A Little Snark

Please forgive me, but it’s hard to deal seriously with what I see in the news each day. So I’ve crafted a couple of snarky responses to current controversies:

  1. Simple answer for LGBT prejudice: create a new LGBT religion and sue rejecting employers on the basis of First Amendment violations.
  2. It appears that the 2020 election will pit Pocahontas against Poco Pe*is.

Museum outreach and accueil

Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome.  They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.

One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant. Continue reading “Museum outreach and accueil”

The art bubble

A David Hockney painting has sold for $90m , and it couldn’t happen* to a nicer guy. Actually I have no idea whether Hockney is nice, but he’s certainly an endlessly interesting, provocative artist with whose work I never tire of engaging.

*In fact it didn’t happen to him: I think he’s doing OK, but this sale was by a speculator/collector and it didn’t put this awesome sum into the artist’s pocket.

What, though, does this event mean? Philip Kennicott reflects on the event in WaPo. He explores two questions, one right and interesting (how can a painting be worth so much money?) and the other partly wrong (is it right to spend so much on a painting when there are homeless and all the other real needs?). Continue reading “The art bubble”

Annals of commerce: product downgrades

Not everything you buy is getting better. Here are a couple of pet peeves:

I. Unfinished cast iron cookware

Cast iron skillets have been popular for decades. Properly seasoned and cared for, they last pretty much forever, are easy to clean, and are especially good at browning meat owing to the Maillard reaction that is catalyzed by iron. They used to be made with two well established technologies. The first is sand casting, and it’s the same way the engine block of your car is made. First, a wood pattern is made in the shape of the desired pan, but larger by about 1/8″ per foot because the pan will shrink as it cools. This pattern is embedded in damp sand in a mold with two parts, removed without disturbing the sand, and molten iron is run into the space it leaves.

The result of this process is a (1) rough casting with a very scrabbly surface of mill scale, ready to machine to the required dimensions and finish (the second technology). Back in the day, the skillet was (2) put on a lathe and  the inside turned to a perfectly flat inner bottom and smooth sides. This removes the hard, sandy layer on top and exposes the cast iron. You can find these pans at garage sales and on Ebay, and if they’re not too old and used, you can still see the spiral track of the lathe tool on the pan.

The skillet you will find today at your hardware store is probably Lodge, a company that used to make its wares correctly, but they have discovered a wonderful way to cut corners: just skip step (2), give the rough casting a coat of black paint, and call it “pre-seasoned”!  Here is what a new skillet made this way looks like.

You might make this smooth trying to get your fried eggs off it with metal spatulas-after a century or so.    Continue reading “Annals of commerce: product downgrades”

The key lesson of the United Airlines fiasco has nothing to do with airlines

Chicago, as seen from non-United flight

Last Sunday, a security officer dragged a 69-year-old physician, David Dao, off a United Airlines plane at O’Hare Airport. Dr. Dao was injured in the altercation. The extent and severity of his injuries remains unclear, but are likely to receive close attention when he sues. Video of the incident ignited an internet firestorm.

The past week has occasioned thousands of tweets, countless newspaper op-eds and commentaries about how lousy airlines generally are, and how United Airlines in particular needs to raise its game.

A week later, I fear the real lesson is being lost.

Continue reading “The key lesson of the United Airlines fiasco has nothing to do with airlines”

Annals of Commerce: customers are not inventory

Our captains of industry (the kind of people Donald Trump loves to throw into government jobs for which they are completely unprepared) are really smart in so many ways, or they wouldn’t be so rich, right?  The latest awkward exceptions are the Wells Fargo bosses who supervised a national enterprise of cheating retail customers, and Oscar Muñoz of United Airlines, who somehow contrived to be the last person on the planet to figure out that dragging [sic] a paying passenger off his plane so he could ferry four staffers to a location convenient to United was Not OK.  Muñoz’ witless behavior is something of a surprise, because he has not spent his life in a privileged bubble; according to Wikipedia he was the first in his family to go to college, from a family of nine kids, and last year took off a couple of months from work to have a heart transplant. The man has paid some dues.

I would like to add to the ample discussion of this episode (see especially Helaine Olen’s piece enlarging the scope of debate beyond the case at hand) an insight I owe to my late colleague Robert Leone: Muñoz’ problem, and his lieutenants up there in the executive suite, have their feet nailed to the floor for two reasons.  One is that they are actually not that smart, and do not understand their own cost structure. The other, and my main point here, is because they have no clue what it’s like to be one of their customers! They never fly Y class, or at least haven’t since that product became a hated, degrading, wretched experience in their hands. Continue reading “Annals of Commerce: customers are not inventory”

Sports and other treachery

I was a Dodger fan in youth, the only acceptable choice for a New York red-diaper kid. I didn’t know any Giants fans.  One day I sat down to breakfast and opened a paper newspaper and learned that the team was going to Los Angeles; might as well have said “moon to move to new galaxy”.  In fact that move was not the cynical greedy play it appeared to be, more the result of Robert Moses and New York political leaders flubbing the job (on the Giants’ side, not so much, having more to do with fan indifference). But the disillusionment was extreme, and put me off baseball for decades…living in Boston for twenty-five years, I entered a serious flirtation with the Red Sox, but still gingerly.

Parents advise their kids, “don’t fall in love with someone who just wants your money.” Duh. OK, a professional team isn’t a charity for the benefit of fans (though the municipal/nonprofit Green Bay Packers are a notable exception). But the departure of the Raiders from Oakland for a much less promising fan base and market, entirely because Nevada pols are willing to dip into their citizens’ pockets* to line Mark Davis’ while the admirable mayor of Oakland put her foot down and would not be rolled, is a good lesson for all.  Sort of like the same lesson currently on offer from Donald Trump, as we see the only thing he actually wants to do is put his marks/voters’ money in the pocket of his rich pals, Russian and other.

Now, the Raiders are going to be here for two more years, and tens of thousands of fans have bought season tickets. I wonder if there’s a nice class action lawsuit here: “I bought tickets to see my home team, ; now it’s just a bunch of guys in black uniforms. Refund!” Update 28/III: the Raiders are refunding season tix. Good for them.

*Technical note: the Las Vegas subsidy comes mostly from a tax on tourists. Well, if tourists can be gouged for those hundreds of millions without damaging the local economy, they can just as well be gouged for schools, streets, and the like (Clark County schools are seriously hurting), so in the end it’s the locals’ money being shoveled to Davis.

NAS Studies and President Trump’s Address

I received this post from a friend:

This morning I received an email from the National Academies Press (see the URL, below) containing both the script of President Trump’s recent Joint Address to Congress and — interspersed at relevant locations — copies of various NRC reports from the National Academies containing information, data and recommendations about the many scientific, engineering and medical issues facing our country (and the world).

This is a perfect representation of the Academies’ primary mission — to serve the federal government by bringing unbiased (and carefully refereed) technical and analytical expertise and results to the nation’s decision-makers.  I thought you, and friends and colleagues, might be interested in this document.  Feel free to forward it to all and any.

The Economic Value of Trust

I was digging through some boxes and found an old calabash pipe and stand. It’s the sort of pipe that people think of Sherlock Holmes smoking even though in the books he didn’t (William Gillette added the calabash for a stage adaptation over a century ago and it stuck). pipe

Gourd pipes have gone out of style, being largely replaced by mahogany. That makes this calabash if not an antique at least a curio I could put in my office as a conversation piece. But the decades-old cork ring is eroded and the whole thing is smoke scarred and tobacco encrusted. What to do?

I talked to a local tobacconist who gave me the phone number of a pipe maven in Tennessee who might be able to help. I talked to said Tennessean on the telephone and he said he could probably restore the pipe, so I have mailed it to him.

What is striking about this relative to other business transactions is that this is all done on trust. I don’t know the pipe expert from Adam (not even his last name); he could keep my pipe and there would be nothing I could do about it. On his end, I didn’t send any money so he could do the work and not get paid. But I just had a feeling that I could trust him and I guess he felt the same as we didn’t even agree on the price — we will work that out later on the basis of reason and good faith, jointly applied.

No receipts, no travel to meet in person, no insurance, no contract — all of those costly things are not needed because we exist in an atmosphere of trust.

It reminded me that one of the early stamp collecting companies used to mail sets of valuable old stamps to collectors who were asked to take what they wanted, mail in a check to pay for it, and then mail the stamps directly to the next collector on a list. Anyone could have easily stolen stamps under this system, but apparently few people did because the company was highly profitable.

We spend so much money because of distrust, whether it’s locks on our doors, liability insurance, receipts in triplicate or certified mail. We accept that we can’t trust each other and endure much deadweight financial loss on that basis. We would reap enormous economic benefits if we were more trusting and trustworthy. We think of these things as virtues and they are, but they also have large economic consequences (Did you know that the Amish are so dutiful about paying back loans that banks give them extremely low interest rates?).

I could never prove it, but I think the decline in trust in the country reduces GDP as much as many other factors that are blamed for poor economic performance. Just one more reason why the coming years are not likely to be good ones for our country.