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.

Rereading Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”

Some people don’t like this book, but it is my favorite Lewis after “Till We Have Faces,” which is his masterpiece and a great book by any standards. I’ve read the Space Trilogy any number of times, and, while Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are among my favorite books, I find my thoughts most often returning to scenes in the last book of the Trilogy, what Lewis called a fairytale for grown ups.

When we headed out for our little trip mentioned a couple posts ago, I grabbed some books that happened to be lying about to take for in-car reading. Then, again almost on a whim, chose That Hideous Strength out of the pile on the drive up. Perhaps an odd choice for reading on a romantic getaway, perhaps not in our current world. So for the first hour and a half that we drove, before the weather, scenery, and winding roads required we put the top down on the car for the last half hour, my beloved read out loud.

So many quotable passages! Here’s one: Mark Studdock is told to write a piece of propaganda for Fairy Hardcastle, while trying to figure out what is going on with the N.I.C.E:

“I don’t believe you can do that,” said Mark. “Not with the papers that are read by educated people.”

“That shows you’re still in the nursery, lovey,” said Miss Hardcastle. Haven’t you yet realized that it’s the other way round ?”

“How do you mean ?”

“Why, you fool, it’s the educated readers who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers ? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the lead paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem: we have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“As one of the class you mention,” said Mark with a smile, “I just don’t believe it.”

“Good Lord ! ” said the Fairy, “ where are your eyes ? Look at what the weeklies have got away with! Look at the Weeldy Question. There’s a paper for you. When Basic English came in simply as the invention of a free- thinking Cambridge don, nothing was too good for it; as soon as it was taken up by a Tory Prime Minister it became a menace to the purity of our language. And wasn’t the Monarchy an expensive absurdity for ten years ? And then, when the Duke of Windsor abdicated, didn’t the Question go all monarchist and legitimist for about a fortnight? Did they drop a single reader? Don’t you see that the educated reader can’t stop reading the high- brow weeklies whatever they do ? He can’t. He’s been conditioned.”

CH 5

As I’ve frequently said here: it’s not enough for the schools to render their inmates mindless, obedient sheep, they must also immunize them against ever having a thought by convincing them they are the most enlightened, intelligent, and moral people to ever walk the face of the earth.

A second point is to note that propaganda has, as we business people like to say, a target market. Any halfway sophisticated propaganda is written and promulgated with a particular demographic in mind. Lewis, writing during the concluding years of the war, had seen it in action first hand. Propaganda appeals, fundamentally, to people’s vanity. Smart, enlightened people all believe X; only stupid, backward people believe Y. The little people, the workers and shopkeepers and so on, just want to be left alone in peace, and so are a hard target for propaganda. But people who have become convinced that they are the most enlightened, intelligent, moral people ever – and who have been conditioned away from entertaining any other view – are eager to know what the teacher wants them to parrot, lest they be cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth with the unwashed.

Before and immediately after the Night of the Long Knives, it was not important to Goebbels and his team what the little people believed. Those little people had learned over the centuries that their leaders regularly knifed each other, and that there was little they could do about it except to keep their heads down. But it was important that no serious pushback for government-sponsored extra-legal mass executions be permitted to simmer. Thus, propaganda was aimed at judges, the police, the press, university professors, and the professional class in general, a class that, like our own, was convinced they were the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever to grace the planet.

It was an easy job, in other words. In 1934 Germany, the well-educated wanted to be on the winning team first of all. They were easily convinced that letting their government commit a few thousand murders to prevent what they were told was a coup attempt was not only justified, but mandated by patriotic prudence. Thus, no arrests were made, no trials held, no lectures delivered opposing the murders, no articles published questioning the government. Rule by government murder was accepted and praised by all the best people. The underclasses were hardly a concern, merely unfinished business to be mopped up later.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! While half-truths and fear are often used to soften up the target – to quash whatever residuum of thought might linger after all that schooling – the main appeal of propaganda is vanity. The Kool Kids all think A; only the losers think B. You don’t want to be a loser, do you? All the Kool Kids will look down on you.

Easy-peasy.

Anyway, half way through the reread. Fun stuff, if terrifyingly prescient and depressingly accurate accounts of current events can be called ‘fun.’

Middle Management

Penultimate post, mentioned the central role of middle management in enforcing the desires of the hypercompetitive. Especially in enterprises not governed by the desire for money, middle management is filled with people who in previous ages would have been courtiers.

An illustrative scene from the 1966 classic A Man for all Seasons: Henry sails down the Thames to visit Thomas More. More’s manor has no docks; the royal boats run aground in the mud. Henry leaps from the boat and into ankle-deep mud. A hush falls over the boats as the courtiers who fill the boats wait to see what Henry will do. When he laughs it off, they all force laughter and, cringing, jump into the mud as well.

Robert Bolt captures the nature of courtiers in A Man for All Seasons. The central theme can be framed: how Thomas More is not a courtier. To illustrate this, various courtiers at various stages of their climb are introduced and examined.

St. Thomas More, Richard Rich & Chasing the Surrogates for God
“it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

Sir Richard Rich, who plays his friendship with More into a position as Attorney General for Wales by perjuring himself to get More convicted, follows the near-ideal path for courtier: parlays his relationship to More into a position under Cromwell and betrays More to get the Attorney General for Wales gig. Rich gains Henry’s trust by showing his willingness to do whatever it takes (e.g., after the official torturer had reached his limit, personally torturing a 25-year old woman on the rack to the point where, screaming in agony, all her joints were ripped apart. She had to be carried to the stake upon which she was burned to death, as any attempt to move was agony.).

He becomes the go-to guy for dirty, messy business, such as the dissolution of the monasteries, which he brutally prosecuted. He managed to ride out the change from Henry through Catholic Mary – even helping with the Restoration! – and back through Elizabeth. He was the perfect Useful Man who could survive any mere change in religion or ideology. Under an assortment of Kings and Queens, he held an string of ever more powerful and lucrative positions, ending up as Baron Rich and Chancellor. He died a very wealthy man, of old age in his bed.

The Oracle Wikipedia reports: “Since the mid-16th century Rich has had a reputation for immorality, financial dishonesty, double-dealing, perjury and treachery rarely matched in English history. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called Rich a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word”.

If you are wondering what middle managers of various flavors (*cough* Fauci *cough*) dream of, look at the career of Baron Rich. Relative nobody who plays his cards right, checks his scruples (if any) at the door, his finger constantly in the wind, lips always planted on the correct hindquarters, accumulating power and wealth and destroying enemies along the way, and manages to kept free of any loyalties that might get him killed when the people on the top change.

The reality, of course, is that the bulk of the courtiers end up jumping in the mud with Henry (see first picture) as they attempt to be useful and appear loyal and eager, and just get muddy – no titles and wealth for you! Two scenes later, Henry takes the boats and leaves the uncooperative Thomas in a huff, abandoning all those muddy courtiers to find their own way back to the palace. It’s a very real scene in a movie full of real scenes.

Machiavelli, after describing the murder and mayhem a new prince will need to visit upon hic competitors and potential competitors, tells his padawans they need not be concerned with finding men willing to do things like murder the entire families of his rivals: they will always be at hand. As in almost everything he writes, Machiavelli is letting history be his guide.

So, to tie it all together: the upper echelons of government and business are manned by hypercompetitive people, a disproportionate number of whom are out and out sociopaths; the next level down is people by career bureaucrats, middle managers, modern courtiers. Of course, there is some bleed-over – occasionally, a courtier makes it to Baron; occasionally, a hypercompetitive person gets stuck in middle management. But, in general: we are ruled by sociopaths and courtiers. Thus, it has (almost) always been.

Two notes: first, don’t mistake titles for power. Sometimes, a President or Pope is just a figurehead, sometimes a seemingly unlikely person is the power. You can be a Director of this or that, say the CDC, and still be, essentially, a courtier. Second, the aching eagerness with which courtiers try to anticipate and enact the desires of their lords creates a perfect system for mindless compliance and vigorous enforcement: once the courtiers figure out what they think the boss wants, then anyone who doesn’t go along is an enemy, an existential threat. A courtier wants to be useful to his lord, want to prove that he, more than anyone, is doing what the lord wants.

The sickening power struggles that are characteristic of courts and bureaucracies make concerted actions and brutal repression inevitable – without any sort of conspiracy, as normally understood, involved.

(This, btw, is why I harp on the lack of a purge after Fred Roti’s conviction – sure, the overt kingpin was removed, but the courtier mechanism he and his predecessors had constructed over decades remained. That mechanism – machine, if you will – then produces – what, exactly? A President and all his key cabinet members? Who can be expected to behave how, exactly?)

Playing to Win in the Real World

Returning to a mundane topic: how competitive people think. Businessmen, particularly high-end salesmen, are my go-to examples based on personal experience, but the same thinking applies to elite athletes and bureaucrats. To sum up: while many, maybe most, people are competitive on some level, the sort of competitive drive which motivates ‘highly successful’ people is different in kind. Such people have so internalized the question: ‘what do I need to do to win?’ that it drives their every action without so much needing to be asked.

An LBJ or a Bill Russel (to take examples that date me!) both had to win. LBJ famously had to get to know every cub reporter who made it to the Capital, and to impress on such a one that he, LBJ, knew who they were. He was their best buddy, at least early on, who would address them by name, slap them on the back, pal around for the required minimum time – and then move on to the next thing he needed to do. LBJ had an amazing memory for faces and names, and knew what role each person played and what he needed out of them to succeed. Bill Russell remembered every play from every game he had been in back through college and beyond, and could instantly recall decisions, tendencies, and outcomes in order to identify what he should do to maximize success. (I could use LeBron and, I don’t know, Rahm Emmanuel? as more current examples. Athletes are more willing to talk about their insane obsessions than politicians, who realize that such talk is a key part of the game they trying to win, and so what you get from them is pure marketing.)

And so on. Current superstar athletes and politicians have the same insane memories and focus – cause or effect? Coaches and, I would imagine, political chiefs of staffs, cannot do, so they teach. They systematize this: ‘watching film’ or ‘charting tendencies’ are the ways the hypercompetitive try to bring the merely normally competitive up to level.

Such coaches and political operatives do not usually see themselves as using people. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie seems baffled by the questions: are you doing all these things just to win? Are you using people? He thinks he is counseling mere thoughtful decency, and that success comes from treating people right. Maybe he is pure in his motivations, but the same approach applied by the sociopaths who are wildly overrepresented in ‘leadership positions’ is not so much malignant as indifferent. The concerns of the people being used is only of interest if it figures into the next goal. People are means, not ends.

Hyper competitive people are obsessed with their goals. They see EVERYTHING in terms of moving them closer or farther from winning. Yet, psychologically, goals are secondary to winning. Such people choose and even change goals, but the need to win is permanent.

Imagine such personality types liberally sprinkled throughout a representative democracy. Here’s the leap: you’ll end up with what looks like a ‘conspiracy’. It may in fact be a conspiracy, but that isn’t strictly necessary: for the hypercompetitive, everything and everyone else are pieces to be used. What those pieces think about being used is irrelevant. If it works to bring them in on the plan – to welcome them into an inner circle – then, do that. If it works to lie – by omission or commission makes no difference – do that.

Like coaches, the immediate goal is to get the team on same page, to get as many people as possible pulling toward the big goal. It’s not important, and may be undesirable, that the team knows what the ultimate goal is. In fact, the creation and promulgation of whatever goal the team would be willing to pull together to achieve is an early part of the game plan.

The first step is to make sure there is a team. Sports and politics are essentially indistinguishable here. I support my team because it’s my team. The other team is evil. Yay, team! It’s a matter of identity, not logic. I was a big Laker and Dodger fan when I was a kid, because… they were the closest teams. No reasoning was involved. It’s delusional to imagine politics is much different. Some people change sports teams when they move; some people change political allegiance, but it’s rare and often traumatic now days.

In the more advanced, evolved state we’re in now, the team members have been trained to pull toward whatever the announced goal is, which can change on a dime. No more consistency is required than in sports: used to hate that guy when he was on he Celtics, now love him because he’s on the Lakers. Today, we’re against the war, because we’ve decided it’s the other team’s fault. Tomorrow, we forget all about it, because now our team is in charge.

Much of this is, of course, basic tribal behavior. I’m here pointing out that such behavior is useful and encouraged by the hypercompetitive. They are not in the least interested in enlightening the masses – they just need the masses to do as they are told.

Young lions will sometimes team up to unseat the current head of pride, two against one. Later, they will try to drive out or kill each other. But step 1 is getting the established leader out. In just such a way, but more complicated as people are more complicated than lions, you don’t need a single leader. A bunch of hypercompetitive people can, while competing with and even despising each other, agree on the next step, the next intermediate goal. Then, promulgate a goal – justice, say – that the team can be made to get behind. Vilify anyone who dares question the goal – he’s a Celtic fan! He’s eeeevil!

Maybe I’ll write next about the middle management. Your career hack doesn’t so much follow orders as he knows his life depends on figuring out what the next level up wants him to do. For the last year and a half, those who have figured out that the top echelon wants a plague, wants a terrified population, have prospered. Those who point out how stupid these claims and steps are have their lives destroyed. They are simply playing the wrong game.

Sociopathic hypercompetitive people might well choose, as the most interesting goal, destroying the current culture. Maybe so that they can lead, or maybe just to watch the world burn. They might take Gramsci as a means to their end. They might even believe in what Gramsci believed, but that hardly matters. What matters is that such people will turn their attention to the destruction of family, village, and church as mere intermediate goals. They would create and promulgate ‘goals’ for the team that achieve their almost certainly unstated personal goals. Thus, all the mores and traditions that uphold the family must be destroyed – you announce to the team that ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ demands some action, making no reference to the ultimate goal.

Recap: the world is full of hypercompetitive people. For such people, psychopathy is not only not a hinderance, but a plus. Thus, the big winners in our world tend to have absolutely no concern for the effects their winning has on other people. Further, at the top levels of any social system, such as our system of representative democracy (RIP) these sociopathic hypercompetitive people will find themselves working ‘together’ at least as a short-term expedient. They will need to get the others to act in ways that further their goals. Because of toady middle management and well-trained team members, this ad-hoc agreement on shorter-term goals will have the appearances of a conspiracy. The ‘leaders’ know what they want; middle management makes an easy guess about what that is and shapes their behaviors and messages accordingly, and the desired behavior is promulgated down to the obedient sheep. No smoke-filled room with thousands of conspirators signing onto an evil master-plan is required.

The Manhole Cover: A Feel for Numbers

It’s possible to be fairly proficient in solving equations yet have little or no feel for what numbers mean. In fact, it seems to be fairly common. Not as common as having neither the proficiency nor the feel, but still pretty common. Like Plato musing on virtue, I’m not sure having a feel for what numbers mean is something that can be taught. It certainly can be developed, if it exists, but I suspect it’s a bit like color-blindness: one simply can’t explain the difference between green and red to someone who can’t see it. But, fools rush in:

(Disclaimer: I am so slight a math guy that I’d probably flunk anything fancier than a high-school algebra test if I had to take it right now, and I belong nowhere near people with a truly well-developed feel for numbers. But I have a little, and it has served me well, so here goes.)

Say I make manhole covers: circular chunks of metal heavy enough to drive a truck over.

To keep the numbers super simple, let’s say I get an order for a huge cover 1 meter across. Its diameter is 1 meter, in other words. Let’s say I want to know how big around – the circumference – my manhole is going to be, once I make it. (1)

So, this being me, I first look up the formula, just to make sure: C = πd. The circumference equals the diameter times π. All that’s left is to plug in some numbers.

d = 1

π = 3.14159….

So, here’s where the feel for numbers comes in: Since π is an irrational number with an infinite number of decimal places, and, assuming I’m doing this by hand, I’m going to need to decide how many decimal places to use.

In other words, for my purposes, are 5 decimal places (.14159) enough? Too many? Off the cuff, I’d probably go ahead and use 3.14159, knowing that that’s way overkill for my purposes. I strongly suspect 3.142 would be plenty close. I much more than suspect it, since the answer to my question is obvious upon inspection: the circumference is 3.14159… meters.

Let’s break it down:

  • The ‘3’ gives me 3 meters. Whatever error I’m introducing by leaving off all the decimal places is less than a meter – just looking at it, it’s 0.14159 meters, in fact. But that would still be about a 150 centimeters shortfall, which is kind of a lot….
  • So I could go with 3.1. That gives me a 3.1 meter circumference, off by a little more than 4 centimeters (4.159 centimeters = a little over 1.6 inches). OK, so maybe a little more accurate than that?
  • Using 3.14, I get 3.14 meters, which is off by 1.59… millimeters – I’ll be short about one 1/16th of an inch, if I round to 2 decimal places. That’s plenty close for a freaking manhole cover.
  • If, for some crazy reason, I’m milling this manhole cover on modern milling equipment, then I might use 3.1416 (rounding up) and thus be off by 0.0004 inches – 4/10,000th/in. Modern milling equipment can easily do that. Why they’d want to in this case is unclear.

My instincts – my feel for the numbers or, more essentially, for the problem I’m trying to answer – were that maybe 3 decimal places would be more than plenty. Then, just doing it, I find 2 decimal places are more than enough for all practical purposes. I’m making a manhole cover, for heaven’s sake!

Note: All this math is not what I actually do. None of this is conscious. I just look at the problem I’m trying to address, look at the formulas involved, and it’s usually pretty clear how exact I’ll need to be. Can I be wrong? OF COURSE! My instincts have been embarrassingly wrong once or twice. But contrast that with the vast amount of time saved by having a feel for what the answer should looks like. Besides, errors in feel tend to reveal themselves almost instantly once you start working on the problem.

Super-trivial example. A big part of getting this example is recognizing that the math is simple, with no place for the numbers to ‘blow up’. The circumference gets bigger in a direct (linear) way as the the diameter gets bigger. That’s all. So, those trailing decimal places aren’t going to cause something unexpected to happen. 3.14159 is going to be plenty accurate for just about all real-world needs, and way overkill for almost all of them.

Working with financial models, one does sometimes run into cases where numbers out 4 or 5 or more decimal places really do matter, as well as cases where tiny changes cause the model to blow up – where discontinuities arise. As you change one input by a tiny amount, the outputs likewise change by a tiny amount, until, suddenly, they don’t anymore. In practice, what I sometimes saw was some tax or accounting threshold got tripped, different rules suddenly applied, and so the results changed dramatically. There are also gotchas in the math itself, where tiny changes will trigger a bifurcation in possible results, where more than one answer ‘solves’ the problem. With practice, one can get a good feel for even these sorts of issues, but more important, a feel for when you’ve passed into No Man’s Land, and your intuitions are no longer trustworthy.

Those are extreme cases, in this context. Just as how the problems people have understanding science rarely involve highly technical issues but rather basic failures in expectations and logic, most errors in assessing math seem to be much, much simpler even than this manhole cover example. If you add a number in the hundreds with a number in the thousands, your answer cannot be in the billions. Something may happen a million times, but if there are trillions of occasions when it *might* happen, it could still be an unlikely event in any one case. And so on.

This, unfortunately, needs expansion. As time permits.

  1. In the real world, assuming this is a custom manhole cover and not a mere run of the mill standard one, what I’d really do: make a 1/2 meter jig for my plasma torch, lay out the material, select a center point, and cut it out. Then, grab a grinder and clean it up. Or, better, slap the material on a CNC cutter, and push ‘go’. IOWs, I’m unlikely to care about the circumference, as it doesn’t figure into the process of making the cover. Sorry, just nerding out here…

College and the Big Evil Corporation Model

Here’s an idea to keep in mind when thinking about our wonderful universities and colleges: these ivy-infested institutions are, when you get right down to it, rich, evil corporations.

Image result for j p morgan
Super rich titan of industry, or major university president? Why not both?

Now, this notion, like most things this simple, doesn’t explain everything about ‘higher education,’ but, if judiciously applied, should serve to weed-whack some really stupid ideas and clear the ground for some actual thought. Plus, it’s factually true, at least about the name-brand institutions. Harvard, the big dog, has a $38.3 billion endowment, $44.6B in net assets, and an annual operating budget of $4.5B. For comparison, General Motors has net assets of $55.2B.

So, here goes:

Giant heartless corporations try to convince everyone they simply must have their products. You’ll never get ahead if you don’t have a college degree. You want to be a failure, like George Washington, Lincoln, or heck, Harry Truman? You want to live like that poor trade-school educated welder down the street, who owns his home, is debt-free and can get another job in about 15 minutes if he needs to? That’s what will happen to you if you don’t get a degree! Even though it’s patently nonsensical, doesn’t just about everyone you know think a college degree is all but essential to the good life?

To keep costs down and control high, evil corporations sow uncertainty and insecurity among their workers, You’ve all heard the stories about how evil corporations use the threat of replacing workers with a fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, to keep them in line and keep them from demanding more pay and better working conditions? Talk to a college professor lately? They all know that there are hundreds of people willing and able to take their job if anyone on campus finds anything at all lacking in them. Colleges used to offer tenure; now, it’s rare, as most classes are taught by adjuncts and grad students in most colleges in most fields. Not only are those non-tenure track people cheaper, they send a message to the tenured profs as well: we got backup plans if you screw up.

Giant, evil corporations willingly sell cheap, inferior products whenever they can, to maximize profits. To be admitted to Harvard 150 years ago, back when profs got tenure and under 10% of people went to college, you needed to pass a Greek and a Latin exam – and a calculus test. A college education *started* from a baseline that far exceeds the intellectual achievement of most PhDs today. (FYI: Most PhDs today are in education and social sciences.) Since only a tiny fraction of any population is likely to have the inclination and talent to learn Latin, Greek and calculus merely to get in to a good college, for the last century or so, colleges have been dumbing down their offerings to make sure they sell as much product as possible.

The first step was education schools, which generally date back to the second half of the 1800’s. For the last 150 years, inferior students (of course, there are exceptions. I assume.) who could not make it in a traditional college (think: Liberal Arts/Great Books + math, science, music, art, where that Latin, Greek and Calc would be put to use) could major in education, even get a PhD by doing ‘original’ research, and then get faculty positions teaching the next round of unqualified students. Over time – I’m estimating the other shoe fell around 1990 – the unqualified/dumb people with PhDs in participation trophy fields outnumber professors who might have a real education in something, and begin to call the shots and simply quash any opposition. You get stuff like this, for example (H/T to Rotten Chestnuts).

As a business strategy, as a way to maximize profits, this ‘create majors unqualified/dumb people can do’ has been a big winner! All studies fields, plus the non-RAD fields like English, History, Sociology, Psychology and so on, exist primarily to take the money from people who would not otherwise be able to hack college. Comparing such degrees to what a university degree used to be (and still is, in a few Great Books schools and the more RAD disciplines in some major schools) is like comparing finger painting to a Raphael portrait. Which is why the super-well-educated college grad is likely to say the finger paining is just as artistic as the Raphael…

Evil, rich corporations use their political influence to get the government to act in their best interests, despite what is good for or desired by people in general. It would be just like an evil corporation to get the government to all but require their product, create an elaborate tax-payer subsidized finance scheme to put people into debt to buy their product, and then try to get the government/tax-payers to take the bullet when the product doesn’t perform as advertised.

Student loans, anyone?

Enough. I’ve got an Academic VORP follow-up essay I’m working on, but it required real thought. Plus, there were some very good comments I didn’t answer because I wanted to expand on them. Sorry about that. Anyway, it’s now 3 days since I’ve written about bricks. Count your blessings! I mean, um, thanks for reading this humble blog.

Easter Tuesday Update

1 The front yard mini orchard makes me smile:

Figs are doing nicely. Plus, fig trees are very beautiful and peaceful.
Our two little apricot trees are doing well. Lots of fruit setting.
A few cherries on our 3-in-one cherry tree. These are Bings, I think.

Some pears are setting on our 4-in-0ne pear tree. Something is attacking the leaves, leaving unsightly spots on them. Must check into that, and get some netting for all the trees so we don’t end up with fat, happy squirrels and other vermin and no fruit for us.

The pomegranate is just now starting to blossom. That little bush is irrepressible: for the three years we’ve had it, I’ve ended up trimming away most of it a couple times a year, just to keep it a manageable size. Doesn’t matter: it began the spring as a collection of bare sticks about diaphragm high, and is now is as tall as I am and wider than it is tall.

The citrus tree is likewise going to town. I trimmed it so much this winter I was afraid I’d damaged it. Nope. It’s an unsightly thicket already a couple months later and – this is new – has quite a few blossoms on it. This is the tree grown from a seed by our late son Andrew, who, when he was very little, asked what would happen if he planted a seed he got out of a piece of fruit he was eating. We said: plant it and find out. The seed grew and progressed, from a little pot in a window box to a larger pot on the patio, to a half wine barrel. At one point, I had to basically cut it in half – it was getting so tall and stringy in its barrel. It has produced maybe 4 pieces of fruit in its 15 or so year life.

Needs some serious trimming/shaping, but it’s blooming, so I’ll probably have to wait until fall. B y which time it should really be a mess.

Three years ago, we positioned it in a spot set aside for it out front behind the brickwork I made. It was MUCH happier in the ground than in a pot, and immediately took off. Again, I have to trim it ruthlessly a couple times a year – it wants to be a big tree, we need it to stay a little tree. And, finally, this year, while far from covered in blossoms like many citrus trees this time of year, it does have quite a few! Maybe we get fruit this year.

2 Radio silence from our little school, at least as far as gender theory goes. I am learning to embrace the hatiest hater label. Maybe I’ll get it put on t-shirt. At least I’m sleeping a little more. I don’t know how my wife can take it. At least school is out this week.

I alternate between being ashamed I did such a poor job defending our position and the realization that it probably mattered little: once the mob has decided you’re a bigoted hater, it’s not like you’re going to get much of a hearing. After the fact, one thinks of many things one could have said. For example: Freud, the rest of the story:

When Ziggy first started analyzing people, his customers were, naturally, people who could pay for it. Thus, the parade of identified patients were largely the children of wealth and status.

In this parade, Freud found a number of patients who claimed they were being or had been sexually molested. Thus, he came to one of the great turning points in modern psychology. He could believe the patients (his records show that he initially did!) and go to bat for them – and find himself accusing the people who were paying his bills, the people to whose parties and teas he was being invited, of being monsters or, at least, of having monstrous things happening under their noses. It would have most likely ended his career, or at least put it on a less immediately gratifying trajectory.

Or he could ‘discover’ in a flash of Hegelian enlightenment that these patients were merely fantasizing or hallucinating because they were sexually repressed or suffering under an Oedipus complex or just in general obsessed with sex in the deepest darkest corners of their minds. That way, he could refocus what would be really uncomfortable attention from the family and friends of the patient back onto the patient’s own problems. He could still get invited to all the cool parties, build his practice with their help, and get paid.

So, for decades afterward, any number of abused children, when sent to Freudian analysts, were systematically convinced that they were deluding themselves, that their memories were mere fantasy, and that they needed to focus on their own twisted minds. Mom and dad were largely off the hook – the patient may have issues with them, but, alas! we’re all slaves to sexual repression, so what else could one expect?

When this gaslighting was finally exposed, largely in the 60s and 70s, Freudian teachings and theory were of course excoriated from all the pulpits of academia, and his name became an insult and cautionary tale. Just kidding! Nope, his theories had proven far too useful for deflecting and misdirection, so we continue to use his language and understanding to this day.

Similarly, up until that fateful day in 2013, when ‘gender dysphoria’ was slipped into the DSM in the dark of night, responsible therapists, when presented with a child who claimed to be of the opposite sex, would gently poke around a little, to see what else was going on it the kids life. Were they being bullied? Were the boys pestering them for sex? Were daddy and mommy getting along and being kind to them? Did they understand that puberty was hard and confusing, but that people do get through it OK? Those therapists, had they received their training prior to the complete convergence of their field in academia, were aware that 1) the vast majority of kids presenting as dysphoric resolve their issues in favor of their actual sex if given time and support, and 2) that cases where that doesn’t happen tend to very miserable – all the usual problem: addiction, depression, suicide, etc. occur with much higher frequency and severity.

In other words, specifically, the post 2013 words, such careful and compassionate therapists were the hatiest haters and bigots imaginable! They dared to ask questions that might just point back to the ruined lives of these kids, ruined by divorce, abuse, and rootlessness. Under the new theory, even asking questions was hate and bigotry. Just like the victims of Freud, the new heroes of gender theory get to bear their pain alone, while having everyone around them explain everything away – and, desperately seeking relief and reinforced by the adults around them, the kids will embrace it!

But I said nothing of the sort.

3 Had a glorious Easter, which we will continue to celebrate right on through next Sunday, when we will have a huge backyard pizza party for the RCIA team, members of our Teams of Our Lady team, and the Feasts & Faith crowd. If everybody and their familes show up (unlikely), there would be a couple hundred people. I’ going to plan on like 75, spread out over the afternoon and evening. Got the trampoline cleaned and ready to go, will put up the hammock and hammock swing and kiddie toys, and basically have out backyard ready. Should be fun.

On a related note, I am making pastrami, which I have done a number of times before. Goes well with the ciabatta I will be whipping up for the pizza party. My previous efforts have run from pretty good to outstanding. This time, I splurged and bought 13 lbs of prime brisket from Costco, about 10.5 lbs after trimming, which I had to cut into three pieces in order to brine it. Decided to cook up the smallest piece after three days brining and one day of rinse (you let it sit in cold water for a day after you’ve brined it to leach out some of the salt, otherwise it tends to be too salty), as a test.

Very disappointing. Taste and texture were way off. I used a very simple rub, which just didn’t cut it, and the taste was bland. Crumbly, over-fatty when sliced. Let’s hope that another 4-5 days of brining and a better rub improve the other two.

4 Starting to do a little work for a potential start up, of which of course I am free to say nothing. Looks like it could be fun, at least. Wish me luck.

Frou Frou Office Snack Update: Seaweed

Sanity, as much as is ever found in the La-La land of tech, has prevailed. The late and lamentable Virtue-Signal ™ brand snacks dissected here and here have been burned through, and a brief chat with the office manager has discovered that they will not be being reordered. (She did mention that each species is available separately and much cheaper via Amazon, if there’s a particular kind anybody liked. Not going there myself, unless there’s some sort of delayed addiction coded into the Blueberry/Vanilla/Kale skeet that causes cocaine-level withdrawal symptoms – I almost wouldn’t put it past the hippies that make these abominations. But I digress…)

Turns out the seaweed snacks I’d seen previously had not, in fact, been a part of that particular order, but some had migrated, somehow, to the snack-food Serengeti that was the Cardboard Box of Virtue Snacks, from whence they were consumed – before I got to try them. In the name of Science! and all.

Well, well – a fresh snack shipment came in today from CostCo, which included:

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The open package to the left is Ocean’s Halo Maui Onion flavored seaweed. First up for testing.

The operative word here is weed, as in a plant that’s in the way of whatever you’re really doing. But Science! must march on!

As a kid, went to the beach a lot (1), as it was 20 minutes away and I was a kid with older siblings dying to use that fresh driver’s license at any occasion. There were even Whittier to Huntington Beach buses one could catch, but we rarely did that. Instead, I and a bunch of kids from the neighborhood would just pile into the back of our old powder blue station wagon – older sis who was driving and her friends usually got the seats. We were sliding loose in a way that would horrify modern safety-niks as we drove down the 605 singing along with the radio as loud as we could. (Somehow, we all reached adulthood anyway.)

I mention this because the smell of the seaweed when I first open the package reminds me of the areas of the beach we would avoid. The areas where seaweed had washed ashore.

Seaweed was gross! Stank, covered with little flies, and would get tangled on your feet. Eat it? I think not!

But for Science! my love:

It’s – OK. The good parts are that it can curb your salt jones at only 20 calories a box. On the downside, it tastes like seaweed.

So far, I’ve eaten the Maui Onion sheets, and have tasted a couple of the Sea Salt offering. Seems an acquired taste. I think I could acquire it (love sushi rolls, and they have this exact stuff in them often as not…)

Further updates as events warrant.

  1. Such that, as an adult, I’m on way too familiar terms with my dermatologist, who regularly gazes, pokes and prods and has cut chunks – once, and alarmingly large chunk – of ME off my body.

Virtue-Signalling Snack Food Update

I can totally feel your breathless curiosity even from here: well? What high-end frou-frou snacks did your coworkers eat over the last 2 weeks, and which did they shun?

As of Friday morning:

IMG_4177

ALL the Blueberry (13th listed ingredient) Vanilla (16th) Kale (15th) LivBars done got et! As did ALL the seaweed snacks (I didn’t even get to try them! Boohoo!). So what are the 7 items above that fell, somehow, even below those ‘hand made’ ‘organic’ ‘GMO-free’ etc. goodies?

  1. Three (3) Grab the Gold pucks. These really are pucks. I’ve even eaten a couple. Apart from being sugar calorie bombs (as granola-based items strongly tend to be), they were pretty good.  Verdict: These are worse than seaweed and kale? My coworkers are sadly mistaken. IMG_4178
  2.  Two (2) Go Raw Sprouted Watermelon seeds. OK, this one I kind of understand. Have not tried them myself. IMG_4179
  3. One (1) Beans.  This, too does not passeth understanding. IMG_4181
  4. One (1) Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn – huh? (yea, it’s sideway – so sue me.)IMG_4182

So, there you are. The LivBars and seaweed did last to near the end, then, somehow, were more appealing to my coworkers than kettle corn and collapsed-star level dense granola pucks.

Further study is required.

United, We Fall On Our Faces

By now, there is hardly a larval emanation or tentacled youngling in the multiverse that hasn’t heard of United’s horrible treatment of a passenger on an overbooked flight and its subsequent epic and ongoing self-immolation. Case studies and business school texts are being drafted even now to include this story as the cautionary tale, above the caption: Don’t Ever Do This! (Or, at the better business schools: Fire Any Cretin Who Does This. One needs to be specific with alums of such business schools, as normal human behavior has long since been bred out of them.) Even I, who am unnaturally predisposed to ignoring anything that’s got the webs all a-twitter, have heard of it.

Ignoring the best response (rolling over and going back to sleep after pledging to never again take United at least until they have a really good deal to Cancun), there are two general ways one can react to this.   One can marvel at the efficacy of the Dead Hand, which, even now, is pounding United into a bloody pulp. Under the somewhat free market system airlines labor under – this is a tricky part for some – nobody has to fly United. You can pick any number of airlines to be the apex of your airport dehumanization process, or even take a train, drive or stay home. You can park your retirement funds someplace else. And millions, now, are dealing with that exact decision, and whacking big bad United where it presumably hurts the most – in the wallet. 

Or one can go all Cosmic Metaphor. You are not mad at United. You are mad at America! It’s the system getting you down, man. Rather than doing something simple, direct and effective – not flying the Friendly Skies – let’s instead throw a pouty party, and dust off everything that sociology professor with the cool beard told us about Capitalism back in the 80s while sitting on the front of his desk, and enlighten the masses.

Image result for airplane gif
Oldie but goodie.

No.

Airlines try to make money in order to a) stay in business and b) provide a profit to their investors. Or as Dr. Coolbeard would say: they’re greedy. Same exact thing. Because, under the magic flying unicorn system, airlines can stay in business and fly me, a nobody with no connections, most anywhere in the world for a under a week’s salary, without worrying about dirty, dirty money. They can finance (1), fly and maintain vast fleets of insanely complex and expensive machinery at locations all around the world, and sell me and anybody with a few hundred bucks a ticket to a regularly scheduled flight, and pay pilots, attendants, mechanics, baggage handlers and, evidently, graduates of the Nicolae Ceausescu School of Crowd Control – by applying good will and right thinking alone!

Image result for hippie professor
Not this guy! His tie proves he’s sold out to Da Man.  Nice beard, though.

I think not.

Running an airline is what is sometimes called a ‘sporty game’ by exactly those graduates of elite business schools from whom all human feeling has been surgically removed. What they mean: You have to be a little crazy to own an airline.

Boring yet important business type stuff follows.

Airline revenues are highly cyclical, while fixed costs are very high.  What highly cyclical means: when times get a little tough, one of the first things people cut back on is travel. This holds for businesses as well as individuals. If you sell travel, as airlines do, then, as the saying goes, if the economy gets a cold, you get pneumonia: a slight reduction in overall economic activity produces as relatively large dip in airline revenues. On the other hand, when times get better, people just love to go places!

Yet costs – financing and maintaining all those planes, leasing gates and counters and baggage facilities at all those airports and paying all those people – won’t just go away because you’ve decided to put off seeing grandma until next year and your company switches to a teleconference instead of an in-face meeting.  Nope – whether they’re booking every seat and adding routes or flying half-empty planes, a huge chunk of airline expenses are just there. (2)

In practice, what this means is that airlines have to make big money in good times in order to ride out bad times – they are highly motivated to get every penny they can out of every flight. Yet they are also in a highly competitive market, both in direct terms – you can almost always pick between several airlines between any half-way popular destinations – and indirect – you can often drive or stay home or teleconference.

The last straw: your customers aren’t stupid. They know they can go online and compare fares from sometimes dozens of airlines and pick the one they like – usually, the cheapest one that does what they want.

So, here you are, trying to run an airline and pay the salaries of thousands of hardworking people and avoid having to lay them off, so you’re trying to figure out both how much to charge for tickets and what policies will tend toward getting the most revenue out of each flight.

Some genius MBA comes up with the idea of overbooking: since some percentage of people are all but guaranteed to not show up or cancel at the last minute, if you sell only exactly how many seats the plane has, you’ll be flying a less than full airplane and leaving money on the table. What if you sell a few more tickets than you actually have seats for, so that you can fill in the empty seats created by those no-shows and late cancels, and fly a full plane, and make a little extra dough?

The cool part: you, the airline, have all the data needed to make this work – you’ve got years of history of no-shows and cancels by flight! You can hire some smart statisticians to crunch the numbers, and they can tell you within an acceptable level of confidence exactly how many extra seats to sell per flight so that a) your chances of a full flight (and resultant maximum revenue) are high (for whatever value of high you like) while your chances of really, really pissing off your customers is acceptably low (for whatever value of low you can live with).

Two catches: the obvious one, the one painfully clear from United’s late unpleasantness, is that, once in a while, you are going to royally infuriate some customers. The less obvious one: once any airline starts overbooking, all of its competitors on the same routes are all but forced to start overbooking as well. Why? Because failure to get that extra couple grand per flight generated by overbooking means your flight is that much more expensive, on net, than your competitors – in the not so long run, that will put you out of business, unless you can find some other way to make it up. Since you’re already charging for extra bags and food and every other thing the evil, evil airlines have come to charge for over the years, the only real option is to raise prices.

Aaaaaand – you’ll go out of business. Even if it’s only, say, $20 a ticket, you know and I know we’re picking the cheaper ticket – every. darn. time. So is almost everybody else. (This is where our more enlightened comrades will tell us that $20 doesn’t matter, it’s a small price to pay for JVSTICE! and so on. Of course, they always say this about somebody else’s $20. Try walking up to them and asking for that $20 that doesn’t matter – see what happens.)

Conclusion: The free market has provided the opportunity for anyone with a few hundred dollars to travel almost anywhere in the world – at +/- 600 miles/hr.  That we take this for granted is nearly as amazing as the brute reality itself. The prices are kept very low (3) because many airlines fly the same popular routes, and most people almost reflexively price shop for tickets. Even a few dollars in price difference will make or break the sale much of the time.

Because airlines are in a sporty game in a highly competitive market, they must – as in, they will go out of business within a few short years or less if they don’t – try to squeeze every penny out of every flight. Overbooking helps them do that, so they are all but forced to do it – by us, the ticket-buying public. Usually, this works great – passengers aren’t even aware it’s going on.  Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, an airline will handle it so badly that they are in the news in the worst way for days on end, their market value drops into 10 figures almost overnight, and people start choosing any other airline.

This fiasco is what we business people call ‘negative reinforcement’. If United had to do it over again, they’d be offering 5 free flights and $10K in cash, and a ride around the airport in a sedan chair carried by United executives dressed as Vestal virgins, and OK, a pony! to free up the seats they needed, and be thrilled to do it. Hindsight is funny that way. Chances are pretty good that, in the future,  United will have to find some other way to make total asses of themselves, insult and demean their customers and pull millions and millions out of their investor’s pockets – because they will, for a while at least, make sure they don’t do THAT again.

But they screwed up.  And are paying a steep price. And that’s not because America is screwed up – it’s actually a rare case in which things are working pretty well.

  1. My job has entailed learning a bit about financing aircraft, enough that I could go on for several pages at least on the financial ends and outs of getting and maintaining the aircraft an airline needs to stay in business. It’s scary stuff, financially speaking. If you’d like the inside scoop, just ask in the comments, and I’ll do a post! I don’t recommend it, really, but if you’re into that sort of thing…
  2. Overtime and especially fuel are two readily controllable expenses, and they certainly are significant. But they’re not enough for a downturn of any length. Airlines regularly declare bankruptcy – just google any of the big carriers who have been around for a while – United, American, Delta – and you’ll see bankruptcies in their histories.  Jetblue and Southwest are exceptions, I think, built on very tightly controlled business models.
  3. Check inflation-adjusted airfares from a few decades ago if you don’t believe me.