Scrapbasket

Some local street art (by Bandit?).  Since painted over I believe.  At least I can’t find it.

Photo I took in William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS.

from this WSJ commentary by Kate Bachelder Odell about leadership failures in the US Navy.

“Soldiers bathing, North Anna River, Va.–ruins of railroad bridge in background,” by Timothy O’Sullivan.  May 1864.  The work of Timothy O’Sullivan has my attention.  Follow his photos on the Library of Congress and you’ll travel in time.

by Alexander Hope.

Original Caption: Subway train on the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan, New York. The problem of how to move people and goods is ultimately bound up with the quality of life everywhere. The lands adjacent to the Bight, rivers flowing into it, and bays and estuaries edging it have direct upon the environment of the coastal water. The New York, New Jersey metropolitan region is one of the most congested in the world, 05/1974.

Just thought this was funny.


San Francisco (and Los Angeles)

Earlier this year, you moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. How is the transition going?

It felt like the opening minute of Randy Newman’s song “I Love L.A.” Looking back on the twentieth century, I recall it was Los Angeles that was always the city of the future, and the city of craft and guilds. Every movie was essentially a six-month startup that brought together know-how and expertise from so many different areas: art, set design, costume, carpentry—and all the weirdly named professions like grips, gaffers, and boom operators. That ethos still lives on in the spirit of the place. With SpaceX and other aerospace companies making headway, I wouldn’t discount Southern California in the race to become the next big creative cluster. Of course, Sacramento may ruin the entire state before that happens. But that’s another story.

Michael Gibson (had never heard of) in City Journal.  Gibson wrote a piece for City Journal where he called San Francisco “America’s Havana.”  He pointed out inarguable problems with San Francisco, which is a shocking mess.

But, like Havana, San Francisco is also magical.  There’s just something about it.  Maybe it’s the drastic geography, set on hillsides over a bay that’s both perfect and hidden.  The sea air is part of it, for sure, and the lushness of the flora.  In both Havana and San Francisco, the very air is magical.

When you read the history of San Francisco, a certain tolerance of criminality always seems to have been part of the mix.  Stepping over a druggie passed out on the street wouldn’t’ve been unfamiliar to a resident of Gold Rush-era San Francisco or Barbary Coast San Francisco, or the 1940s San Francisco that inspired all the noir movies.

I’ve had in my files this bit by Lillian Symes from a 1932 Harper’s, reprinted from the archive:

The city of cheap yet superb living:

More:

When I got to LA in 2004, I found the living superb.  It was cheaper than New York City, but I’m not sure it could really be called cheap.  And it’s gotten less cheap.  Readers, where would you say, these days, the living is cheap yet superb?

San Francisco scenes:

 


Uh oh


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.

 


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?

 

 


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.

 


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’?


Buffett bits (and Munger)

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

 

Is there simpler investment advice?

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

I didn’t know about this event:

from the National Archives:

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

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

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

previous coverage of Buffett and Charlie Munger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about this:

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

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

And then by Question 33 he really gets going.

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

Buffett is like beer, Munger is like whiskey.

(via latticeworkinvesting)


The goal: being in power

Baffled by politics in the last four years or so, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this Bagehot column in The Economist from 21 Dec 2019.

It’s probably behind a paywall for non-subscribers, but I’ll try and give the jist.  In the 20th and (so far) 21st centuries the Conservatives have been in power for longer than any other party.  Why?

It’s because the Conservative Party views their job as being in power.  That’s it.  That’s their meaning and their purpose.  The Conservative Party is not guided by any principles or beliefs or philosophies.  It may pretend to be, individual members may be, that might be part of the whole stew, but the job of the party is to be in power.

Evelyn Waugh once complained that the Tories had never succeeded in turning the clock back for a single minute. But this is exactly why they have been so successful. The party has demonstrated a genius for anticipating what Harold Macmillan once called “the winds of change”, and harnessing those winds to its own purposes.

They keep their eyes on the mission:

The Conservatives have always been quick to dump people or principles when they become obstacles to the successful pursuit of power. Theresa May immediately sacked her two chief advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, after the party’s poor performance in 2017, whereas Jeremy Corbyn is still clinging on to Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne after Labour’s devastating failure last week.

Mr. Johnson keeps with this tradition:

He succeeded in this where Mrs May failed because he possessed the other great Tory weapons. He has been willing to sacrifice anything in the pursuit of office. Beneath the bumbling exterior lies a ruthless, power-seeking machine. His withdrawal of the whip from 21 colleagues (some of them close friends) in September made Macmillan’s “night of the long knives” in 1962 look tame.

When I try to think about American politics, it helps to imagine that the Republican Party understands its job: getting power, keeping power, staying in power.  The issues are irrelevant as long as they serve this goal.  That’s why various attacks about the absolute hypocrisy of “pro life”ideas, or pretend deficit hawkishness, or “small government” –> enormous bailouts whenever necessary, etc etc just don’t stick or have any meaning.  You’re falling for the game if you fall for that.

Now, what the point of the Democratic Party is I’m not sure.  It might be “losing nobly,” or something, as evidenced by the career of this longtime Democratic operative and summed up by this speech.  Or maybe it’s “not appearing too extreme.”  Or “making people feel ok about themselves.”  In any case, it’s not as focused a mission, and it’s not gonna be as successful until it gets figured out.

Maybe the Democrats need to remember what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s supposed mentor, Saul Alinsky, put bluntly:

Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!

Source on that.


The quar

Says Science Friday:

Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) passed a law establishing trentino, or a 30-day period of isolation for ships arriving from plague-affected areas. No one from Ragusa was allowed to visit those ships under trentino, and if someone broke the law, they too would be isolated for the mandatory 30 days. The law caught on. Over the next 80 years, Marseilles, Pisa, and various other cities adopted similar measures.

Within a century, cities extended the isolation period from 30 to 40 days, and the term changed from trentino to quarantino—the root of the English word quarantine that we use today.

By my count today, Sunday, is day 22.

Halftime?

It took me this long to lock into some good habits and practices.  The first weeks were decadent and messy.  A key rule for me: must something positive before I’m allowed to pick up at my phone and chug horrific news and takes.

Some changes and observations from Hunker Down Times:

  • really appreciating and being careful with my use of paper products.  Paper towels.  Used to be really free with the paper towels, I hope I’m learning paper towel discipline that will last.  In years to come, perhaps some psychology will be done on why people seemed to be so focused on toilet paper.  Freudian?

 

 

  • Part of the Zoom revolution.  Why is Zoom so good when Facetime and Skype I bristle at?  I don’t know.  Easy to use I guess, not forcing me to link it with my Facebook or whatnot.  Zoom, in my opinion, is really good for work but bad for socializing.  We’ve been achieving great results – efficient with time, focused – with four or so person Zoom work meetings.  But a Zoom hang feels oppressive.  There’s no breaking off into and reforming from small groups, the organic flow that drives a larger social gathering.

 

  • Before this all happened, I’d had some conversations re: a possible movie about Bob Hope.  Why did they love Bob Hope enough to name the airport after him?  By the time I was alive Bob Hope was beyong a relic. A lot of aspects of his personal character were unpleasant.  He was cheap, mean, selfish, self-absorbed, an off-the-charts womanizer and #MeToo bad guy.  His later USO tours were really just an elaborate way to avoid his wife and score poon and work in front of an easy audience when no one was paying.  His comedy doesn’t stand up.  But during ‘rona times, I’m understanding (a bit) why Bob Hope was so important at the time.

If anyone could consistently make me laugh right now I’d be into it.

If anyone could consistently make me laugh right now I’d be into it.

  • Loving the DJ sets of D-Nice.  (We watch by screenmirroring Instagram story onto Apple TV?).  Dancing and plagues go together.  What about the tarantella, which you were supposed to dance to cure yourself of a tarantula bite?

In the Italian province of Taranto, Apulia, the bite of a locally common type of wolf spider, named “tarantula” after the region, was popularly believed to be highly venomous and to lead to a hysterical condition known as tarantism. This became known as the Tarantella. R. Lowe Thompson proposed that the dance is a survival from a “Dianic or Dionysiac cult”, driven underground. John Compton later proposed that the Roman Senate had suppressed these ancient Bacchanalian rites. In 186 BC the tarantella went underground, reappearing under the guise of emergency therapy for bite victims.

What was going on with the dancing plague of 1518?

When I read about it it sounds like maybe we’re misunderstanding anti-dance party propaganda?

Bruegel was a good dance painter:

  • I liked the Queen’s speech:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.

And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any.

That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.

The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.

I like when leaders comprehend that tone, cheer, humor, is part of the job.  All the greats knew that.  If your guy has a nasty, sarcastic, unpleasant tone, you’ve got the wrong guy.

  • In other news, I found this to be a cool friendship:

Hope all Helytimes readers are keeping it chill.


Fire In The Lake

The photos of refrigerated trucks ready for bodies in New York City reminded me of this memorable passage in Fire In The Lake by Frances Fitzgerald:

The sight of the coffins reassured the soldiers because it showed them not only that the Front cared about their future, but that it could fulfill its promises. The provision of the coffins was, after all, a logistical triumph, and, as such, a sign that the Front had the power to reweave the society and restore its continuity through past, present and future.

Seeing refrigerated morgue trucks on the news does not reassure me, nor does it convince me that the authorities can fulfill their promises!

Dark stuff, we’ll return to more whimsical subject matter soon, we know no one is coming to Helytimes to get bummed out!

 


Spreading the virus

There’s a phenomenon on social media I’ve been meaning to discuss on Helytimes, but I don’t know how to bring it up without being guilty of what I’m talking about.  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  It’s this: sharing something that’s bad.

This is incredibly common on Twitter.  It might be the main driving engine on Twitter.  “Dunking on” stuff might be the most common category. of this.  You see something you don’t like, or that’s bad, or wrong, and you make fun of it.  But in doing so, you are also of course spreading it further.  Here’s an example:

Here’s another one:

 

 

One more:

I don’t mean to pick on these people, these are all pretty innocent examples (and I’ve done the same or worse), but you see what I’m talking about.  It’s when you go, look at this shit!  It sucks!

And I’m like well maybe I wouldn’t have even seen the shit if you didn’t tell me about it.

Sometime around 2014 or so I heard someone point out that Twitter has outsized power because every journalist is on it.  Non-stop.  It almost just a chat room for journalists (and media people).  Journalists are drawn to spread the news, good and bad.  Spreading the news is their job and I hope their passion.  But what if what you’re spreading is bad, or unhelpful?

Probably the answer is just to get off Twitter, but I’m addicted to the news.  It’s very addicting!  I’m trying to work on not spreading anything bad, even if it’s funny or entertaining or exciting or, maybe most tempting of all, outrageous.


fast and decisive adjustments

This struck home, read it in a Sequoia Capital memo someone Twittered.

Also in the category of: clear writing from people in the world of VC/tech financing, an anecdote retold by Morgan Housel

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.

 


Primary tensions

It’s the night of the West Virginia primary, May 10, 1960.  Candidate John Kennedy, and Ben Bradlee, then Washington Bureau chief for Newsweek, cut the tension by going to see a porno:

(You can see the trailer here, it does seem like soft stuff by our standards)

Good luck out there voters, I hope your favorite candidate wins!