive species).”

Now I heard about this, and I was pissed, because this land belongs to me.  And you.  And us.  Any time we wanna go there, it’s there.

And Jason Chaffetz tried to sell it off.  

Backcountry Backlash

Well this did not play.  Word spread via strong, aggressive groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers:

Google HR 621 and you fill find angry, mobilized publicity from groups like TheMeatEater.com, BowHunter.com, WiredToHunt (“Deer Hunting Strategies for the Next Generation”), and TexasBowhunter.com.

There were rallies in Helena, MT and Santa Fe, NM which BHA says drew a thousand people.

Chaffetz backed down by last night — six days after introducing the bill:

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-30-09-pm

 

What can we learn from the defeat (for now) of HR 621?

  • Strong, organized, motivated, attentive citizens can win, easily, on issues that matter.
  • Play to a politician’s fears.  Jason Chaffetz got to Congress by primarying a guy in his own party.  He’s got to watch his back constantly.  His greatest fear has got to be somebody doing to him what he did to Chris Cannon, outrunning him on the right.
  • Push the pushable.  Chaffetz wasn’t moved by people who would never vote for him.  He was moved by hunters and fishermen,  people who probably would vote for him, as long as he doesn’t fuck them on something they care about.
  • Look at the focus on these groups: bow-hunters, meat-eating hunters.  They have clear interests, goals, and passions.  They follow their issues and inform each other.
  • Powerful allies.  Look at the sponsors for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.  These are big corporations with big interests in keeping their customers happy and hunting and fishing.  Yeti coolers has a partnership with MeatEater.com.  What are rich companies that have interests that could align with yours?
  • Specific targets.  They learned something from all that bow-hunting.
  • See how fast and aggressively they responded to the slightest hint of a challenge and you can get an answer to the seemingly baffling question of why gun control bills get crushed so easily.  Strong, organized people are paying attention to the slightest threat to their gun rights and they do not let up.

The Trump hurricane has achieved an effect of constantly shifting focus.  When we compare what bow-hunters did to the stammering, confused, bafflement of the Hollywood libtards we follow on Twitter, and my own flabbergasted reactions, we realize we have much to learn from Texas bow-hunters on how to stay focused on a few issues that matter to us most.

The biggest lesson:

This issue brought together, on the same side, Joyce Carol Oates:

and these kind of guys:

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-11-38-01-am

And the bros on the Texas Bowhunter forums.

They’re both passionate on the same side on this issue.

For me, the strongest takeaway is don’t insist on too much ideological purity.

Build coalitions on issues you care about.

That is the way to win in politics.

Plus who do you think Jason Chaffetz is most scared of?

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I’m guessing it’s this kinda guy? (seen here killing a huge deer with a bow and arrow).

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-26-36-am

This guy and I may have different ideas about what to do with the land we share.

But we share an interest.  We can team up.

One of the most illuminating things I read about the election was “David Wong”‘s piece on Cracked.com about the rural vs. urban divide. Here I am very far from Powder River, WY.  The odds of me visiting it in the next ten years are small (but real).  But here I am allied with people who live near there and use it all the time.

Gotta Hear Both Sides

Look, it’s fair to say maybe we should sell off some public land.  The clearest expression I found of this ambiguity was put up by this poster on TexasBowhunter.com — I hope user 175gr7.62 won’t mind me quoting him, I think it’s a valid take (encourage you to read him in context):

I’m torn on it. The Constitutional side of me says the Fed should have never owned it anyway. The Constitution says the government can acquire and retain land necessary for carrying out its enumerated powers. This includes parcels for military bases, post offices and buildings to house federal employees undertaking enumerated functions. I don’t think anything the BLM or Forest Service does counts as anything enumerated. Several Supreme Court cases have said the govt can own it but I think that’s just case law.

The hunter in me said it could be bad if the Feds sell the land because it could be bought by a private citizen who can then prevent its use. That being said, if they sell it and I don’t have the money to buy it that’s my fault…I should have gotten a better education or made better investment decisions.

Tough call.

Reasonable people can disagree on how public land should be managed and who should managed it.

What bothers me, and what puts me on edge, is the sneakiness of what Bishop and Chaffetz appear to be doing.

And the misguided priorities.  This is the first thing they got to post-election.

Well, Chaffetz at least got called to the carpet for it.

A Passionate Plea

Here’s a full video of Jason Chaffetz’s town hall.  Listen to this guy at 11:39 say our free public lands are all he has.

Please write to us (helphely at gmail or in the comments) if we got something wrong or you have a strong take.  

These are complicated issues, I did my best and in good faith but it’s easy to make an error.  

In our Next Installment:

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Part Three:  Strange Allies.  

And why this:

ryan-zinke

is better than this:

cathy-mcmorris-rogers

 

 


Tennessee Williams -> Dr. Feelgood -> Mark Shaw

 

Tennessee Williams in Key West

Strewn around the apartment of a friend this weekend were a few biographies of Tennessee Williams.

I don’t know much about Tennessee Williams.  The most I ever thought about him was when I was briefly in Key West, where there’s some stuff named after him.  He jockeys with Hemingway for local literary mascot top honors.

Looking into it, I found this stupefying article about TW in Key West from People Magazine, 1979, entitled “In His Beloved Key West, Tennessee Williams Is Center Stage In A Furor Over Gays.”  Tough reading, on the one hand.  On the other maybe we can find some optimism in how far things have come?:

Some of Williams’ friends are less sanguine—notably Rader (whom some Key West sympathizers find faintly hysterical on the subject). “It has been terrible,” he said in the aftermath. “Tenn won’t talk about it, but it has been really frightening what’s happening in Key West and in this house. The worst was the night they stood outside his front porch and threw beer cans, shouting, ‘Come on out, faggot.’ When they set off the firecrackers, I remember thinking, ‘God, this is it. We’re under attack. They’ve started shooting.’ ”

Williams’ imperturbability springs both from a matter of principle (he once defined gallantry as “the grace with which one survives appalling experiences”) and from a diminished interest in the Key West gay scene. “I’ve retired from the field of homosexuality at present,” he explains, “because of age. I have no desires—isn’t that strange? I have dreams, but no waking interest.” The thought does not cheer him. “I’ve always found life unsatisfactory,” he says. “It’s unsatisfactory now, especially since I’ve given up sex.” His own problems seem far more pressing to him than the city’s. “I suspect I’ll only live another two years,” says Williams, 68, who tipples white wine from morning on and complains of heart and pancreas disorders. “I’ve been working like a son of a bitch since 1969 to make an artistic comeback. I don’t care about the money, but I can’t give up art—there’s no release short of death. It’s quite painful. I’ll be dictating on my deathbed. I want people to say, ‘Yes, this man is still an artist.’ They haven’t been saying it much lately.”

As a consummate prober of human passions, Williams does have theories on why his adopted hometown is under siege. “There are punks here,” he explains. “That’s because a couple of gay magazines publicized this place as if it were the Fire Island of Florida. It isn’t. One Fire Island is quite enough. But it attracted the wrong sort of people here: the predators who are looking for homosexuals. I think the violence will be gone by next year.”

Other residents seem less willing to wait. The leader of the anti-gay forces, the Reverend Wright, says Anita Bryant has promised to come to Key West to help his crusade. Recalling nostalgically the days when “female impersonators and queers were loaded into a deputy’s automobile and shipped to the county line,” Wright warns: “We’ll either have a revival of our society or the homosexuals will take it over in five years.”

Mamet On Williams

This morning happened to pick up in my garage this book by David Mamet:

IMG_6629

Highly recommend this book as well as Three Uses Of The Knife, True And False: Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor, and On Directing Film by Mamet.  All short, all tight, all good.  (His subsequent nonfiction seems to me to be a bit… deranged?)

Found this, and thought it was great:

IMG_6630 IMG_6631

Wikipedia Hole

Reading about Tennessee on Wikipedia, I learn:

As he had feared, in the years following Merlo’s death Williams was plunged into a period of nearly catatonic depression and increasing drug use resulting in several hospitalizations and commitments to mental health facilities. He submitted to injections by Dr. Max Jacobson – known popularly as Dr. Feelgood – who used increasing amounts of amphetamines to overcome his depression and combined these with prescriptions for the sedative Seconal to relieve his insomnia. Williams appeared several times in interviews in a nearly incoherent state, and his reputation both as a playwright and as a public personality suffered.[citation needed] He was never truly able to recoup his earlier success, or to entirely overcome his dependence on prescription drugs.

Let’s learn about Dr. Feelgood, who was also screwing up Elvis and everybody else cool back then:

John F. Kennedy first visited Jacobson in September 1960, shortly before the 1960 presidential election debates.[9] Jacobson was part of the Presidential entourage at the Vienna summit in 1961, where he administered injections to combat severe back pain. Some of the potential side effects included hyperactivity, impaired judgment, nervousness, and wild mood swings. Kennedy, however, was untroubled by FDA reports on the contents of Jacobson’s injections and proclaimed: “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”[10] Jacobson was used for the most severe bouts of back pain.[11] By May 1962, Jacobson had visited the White House to treat the President thirty-four times.[12][13]

By the late 1960s, Jacobson’s behavior became increasingly erratic as his own amphetamine usage increased. He began working 24-hour days and was seeing up to 30 patients per day. In 1969, one of Jacobson’s clients, former Presidential photographer Mark Shaw, died at the age of 47. An autopsy showed that Shaw had died of “acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning.”

Well, that takes us to

Mark Shaw

Born Mark Schlossman on the Lower East Side, a pilot on the India/China Hump in World War II, he became a freelance photographer for life:

In 1953, probably because of his fashion experience, Shaw was assigned to photograph the young actress Audrey Hepburn during the filming of Paramount’s Sabrina. Evasive at first, Hepburn became comfortable with Shaw’s presence over a two-week period and allowed him to record many of her casual and private moments.

Audrey 1

Audrey 2

He married singer Pat Suzuki, “who is best known for her role in the original Broadway production of the musical Flower Drum Song, and her performance of the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in the show”:

In 1959, Life chose Shaw to photograph Jacqueline Kennedy while her husband, Senator John F. Kennedy, was running for President.[8] This assignment was the beginning of an enduring working relationship and personal friendship with the Kennedys that would eventually lead to Shaw’s acceptance as the Kennedys’ de facto “family photographer”. He visited them at theWhite House and at Hyannisport; during this time he produced his most famous photographs, portraying the couple and their children in both official and casual settings. In 1964, Shaw published a collection of these images in his book The John F. Kennedys: A Family Album, which was very successful.

Jackie 3

Jackie 1

 

A bunch of even better ones can be found here, at the tragically disorganized website of the Monroe Gallery, they’re stamped “No Reproduction Without Permission” so whatever.  Don’t miss this one.

Here’s another famous Jackie Mark photo’d:

Jackie Gleason1959© 2000 Mark Shaw

And finally:

BB 1

 

 

 

 


Mark Helprin

from The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Why don’t you like to give interviews?

MARK HELPRIN

When I was young it was impossible to stop me from talking about myself, but I now find it difficult to start. As an adolescent (which stage in life took me to about the age of thirty) I had a facile tongue, a prodigious memory, and an all-consuming fear of sociality (a fear and distaste that is, if anything, stronger now than it ever was, but now I am disciplined enough just to suffer through it and, quite frankly, I’m tired of trying to keep back a sea of discomfort with the flood of my own words).

The source of my aversion is partly hereditary, in that my father and many of my relatives were much the same, and partly an acquisition that I owe to my early upbringing. When this was far more serious a matter than it is now, I was born two months prematurely, with malformations of the spine (spina bifida) and lungs, and what was later diagnosed as “hyperconvulsive neurological syndrome.” Whatever that is, it was sufficient to have kept me out of the United States Army, though not the Israeli infantry and air force or the British Merchant Navy.

To make a rather long story extremely short, I spent many weeks in an incubator, came home as damaged goods, and spent much of my early life in the throes of respiratory diseases that kept me out of school and apart from others. As a small child, I once ran a fever for, literally, a year. I had pneumonia half a dozen times, double pneumonia, whooping cough—all because of the circumstances of my birth.

Now, combine that, and all that you can imagine might flow from it, with the place in which I was raised—Ossining, New York. Culturally, the character of the area was formed during the Revolutionary War, when it was a no-man’s-land between the Americans and the British, and every criminal, deserter, and malcontent for hundreds of miles found his way there and left his genes. When I was a child, I would always look at people’s hands, to see if they had six fingers, and sometimes they did.

My draft board, I am told (although it may be myth), had, of all draft boards in the United States, the highest proportion of men killed in Vietnam—where, incidentally, my godfather, the photographer Robert Capa, was the first American to die, though he was a Hungarian and had nothing to do with the Hudson. The area was salted with military institutions—West Point, military academies, veterans’ hospitals—and old soldiers, including even, when I was young, some from the Civil War. The play of the boys was guerilla warfare in the extensive woods. Every stranger was a threat, an enemy. Indeed, there were a lot of bad apples around—escaped convicts from Sing Sing (twice as I remember), standard criminals, gangs in the fifties, child molesters (a beautiful little girl was taken from my third-grade schoolyard and raped and beaten over a period of many hours), and hoboes (not Shakespearian woodwinds) on the rail line that was the geographical locus of my childhood. I ran wild through all this, protected by my paranoia, by my sharply-honed guerilla skills, and by a rather extensive arsenal. Had you turned me upside down and shaken me, the floor would have looked like a military museum after an earthquake.

INTERVIEWER

I was asking about your dislike of being interviewed.

(photo found here, by Jim Harrison for Harvard Magazine)


The murder of Jane Stanford

On Saturday, January 14, 1905, at her Nob Hill mansion, wealthy widow Jane Stanford took a sip of mineral water that didn’t taste right. She vomited up the water and had her secretary, Bertha Berner, taste it. The secretary agreed it tasted strange, so they sent it to the pharmacy to be analyzed. A few weeks later, the report came in: the mineral water had been poisoned with a lethal dose of strychnine.

Who would want Jane Stanford dead? Well, maybe a lot of people. Her late husband was Leland Stanford, one of the “Big Four” founders* of the Central Pacific Railroad and a former governor of California, a tough customer for sure. Together the Stanfords founded Stanford University in honor of their son, Leland Jr., who died young. When Leland Senior died, Jane ended up in a long running squabble with the university’s president, David Starr Jordan.

haunted looking couple

After the attempted poisoning, Jane Stanford fired her maid and decided to get out of San Francisco. She sailed to Hawaii. Soon after arriving at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu, she asked for a bicarbonate of soda to settle her stomach. Bertha Berner prepared it for her and gave it to her. Jane Stanford drank it. A few hours later she cried out that she’d been poisoned. The hotel physician was summoned and tried to help her:

As Humphris tried to administer a solution of bromine and chloral hydrate, Mrs. Stanford, now in anguish, exclaimed, ‘My jaws are stiff. This is a horrible death to die.’ Whereupon she was seized by a tetanic spasm that progressed relentlessly to a state of severe rigidity: her jaws clamped shut, her thighs opened widely, her feet twisted inwards, her fingers and thumbs clenched into tight fists, and her head drew back. Finally, her respiration ceased. Stanford was dead from strychnine poisoning.

I quote from Wikipedia:

After hearing three days of testimony, the coroner’s jury concluded in less than two minutes that she had died of strychnine “introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.” The testimony revealed that the bottle in question had been purchased in California (after Richmond had been let go), had been accessible to anyone in Stanford’s residence during the period when her party was packing, and had not been used until the night of her death.

After the death, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford, turned up in Hawaii and def acted fishy. He hired a local doctor and tried to prove that Mrs. Stanford wasn’t poisoned. Which, like, shouldn’t you be running your university?

Jordan’s motives for involvement in the case are uncertain, but he had written to the new president of Stanford’s board of trustees, offered several alternate explanations for Jane Stanford’s death, and suggested to select whichever would be most suitable. The university leadership may have believed that avoiding the appearance of scandal was of overriding importance. The coverup evidently succeeded to the extent that the likelihood that she was murdered was largely overlooked by historians and commentators until the 1980s.

The coverup worked! I mentioned this story to my friend MLW who’s affiliated with Stanford, and she’d never heard it. I’d never heard it either until I read about it in this terrific book, The King and Queen of Malibu, by friend of the blog David K. Randall:

Randall’s book is about Frederick and May Rindge, who owned almost all of what’s now Malibu in the late 19th century. May was a distant relative of Jane Stanford. The Rindges had their own share of enemies among the squatters, travelers, and developers of the pretty wild California of that era. I loved this part about the boundaries of the old ranchos of California:

In the Rindge days, the only way to cross Malibu was along the beach at low tide, until the Rindges put up gates, one at Las Flores Canyon and one at Point Dume, the eastern and western boundaries of their ranch. This pissed everybody off. After her husband’s death, May Rindge tried, and failed, to keep the Pacific Coast Highway from being built across what had once been her family’s idyllic ranch. Randall’s book functions as a great introduction to the history of Los Angeles as it transitioned from a distant outpost to a train and car-based metropolis that grew, fast.

As for Jane Stanford, her murder was never solved. David Starr Jordan lived on to promote his views of eugenics until his death, on campus, in 1933.

I’ll tell you who was never mixed up in anything like this:

source

* of the Big Four, two have names that live on in institutions in California: Leland Stanford has Stanford U, Collis Huntington has Huntington Library and Huntington Beach (both actually named after Collis’ nephew, Henry, but still), and Mark Hopkins at least has the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. In fact, Stanford, Huntington, and Hopkins all have stuff named after them around Nob Hill. But you don’t hear much about Charles Crocker. Seems like he was a bit of a petty bitch? I learn from Wikipedia that he is great-great-grandfather to Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.


Warrior of Capestrano

The Warrior of Capestrano is a tall limestone statue of a Picene warrior, dated to around the 6th century BC. The statue stands at around 2.09 m. It was discovered accidentally in 1934 by a labourer ploughing the field in the Italian town of Capestrano, along with a female statue in civilian attire, called Lady of Capestrano.

Imagine you’re just ploughing your field and you come across this thing. (Or was that a cover story for a band of tomb raiders?). 6th century BC, long before Rome. An inscription apparently found in the extinct South Picene language:

Makupri koram opsút aninis rakinevíi pomp[úne]í” (“Aninis had this statue made most excellently for Rakinewis, the Pomp[onian]”).

Capestrano is a town in Abruzzo:

I’ve been near there, 40km away or so.

You’ll find a description of a visit to the farm of a distant relative in my book, co-authored with Vali, The Ridiculous Race.

Among those with ancestral roots in this region are myself and Madonna, whose father’s folks are said to be from Pacentro.

The claim on Madonna’s roots was told to me in Abruzzo by a distant relative with some combination of local pride and disgust for Madonna’s life and art, a very contradictory, Italian Catholic reaction to something provocative and famed.

The fortified mountain towns of that region suggest a long stretch of history when “Italy” was a crazy war of all against all, with an Appalachian geography. (And temperament? Somewhere in my notes I have a draft proof that the Italians are the original Scotch Irish).

Capestrano was home to the saint John of Capestrano, Giovanni da Capestrano:

Famous as a preacher, theologian, and inquisitor, he earned himself the nickname ‘the Soldier Saint’ when in 1456 at age 70 he led a crusade against the invading Ottoman Empire at the siege of Belgrade

Though John’s ferocity can’t be questioned, his theology and record don’t seem favorable to contemporary standards.

Like Bernardine, he strongly emphasized devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus

The section of his Wikipedia page entitled “Anti-Jewish Incitement” gives much we can’t approve of. He died of plauge.

The spirit of Giovanni da Capestrano was brought to California by Spanish Franciscan missionaries, who founded the mission of San Juan Capistrano. We had a chance to visit there recently.

The mission does deliver in the charm department in part because of the semi-ruined quality of the place. One of the first efforts at a grand stone church collapsed in an earthquake, killing forty-two people attending Mass inside. You’d think this would suggest maybe the missionaries line to God was not direct, or at the very least, instead of stacking heavy rocks, they should switch to a vernacular architecture:

But no. The California missions seem like they used to be more of a draw. The popular novel Ramona, early movies, Zorro, plein air painters, early preservationist movements, all these seem to have flowed around, drawn inspiration from and contributed to the appeal of the missions in popular imagination.

This one was a hit (?) for The Ink Spots in 1949, maybe marking the peak:

Maybe Madonna should cover it?

I don’t think this is what an airline would use to advertise SoCal today?

One incident I didn’t learn about at the site, but have now found looking at Wikipedia: in 1818 the French-born Argentine sea captain Hipólito Bouchard and his guys raided the mission. I guess it makes sense the mission doesn’t want to emphasize that, it must’ve been a sad day. Plus they don’t want to scare the current tourists.

The Lady of Capestrano:


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.


NFTs, digital artifacts

Somebody asked me* if I have any opinion on NFTs, or if I’d be doing an episode of Stocks: Let’s Talk about them. Truth: I do not understand them. I’m trying to gain insight. Why you’d pay lots of money for “ownership” of a digital artwork, or even stranger, pay $2.9 million for “ownership” of Jack Dorsey’s tweets, I don’t get. I’ve read through a lot of message boards and arguments that tend to cycle through the same stuff:

  • why would you own something anyone can look at?
  • well what about “owning” the Mona Lisa, anyone can look at that but it’s still valuable?
  • why would you need to “own” a Picasso, just for bragging rights, this is same as
  • what about Walter Benjamin’s “aura”?
  • there’s too much money around
  • the art market has always had an element of money laundering
  • it’s a speculative bubble, it’s like the Dutch tulip craze (contra: we don’t understand the Dutch tulip craze, there was no Dutch tulip craze)

Here’s my one attempt at an original thought, or at least a thought I haven’t seen before: what if people are speculating is that these early NFTs (Beeple’s art, or Jack Dorsey’s tweet) will someday be valuable as digital artifacts, as early works from a new scene, or even a new kind of art?

There’s a scene in the movie Basquiat where Andy Warhol (David Bowie) flips through some postcards offered by Basquiat. I’ve watched that scene and thought, damn, a Basquiat has sold for $110.5 million, if you had just one of those postcards from back then you could at least trade it for enough cash to buy a sweet beach house!

I’ve also pondered in idle moments whether Madonna, who dated Basquiat, has more wealth in the form of Basquiat paintings than she does in her own music catalog. Surely it’s possible she has four or five of her ex-boyfriend’s paintings lying around, which could equal $100 mill easily. (Worse, what if she destroyed them in a fit of grief or jealousy?)

What if people are just betting that the NFT, or the ownership of the image of a tweet, or something, will someday be valuable just as an artifact or sample from this insane time, a time that was pretty interesting in terms of its invention?

The authentication of art has always been an issue, and a challenge. Consider John Berger talking about how much time is spent proving a Leonardo is a Leonardo at the National Gallery:

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has so many Impressionist paintings they don’t know what to do with them all, they’ve got a Van Gogh they keep in storage.

At the time the MFA’s greatest patrons were acquiring art, a Van Gogh wasn’t even that valuable. What was considered valuable art at that time, I once asked a curator there? Stuff like this, she said:

Maybe this is all just marketing spend for crypto/blockchain speculators, as someone suggested somewhere, I can’t remember.

Art speculation is hard! My guess is that NFTs will end up about as valuable as a complete set of 1986 Topps baseball cards, which I once speculatively bought myself as a youth.

Good luck to all the players.

*always funny when someone uses “since people have asked” or “someone asked me” as a setup for writing. In this case I swear I being honest! It was Eben!


Nomadland

We started out as nomadic. It may be the most natural state for human beings. We’re kind of returning to people freedom they lost starting in the Dark Ages. It was with the discovery of seeds that people ceased being nomadic—and my opinion, by the way, is that people remain nomadic by nature—but it is for economic reasons that we became fixed in our location.

Craig McCaw talking about wireless phones, quoted here by Tren Griffin. This 2013 Vanity Fair piece by Elise O’Shaughnessy, about tycoons of the new media/wireless world at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley summit, seems to be the original source, and it’s full of interesting stuff.

Ovitz showed up with the world’s best-trained orangutan, which had been carefully coached to hold a microphone and lip-synch a speech in imitation of Allen & Company Inc. managing director and master of ceremonies Jack Schneider.

depraved.

As America’s military-industrial supremacy has waned, the nation is emerging as an information-and-entertainment superpower. “It’s a little bit like the advantage Henry Ford had at the turn of the century,” Malone points out. “Only America was big enough to justify building mass-production centers for Fords. So, here, in the latter part of the century, our market is the only one large enough to justify building the next Microsoft Windows software, or the next Terminator 2, Jurassic Park. That gives us, as an exporter, a huge edge.”

more:

“Ted Turner is the classic four-year-old and man in the same body,” says Craig McCaw. “He’s pure. . . . People who are pure, like Ted, are required to do the obvious, because by the time it becomes completely obvious, people like him have already done it and the other guys haven’t. You’ve got to ask yourself why, what conceivable possible reason, is it that Ted Turner is the first man to do a news network. I mean, it blows your mind.”


Serial killers: the podcast in history and the future of podcasts

This post is best enjoyed read to you by “Remy” on Spotify, see link above.

When did the podcast first enter your life? Really settle in? Was it with Serial? Hardcore History? Radiolab? Scharpling? One of the Earwolf shows?

Wikipedia, on the page for Podcast, uses an image of Serial being played on an iPhone. That moment, 2014, seems like a breakthrough, when podcast became a word you could say without flinching. OK, maybe there’s still some flinching.

“The podcast producer, who is often the podcast host as well, may wish to express a personal passion, increase professional visibility, enter into a social network of influencers or influential ideas, cultivate a community of like-minded viewership, or put forward pedagogical or ideological ideas (possibly under philanthropic support).”

Viewship? The fuck are we talking about here? It’s an audio format, Wikipedia. Anyway. One motive you won’t find listed is “to entertain and amuse, to have fun with friends and create something joyful.” That was the motivation behind the creation of Great Debates, and I suspect many another podcast as well.

There’s a whole separate Wikipedia page, “History of Podcasting,” and I won’t attempt to replace or summarize it here. A few tidbits do jump out: in August of 2000, the New England Patriots launched the first “IP radio show,” offered on Patriots.com. The journalist Ben Hammersley has a good claim on coining the term “podcasting,” he used it in The Guardian in February 2004. By a year later, USA Today was reporting on “amateur chatfests.” Apple added podcasts in June 2005. By the next month, President George W. Bush’s radio addresses were appearing as podcasts. Those must be a lot of fun to listen to, maybe I’ll go back and check those out.

The table had been set of course for personality driven radio with This American Life. Radio shows are nothing new. But now that you could get them on demand, they were enabled to narrow, rather than broad, cast.

In that 2005 USA Today piece, it was noted that the most popular podcast at the time was “The Dawn and Drew Show,” and I learn from their Wikipedia page that Dawn and Drew have been inducted into the Academy of Podcasters Hall of Fame. Did you know podcasting had an academy? I did not. To get into the Hall of Fame you need to have been involved with and have promoted the art of podcasting for at least ten years. The Great Debates will be eligible in the year 2024, October 17, 2024 to be specific. I’m not telling you to do anything with that, I’m just telling you that, it’s just a fact.

Marc Maron aka WTF, Hollywood Handbook, My Favorite Murder, Joe Rogan, Call Her Daddy, Reply All, 99% Invisible, Planet Money, The Daily, Chapo Trap House, How Did This Get Made?, Red Scare, “Cumtown,” Fiasco, those are just a few of the shows I’d feel obliged to mention if I were trying to write a cultural history of the podcast. I’m sure there are so many I’m leaving out, sports podcasts, podcasts in foreign languages. Filip and Fredrik was my favorite for years, but they’ve gone back to Swedish, a tragedy for the English speaking world. Lately, as I’ve developed my podcast Stocks Let’s Talk, I’ve been listening to investing podcasts. Jim O’Shaughnessy, with his podcast Infinite Loops, and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, with his Invest Like The Best, are the first example I find of father-son podcasts.

Looking at the Chartable Apple Podcasts list for this week, I see six out of the ten are true crime shows. There are two dueling podcasts about The Office TV show, batting for the 23rd and 24th spots. Conan O’Brien, Bill Simmons, Megyn Kelly, Levar Burton, Jordan Peterson, and Michelle Obama all stay in the top one hundred, but at the moment a Catholic priest, Father Mike Schmitz, is way ahead of them all. Can we really trust these charts? Spotify has their own rankings. Over there Deep Sleep Sounds from Slumber Group ranks number fourteen, and “Relaxing White Noise” beats Ben Shapiro. It sure does in my book! That shows you some of the range of the medium. Leo, Taurus, Aquarius, and Scorpio Today all make it into the top fifty.

Podcasts are intimate, and potent. Passionate audiences will turn up for live shows. In the last conversation I ever had with writer, comedian and podcast star Harris Wittels, I mentioned how so many people seemed to feel like they knew him. “That’s all because of podcasts,” he said. Of all the popular podcasts, I can’t think of one that doesn’t really lay bare the peculiarities and passions of the hosts. Maybe The Daily? I don’t know, I don’t listen to that one.

By the time Spotify brought in Joe Rogan for a reported $100 million dollars, the word was out that podcasts were now a business. I heard that WME Agency has four agents devoted to podcasts. Celebrities have podcasts. Rob Lowe has a podcast. The amounts of money made on Patreon by Chapo and the Doughboys are repeated and passed around among media and comedy people like medieval legends of Cockaigne or hobo songs about Big Rock Candy Mountain.

A living can be made. But much like among the musicians on Spotify, I suspect the money will be top heavy and bottom thin. The top 1,000 (or maybe 500, or maybe 100) will take the bulk, while everybody else either struggles or does it for love. The Rogan deal reminded me of Howard Stern’s deal with Sirius XM, for 500 million dollars. On news of this deal, in October 2004, Sirius stock jumped from around 3.7 to around 7.4. Spotify stock behaved in a similar way after the Rogan deal. Today Sirius stock is around five dollars. How many Sirius XM personalities make a living? When I listen, it seems like mostly celebrities. For awhile The Great Debates, our podcast, was on Sirius. A nice paycheck, but we didn’t quit our day jobs.

Spotify may have made a better bet. CEO Daniel Ek – Sweden again – has made it clear his goal is to dominate audio, worldwide. That includes podcasts, it includes music, it’ll probably include audiobooks someday soon. Apple, as far as I can tell, somehow lost their dominance in podcasts and let their milk get stolen by a hungry competitor.

Podcasts are a little too easy to make. Apple used to put just the right amount of bureaucracy in the way of getting one up and listed, but that’s mostly fallen away. As a result of the ease of starting one, podcasts may never have too much prestige. Jokes about “podcast boyfriends” and so on appear on my Twitter just about every day.

These words were typed by me, Steve Hely, into my “blog,” or website, Stevehely.com, which is run by WordPress. I run the site to promote my books, maintain a space for myself on the Internet as an independent writer beholden to no one, and to share information and ideas about topics rattling around in my craw. I’ve always felt the site’s been good for me, because I can tell stories or recount discoveries that interest me without boring acquaintances at parties with my ramblings. Find it if you want, and quite a few people have, and I’ve been glad of it.

Through Spotify’s podcast platform, Anchor, I can now generate a podcast that’s just a robotic voice reading my words. There are two voices to choose from, Remy or Cassidy. I chose Remy. Remy reads the words and makes a podcast, all I have to do is type, like Stephen Hawking or something. Remy has glitches for sure. For instance, she reads blocked quotes with the odd phrase “greater than,” as in:

four score and seven years ago our forefathers

You get the idea. For that matter, “Remy” won’t distinguish stuff that’s quoted versus the post’s original content. Most of my posts aren’t suited to perfect podcasts, because they’re full of pictures. But still, cool technology, I want to keep playing with it.

If podcasts are this easy to make, it’ll most likely keep the market pretty saturated. But it will also allow a world of weird, unusual voices. Today I listened to a podcast that was a school project by two eleventh graders about the history of Hawaii, done for Ms. Patrick’s class at Impact Early College High School in Baytown, Texas. It was fun and short, and came up when I looked into Hawaii history on Spotify. Will we live in a world of enthusiastic amateur radio? I was interested in Malcolm Gladwell mentioning that books, audiobooks, and podcasts can kind of blur together. He specifically cited Jordan Peterson, who wrote a bestselling book, but which a majority of his “readers” took in as audio. He’s an audio personality as much as a literary one. Where did I hear this interview with Gladwell? I’m not sure, but I know it was on a podcast.

I predict there will be labels, studios, brands, that have some credibility. They’ll have to be careful: I see that Vox media has two hundred “active shows” in its podcast network. Well that’s too many.

Much like bestselling books, celebrity will be a big help. I’d like to see some hyperlocal podcasts. Something like a Reader’s Digest of podcasts could be a success. I wouldn’t mind some kind of randomizer button, where I could tune around, hear strange voices from across the 5G, like what you hear clicking around the dial in a rental car driving around Arizona or New Mexico or Nebraska late at night. I wonder if there will be “podcasts” that include more and more music and audio fun to distinguish themselves from the chatterboxes.

Listening to an automated robot voice doesn’t connect as much as hearing a great human voice, like say Ken Layne of Desert Oracle, or Karen Kilgariff of My Favorite Murder or Desus and Mero, the Bodega Boys. So I’ll end this here, and send Remy back where she came from. Go ahead and subscribe to the Helytimes podcast here on Spotify to see what we come up with next. Robots doing our audio? Yeah, we’ll experiment with that. You can record your own audio with Anchor, I could’ve done that, but where would I find eight minutes or so in MY busy schedule? Forget it. That’s a Remy job.

Why don’t let Remy take us out with some nice sleeping sounds?

zzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzz. Mmmmmmmmmm. Mmmm. MMMM. Zoooooonumnumnumnewnewnew. Ahhh.

Goodbye.


How the Chevalier de Méré met Blaise Pascal

First, there’s mathematics. Obviously, you’ve got to be able to handle numbers and quantities—basic arithmetic. And the great useful model, after compound interest, is the elementary math of permutations and combinations. And that was taught in my day in the sophomore year in high school. I suppose by now in great private schools, it’s probably down to the eighth grade or so.

It’s very simple algebra. It was all worked out in the course of about one year between Pascal and Fermat. They worked it out casually in a series of letters.

so says Charlie Munger in his 1994 speech, “A Lesson on Elementary Worldly Wisdom as it Relates To Investment Management & Business.”

These letters between Pascal and Fermat sounded worth a read, so I went to check them out. The year in question was 1654. Up until that time, no one* had really worked out and set down the math of probability. You can’t blame them, if you think about it. Even in 1654 it was probably pretty hard to even get your hands on enough paper for working out math problems.

Struggling to really wrap my head around the contents of the letters (on top of everything, the first letter is now lost), I picked up The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern: A Tale of How Mathematics is Really Done by Keith Devlin. An interesting book and a great introduction to the mental blocks that had kept people from working out probability before these two weirdos started corresponding.

An even clearer articulation of the problem of points that set Pascal and Fermat to work can be found in Peter Bernstein’s Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk:

In 1654, a time when the Renaissance was in full flower, the Chevalier de Méré, a French nobleman with a taste for both gambling and mathematics, challenged the famed French mathematician Blaise Pascal to solve a puzzle. The question was how to divide the stakes of an unfinished game of chance between two players when one of them is ahead. The puzzle had confounded mathematicians since it was posed some two hundred years earlier by the monk Luca Paccioli. This was the man who brought double-entry bookkeeping to the attention of the business managers of the day, and tutored Leonardo da Vinci in the multiplication tables. Pascal turned for help to Pierre de Fermat, a lawyer who was also a brilliant mathematician. The outcome of their collaboration was intellectual dynamite. What might appear to have been a seventeenth century game of Trivial Pursuit led to the discovery of the theory of probability, the mathematical heart of the concept of risk.

Their solution to Paccioli’s puzzle meant that people could for the first time make decisions and forecast the future with the help of numbers.

Bernstein helpfully restates the problem of points in the form of a World Series situation. What is the probability your team will win the best of seven series after it has lost the first game? (assume the teams are, as in a game of chance, evenly matched)

Well, Pascal pointed out that we just need to list all the possible outcomes of the remaining six games, and calculate from there. There are 22 combinations in which your team would come out on top after losing the first game, and 42 combinations in which the opposing team would win. As the result, the probability is 22/64 = .34375

As Bernstein points out, there’s something here that trips a lot of people up, even Fermat. There aren’t really 64 possible outcomes, because why would we include possibilities like your team goes win-win-win-win-win-win for the remaining six games? The World Series would’ve been over after that fourth win. W-W-W-W-W-W is not a possible outcome of the remaining six games.

As Pascal remarked in the correspondence with Fermat, the mathematical laws must dominate the wishes of the players themselves, who are only abstractions of a general principle. He declares that “it is absolutely equal and immaterial to them both whether they let the [game] take its natural course.

So there you go. Win-win-win-win-win-win-win is one of the forked paths off win-win-win-win. It must be accounted for, or we won’t count the potential possibilities correctly.

Naturally enough I got bored with the math part and wanted to know more about the Chevalier de Méré. Who was this fun loving gambling nobleman who put two all-time math geniuses to work helping him win at dice?

Turns out he was a guy, named Antoine Gombaud, who dubbed himself Chevalier de Méré in his writing. Much of his writing was obsessed with the idea of honnête, and how to be l’homme honnête, which included honesty but also modesty, elegance, appropriateness, excellence, sociability. You can read all about it here in what appears to be an excerpt of Manning The Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France by Lewis Seifert, a professor at Brown.

But still, how did this cool guy hook up with Pascal? Devlin says that the Chevalier and Pascal met at a gambling table. Pascal would go back and forth between somewhat extreme religious periods. During an early one of these, when he was getting pretty hard core, a doctor warned him off:

His doctor advised him that for the sake of his health, he should abandon the Jansenist ways and lead a life more normal for a young man. Although he would remain strongly religious for the remainder of his all-too-short life, Pascal resumed normal activities. Indeed, he did so with vigor, adding regular visits to the gaming rooms to his earlier academic pursuits. It was at the gambling table that Pascal met the Chevalier de Méré

Looking into this question of how, exactly, the Chevalier and Pascal met, I found a different, more detailed, and funnier, version. Here is the Chevalier de Méré himself describing how he met Pascal:

“I once made a trip with the Duke of Roannez, who used to express himself with good and just sense and whom I found good company. Monsieur Mitton, whom you know and who is liked by all at court was also with us, and because that trip was supposed to be a promenade rather than a voyage, we only thought of entertaining ourselves and we discussed everything. The duke was interested in mathematics, and in order to relieve tedium on the way he had provided a middle-aged man, who was then very little known, but who later certainly has made people talk about him. He was a great mathematician who knew little but that. These sciences gave little sociable pleasure, and this man, who had neither taste nor sentiment, could not refrain from mingling into all we said, but he almost always surprised us and made us laugh.” De Méré goes on to tell that Pascal carried strips of paper which he brought forth from time to time to write down some observations. After a few days Pascal came to enjoy the company and talked no more of mathematics.

so reports Oystein Ore, writing in the May 1960 issue of The American Mathematical Monthly (vol 67, No. 5, “Pascal and the Invention of Probability Theory”). Oystein Ore says:

Pascal and Fermat never met in person, which is kind of sad. In 1660 Fermat proposed that they meet, but at the time they were both too sick and miserable to travel very far. Within a few years they were both dead.

Pascal invented a kind of calculator, the Pascaline, but it was too expensive to produce them:

Late in life, in another religious phase, Pascal reflected on gamblers:

And that’s the story of Pascal and Fermat!

* it wouldn’t blow my mind if one of the great mathematicians of the Arab world had worked some of this out, written it down, and put a copy in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but most of those books were destroyed when Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, destroyed that city in 1258. Bummer!


Coaches, Super Bowl LV

George in Pennsylvania writes:

Steve, will you be doing another look at the coaches for this year’s Super Bowl, as you have in years past?

Yes! It’s not really my beat, but I find NFL coaches kind of interesting. Coaching at that level requires such a wild combination of skills: football strategy, time management, personnel management, and the best characters in the field have produced their own mini-pile of literature that’s worth review.

As noted last year, it’s great to have an LA guy, Andy Reid, in the Super Bowl.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Reid attended John Marshall High School and worked as a vendor at Dodger Stadium as a teenager. He also played youth sports in East Hollywood at Lemon Grove Recreation Center

John Marshall High School has a remarkable collection of alums, from Leo DiCaprio to Judge Lance Ito to Doctor David Ho. This ESPN profile / oral history begins with a nine year old Reid messing around on Holly Knoll Drive in the Franklin Hills of LA, familiar to anyone who frequents the nearby Trader Joe’s.

While attending BYU Reid did something most Americans have at least pondered at some point: converted to Mormonism. His career and life, not untouched by pain, is worth study.

This year, my attention turned to Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians.

Gage Skidmore for WIkipedia

I took a look at Arians’ book, The Quarterback Whisperer.

Two themes really pop in the book: Arians’ “no risk it no biscuit” philosophy, and his belief in empowering his quarterbacks. A former quarterback and quarterbacks coach, he’s thinking from that position.

Arians mentions that he has about 300 plays in his book that he’s developed over about thirty years. (How much of a variation is necessary for a play to be truly distinct from another? Good question for the football Jesuits out there).

The need for the quarterback to maintain his psychological steadiness, even a steady appearance:

You don’t need to look far to find visuals of Tom Brady expressing frustration, but I believe they’re fairly rare.

If I read between the lines of Arians’ book, I suspect Brady will have a great deal of leeway to call the plays and control the game as he sees fit.

Denis Leary’s quote on the cover notwithstanding, I have to say Arians’ book is closer to Nick Saban’s book (a fairly straightforward set of inspirational mottos and somewhat generic success reflections, of not much use beyond football) than to Pete Carroll’s book (an entertaining and idiosyncratic attempt at forging a philosophy of life).

Arians has two women on his staff, assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar, here’s a short NFL Films segment where they talk to Billie Jean King.

Both coaches are noted for their aggressive style, which will we hope make for an exciting and volatile game.

The Chiefs are favored by 3.5, if I were wagering I guess I’d have to bet on Brady, but sports wagering is not currently legal in California.

Lol it’s so typical of me to try and engage with sports by reading the books of the coaches!


Interesting take on the Reddit / GameStop business

Some of the behavior going on at WSB sounds more jihadist than speculative. The idea that there are some investors who are ‘good’ and others who are ‘bad’, or that there is an ‘establishment’ is BS. Everyone has the same goal: I have a pile of money, I’m trying to make it bigger, fuck your pile–I don’t care about it. Anything other goal is contrived, foolish and won’t help you win. You can’t ‘fight the rich’ by trying to become one of them. Don’t you see the irony? A related thought experiment: what if this trade continued to work really well? And another, and another? Then some WSBers are billionaires. Aren’t they the new ‘enemy/establishment?’

  Who do you think hedge fund managers are? They’re typically the anti-establishment. Things have changed a bit, but the most successful HFMs are actually the WSBers of the past. These are guys who didn’t fit in well at i-banks, often got kicked out for having big mouths or not wearing the right ties, or just wanting to wear jeans at work and not fill out TPS reports. When they started their firms, people like Soros, Icahn, Steinhardt, Robertson, Cohen, Griffin, Loeb (who has posted anonymously on boards), Samberg, even Cramer were fish out of water and had very tiny amounts of capital, often begging for investors.

That’s from Martin Skreli’s blog, in prison.

Why has this story so gripped Hollywood? As far as I can tell no two characters in it were ever in the same room, or even ever spoke to each other out loud. What about it is cinematic? Then again, maybe you could say that about the origin of Facebook.


Value investing, growth investing, and vibes investing

or

The Vibes Speculator

You hear about two schools of investing. Value investing, and growth investing. First, value investing.

Value investing involves generating a number for what a company’s intrinsic worth might be, comparing that number to the price the company’s shares are trading for on the stock market, and buying when there’s a discount (plus a margin of safety to account for the risk). You want to buy stocks that are cheap, on sale, and wait for their prices to return to what they should be.

Howard Marks, in his new memo “Something of Value” for Oaktree Capital, has a great definition of value investing, and we’re taking that as our text today. We would quote it extensively, but there’s a stern disclaimer on it. After an email correspondence with Oaktree Capital, I appreciate their denial of my request for permission to use lots of quotes in this piece.

We encourage third parties that are interested in sharing Howard’s memos with an audience to write their own summary/article about the memo and then link to the memo in its entirety on our website. Howard’s memos are meant to be read/viewed in their entirety and removing specific quotes can lead to them being taken out of Howard’s intended context. Also, as we operate in a highly regulated business, we are required to include our legal disclosures to Howard’s writings, and removing portions of his writing without the disclosures attached goes against our internal policies.

as Leia Vincent of Oaktree put it to me in an email. I see their point.

Check out Marks summary of value investing, paragraph four.

investing was pioneered by Benjamin Graham, whose teachings were transcribed by David Dodd, Graham taught Warren Buffett. There’s a lot to love about value investing. It’s bargain hunting. It almost feels virtuous. You must be rational to be a value investor. You must have emotional discipline as the market goes up and down.

Value investing is widely preached. Aswath Damodaran of NYU, who wrote a little book on the topic, will teach you on YouTube. Shawn Badlani spoke about his training as a value investor on episode 8 of my podcast, Stocks: Let’s Talk.

Value investing thinking has served Shawn pretty well. Every investor would be wise to study valuation.

As Marks acknowledges though, value investing has significant downsides. You’ve got to do a lot of calculating of discounted cash flow for one thing. Math, which is maybe not that hard, but tedious. There are computers, which can help you with the math. I like Guru Focus (you gotta pay to be a member) which can do shorthand estimates for you, like this one for Tesla:

but that can only get you so far, and it also reveals another problem. Value investing has imbedded in it both an attraction for the rational and a torture for them: stocks aren’t always trading for what they should be worth.

That is, their price isn’t always what it “should” be. That’s supposed to be an advantage, if you buy them when they’re cheap, and wait for the equilibrium that must come, when their true value will be revealed.

But what if that never happens? Consider the angst of Value Stock Geek, a smart writer on this subject. How long do you wait for the stock to achieve the correct price?

Not only that, but for all that math, you’re still just guessing! All your calculations are only as good as your inputs, some of which are guesses!

Plus, you’re competing against Warren Buffett, Munger, Aswath Damodaran, Shawn, Value Stock Geek, and literally one million other people. Wall Street has been sucking off physicists, computer scientists, “quants” of all kinds, taking them away from useful work and putting them into complex valuation shops. Their computers are faster, more powerful, and more expensive than yours, I guarantee. Their computers blow your puny computer out of the water. They’ve got an Alienware Aurora R11 with Intel Core i9 10900KF and an Nvidia GTX 1650 Super – RTX 3090, with 2TB M.2 PCIe SSD + 2TB SATA HDD and you’ve got an Epson 512K with 5.25 inch floppy disc. Who’s gonna kill if you’re playing Red Baron?

So much for value investing.

Then there’s growth investing.

The story of Marks’ memo is of how spending time during the pandemic with his son Andrew has opened his eyes to the second major school: growth investing. Marks memo describes how now he has his son Andrew living with him, and Andrew is opening his eyes to the thinking of a growth investor.

Growth investing is about assigning a valuation to a company that may not yet have shown its value, but whose growth, as measured by one metric or another, has a potential to grow into cash flows of great value.

Recently, growth chasing has worked out very well. The one quote I’ll lift from Marks:

the performance of value investing lagged that of growth investing over the past decade-plus (and massively so in 2020)

It’s easy to understand why that might be. The speed at which the fast growing companies grow is almost incomprehensible. In 2002 the so-called facebook at Harvard was a physical book the college handed out with pictures of faces in it. In 2020, eighteen years later, one young person’s lifetime, $FB has two point five billion people using it every month. Facebook has swallowed up billions of dollars in advertising, helped wipe out at least two thousand local newspapers, and influences world events, from elections in the USA to ethno-religious violence in Burma.

Scary stuff, if you’re an innocent citizen. Groovy if you’re a shareholder of Facebook (I am not).

Or take Amazon:

For a sense of scale, it took Amazon more than 14 years—58 quarters after its May 1997 initial public offering—to make, cumulatively, as much profit as it produced in the latest quarter alone. Keep in mind that Amazon consistently lost money for its first several years as a public company.

(first article when I Google “when did Amazon finally make a profit?” ) From Wikipedia:

The company finally turned its first profit in the fourth quarter of 2001: $0.01 (i.e., 1¢ per share), on revenues of more than $1 billion. 

A traditional value investor would not have been into Amazon in 2001.

The endgame for growth investing is you grow so big you’re the biggest animal in the pond and you have no competitors, only, in this pond example, small frogs to amuse you, and minnows to tickle your feet, and perhaps birds, and someone (local villagers? customers?) just keeps bringing you food because they have to. Or even want to? Or because of a curse? The example fails at this point but you get the idea.

Picking those winners can be hard. You need to choose what metrics of growth to focus on. The important metric may not be how much money you’re making. This seems to defy logic and economics and years of Wall Street lore, but that is how the market has reacted. The word is out that even if a company is not only not making money but is losing more and more money, that can in some cases be fine, that can still be fine, as long as they’re swallowing market share.

(This has created some funny wins for the consumer, like MoviePass).

So: value and growth. Marks’ memo is lucid well-expressed thinking on how his thinking is evolving about the blend of these two schools.

i just read the memo and agree, it is really good.  love the idea that value investing just means buying something for less than it’s worth, even if that thing you’re buying is a fast growing company with a high current p/e multiple.

Now, there’s also technical investing, which seems to be people studying candlestick charts, and then trying to reverse-divine the algorithms that make automated trading decisions in Flash Boys style scenarios. I admire these folks, and there’s probably something to it, but it’s not for me.

There’s also momentum investing, where you chase where you think the herd is going, based on anything from complex systems of pattern recognition to just what people seem to be talking about and what’s in the headlines. I used to study this school, and it’s very fun.

What I’d like to propose is a new school.

Vibes Investing.

Vibes Investing we discussed on episode 7 of Stocks: Let’s Talk, with the legend Liz Hall.

We believe Vibes Investing has a bright future.

Is vibes investing even investing? Is growth investing investing? Most definitions of investing say something about “an expectation of achieving a profit,” or “a reasonable expectation.” What we’re talking about here may be something more like speculating. A different and perhaps equally noble pursuit.

The vibes speculator would not compete against the quants and the computers. The vibes speculator would look for signals the computer couldn’t see, invisible, unquantifiable signals. The vibes speculator would look for growth, but not according to any metric that might be spotted by a million growth investors. The vibes speculator would feel the growth.

I’ll have more to say on the topic of vibes speculating. I’ve considered launching a prestigious and expensive newsletter, The Vibes Speculator. Or perhaps a small book on the topic. I’m not sure if the book would be in the category “business” or “humor.”

If you control a budget at a well-funded company I’d consider giving a talk on vibes speculating for an extravagent fee.

If you have thoughts on vibes speculating, get in touch. It’s an exciting conversation.

(Disclaimer: none of what I say is investment advice of any kind. These are the musings of an enthusiastic amateur. If anything the sign that amateurs are talking about the stock market is a classic signal of a market top.)