Uh oh


Pickett’s Charge: A microhistory of the final attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 by George R. Stewart

Forget where I came across a mention of George R. Stewart’s microhistory of Pickett’s Charge. could’ve been anywhere.  The idea of a microhistory intrigued so I got a used copy.

How about the career of George R. StewartMan: An Autobiography.  Genius.

If we grant – as many would be ready to do – that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode of the history of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett’s Charge.

Thus to hold, indeed, is not to maintain that a different result, there by the clump of trees and the angle in the stone wall, would of itself have reversed the course of the war and decisively altered history.

Stewart takes you there, to the clump of trees and the angle in the stone wall.  If you want to know where Hancock was at approximately 3:30 pm that day, and from where Longstreet watched what he knew was likely a doomed advance, this is the book for you.

The task at hand is to make sense out of what must’ve been absolute insanity, deafening, smoky confusion for the participants.  Consider the 19th Massachusetts, around 3:50 pm:

The men were jammed in to an average of six deep.  When a man had loaded, he pushed his way to the front to fire.  Sometimes he had to dodge around to get a place through which to point his musket, and in the confusion men might be shot from the rear.  With men firing from everywhere the noise of the discharges was deafening.

Sometimes the lines even surged together, and there was a sudden swinging of clubbed muskets.  In one of these encounters, Private De Castro of the 19th knocked down the color-bearer of the 14th Virginia, he himself using the staff of the Massachusetts state colors as a club.  He seized the Virginia flag, brought it back, and thrust it into the hands of his colonel.

Some of the events seem almost mystical to the modern reader.  The wounded Confederate general Armistead falls at the Union lines:

Armistead had been heard, in some lull of the musketry, calling for help, “as the son of a widow.”  This we must take to be the code of some secret society; at least, the words gained immediate response.  Some of the men of the 72nd Pennsylvania requested permission of their officer to go to his aid, and carried him behind the Union lines.

As a wounded general, even though of the wrong side, he was granted much attention and every courtesy.  A surgeon, Henry H. Bingham, soon arrived, but could only inform Armistead that he was dying.  Bingham promised to deliver any personal effects that the general might desire forwarded to his family.

Armistead was, according to Bingham, a man “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken spirited.”  The words that he then spoke were destined to become a small storm-center of controversy: “Say to General Hancock for me, that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret.”  He was then carried to the hospital.

Attitudes were at play which seem hard for us to access.  Stewart:

Horrors there were in plenty – men struck in the eyes, through the intestines, in the genitals.  Men were carried away maimed for life, and at least one wounded man drew his revolver and shot himself.  But to write of Gettysburg in terms of the Somme or of Monte Cassino would be a painful falsification of history.  Nothing is more striking in the sources generally than the absence of gloom.  The armies suffered casualties such as few modern armies have endured, but the men did not seem to feel sorry for themselves.  Did some primitive spirit of combat sustain them?  Or a romantic sense of glory?  Or an intense patriotism?  Or was it a more imminent hint of immortality, as when a private of Brown’s battery died in a religious ecstasy?

One of Stewart’s great sources is the records of a trial, twenty-five years after the battle, which resulted from a dispute between the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and the Survivors’ Association of the 72nd Pennsylvania about where on the battlefield they were permitted to put their statue:

Some of the testimony is of a remarkable poignancy, even though the heat of battle was so many years in the past.  We have the boiling over of pride in the regiment:

Q.  Did you see any Massachusetts or New York regiment come down and run over the Seventy-second?

A. I would like to see somebody say so!  I would like to meet the man who said it!

We have the vivid personal memory:

Q. Where did you find the bodies in the angle; I mean of the Seventy-second people in the angle?

A. The most I can remember was one by the name of Metz belonging to my company – him and me were great chums – and he fell across the stone wall.  He fell crossways across the stone wall.

As for Pickett himself?

He himself realized that his conduct during the afternoon had been such that he would be accused of cowardice . . . His career really ended at Five Forks, April 1, 1865, when he again lost most of his division.  On this occasion, while his men were being crushed, Pickett was behind the lines and out of touch, enjoying a shad-bake.  These were the last days of the war, and the scandal was somewhat hushed up.  But Pickett thereafter had only some fragmentary regiments, and he was relieved of his command the day before the surrender.  Lee, seeing him at Appomattox, remarked, “I thought that man was no longer with the army.”

(Should we rename the fort named after this guy?)

You needn’t bother adding this volume to your library unless you’re a fairly serious student of the battle, but it’s impressive to observe Stewart’s achievement, and to think on these events.

If I have a criticism of this book it’s that Stewart is so entertaining he can make all this seem like sort of just a violent field day.  To clear up that impression real fast, one can look at any of a number of grim photographs Timothy O’Sullivan took that day, and after, photographs which still shock.  This one, “Dead Horses of Bigelow’s Battery,” for instance.

How Lee took the devastating day:

Summoned to receive orders, [General John D. Imboden] found the commander so exhausted that he could scarcely dismount from his horse.  Shocked by this weariness and by the sadness of the face, Imboden ventured to remark, when Lee stood silent, “General, this has been a hard day on you.”

Lee looked up, and then spoke mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us.”  After another lingering silence, Lee commented on the gallantry of Pickett’s men, and then after another pause, he cried out, in a loud voice, in a tone almost of agony, “Too bad!  Too bad!  Oh!  TOO BAD!”

 


Life is moving

In the Moscow Art Theatre, in Tel Aviv in the Habimah, productions have been kept going for forty years or more: I have seen a faithful revival of Vakhtangov’s twenties’ staging of Princess Turandot; I have seen Stranislavsky’s own work, perfectly preserved: but none of these had more than antiquarian interest, none had the vitality of new invention.  At Stratford where we worry that we don’t play our repertoire long enough to milk its full box office value, we now discss this quite empirically: about five years, we agree, is the most a particular staging can live.  It is not only the hair-styles, costumes and make-up that look dated.  All the different elements of staging – the shorthands of behaviour that stand for certain emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice – are all fluctuating on an invisible stock exchange all the time.  Life is moving, influences are playing on actor and audience, and other plays, other arts, the cinema, television, current events, join in the constant rewriting of history and the amending of the daily truth.  In fashion houses someone will thump a table and say “boots are definitely in”: this is an existential fact.  A living theatre that thinks it can stand aloof from anything so trivial as fashion will wilt.  In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it.  In this sense, the theatre is relativity.  Yet a great theatre is not a fashion house; perpetual elements do recur and certain fundamental issues underlie all dramatic activity.  The deadly trap is to divide the eternal truths from the superficial variations; this is a subtle form of snobbery and it is fatal.

This made me hmmm as I consider what to think about the exiling of comedy now felt to be unacceptably hurtful.


Rubber bullet and non-lethal projectile collecting

Sunday morning four weeks ago on the streets of the Beverly – Fairfax district was a bonanza for us collectors of non-lethal shells and projectiles.

The Honus Wagner card of this kind of collection is the LAPD stamped bean bag shell

A key guide for the hobbyist is the LAPD’s equipment page.

I hope I don’t have any more opportunities to add to my collection.

(Always remember the scene in The Last Castle (2001) where James Gandolfini, a military history buff, hears Redford, a real veteran, assess his collection of Civil War bullets and Minié balls: “it’s just something that caused some poor bastard a whole lotta pain.” 

Couple real good scenes in that movie.  When Redford teaches Ruffalo the meaning of a salute!)

 

 

 


How to read a Racing Form // Belmont Stakes value picks

Every time I’m in Las Vegas I pass through the sports book and pick up a few racing sheets. I’ve never been able to make much out of them, but the life of the full-time degenerate who’s eating a hot dog and watching the 3rd at Gulfstream or Louisiana Downs is somehow attractive.   Why is that?  What is it about this that’s appealing?  The songs and legends are part of it, for sure.  I’ve always found sitting in the stands at Santa Anita an appealing afternoon.  Less so since news of the frequent horse deaths.

Santa Anita is running right now, without spectators.

“I love to go back to Paris,” Hemingway said, his eyes still fixed on the road. “Am going in the back door and have no interviews and no publicity and never get a haircut, like in the old days. Want to go to cafés where I know no one but one waiter and his replacement, see all the new pictures and the old ones, go to the bike races and the fights, and see the new riders and fighters. Find good, cheap restaurants where you can keep your own napkin. Walk over all the town and see where we made our mistakes and where we had our few bright ideas. And learn the form and try and pick winners in the blue, smoky afternoons, and then go out the next day to play them at Auteuil and Enghien.”

“Papa is a good handicapper,” Mrs. Hemingway said.

“When I know the form,” he said.

from the Lillian Ross New Yorker profile of Hemingway.

How do you “learn the form”?

I chanced recently across this academic paper, Sports Betting As a New Asset Class, by Lovjit Thukral and Pedro Vergel. It addresses the possible money-making potential of a strategy of “laying the favorite.”

The authors take a simple betting strategy based on Horse races in the UK and invest consistently on laying (betting on the event not to occur) the 4 favourite horses (with the lowest odds) in each race. They find the following:

(1) this type of horse racing strategy provide uncorrelated returns to the market;

(2) the strategy outperforms the Credit Suisse Hedge fund Index and S&P 500 Total returns on average for the last 6 years.

Can this be so?  A quick investigation reveals that “laying the favorite” in this way doesn’t seem to be a commonplace option in US horse betting.  I don’t think this strategy would be financially viable here.

This talk of laying favorites reminded me of my friend Beth Raymer’s book, Lay The Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling.

The book was made into a 2012 film starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In the book, Raymer describes learning from the professional gambler and line-setter Dink:

Studying to find value — into it!  I resolved to learn how to read a Racing Form, and try to glean some information from it that might give an edge.

Using the very helpful resources provided by the late Neil Benoit’s Getting Out Of The Gate website, which has a Racing 101-401 course, I was able to grasp the basics.  This resource at Art of Manliness was also quite helpful, and there’s a Wikihow about racing forms, but it’s Benoit who really gave us a gift.

I’d like to try and summarize my learnings for you, to save you the time in case you’re interested, and because the easiest way to really learn something is to try and teach it.

Let’s take as our example the first horse, Route Six Six, in the 7th race tomorrow (Saturday, June 20) at Santa Anita.

Up top we’ve got some basic info about the horse, like who owns her (f=filly), and her mom (Dam) and dad (Sire).

Personally, and this is based on zero study, but I suspect there’s all together too much focus on breeding in horses.  It feels distracting and possibly irrelevant, like when the old-time scouts in Moneyball are focused on how hot a player’s girlfriend is.  It just feels old-fashioned and unstatistical.  But then again, since I haven’t run any statistical studies, this belief of mine is based on zero evidence as well.

You know what I want to find out from a racing form?  One thing.  How fast is this horse?

I turned to my high school experience as a cross-country runner under the rigorous coaching of Livingston Carroll, who also taught statistics.  He’d always have a pretty good sense of the average race times of most of our competition.  It seems to me that the racing form, while interesting as a compressed pile of information, doesn’t really focus in on the central question: which of these horses is the fastest?  Beyond that is intangibles and unpredictable noise.
Luckily the Racing Form gives us lots of info towards figuring out which horse is fastest, if we can just figure it out.  We get a bunch of data on the horse’s recent races.
We see that Route Six Six ran on the 16th of May 2020 in the fourth race at SA (Santa Anita) in fst (fast) conditions at a distance of one mile.  OK, already useful info.  Remember what Thomas Ainslie says in his Complete Guide about the basic components:
1) elimination of horses that seem unsuited to the distance of the race
2) elimination of horses that do not seem in sufficiently sharp condition
3) elimination of horses that seem outclassed
4) elimination of horses at a serious disadvantage on today’s footing or in light of track biases
The distance helps us sort out #1.  Route Six Six, as we can see, has been running at 1 mile, even 1 1/8 mile.  A mile is 8 furlongs.  1 1/16 mile should be a reasonable distance for this horse.  Races of a mile or longer are called “routes,” vs shorter races, “sprints.”
In my limited experience I find routes are more predictable.  At Los Alamitos they run races at 330 yards.  At that point it can come down to what kind of jump you get out of the gate, which seems harder to predict based on the info in the Racing Form, or at least a different category of study.
Now, let’s talk about class.  It’s worth reading Benoit on class.  Horse races are at all different classes, starting (for our purposes) with Md Sp Wt, or Maiden Special Weight.
A maiden horse has never won a race.  Maiden races are thus famously kind of unpredictable.  Let’s say you win a maiden special weight, as Route Six Six did on December 31, 2018, “breaking her maiden.”  Well, now she’s on an Allowance race.
When it comes to understanding class, the metaphor of minor league baseball is often used.  Going from maiden racing to an allowance race is like going from single A to AA ball.   A horse moving up or down in class is facing a different caliber of competition.
Now, as they say, “the horse doesn’t know what class it’s in.”  But it’s something to watch for, and learn from the Form.  Is this a promising up and coming racer moving up to face faster horses?  A declining athlete going down a level to compete against weaker competition?
Note that Route Six Six is coming down from an 80K to a 62K.  I don’t know what that means, may not even be anything, but it seems like a slight step down in class.  Which could be good!
Now, these numbers in bold.  The Beyer Speed Figure.
Beyer figures are a whole thing
as my bud Jeff Fischer says.  The Beyer speed figures are exclusively in Racing Form, and they’re designed to kind of create a uniform assessment of the horse’s speed, homogenizing for track variables, etc.  They’re still calculated by Beyer’s team.  From a profile of Andy Beyer by Michael Konik in the autumn, 1996 issue of Cigar Aficiando:

Beyer took a stack of old Daily Racing Forms and did the laborious math by hand, sifting through years of data, applying the analytical skills he had developed as a games-playing child. “‘Six furlongs in 1:13 equals seven furlongs in 1:26 and a fifth’ was my E=MC2,” Beyer says, laughing. By 1972 he had managed to construct a reliable speed chart that incorporated the important element of track variance, a measure of track speed and bias, which was previously calculated by an antiquated–and, in most cases, inaccurate–system. Beyer devised a highly specific, sophisticated method for determining track variances, a method that accounted for the times turned in by different types of horses.

By combining his newly minted speed ratings with his fresh perspective on track speed, the young columnist invented the Beyer Speed Figures.

Interestingly, Beyer come up with his numbers specifically because so much of racing thinking at that time was centered around class:

“The orthodoxy back then said that ‘class’ was the measure of a race,” Beyer says, while making hieroglyphic notations in the margins of his race program. “For instance, if a $10,000 claimer was running against a slower $200,000 claimer, the assumption was that the slower but ‘classier’ horse would win. I was looking for a way to verify–or contradict–that assumption.”

We’ll come back to Beyer Figures in a bit.
Now, how about the jockey?
Don’t bet the horse, bet the jockey
is an old racing adage.  It is interesting that jockeys have very different stats and results.  Here are the stats at Santa Anita from this week’s Racing Form.
Prat wins 27% of the time, and J Valdivia Jr wins 10% of the time.  Worth considering.
Finally, we see the results of the horses in previous races:
Note those boldface names on the most recent race.  That tells us that Ax Man (AxMn) and Multiplier (Mltplr) both are in this very race!  So Route Six Six is running today against two horses that have already beaten her!  This is good information to know, as we try and figure out who will win today’s race!
The notes on the race are kind of helpful, but in the age of YouTube, you can also go back and watch these previous races, and see if there’s anything interesting that may not be fully recorded here in the Form.
One more thing: works.  Sometimes the horse hasn’t run any races, and all you have to go on are the “works,” or officially timed practices.  These are intriguing measures of a horse’s speed, although the horse is (always? almost always?) running alone in these conditions.
Take a look at Route Six Six’s opponent Ax Man’s works:
That bullet mark means Ax Man had the fastest work of any horse of the day on June 17 at Santa Anita.  How meaningful is that?  Depends, I guess.  (Note that Ax Man is a gelding (g in the gender line).  They castrated Ax Man?!  Rude.  I don’t know much about the meanings of horse gender on speed.  The colts seem a little faster than the fillies, but three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby.)
Here’s my crude handicapping method:
Let’s start by just trying to rank these horses on speed.
Simply averaging the Beyer speed numbers, occasionally throwing out some outliers, and factoring in a pinch of understanding about class and jockey and so on seem indeed to be a reasonable predictor of which horses will finish first in a race.  In two days of experimental handicapping, the winner was always in the top three I selected via this method.
Now, you compare these results to the odds.  It’s possible to occasionally spot a “value” horse.  I found the results, as Ainslie would say, salutary.
In horse race betting, you’re not competing against nothing, or even the morning odds.  You’re competing against the other bettors.  Their bets determine the final odds.
Knowing a particular horse is the fastest competitor in a race isn’t that useful, because it’ll probably be reflected in the odds.  Very occasionally, though, you can spot anomalies, where your personal handicapping of the race differs from the odds in an interesting and possibly profitable way.
Remember though, the track is taking an 18-20% take.  You need to predict 20% better than the cumulative wisdom of the crowd just to break even!
Anyway, here’s how I’d handicap the Belmont Stakes tomorrow:
1 – Tap It To Win – average Beyer Speed Figure minus any outliers I chose to throw out: 75.6
Coming off two consecutive wins, but if this race goes off at any kind of speed will struggle to keep up
2- Sole Volante – 90.2
Very consistent, won on June 10 decisively.  A fast horse, maybe underappreciated.  Worth looking at the odds close to post time.  This could be a value bet.
3- Max Player – 75.33
New jockey today.  Don’t think this horse is fast enough.
4 – Modernist – 76.4
Last won a race in February
5 – Farmington Road – 77.33
A solid also ran horse
6 – Fore Left – 72.75
This horse’s last win was in United Arab Emirates.  Feels fishy.  But that was a good clean win and very fast.
7 – Jungle Runner
A weak horse
8 – Tiz The Law – 91
The strongest contender by far, on the cover of Racing Form this week.  But look, the favorite loses something like 78% of the time.
9 – Dr. Post – 84
Can a new jockey get something out of this horse?  The pickers like Dr. Post.
10 – Pneumatic – 89
Something just seems off about the results for this horse.  Does he know how to win?
Hely Picks
8 – Tiz The Law
2 – Sole Volante
10 – Pneumatic
I haven’t looked at recent odds.  This morning Tiz the Law was at 6-5, and Sole Volante 9-5, so no real value there.  Fore Left came in at 30-1, and Pneumatic at 8-1.  Pneumatic to show could be interesting?
One attraction of horseracing is it really draws out a certain kind of stylized or old-fashioned writing in enthusiasts:

Benson has had it with this hanging crepe for its own sake!

Disclaimer: I’ve spent maybe twenty hours learning about horseracing.  I know nothing.  There are thousands of horse race bettors who’ve spent easily 10,000-20,000 hours on this.  There are whole teams that have seen every single race any one of these horses have run, and spent hours putting information into fast computers.  That’s the competition.   I’m posting this for my amusement, and to enhance the amateur enjoyment of this pastime for my well-rounded readers.
Before you bet any actual money, which no one’s encouraging you to do, see if you don’t find a small “mind bet” as emotionally stimulating, as satisfactory in victory without being as painful in defeat.

Jaipur Addendum!  

Readers, I just idly checked out the 9th race at Belmont today, the Jaipur.  Will be televised on NBC.  I noticed Hidden Scroll, a very fast horse, had something aberrant in his last race:

What’s that about?  Here we see the pleasures and oddness of the Racing Form as compressed storytelling:

What?

Luckily in this glorious age of YouTube what Hidden Scroll did in his last race, this might be the craziest thing in a horse race I’ve ever seen:

Motherfucking horse nearly broke his own neck, lost his jockey, and still almost won!  He’ll have the same jockey (JR Velazquez) today!  That should be a very interesting race.

 


Bloomsday

Today.  Bloom sees a walking advertisement for his former employer:

A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. Bargains. Like that priest they are this morning: we have sinned: we have suffered. He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H. E. L. Y. S. Wisdom Hely’s. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked. Our staple food. Three bob a day, walking along the gutters, street after street. Just keep skin and bone together, bread and skilly. They are not Boyl: no: M’Glade’s men. Doesn’t bring in any business either. I suggested to him about a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on. Smart girls writing something catch the eye at once. Everyone dying to know what she’s writing.


Pools and regulations

At swimming pools at hotels and apartment complexes here in California you’ll see this sign.  Sometimes it causes quite a stir from people who’ve never seen it before, as it does summon up some graphic imagery, and violates the traditional taboo on not printing the word “diarrhea” on large public signs.

I’ve been pondering this sign for years.  It’s not a choice to put it up.  The uniform wording and ubiquity suggests there must be a rule.  So that means there must’ve been some kind of meeting at a regulatory agency or the legislature where they discussed the diarrhea danger, and agreed to the diarrhea sign rule.  Sometimes I’ve idly wondered if the sign were some kind of prank on pool owners, to force them to make all lucky pool users ponder the word “diarrhea”  Did a bureaucrat harboring long-felt resentment against pool enjoyers push this through?  Punishment for exclusion from a pool party, years ago?

Well, finally I decided to look into it, and quickly found the answer, in this Conejo Valley Guide post, “What’s The Deal With All of Those  Signs Posted At The Swimming Pool.”

The requirement for this and other community pool signs comes from California Building Code Chapter 31B “Public Pools,” Section 3120B “Required Signs.”

Section 3120B.11 “Diarrhea” indicates the sign must have letters at least 1 inch high, clearly states what is noted above, and is posted at the entrance area of a public pool. Public pools include municipal/park district pools, hotel pools, water parks, swim schools, homeowner shared pools, apartment pools, campground pools, etc. One is thus not required to post this sign at your home pool (unless you really want to).

As the post notes, there have been outbreaks of waterborne disease from pools.

I’m inclined to give some benefit to common sense in the case of pool diarrhea.  I think the California Building Code may have gone too far, living up to California’s reputation as a bit of a ninny when it comes to regulations.  From a brief review, it seems like localities could make local amendments to the building code, and make themselves diarrhea-sign free zones.  I would support that in my neighborhood.  But it’s work to do that, and we can agree it’s not the most pressing problem.

What about the 14 days part?  Must our language always be so bureaucratic?  Do we just need a simpler sign that says: Be Cool About The Pool?  Should the sign also be in Spanish?

Do we have a case study here in how rules, once made, tend to stay just through inertia?  Is this a case of an annoying nanny state, or a reasonable public health measure?  I suppose if it gives an occasional chuckle and a helpful reminder, it’s not so bad.  Just a bit of local color.

 

 


George P.A. Healy (G.P.A. Healy)

Healy was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the eldest of five children of an Irish captain in the merchant marine. Having been left fatherless at a young age, Healy helped to support his mother. At sixteen years of age he began drawing, and at developed an ambition to be an artist. Jane Stuart, daughter of Gilbert Stuart, aided him, loaning him a Guido’s “Ecce Homo”, which he copied in color and sold to a country priest. Later, she introduced him to Thomas Sully, by whose advice Healy profited, and gratefully repaid Sully in the days of the latter’s adversity.

so far as I know no relation, there are plenty of Healys and Helys from here to Australia.

He painted Tyler

and drew Grant.

He’s got a few that have appeared in the White House, like this one, The Peacemakers.


Earthquake?

 

or something more?  Let’s get a more detailed atlas…

Lotta shakin’ and quakin’ going on at Naval Weapons Center China Lake (Restricted Area).

I’m prepared to conclude this was no earthquake, but the escape or an attempted escape of a captured UFO.

Interesting thing about this area: though desolate it’s dotted with petroglyphs, some alleged to be 10,000 years old.


Yolo -> Yo lo vi

Interested in the Goya drawing, in his series Los Desastres de la Guerra, where his only commentary is “yo lo vi.”  I saw it.  What else is there to say sometimes?

 

 


RIP Larry Kramer

stolen from behind a Harper’s paywall and presented to you, the Helytimes reader.


The statement is not only humorous, but also it is literally true

Tired: Buffett

Wired: Sir John Templeton

(Inspired: Charlie Munger)


Economist Digest, May 23, 2020

I’m doing it.  I’m publishing a semi-regular digest of The Economist, as least during quar and semi-quar times.  This is a public service I can provide with joy.  So rare to find those opportunities, we must seize them.

Truly, only about one in four issues of The Economist really sinks in with me.  More than that, well, it’s just too much information!  The problem of our times.  I don’t know how editor Zaddy Bellowes does it!  Can she really read this whole thing, every week?  And truly comprehend it?

Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo Monika Flueckiger. This was taken at Davos, duh.

Same Q for David Remnick of The New Yorker.  What a run!  A pretty good magazine, every single week!

From this week we learn:

  • Mexico’s President, AMLO, truly loves PEMEX, the state oil company.

Instead, he finds beauty in oil wells.  He is openly nostalgic for the days when Pemex, the state oil company, was the engine of Mexico’s prosperity… he has promised $15 billion worth of aid to the company.

Worth noting that an oil company like Exxon Mobil is competing with the force of entire nations.  $15 billion extra to PEMEX, how much is that by comparison?  Well Exxon spends about $240 billion in a year.  So not a drop in the bucket, exactly, but not nothing.

  • How about this?

“He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”

Joe Biden?  No, FDR, to whom Lexington compares the former VP in their column.  That description from an unnamed contemporary commentator.

“It’s striking how much time Joe is devoting to governing,” says Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Biden confident.

Really?  What does that even mean?  I saw Joe Biden on a fundraising Zoom the other day, he was chilling out in what looked like his living room.  The Economist seems bullish on Joe, who’s having a good pandemic.

 

  • from a piece about increased efficiency in solar panels (buy desert real estate, people!)

The amount of energy in artificial lighting is vastly less than that in sunshine. Nevertheless, dr. Brown and Dr. Fahlteich have found, according to a paper they published this month in Cell Reports Physical Science, that their cells can achieve a conversion efficiency of up to 22.6%, thereby producing enough juice to run small, low-power devices like wireless sensors and remote-control units, which would otherwise require batteries.

Though it may seem odd to turn artificial, indoor lighting into electrify, given that it has been created from electricity in the first place, the truth is that all such light which does not end up entering a human eye is wasted.

  • Israel.  I’ve saved a lot of time in my life by just staying out of arguments about Israel.  What could I possibly offer?  Look at the complexity of this map:

Consider the size of what we’re looking at here when compared to, say, LA:

  • and finally, from an obituary for Little Richard:

“Goog Golly Miss Molly” was something is old toothless Aunt Lulu said when they put marijuana in her tobacco pipe


Dirty trick by Carousel Books

Because anybody can publish and sell texts that are in the public domain, lots of crap publishers flood Amazon with cheaply printed paperbacks of the classics.  These editions are flimsy, often with odd shapes and ugly typefaces.  If you’re serious about reading a book, it’s worth it, in my opinion, to pay up for the Penguin edition.  (This is especially true of translations, I learned this the hard way when I bought the Dover Thrift version of Chekhov’s The Seagull in college, which seemed like it had been translated by an ape).

The snakes over at Carousel Books, knowing this, deliberately made their cover look like a Penguin classic!  Very sneaky, Carousel.  Look close at the cover, you can see the degraded quality of the image, the shape is all off.  It sucks!

Maybe it’s my fault for imagining Penguin, publishers of Morrissey, would include a clown like Chesterton in their ranks.

 


Guides to New Orleans

 

A medical expert once described the difficulty of surgery on the liver, a soft, fragile organ that can shred in your hands and rip with every stitch.  The heart is a hard lump of muscle, but the liver is delicate spongy tissue.  Manhattan is a rocky island, San Francisco is as solid and situation at the end of a long peninsula; those cities are as clearly defined as a fist or a heart.  But think of New Orleans as a liver, an expanse of soggy land doing some of what a liver does, filtering poisons, keeping the body going, necessary to survival and infinitely fragile, hard to pull out of context, and nowadays deteriorating from more poison that it can absorb, including the ongoing toxins of the petroleum industry and the colossal overdose delivered by the 2010 BP blowout.  

from:

The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay – ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. 

You could be dead for a long time

so says Bob Dylan in Chronicles

New Orleans is illogical, upsetting.  It makes a mockery.  You start in Chicago, sensible enough, but float down the river and you end in African jungle, a Caribbean outpost of a forgotten empire, ruled by French pretension – but pretending to what, exactly?  No matter, it’s already forgotten.   What the jazz player and the performing drunk act and the crooked politician all act out is the tension: this shouldn’t be here.

Vivien Kent in The Fatback of America (1948, is she cancelled?)

The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week–yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.

Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume

Did not complete my reading of that book — it was too dense!  Every page was packed!  Every bite was sausage and spice, there was no rice.

In addition to the Atlas I had this one:

Books are good for getting ideas, but no information set in as permanent a form as a book should be trusted when it comes to New Orleans.  Whether it’s open, what night is good, intel of that nature must be gathered with by asking somebody, or a phone call, or maybe best of all by walking by.

One of these books gave us the notion to take the ferry to Algiers from the foot of Canal Street.  The book claimed it was free, I believe it was $2.50.  Small price to pay to be out on the river.

This book is just wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough.  What gifts Lee Sandlin left the world!  Lee begins his book by talking about how, when he waits for the bus in Chicago, the water under the grate at his feet is on its way to the Mississippi River, and on down to New Orleans.  This book has it all: Mike Fink, the New Madrid Great Shakes, the siege of Vicksburg.  And my God if he doesn’t make you feel like you’re really in Congo Square, or at one of the true Mardi Gras nights, a candlelight carnival, when the wildness could turn deadly, when they really thought they might summon the dead or the devil or worse.  I keep meaning to devote a longer post to Wicked River, but I shouldn’t miss this chance to recommend it.

New Orleans, populationwise, at 391,006, is about the size of Bakersfield, significantly smaller than Fresno.  Just a hair ahead of Wichita, Kansas.

One idea I really got out of the Snedeker Solnit Atlas is New Orleans as part of the Caribbean.  Bananas were shipped through here.  United Fruit Company, it was going down.  District Attorney Jim Garrison may have been off but he was not wrong to smell conspiracy everywhere.

There actually used to be an overnight ferry between here and Havana.  The mambo figures prominantly in New Orleans piano.  Professor Longhair.  It’s the Cuba Connection.

Steve Zahn’s character says in Tremé.  It was really funny in Treme to have a character whose main quality was how annoying he was about being “into” New Orleans.  If you’re really “into” New Orleans, does that not by itself prove that you don’t get it?  Is that all part of the joke?

Re: the banana connection, The Atlas had me go listen to Lil Wayne’s Six Foot Seven Foot.

Life is a bitch and Death is her sister

Sleep is the cousin what a fuckin’ family picture

This time last year I was in New Orleans.  From The Atlas we learn of the Money Wasters second line.  The WWOZ website confirms the date and a route for the parade, ending Under The 10, in the epic sonic canyon created by the concrete freeway overpass that takes I-10 across the city on its way to Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida.  What a time!  What a place!  When will we feel that free again?

A guy at the second line said to me

if it’s Sunday in New Orleans and you ain’t at the second line you’re either stupid or dumb

When the wind is right it’s said you can see a dead body in the ruins of the Hard Rock Hotel.  A living ghost story: how New Orleans is that?

Commerce

I’ve been thinking about New Orleans, and listening to WWOZ.

 


Yes! Same!

from the WSJ’s obituary of James Sherwood (paywall, prob’ly)

His work with cargoes in France and England exposed Mr. Sherwood to the inefficiencies of loading goods at docks with rigid union work rules. That experience made him an early convert to the use of standardized steel containers, which could be loaded elsewhere and delivered to docks by train or truck.

In 1965, he founded London-based Sea Containers to buy containers and lease them to companies moving goods. His initial investment of $25,000 gave him a 50% stake. When the company went public in the late 1960s, he was suddenly rich, “free to move my life forward any way I wanted,” as he later put it.

Though I’ve thought much and even written about containerization, I never fully considered the union busting aspect.

Containerization is incredible.  That such a simple idea – use a standardized box – took so long to come up with.  That is was willed into reality by one man.  The amount that it changed the world.  Every port city in the world was changed.  The ports became charmless factory zones.  No more On The Waterfront.  Walmart could not exist without containerization.  The relationship of the United States and China is formed by what containerization did to shipping.  We send them empty boxes, they send us full boxes.

Must relocate my copy!


Still can’t believe they did this to us

is the Food Pyramid the greatest conspiracy of all time?

This was EVERYWHERE when I was a kid, firmer and more common than the Ten Commandments.

I’m sure there’s a podcast about it, or a Slate piece.

Maybe my new thing will be “mild conspiracy theories” (the conspiracies themselves will be mild, not the theories.  The theories will be wild).


Coming out of quar

I call this picture “Reflection”

Once I was in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada doing a ridealong with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  In Yellowknife in the winter the sun comes up at 10am and goes down again by 3:15pm.  It’s dark and cold and tough to get through the winter.  But the Mountie sergeant told me the problems happen when spring starts.  It’s the coming out that people can’t handle.

It’s my perception here in southern California that people are beginning to re-enter the world.  Traffic is returning to upsetting levels.  We’re still a long way from where we were, most stores are shut down, but I get the sense people consider themselves done with lockdown.

I wonder if coming out of quarantine will be harder or at least crazier than being in it!

 


What is up with the stock market?

The US unemployment rate is 14.7%, the worst since the Depression.  Here in LA County it’s 24%.  We’re not supposed to leave our houses for non-essential purposes or go to the beach.  Every bar is closed, almost every store is closed.

And yet the “stock market” is not really down that much.  Here is a one year chart of the S&P 500, which The Wall Street Journal often uses as a standard benchmark for “the stock market.”

Actually a little higher than it was same time last year.

How can this be?

There are many explanations offered by people better informed than me.  Here is Gunjan Banerji’s take in WSJ, and Joe Weisenthal in Bloomberg.

Both point out:

  • the belief in a v-shaped or “Nike swoosh”* recovery
  • the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates at close to zero
  • the Federal Reserve buying $2.4 trillion in government debt, and indicating it would buy more, making it clear that the government can inject essentially infinite money into the economy, “backstopping” everything.

As an amateur enthusiast on this topic, I’d like to offer some additional explanations.

  • The stock market is rigged to go up.  This is just a sort of understood but rarely stated fact.  The stock market is one of the few measures the President cares about.  Every tool at the disposal of the administration and at the supposedly independent Fed is used to keep the stock market up.

 

  • The stock market by definition is big, public companies.  These are the S&P 500 companiesBig companies are benefitting from the demise of their various small competitors.  Big companies can survive by taking on debt in ways small businesses can’t.  They did a great job getting a chunk of the federal money made available.  Consider if I have Steve’s Burger Stand.  I just don’t have the bureaucratic ability, relationships, time, to get a loan the way Shake Shack did.  If anything, are huge companies are seeing their small scale competitors destroyed?
    • Kind of an addendum to the last one: the federal government gave out the free money via big banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, BlackRock which themselves are part of the S&P 500!  Big boys feed first!

 

  • Money has nowhere else to go.  The Fed’s actions reduce the benefits of alternative investments like bonds or just putting your money in the bank.

 

  • Trading has become free! I feel crazy that this never gets mentioned.  Starting with Schwab (I think?) last fall, and then flowing on to competitors, trading stocks became free.  Instead of $8 or $4 to trade stocks, it’s free!  You might think this might’ve just created more volatility, maybe it did, but once the barrier to entry for the retail investor is zero, it’s as easy to flow your extra money into the stock market as it is into the bank.  This is, in my opinion, a dangerous or at least explosive change that hasn’t really been reckoned with.  See what Robin Hood is up to.  It might be as easy to bet your money on Tesla or Amazon as it is to tuck it away in the bank.  It’s frictionless, it can be done on your phone.  That might be dangerous!

 

  • There’s nowhere else to gamble.  Again, I feel crazy that this is never acknowledged as a factor.  Consider that Americans spend something like $100 billion on gambling a year.  At the moment, there’s nowhere to do that!  Casinos are closed.  Sports are stopped.  I do not think it’s unreasonable to imagine there are billions of dollars in gambling money going into the stock market as simply a place to gamble and trade.  See Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports, who personally injected half a million dollars.

I’m not here to make predictions.  It’s probably a cognitive bias to believe the stock market “deserves” to go down, but that’s what I believe.  Then again, when you think about the stock market, it’s not just rich assholes, it’s like the pensions of firefighters and teachers.

Is it possible that the stock market is not calculating the biggest risk, some kind of massive social upheaval coming from disgust at this system?  The stock market is not built to calculate “what if we ruin society, make things so unequal and so unfair and grotesque that this system no longer functions?”

Maybe that’s “baked in” as they say.

So said Warren Buffett at the annual meeting.  Happened to be reading this speech by Stanley Druckenmiller from 2015 which I found on Valuewalk:

Remember your competition:

This chart is illuminating:

It’s good for me to write about the stock market, because I’m guaranteed to get an email saying something like you stupid clown you don’t understand anything.  But the more I study the stock market, the more convinced I am that sometimes the experts, overwhelmed by information, become blind to the obvious.  Consider this case reported by Bloomberg as a representative example.  Do you really need to use a machine-reading program to determine that things are looking a bit grim?

There’s the famous story about Joe Kennedy knowing it was time to sell when the shoeshine boy gave him stock tips (bullshit, he was insider trading).  What if you’re the shoeshine boy?

* I don’t understand the Nike swoosh recovery idea.  Isn’t the long part of the swoosh roughly equal to the short part?  So in a swoosh recovery, wouldn’t we just take a very long time to get back to where we were?  and that’s the optimistic take!


how . . . ‘flexible’?