The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition by Chris Wilson

Santa Fe is old. Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is older than Boston, older than Plymouth, older than any town in New England, older than any still-existing town in Virginia, older than Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans. Quebec City is only two years older.

Santa Fe was laid out on the prinicples of the Laws of the Indes.

The Laws codified seventy years of Spanish town planning experience in the Americas and drew from a variety of European sources, Roman and Renaissance planning theory from Vitruvius to Alberti, monastic complexes and military encampments, and the siege towns built during the reconquest of Spain from the Moors.

Santa Fe is almost medieval, laid out (like Los Angeles) according to the Laws in a place “in an elevated and healthful location; with means of fortification; fertile soil with plenty of land for farming and pasturage; have fuel, timber and resources; fresh water, a native population.” It’s still has fresh water running right through it, it’s in an elevated and healthful location, timber and resources, a native population. It has the feel of being old, it’s small, it’s at a high, almost intoxicating altitude, it’s surrounded by forest and mountains, it’s charming and special. But in 2021, real estate is incredibly expensive, the buying of second homes is a huge force in the city. Is Santa Fe becoming a tourist attraction of itself? Is there the authentic still there? What even counts as authentic? How does this happen to a city?

This book The Myth of Santa Fe was for sale in Albuquerque, which struck me as funny, since I’d never seen it in Santa Fe. Comical to sell a book about how your rival city is a myth.

The New Deal populists of the 1930s sought to balance the myth of Santa Fe between the economic necessity of tourism and the use of its symbols to promote more broadly conceived social objectives such as public education and local economic self-sufficiency. Progressive regionalism peaked again in the early 1970s, with the counterculture and the Chicano and environmental movements.

But in the 1980s, this balance tilted almost completely toward the manipulation of the myth as a tourism marketing image. Simultaneously Ronald Reagan led a reallocation of resources from social programs to the military and from the lower and middle classes to the wealthy. Some of those with conspicuous new wealth were attracted to the city by the upsurge of international publicity that projected Santa Fe as a Tahiti in the desert, bathed in rosy sunsets, and elevated it (or reduced it, depending on your point of view) to a chic style of interior design and a world-class tourist destination.

The book is great, it functions as an informative and readable history of the city, as well as a catalogue of cultural shifts in self-understanding, belief, feelings towards that history which took form in architecture. Here’s a great summary of the book from 99% Invisible. Roughly the story told is how Santa Fe tried to be not Santa Fe, then stopped not being Santa Fe and switched to being more Santa Fe than ever (or at least an idea of Santa Fe, which may or may not have ever been the “real” Santa Fe) maybe to the point that it became so “Santa Fe” it risks not being Santa Fe any longer.

What is authentic, really?


San Luis Obispo

A couple years had passed since I’d last taken the train up to SLO. The town appears to be prospering. The Thursday night farmers market and Halloween festivities were full of happy faces, the farm produce looked amazing, the grilled meats smelled good. There are multiple stores that sell like soaps and globes and mugs and scarves. And places called like

The creek runs right through town. A fantasy would be to open a Japanese style inn alongside it, in about 300 years you might have a decent ryokan. Kids were on campus at Cal Poly, they looked healthy and vital. School pride there feels abundant, and it’s my sense that the learning there is practical and focused. Is the more famous Cal Poly alum Ozzie Smith or Weird Al Yankovich?

The Central Coast cadence of chill can be overheard everywhere, over pale ale and pinball at Lincoln Market for sure. Del Monte Cafe, La Loconda, Big Sky Cafe, Mistura all make my list. Dr Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab unfortunately somewhat disappoints. The “lab” theme is simply not maniacal enough.

Several California towns I’ve visited in the last year have a hollowed out feel, the main streets shells, but San Luis Obispo feels alive. I’ve never failed to feel good after a journey there. A small house in town will run you $600k at least, and there are not many available. In previous October visits the weather’s been brisk, but this time the air was quite toasty. Three or four visits over a few years is not a fair sample size, so I wouldn’t consider this science, but I feel the climate is changing.

Bought these at Phoenix Books, where I’ve never failed to score:

The Garden Street Inn has been taken over by Hilton, but not to worry, it’s still weird and the staff are still friendly and the rooms retain their individual themes (not on Madonna Inn level, just small touches).

Any traveler on Amtrak should expect a two hour or so delay somewhere along the line, and at least one semi deranged fellow passenger, but the Coast Starlight still can’t be beat for oceanside leisure travel. For lunch I had a baked potato with vegan chili, cheese, and half a bottle of Dark Harvest cab, tell me where you can have a better lunch at 50 mph.

WNBA should return to this fit

The mission in SLO is one of the more inviting California missions in its architecture, in my opinion. The town was named for St. Louis of Toulouse. Three hundred years after, the mission of converting California to Catholicism must be declared a failed project but the lingering relics of the medieval Spanish priests are significant and still impress.

“The solidity of justice,” my dad commented on my photos of the county courthouse.


The murder of Jane Stanford

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

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

haunted looking couple

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

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

I quote from Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

source

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


Warrior of Capestrano

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

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

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

Capestrano is a town in Abruzzo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Madonna should cover it?

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

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

The Lady of Capestrano:


Buffett and Munger speak: Berkshire Hathaway 2021 oddities and highlights

Augy18400 for wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

On BNSF railroad:

15% of the interstate goods move on our railroad

Competition for BNSF, and for Geico:

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

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

Becky: (02:33:27)
BNSF.

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

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

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

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

On interest rates:

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

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

Weird, did not know that. Buffett goes on:

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


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

Buffett goes on to invoke the St. Peterburg paradox.

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

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

On the market as a casino:

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


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

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

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

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

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

I love the dodge here on a question about Bitcoin:

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

A quality of a great business:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The juices flow, indeed.


NFTs, digital artifacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck to all the players.

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


Nomadland

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

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

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

depraved.

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

more:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

four score and seven years ago our forefathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye.


How the Chevalier de Méré met Blaise Pascal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the story of Pascal and Fermat!

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


Coaches, Super Bowl LV

George in Pennsylvania writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gage Skidmore for WIkipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interesting take on the Reddit / GameStop business

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

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

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

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


Value investing, growth investing, and vibes investing

or

The Vibes Speculator

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

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

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

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

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

Check out Marks summary of value investing, paragraph four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for value investing.

Then there’s growth investing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or take Amazon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vibes Investing.

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

We believe Vibes Investing has a bright future.

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Malone

source

A man worth study.  

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

from this conversation with Trgyve Myhren at The Cable Center

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

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

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

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

Or this:

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

From a 2012 interview with Mark Robichaux at Multichannel News:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Top 8 of 2020

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

Primary Tensions

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

The Supernova Petroglyph

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

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

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

Buffett Bits (and Munger)

always a popular top.

Daniel Vickers

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

The Wanderer’s Hávámal by Jackson Crawford

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

The Illusion of Choice.

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

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

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

Hope you’re all keeping well and safe.


Layers of Christmas songs

By 1958, when Brenda Lee is singing “Rockin Around The Christmas Tree,” we have a Christmas song that’s playing on the existing corpus of Christmas music. “Let’s rock up those old Christmas classics,” is the theme of a song from sixty years ago.

In 1957, Elvis sings “Blue Christmas,” already playing on “White Christmas,” a song from 1940.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing. One day he told his secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

The Charlie Brown Christmas Special aired in 1965. If you saw it as a ten year old, you are now eligible for Social Security.

Schulz was adamant about Linus’ reading of the Bible, despite Mendelson and Melendez’s concerns that religion was a controversial topic, especially on television. Melendez recalled Schulz turned to him and remarked, “If we don’t do it, who will?”. Schulz’s estimation proved accurate, and in the 1960s, less than 9 percent of television Christmas episodes contained a substantive reference to religion, according to university researcher Stephen Lind. It could also be worth noting that Linus’s recitation of Scripture was incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.

Just musing on both the meta quality of Christmas music and the accruing of material in a way that is both comforting and emotionally potent.

It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy—”just like the ones I used to know”—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. A few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Crosby introduced “White Christmas” on a Christmas Day broadcast. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus.

Already we’re deep in nostalgia.

The poetry in some of these songs:

So I’m offering this simple phrase

To kids from one to ninety two

And of course, most powerful:

Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now


The Coen Brothers Interviews

If you’re out in Hollywood, you probably have a relationship with the movies. Even just at the most basic level, the movie theaters are better here. There are the big movie palaces, Grauman’s Chinese and all that, for special occasions, and The Aero and the Egyptian, but just for everyday moviegoing, I’ll take the Arclight over any place I went to in New York City. There’s now an Arclight in Boston, and a few elsewhere, but man, when I first got to LA I was like OK, here’s how to see a movie.

Of course, you may think you’re pretty into movies, and then you dive in and realize, whoa, some of these people are into movies. I remember hearing a talk by Steve Zalian at some Writers Guild thing where he mentioned he’d seen Serpico ninety times. Doesn’t appear to be online, but there’s a 2014 Playboy interview with David Fincher where he talks about movies he’d seen a hundred times or so. Listen to Brad Pitt and Leo on Maron talk about watching movies with Quentin Tarantino.

You’re liable to be quickly humbled as just a movie fan once you encounter the level of movie fan out here. Some people make their whole identity as film enthusiasts and amateur or semi-pro critics. Not everyone who’s obsessed with movies is a big success at them:

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those girls, those aspiring starlets? Do they sit around in Schwab’s drugstore, or the Brown Derby, or whatever?

SOUTHERN

In the beginning, they come to Hollywood, presumably, with the idea of the action. Then they find out that you can’t even get into any of these buildings without an agent, that there’s no possibility of getting in, that even a lot of the agents can’t get in. Meanwhile a substitute life begins, and they get into the social scene, you know. They’re working as parking attendants, waitresses, doing arbitrary jobs . . .

INTERVIEWER

Hoping that somebody will see them?

SOUTHERN

Finally they forget about that, but they’re still making the scene. They continue to have some vague peripheral identification with films—like they go to a lot of movies, and they talk about movies and about people they’ve seen on the street, and they read the gossip columns and the movie magazines, but you get the feeling it’s without any real aspiration any longer. It’s the sort of vicariousness a polio person might feel for rodeo.

Terry Southern, talking to The Paris Review. Not clear what year that interview was conducted, certainly well before 1995, when Southern died.

I’d been obsessing over the Conversations With Writers series from the University Press of Mississippi. Browsing their website, I saw they had a whole Conversations With Filmmakers series. The website had a spot where you could request a review copy, so I asked for a review copy of The Coen Brothers Interviews, and Courtney at UP of Miss very kindly sent me one.

These books take the form of collections of interviews published elsewhere. There are 28 in this case, including a transcript of a Terry Gross interview, an Onion A.V. Club interview with Nathan Rabin, a Vogue profile (? was Vogue different in 1994) by Tad Friend. The interviews are often keyed to a particular movie out or in production at the time of the piece. This volume came out in 2006, and the last two short pieces, more articles than interviews, are focused on the soon to be released The Ladykillers.

There’s a thoughtful introduction as well by William Rodney Allen, who explores in particular and appropriately enough the connection the brothers have to the Mississippi Delta, as seen in O Brother Where Art Thou. I was surprised to learn from this book that Miller’s Crossing was shot in New Orleans.

“We looked around San Francisco, but you know what that looks like: period but upscale – faux period,” says Ethan. Then someone suggested New Orleans, parts of which surprisingly fit the bill. Outside of the distinctive French Quarter, there were plenty of places that could pass for a generic Anytown in the late 1920s. “New Orleans is sort of a depressed city; it hasn’t been gentrified,” says Ethan. “There’s a lot of architecture that hasn’t been touched, storefront windows that haven’t been replaced in the past sixty years.”

The Coen Brothers don’t seem particularly interested in being interviewed. Don’t take my word for it:

We often resist the efforts of… people who are interviewing us to enlist us in the process ourselves. And we resist it not because we object to it but simply because it ins’t something that particularly interests us.

so says Joel in an interview with Damon Wise of Moving Pictures magazine, which itself isn’t reprinted in this book, but is quoted in a Boston Phoenix piece from 2001 by Gerald Peary which you will find here. True enough, in most of the conversations the Coens seem game enough but not effusive, and the interviewers or profilers often have to do a bit of legwork themselves to find some meat. They ask why Hudsucker Proxy wasn’t more successful (“I dunno, why was Fargo not a flop?” replies Joel. “It’s as much a mystery to me that people went to see Fargo, which was something we did thinking ah, y’know, about three people will end up seeing it, but it’ll be fun for us”). They ask why the brothers are drawn to James M. Cain (“what intrigues us about Cain is that the heroes of his stories are nearly always schlubs – loser guys involved in dreary, banal existences,” says Joel, again).

One aspect of their career I hadn’t realized before I read this book was Joel’s relationship with Sam Raimi, who gave him a job as an assistant editor on Evil Dead.

Raimi had remarked that the Coens have several thematic rules: The innocent must suffer; the guilty must be punished; you must taste blood to be a man… Joel and Ethan shrugged, separately.

Barry Sonnenfeld was their first director of photography, I also hadn’t known that, perhaps common knowledge to true Coenheads.

In terms of moviemaking secrets, how to get them made, without interference and while maintaining a vision, as the Coens so consistently have, this might be the closest we come. Joel once more, talking to Kristine McKenna for Playboy, 2001:

Our movies are inexpensive because we storyboard our films in the the same highly detailed way Hitchcock did. As a result, there’s little improvisation. Preproduction is cheap compared with trying to figure things out on a set with an entire crew standing around.

Amazon has a couple other glitzier books on the Coens. This book is more raw data than polished product. Sometimes the interviews cover similar turf, or bore down on the specifics of some upcoming project. To me, I find you get a great deal from going to the source. Going to the source is a theme of Helytimes. This book is really a sourcebook, and that’s very valuable.

If not the Coens, perhaps another in the Conversations with Filmmakers series. There are 105! Errol Morris? David Lynch? Jane Campion? I’d like to read all of them, if I had but the time!

In my opinion, a book review should 1) give you some summary, basic idea, and nuggets of insight from the book and 2) give you enough info to know whether you should buy it or not.

I hope I’ve done that for you!


Crown Journeys series

sunglasses for scale

I was listening to Chuck Palahniuk on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (is this the second post in a row where I mention this podcast?  It’s not for everybody but I’m into it!)

You know, if somebody had given David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath fourteen issues of Spider-Man to do, they’d both still be alive

says Palahniuk early in the episode.  An outrageous claim.  But hey, I guess outrageous claims were what I was signing up for. Would ❤️ to read a Sylvia Plath Spider-man series.

Palahniuk isn’t a writer I’ve read much of, gross out, extremist fiction not being my kinda milkshake.  But when Palahniuk mentioned that he’d written a travel book about Portland, that got my attention.  Travel books I’m into.  So I got Palahniuk’s travel book, fugitives and refugees: A Walk In Portland, Oregon, which it turns out is part of a series Crown put out, Crown Journeys, where writers do a walking tour – sometimes pretty literally, sometimes in quotes – of a place they know well.

Turns out I’d read one of these already, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket.  I’d read that a few years back during a weeklong stay on Nantucket, but I remember nothing from it.  The book about Nantucket I like is Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, where I learned there was a neighborhood on Nantucket called New Guinea, full of people of color of various kinds.  Nantucket’s worth a post of her own someday.

Stuck homebound, I got a bunch of these Crown Journeys books.  An appealing quality of them is their size, just right to stuff in a bag:

Let’s start with Palahniuk’s.  It’s a travel guide plus a memoir, the voice is strong and he shows, even rubs your face in, the weirdness of that town, the grubbiness and beauty all swished up together.

Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean.  Once there, the cheapest city where they can life is Portland.  This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots.  The misfits among misfits.

The memory and madness:

Days, I’m working as a messenger, delivering advertising proofs form the Oregonian newspaper.  Nights, I wash dishes at Jonah’s seafood restaurant.  My roommates come home, and we throw food at each other.  One night, cherry pie, big sticky red handfuls of it.  We’re eighteen years old.  Legal adults.  So we’re stoned and drinking champagne every night, microwaving our escargot.  Living it up.

Palahniuk is clearly more into the sex trade, underground (literal and figurative) side of the town, but he covers the gardens too, along with the Self Cleaning House and Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the standout landmarks, along with a semi-autobiography full of vivid, intense incidents, like a beating and a moment with the mother of a dying hospital patient.

Although this book was published in 2003, reading it gives insight into why Portland is the arena of choice for “antifa” and far-night political violence LARPers and a fracture zone of America 2020.

The Seattle Public Library’s loss is my gain.

Next up, Roy Blount Jr.’s Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans.  

This one’s the best organized, divided into seven rambles: Orientation, Wetness, Oysters, Color, Food, Desire, Friends.  It’s full of jokes and stories and anecdote.  Of all the Crown Journeys I read, this one’s unsurprisingly the most focused on food.  How can you not want a “roast beef sandwich with debris” from Mothers, or a pan-fried trout topped with “muddy water” sauce: chicken broth, garlic, anchovies, and gutted jalapeños and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.”

Blout’s book is full of autobiography too, quoting from letters he wrote as a young man, describing nights and dinners, what New Orleans meant to him as a young man and what he found on frequent returns.

I’ll bet I have been up in N. O. at every hour in every season,

he says, a cool claim.

Towards the end of the book, Blount Jr. turns kind of reflective, ruminating with some regret on an incident of insensitivity, somewhere between misunderstanding and even cruelty, towards a homosexual friend that ended badly.  There’s an air of regret to it, and maybe that’s part of New Orleans, too.  Feet On The Street might work best of all of these, as a book.  I’ve read a lot of guides to New Orleans and this one’s a fine addition to the canon.

Blount’s a figure who doesn’t seem to quite exist as much any more, the sort of literary semi-comedian raconteur, where books are just one expression of a humorous personality.  Christopher Buckley’s another guy like that.

Washington Schlepped Here is, in my opinion, the worst titled of these books.  It’s a pun, first of all, but second, George Washington simply never “schlepped.”  Didn’t happen.  He was not a schlepper.  Buckley spends a paragraph or two dealing with the title, although he seems quite pleased with it.  “Pleased with himself” might be the most accurate criticism you could make of Christopher Buckley, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by his privileged charm.

Buckley’s Washington is strictly the Washington of our nation’s capital.  You won’t find anything in here about the majority black population of that city.  How can you write a book about Washington that doesn’t mention Ben’s Chili Bowl?  E. J. Applewhite’s Washington Itself, which Buckley quotes from copiously, is a richer one volume guide to the city.  But there’s a Yale-grade wit to Buckley, I won’t deny it.

I’ll let you prowl about.  There’s a lot to see: the Old Senate Chamber, Statuary Hall, the Crypt, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, along with enough murals, portraits, busts and bas reliefs to keep you going “Huh” for hours.”

Buckley takes the walking tour conceit the most seriously of any of the writers.  There’s a bummer element hanging over this book, as Buckley keeps pointing out how post-9/11 security procedures and jersey barriers have made wandering the capital city less free that in it used to be.  There’s a bit of filler to this one, too, as if Buckley’s sort of just taking the Wikipedia page to certain buildings and adding a few quips.  A few pages are devoted to musing on specific works in specific Mall art museums.  Several of the jokes rely casual shared stereotypes about politics, like that Republicans like martinis, that now feel like they’re from another universe (the book was published in 2003).

The best parts of this one come from Jeanne Fogle’s book Proximity to Power and Tony Pitch’s walking tour, both centered on Lafayette Square, which bring to life people who lived here.  Places are only so interesting. It’s people that get your attention.

James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg is just terrific.  A concise, powerful tour of the battlefield, rich in detail and incident, you’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller who knows his stuff deeply.  One of McPherson’s gifts is to take us not just to the battle as it happened, but to the battlefield as it’s remembered and preserved.  McPherson talks about the way the woodlands on the battlefield would’ve been more thinned out in 1863, who could see what from where, how small features of geography shaped those three days.  On the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge:

Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view.  Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered.  One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force.  Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slight.  The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks.  The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of Pennsylvania.  Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fused they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.

On such things does history turn? McPherson tells us details like that Company F of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle.

I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and was pretty familiar with the shape of the events and landscape.  But I’d wager this book would provide a pretty clear and readable introduction to the battle, even if you didn’t know very much about it.  Certainly it’s much easier to comprehend than Shelby Foote’s Stars In The Courses, another short volume about Gettysburg, which has a poetry to it, but good luck using it to decipher what happened where.

Kinky is not a word that I love, and comedy music makes me uncomfortable.  So I’ve never gotten too into Kinky Friedman.  But The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: a “walk” in Austin is pretty companionable.  Kinky is friends with George W. Bush, and has nothing bad to say about him (this one was published in 2004, so pre Iraq catastrophe).

There are a couple of notable omissions in this book.  The coolest part of Austin to me is Rainey Street, but that section’s conversion of porched houses into bars may post-date this work.  There’s also nothing about the Texas State Cemetery, which I believe is unique in the United States and tells you quite a bit about the values of Texas.  Maybe worth a book of its own.  Also, without explanation, Friedman tosses off that he’s never been inside the Texas Capitol Building, which is the centerpiece of Austin.

Is Austin the place of all these that has changed the most in the last twenty years?

Still, you’re on a fun ramble with a personality who’s committed to entertaining.  A thin volume, thick with schtick. I really liked Kinky’s introduction to Texas history, and the stuff about the ’70s music scene.  If you think calling a ghost an “Apparition-American” is funny, you’ll enjoy this book.  Really, any small book about Austin in this time of home-bounditude would’ve been appreciated by me.

Compact, entertaining guides to places, by writers who really have a voice – there should be more books like this.  I ate these up like cookies.  Surely Boston, Los Angeles/Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Savannah, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Honolulu, Charleston could all use books like this.  Brooklyn?

Hell I’d even read one about San Diego.

I’d like to write a book like this myself someday.  It might be interesting to try a travel book on a smaller scale than the whole world or all of Central and South America.


Founding Documents

Note to readers: from time to time we accept submissions written by correspondents about topics they’re passionate about that fit into our frame of going to the source.  Reader Billy Ouska sent us a writeup of something he’s passionate about, the founding documents of Facebook, and we’re proud to present it here.  If you’d like to write for us, send us a pitch!  – SH, editor. 

The Social Network (now available to stream on Netflix) tells the story of the creation of Facebook through portrayals of the legal battles over its ownership. In a pivotal scene, cofounder Eduardo Saverin flies out to Facebook headquarters to sign some seemingly innocuous legal documents. Of course, the cut to Mark Zuckerberg watching furtively from afar tells the viewer that something is up. We later discover that Saverin has signed off on corporate restructuring that will significantly dilute his equity in the company, leading to the lawsuit whose depositions serve as a narrative device for the film. (Moral of the story: know what you’re signing! If you don’t, hire a lawyer! If there’s a lawyer in the room, ask him, “do you represent me?” If he says no, get your own guy! If he says yes, make him put it in writing!)

We learn that Facebook was originally formed as a Florida limited liability company and that, through legal maneuvering, another Facebook entity was created in Delaware that acquired its Florida counterpart, giving it the ability to restructure ownership. I’m not here to delve into the legal tricks that were played; other corners of the internet have already done so. Instead, I’m here to talk about something even less interesting: entity formation documents!

Formation documents (what you file with a state to create a corporation or limited liability company) are almost always available to the public. If you know the state where the entity was created, you can easily find its initial records. So, after entering “Florida entity search” into your search engine of choice, you’ll get here. With some persistence, you should be able to find information on whatever company you’re looking for, like the initial Articles of Organization of thefacebook LLC:

Maybe it’s just me, but seeing a copy of these Articles feels almost historic, and maybe a bit inspirational. Facebook is now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but only sixteen years ago it was so green that its owners listed in a public document what look like their home addresses—no, even better, their parents’ home addresses—because they didn’t yet have an office. Mark’s address even has a typo: Dobbs Ferry is in New York, not Massachusetts. (Or, was this not a typo but rather the first of many times in which Zuckerberg would intentionally flout governmental authorities?!)

Even better is that the amended Articles of Organization are also available for viewing.

I don’t want to pull you even further into the weeds of corporate law (thanks for even making it this far!), but what I find cool here is that the amended Articles include an attachment laying out the reorganization that is signed by the man himself. Another slice of history! Think of how much impact, both positive and negative, that Facebook has had on the planet: the media industry, the outcome of the elections, the way we communicate. So much of that can be traced back to this document (and a thousand others not available for public viewing). Did Zuckerberg have any idea? Did he pause and contemplate before signing this? Did he scribble his signature without reading it, like Saverin would later do? If you squint hard enough, it can be fun to imagine the answers to these questions.

It looks like the first Articles of Organization were sent to the Florida secretary of state via fax. So, after it was run through the fax machine, the original was probably put in a file cabinet by the Organizer (Business Filings Incorporated) or thrown out. I’m guessing the amended Articles of Organization were prepared by a Palo Alto law firm, signed in Palo Alto, and then faxed or emailed to a third party in Tallahassee, which filed the documents with the Florida secretary of state. I would guess that the original in Palo Alto made its way into a client file somewhere.
Even I, a noted corporate records enthusiast, don’t think that these documents need or deserve the reverence afforded to the Constitution. But I do think there is value in making them public record. Every once in a while, they give a peek behind the curtain into the workings of the corporate world, which could probably benefit from some more transparency.

(PS: every state lets you access corporate records like these from the comfort of your home, though some states will require the creation of an account and/or the payment of a nominal fee to search. Just imagine what you could find!)

 


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.

 


April 19

We can never let a Patriots’ Day go by without reflecting on the events of April 19, 1775.  How did this happen?

The people of countryside Massachusetts at that time were probably the freest and the least taxed people in the British Empire.  What were they so mad about?

From my hometown of Needham, MA, almost every able bodied man went out.  What motivated people that morning to grab guns and shoot at their own army?

Lately I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s book on the first years of the American Revolution.  It’s interesting that Atkinson titled his book this, because as he himself notes:

Popular lore later credited him with a stirring battle cry – “The British are coming!” – but a witness quoted him as warning, more prosaically, “the regulars are coming out.”

The word would’ve gotten out anyway, because of information sent by light in binary code: one if by land, two if by sea.  (it was two).

Atkinson does a great job of laying out how tensions and feelings and fears and resentments escalated to this point.  George III and his Prime Minister Lord North (they’d grown up together, it’s possible they were half-brothers) miscalculated,  misunderstood, overreacted.

North held a constituency in Banbury with fewer than two dozen eligible voters, who routinely reelected him after being plied with punch and cheese, and who were then rewarded with a haunch of venison.

The image of a stern father disciplining a disobedient child seemed to guide George III/North government thinking.  Violently putting down rebellions was nothing new, even within the island of Britain.  Crushing Scottish revolt had been a big part of George III’s uncle’s career, for example.

From the British side, the disobedience did seem pretty flagrant, the Boston Tea Party being a particularly outrageous and inciting example, from a city known to be full of criminals and assholes.  The London government responded with the “Coercive Acts.”

With this disobedient child, the punishment didn’t go over well.  The mood had gotten very, very tense in Boston when the April 19 expedition was launched.

Everything about it went wrong.  Everybody was late, troops were reorganized under new commanders.  Orders were screwed up, the mission was unclear.  It was a show of force?  A search and destroy?  Both?  The experience for the soldiers in on it was awful: started out cold and wet, ended up lucky if you were alive and unmangled.

What the Lexington militia was up to when they formed up opposite the arriving Redcoats is unclear.  Did they intend to have a battle?  Doesn’t seem like it, why would they line up in the middle of a field?  There’d already been an alarm, and then a weird break where a lot of the guys went to the next door tavern and had a few.

Were they intending just kind of an armed protest and demonstration (as is common in the United States to this day)?

A lot of the guys in the Massachusetts militias had fought alongside the British army in the wars against the French and Indians.  Captain Parker of Lexington had been at Louisburg and Quebec.  How much was old simmering resentment of the colonial experience serving with professional British military officers a part of all this?

One way or another, a shot went off, and then it got out of hand very fast.  When it was over eight Lexington guys were dead.

The painting above is by William Barnes Wollen, he painted it in 1910.  Wollen was a painter of military and battle scenes.  He’d been in South Africa during the Boer War, so maybe he knew what an invading army getting shot at by locals was like.

Amos Doolittle was on the scene a few days after the events, interviewed participants, walked the grounds, and rendered the scene like this.

But Doolittle had propaganda motives.

After the massacre at Lexington the British got back into formation and kept moving.

They ran into another fight at Concord Bridge.

Information and misinformation and rumor became a part of the day.  The story spread that the British were burning Concord, maybe murdering people.

By now minutemen from all over were blasting away.  It must’ve been horrific.  Atkinson tells us that the British “Brown Bess” musket fired a lead slug that was nearly .75 of an inch in diameter (compare to, say, a Magnum .45, .45 of an inch).

How would history have been different if the British column had been completely wiped out, like Custer’s last stand?  It almost happened.  The expedition was saved by the timely arrival of reinforcements with two cannons.

The column avoided an ambush at Harvard Square, but several soldiers died in another gunfight near the future Beech and Elm Streets while three rebels who had built a redoubt at Watson’s Corner were encircled and bayoneted.  William Marcy, described as “A simple-minded youth” who thought he was watching a parade, was shot dead while sitting on a wall, cheering.

They were able to get back across the river and into Boston, minus 73 killed, 53 missing, 174 wounded.  A bad day in Massachusetts.

This event looms large in the American imagination: the gun-totin’ freedom lovers fighting off the government intrusion.  But the more you read about it the more it sounds like just a catastrophe for everyone involved.

Back in Needham the Rev. West reported:

In the evening we had intelligence that several of the Needham inhabitants were among the slain, and in the morning it was confirmed that five had fallen in the action and several others had been wounded. It is remarkable that the five who fell all of them had families, and several of them very numerous families so that there were about forty widows and fatherless children made in consequence of their death. I visited these families immediately, and with a sympathetic sense of their affliction I gave to some the first intelligence they had of the dreadful event, the death of a Husband and a Parent.
How about this footnote Clarke’s History Of Needham?

The details.