A Word From Our Tired Writer

Frank MoraesI hope you don’t mind if I waste a post by explaining to you why I don’t feel like writing anything. It’s funny. When I was out of town the other day, I was following the news on my phone. So I wrote up a whole schedule of articles for the next day in my notebook. Now, that’s notebook as in the thing that people from the 1950s would recognize. I still do a lot of writing by hand. But the point is that I wrote down what I was going to write once I got back home with all my standard tools like the keyboard I like, the trackball, and the computer set up the way that I like it.

And here’s the thing: I got those articles written fast. The hardest thing about writing articles is coming up with what to write about. But that isn’t exactly true. I have about fifty tabs open right now with things that I would like to write about. But I just don’t care to do it right now. Part of it is just that I don’t feel good. And that may have something to do with not eating enough today. So I’m cooking dinner — which I’m also not very excited about.

But I’ll tell you: I have been feeling tired a lot recently. It hasn’t stopped me from writing like a madman. But I constantly have to fight the urge to crawl into bed with a book. And God knows, that would be good for me! What is the point of all this writing? That’s especially true of the writing here. I understand the point of the other writing: money. And I’m very keen on money right now. In fact, let’s talk about money — as it relates to the writer.

Here’s the thing: you can be a really good writer — even a great writer. You can work really hard as a writer. And by that, I don’t mean it in the sense of, “Well, I’m thinking about my novel as a drink a beer and shoot pool over at the local pub.” In fact, the people around you can even be aware that you are a good and hard working writer. But if you aren’t making money, you are still pretty much a joke to them. It’s nothing personal. It is just people don’t know enough about writing (or almost anything) to judge what you do. So they go with commerce.

For example, I’ll bet I could find two generic paragraphs: one each from Stephen King and John Steinbeck. They are good examples because they are both great writers and popular. (Fun fact: it has not been cool to show disdain for King since 1981.) And I could show both of these paragraphs to a group of people, and they would not be able to identify which writer is which, even though they have pretty distinctive styles. So people don’t much get writing. I don’t blame them for it. But that’s the reason they fall back on every writer’s most hated question, “Yeah, but are you making any money?”

But that’s one great thing about these other paying gigs. The fact that Frankly Curious brings in about ten bucks in Amazon referrals each month, doesn’t really matter anymore. Now people have to accept that what I do here has value because other people are paying me to write the same kind of stuff elsewhere. And really, it isn’t that different — except in one way: those who pay me tell me what to write about. Which means writing here is a whole lot harder. I hope you appreciate it!

Afterword

Having written this, I feel so much more energetic. And dinner’s almost done.

The Problem With Economics

Noah SmithI think that what’s odd about econ isn’t that it uses lots of math — it’s the way it uses math. In most applied math disciplines — computational biology, fluid dynamics, quantitative finance — mathematical theories are always tied to the evidence. If a theory hasn’t been tested, it’s treated as pure conjecture.

Not so in econ. Traditionally, economists have put the facts in a subordinate role and theory in the driver’s seat. Plausible-sounding theories are believed to be true unless proven false, while empirical facts are often dismissed if they don’t make sense in the context of leading theories. This isn’t a problem with math — it was just as true back when economics theories were written out in long literary volumes. Econ developed as a form of philosophy and then added math later, becoming basically a form of mathematical philosophy.

—Noah Smith
Economics Has a Math Problem

Donald Trump Is Rich Because He Was Born Rich

Donald TrumpWhen I was a kid, Esphyr Slobodkina’s book, Caps for Sale terrified me. It involved this guy who I now understand was a cap peddler who wore many caps on his head at the same time. I thought he was Satan. I have no idea why I thought that. I was a strange kid. Anyway, I now wish that I were that peddler, because I would love to tip a hundred caps to SV Dáte who wrote the best article I’ve read in ages, The One Easy Way Donald Trump Could Have Been Even Richer: Doing Nothing.

People often ask me where I get my story ideas. I tell them it is mostly cartoons (which is true). Perhaps as a result, it would not occur to me to do what Dáte did. We all know that money makes money. And since Donald Trump was born rich, Dáte decided to look at how rich he would be now if he had just floated along: put his money in a regular investment vehicle. In this case, he chose an indexed mutual fund. These are funds designed to do roughly as well as the market itself. His results: if Trump had just put his 1974 inheritance into an index fund, he would now have $3 billion; if he had put his $200 million estimated fortune in 1982 into an index fund, he would not have $8 billion.

Even the smaller figure exceeds the lower range of his possible net worth as reported to the Federal Election Commission, while the larger number exceeds by billions recent estimates of Trump’s worth by financial publications. And it would have come without the high-drama, roller-coaster career that has included four corporate bankruptcies.

That a purely unmanaged index fund’s return could outperform Trump’s hands-on wheeling and dealing calls into question one of Trump’s chief selling points on the campaign trail: his business acumen.

He added that if Trump had given War­ren Buf­fett his money to invest, Trump would now be worth almost $70 billion. But most of the rest of the article is about how much Trump is actually worth. Most recently, Trump has claimed that he is worth ten billion dollars. But that number is certainly not true. And it is possible that he is only really worth something like hundreds of millions of dollars. It doesn’t really matter. The main thing is that he hasn’t done any better than a simple computer algorithm in terms of managing his money.

At Vox, Dylan Matthews looked into the question a bit more deeply.
Even after taking into account all of the costs associated with a mutual fund (fees and taxes), it turns out that Trump currently has (based on the most liberal estimates) just about the same amount of money that he would have had. And I think the title of his article says all that need be said, “Donald Trump isn’t rich because he’s a great investor. He’s rich because his dad was rich.”

That, my friends, is the story of modern America. Meritocracy? American exceptionalism? It’s all rubbish. Donald Trump is the perfect symbol of America.

Gilad Edelman and the Bagel Whine

Gilad EdelmanAt Slate recently, Gilad Edelman complained, New York Bagel Places Put Way Too Much Cream Cheese on Their Bagels. But he couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he strikes me as representing everything I hate about many of the political and cultural writers that I most read: this tendency to think that they and their friends are somehow representative of the larger society. But let me back up a bit.

Edelman finds that the amount of cream cheese on a New York bagel ranges from 0.7 ounces all the way up to 3.9 ounces. I’ll admit, a quart-pound of cream cheese is a lot. But it is hardly normal on my coast. But he complains about the glob of cream cheese in the hole. But really, most bagels don’t have much of a hole. In fact, that kind of geometrical perfection is usually reserved for the fake bagel: bagel shaped bread. But I know what he’s talking about. And I either throw it out or redistribute it in the rest of the bagel. It has never occurred to me that it might be something bad — something that I ought to complain about.

Bagel and Cream CheeseBut why do bagel shops pile on the cream cheese? Well, a couple of vendors give him the two reasons. First: if there is too much, you wipe it away. Most people are not whiny “writer, musician, popcorn enthusiasts” who complain about this. It’s better to have too much than to have too little. Second, bagel places do charge a small fortune for cream cheese. It’s not just that I would feel cheated by paying a buck fifty for a thin butter-like layer of cream cheese. It is that I wouldn’t want it. Cream cheese doesn’t have a very hearty taste. You need a fair amount of it to experience it.

Here is the ultimate thing: the right amount of cream cheese isn’t just a personal thing. The right amount depends upon my mood. So today, I may want 0.7 ounces and then tomorrow, I may want 2 ounces. So what the bagel places are doing is providing me with the option to ingest as much cream cheese as I want. What am I going to do? Walk into House of Bagels (which is fantastic) and say, “Well, I want a fair amount of cream cheese, but not too much, you know, the way you made it last Thursday, something like that”? It’s crazy. It is expecting too much of the bagel place, and frankly, it’s expecting too much of me. I know that if I press down harder on a bagel with a lot of cream cheese, it will squish out and I won’t eat it.

So come on, Edelman. Man up! Take responsibility for your bagel! This just isn’t hard. But I’ll make a deal with you. If you go work in the Peace Corps for a couple of years, helping poor farmers in Haiti, then I’ll start caring about our wasted cream cheese problem in the bagel industry. Until then, I will eat bagels the way that God intended poor people to eat bagels: I will buy them in bulk, cut them myself, and apply generic cream cheese to them. But the next time I’m in Palo Alto, getting a bagel and cream cheese — I will think of Edelman as I relish each ounce of excessive cream cheese that House of Bagels offers me.

Morning Music: Roses Are Red (My Love)

Roses Are Red - Bobby VintonMy mother really liked Bobby Vinton. But the truth is that I can’t really remember any particular song. But I do remember hearing her sing, “Roses Are Red (My Love).” It is a memorable song. It’s interesting that the writers were able to transcend the simple rhyme with the insertion of “my love.” Also, the music works really well.

Even as a kid, I didn’t think much of Vinton. His voice lacked character. The arrangements were all standard. He never took a risk. But what the hell? He made a boat load of money. And in the end, isn’t that what pop music is really all about? This is something that my friends who like modern pop music really don’t understand. It doesn’t matter how much the production techniques have changed: they are still listening to the same soulless music that Bobby Vinton was producing in the early 1960s.

Anniversary Post: Fantasy Founding of Los Angeles

Chumash TribesmanOn this day in 1781, a bunch of Spaniards settled “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” — later to be known as simply Los Angeles. Luckily for the native population, elders from the Tongva and Chumash got together to discuss the situation. They decided that if they allowed the Spaniards to stay there, they would spread disease, try to push their ridiculous god who gets himself nailed to a stick, and ultimately commit a genocide. So they acted.

The women of the tribes came to the settlement offering native fruits and vegetables. While they were talking to the settlers, the men came up behind them and killed all the settlers. It was quick and painless. Unlike the Spaniards and all of the other Europeans who were invading the Americas, these tribes were not savages.

But once all the settlers were dead, they had to make a decision as to what to do next. Finally, they decided that Los Angeles would be a great place to produce films. So they started the film industry. In fact, “Hollywood” is an old Chumash word meaning, “That which is white with a bloody throat.” But this explains why Hollywood spent so many years using Italians to play the parts of Native Americans: the Native Americans were too busy running the studios.

Afterword

In fact, there were Native and African Americans as part of the settlement. This is a broader commentary, in as much as it is a commentary at all. Mostly, it’s just silly.