The bank and the casino

source: Save Needham Bank on Facebook.

The bank

In my hometown the bank building had a plaque on it, honoring Forbes McLeod, a policeman killed on Friday, Feb 2, 1934 in a gunfight with men robbing the bank.  This bank robbery was considered of minor historical note as it was one of the first to involve machine guns.  

The robbing of banks with guns has formed a theme of American movies possibly culminating in Heat (1995).  What was the last good bank robbery movie?  Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)?  The Town (2010)?  Has there been a good bank robbery movie in the last ten years? Who knows, maybe there will be another one soon. 

The bank as “the place where the money is” has become less and less true.  The bank buildings aren’t even impressive anymore.  The bank as a physical place has become less significant.  

If you have extra money, you have a good problem.  What should you do with it*?  “Put it in the bank” used to be a good answer.   The money would be safe there.  Even if the robbers took it, it would be covered.  Right around the time Patrolman McLeod was killed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC, was formed.  

Your money would be safe at the bank, and not only that, it would grow as it gained interest.  Compounding interest is a powerful force, and this would be good.  It was certainly better to put your money in the bank than to, say, take it to the casino.  

However, many changes have happened since I was a kid being taken to the bank on a round of errands. These changes have happened very fast. 

One change is that interest rates went down.  And kept going down.  This begins with the Federal Reserve Bank, and trickles down to your bank.  The Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates down because it adds fuel (money) to the economy.  Keeping money in the bank is a less good option as interest rates go down, so people don’t put money there, so more money flows around.  

Another change that happened is that banks got deregulated**.  

Restrictions on the opening of bank branches in different states that had been in place since the McFadden Act of 1927 were removed under the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994. 

for instance.  Conglomeration, mergers, big national and international banks could expand.  

Deregulation also meant that banks got more and more freedom to take their deposit money and make all kinds of risky trades, hedges, and hedges of hedges with it.  What the bank does now is bundle up money and take it over to the casino.  

Sensibly enough, you may wonder if you should stop putting your extra money in the bank, and instead put it in the casino yourself.  

Monte Carlo Casino. Source: Piponwa for Wikipedia.

The casino

Imagine a casino. Grand and intimidating.  No one robs the casino, except Danny Ocean, and only when he has exactly the right ten for the crew, and that’s just in the movies.  You don’t rob the casino because the casino is not screwing around.  The casino might look funny on the outside, but that’s a trick. The casino is a machine to get as much money flowing through it as possible, and take some of the money.

The casino may look kind of appealing, especially when you keep seeing rich people walking out of it.  But the casino is deadly serious.  They wear suits in this casino. To even be allowed into the casino, you have to talk to a guy, maybe pay a fee.

Once you are inside, the casino is full of sharps. Some of the sharps are very, very rich. The players in the casino speak in sophisticated language that’s hard for you to understand. But if you can figure out the terms, you can place a bet on almost anything.

To place a bet in this casino is not free. The fee for a bet is about $8.95. Not only that, but many of the bets themselves are in significant amounts. There are bets you can make for a dollar or pennies (plus the fee). But some of the most popular bets are in minimum amounts of a hundred or even a thousand dollars.

These rules made this casino seem like something more serious and significant than like a casino casino, a Las Vegas casino. But just because this casino is on Wall Street doesn’t mean it’s not a casino.

Then, pretty rapidly, the rules of the casino change.

First, they get rid of the guy you need to talk to just to walk in. Now, you don’t need to talk to anybody. And there’s no cover. You don’t need to talk to anybody to place a bet. First they let you do that on your computer, and then when phones got good enough, they let you do it on your phone. There’s still a physical casino, but it’s sort of just for stock photos and background footage now. The casino is now totally online.

Next, the casino gets rid of the cost to place a bet. Now, there is no fee. Placing a bet is free.

Not only that, the casino starts marketing itself to young people, with colors and buttons. The online betting interface gets easier and easier. You can play in the casino as if it’s just another app on your phone, as easy to use as Instagram.

Just to eliminate one last hurdle the casino gets rid of the idea of minimum bet amounts. Now, you can do fractional bets, with however much money you have.

Very fast, the once grand and intimidating casino has changed, and now is more or less just an app where anybody place a bet on anything in any amount with no fee.

What happens to the casino, after these changes?

I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out.

Are the old casino sharps inside happy? Or sad?

Maybe they’re happy at first – hey, lots of dumb money. But then they are overwhelmed. The dumb money changes the logic of the casino.

Do the sharps take their money to a new casino? Maybe even a secret casino? Do they band together and create alliances, even if this is technically against casino rules? Do they come up with new side games and bets?

I truly don’t know.

The friction that kept money from the casino and steered it to the bank has been eliminated. The safe and steady returns that lured money to the bank and away from the casino have been reduced. The bank and the casino are in business together now. Have the bank and the casino merged? They certainly flow together.  Money is flowing from the bank to the casino, sure as sun follows moon.

It cannot be an accident that our outgoing president is a former casino operator. The president before him and the president before him and the president before him (who was raised in a casino town) were all surrounded, advised, and funded by leaders of the effort to merge the bank and the casino.

The incoming president was a senator from Delaware for almost forty years. Delaware is actually a real place: it has a population a little less than half that of San Bernardino County, 1/39th that of California. But legally what Delaware is is a jurisdiction for favorable rules for large-scale bank, casino, and bank-casino corporations.

Over half of publicly traded corporations listed in the New York Stock Exchange (including its owner, Intercontinental Exchange) and 60% of the Fortune 500 are incorporated (and therefore domiciled) in the state.

The bank and the casino may physically exist, somewhere, in a strip mall or a tall anonymous building, on Wall Street or in Delaware or in one of many downtown streets with big anonymous buildings, but it doesn’t matter.  The bank and casino are all on your phone now.  

What happens now?  

I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out. 

My second-best speculation is to bet on the casino itself, because the federal government has revealed that one of its major goal if not its only true goal is keeping the bank-casino’s business growing.  

My best speculation is that something totally unpredictable will happen. Rapidly growing complexity will have effects no one can predict, this is the lesson of both Jurassic Park and the Nicholas Nassem Taleb books. What happens when stuff like this starts happening?:

from the January 16, 2021 Economist

No one can predict, it cannot be modeled. After the fact there will be some sage identified who saw it all coming. If there are a million guesses, at least one will later appear kinda right. But it doesn’t really matter. No one can know with any confidence what will happen in such a system.

There could be a panic at the casino. Consider Larry McMurtry’s memory of a stampede he saw as a boy.  He was helping to drive about one hundred cattle down an asphalt road:

Men, horses, and cattle were all drowsy, the herd just barely plodding along, until one cow happened to drag her hoof on the rough asphalt, making a loud rasping sound.  In an instant that sleepy herd was in full flight, and our horses too.  A single sound on a summer afternoon produced a short but violent stampede.  The cattle and horses ran full-out for perhaps one hundred yards.  It was the only stampede I was ever in, and a dragging hoof caused it.

A dragging hoof can cause a stampede, on a Texas farm-to-market road, or at the bank-casino.  There doesn’t have to be a good reason.  

Disclaimer: not investment advice, duh. I’m an amateur musing here.

* Jesus had a simple answer that solves this problem.

** in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Franco “Bifo” Berardi (semiotext(e), 2012) it’s claimed that the word deregulation was “first proposed by poet Arthur Rimbaud, and later reculced as a metaphor by neoliberal idealogues. Dérèglement des sens et des mots is the spiritual skyline of late modern poetry.”


The Tale of Mac Do Thó’s Pig

source: John Derrick’s Image of Irelande, 1581.

You can read it for yourself.

In the assessment of medievalist Nora Chadwick, “the tale is told with brilliant narrative power”: its terseness, humour and laconic brevity is reminiscent of the best of the Icelandic sagas.[62] The dialogue is particularly masterly in its “understatement and crisp repartee”, with “the utmost condensation and economy” in its choice of words. “[I]n the few remarks made by Mac Da Thó to his visitors, all his previous train of thought, all his cunning and address, are suggested in a few brief words intended by him to hide his true designs from his guests, while suggesting to ourselves his hidden intention.”

Maybe. In my reading it’s sorta like a Three Stooges episode but more violent? “a prankster amuses himself by setting a bunch of people to killing each other at a barbecue,” might be the logline.

In “an imitable passage of compressed humour”, Mac Da Thó promises the dog to both parties, then feigns ignorance when both arrive on the same day. During the bragging contest, the heroes of the Ulaid are not merely shamed, but are made to look ridiculous. Hyperbole is used to humorous effect when Conall flings the head of Ánluan at his opponent Cet. Thurneysen notes that in the Harley 5280 manuscript “the mutual slaying of the guests” is referred to as “‘performing a good drinking round'” (so-imól) – a “somewhat coarse joke” that was revised or omitted in the other manuscripts because apparently the copyists did not understand it.

Nora Chadwick:

What I like about the story is the cauldrons:

There were seven doors in that hall, and seven passages through it, and seven hearths in it, and seven cauldrons, and an ox and a salted pig in each cauldron. Every man who came along the passage used to thrust the flesh-fork into a cauldron, and whatever he brought out at the first catch was his portion. If he did not obtain anything at the first attempt he did not have another.

Kind of a claw game/stew. There should be a restaurant that does this. After the pandemic, maybe.


John Malone

source

A man worth study.  

At which point I discovered that there was a war about to explode on the scene for control of TelePrompTer between Cooke and Irving, and so I passed on the opportunity and Hub Schlafly ended up getting stuffed into that job for a while. Then I got an inquiry from Steve Ross at Warner and did I want to go do that? And unfortunately, the first thing I would have had to have done is have a difficult posture with the fellow that they had just bought a big company from and I didn’t really like that too much. Plus, the other issue there was New York headquarters. And while Steve said, “Well, you can live in Connecticut and have a limo” and all that kind of stuff, I didn’t think that was the life I was looking forward to. And then the third guy was Bob Magness, who was out here in Denver and Bob was just an intriguing kind of a guy and TCI was my kind of a company. They were so broke at the time that Bob used to say, “We’re so broke we’ve go to look up to see bottom. Lower than whale shit.” Very colorful expressions, but it was the opportunity I thought, in my mind, to get the family out of the New York metro and into clear and clean and beautiful Colorado, and so that’s the direction that… Oh, I took a 50% pay cut and agreed to buy a bunch of stock, which turned out to be underwater, very quickly, before I even got on the scene, but that brought me out to Denver. But they were guys that I had gotten to know over the prior couple of years – Sparkman and Bill Brazile and Carter Paige and Larry Romrell, Donne Fisher and I kind of liked them. I liked the attitude, it was a laid back kind of group.

from this conversation with Trgyve Myhren at The Cable Center

The first thing you learn is, once you make a guy rich, don’t expect them to work hard. Very unusual people do that.

How about this, from a 2012 lecture at the University of Denver:

I think the best example of vertical integration is, for instance, I get a phone call from Rupert Murdoch. He says, “CNN exists. I’ve got a company called News Corporation. I would love to have a cable television news channel in the United States. What do you think?” I say to him, “There’s probably room for another one, but you got to come down in terms of your political posture, a little bit to the right of center because CNN is going a little bit to the left of the center.” In the opinion of certainly people on the right [inaudible 00:19:32]. He says, “I think that’s great. Will you help me? i.e., will you invest with me?” and so we say, “Yes. What do you want us to do?” He said, “Why don’t you A, agreed to distribute our channel. B, I want you to go see if you can recruit Rush Limbaugh to be on my channel because I know him. C, how about 20% of this thing if it works?”

We launched Fox News Channel. We own 20% of it. We distribute it. He programs it. We take relatively little risk because we don’t put any money up. What we agreed to do was carry the channel, pay a fee per customer, an affiliate fee. It depends on him to do a good job of promoting it and creating. We end up owning 20% of what turns out to be a valuable asset. That’s the most no-brainer of the things you can do.

Or this:

There was a company called BlueMountain, traded for one and a half billion dollars, zero revenue. It was in the online greeting card business. You could go to BlueMountain and you could download a greeting card and you could send it off to your friends. It was free; had lots of traffic; never made the transition to economic viability. The Internet world was full of those bubble phenomenon, vaporware companies, we called them. They came and they went.

From a 2012 interview with Mark Robichaux at Multichannel News:

MCN: What about the threat of over-the-top players such as Netflix?

JM: I don’t know. I mean his (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’) business model, of course, was to buy flat into the future and hope he grows into it. And if he doesn’t grow he’s got serious cash flow problems facing him. His stock has reflected debt, to some degree. I mean he’s got what, a couple-billion-dollar market cap? But that’s pretty low for 24 million subs.

I don’t see how Reed gets scale. That’s the curse for him. I mean he needs 40 million to 50 million households. I don’t see how he gets it if it’s split four ways.

MCN: Do you think Netflix, or any over-the-top player for that matter, can be a true competitor to cable?

JM: It all has to do with access to content. It really is about access to content.

The content that people care about, the content that will really move people, is pretty much controlled by big programmers like Disney, who are not about to shoot themselves in the foot. And so they are going to exploit it across all platforms in a very orderly and well thought through way. You know, right now cable has been a very effective monetization scheme for cable networks …

I was screaming at the Discovery [Communications] guys and the Starz guys about don’t shoot yourself in the foot with your Netflix thing. And ultimately, of course, Starz pulled back and Discovery was able to do a limited extension. Reed’s money is good, but I don’t know if he’s got a business model that really works for him.

 

 


wait a second

“It’s a free lunch—there’s no way around it,” said Michael Ohlrogge, an assistant professor of law at New York University.

from a Wall Street Journal article by Amrith Rankumar about the boom in Special Purchase Acquisition Companies, or SPACs.

I would say after looking into it and asking some informed people that the lunch has some cost, in the form of you have to pay attention and do some study. Here is more information.


Really rich people

His unlikely rise from obscurity began when he launched a trade publication for data-communications firms in the 1970s. 

I often find that the answer to “how did they get so rich?” is frequently “doing something really boring.”

(That example Sheldon Adelson, but Robert Kraft (packaging) and the Koch Bros (processing) come to mind as well.)

A local angle:

A Boston Globe reporter who interviewed him in 1988 noted that his Needham, Mass., office was ratty, with a peeling vinyl cover on his chair. “I don’t need the trappings of success to feel successful,” Mr. Adelson said.


Brain balls

Discovery of the tomb of Ollamh Fodhla Ireland’s famous monarch and law-maker upwards of three thousand years ago
by Conwell, Eugene Alfred
Publication date 1873

In Irish history and legend, brain balls are small stone-like balls claimed to have been made from the heads or brains of enemies.

a Wikipedia page worth reading.


Morgan Housel

In 1960 journalist Hugh Sidey attempted to gauge JFK’s economic credentials. “What do you remember about the Great Depression?” Sidey asked. Kennedy responded candidly:

I have no first-hand knowledge of the depression. My family had one of the great fortunes of the world and it was worth more than ever then. We had bigger houses, more servants, we traveled more. About the only thing that I saw directly was when my father hired some extra gardeners just to give them a job so they could eat. I really did not learn about the depression until I read about it at Harvard.

Morgan Housel, who writes this semi-regular column for The Collaborative Fund, has a great gift for historical anecdotes. How about this one:

The Battle of Stalingrad was the largest battle in history. With it came equally superlative stories of how people dealt with risk.

One came in late 1942, when a German tank unit sat in reserve on grasslands outside the city. When tanks were desperately needed on the front lines, something happened that surprised everyone: Almost none of the them worked.

Out of 104 tanks in the unit, fewer than 20 were operable. Engineers quickly found the issue, which, if I didn’t read this in a reputable history book, would defy belief. Historian William Craig writes: “During the weeks of inactivity behind the front lines, field mice had nested inside the vehicles and eaten away insulation covering the electrical systems.”

The Germans had the most sophisticated equipment in the world. Yet there they were, defeated by mice.

You can imagine their disbelief. This almost certainly never crossed their minds. What kind of tank designer thinks about mouse protection? Nobody planned this, nobody expected it.

But these things happen all the time.

“These things happen all the time” reminds me of the opening of the movie Magnolia.


Latitudes and attitudes

somehow this map of Dublin swam into my ken, maybe on Twitter or something. I was struck by how the shape of Dublin’s harbor is similar to that of Boston’s. I’ve had three chances to visit Dublin, and I never put this together:

Tried to get those at roughly the same scale, with help from Zaia Design’s Two Maps:

Both east-facing harbors. Dublin’s a little smoother, makes sense, it’s older*, more time to smooth it down.

Dalkey, in vibe, is kind of like Hingham, too. Is Winthrop like Howth? I don’t know enough about the vibes of either Winthrop or Howth to report. There was a girl from Winthrop at a nerd camp I attended one summer. I remember her talking about the difficulty of going back and forth to the school she attended in Cambridge, but that’s about it, it’s neither here nor there when it comes to comparative geography, although maybe there was some girl in Howth at the exact same time with the exact same problem.

If there’s a Dublin equivalent of Hull, I bet that’s interesting, but it looks like in the south portion of Dublin harbor there are no crooked fingers of that nature.

Boston is at a latitude about 42.36 N. Dublin’s at 53,74, farther north, even north of Montreal (45.50) and even north of St. Johns, Newfoundland (47.56). The reason why Dublin’s climate is more temperate than that of Montreal has to do with, I believe, the gulf stream bringing warm air across the Atlantic. In very southern Ireland I visited a town that had some palm trees, I forget which town that was, it was over twenty years ago. I could probably find out but I’m not going to bother.

As for latitudes, Los Angeles is at 34.05, comparable to Baghdad (33.31). You might think weather-wise it might be aligned with Mediterranean cities, Barcelona for example, but Barca is further north (41.38). Paris is at 48.85 N. Tokyo is a close latitude cousin to LA, at 35.68 N. Interestingly, in the southern hemisphere, several major cities with attractive weather are in a similar range:

Melbourne: 37.85 S

Sydney: 33.86 S

Cape Town: 33.92 S

Buenos Aires 34.06 S.

In that same band N:

San Francisco: 37 N

Athens: 37 N

Las Vegas: 36 N

Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto: 35 N

“Somebody out there must’ve compared cities by latitude before me,” I thought, and sure enough, here is “174 World Cities by latitude: Things Line Up In Surprising Ways” from a website about the business of travel.

Crazy that Chicago and Barcelona are at the same latitude. Both great, but quite different vibes (and climates. And food tastes).

* kidding?


Strange times

during the takeover of the Capitol by goons I went to see what Eric Trump, the President’s second son, had to say. Turns out it was his birthday so a graphic of balloons was going across his page on my phone


Hold your breath

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican who voted to convict Trump in last year’s impeachment trial, pointed out that there’s little time for either an impeachment or what likely would be a drawn out battle over the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a president.

“I think we have to hold our breath,” he told reporters.

Is that gonna be the plan, in this country? We’re a lucky country, but nobody’s lucky forever. (it’s like this bit!)

(source for that bit: Steven T. Dennis and Billy House for Bloomberg)


Napoleon meets Metternich

In the course of a face-to-face meeting in Dresden in June 1813, Metternich, by now the Austrian foreign minister, reminded Napoleon of the appalling human cost of his wars. ‘In ordinary times,’ Metternich observed, ‘armies are formed of only a small part of the population. Today it is the whole people that you have called to arms.’ This was a matter also of ‘future generations’, he remarked, in reference to the extreme youth of many in the latest cohort of recruits who had perished on the Russian campaign. Napoleon made an extraordinary reply. ‘You are no soldier,’ he barked, ‘and you do not know what goes on in the soul of a soldier. I was brought up in military camps, I know only the camps, and a man such as I am does not give a fuck about the lives of a million men’ – ‘un homme comme moi se f(out) de la vie d’un million d’hommes.’ Metternich sometimes wondered how Napoleon did not shrink from himself in horror at the pain and injury he had inflicted. Here was the answer. A lasting peace with such a man was not possible. That the Napoleon who turned up to meet Metternich the day after this chilling exchange was the soul of amiability and charm merely confirmed his intuition.

Christopher Clark, reviewing Wolfram Siemann’s biography of Metternich, translated by Daniel Steuer, in LRB.

The Napoleon whom Metternich came to know resembled a Calabrian crime boss: tender to the point of indulgence with his family, formidably shrewd and utterly pitiless in his dealings with the wider world.

Must the history-makers be psychos? Reminded of the scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon:


Ishiguro meets the Queen Mother

INTERVIEWER

It says in your biographies that you were a grouse beater. Please explain.

ISHIGURO

My first summer after leaving school I worked for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle, where the royal family spend their summer holidays. In those days they used to recruit local students to be grouse beaters. The royal family would invite people to shoot on their estate. The Queen Mother and her guests would get into Land Rovers with shotguns and whiskey and drive over bits of the moor from shooting butt to shooting butt. That’s where they would aim and shoot. Fifteen of us would walk in formation across the moor, spaced about a hundred yards apart in the heather. The grouse live in the heather, and they hear us coming, and they hop. By the time we arrive at the butts, all of the grouse in the vicinity have accumulated and the Queen Mum and her friends are waiting with shotguns. Around the butts there’s no heather, so the grouse have got no choice but to fly up. Then the shooting starts. And then we walk to the next butt. It’s a bit like golf.

INTERVIEWER

Did you meet the Queen Mother?

ISHIGURO

Yes, quite regularly. Once she came round to our quarters, frighteningly, when there was only me and this other girl there. We didn’t know what on earth to do. We had a little chat, and she drove off again. But it was very informal. You’d often see her on the moors, though she herself didn’t shoot. I think there was a lot of alcohol consumed and it was all very chummy.

from his Paris Review interview. How about this?

I was at a writers’ festival in Australia, sitting on a beach with Michael Ondaatje, Victoria Glendinning, Robert McCrum, and a Dutch writer named Judith Hertzberg. We were playing a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel. Michael Ondaatje suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale. It was on that level. I kept explaining that it had to do with this butler. Then Judith Hertzberg mentioned a phrase of Freud’s, Tagesreste, which he used to refer to dreams, which is something like “debris of the day.” When she translated it off the top of her head, it came out as “remains of the day.” It seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere. 


Top 8 of 2020

We’re pleased with our small, distinguished, growing audience. These were our most popular posts of the year.

Primary Tensions

about how JFK spent the night before the 1960 Wisconsin primary. Somebody wrote in to correct me that the movie in question was more like “sexploitation” than porn, but “porno” is the word Bradley used.

The Supernova Petroglyph

grateful this year that we got a chance to see Chaco Canyon, walking the site only increased the fascination

One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time by Craig Brown.

The book has been released here as 150 Glimpses of the Beatles. What’s great about Craig Brown is that he goes to the sources, the primary sources, and tells you not just the details of the incident, but the historiography, the story of the story.

Buffett Bits (and Munger)

always a popular top.

Daniel Vickers

another inspiration. Got a beautiful note from Vickers’ daughter which was really touching, glad we could add to the information available about this remarkable man.

The Wanderer’s Hávámal by Jackson Crawford

Glad to be introduced to this stunning work in a readable translation. Why not let the Norse gods advise you on how to conduct yourself when you travel?

The Illusion of Choice.

This is just an image we found somewhere else, it’s illuminating.

Couple others that found their way: Marilyn Monroe gossip, How to Read A Racing Form, and Conversations With.

We had a nice guest post this year, Founding Documents by Billy Ouska. We’d love to have more of those in 2021.

Hope you’re all keeping well and safe.


Processing

SF: Most of our businesses have more in common than might meet the eye. We take some form of commodity and we’ll process it through a very, very large plant that requires sophisticated technology and analysis to ensure that we have a competitive advantage and a capability to go to market in scale. Then we’ll optimize around that processing or manufacturing process because there is raw material risk, commodity risk, and counterparty risk.

We also have the capability to be very efficient and effective from a cost perspective and the capability to constantly innovate because the technology changes in these big plants. We must be adaptable to ensure that we don’t fall from the first quartile to the second, third, or fourth quartile in cost advantage.

Our other core capabilities besides innovation and operations excellence are Market-Based Management®; trading; transaction excellence; and public sector, which encompasses legal, communication, community relations, and government relations.

So, whether it’s crude oil going into refined products, natural gas going into fertilizer, naphtha going into chemicals, trees going into pulp, metals going into our manufacturing businesses — each of these businesses fit the capabilities described above.

fascinated by this interview with Steve Feilmeier, CFO of Koch Industries (from Graham & Doddsville).

I don’t agree with the Kochs on politics but I have wiped my ass with their toilet paper.


Stagolee Shot Billy

In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth.

so says Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, quoted on the book’s back cover. I’ve been curious about this book since I first heard about it, finally pulled the trigger. Just that a book like this exists brings joy.

The murder was around 11th and Morgan in St. Louis, which today looks like this:

Should it be a UNESCO site? Paired perhaps with another St. Louis place of myth and violence, Cahokia?


The power of “Christmas Carol”

Was there ever a better charity sermon preached in the world than Dickens’s “Christmas Carol”? I believe it occasioned immense hospitality throughout England; was the means of lighting up hundreds of kind fires at Christmas time; caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas good feeling, of Christmas punch-brewing; an awful slaughter of Christmas turkeys, and roasting and basting of Christmas beef. As for this man’s love of children, that amiable organ at the back of his honest head must be perfectly monstrous. All children ought to love him. I know two that do, and read his books ten times for once that they peruse the dismal preachments of their father. I know one who, when she is happy, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is unhappy, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is tired, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is in bed, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she has nothing to do, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; and when she has finished the book, reads “Nicholas Nickleby” over again. This candid young critic, at ten years of age, said, “I like Mr. Dickens’s books much better than your books, papa”; and frequently expressed her desire that the latter author should write a book like one of Mr. Dickens’s books. Who can? Every man must say his own thoughts in his own voice, in his own way; lucky is he who has such a charming gift of nature as this, which brings all the children in the world trooping to him, and being fond of him.

so said William Makepeace Thackeray, arguing for a connection between humorous writers and “the sweet mission” of love and tenderness, in his 1852 speech “On Charity and Humor.”

A footnote adds:

Note 2. This generous tribute to Dickens, at the time of the greatest rivalry between him and Thackeray, has been much admired and often quoted to Thackeray’s credit.

Here’s the source.


The jackrabbit

Word went out on the community message board that people were finding dead jackrabbits.  Healthy looking jackrabbits that appeared to have just dropped dead.  There was a plague going around.  A jackrabbit plague.  RHD2.  Rabbit hemorrhagic disease two.  The two distinguishes it from original RHD.  Bad news, a plague of any kind.  Sure enough, a few days later, I saw on the remote camera on the back porch of my cabin out in the Mojave a bird picking at what looked like the muscles and bones of what used to be a jackrabbit.  

I drove out there, and found that yes indeed, this had been a jackrabbit.  Whether it had died of plague, I don’t know, it seemed possible.  I bagged it for disposal, and poured some disinfectant on the ground, as recommended by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

The next day, I found another dead jackrabbit.  This jackrabbit did not appear to have been hurt in any way.  Her eye was open to me.  This jackrabbit appeared to have gone into the shade and died.  There was no visible trauma and no blood.  I didn’t want to get too close, but this was the best chance to examine a jackrabbit, up close and at rest, that I’d ever had.  Usually the jackrabbits are fast and on the move.  Once they sense you seeing them, they take off.  

I won’t put a picture of it here, in case a picture of a dead jackrabbit would upset you.  In a way the lack of damage and the animal’s beauty made it much more sad and eerie.  It reminded me of Dürer’s drawing of a young hare.  I read the Wikipedia page about Dürer’s drawing, which departs from the usual impartial tone to quote praise for the drawing’s mastery:

it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of observational art alongside his Great Piece of Turf from the following year. The subject is rendered with almost photographic accuracy, and although the piece is normally given the title Young Hare, the portrait is sufficiently detailed for the hare to be identified as a mature specimen — the German title translates as “Field Hare” and the work is often referred to in English as the Hare or Wild Hare.

Dürer’s drawing of a walrus is less acclaimed:

 

The drawing is generally considered as not successful; and is viewed as curious attempted depiction that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor anatomically true to life. Art historians assume the artist drew it from memory having viewed a dead example during a 1520 visit to Zeeland to see a stranded whale which had decomposed before his arrival. Referring to the depiction departure for nature, Durer’s animal has been described as “amusing…it looks more like a hairless puppy with tusks. When Dürer drew from life his accuracy was unquestionable, but he had only briefly seen a walrus, and had only fleeting memory and an elaborate verbal description from which to reconstruct the image”.

The jackrabbit is very similar to the European hare.  The suggestion of the magical power of hares is a common theme in Celtic literature and the literature and folklore of the British Isles.  We all remember the March Hare. 

Most Americans are confused as to just what hares are, chiefly because we are accustomed to calling some of them jackrabbits. Biologically, the chief differences between hares and rabbits are that hares are born with hair and open eyes and can hop about immediately, while rabbits are naked, blind and helpless as birth.

I learned from this book:

which contains recipes for hares, including jugged hare, hasenpfeffer, and hare civit. 

Jugged hare, source

Of all the game animals you can hunt in California: elk, wild big, bear, turkey, bighorn sheep, deer, duck, chukar, dove, quail, the jackrabbit alone can be hunted all year round*.   There is no season, and there’s no limit. On one of my first trips to California, I was taken out to the desert with the Gamez boys on a jackrabbit hunt.  We only saw a few jackrabbits.  Nobody got off a good shot at one.  I doubt we really wanted to kill one, we just wanted to drive around the desert, shoot guns, and have fun, which we did very successfully.  

During the pandemic I got my California hunting license, you could do it entirely online due to Covid restrictions.  But I don’t intend to hunt jackrabbits, I don’t want to be like Elmer Fudd.  

The meat is said to be quite dry, tough, and gamey.  Most recipes call for long simmerings.  

If you ever find out in the desert where you must hunt a jackrabbit for food, here’s the Arizona Game and Fish Department telling you how to butcher one.  

* non-game animals, like weasels, you can go nuts


Politics and drama in ancient Athens

All art has a political dimension, but tragedy actually began life in fifth-century Athens as a political institution, locked into the structures of the state. The authorities appointed an official to train and pay the Chorus, the city preserved play scripts in its archives, and there was a state fund which poor Athenians could draw on for the entry fee. Tragedy was a form of ethicopolitical education for the city state as a whole, not just a night off for the toffs.

Wild. What if the US government paid for movie tickets? They probably should! We were pretty close to a merger like this during World War II I suppose, when they’d show the GIs Mrs. Miniver and stuff.

That’s Terry Eagleton reviewing A Cultural History of Tragedy: Vols I-VI edited by Rebecca Bushnell in LRB back in February. Cleaning out my files!


Göpeti Tepli, Askili Höyük, and Chaco Canyon

Teomancimit for Wiki

Reading up on some of these Turkish archaeological sites. Göbekli Tepe is sometimes described as “the world’s oldest town,” but it may have been more like a ritual site that people went to sometimes, rather than lived in all the time. I’m not totally up on recent archaeological literature about the sites, but they seem to have been something more like seasonal or periodic gathering places. This was around 9,000 BCE.

Kvaestad for Wikipedia

Askili Höyük, similar deal.

People who were still hunter gatherers, or at least semi-nomadic, would gather seasonally or sometimes at these places, to build, do ceremonies maybe, and party.

The time frame is completely off, but I wonder if the concept of these sites can be applied to Chaco Canyon, in what’s now New Mexico, which was peaking in around 900 AD.

Helytimes

Steve Lekson, who wrote several books on Chaco and the ancient Southwest, suggests Chaco was more permanent, something like a Mesoamerican city state.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, presents Chaco in “city” terms as well.

But what if it was more like the playa of Burning Man than like Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan?

Helytimes

If it wasn’t a city, but a ceremonial/festival/party location for people who were still semi-nomadic?

Or what if it were a city, but one like Las Vegas, with locals who ran the place but a big, shifting population of tourists?

Helytimes

What if there’s a stage between “primitive hunter gatherer bands” and “agricultural early cities” that’s like “semi agricultural nomads who occasionally meet to party”? Just musing!


Empire States of Mind

Sam Valadi for Wikipedia

Peter Thiel cites the fact that the Empire State Building was built in 15 months as a sign that maybe our society has stagnated. Can we build things any more? Why not?

I’ve wondered if part of the answer was the political power of Al Smith, who was appointed head of Empire State Inc, and various other elements of the former Tammany/Democratic machine that controlled New York City at the time. An argument for the efficiency of political machines?

But what if the answer was: fairness?

The Empire State Building was constructed in just 13* months, and that included the dismantling of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that sat on the site. Paul Starrett, the builder, treated his workers rather well by the standards of the time, paying much attention to safety and paying employees on days when it was too windy to work. Daily wages were more than double the usual rate and hot meals were provided on site.

The concept is known as “efficiency wages”. Companies that compensate workers well and treat them fairly can attract better, more motivated staff. Unlike most construction projects, the Empire State Building had low staff turnover, and workers suggested productivity improvements such as building a miniature railway line to bring bricks to the site.

That’s Bartleby in the Dec 12, 2020 Economist, reviewing a book called The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. Starrett was not “naively generous,” the article also notes. He checked worker attendance four times a day.

I’d kind of resolved to stop reading these books that are just collections of neat anecdotes under some big umbrella, but maybe I’ll make an exception here. Another example cited: Danny Boyle used thousands of volunteers for the 2012 London Olympic Ceremonies, but he also had to keep details of the show secret:

The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise – and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown up way he treated them.

Also in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood reports on a study in India:

The study’s main finding is that retail investors who were randomly allocated shares in successful IPOS view their good fortune as evidence of skill.

* note the revision to Thiel’s figure