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.”


Food scene in Honolulu

Our post about the food scene in Papeete, Tahiti was one of the most popular posts ever on this site. The obvious conclusion: I should become a South Pacific food critic. You may think I’m not qualified, because I’ve spent no more than 25 days or so in the South Pacific, and that’s generously assuming we count New Zealand and Australia. You may think a South Pacific food critic should be a big jolly rotund character who loves food, not a picky eater with a skinny frame. But, we must follow where called, so here is our latest dispatch, on the food scene in Honolulu.

Above are the dumplings of the day (a spiced beef, on this particular day) at Koko Head Cafe, Lee Ann Wong’s (of Top Chef) brunch spot in the cool, chill Kaimuki neighborhood. Fantastic for post-hike feasts.

The Don Buri Chen is no joke, and the fish eggs are serious as well.

Shave ice, of course, this is at Kokonuts:

Obama’s flavors are said to be Lemon Lime and Cherry, went with Lemon Lime and cocoanut, maybe because they were toasting cocoanut inside which aromated the strip mall joint in a most pleasing way.

Musubi, Japanese seaweed and rice-wrapped pyramid sandwiches, very solid. I’m not into the classic spam musubi, ground beef and tuna both solid and satisfying:

That’s from Mana Musubi, which was sold out by Friday around 11 am. What a packable food!

Piggy Smalls, offshoot of The Pig and the Lady, is making incredible new Vietnamese food in a former burger joint location:

Failed to photograph the Burmese Tea Salad before devouring. We intended to visit the legendary shrimp trucks of the North Shore, but were stopped by torrential downpour, luckily this hit us just as we rolled up on Aloha Shrimp Truck in Hauula. (Remember when pronouncing Hawaiian words: there are no silent letters).

Simple? Yes. Excellent? Yes.

A beloved Oahu institution is Zippy’s fast food, which has a pretty extensive menu and some baked goods as well. Had to try the Zap Pak and the Surf Pak.

Look, is it delicious? Kind of. Is it convenient? Also kind of.

Fête in downtown Honolulu rules:

Ridiculous Italian food with local Hawaiian-raised meats and ingredients.

The queen of Oahu foodstuffs however must be the poke you can buy by the pound at the counter in the back of Tamara’s liquor store, there are several locations:

You eat that on a cracker and you’re having a great time. This is the classic tuna in Tamara’s sauce. I became a poke convert.

For some Hawaiian food/plate lunch classics, Highway Inn, several locations.

source

A good poi introduction.

The Oahu institution we failed to try was Leonard’s for malasadas, but Pipeline, around the corner from Koko Head, seemed excellent.

source: Wikipedia

For freshness, invention, and wild array of influences, Honolulu gotta be in the conversation as a food destination. The cuisine skews a bit fatty and decadent, I must say, a salad seems harder to come by than a mai tai, but if you’re cutting loose on vacay and pairing with some outdoor adventures, it’s pretty grand.

Maximum mahalo to friend and local guide Kim H. for knowing all the spots!

Hawaii has kept low Covid #s in part by taking great care in letting people in, you must produce a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of departure. And not just any Covid test, a Hawaii-approved test. Don’t be like this knucklehead and take the wrong kind of test!

Look, once you get the original Hawaii 5-0 theme in your head, it’s hard to get out, but man, is that the best TV opening ever?


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.


Bretton Woods Is No Mystery and The Nixon Shock

Breaking the Breton Woods agreements, the American president said that the dollar would have no reference to reality, and that its value would henceforth be decided by an act of language, not by correspondence to a standard or to an economic referent.

That’s from The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Italian communist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, published by semiotext(e). That book is full of interesting ideas.

Everywhere I turn these days, from the new Adam Curtis documentary to the Bitcoin-heads on Twitter, I hear about Sunday, August 15, 1971. On that evening, Richard Nixon, after conferring with his advisors in a weird weekend at Camp David, went on TV and announced he was taking the US dollar off the gold standard, ending the “Bretton Woods system.”

I’ve always had an interest in the Bretton Woods system, because it was worked out at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods*, New Hampshire. My dad and I used to go cross-country skiing up there.

rickpilot_2000 for Wikipedia. It doesn’t look like that in winter.

The hotel shut up for winter had a grand, imposing, and spooky quality.

President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the conference site, the Mount Washington Hotel, as a ploy (successful, as it turned out) to win over a likely opponent of the pact, New Hampshire senator Charles Tobey.

That’s from Michael A. Martorelli’s review of Benn Steil’s book about the conference, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order.

The conference happened in July 1944. The Allied forces were still stalled in the bocage of Normandy, but the leadership was already planning for the postwar order. The famed economist John Maynard Keynes, who’d studied the disaster of the last postwar peace, was trying to avoid some of the same mistakes while also attempting to save the status and dignity of the UK Keynes suggested the world switch to a new global currency called Bancor. The US, represented by Harry Dexter White, militarily and financially dominant, had the strongest position. The US proposed a system that would ultimately leave the US dollar, pegged to gold, as the world’s reserve currency.

Deeply indebted to the United States after the long, costly ordeal of World War II, the United Kingdom inevitably lost the battle. To secure one key victory, however, White had to resort to stealth. In the waning hours of the conference, he and his assistants replaced the phrase “gold” with “gold and US dollars” in the agreement, thereby enshrining the US currency as the international medium of exchange. Keynes confessed that he did not read the final version of the document he signed.

You think there aren’t thrills in a book about a 1944 economic conference whose results have mostly been overturned? Guess again:

In one noteworthy coup, [Steil] disproves Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky’s claim that Keynes was assigned Room 129 in the Mount Washington Hotel.

The summit does sound kind of exciting. The Soviets brought a bunch of beautiful female “typists” to seduce everyone.

One committee of delegates took a 15-minute recess in the bar each night at 1:30 to watch the “titillating gyrations of Conchita the Peruvian Bombshell.” Afterward, reinvigorated, they would negotiate for another hour or so. The long arguments left White increasingly short-­tempered on less than five hours of sleep a night. Keynes, already weakened by the heart disease that would kill him within two years, was soon holding court from his bed, tended (and guarded) by Lydia, his eccentric Russian ballerina wife. At one point, a rumor spread that he was near death; when he then appeared at dinner, the delegates spontaneously stood and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” 

from a different review of a different book about the conference:

I’ve now taken a look at both Steil and Conway’s books. The Summit by Conway is a lot more fun and easy to read, and focuses more on the wild details – what he calls the “noises off” stuff – from the conference. The drunken songs, the parody newspaper about the “International Ballyhoo Fun,” the pleasure the delegates from wartorn countries took in huge plates of “chicken Maryland” and enormous bowls of ice cream, the South Africans chilling and playing golf once it was clear gold wouldn’t be replaced by silver, the results of the Soviet vs USA volleyball game (USSR won), that’s in Conway.

The details of the conference are interesting, but in a way the outcome was inevitable. The US was more or less the last power standing as World War II wound down. The UK was tremendously in our debt (literally). What we ended up with was the system we more or less devised, that left the dollar as the default world currency.

The true significance of the conference was noted by Keynes in a speech at the farewell dinner:

We have shown that a concourse of 44 nations are actually able to work together at a constructive task in amity and unbroken concord. Few believed it possible. If we can continue in a larger task as we have begun in this limited task, there is hope for the world.

If you read one review of one book about the conference, I recommend James Grant’s review of Steil in the Wall Street J (behind a paywall I suspect, they’re no fools about money at the WSJ):

Gold figures largely in these pages. The ancient metal was deeply rooted in the psyche of Keynes’s contemporaries, including that of Lt. Col. Sir Thomas Moore, a British Conservative member of Parliament. In parliamentary debate, Sir Thomas said that he had “the impression, not being an economist, that currency had to be tied to or based on something; whether it was gold, or marbles, or shrimps, did not seem to matter very much, except that as marbles are easy to make, and shrimps are easy to catch, gold for many reasons possessed a more stable quality.” For the soundest doctrine expressed in the fewest words, Sir Thomas was hard to beat.

Grant, if you can’t read it, isn’t too boosterish on the Bretton Woods system:

Rare among nations, America pays its overseas debts in money that it alone may lawfully print. Naturally, being human, we Americans have printed to excess. Not since 1975 has the United States exported more goods and services than it has imported. There is no institutional check to square up accounts. We buy Chinese merchandise with dollars. The Chinese, in turn, invest those dollars in U.S. government securities (the better to suppress the value of the Chinese currency). It’s as if the money never left the 50 states. In possession of the “reserve currency” franchise—White’s dream fulfilled—America has become the world’s leading debtor nation. At Bretton Woods, it was the world’s top creditor.

I mentioned the Nixon Shock to a bud who works at a hedge fund, and he put me on to WTF Happened in 1971, which takes a darker view. I love the idea that this is the moment everything went wrong and reality broke, but I’m not totally convinced. What about the Triffin dilemma? Was Nixon changing reality, or acknowledging it?

Consider how things worked before Bretton Woods. Both Conway and Stiel note that FDR would sometimes dictate the dollar price of gold from bed in the morning, once suggesting raising the price by twenty-one cents because that was a lucky number. This was hardly more “real.”

A crazy element of the conference is that the leader of the US delegation, Harry Dexter White, was secretly communicating with the Soviets. To what extent he was a traitor, a spy, vs kind of backchannel communicating with our wartime ally is unclear. But declassified transcripts make clear he was a Soviet asset known at “Jurist” or “Richard.” That’s if you trust our own NSA. Who knows?

White testified in front of HUAC that he was not a Communist, then had a heart attack. He went up to his home in New Hampshire and died four days later.

Is it possible White sabotaged the US team in the Bretton Woods volleyball game? Perhaps to provide a propaganda win for his Soviet masters? The Russians got a lot of concessions at Bretton Woods to induce them to sign on to the agreements, but I don’t see in Steil or Conway any strong case that White’s possible connection helped them unduly. Conway is more of a skeptic on the spy stuff, suggesting that yes, it looks pretty fishy, but it’s impossible to prove White “betrayed his country.”

One person who would’ve known White had been a spy? President Richard Nixon.

Following Alger Hiss’s perjury conviction in 1950, Representative Richard M. Nixon revealed a handwritten memo of White’s given to him by Chambers, apparently showing that White had passed classified information for transmission to the Soviets. Yet his guilt would only be firmly established after publication of Soviet intelligence cables in the late 1990s.

The IMF and World Bank still linger as Bretton Woods legacies. Conway in his epilogue notes how even after the demise of the Bretton Woods system, the IMF is still imposing the “Washington Consensus” on the developing world in return for loans, with mixed results. Maybe someone should activate the Coconut Clause:

Conway also notes that after the demise of the system, US and British banks became vastly more profitable.

In the United States, by the turn of the millennium banks now accounted for around 8 per cent of the country’s total economic output – more than double their zie when the Bretton Woods system ended… Until 1970, an investor in a UK bank could expect to make about 7 per cent a year on his investment. After 1970, the return on equity roughly trebled to 20 per cent, a figure maintained without a break until the financial crisis of 2008.

There is no single, simple explanation for this astonishing rise of the financial sector; however, there is no doubt that one important element is the sudden change in the international monetary architecture following the collapse of Bretton Woods. Almost immediately after the demise of Keynes and White’s system in the early 1970s, every single measure of the size, profitability, and leverage of the banking industry has begun to increase at unprecedented rates.

The big banks in the USA tried to stop Bretton Woods at the time,

After the Bretton Woods conference, the countries involved still had to sell it to a confused public. One method the USA used was to produce a pamphlet called Bretton Woods Is No Mystery, illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist Syd Hoff. I’m on the trail of a copy, I can only find a few images online.

It’s heartbreaking to hear the names bandied about for the world currency, and think what might’ve been. From Conway:

among the suggestions were Fint, Proudof, Unibanks, Bit, Pondol, and Keynes’ favorite, Orb. Months later, Keynes sent round a note to his Treasury colleagues asking: “Do you think it is any use to try unicorn on Harry?”

What do you guys think will be the world’s reserve currency in 2031? Dogecoin?

*an archaic name for what’s now part of Carroll, New Hampshire.


Buckle up Tony

from this Talks at Goldman Sachs discussion with Stanley Druckenmiller. How about this?:


Let’s clear the desktop screenshots

good guess Facebook.

re: the Trump golden statue. From Politico Playbook. If politics is pro wrestling, Playbook is the closest thing I can find to a “dirt sheet.”

incredible. Wall Street J. Great newspaper, opinion page is absolutely deranged.

some Shiite theology of the 13th century. from a paper by Shafique N. Virani, Hierohistory in “Qādî-I-Numan’s Foundation of Symbolic Interpretation (Asas al-Ta’wil): the birth of Jesus. ” I was trying to learn more about al-Tusi saving 200,000 books from the House of Wisdom and brought them to Maragheh and as usual got more than I bargained for.

somewhat grim headline in Bloomberg. If I had all the time in the world I might compose a history and exploration of the meanings and suggestions of the phrase “want fries with that?” My conclusion would be “French” fries are distinctly American, that “fry culture” is both good and bad, reflecting both our mobility and freedom and some our shortcomings, and that the economics of fries represent both the best of the capitalist system (cheap tasty calories distributed with efficiency) and the worst (exploitative labor system, nasty and unpriced effects on health and environment).

from a Martin Anderson oral history over at the Miller Center. Anderson was an aide to Reagan and wrote a very illuminating book on the man and the movement, one of the most revealing books on Reagan, in my opinion: Revolution. He’s a believer.

Bryce Harlow, source.


Scott Carpenter

“I volunteered for a number of reasons,” he wrote in “We Seven,” a book of reflections by the original astronauts published in 1962. “One of these, quite frankly, was that I thought this was a chance for immortality. Pioneering in space was something I would willingly give my life for.”

(photo from NY Times / Associated Press)


The grass is always greener

Reagan not only had the sense of humor, the great jokes. I remember one time in the Oval Office he was looking out and there was a bunch of people chopping things and the forest rangers standing out on the South Lawn, and Clark says, Mr. President, Ken’s here to take you to the Situation Room or something. We were getting ready for the next round or summit or whatever it was. Reagan keeps looking out and this sound gets louder and he says, I hear you, Bill. Just wish I was doing what those fellows are doing instead of going to all these stupid meetings hours at a time.

I thought to myself, in the history of the United States, 200 years, we’ve had forest rangers who imagined themselves as President, but I can’t imagine a President imagining himself as a forest ranger before. Here he was, dying to be a forest ranger. Reagan was like that.

from an oral history with Reagan Arms Control and Disarmament Agency head Ken Adelman at the Miller Center.

This reminded me of when I’d be sitting in my office on the 11th floor above the Ed Sullivan Theater grinding out some comedy for The Late Show with David Letterman, a cushy if psychologically taxing job, and find myself staring out the window and fantasizing about being a guy on one of the tugboats going up the Hudson.

Adelman seems to suggest this idea was unique to Reagan, but I bet almost every president has felt this way at one time or another. Although maybe not, maybe Nixon or LBJ would’ve been sick at the idea of falling to the state of a powerless treecutter.


from the tailings

One thing led to another and I read a long oral history with mining entrepreneur Stanley Dempsey. Here are some li’l nuggets of mild interest. On pursuing claims in Nicaragua:

on the mining boom towns of Colorado:

Sometimes, not being an expert is an advantage:

The 1872 Mining Law, which creates self-initiated rights, kind of unique to the United States, seems very important to this country’s development.


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!


Grapes of Goofy

Jim Harrison’s Paris Review interview.


Visions of Captain Cook

for leisure he would climb a nearby hill, Roseberry Topping.

ChrisO for Wikpedia

Cooks’ Cottage, his parents’ last home, which he is likely to have visited, is now in Melbourne, Australia, having been moved from England and reassembled, brick by brick, in 1934.

CloudSurfer for Wikipedia

In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved 20 miles to the fishing village of Staithes, to be apprenticed as a shop boy to grocer and haberdasher William Sanderson. Historians have speculated that this is where Cook first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window.

Staithes, by Mike Murphy for Wikpedia

Fantasizing about a trip to Hawaii, I was reading up on Captain Cook. This led me to the poem Five Visions of Captain Cook, by Kenneth Slessor. An excerpt:

Cook was a captain of the powder-days
When captains, you might have said, if you had been
Fixed by their glittering stare, half-down the side,
Or gaping at them up companionways,
Were more like warlocks than a humble man—
And men were humble then who gazed at them,
Poor horn-eyed sailors, bullied by devils’ fists
Of wind or water, or the want of both,
Childlike and trusting, filled with eager trust—
Cook was a captain of the sailing days
When sea-captains were kings like this,
Not cold executives of company-rules
Cracking their boilers for a dividend
Or bidding their engineers go wink
At bells and telegraphs, so plates would hold
Another pound. Those captains drove their ships
By their own blood, no laws of schoolbook steam,
Till yards were sprung, and masts went overboard—
Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out,
Who read fair alphabets in stars
Where humbler men found but a mess of sparks,
Who steered their crews by mysteries
And strange, half-dreadful sortilege with books,
Used medicines that only gods could know
The sense of, but sailors drank
In simple faith. That was the captain
Cook was when he came to the Coral Sea
And chose a passage into the dark.

Kenneth Slessor seems interesting; how many poets wrote about rugby for Smith’s Weekly? Maybe when I head to Hawaii I’ll bring a copy of Slessor’s 100 Poems.

I come back to pictures of Roseberry Topping. You picture Cook in the Pacific, encountering these wild exotic landscapes, but on the other hand this hill in north Yorkshire, doesn’t it look like it could be some outcropping in the South Seas?

Mr R Jordan for Wikipedia


Have you heard of this man?

That is Walter Hines Page. In the 1920s, two different Pulitzer Prizes in biography were awarded for books about him. He was a writer, editor, and publisher, his main historical distinction seems to have been helping bring the USA into World War I:

Page was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom by President Woodrow Wilson, whom Page had befriended in 1882 when Wilson was a young lawyer starting out in Atlanta. Page was one of the key figures involved in bringing the United States into World War I on the Allied side. A proud Southerner, he admired his British roots and believed that the United Kingdom was fighting a war for democracy. As ambassador to Britain, he defended British policies to Wilson and helped to shape a pro-Allied slant in the President and in the United States as a whole. One month after Page sent a message to Wilson, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany.

So far in the 2020s the only subject for a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been Susan Sontag.


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.


Carlyle and Alcott have breakfast

This is Amos Alcott, Louisa May’s father, fictionalized as Bob Odenkirk in the latest Little Women film:

from The Flowering of New England by Van Wyck Brooks, a vivid read. Imagine this man chowing down on strawberry potatoes:


Winning a storytelling contest

1865 illustration of Hop-o’-My-Thumb and the ogre by Alexander Zick, from wikipedia

One reason to be interested in the stock market is it can become a storytelling contest. Take the story of GameStop. There was a prevailing story, a sad story, that GameStop was Blockbuster all over again. Old mall stores, a dying dinosaur selling product that’s now online.

But then, people stood up and said, that’s not the story of GameStop. The story of GameStop is that yeah, it might need to change, but it’s not dying. It’s healthy. GameStop can live a long time. What’s more, it has real advantages, it just demonstrated some of them last Christmas. With clever thinking and fast action GameStop could succeed. It could even be big.

Then, in a place where people gather and share stories, an even more riveting story arose. A bunch of cocky suits have made arrogant bets on the old story of GameStop. They’re planning to feast on the carcass, as if they don’t have enough to feast on. But guess what. They’re not as smart as they think. There’s something they didn’t plan on. They wrote a check their ass can’t cash. If someone calls ’em on it? They’ll be ruined.

The power of this story became so strong that by now everyone’s heard it. Robinhood (and what story are they trying to tell? You’re out here saying you’re as good as Robin Hood?! Robin Hood, played by Errol Flynn, a Disney fox, Kevin Costner, and Picard?!) whose ball everyone was using had to declare a sudden rule change. Which every child knows is bullshit behavior and unfair.

Is that story true? Does it matter?

At some level there is truth to be faced. There are debts with dates on them and courts and legal power that will enforce them. But the value of GameStop, we’ve now seen, is a story that can be changed very quickly by compelling storytellers. The idea that the correct story is somehow already embedded in the stock price has been proven many times to not always be the case, no matter how many Sveriges Riksbank Prizes in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel are given suggesting such. (Note who gives that prize, by the way: a central bank, which has a vested interest, in fact its only interest, in maintaining a a steady, stable, version of the story of economics).

Sverges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel winner Robert Schiller didn’t miss this, he wrote a book about the power of stories:

(I’m working my way through it).

Oh and by the way money itself is a kind of story. Ever since 1971 when Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard, money “floats,” money is an act of language, money is based on the story that the US government will honor the words on paper dollars and accept those for debts (which are themselves stories).

So, where does that leave us?

No idea, I’m riveted by the story. Who would add a jot to the GameStop discourse, it’s overwhelming! I can’t even keep up with Matt Levine, a great storyteller about these matters.


funny chart


change / the same

That’s Van Wyck Brooks, going off in The Flowering of New England about the generation of the 1840s.

aspirational mustache. source.


funny way to summarize the plot of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

That’s from:

the gist of which is that Oprah, Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, and Whole Foods’ John Mackey sort of perpetuate a new version of the capitalist gospel rather than advocate for real or systemic change. But, you already knew that, didn’t you? Would it be more worthwhile to explore why stories of hustle and self-determination and drive remain so appealing to people despite the seeming fact that we’re trapped by oppressive and exploitative systems full of unfairness? Maybe that’s art’s job, not sociology’s.