Thoughts/Last July Update

Taking a brief break from headmastering.

A. The rental house is proving quite comfortable, if a little tight (it’s about 2/3 the size of our last house). One oddity: the owners don’t want us messing with the landscaping, which, IMHO, could use a little messing with. But I get it: their typical renter is not likely to improve matters.

For me, this means there are not too many possible spots to plant some vegitables. One obvious spot: a 4′ x 4′ hole in the pavement along a side yard, which seems to have been paved at some point as RV parking, maybe. Don’t know why this hole exists, but:

Took some scrap particleboard, lathered it in water sealer, let it dry for a few days, and – we’ll see. Not a long-term solution. Those are two tomatoes and a red bell pepper. Room for one more tomato?

We will have 4 months – August, September, October, and November – for tomatoes to grow. It’s been running about 100F during the day (but, thankfully, cools to around 60F at night) so good tomato weather. Shouldn’t be a frost before December… Anyway, worth a shot.

The little darlings.

B. Took some cuttings from our favorite trees before we sold the Concord house – the lemon in the backyard, the fig and Mineola in the front. The figs are quite happy:

Got one fig moved to a bigger pot, about 5 more to transplant.

The citrus – not so much. This is the third round of cuttings. All but one of the first set of cuttings died (took me far too long to get them into soil – citrus seems far less tolerant than the figs). Maybe a couple of the second set survived. Maybe. But the third set, which has only been potted for a couple weeks, seems good so far.

Other figs in the front; citrus in the back in the plastic tub. This is all on the back porch/patio.

I read that citrus must be grafted onto certified disease-free rootstock. I’ll look into that sometime early next year. For now, if I can just keep them alive until then, I will consider it a success.

All these little trees, or at least the best of them, get planted on the homestead – once we find and purchase one.

C. Attended the Chesterton Schools conference in Milwaukee. Great people, really fired up about education and especially Catholicism. Got to spend a little time with Dale Alquist, the world’s leading expert on Chesterton, founder of the American Chesterton Society and the Chesterton Schools Network. Very nice man. I gave him every opportunity to talk me out of writing a book about the history of American Catholic Education, but, alas! he simply refused. Rather, he even encouraged me. So now I guess I’m going to spend the summer trying to get that thing finished.

D. Now for something completely different. I’ve been thinking a lot about disreputable professions and Vo-Tech schooling. Traditionally, education, and especially higher education, was concerned chiefly with passing on a learned culture and all the skills needed to maintain it. It was a group effort: with the possible exception of the occasional Aquinas or Abelard, no one person could carry very much of that burden. Thus, while all scholars prior to modern times were expected to have a broad knowledge of the works of their fathers going back at least to the Greeks and Israelites – the Great Books part of the education – only the most brilliant and dogged became true masters of more than a tiny subset of All That. At least, that’s how the story looks to me.

But then the Research University was invented and realized at the University of Berlin in 1811 with Fichte as its first Rector. The purpose of higher education was shifted with dizzying rapidity from passing on and possibly contributing to a rich and awesome patrimony to ‘moving the world forward’ through focused research. By the end of the 19th century, every American university declared itself a Research University. The pathetic little colleges that tried to keep to the more ancient tradition were eventually staffed entirely by products of the research universities, and thus wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference except by sneering at our primitive and long-obviated ancestors.

But research doesn’t train up much of anything except future ‘researchers’. So where are your professions coming from? The original answer was generally some sort of apprenticeship. A wannabe lawyer ‘read’ law with an existing lawyer, and hung out his shingle once he became convinced he could do it on his own. (Abraham Lincoln famously declined to do this. Instead, he read the lawbooks on his own, then took half a year off to learn the first 6 books of Euclid so that he would know what ‘demonstrated’ meant. He seemed to do OK.)

Soon, what we now call vo-tech arose to help fill this need. For manual trades, vo-tech seems mostly to formalize and layer on some theory to the apprenticeship model. A would-be welder or diesel repair mechanic goes to school, where experts show him how to do it, and then certify him. This all helps him get that first job, after which he’s on his own.

Here’s where things get interesting. The more white-collar trades are also, you may have noticed, the most generally mistrusted and despised. When Dick the Butcher says “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” the groundlings laughed. If any lawyers were present, they were in better seats, and could immediately start in on doing what they do best: explaining away the clear implications of that line. While Dick was a murderer and scoundrel, he was saying what a lot of people were thinking: lawyers exist to protect their wealthy patrons and enrich themselves. The whole legal system was rotten; it is not for nothing that Bolt calls Thomas More the only honest judge in England in A Man For All Seasons, a play set only a couple generations before Shakespeare wrote Henry VI.

A century and a half of white collar Vo-Tech – teacher’s colleges, law schools, medical schools, business schools – have had as their chief mission to get people to forget how despised the guild members they anointed were. Read any early American accounts of schools – for every one where the teacher was beloved, you’ll find 10 where he was despised by the students, and the feeling was mutual. Doctors were used as a last resort, as the chances he would help were slimmer than the chances he would take your money and speed your death. Madame Bouverie contains one of many accounts of medical hubris.

And lawyers? Do we need to even go there? The institutions that were created to smooth over the public’s distrust gave themselves fancy names, established tests and certifications, and resolved to pretend that, no, it was not the professions themselves that were the problem, but the lack of exactly that oversight and certification that they, the high-end vo-tech schools provided.

Right. It is similar to the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – what a grand name! – as an attempt to gloss over the crude fact that the people involved in making movies are known to be panderers and prostitutes. Not ALL of them, of course! No no no! It’s not the profession that’s the problem! Really! Look at our shiny statues and grand parties! And definitely don’t look at the personal lives of the powerful.

So business people built grand bank buildings, temples to the solidity of the money trades, because people know it’s all a game. Teachers are processed and certified and join a guild, insulated from the products of their teaching. Rarely is the failure of the schools allowed to be laid at the feet of the people whose job it is to make them succeed. Lawyers and judges dress funny and insist on their dignity, like porn stars who let it be known that they might go through all sorts of motions for the camera, but they draw the line someplace. Beyond that line lies shame, but it is art on their side of the line, no matter where they draw it. Doctors create gauntlets for future doctors to run through, so that they can remain proud of their 20 hour shifts during residency and downplay that all they do, in the end, is follow protocols created by somebody else, without the agency to even acknowledge their lack of agency.

And yet in that very class (the powerful – ed.) there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this. Such good and true men, however, there have been, and will be again, at Athens and in other states, who have fulfilled their trust righteously; and there is one who is quite famous all over Hellas, Aristeides, the son of Lysimachus. But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.

Plato, Gorgias, near the end.

Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

G. K. Chesterton

Update: Things Fall Into Place

A. The house finally sold, done, closed, etc.

B. Flying out to Milwaukee on a 5:20 a.m. flight tomorrow morning, for Chesterton Network conferences. Be back Wednesday. Gotta go pack and catch a few z’s.

C. Need a more professorial wardrobe. Grew a beard, got a nice tweed jacket from Goodwill, but the last time I bought a bunch of nice cotton button down shirts was maybe 20 years ago? So – yea, need some of those. Too busy to shop.

D. Did a class schedule, it was interesting. Took way more time than I thought it would, first trying to balance out the faculty’s time, then trying to plug in all the students so that they got the classes they needed… It will be easier next time.

E. Settling into our rental in Sacramento. Nice neighborhood, a 60s vintage subdivisions that has been kept up. Many of the neighbors are the original owners of the houses. It makes for a nice vibe.

F. Plan is to start shopping for a hobby farm toward the end of the year. Prices have already begun to fall, maybe the trend will continue? Don’t really have an option, since I will be about 150% deployed trying to get this school up and running.

G. The Great Books are more damaging than helpful when taught outside the traditions that produced most of them. I hate to admit this, as I love the classics, but if they are read as just a bunch of interesting books whose ideas are merely a smorgasbord from which everybody gets to pick what they want and interpret it as they see fit, the Great Books become little more than an excuse for unearned elitism, a closed mind, and the false belief that one is educated simply by having skimmed a bunch of old books.

In context, which is Christendom and the ancient civilizations it saved, the books have something worthy to tell us. This knowledge leads to humility rather than elitism, and destroys the canard that people nowadays are just so much more enlightened and intelligent than those old dead guys. Out of this context, the Great Books are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Gotta pack and go to bed.

Happy 4th/Goofing/Update

A. I’m not much of a comics guy, but this idea sped unbidden into my head: Graviton – a superhero no one has ever seen, but whose existence is required by theory. His nemesis would be Dark Matter. They battle over who gets to hold the universe together, and taunt each other with jabs about how the other one only exists because some math shows he must exist, even if nobody has ever seen any direct evidence either does exist.

I suppose it would be kinda hard to draw. Probably should leave this sort of thing to the pros.

B. Today is my first official day on the new job as Headmaster, but since the school’s lease doesn’t start until 7/15 and we have to move out of our AirBnB today and tomorrow, I’ll be working from home in between moving stuff to…

C. …the house we rented in Sacramento. For the next year, we will be living an 8 minute walk from a much-beloved parish, and a 14 min drive from my work, because…

D. …our house in the Bay Area has not yet sold, AND the housing market here in the Sierra Foothills is both insane and showing signs of a steep correction. The kinds of properties we are looking at have typically increased in price by 50% or more over the last 2 years, from prices we could afford to prices that are frankly stupid. IF we can sell our house soon at something near asking price, AND the market her calms the heck down over the next year, we should be OK.

E. Yes, we own a cat. So sue me. I like dogs just fine, but I like cats more, and they’re less trouble in general. BUT – when you’ve been house hopping for going on 2.5 months, a cat is not trouble free. We have been very blessed with people who have been willing to cat sit him for us. He seems to be doing well:

We may have to change his name to Love Seat, as that’s about his approximate size. Sofa would be a little unfair. Staying with friends in Concord. Will liberate him this weekend.

F. We will miss Auburn. Very beautiful country. Here are a couple shots from a tiny (40 acre) privately-funded nature reserve with walking trails:

Now, this isn’t Yosemite or the Grand Tetons or anything, but for a suburban brat, being able to take walks in the woods instead of along some paved street or path is very nice. God willing, in a year or so, we will back as permanent residents in Auburn.

OK, back to work. The world continues to burn; pray that God’s loving correction is as gentle as possible.

On Wealth

For the last post of June, and the beginning of the new semi-official post every once in a while policy, let’s talk wealth. Not willing to devote the time needed to find the articles among the 1500+ posts here on this blog, but I have long pointed out that the one thing without which the current insanity could not function is sheer, massive, overflowing wealth. Plenty. Stuff.

Public domain. Darn birds! Nice illustration of medieval technology: the heavy wheeled plow pulled by a haltered team of horses, which would require a lot of high-tech blacksmithing – e.g., horseshoes and iron plow blades. Pigs in the woods, a church in the background – and a road, which is required to get that ‘surplus’ food into nearby towns, to keep the 5%-20% of the population that wasn’t farming alive.

Being shot at without effect is not the only thing that focuses the mind wonderfully – the real threat of starvation and death seems to have a similar effect. We can get all technical about how time preferences are honed to a dangerous point in farmers, especially farmers in areas with a strongly defined growing season, such that European, Chinese, and Japanese cultures, for example, all traditionally value the willingness to delay gratification. The farmer knows with painful certainty that eating the seed corn or the breeding stock is near certainly a fatal move, even if it isn’t immediately fatal right now. A certain sanity, of the horse sense variety, was enforced by Reality.

Being a single mom, non-widow division, for example, was not looked down upon because – or just because – the woman likely had had a moment or two of moral failing. Rather, the careful social structure, built in the face of a frequently fragile prosperity, simply had few places for single moms. Put in brutal economic terms, there wasn’t enough consistent excess capacity to keep very many single moms and their kids alive. A Heloise, orphan daughter raised by a rich uncle, didn’t die as a result of conceiving Abelard’s baby outside of marriage. But she was now unmarriageable – who, among her social class, would want her, given her history? So the child is given up, Abelard is castrated, and Heloise consigned to a convent – and that’s a GOOD outcome, available only to the rich! A poorer woman would have abandoned her child, been forced into something like prostitution, and would be looking at a life expectancy in low single digit years.

Of course there were exceptions. But the number of exceptions could not stand in the face of the number of cautionary tales. Not so, in the modern world. Outside of war zones and targeted political actions (insofar as those two things are distinguishable in practice), it’s been half a century since any very large number of people have starved anywhere in the world. Cultures don’t change that fast, but in America, where we reached the nobody needs to starve level of food production a century or more ago, not only is mere survival all but guaranteed no matter how little one contributes to the upkeep and passing on of the culture, but the sorts of behaviors that would have placed you under dire threat of starvation are enshrined and protected. It’s unheard of to criticize an unwed mother or caddish Don Juan; the feces-enriched camps of the homeless are welcomed and protected in most major cities.

I’ve written all this before. The basic lack of any time preferences that favor long-term survival is a feature, not a bug, of modern culture. You be you, after all, and right now! If you are an obnoxious, mindless blight on society, so what? What is that compared to the Sacred You? We are so insulated from the consequences of real failure that many people who would have straved or died of exposure not that long ago can live quite comfortably within a complete fantasy world contained in their own heads…

… but they are far from the only people fully insulated from their own bad decisions. See here. The time preferences of the very rich run, perhaps, somewhat longer than your homeless person or gender studies grad, but not very much longer, and not for more than a generation or two. Typically, the grandchildren of the very rich are spending the fumes of the family fortune. It takes three generations, in other words, for Reality to catch up with the fantasy worlds of the very rich.

Aaaand – then there’s us. Let’s say you, a member of the middle class as traditionally understood, make a mistake, and wrap your $40K automobile around a tree. You escape serious injury, but now – oh, the horror! – need to deal with the insurance companies and shopping for a new car – oh, bother!

That’s not insulated from reality? In a dozen little ways, even we who choose to work and save and spend time with our loved ones are thus insulated. I’m reminded of the term ‘grillers’ – people who don’t want to hear about the problems in the world, they just want to grill. So long as they can grill, everything is OK enough. Well? How long can that attitude – and I admit I’ve not been far from it most of my life – survive?

As of right now, a preference for reality in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense of an objective world accessible to the mind through the senses, a world within which we live but that doesn’t care what we think, with rules we can’t will away, is just that – a preference. There are few if any short-term costs to simply living in our own fantasy worlds. The gods of the copy book headings are on vacation, and will remain so for as long as the general level of Stuff/Wealth/Plenty remains anywhere near as absurdly high as it is now, AND Our Self-Appointed Betters decide to keep using some of that wealth on bread and circuses. Already, Sri Lanka and Ecuador have sunk into chaos, with real famine rearing its head (but caused by war/political acts, not weather or blight as in the old days). Other states are sure to follow.

The world can only play act for so long.

Which, frankly, is too bad. I’m very fond of indoor plumbing, electricity delivered right to your wall outlets, and gas stove cooking at the turn of a nob. I hope we can work this all out without destroying all the wonderful infrastructure our ancestors built over the last 250 years. I hope and pray that the gods of the copybook heading are not loosed, but especially that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will remember His promise of mercy. Wealth in itself isn’t evil, but we’re seeing that, like power in any form, it is easily used for evil. I’d like to see the miracle where the evil is destroyed without the destruction of all the wealth. But Thy Will be Done.

Too funny to omit: Looking for a picture to illustrate the realities of pre-modern agriculture, and came across this gem, explaining the history and science of the picture of a medieval couple harvesting grain. A tidy summary of the modern view, even if a hopelessly useless description of medieval farm economy:

Farming was the most popular occupation of the Medieval Ages as it was an essential element to survival. A local lord or master would grant portions of his land to commoners and serfs and in exchange the people would till, cultivate and maintain the property to produce crops. What was grown was eventually sold at local markets at which the peasants were allowed to keep a share. Most revenue went to the local lord however through taxes and levies. In the society of the Middle Ages, a man’s status was based on how much land and livestock he owned. As both of these elements were critical for revenue, a private farmer who owned his own land could become quite rich. Crops were varied and depended greatly on how fertile the plot of farmed land was.

Yep – not starving, always a “popular occupation.” I can just see the youngsters, at Career Day at their medieval high school, talking to the guy at the Careers in Peasant Farming booth, and thinking: “farming sounds OK. I was thinking about that crusader gig – sounds sweet! – except I need to go ask the guy at the Squires and Baggage Train booth how it is that so few of them ever come back home. Monk and priest – nice stable careers, but I want a family, and that’s only an option for the Lay Investiture rich boys. The dude at the Blacksmithing booth made it sound like getting an apprenticeship is a trick – you got to know the right people. Scholars? No money or respect. Besides, all my friends are going into serfdom – it a popular occupation. I guess peasant farmer it is. Hope mom and dad are OK with me going vo-tech.”

The Academic Royal We: The Death of Science

Quick thought: I HATE it when people say things like “we used to think X, but now we know Y” when what they mean is “experts used to tout X with an unconscionable level of presumed certainty, but now they’ve switched to touting Y in the same manner – and I want to identify with these experts, and you are an outgroup member if you don’t instantly acquiesce.”

Another form: “People (not we, heavens no!) used to think the earth was the center of the Universe, but we (certainly not those people!) now know that the earth is but one tiny, unimportant planet in a vast Universe of planets and stars and stuff.”

Pro tip: speak for yourself. Just because some genius or poser somewhere has spoken ex cathedra about some issue, doesn’t mean ‘we’ know anything about it. ‘We’ would do well to remember that ‘we’ are ignorant sheep about almost everything, and that few of us have any business even having an opinion on most questions. ‘I don’t know’ is the humble and honest answer to almost all questions almost all the time for ALL OF US.

When someone claims that now ‘we’ know something that requires your acquiescence, hold on to your wallet and plot a few possible escape vectors.

An Unexpected Journey

Somehow, I find myself the headmaster of a Chesterton Academy school in Sacramento. In one week, I went from wondering what had happened to my application to be a teacher at this new school, to getting hired, not as a teacher, but as the headmaster. My head is still spinning. Recap:

Months ago, my wife and I heard about an informational meeting being held near Sacramento by a group who wanted to found a Chesterton Academy – a Catholic Classics high school. We happened to be visiting our daughter and her husband nearby, and so we took a drive over to check it out.

I drove to wrong place, having gotten mixed up about where this particular meeting was. We figured it out, and came late to the correct location.

The caliber and size of the founding group was impressive, and they put on a very nice presentation. I signed the sign-in sheet, thus getting on their mailing list. In March, they started advertising for a headmaster, and I thought: no way, I’m going to be way WAY too busy moving and getting our dream hobby farm/homestead set up to do that. So I didn’t apply.

Teaching at a classical high school sounded like fun, especially after how much I enjoyed teaching history and literature to high school aged kids the last two years. So, a month later, when they advertised for teachers, I hesitated – super-busy packing up the house to sell – but, in the end, on the last day (April 30), I applied.

A month goes by, and I hear nothing. I send a follow-up email. Nothing. Then the truly odd stuff starts happening. Divine intervention, one might even imagine:

My son-in-law, who also applied to teach there – totally on his own, no concerted effort here – gets word that he needs to resubmit his application because his first was lost due to some technical issues. But I don’t hear anything, and am starting to get a little miffed. Now, my son in law’s Venn diagram of social circles overlaps mightily with the founders of this Chesterton Academy. Local Catholic boy, discerned out of the priesthood, family has lived here for many years. He knows many if not most of the people involved. I could have dropped in from Mars, comparatively, as far as these folks know me.

I determine with my son in law’s encouragement, to ask one of the founders I met at the info session out to lunch, to get to the bottom of this. This founder happens to have been his landlord for a while.

Son in law had evidently been talking me up, so much so that he sends me an email wherein a board member he was interviewing with suggested that I send in an application for the headmaster position. All this is happening at the same time, I’m not very clear in retrospect who caused what to happen and whose idea each action was. Son in law was a major driver here.

So I send in an application for a job for which I don’t even have a job description, mostly because I was intrigued, and because the situation had changed: we had not been able to sell the house, the market here for what we want is too hot for my blood. Sitting it out for a while was becoming more and more a decision that was not really mine to make. Maybe I should just rent for 6 months or a year and get a job?

I apply for headmaster with a rambling cover letter that is not addressing the actual listed job requirements, because the job description had vanished from the web. Seemed crazy. I have lovely lunch with the board member friend of my son in law, at which I learn that they’d had major, since resolved, issues with their website, during which my original application was lost – since I’d just dropped in from Mars, they had no way to know that they’d lost something.

I was not completely unmiffed by this explanation, nor, after the conversation, was I completely on board with the school. Long-time readers here know how much I dislike, to put it mildly, the classroom model. I needed to be convinced that in this case is was actually a good idea.

I heard back on the headmaster application the same day we went to lunch. A series of in-person and Zoom interviews followed. 3 days later, last Friday, I was offered and accepted the position of headmaster at the Chesterton Academy of Sacramento.

May God have mercy on our souls! Turns out my wacky, dabble in everything, fascinated by almost every shiny object that passes by personality comes off as Renaissance Man, under the proper lighting. As I said several times during the interviews, I’m not anybody’s ideal candidate, but if what it takes to get this project off the ground, to get this school opened in August, is for me to be headmaster, I will accept the adventure Aslan sends us.

The founders group is large and full of impressive people, who understand that in no way are they stepping back and handing this project off to me. They will remain very involved, and continue to do the same critical tasks they have been doing for a year. As in any start up, school or otherwise, the job to do will require more than what any one person can bring.

The funniest part about all this is that I’m more invigorated than terrified, given that I’ve never done anything very much like this job before. The personal and spiritual support of the board and the families is very comforting and inspiring, not to mention indispensable. Please pray for us all, if you’re the praying kind.

What is to become of this blog? I’m now in the position of, I think, Charles de Gaulle, who once said something like: that seems a reasonable course, but Charles de Gaulle would not take it. I have to reshape my writing and public behavior always with this attitude in mind: would the Headmaster of a Chesterton Academy do or say such a thing? And err on the side of caution.

With this in mind, I’m afraid the days of the Wild West of this blog are past. There are simply things the headmaster should not write about, or should not say. I have long contemplated starting another blog under a pen name for my writings, when I finally get them together for publishing. That’s definitely on the backburner for now. Here, I’ll check in when possible, but the days of 20+ posts a month, unofficially gone for some time now, are now officially past.

Life in Auburn, CA (a little Coof Update)

While I have been too busy to follow the news much, we have been, as the Canadians would say, oot and aboot. Two things:

  • We had lunch at an alehouse in Auburn. Turns out that they refused to comply with any of the Coof restrictions and remained open the entire last 2+ years with no restrictions. They even posted signs to the effect that they saw no obligation to obey rules issued by unelected bureaucrats. And their beer is good. So, apart from the calorific and cash leakage issues, I’m going back there as much as I can.
  • On the flip side, there are still people masked up herein the Sierra foothills. Not many, but some. I’m torn between wanting to point and laugh, and feeling sorry for them. Note: it’s in the 80s during the day, nice healthy mountain air to breath – and I still see the occasional solo driver masked up in his car. Masks truly are magic talismans.
  • Had a nice talk with a lady at church, who alternated between mask fully up, nose exposed, and chin mask, without seeming to notice. After years of training, most people simply can’t or won’t make the distinction between what is reasonable and what they are told to do. What they are told to do IS reasonable, end of story, crimestop, you are evil to point out the idiocy.

Our explorations of the area:

  • There are many areas of utterly beautiful small farms. Some are clearly trophies, such as Italianate villas with vineyards and horses (not knocking that – if money were no object…) with others that look more humble, but still beautiful. Green pastures in the rolling hills, with Sierra streams flowing through them, are simply lovely.
  • There are also McMansions, but mostly in the places you probably wouldn’t want to farm anyway – 3-4 acres on rocky hillsides. People with money seem to want upscale suburbia with better scenery (and rattlesnakes, cougars, and bears, oh my!)
  • The most jarring are the more basic tract homes just sort of stuck here. The place we are staying is very nice, very modern. To get to it, one turns off Highway 49, drives past gas stations and strip mall businesses, and reaches a signal where, straight ahead, it’s beautiful country, but turn left, and it’s generic modern suburbia.
  • Out in the country parts, there are the occasional run down places with 8 cars and trucks parked out front and waist high weeds. Not too many, though.
Dog Bar Crossing Bridge over the Bear River. Crossed this narrow bridge following GPS ‘shortcut’ to one of the houses we wanted to look at.

Further updates as events warrant.

Back to Business

Almost. Current business is finding a place to live for the next maybe 6 months while house hunting. While I fervently hope…

  • Our house in Bay Area sells promptly and at a good price
  • A suitable property here in the Auburn area can be found at a reasonable price
  • No more unforeseen roadblocks appear

…it would not be prudent to assume any of these. I won’t bore you with details, but, as it is, our house has still not hit the market (current plan: next week) and so we’re in our third expensive stop-gap housing since we moved out of Concord in late April. I didn’t want to go through the process of finding a typical rental house when we didn’t know how long this all would take. Landlords in general aren’t interested in a 3 month rental, and I fervently want to avoid moving all our stuff in and moving all our stuff out in such a short period.

But – now it looks more and more likely that we won’t be able to turn something around in, say, 60 days, but more likely are looking at something more like 6 months. Maybe. High risk/low information decision making – as a finance guy, I’m familiar with the concept.

For the next 30 days, we’re all in a very nice (and very dear) Airb&b in Auburn, the better to house hunt from, which process begins in earnest once this post is done. So far, just knowing we have a nice place to stay for the next month has been a relief (as long as I don’t think about money.) Then, it’s back to the Current Thing and books and stuff. This house has a nice office I just took right over, and I brought stuff to work on….

But let’s not bicker about who killed who! This is a happy occasion! At least, the last 10 days certainly were. As mentioned in a previous post, the entire Moore clan and their spouses and children (where applicable) gathered in the beautiful California Sierra mountain town of Arnold. Very beautiful area. One of these days, I’ll post on the Gold Rush, the near total clear-cutting of the forests of the Sierra and the foothills, and the way those things shaped the way the landscape looks now. Very interesting stuff. For now, let’s have some picture!

A creek in flowing through the middle of the beautiful mining town of Murphy’s, just down Highway 4 from Arnold. Arnold is at 4,000′, so it’s all pines and cedars and sequoias. Murphy’s is lower, so it’s oak forests and rolling hills. We spent a very pleasant day there.
On the other hand, up Highway 4 is Lake Alpine at 7, 300′ or so. There is still snow on the ground. This, in a poor snow year. We’ve camped on the Stanislaus River in this area much lower down, and in good snow year, there was snow well into July.
An island in Lake Alpine. It was cold and raining, but we had fun.
A path through the forest around the lake.

We also went to Big Trees State Park, but I left my phone in the car, so no pictures. Sequoias are freaking huge. The branches shed by the older trees are bigger than most trees. Again, very beautiful.

Enough! More later. On to house hunting.

In a Cabin in the Woods (not working on my manifesto – I ain’t even got one!)

Checking in, from beautiful Arnold, CA. (pop 3,288; elevation 3,999′) where the entire family is meeting up. But am working on a few things, as follows.

I’ve been working on the pulp-style space adventure from 28 years ago that I found 50 pages of when packing up to move. ‘Working on’ here means taking pictures with my iPhone, offloading them to my laptop, then using Googledocs’ OCR function to open them up as text. It kind of works! I will need another hour or two to clean up the formatting and obvious mistakes, and still need to find the penultimate chapter that somehow got separated from the other draft chapters and read it in. Still faster than retyping it, for me, anyway.

While the writing is obvious amateur first draft level, I love the ideas. I’ve got Dante in there – one of the bad guys is named Smarrita, as in:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
Where the straight way was lost

And the deal gone bad is with a race I call Selvans – our hero finds himself in a dark spot in the ‘woods’. And so on, I was being cute.

Funny: Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle (reviewed beginning here) is all about Dante in Space, and here I was, 28 years ago, writing a very different Dante in Space book. I would be happy to be half as good as Niemeier. Along the same lines, found a short story from back then where the premise is that explorers crash land on an Eden-like planet, only to slowly starve to death, as their bodies can’t break down the available nutrition – a variation on a theme from Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim. I’ve been obsessed with this thought for decades: that the chemistry of LAWKI is so weird and unique, with seemingly arbitrary ‘choices’ among chemicals and stereoisomers, with crazy things life-threatening prions, it would be amazing if encounters with alien life, no matter how superficially benign, didn’t kill us. I would think that the first step toward terraforming would be to nuke the planet from space, just to be sure. This is a theme in several short stories and two novels I’ve started drafting over the last 30 years or so.

Also, is anyone else bothered by the ‘enhanced’ pictures we get from the Hubble, and will no doubt soon get from the Webb? I look, and see nothing; I look, and see nothing even using fantastical modern tech. BUT – I don’t look, let that tech feed its input into spectrographs, computer algorithms, and other fancy stuff, and they produce:

Beautiful, but what is its relationship to reality? I don’t know.

This is also a ‘picture’ of the Pillars:

Also beautiful.

In what sense are either of those pictures real? Certainly, no naked eye look at the Pillars is going to look anything like either of these, even ‘naked’ eye through a powerful telescope. The question becomes: what information do we want to convey? In the old pulp draft, I have passages like these:

The small circular viewports on either side of the module cabin dimmed automatically for a moment, to protect the delicate eyes of the occupants from the brilliant flash of the cruiser disintegrating into plasma and dust. On the front viewer, a computer processed image revealed the details of the explosion, all extraneous light and radiation filtered away. On that screen, the ship neatly vanished into a gradually thinning aura. Neither man was watching,

and

The star cruiser appeared quickly, a sudden point of light, then a highly distorted image of a ship, trailed by a thousand house of mirrors reflections strung back into space-time. Then, just as suddenly, and with no apparent logic, a perfect little star cruiser was visible alone against the field of stars. Despite his predicament, Warner couldn’t help wondering how much of what he just saw was the result of the viewsys’s inadequate attempts to create a sensible image out of unknown inputs, and how much was “really” taking place. The question was nonsense, he reminded himself.

It’s a little bit like MiniTrue: somebody had to decide what is the important information, and arrange to have the ‘unimportant’ information filtered out.

Next, my beloved and I married 35 years ago on May 30; our older daughter married 2 years ago on May 30; our middle son married May 29th last year. Younger daughter married Jan 8 this year – but we let her and her husband come anyway. Joint anniversary celebration. Because 3 of our kids married over an 18 month period, it is now a running joke to remind our 18 year old son that he doesn’t need to get married anytime soon, it’s OK.

We, our 18 year old son, and our older daughter, her husband, and their 7 month old daughter are already here; the others are due in Friday morning and staying through Sunday. A rip-roaring anniversary hoedown! Elder son-in-law found a nice big cabin for us all.

It’s nice to have a family where everyone gets along. Anyway, we had lunch and a walk yesterday at White Pine Lake, a reservoir in Arnold. I walked to the dam and back:

The dam spillway
The creek flowing away from the dam.

And here’s the view from the back porch, where I sit typing this.

Temperature is sensory-deprivation-tank perfect: I was falling asleep earlier, sitting on the back porch, in shorts. Ideal.

Next next, our house is scheduled to hit the market tomorrow, if all things go well., with open houses this weekend. St. Joseph, please pray for us, that the Father may prosper the work of our hands to His glory! Meaning, of course, that we get a good offer soon, and find a good place to buy.

Starting next Tuesday, we will be staying in another very dear furnished rental in Auburn, and spending our time house hunting like mad. Not gonna look at the markets, no siree, not me, not one bit… AAAGH!

Interesting times.

Musings on Losing Money

      THATCHER
                I happened to see your consolidated 
                statement yesterday, Charles.  
                Could I not suggest to you that it 
                is unwise for you to continue this 
                philanthropic enterprise -
                       (sneeringly)
                this Enquirer - that is costing 
                you one million dollars a year?

                            KANE
                You're right.  We did lose a million 
                dollars last year.

  Thatcher thinks maybe the point has registered.

                            KANE
                We expect to lost a million next
                year, too.  You know, Mr. Thatcher -
                       (starts tapping 
                       quietly)
                at the rate of a million a year -
                we'll have to close this place in 
                sixty years.

Citizen Kane, discussing the financial losses in his media empire.

In 537, under the Emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia was completed after 5 years of work. Notre Dame du Paris was completed in 1260, after 97 years under construction. Two gigantic churches, each pushing the envelope of the construction techniques of their times. One took 5 years to build, the other almost a century. While I’m sure other factors were at play, the most obvious reason for this difference in construction time is that Hagia Sophia was built with the resources of an Empire under the direction of one man, while Notre Dame was not. Further, if Justinian had wanted another Hagia Sophia or 10, he had merely to say so, and within a few years, he would have had them. The 6th century Byzantine empire had the resources to do it. Unfortunately, we get to see what happens when Notre Dame gets destroyed, but had it been destroyed in 1261, at best it would have taken a couple of decades to rebuild, based on the construction timelines typical of Gothic cathedrals. And funding would have been a real issue.

There are costs, and then there are costs. For a subsistence farmer, having wasted effort over a day or two is likely to have real costs, measured in terms of reduced food supply for him and his family. For middle class 21st century Americans, having to replace a $40K car carelessly destroyed is generally an annoyance – chagrin, insurance, shopping, such a pain! To a billionaire, its a shame if one of his pet companies loses millions. To Justinian, a billion-dollar construction project is just one among several, and all in a day’s work.

John D. Rockefeller is said to have become the modern world’s first billionaire in 1916. Excluding heads of state, Forbes says that there are about 2,700 billionaires in the world. Forbes’ list is generated from public sources and reasonable guesses. Maybe there are 3,000 billionaire-level fortunes, once you add in the heads of state/royal family types? Your guess is as good as mine.

Now add in the wiley old coots with ‘only’ 500 million or so – are they materially less rich and influential than some punk tech billionaire? Now you’re up to – WAG, of course – 10,000 super-rich people? 100,000? Who knows? Why not use $100M as the floor? It’s all guesswork at this point.

These thoughts were generated by viewing Jon Del Arroz’s latest little video. Netflix has been hemorrhaging cash for a while now, and just recently announced that it laid off a bunch of people. While I agree with Del Arroz that these are good things, I doubt it means even as much as the million dollars a year loss did to William Randolph Hearst Charles Foster Kane. What Kane fails to mention: if he’s making as little as 2% a year on the remainder of his money, he can keep on losing a million a year forever. (Really, if he’s making anything at all, say 1%, his loses will be sustainable for centuries.)

One other consideration: while the man on the back of a horse has only a small fraction of the strength of the horse, as long as he keeps reins in hand, he’s effectively as strong as the horse and himself combined. There are some limitations that need skill to work around, but a skilled horseman and his horse act as one – and that one is the horseman. In the same way, a billionaire who has large interests in companies may control them without having their assets show up on his Forbes wealth calculations. A skillful billionaire can even manipulate things such that others agree to lose money – as long as the cost of the losses doesn’t exceed the financial and personal costs of crossing the billionaire.

In this context, keep in mind that the hands at the reins of almost all giant corporations are not playing with their own money. The CEO or Chairman is likely a millionaire or even a billionaire, but his fortune is likely worth a tiny fraction of the corporate money he manages, and only partially tied to the fortunes of the company. Let’s say a billionaire with 10% ownership of the company wants something to happen – say, he’s in favor of the diversity programming over at Netflix. Now you, as a member of the board or CEO, have got to ask yourself: how long will I have a job if I defy the billionaire? It’s not my money, after all. Sure, theoretically, I’m beholden to the shareholders – but that billionaire is the largest shareholder! Far better to do what he wants (and quietly divest myself of my shares in the company, as much as possible).

Then, if worst comes to worst and the company folds or is bought by somebody who wants to make money, the billionaire and I will share a nice Just So story about how evil white supremacists in their evilness ruined our efforts to enlighten the masses and Move Forward on the Right Side of History ™.

And he’ll give me another job.

And that’s just one layer of the onion. Wealthy people either play by the rules of the Athenians in Melos, or they stop being wealthy people. There’s a lot of jockeying going on, pecking orders and loyalties to establish, and backs to stab. I don’t imagine the tech billionaire’s fortunes will long outlive them – these callow youths from hippy boomer households are not winning long-term against modern Medicis and Rothchilds.

Henry Ford is estimated to have been worth about $35B in his heyday. Less than a century later, and the entire Ford family is said to worth about a $1B. Give it another couple generations, and a Ford is as likely to be washing your car as selling you one. Very few fortunes in America last more than a generation or two; very few children of billionaires have whatever gifts it took to make that first billion. Money to them is like water to a fish – it is just the medium they live in, hardly ever noticed. Most children of the rich start right off burning through the family fortune and leave dregs to the grandkids.

There are exceptions, of course. The Medici fortune reached its peak within the first century of the Medici bank in the 13th century, but persisted for about 500 years before finally vanishing. (Another wildcard that some real historian should enlighten us all on: when the fortunes of others depend on or at least benefit from your fortune, you may be propped up indefinitely. The Medici married into many prominent and noble families – how much did this contribute to their riding out some incompetent and occasionally literally insane heirs? Were the family to fail, however, political turmoil would result. How often over those 5 centuries did other players decide they would rather that didn’t happen? But in the end, it did, but only through lack of male heirs.)

But in the meantime, they ape Kane. They all can throw around a billion here, a billion there, without feeling any pain; they can have the companies they control burn billions on idiot programs and policies and propaganda, and hardly notice except to blame others.

So rejoice when the mighty are brough low. But right now, these superficial loses are not hurting the real money. They can afford to keep up the idiocy indefinitely, if the want.