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“There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher”*…




In November, Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered hit number one on the New York Times bestsellers list—with an asterisk. Or more accurately, a dagger (†). This is the first time many people noticed this dagger and learned that it means the NYT believes the book has made it onto the list with the help of bulk purchases. It is, however, far from the first book to do this.

In fact, his father helped pioneer the practice among business people.

According to former Trump executive Jack O’Donnell in his 1991 book Trumped, the Trump organization purchased tens of thousands of copies of the Art of the Deal upon its release in 1987. They put copies of the book on pillows during turn-down service. He also pressured his executives to buy 4,000 or more copies of the book each.

Though Trump helped to bring the idea mainstream, he was following in some authors’ footsteps from a decade earlier. Some of the first books known to make the list with the help of bulk purchases were Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley of the Dolls and Wayne Dyer’s 1976 Your Erroneous ZonesThe list started in 1931, so there are probably authors who used this method we’ll never know about.

For those unaware of how bestseller lists work, here’s a primer…

The business of literature: “A History of Buying Books onto the Best Seller List.”

[Image above: source]

* Flannery O’Connor


As we rethink rankings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1936 that two masters of classic noir fiction, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, met for the first and only time.  The occasion was a Black Mask magazine dinner in Los Angeles, at which the two were among the ten pulp writers (plus an editor) attending.  In the event photo below, both are standing: Chandler is smoking a pipe; Hammett, the tallest, is farthest right.

Black Mask dinner source


Written by LW

January 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Cuisine is when things taste like themselves”*…



“The destiny of nations,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century French gastronome, “depends on how they nourish themselves.” Today a nation’s stature depends on how well it nourishes the rest of the world, too. For proof of this, consider the rise of culinary diplomacy. In 2012 America’s State Department launched a “chef corps” tasked with promoting American cuisine abroad. Thailand’s government sends chefs overseas to peddle pad Thai and massaman curry through its Global Thai programme. South Korea pursues its own brand of “kimchi diplomacy”.

But which country’s cuisine is at the top of the global food chain? A new paper by Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota provides an answer. Using restaurant listings from TripAdvisor, a travel-review website, and sales figures from Euromonitor, a market-research firm, Mr Waldfogel estimates world “trade” in cuisines for 52 countries. Whereas traditional trade is measured based on the value of goods and services that flow across a country’s borders, the author’s estimates of culinary exchange are based on the value of food found on restaurant tables. Domestic consumption of foreign cuisine is treated as an “import”, whereas foreign consumption of domestic cuisine is treated as an “export”. The balance determines which countries have the greatest influence on the world’s palate.

The results make grim reading for America’s McDonald’s-munching, tariff-touting president. The United States is the world’s biggest net importer of cuisine, gobbling down $55bn more in foreign dishes than the rest of the world eats in American fare (when fast food is excluded, this figure balloons to $134bn). China comes next, with a $52bn dietary deficit; Brazil and Britain have shortfalls worth around $34bn and $30bn respectively. Italy, meanwhile, ranks as the world’s biggest exporter of edibles. The world’s appetite for pasta and pizza, plus Italians’ relative indifference to other cuisines, give the country a $168bn supper surplus. Japan, Turkey and Mexico also boast robust surpluses [see chart above].

Mr Waldfogel does not account for culinary hybrids such as the cronut—a cross between a croissant and a doughnut—or Tex-Mex. Nor does he consider authenticity; few Neapolitans would consider Domino’s Pizza a real taste of home. Despite this, some cuisines clearly have a bigger worldwide appeal than others. Foodies scoffing spring rolls in San Francisco or cheeseburgers in Chongqing should give thanks to globalisation. A policy of culinary mercantilism could make dining out very dull indeed…

Which countries dominate the world’s dinner tables?

* Curnonsky (Maurice Edmond Sailland; c.f. almanac entry here)


As we contemplate culinary culture, we might send carefully-peeled birthday greetings to John Richard (“Jack” or “J.R.”) Simplot; he was born on this date in 1909.  An Idaho-based agribusiness entrepreneur, Simplot, J.R.’s eponymous company, became the largest shipper of fresh potatoes by the outbreak of World War II.  In 1967, Simplot and McDonald’s impressario Ray Kroc agreed by handshake that the Simplot Company would provide frozen french fries to the restaurant chain; by 2005, Simplot was supplying the (by then vastly larger) Golden Arches with half of its french fries and hash browns.  Simplot also provided seed capital for Micron Technologies, a successful computer memory chip company.

J._R._Simplot source



Written by LW

January 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“There are two ways to make money in business: bundling and unbundling”*…


Many ventures seek profit by repackaging existing goods and services as revenue streams they can control, with technology frequently serving as the mechanism. The tech industry’s mythology about itself as a “disruptor” of the status quo revolves around this concept: Inefficient bundles (newspapers, cable TV, shopping malls) are disaggregated by companies that serve consumers better by letting them choose the features they want as stand-alone products, unencumbered of their former baggage. Why pay for a package of thousands of unwatched cable television channels, when you can pay for only the ones you watch? Who wants to subsidize journalism when all you care about is sports scores?

Media has been the most obvious target of digital unbundling because of the internet’s ability to subsume other forms and modularize their content. But almost anything can be understood as a bundle of some kind — a messy entanglement of variously useful functions embedded in a set of objects, places, institutions, and jobs that is rarely optimized for serving a single purpose. And accordingly, we hear promises to unbundle more and more entities. Transportation systems are being unbundled by various ridesharing and other mobility-as-a-service startups, causing driving, parking, navigation, and vehicle maintenance to decouple from their traditional locus in the privately owned automobile. Higher education, which has historically embedded classroom learning in an expensive bundle that often includes residence on campus and extracurricular activities, is undergoing a similar change via tools for remote learning…

Things that have been unbundled rarely remain unbundled for very long. Whether digital or physical, people actually like bundles, because they supply a legible social structure and simplify the complexity presented by a paralyzing array of consumer choices. The Silicon Valley disruption narrative implies that bundles are suboptimal and thus bad, but as it turns out, it is only someone else’s bundles that are bad: The tech industry’s unbundling has actually paved the way for invidious forms of rebundling. The apps and services that replaced the newspaper are now bundled on iPhone home screens or within social media platforms, where they are combined with new things that no consumer asked for: advertising, data mining, and manipulative interfaces. Facebook, for instance, unbundled a variety of long-established social practices from their existing analog context — photo sharing, wishing a friend happy birthday, or inviting someone to a party — and recombined them into its new bundle, accompanied by ad targeting and algorithmic filtering. In such cases, a bundle becomes less a bargain than a form of coercion, locking users into arrangements that are harder to escape than what they replaced. Ironically, digital bundles like Facebook also introduce novel ambiguities and adjacencies in place of those they sought to eliminate, such as anger about the political leanings of distant acquaintances or awareness of social gatherings that happened without you (side effects that are likely to motivate future unbundling efforts in turn)…

In a consideration of one of the most fundamental dynamics afoot in our economy today, and of its consequences, Drew Austin observes that no goods or services are stand-alone: “Bundling and Unbundling.”

* Jim Barksdale (in 1995, when he was the CEO of Netscape)


As we contemplate connection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that IBM and Microsoft signed the agreement that made Microsoft the supplier of the operating system for the soon-to-be-released IBM PC.  IBM had hoped to do a deal with Digital Research (the creators of CP/M), but DR would not sign an NDA.

On Nov. 6, 1980, the contract that would change the future of computing was signed: IBM would pay Microsoft $430,000 for what would be called MS-DOS. But the key provision in that agreement was the one that allowed Microsoft to license the operating system to other computer manufacturers besides IBM — a nonexclusive arrangement that IBM agreed to in part because it was caught up in decades of antitrust investigations and litigation. IBM’s legal caution, however, would prove to be Microsoft’s business windfall, opening the door for the company to become the dominant tech company of the era.

Hundreds of thousands of IBM computers were sold with MS-DOS, but more than that, Microsoft became the maker of the crucial connection that was needed between the software and hardware used to operate computers. Company revenue skyrocketed from $16 million in 1981 to $140 million in 1985 as other computer-makers like Tandy and Commodore also chose to partner with them.

And as Microsoft’s fortunes rose, IBM’s declined. The company known as Big Blue, which had once been the largest in America, and 3,000 times the size of Microsoft, lost control of the PC platform it had helped build as software became more important than hardware.  [source]

Microsoft Founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates

Paul Allen and Bill Gates in those early years



Written by LW

November 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Luncheon: as much food as one’s hand can hold”*…




This summer Pret A Manger, purveyor of sandwiches to desk-workers in the white-collar cities of the West, added lobster rolls to its menu. In Britain they cost £5.99 ($7.31); in America $9.99. In both countries they are filled with lobster from Maine, along with cucumber, mayonnaise and more. Rent and labour cost about the same in London as in downtown New York or Boston. Neither sticker price includes sales tax. Yet a Pret lobster roll in America is a third pricier than in Britain, even though the lobster comes from nearer by.

This Pret price gap is not limited to lobster rolls. According to data gathered by The Economist on the dozen Pret sandwiches that are most similar in the two countries, the American ones cost on average 74% more (see chart). An egg sandwich in New York costs $4.99 to London’s £1.79, more than double. A tuna baguette costs two-thirds more. The price mismatch is intriguing—the more so for The Economist, which publishes the Big Mac index, a cross-country comparison of burger prices, which shows a 43% transatlantic disparity…

sandwich prices

Find out “Why Americans pay more for lunch than Britons do.”

* Samuel Johnson


As we cogitate on the cost of comestibles, we might spare a thought for Luther Crowell; he died on this date in 1903.  A prolific inventor (he held over 280 patents), he invented and patented the first machine to manufacture accordion-sided, flat-bottomed paper bags.

(That said, Margaret E. Knight might more accurately be considered the”mother of the modern shopping bag”: she perfected square bottoms two years earlier.)



Written by LW

September 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Central planning didn’t work for Stalin or Mao, and it won’t work for an entrepreneur either”*…


Amazon central planning


Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable – and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.

For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivization in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism.”An ideology as dangerous as it is dogmatically overconfident, high modernism refuses to recognize that many human practices and behaviors have an inherent logic that is adapted to the complex environment in which they have evolved. When high modernists dismiss such practices in order to institute a more scientific and rational approach, they almost always fail.

Historically, high-modernist schemes have been most damaging in the hands of an authoritarian state seeking to transform a prostrate, weak society. In the case of Soviet collectivization, state authoritarianism originated from the self-proclaimed “leading role” of the Communist Party, and pursued its schemes in the absence of any organizations that could effectively resist them or provide protection to peasants crushed by them.

Yet authoritarianism is not solely the preserve of states. It can also originate from any claim to unbridled superior knowledge or ability. Consider contemporary efforts by corporations, entrepreneurs, and others who want to improve our world through digital technologies. Recent innovations have vastly increased productivity in manufacturing, improved communication, and enriched the lives of billions of people. But they could easily devolve into a high-modernist fiasco…

But this characteristically high-modernist path is not preordained. Instead of ignoring social context, those developing new technologies could actually learn something from the experiences and concerns of real people. The technologies themselves could be adaptive rather than hubristic, designed to empower society rather than silence it.Two forces are likely to push new technologies in this direction. The first is the market, which may act as a barrier against misguided top-down schemes. Once Soviet planners decided to collectivize agriculture, Ukrainian villagers could do little to stop them. Mass starvation ensued. Not so with today’s digital technologies, the success of which will depend on decisions made by billions of consumers and millions of businesses around the world (with the possible exception of those in China)…

That said, the power of the market constraint should not be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that the market will select the right technologies for widespread adoption, nor will it internalize the negative effects of some new applications. The fact that Facebook exists and collects information about its 2.5 billion active users in a market environment does not mean we can trust how it will use that data. The market certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be unforeseen consequences from Facebook’s business model and underlying technologies.

For the market constraint to work, it must be bolstered by a second, more powerful check: democratic politics. Every state has a proper role to play in regulating economic activity and the use and spread of new technologies. Democratic politics often drives the demand for such regulation. It is also the best defense against the capture of state policies by rent-seeking businesses attempting to raise their market shares or profits.

Democracy also provides the best mechanism for airing diverse viewpoints and organizing resistance to costly or dangerous high-modernist schemes. By speaking out, we can slow down or even prevent the most pernicious applications of surveillance, monitoring, and digital manipulation. A democratic voice is precisely what was denied to Ukrainian and Tanzanian villagers confronted with collectivization schemes.But regular elections are not sufficient to prevent Big Tech from creating a high-modernist nightmare. Insofar as new technologies can thwart free speech and political compromise and deepen concentrations of power in government or the private sector, they can frustrate the workings of democratic politics itself, creating a vicious circle. If the tech world chooses the high-modernist path, it may ultimately damage our only reliable defense against its hubris: democratic oversight of how new technologies are developed and deployed. We as consumers, workers, and citizens should all be more cognizant of the threat, for we are the only ones who can stop it.

At the same time that science and technology have vastly improved human lives, they have also given certain visionaries the means to transform entire societies from above. Ominously, what was true of Soviet central planners is true of Big Tech today: namely, the assumption that society can be improved through pure “rationality.”  Daron Acemoglu— Professor of Economics at MIT,  and co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (forthcoming from Penguin Press in September 2019)– explains: “Big Tech’s Harvest of Sorrow?

[Illustration above from “The Singular Pursuit of Comrade Bezos,” also worth a read.]

* Michael Bloomberg


As we rethink “reason,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (one year before Marconi’s first demo) that distinguished physicist Oliver Lodge achieved the first successful radio transmission of information via Morse Code in a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at a meeting in Oxford.  He sent a message about 50 meters from the old Clarendon Laboratory to the lecture theater of the University Museum.

Lodge continued to develop his approach, and patented several elements of it… running into intellectual property disputes with Marconi.  Finally, in 1912, Lodge, at heart an academic, sold his patents to the more determinedly-commercial Marconi.

220px-Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3 source


Written by LW

August 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Of course our lives are regulated. When you come to a stop sign, you stop; if you want to go fishing, you get a license; if you want to shoot ducks, you can shoot only three ducks. The alternative is dead bodies at the intersection, no fish, and no ducks. OK?”*…




After a characteristically-clear explanation of the ways in which the “monopoly practice” concerns around Google, Amazon, and the other on-line giants are different from those the U.S. has traditionally tried to manage– they limit/manage choice– the ever-illuminating Tim O’Reilly argues for a fresh approach to anti-trust:

So how are we therefore best to decide if these Big Tech platforms need to be regulated?

In one famous exchange, Bill Gates, the founder and former CEO of Microsoft, told Chamath Palihapitiya, the one-time head of the Facebook platform:

“This isn’t a platform. A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.”

Given this understanding of the role of a platform, regulators should be looking to measure whether companies like Amazon or Google are continuing to provide opportunity for their ecosystem of suppliers, or if they’re increasing their own returns at the expense of that ecosystem.

Rather than just asking whether consumers benefit in the short term from the companies’ actions, regulators should be looking at the long-term health of the marketplace of suppliers—they are the real source of that consumer benefit, not the platforms alone. Have Amazon, Apple, or Google


their profits, or are they coming from monopolistic rents?

How might we know whether a company operating an algorithmically managed marketplace is extracting rents rather than simply taking a reasonable cut for the services it provides? The first sign may not be that it is raising prices for consumers, but that it is taking a larger percentage from its suppliers, or competing unfairly with them.

Before antitrust authorities look to remedies like breaking up these companies, a good first step would be to require disclosure of information about the growth and health of the supply side of their marketplaces. The statistics about the growth of its third-party marketplace that Bezos trumpeted in his shareholder letter tell only half the story. The questions to ask are who profits, by how much, and how that allocation of rewards is changing over time…

Data is the currency of these companies. It should also be the currency of those looking to regulate them. You cannot regulate what you don’t understand. The algorithms that these companies use may be defended as trade secrets, but their outcomes should be open to inspection.

An important read: “Antitrust regulators are using the wrong tools to break up Big Tech.”

* Molly Ivins


As we bust trusts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1974 that the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in United States v. Nixon, ordering him to deliver tape recordings and other subpoenaed materials to a federal district court.  Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski had subpoenaed the tapes as part of on-going impeachment proceedings; the White House had sued to quash; and the decision is widely viewed as a crucial precedent limiting the power of any U.S. president to claim executive privilege.

nixon_sony source



Written by LW

July 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There is no business like show business. There is also no business like certified public accounting, but that doesn’t rhyme as well.”*…



Portrait of Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari


Modern capitalism began among the European merchant families of the early Renaissance—the Fuggers of Augsburg, Medicis of Florence and, in Venice, one Antonio de Rompiasi, who in 1464 hired a tutor in mathematics for his three sons. Like any sensible teacher, young Luca Pacioli aimed to make his lessons memorable and clear. Good humanist that he was, 30 years later he gathered all the world’s knowledge of the subject into a single massive volume.

His “Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita” was the 615-page work of a mature professor who had spent decades working across northern Italy. The book was revolutionary on more than one count. It integrated computation using Hindu-Arabic numerals with the logic of classic Greek geometry; it was written in the Italian of the marketplace rather than Latin; and it was circulated in large numbers thanks to the new technology of printing. Yet its greatest significance lay in a slim ‘how to’ chapter that described the double-entry accounting system used by Venetian merchants.

With examples from dealers in butter to lemons to silk, Pacioli set out the method for tracking income and expenditure and the calculation of net profit or loss, which for the first time allowed an immediate snapshot of a firm’s financial position. This slim section would facilitate the birth of the modern corporation.

“Without order there is chaos,” Pacioli observed in a breezy style that is still in vogue in business books today. His manual is stuffed with quotes from scripture and Dante and pithy advice such as “Don’t learn from ignoramuses who have more leaves than grapes.” He wrote the accounting chapter to help would-be traders in Venice, then the capital of the financial world, “sleep easily at night”. Without double-entry book-keeping, “their minds would keep them awake with worry”. He could not suspect that what might be called “Book-keeping for Dummies” would become the backbone of business for centuries.

Like many monumental works of 15th-century printing, Pacioli’s treatise has survived in its original form. Some 120 copies still exist, from an initial run of about 1,000. Now today’s moguls have a chance to own this first folio of finance. Christie’s, the auction house, is offering a first edition in its original vellum binding for sale in New York on June 12th. The starting price is $1m for what it unabashedly calls “the most influential work in the history of capitalism.”

Pacioli’s later life augments the glamour of the first printed use of ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ signs. Impressed by the book, Leonardo da Vinci convinced his patron Lodovico Sforza to hire Pacioli to teach at the court of Milan. Pacioli and Leonardo collaborated on the treatise “Divina Proportione,” which married maths with art through the study of perspective. Not one, but two Renaissance masters were thus responsible for the exquisite harmony of “The Last Supper”…

The 15th-century guide to book-keeping enabled the rise of modern corporations: “A revolutionary treatise goes on the block.”

* Craig Shaw Gardner


As we count carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1902 that a US patent (#701,839) was issued to Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Ill., which he called the outlook envelope– what we call the window envelope.

300px-USPatent701839-CallahanAmericus-WindowedEnvelope source


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