The Hidden Life of Dogs

Reading a book on dog psychology might qualify one as a genuine escentric. However writing a book on it is taking things to the next level. 🙂

In writing this great book Elisabeth Marshall Thomas logged over 100,000 hours of research watching dogs. She even went so far as going up north to observe a wolf family during days with 24 hours of sunlight.

Here were some of the notes I took based on the book.

Emotions, decisions & customs

  • dogs have emotions just like humans do. they also frequently decide between choices & make trade offs.
  • dogs have imaginations & lonely dogs may make up fantasy and pretend to have friends or foes they are playing with or chasing around
  • the need for belonging is important with dogs. if a dog is far away from a group and wet it will usually wait until catching up before shaking off
  • dogs develop unique customs that continue to spread downward from the alpha dog, however a custom learned from an alpha dog can become unlearned if environment changes & the dog is around other dogs with other customs
  • dogs can also adopt mannerisms from humans, like sharing food back and forth. or they can try to make their smiles look more like a human smile
  • when a dog growls at you while eating a bone it assumes you want it. dogs cast their values onto others too & evaluate other species through empathetic observations.
  • I don’t believe it was mentioned in this book, but some online sources mentioned that when reading human faces dogs have a left-gaze bias. this book does mention that dogs are great at readubg human emotions & can read them from afar.
  • when dogs show their bellies they are saying “do as you will with us, since we are helpless puppies in your presence.”
  • a husky from a native american tribe in alaska was afraid of things that sounded like whips or the sound of alchohol in a person’s voice
  • dogs may dream & just before giving birth one dog appeared to have dreamed of her own childhood (based on a unique tongue pattern)


  • some dogs are bad at navigation while others are good at it, having a range of hundreds of square miles without getting lost very often. some homeless dogs that are much more weak might only have a range of a small portion of a square mile.
  • if a dog really loves another dog sometimes it will follow it even if it is heading astray. eventually it might try to catch up and push to turn the dog. if a dog gets too lost it might go sit on someone’s porch and wait to have you come pick it up.
  • a dog that is dropped off in the country somewhere will be less likely to be able to find their way than a dog that traveled to and fro on paw.
  • dogs learn to avoid areas with heavy traffic congestion in both directions, instead opting to go around them. if a dog must go on a highway it may use diplomacy and tact & does not try to challenge their authority.when cars become fewer the dog becomes more confident.
  • where there are sidewalks dogs will use them like humans, except for when they cross over streets they will move like 20 feet in from the intersection, so that they only have cars coming from 2 directions.
  • on more residential roads a dog is more likely to run down the middle of the road with eyes front & use its ears to hear if there are cars coming from side streets, without having to adjust pace or use its eyes for that task.
  • dogs who chase cars see them as unruly animals in need of sheparding.
  • after moving away for many years they moved back to a town they lived at prior (in a different part of the town) and their dog quickly headed out to scout the old neighborhood.

Hierarchy & it’s a dog eat dog world out there…

  • part of the purpose of travel is to meet other dogs & circle them to show the superiority & another part was completely marking territory that has been overmarked by other dogs. dogs may aim upward & mark their pee spots like 3 feet or more off the ground, so as to appear larger to other dogs. when sizing up dogs in person, some dogs will ignore dogs much larger than them & only compare themselves against dogs of a similar or smaller size, such that they can “win” the status comparison
  • males of high rank are more desirable to females for mating purposes, as it can mean life & death for her pups
  • dogs inside a house establish rank almost immediately, but then they tend to try to avoid conflict beyond playing (an exception would be when a female dog is in heat & the boy dogs fight)


  • some wolf dens might be 1,000 or more years old, with the wolves living there long enough that they cut grooves into rocks with their walk, located near rivers for drinking water & to fence in pups & be near migratory paths for caribou, passed down from generation to generation. artic winter is a big killer & thus wolves have to dig out a den before winter, mate in feb & birth in march so that their pups are large enough to survive the first winter.
  • to feed the babies, wolves would eat the kill, return & regurgitate it.
  • wolves would travel singularly or in pairs with one staying to guard the den & pups.
  • the hierarchy of the pack was established based on family role, thus they didn’t spend much time/effort focusing on it.
  • the hunting process for wolves is so challenging that it may help to explain why they want an orderly simplicity elsewhere
  • after spotting humans where they are rare wolves may call together an assembly and howl in unison

Dogs & Wolves

  • wolves are the ancestors of dogs
  • domesticated wolves might sing duets to emphasize their togetherness. dogs generally won’t, but when a lover dog was took away for surgery for a few days one did. when another dog passed away at a vet the dogs also howled throughout the night
  •  when dogs sleep at night they might turn away from you, like look outs looking in another direction.

Family life

  • while male dogs in love tend to let a female dog get away with things, if it goes too far such a dog may block the dog it is smitten for from doing an act it does not like.
  • some dogs wait until finding the perfect mate and then have exclusive romance with that dog
  • when a dog has pups it holds them tightly with its thighs. when the father dog sees the mother it may puke, in a suggestion offering food for the mother and pups
  • father dogs might like to be elevated above younger dogs (eg: furniture vs floor)
  • when a father dog starts to take a pup voyaging it won’t go as fast, as far, or to some of the more dangerous areas. the pup who went on the young trips retained his navigation skills 18 years later when he had Alzheimer’s disease.
  • when dog lovers are separated they can tell something is wrong on the final visit. after separation a dog may become unhappy & depressed.
  • dogs tend to synchronize going into heat
  • when a dog comes back other dogs investigate the scent of its legs, reproductive organs & mouth to learn about the trip. when people come back they are often investigated as well for scent from the knee down.
  • a female coyote mated with one of her male dogs. not many coydogs live on though because it is hard for a single coyote to raise pups.

Anti-family life

  • male dogs can “rape” an unsuspecting female dog
  • father-daughter incest among dogs is not uncommon, but mother-sun is also not common. an alpha female can also coerce the other females with a “just say no” stare
  • when 2 dogs give birth around the same time, a higher status dog may kill the liter of a lower status dog. if neither of those dogs is the lead alpha dog & a pup survives then the lead alpha dog might adopt the remaining pup. a dog that kills one litter (when both had fresh pups) may opt to adopt the next liter. If a dog is adopted it is more likely to take after its adopted parent than its biological one
  • while dogs rarely bite adults they more commonly bite children, who in some cases they believe are stepping out of bounds in terms of status. many such bites are disciplinary reminders of status, rather than attempts to harm.
  • dogs that might like infant animals (like possums) may later view them as prey as they grow a bit larger
  • some owners who cloak a dog in clothes & perfume may trick other dogs into not realizing their pet is a dog, and try to attack it. but a lower status dog that identifies itself by yelping and shows its lower status by rolling on its back generally won’t get bit.


  • when dogs permanently move they might set up some sort of a den so they know where to meet up if they separate at all. in this case the dogs tried to keep the den a secret & built out a large one that was fairly well camouflaged. as the dogs took more to nature they became less concerned with people.
  • “Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace.”
  • sometimes dogs will go bathroom with the lowest status dog first, then on up the chain, with the highest status dog leaving the last mark.

Death & protection

  • flat faced dogs have trouble breathing when excited due to how many organs are smooshed into a small space. some of them hurt themselves by getting too excited.
  • dogs want to belong & a loss of a member of their firm social system is significant.
  • some dogs want to go where it is quiet & dark & lonely to die. others desire to be near the pack when they pass.
  • a dog that had diabetes learned to nudge its owners for an insulin shot, even though it took about an hour to kick in

The Psychopath Test

I was introduced to this book by a show on This American Life (not sure if it was that show or this one) & a friend recommended it as well.

General background notes:

  • Psychopaths tend to lack empathy & remorse, and are very good at hiding madness through a facade of normalcy.
  • a bit under 1% of the population are psychopaths. about 25% of prison population is psychopaths & they account for about 60% to 70% of violent crimes in jail (much of our falling “violent crime rate” in the United States is driven by more of it happening behind bars, where it is ignored). about 3.9% of 203 corporate professionals in a study scored at least a 30 on the PCL-R.
  • psychopaths rarely dream & if they do dream it is in black & white
  • Emmanuel Constant (also known as Toto) founded a Hatian death squad named FRAPH stated that it was important that people liked him so that they were easier to manipulate.
  • they like to be in control & like to be gatekeepers
  • they find it easy to justify that victims have no right to complain

Fear & the Amygdala:

  • when psychopaths see grotesque images they are absorbed rather than horrified.
  • on a countdown from 10 to 1 with a shock at 1 most non-psychopaths get scared as the numbers get lower, whereas psychopaths have little to no reaction in anticipation of the pain. their amygdala didn’t send a warning response. even after going through the pain when they do the cycle over again they still don’t anticipate the pain & so parole threats are meaningless to them. they have short memories.

CEOs & Psychopathy:

  • “psychopaths tend to gravitate toward the bright lights”
  • “I should have never done all my research in prisons. I should have spent my time inside the Stock Exchange as well. Serial killers ruin families. Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.” – Bob Hare, who later went on to co-author Snakes in Suits
  • Albert Dunlap drove Sunbeam stock from $12.50 in 1996 to $51 in 1998 by slashing jobs & shutting down plants. the stock increased in price in spite of the fact that margins did not improve (even before accounting for restructuring costs). companies like goldman sachs cheered the move in their research, but the company was driven into bankruptcy in 2001.

The rise of Psychology & Psychiatry:

  •  Psychopathy was first identified in Hervey Cleckley’s book The Mask of Sanity in 1941
  • Elliott Barker attempted being overly open with psychopaths & even using drug-based naked discovery counseling, but it only led to a greater % of the released psychopaths to commit further crime (an increase from 60% to 80%) as they better learned how to fake empathy.
  • 1973 David Rosenhan conducted an experiment. He sent 8 people to 8 different hospitals, with each complaining that they heard an empty hollow thud & from then on acted normal. 7 were diagnosed schizophrenia & 1 manic depression. It took an average of 19 days to get out & some took a couple months to get out. Each was given powerful psychotropic drugs. They first had to admit they were insane before they could admit they were better. A mental hospital challenged him to send more fakes & they reported catching 41 when he sent none.
  • The criminal psychologist Paul Britton was built up and then ultimately knocked down when Colin Stagg was entrapped by under cover police who sent him sexually suggestive messages to try to get him to confess & suggested that he killed Rachel Nickell, when it was in fact Robert Napper who did it.
  • Robert Spitzer had a psychotic mom who lived a unhappy life. he edited the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) & aimed to remove human judgement from the analysis process by creating concrete checklists. many disorders got their official names from this work. many people began using the book for self-diagnosis, which created significant demand for professional psychiatry and drugs to treat these new disorders. shady pharma salesmen had a boon.
  • Every 20 seconds a child is diagnosed with autism. “It’s very easy to set off a false epidemic in psychiatry. And we inadvertently contributed to three that are ongoing now. Autism, attention deficit & childhood bipolar.” – Allen Frances
  • “The way diagnosis is being made in America was not something we intended. Kids with extreme irritability and moodiness and temper tantrums are being called bipolar. The drug companies and the advocacy groups have a tremendous influence in propagating the epidemic.”
  • “Psychiatric diagnoses are getting closer and closer to the boundary of normal. … There’s a societal push for conformity.” With that, having a label gives a person a sense of hope & commonality, something to connect with others.
  • The NYT published a document where Dr. Joseph Biederman promised to try to “move forward with the commercial goals of J&J,” which was then promoting the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. His unit received funding from Johnson & Johnson.
  • Bob Hare mentioned that when a drug for psychopathy is approved pharma companies might get the threshold to go down from 30 to 25 or 20.

Psychiatry & Popular Culture

  • If a person is a bit crazy they are a marketable commodity. If they are too crazy they no longer are.
  • David Shayler believe in 7/7, 9-11 without planes (holograms), and that he later became Jesus. He went from well covered to seen as being toxic for being too crazy.
  • For a reality TV show producer, a shortcut for seeing who to have on is what sort of medications they were on. Lithium & such would be too crazy, but something like Prozac was a good cue. If a person was not on any drugs they probably were not mad enough to make for great white trash reality TV.
  • On one Extreme Makeover reality TV show they coached family members of an unattractive girl to state how ugly she was (& she heard what they said), but they canceled the show before going live with procedure. The girl’s bipolar sister,  Kellie McGee, felt so bad about it committed suicide, leading to an eventual lawsuit.
  • Not mentioned in the book, but Chris Hedges gave a great speech about plastic culture’s destructive impact on society (& how the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s life and death is a representation of the sickness in society, with over 12 million Americans getting plastic surgery each year).

Components of the PCL-R Checklist:

Robert Hare‘s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised consists of:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Pathological lying
  • Conning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavior controls
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Early behavior problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

Bob Hare is afraid the checklist is sometimes misused by the US prison system. Some people might go in using poor analysis, which in turn makes it much harder to be seen as sane.

In 2007 the LA Times reported that 1/3 of Coalinga State Hospital inmates would serve no risk to society if released.

Bob Hare met Jon Ronson numerous times while he was writing The Psychopath Test, but thought the treatment of psychopathy in the book unfortunately trivialized it.

More Reviews:


The Power of Habit

This book came recommended by a couple of our customers & only took a couple days to read. It has a rich narrative to it which helps reinforce the concepts, but these are my personal notes I saved to help remember key points of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. 🙂

What are habits?

  • Habits are formed out of our brain’s quest for efficiency. To some degree we do them automatically & without requiring thought or significant mental effort. As they become stronger the brain works less while going through the process, relying on shortcuts coded in the basal ganglia.
  • Habits consist of a cue, a routine & a reward mechanism and are reinforced  we come to crave a reward mechanism.
  • Once we understand habits that lead to rewards, we often light up as though we have received the reward just by seeing the cue. “eg: ring a bell & I’ll salivate.”

Reprogramming habits

  • Belief (in literally anything) makes it easier to believe in being able to stick to change.
  • We never really forget (or eradicate) habits. Though they can be replaced/reprogrammed if we have a deep understanding of the craving & reward.
  • If you want to reprogram a habit, you can change the process so long as you keep the cue & feed into the same reward mechanism & believe the change is possible.
  • To get rid of bad habits make them require more effort to do.
  • Groups make it easier to establish belief & keep change in place.
  • With diet people like to eat what is familiar & prepared in familiar ways.
    • In the 1940s US consumers began eating animal organs (because much of the meat was shipped off in the war effort). People would not eat animal organs often until they became familiar.
    • If you put vegetables in other dishes & cook them in ways that have a familiar presentation you are more likely to eat them.

Stress & Belief

  •  We never really forget (or eradicate) habits.
  • Many good habits fall apart (or bad habits reemerge) when we are under heavy stress.
  • To keep habits in place make them easy to do & create concrete rewards to focus on.

Keystone Habits

  • Forcing too much change at once is almost certain to lead to failure, as there are too many different things to focus on to create habits & if we fall short on any of them then we have an excuse to justify messing up the others.
  • Keystone habits start with small wins that allow change in one place to have cascading effects elsewhere in life. Most people who exercise also eat healthier. Small wins allow us to believe that bigger wins are possible.
  • One way to lower stress & allow habit to take over in a stressful situation is to create routine around it, such that the actual event is just one more step in a successful routine.
  • Simply by writing down behaviors we become more aware of them, which makes it easier to fix problem habits we may have been unaware of.
  • Self-discipline is typically far more important than IQ. Willpower & the ability to deny cravings can be turned into a habit. However willpower is still a finite resource like strength, which once expended makes it harder to have willpower during a subsequent test. Thus it makes sense to put in place good habits earlier in the day to get started on the right foot. Strengthening willpower in one aspect of your life can carry over into other unrelated aspects.
  • Writing specific goals makes it easier to see them through & recover from injuries, in part due to anticipating pain points & planning on how to respond to them. The same is true for issues at work or in other environments.

Reprogramming Organizational Routines

  • In large organizations momentum makes routines hard to change unless you can find a parallel goal which mimics desired outcomes.
    • At ALCOA Paul O’Neil was able to get unions and management to agree on concessions by creating a strong safety goal. The focus on safety allowed more precise measurement of employee efficiency, improvement of machines & processes that were causing issues, and created a better bottom’s up feedback network from employees to executives. Safety was such an effective keystone habit because anyone who argued against it sounded idiotic & the focus on safety led to other operational efficiency gains.
    • By using keystone habits it makes it easier to make tough choices as the shared culture dictates them.
    • Many issues are symptoms, but by consistently asking why you can dig deeper on the issues.
    • Organizations can also keep individuals more engaged & build their willpower, make them more efficient, lift spirits & give them a greater sense of purpose by giving a greater sense of autonomy & control. Statements like “if I wanted your damn opinion I will give it to you” do the opposite. 😉
    • Once an open channel of communication exists for one issue, people will use it for other issues as well, driving additional efficiency.
  • Fear, rivalries & momentum
    • Unless institutional habits are deliberately designed they will emerge from internal politics, fear & rivalries.
    • Rather than being driven by deliberate decisions, many sustained routines are heavily informed by past momentum within an organization & a collecting of supportive evidence. These allow organizations to maintain some level of efficiency & truce to achieve longterm goals in spite of internal politics & short term opportunism.
  • Crisis & opportunity
    • Organizational truces which prevent the cross-pollination of knowledge & define responsibilities too strictly become fragile & set themselves up for large catastrophes due to poor communications. This risk is only further enhanced if there are not priorities established in advance for handling catastrophes.
    • When such failures do occur they make the organizational habits more malleable. People are more receptive to a re-balancing of power after such issues. If internal people are still not receptive to change, one can create a media circus as a further forcing function.
    • Describing nearly adverted issues internally can help prevent the problems from re-emerging.

Tracking Consumers

  • Old school consumer psychology relied on general patterns to increase revenues.
    • Even people who shop with a list buy over 50% of their purchases out of habit rather than based on what’s on the list.
    • The reason grocery stores put fruits & vegetables near the entrance is they figure we will feel good about buying them & be more willing to load up on junk food.
    • Grocery stores put some of the most profitable items near the right-front of a store because many people turn right when entering.
    • Cereal isles are intentionally not tightly organized so that you linger longer & buy more varieties.
    • Febreze nearly failed as a product when it was marketed as a solution to bad odors (many people do not realize their own odors & it is hard to remind them of them), but succeeded wildly when scent was added to it & it was pushed as a reward at the end of the process of cleaning.
  • Now companies have far more specific individual tracking capabilities.
    • They can use email address, past purchases (& periodicity of purchase), items you put in your cart but didn’t buy, other web analytics data like the pages you view, retargeting ads, IP address, cookies, mailing address, wish lists, & baby shower registries online.
    • Offline they can use what you buy, how you respond to coupons, credit cards (with zip code) & loyalty/rewards cards to track user behavior.
    • There was a popular article about Target on this front in the NYT. Target can look at what you purchase & predict what is going on in your life (eg: certain items might be associated with a new home & other items a pregnancy.)
    • Harrah’s Casino was also quite aggressive on this front & would even offer various perks for big losers.
    • Offline & online data can be tied together as well, & this data is tied together with demographics data purchased from third party firms like InfiniGraph, RapLeaf, Axciom or Blue Kai (offering data points like age, ethnicity, education level, marriage status, where they lived, how much they made, what other websites they visit, what credit cards they have, home ownership, bankruptcy declaration, etc.)
    • There is also a conference
  • Consumers are more likely to change their brand preferences & buying patterns when they are going through a major life change (eg: marriage, moving, having kids, changing jobs, etc.)
    • Having a child is the most profitable life change to target.
    • Rather than making it obvious that they were targeting pregnant women with ads specifically for them, they also mixed in other random items in coupon mailers to camouflage the specific offers and make the selection feel more random.
  • Music has the same sort of profiling.
    • Companies like Polyphonic HMI attempt to estimate the likelihood that a song would become a hit.
    • Companies like Arbitron try to figure out how many people listen to a radio station at a particular moment.
    •  On the radio people tend to like bland/vanilla music that sounds familiar (like nondescript bath rock & the horror that is Celine Dion), rather than anything that sounds distinctive/different/new/unique.
    • If you play something new on the radio it helps to sandwich the new song with trusted hits on either side in order to provide the payoff to make people less likely to switch.
  • “To market a new habit – be it groceries or aerobics – you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.”

Social Movements

  • Insignificant seeming groundwork is often laid in advance of mass movements, which later proves to become a key driver of future momentum (either by establishing small wins that build hope, or by reframing an issue in a way that provides another angle of attack).
  • Most successful social movements are defined by the habit loop. They start because of strong ties between friends, they spread due to weak ties in neighborhoods & endure because leaders give new habits that create & instill a sense of identity & ownership.
  • Rosa Parks was deeply respected & had a large, diverse group of friends. That led to the existence of a strong initial support & many weak ties.
  • To spread religious movements & get people to participate it helps to speak more directly as it relates to the problems people face each day, target groups of people rather than individuals, create self-reinforcing clusters within the larger group & install habits related to the desired outcomes.
  • Rick Warren’s the Purpose-Driven Life has sold thirty million copies & he grew Saddleback from nothing to a size that could drive that many book sales.

Free Will

  •  A more scary version of sleepwalking is called sleep terrors. During sleep terrors the most primitive bits of the brain responding to anxiety in a fight or flight response, with the prefrontal cortex deactivated. “The parts of your brain that monitors your behavior are asleep, but the parts capable of very complex activities are awake” – Mark Mahowald.
  • Those who understand our flaws & develop them into habits can target them.
    • Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) assigns customers a predicted lifetime customer value based on a Target-like tracking service.
    •  Angie Bachmann developed a blackjack addiction/habit in part out of wanting to be good at something. It drove her to bankruptcy & she stayed away from casinos for years. After her parents died she had a panic attack & went to a casino, where they figured out she had money to burn & started offering her free trips and chips to suck her back in. Once she began to slow down again one person called her & even stated that they would get fired if she didn’t come in. They ended up helping drive her to bankruptcy again.
    • Slot machines are not only designed so that you have a good chance of hitting the wrong button & bidding more than intended, but psychologists also discovered that on near misses gambling addicts minds would light up similarly to as if they had won, whereas in social gamblers a loss would still be seen as a loss. Since this discovery, slot machines were altered to show more near hits to provide more of a rush to gambling addicts. The near miss behavior has been added to other forms of gambling, like state lotto scratch off tickets.
  • Some pharmaceutical drugs that are tied to managing Parkinson’s disease target the basal ganglia and the brain stem. Some of these drugs have turned otherwise normal people into gambling addicts.
  • “Once you know habits exist you have the responsibility to change it.” Though one must decide to & put forth significant effort.
    • The book suggests a 4-step framework for fixing bad habits & implementing new ones: identify the routine, experiment with the rewards, isolate the cue & have a plan.
      • When experimenting with the reward, consider it a scientific expedition & add substitutions into the routine. Write down what you were thinking right after the routine (or routine replacement) has ended & then set an alarm for 15 minutes to track the status of the reward mechanism’s solution or if a craving still remains.
      • When trying to discover the cue, if you can’t easily figure it out, consider in advance limiting yourself to consciously analyzing a limited number of variables at a time (location, time, other people, emotional state, immediately preceding action) to see if that helps you figure it out.


Debt: the first 5,000 years

Anthropologist David Graeber is brilliant & I must have bought at least a dozen copies of this book for friends and family.

Normally when I read a book I generally try to share all the highlights I made in it, however I highlighted so much of this book that it is hard to even share a small fraction of it. The book is about the history of money & debt. It largely has the goal of debunking modern economic ideology & thought by showing how flawed, dishonest & incorrect much of our economic beliefs are & how diverse our history has been…with the hopes of making our minds open to a broader array of opportunities in the face of current economic crisis.

While this is one of my favorite books I have ever read & I can’t share all the stuff that I thought was great from it, here are a few bits (at least as I understood them)…

  • Debt is treated differently depending who is in debt. if a more powerful person is in debt, then the debt can basically be erased at will. whereas a weaker person/entity/country is typically forced to “pay their debts”
  • Debt has been around for 5,000+ years & has spent a large period of that time in virtual form. virtual credit was largely based on the trustworthiness of the lender & thus largely local in nature. debt was largely associated with the social fabric of local communities.
  • barter leading to markets & money is a myth. people did shared favors back and forth & did to some degree keep track of what they owed, but debts were tied to social relationships & there was a large baseline sense of reciprocity. markets are largely created (& maintained) by states or similar sources of power & they are typically created in order to fund military conquest. most state debts are military driven, and many of the earliest uses of cash payment were largely for those tied with governmental payments of tax & foreigners who were not well known and trusted within the community.
  • coins made it easy to take (eg: theft, plunder, spoils of war, taxes, etc.) stored wealth from one location & spend it in another. it also made it easier to collect taxes & force the acceptance of military pay through the economy in order to pay said taxes. that in turn made it easier to send larger armies longer distances, since they can feed off both plunder AND the lightweight & densely valued coins. that in turn created more conquered person turned slaves (who “owed” their saved lives) to be spent in silver mines to create more coins.
  • our current version of free market capitalism was largely built on war, violence, debt peonage & slavery.
  • state vs free market ideology is largely a myth, as impersonal systems of debt are largely reliant on the state for enforcement. early versions of city-states built credit laws around mitigating/ameliorating the socially destructive impacts of debt (limiting the impact of usury, and rather than allowing debt-driven slavery or near slavery to rip families & the cities apart, at some point kings would conduct debt jubilees to clear the debt).
  • many religions for at least some period of time outlawed usury (Buddhism was one of the few exceptions here, but that was because they lent the money out from the monasteries to fund the creation of more monasteries & statues and such, in an attempt to fund the further spread of Buddhism).
  • in many cases outside of Buddhism charging interest only came to be seen as acceptable on commercial loans, and first as a fine for late payments & then it was seen as loss to a person from not being able to have that money invested in productive enterprises. Islam originally forbid interest because there was a belief that returns should only be commensurate with the work and risk you take & as soon as you have a fixed rate of return guaranteed that breeds sloth & there is no risk being taken In many religions charging interest was only seen as fine if it was done on other people.
  • throughout history many lenders would eventually become slaughtered once they put too much strain on kings & their kingdoms. this only changed when bankers bought & controlled the system of governance, such that rather than worrying about the risk of skimming too much rent seeking off society, they could pass laws to enforce contracts & make punishments stiff for those who did not pay them.
  • romanticized images of medieval knights were largely made to mirror how the merchant classes viewed themselves. knights originally tended to run in pacts more like gangs and act without any sense of chivalry, which is why games were created, to get them to compete with one another and occupy their time and attention
  • after the bubonic plague killed about 1/3 of the people across Europe laborers got a larger share of profits & that in turn required new laws to be created to make it easier to separate rich from poor. the thriving middle class was then impoverished through a century of inflation tied to money creation by the bankster class. taxes had to be paid in hard money (eg: silver) yet coinage was scarce during this time period. how can you have inflation & scarce money at the same time? it was the combination of military finance, bank leveraging metals over and over again to create significantly greater currency & the requirement to pay taxes in a different form than everyday transactions occurred in (allowing the paper currency & thus value of labor to be depreciated against the value of metals).
  • some of the most savage human behavior (eg: the Spanish Conquistadors ) is tied to people who were in debt that they felt was unjust & were willing to do whatever it took to get out of debt. when the booty was split up & there wasn’t enough to cover their debts it became more reasonable to slaughter off the natives by working them to death in the mines. while some of these sorts of behaviors are marketed as being a historical aberration, this sort of behavior was going on into the 1900s with the Huitoto Indians in Peru. When those Indians refused to take on loans to become debt peons they were forced to take them at gunpoint, so that it could be then justified to work them to death.
  • what is awkward with our current financial set up is that rather than protecting borrowers from lenders, our current system is built around protecting lenders from borrowers.
  • the mix of debt and morality is a blurry path where religious ideals get mixed in with an interpretation opposite of their original. originally some beliefs were that our debts to the cosmos & parents were immeasurable, but that was later spun to be suggested that indeed our value as people could (& should) be measured. typically this became accepted by measuring clear outsiders who are ripped from their social fabric (like slaves), but where that became a norm it was then a standard of measurement against which other fines could be based on.
  • while much is stated of slaves from Africa, the same sort of slavery was around in Roman times & far more recently there was also similar “people as money” in other areas, like Ireland. today there are more slaves alive than at any point in history.
  • our version of capitalism is as much a system of exclusion as inclusion. for some people to get significant perks someone somewhere else must be getting hosed. for example, Haiti passed a law to increase minimum wage. However the US government intervened & had it overturned on behalf of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Fruit of the Loom. (this last part wasn’t cited in the book as a specific example, but is a recent example of the sort of behavior)

This review on is quite good.


Mint Condition Book Review

I recently finished reading Dave Jamison’s Mint Condition. If you ever collected baseball cards, I highly recommend reading it. Here is an excerpt in Slate.

Why Baseball Cards Were Huge for Me

A lot of what I know about marketing comes from my experience with baseball cards, seeing things like:

  • the rise & fall of the value of cards by year and player (and being able to predict which ones would soon increase in value)
  • a dealer with lower quality cards making more because he was interested in selling & not emotionally attached to his cards (this taught me about different kinds of demand)
  • the importance of organization & understanding who would be willing to pay a premium for different types of cards
  • the importance of simple & straightforward pricing

Ignorance of the Bubble

Ironically, even though it is obvious it was a huge bubble, I never realized or appreciated it at the time, in large part because…

  • we moved to a town in the middle of nowhere, so I didn’t fully appreciate the decline because almost everything was a bit less accessible there
  • a few years later I got my driver’s license. my increased ability to drive + increased understanding of marketing more than offset declines in the market at the time.
  • I joined the military & largely decided to abandon collecting during my enlistment because I lacked many forms of stability in the military (at one point my “value added” barracks room was flooded with shitwater that the toilet started sending out in a pressurized fashion while I was off at work…it took nearly a week for the room to dry after they cleaned it) and figured stuff would either get damaged or stolen with me moving around in the military.
  • Of course any idiot can make money in a bubble & you have to add far more value to compete when you are in down markets, but I was enlisted for years before it paid more than I made selling baseball cards part time on the side while in high school. I suspect that if I was still selling cards throughout that time period I would have eventually had a sharp fall off as the industry continued to collapse.
  • Speaking of bubbles, here is an interesting article about How Sotheby’s Predicts the World Economy

Notes on the book / things I learned

Here are some of my notes from reading the great Mint Condition book. The amount of research Dave Jamison did is unbelievable. I can’t believe how much I didn’t know about something I knew so much about…

  • long before baseball cards industry trade cards had existed for over 100 years advertising just about anything. you can find some of these Victorian Era cards on eBay marketing horse saddle oil, wick adjusters & even elixir that cures literally everything.
  • cigarette cards
    • baseball was more popular up north, but spread aggressively across the nation in part due to the civil war (those in camps would play ball)
    • before the civil war cigarettes were viewed as lower class, but dealing with the mobility needed for war made them appealing to a broader base. inserting baseball cards into packs helped them appeal to younger individuals
    • women were used to advertise cigarettes (much like beer today) and from there it wasn’t a big jump to cards. free cigarettes were given to immigrants as well.
    • shortly after the civil war the first baseball cards were created & cards started to become a bit more popular in 1880, packaged with cigarettes.
    • in 1884 a  NYT article wrote “The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand.”
    • cards cost up to half of what a pack cost. eventually Duke used mechanical cigarette rolling machines to create cost advantages & scaled into advertising to force competition to sell. they created a monopoly in the American Tobacco Company, ceasing the need to insert cards in 1889. Cards were only added back into cigarette packs about 20 years later, just ahead of an anti-trust decision from the court.
  • famous cards
    • J.R. Burdick donated his cards to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and wrote The American Card Catalog, which helped organize the hobby. In his book he highlighted the Honus Wagner T206 as being scarce & of higher value.
    • While the Honus Wagner is rare, David Cycleback highlighted that there are a number of old cards that are more scarce.
    • 1933 Goudey #106 Nap Lajoie wasn’t produced in significant quantities, making it nearly impossible to complete the set. After collectors complained they were mailed a version of the card in 1934.
    • In the 60s Topps couldn’t sell (or really even give away) their old stock of 1952 high series cards, so they buried many of them at sea.
  • gum cards
    • baseball cards made a comeback, but with gum…during the great depression era, where fleer & goudy competed for 1 cent pack sales. the 1930s saw the launch of g men & horrors of war
    • cards helped gum & candy manufactures survive the great depression.
    • during WW2 many baseball stars headed off to war & eventually gum was rationed
    • Topps was originally known as the American Leaf Tobacco Company, which imported Turkish tobacco in the 1890. They diversified into gum after seeing the success of Fleer & Bowman.
  • How Topps created a monopoly, then lost it
    • the 1951 topps cards were ugly, but the 1952 set was an unimaginably strong turn around. In the 1950s Topps took cards mainstream.
    • Bowman had exclusive contracts with baseball players, but Topps signed contracts with some of the same players as well. That led to a court battle, but by 1956 Topps had won the market & Bowman sold its contracts  + brands to Topps for $200,000. Topps then used their contracts to prevent other manufacturers from creating baseball cards sold independently or packaged with candy.
    • Topps had 30 scouts which signed young minor league players to 5-year exclusive contracts for $5. If players managed to make it to the majors without signing a Topps contract yet, they were given a $125/yr contract. This larger payment was typically given in household goods that were purchased wholesale. Stars were sometimes given higher quality gifts & other perks like free dinner and drinks.
    • Ted Williams was one of the few players who figured out he was worth far more than Topps was offering. He signed an exclusive contract with Fleer in 1958 worth $12,500 & Fleer made an 80-card set of Ted Williams in 1959, which turned out to be a flop which was ignored by kids & enraged other baseball players. Fleer then tried an old timer’s set named Baseball Greats, which also bombed in 1960 & 1961. In 1963 fleer was able to offer a baseball card set by packaging them with awful tasting cookies. These mostly sold in poorer areas where kids would appreciate nutrition & value even if it taste awful. That set also led to a loss as cookies were more expensive to make & spoiled quicker.
    • the FTC ruled that Topps indeed violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, but an appellate court reversed the decision, claiming that new players entering the game should allow another firm to quickly compete.
    • In the 1960s & 1970s the quality of topps cards dropped off as they grew comfortable with their monopoly & cut corners. Fleer sold their player licenses to Topps for $400,000 and gave up on cards for a bit.
    • Topps lost much of their leverage after Marvin Miller renegotiated the player’s share upward to include a percent of sales.
    • In 1975 Topps faced an antitrust case that it lost & in 1981 Fleer & Donruss created cards, which were rushed to market in a sloppy effort.
    • The book was written before this bullet point, but history appears to be repeating itself with Topps having the only MLB license right now & Panini signing exclusive deals with the NBA and NFL.
  • Cards move from toys to “investments”
    • In 1976 James Beckett did a survey & concluded that a 52 Mantle was worth about $50 & the famous Honus Wagner was about $500. Beckett launched an official price guide in 1979 by the name of the Sports American Baseball Card Price Guide. Beckett then launched his popular magazine, which placed more emphasis on the individual players & the condition of the cards. Beckett’s magazines were sold in 2005 for $20 million to Apprise Media.
    • In 1982 a cheesy show on ABC named Heart to Heart mentioned valuable baseball cards in one of their mystery shows. A few months later Topps was bought by the P.E. firm Forstmann Little & Co. for $94.5 million & brought public in 1987. Huhtamaki Oy bought Donruss from General Mills shortly after Topps was bought. In 2007 Michael Eisner bought Topps for $385 million.
    • In the 80s rookie cards, driven by dealer hype wanting to promote both the value of older cards & the potential of new cards, became seen as having greater importance & the 52 Mickey Mantle that was recently valued at $50 sold for $3000. A hobbyist at the time wrote “Essentially, the entire rookie card phenomenon began as nothing more than dealer hype, a way to sell more new baseball cards than ever before at unprecedented prices.” This led to counterfeit cards, especially as Pete Rose neared Ty Cobb’s hits record
      • The rise of rookie cards has a number of compelling marketing aspects baked in
        • it suggests the nearly unlimited potential of the future
        • it states why you need to buy this year
        • it leads to the false assumption that this year’s rookie cards will be worth a similar amount to those older rookies after they age
        • Pete Williams has a great quote on why that is not true: “Like many markets, the people who made money in sports memorabilia did so accidentally. They held onto cards/memorabilia from the 1950s or before that they or a relative collected and when the market boomed in the early 1980s, they saw the benefit. It’s no different than people who owned homes in Silicon Valley or certain beach communities for decades and cashed out before 2008. They never intended to make a fortune on real estate; they just happened to live there. Yes, some card dealers did well in 1989-91 speculating on new cases of Upper Deck products, along with those of other companies. This was the industry equivalent of the 1998-2000 stock market. But those card prices were less legitimate than late ‘90s stock prices. When everything produced after 1975 is worthless, as it is today, there can be no doubt that “investing” in sports memorabilia is foolish.”
        • Greg Maddux was one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. His rookie came to market a few years before I started collecting & now people are lining up to sell them for $1 or $2 each, with the more scarce Leaf version commanding $3. To get more than that you need to spend $8 to get it graded & then if it comes back a 9 or a 10 you might have some profits there (but note that the PSA graded 8 Donruss rookie has a $9.99 ask price, and that is before gets their cut of the sale, which is a 20% cash out commission + 1 cent/month per card for storage + 20 cents/card for taking the photo). On eBay that card recently went for $5.5 with shipping & $3.54 with shipping & nobody bid on a PSA 9 that was $11.99 with shipping.
    • As a sidebar … it is worth mentioning that for many years the Canadian versions of Topps (branded as O Pee Chee) and the Canadian version of Donruss (branded as Leaf) were viewed by some as cheap imitations of the original issues, however due to their relatively lower printing run some people are bidding up the prices of top graded rookie cards and vintage hall of fame players.
    • The mainstream media began writing about cards as a legitimate investment & there were even books on baseball card investing. By 1990 the surge in perceived value led to robberies, a murder, and even a MLB umpire stole baseball cards.
    • Baseball cards being sold as investments & counterfeit issues led to the opportunity for the creation of a higher end card line named Upper Deck by a printer named Paul Sumner.  The cards featured crisp photography & a small hologram on the back that made them hard to counterfeit. Tom Geideman made the set’s launch even more memorable by putting Ken Griffey Jr. as the first card of the set. Over a million Griffey cards were printed & Upper Deck had a policy of replacing the card for collectors if it came out of the pack with a bent corner. Nearly 100,000 Griffey cards have been graded.
      • While 1989 Upper Deck was seen as the rise of the premium card, it was 1984 Donruss that really sparked the move in that direction: “The 1984 Donruss set was, IMHO, the true precursor to the market flood that would hit us less than half a decade later. The set, including Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry rookies, was beyond hot. I was lucky enough to get a box at MSRP at a local dime store, but before you knew it packs were selling at card shows for $3.00 and up. That was a Big Deal. Brook Jacoby rookies were selling for seven bucks and commons routinely ran a buck each or more. IMHO, that was the first test of what the market would bear and I truly believe that the manufacturers started to listen (and understand) the secondary market.”
    • 1989 also saw the Fleer Billy Ripken  f face card, which was soon halted & had many variations created. The card quickly went from a dime to as high as $300 & back to selling for about $10 to $15 on eBay more recently. The publicity around the 1989 Fleer error was followed by loads of errors in 1990, particularly from Donruss. It was alleged that Upper Deck board members sold themselves cards & wholesales, and did extended print runs for self distribution of the Dale Murphy reverse negative error card.
    • 1990 Donruss also had many errors which were hot at the time, but those were vastly over-produced. Only the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name on Front printing error really held value well among error cards.
    • Score Board Inc bought cards at wholesale & broke down the packs into singles, allowing people to “invest” in lots of cards by player. They also sold autographed cards, but eventually went bust
  • card grading
    • At the upper end of the market there are limits on how much you can get a person to spend on a pack. But some older cards have virtually no upper limit in pricing because they are seen as artifacts. What’s more, the risk of counterfeit cards on higher valued items only increases the value of having them authenticated. And the system of authentication + grading allows a somewhat scarce item to become even more scarce by being the highest graded version.
    • PSA grades about 5,000 cards a day, with each grader doing between 300 to 600 cards per day. cards are graded by at least 2 different graders & if there is a discrepancy a tie breaking 3rd grader grades it.
    • PSA is a big player that leads the market, but then Beckett came in with their own grading service which rates a typical 10 as only a 9 or 9.5 & saves 10s for ultra scarce conditioning, providing yet another pricing tier.
    • Bill Maestro served that segment of the market, using charm & sparing no expense in marketing. He turned his auctions into events & created a memorable experience, turning the transactions into more of a service like an art dealer. However, amid allegations of shill bidding & fraud  he shut down. Some of his team members launched another online auction service named Legendary Auctions.
    • In spite of grading services existing, folks still do managed to get some trimmed cards or other altered cards graded by many of the grading & authentication services. Some of the issues include doing things like adding print to a card to turn a fairly common card into a scarce error.
    • At the cheesier lower end of selling into the hype of baseball card “investing” was Shop at Home’s “Gem Mint Ten” Don West
  • the bubble pops
    • By the early 90s there were up to $1.2 billion industry and 81 billion cards printed each year. Since its peak the new card market is off over 80%. In 2009 MLB once again moved back to an exclusive contract with Topps for baseball cards. The NFL and the NBA also have exclusive licenses with Panani.
    • In some cases boxes (or even cases of boxes) of cards sell on eBay & elsewhere for similar prices to what packs sold for, with shipping costing far more than the box in many instances.
    • Fleer went public in 1990 and near the top of the baseball card market in 1992 Marvel Entertainment bought them for $265 million. Fleer went out of business in 2005 & sold its name to Upper Deck for $6.1 million.
    • By 1994 there were 350 different sets (and vastly more if you count insert sets), making collecting a less shared experience.  The baseball strike further killed an already dying market. in 1995 basball card companies scaled back print runs significantly, but could only sell about half of what they produced. they kept producing more “low run” sets though & there were 800 insert card sets by 1996. Some cards would come in different colors with different print runs, with some also having autographs and/or chunks of game used memorabilia embedded in them. Many of these once “scarce” chase cards that made the base sets that filled $3 packs worthless now sell on sites like for $1 or less each. Even most of the lotto winners lost money 😉
    • As pack prices increased (while the value of what was inside a pack didn’t keep up) the younger end of the market bailed. As the variety of cards over-staturated the market prices kept falling.
    • One of the few guys who has still done well in spite of the bubble popping has been Bill Henderson, who focuses on low priced common cards.

You Can’t Even Give them Away!

An example of the poisonous & treacherous (treasonous even?) behavior that was common in the early 1990s is well exemplified by O-Pee-Chee Premier. They launched as a premium brand & cost something like $3 a pack (maybe 4 or 5 when they were at their peak)…and this is in 1991 when the Dollar was worth about double what it is today.

Anyhow they got rubes to buy boxes full of those packs.

Then after they got a lot of people to buy into the alleged value & scarcity, the bastards printed out loads and loads of complete sets, utterly destroying the value of those cards.

There isn’t a single card in that set that goes for over a quarter (unless you spend money to have them graded, but even they they will likely go for less than the cost of grading :D) . The 2 box set was something like $20 with free shipping on eBay & if you back out nostalgia, that too was paying too much. For most of these listings which set the shipping price closer to its real cost the shipping is far more than the product, often by a factor of 2 or 3 to 1.

On June 22 of 2014 a 24 box case (24 boxes * 36 packs * 7 cards per pack) sold on for $160 with shipping.

Indeed those cards did not hold up as well as vintage cards have.

Of course I am not mad at O-Pee-Chee for their opportunism & exploitation. That was the name of the game back then. I wouldn’t have bought the above for good memories if I didn’t enjoy them in the past. And the marketing lessons I learned from baseball cards were easily worth thousands of times what I spent buying them (especially as my hobby became more than self-financed but a profit center after I started selling them during the last couple years of high school).

Fleer Ultra was another area of “investment” that didn’t pan out too well…

And here are a bunch of “scarce” Frank Thomas chase cards that now sell like low priced regular set singles. Some of these suckers had a $40 book price & this was back when the Dollar was worth about double what it is today.

If you think those $1 to $2 prices look bad, then the 40 cent ones must look ugly

The reason for such a decline include…

  • over-production
  • a decline in demand
  • Frank Thomas was hurt for a bit
  • many of those who desired those cards already got them years ago
  • when a player retires that causes most of their card prices to drop
  • when their card price drops it not only drops the price, but then the % of book price you can get also goes down
  • this is how a $40 card goes to $25 (no longer new & different) which then goes to $15 (after injury) which then goes to $5 (after retirement) which then sells for $1 (have to sell below book/list price in order to move it)

And it wasn’t just the later insert cards or regular sets that got hit…even the Frank Thomas Leaf rookie can be bought graded PSA 9 for $17 in eBay auctions (and about half that fee is the cost of getting it graded).

Even the “ultra scarce” inserts that contain a piece of jersey and/or an autograph are often valued at next to nothing. Here is an image of a recent eBay auction where a 34 lot group of such cards (with many stars included) went for under $2 per card.

When you consider the cost of getting an autograph from a player, the logistics of shipping, the cost of buying game-used jerseys, and the more expensive manufacturing process, those cards had to have cost the manufacturers over $3 each to create. And those are the key cards…the lotto tickets you hope to land. So the hobbyist who was paying $3 per pack on the hopes of finding such a gem got royally screwed if they considered it anything but a hobby.

The scarcity craze was driven directly by the over-production. Back in 1992 it seemed like you had to buy box after box after box of Donruss to score a Donruss Elite card (I believe they were seeded about one per 720-pack case). Those card were limited to a print run of 10,000 & now trade at around $10 to $20 on eBay.

In 1993 Topps introduced Finest, which was an ultra premium line limited to 4000 6-box cases. The packs sold for about $20 to $25 each & refractor cards were seeded to about 1 per 9 packs in an 18-pack box, giving them a print run of 241. The refractors looked so similar to the regular cards that many people could not tell them apart.

  • Some dealers sold the refractors at a discount to the regular cards thinking there was a printing error until the pricing guide came out. In an age where a print run of 10,000 was considered “ultra rare” a limit of 241 really moved the needle on the perception of scarcity. Today many card makers put printing plates and other 1 of 1 cards in their packs.
  • Even after the pricing guides came out some folks thought that the refractors were the regular cards. I remember buying some cards in a guy’s dime box where one of the cards was a refractor that I sold the next week for about $50. 🙂
  • Another friend traded me a Larry Walker for about $150 worth of other cards & I was able to sell the Larry Walker for right about $150 cash, making it a huge win – since cards would often sell for about half book price to move.
  • The basketball refractors are much cheaper & were likely much less scarce than the baseball ones. The entire set sells on eBay for around $900 or so, whereas someone has the baseball set listed for $12,000. The star of the basketball set is the Michael Jordan. Someone traded a dealer friend of mine a Michael Jordan basketball. He sold it to me for about $100 & $300 or so in trade, trading down to smaller cards he could move more easily. At the time I knew I could have sold that card for $425 cash to the same person I sold the Larry Walker too, but I was too greedy and kept it. I still have it, but those sell on eBay for maybe half that (so I guess it didn’t depreciate as bad as other cards did!)
  • By 1996 Finest had come out with using multiple card colors  (bronze, sliver & gold) of different cards in the set, added protective coating to the surface of the cards, & then made refractors of each. That same dealer scored a Chipper Jones gold refractor & traded it to me. In spite of allegedly being “scarce” with a limited 150 print run, it was nowhere near as scarce as cards would become in the years to come (with many 1:5 & 1:1 cards). That thing bombed in value, losing something like 95% of its (non-inflation adjusted) value over the past 16 years (take that 5% that remains & divide by 2 to account for nearly 2 decades of inflation). After he retires it will probably lose another half to 2/3 of what remains (making for a  sweet inflation-adjusted drop of about 99%). I think that one was probably trade only & no cash (and I traded below its value because I thought it would drop some … trading something like $500 or $600 in cards when the darn thing booked at about $800). However back then I had no appreciation for just how far it would drop. It now sells on eBay for about $30! Once he retires that will likely be about $8 to $10 ($15 at the most) and that will be down to that from once being listed at about $800. As it turns out, even the 150 print run was suspect, as Topps eventually had to settle a lawsuit from a collector who owned 220 Greg Maddux refractors. #ooops

My modest refractor gains (outside of the small Jordan & brutally huge Chipper losses) help heal a bit of the O-Pee-Chee Premiere wounds. But the marketing lessons behind all this stuff (the value of organization, the value of scarcity, riding trends, getting off the trends) were worth far more than the gains or losses by orders of magnitude.

As crazy as the above is…some of us still like sport’s cards 🙂

Feed Your Inner Collector

Some great sources for baseball cards include…

It can be valuable to look at multiple locations when buying & selling because some spots might have far cheaper shipping prices & others might be priced low enough that you can easily arbitrage from one platform to another.

Beware Fakes

On the ridiculous front with counterfeits, below are some of the things for sale on iOffer (similar products likely exist elsewhere)

The Marketing of Occupy Wall Street

A Marketer’s Look at Why The Movement Has Lasted…

The “Occupy” movement has legs, much like some past movements. 😉

They are filing for a trademark and there is a viral website banner. In spite of being driven by disgust toward banking fraud & giveaways to too big-to-fail banks, the movement is still being described as fringe leftist (even communism) in some mainstream media circles, but even right-leaning political bloggers support the movement. China is not a fan of the movement & has preemptively banned “occupy” related words on popular Chinese blogging tools.

Profound Pain

A lot of the economic trends are ugly & Noam Chomsky stated that “I’ve never seen anything quite like the Occupy movement in scale and character” and attributed that in part due to a sense of hopelessness that is far more significant than what appeared during the great depression:

Now there’s a sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. This is quite new in our history. During the 1930s, working people could anticipate that the jobs would come back. Today, if you’re a worker in manufacturing, with unemployment practically at Depression levels, you know that those jobs may be gone forever if current policies persist.

The movement has its detractors, like the 53% movement, but is strong enough that banks are scrapping new petty fees for fear of backlash and the US government is hinting at the potential for some criminal proceedings against bankers.

Interesting Marketing bits of note

A Few People Can Make a Big Difference

At the very first planning meeting a couple fringe individuals (but wicked smart & well studied ones – including David Graeber, who wrote a book covering 5,000 years of debt) changed the direction of the movement entirely from what started as Marxist #fail to something far more mainstream & legitimate. And it spread:

July 2nd. That was the first actual meeting. What happened was AdBusters put out this call for these protests. We had heard there was supposed to be a general assembly on July 2nd. So I just showed up. But it was a rally, not an assembly. Some Marxist groups had set up stages and megaphones and was making speeches and were planning a march. So we said we don’t need to do this. We pulled a small group together and decided to have a real assembly. So we wandered over to another part of the area and began a meeting and people kept migrating over.

And by “couple people” above, I literally mean 2:

the people who really kicked off that first July 2nd movement, at the very beginning, were me [David Graeber] and an artist and anarchist named Georgia Sagri (she told me she actually wanted me to use her full name here), who completely freaked out the sectarian folks who were trying to coopt the event by taking the stage and calling for a real assembly – in the face of every sort of intimidation, really, while I hustled around trying to find anyone who looked like a horizontal.


99% … the name was built around the perception of openness & inclusion.

And they state that political bias is irrelevant because “your economic future has been set on fire.”

And while most of the bad guys are in the top 0.001%, the simple 99 vs 1 framing makes the concept memorable & easy to share.

Memorability is no accident, as a lot of the names associated with the movement, like Occupy Wall Street & Buy Nothing Day, come from a former ad man named Kalle Lasn, who publishes a magazine named Adbusters.

Lack of Hierarchy-based Leadership Structure

The rotating leadership provides a lack of centralization & lack of top down structure makes it very hard to fight off. You can’t attack just 1 person and win. Politicians can’t pay off someone to say a leader raped them (like the recent charges against the former head of the IMF or the head of Wikileaks) and any labels attributed to any individual don’t stick to the group.

Further, efforts to paint with broad strokes also fail because the group is quite diverse, built on a loose series of clusters. Cries that protestors should “go get a job” are also lame ducks, as most have jobs. Online exposure & emphasis on decentralization meant that shutting down the first location didn’t stop the movement. If anything, it only strengthened it.

Existing power structures are so desperate to smear the movement that they are trying to find financial supporters associated with it & smear that relationship:

“It will be vital,” the memo says, “to understand who is funding it and what their backgrounds and motives are. If we can show that they have the same cynical motivation as a political opponent it will undermine their credibility in a profound way.”

Not Giving In To Violence

Numerous police officers have used violence (running over a person, punching people in the face, pepper spraying a bunch of girls, shooting a cameraman, shooting someone in the face then throwing a flash bang at people trying to help the injured person) to try to get the protesters to fight back, but they haven’t been physically violent.

Record Everything

EVERYTHING gets recorded & immediately posted to YouTube, including the undercover cop protagonists, and the violent outsiders who are stopped by people in the real movement.

This allows people to judge reality based upon: reality! Which has led to an online meme built around casually pepper spray everything pepper spray art.

It also corroborates stories of human rights violations when officials are lying & makes it easy to see if illegal violent police behavior is a case of a bad cop or a pattern of conduct from the top down:

the 18 police action was a national, coordinated effort. This is a more serious development that one might imagine. Reader Richard Kline has pointed out that one of the de facto protections of American freedoms is that policing is local, accountable to elected officials at a level of government where voters matter.

National coordination vitiates the notion that policing is responsive to and accountable to the governed.

REAL Freedom of the Press

To say corporate media is trying to keep people mis-ininformed would be an understatement:

In 1989, Chinese students protesting in Tiananmen Square were hailed by US media as heroes standing up to tyranny. In 2011, American students protesting all across the country against financial tyranny are “lazy”, “bastards”, both, or downright criminalized.

United States corporate media could not possibly admit that repression in Tahrir Square by Egyptian riot police is exactly the same as repression in New York, Oakland, Portland or Boston by American riot police.

Having immediate access to the truth makes it much harder for the mainstream media to aggressively “spin” the facts using junk labels without undermining their own credibility (and thus influence).

This turns the concept of “freedom of the press” from an academic idealism to something that exists in reality, by undermining our current model of access-based journalism:

this is how the much-lauded “freedom of the press” myth in the US actually works. If you perform the job of an actual journalist, telling truth to power, forget about attending press conferences at the White House, Pentagon or State Department. You won’t even be admitted in the building.

No Formal “List of Demands”

The protestors did not immediately come up with a list of demands, so it is open-ended & can keep building momentum before wedge issues have a chance to tear it apart. This open-ended nature meant that politicians couldn’t spin their demands into something else & they did not allow themselves to be easily co-opted by existing political bodies like the Tea Party did. It also makes it harder to brand them as “terrorists”

“The Occupy movement has remained adamant about not drafting a list of demands because terrorists make demands, and we’re not terrorists,” said Pope, a graphic design student. “We shouldn’t have to demand a democratic process.”

Remember the shopworn criticism from The Right, and from the mainstream media? “There’s no list of demands.” Well it’s true that there’s no list of demands, because there shouldn’t have to be demands. Demands are made by terrorists; the rule of law is followed in a representative republic, and does not need to be stated as a demand as it is implied in any lawful, rational, rights-based society and government.

Control of Framing

In an attempt to counter the 99% & reframe the issue, there was a website put up devoted to the 53%  of alleged taxpayers. Sure 53% is  a clever naming convention & where they do well is humanizing the counter story by putting a name and a face to each story. However, based on using the existing framing (using “%” name they are stepping into a trap and only furthering the 99% movement).

This is a great marketing case study to watch & many sparks will fly as the upcoming election cycle heats up & economies continue to melt down. You can count on many people trying to smear the movement many different ways. Not based on truth but on power.

There is not truth, only power, and facts are for little men.

The banksters will however have a hard time justifying their “free market ideals” when they refuse to allow those same ideals to be applied to themselves. They are big on “personal responsibility” but god forbid they are held accountable for the outcomes of their own actions!

And if in a free market customers decide to move their money out of the criminal banking organizations, then those same criminal institutions have their own customers arrested!

So much for “free” markets in a police state.

Focus on the Fraud

Having guest speakers like Bill Black keeps protestors informed & points the rage in the correct direction toward the bad guys & the crimes they committed.

Wachovia laundered $378.4 billion of drug money.

JP Morgan engaged in bid-rigging that ultimately bankrupted Jefferson County, Alabama.

Over 80% of Citibank’s mortgages were defective:

“In mid-2006, I discovered that over 60 percent of these mortgages purchased and sold were defective,” Bowen testified on April 7 before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress. “Defective mortgages increased during 2007 to over 80 percent of production.”

The banking fraud is global:

ALBERICI: “How certain are you that UniCredit broke the law while you were there?”

JONATHAN SUGARMAN: “A hundred per cent certain and to use the Irish expression, ‘to be sure, to be sure’ that is why I brought in this London based IT company which had a very good reputation in Dublin and the result was pretty horrific because whereas the breach that I’d reported to the regulator was a breach of twenty per cent, whereas the permissible deviation was one per cent, they rang me up one evening soon after they tied into our systems, linked into our systems and said your breach is actually forty per cent”.

So those are Ireland & US for starters, but just about anywhere there is debt troubles these same folks lent a hand:

Goldman Sachs arranged swaps that effectively allowed Greece to borrow 1 billion euros without adding to its official public debt. While it arranged the swaps, Goldman also sought to buy insurance on Greek debt and engage in other trades to protect itself against the risk of a default on those swaps.

Both Citibank & Goldman were fined for misrepresenting investments, while trading against their own customers.

Then there is the whole robo-signing fiasco, where banks sent over 100,000 fraudulent foreclosure documents before the courts. While it has only recently gained news coverage in the past year, the odious behavior goes back to the ’90s.

MF Global’s recent implosion (where they stole & lost segregated client funds) has introduced additional layers of risk to the market:

It is with regret and unflinching moral certainty that I announce that Barnhardt Capital Management has ceased operations. After six years of operating as an independent introducing brokerage, and eight years of employment as a broker before that, I found myself, this morning, for the first time since I was 20 years old, watching the futures and options markets open not as a participant, but as a mere spectator.

The reason for my decision to pull the plug was excruciatingly simple: I could no longer tell my clients that their monies and positions were safe in the futures and options markets – because they are not. And this goes not just for my clients, but for every futures and options account in the United States. The entire system has been utterly destroyed by the MF Global collapse. Given this sad reality, I could not in good conscience take one more step as a commodity broker, soliciting trades that I knew were unsafe or holding funds that I knew to be in jeopardy.

The markets are so untrustworthy that traders now justify these sorts of mental gymnastics to stay in the market:

If you want to eliminate counterparty risk I say trade with a brokerage that doesn’t do its own gambling on the side (so in theory you won’t need to run crying to SIPC for your funds), then only short, ever. Want to go long? Short something that’s short. All you have to personally hold is cash.. For example short AAPL on the way down then short some “short tech” ETF on the way back up. Make sure you’ve got plenty of breathing room of course so an unexpected swing doesn’t land you a margin call.

The Department of (in)Justice?

In response to “terrorists” we have shred the constitution. The government invests in spying, account hacking, social media, astro-turfing, suggesting fibbing on your weight is a crime & all sorts of other dubious forms of surveillance.

In 2004 the FBI warned of an epidemic of mortgage fraud that would lead to a major financial catastrophe. They were promptly castrated & ignored.

What point is there in investing in hypersonic bombs & countering “extremist messages” when we ignore the financial terrorists in our back yard, doing nothing to those who bomb our economy through intentional, flagrant & malicious fraud?

How Much Capital Concentration is Legitimate?

Carlos Slim admonishes other rich folks for giving away much of their wealth. Meanwhile he owns a company which provides free cell phones to illegal immigrants in the United States & ensures your bill contains a universal service tax as another junk fee to pay for those free phones.

If you take away the ability to earn more you take away some of the incentive to work long hours and do well. However, many of the richest people have ill gotten gains that were handed to them in part by the same nanny state they complain about:

Where such “wealth” was accumulated through fraud, if you undermine the justice system then eventually capital accumulates excessively & destroys the political and legal systems. You end up creating a society where most people are debt slaves paying interest to a few ultra-rich people.

Money is a human construct. The fact that our money is now backed by nothing more than our collective future ability to “produce” relegates us to that of slaves.

Money=paper=blood hours.

Blood hours are a finite measure. Heartbeats.

That debt is accumulated for political reasons:

government and banks are stuck together like a couple of dogs screwing and we don’t know which is on top. Here, Republicans need government to finance war and Democrats need it to finance social programs. Both need it to finance both, as that is how government attempts to maintain power and influence over the people this day and time.

But there are some obvious questions that go unasked, like:

Why should the Federal Reserve bail out the banking class when they commit fraud & then tell the rest of society to “suck it up, baby…this is capitalism”? Many folks are not financially literate, but at some point relying on ignorance won’t work:

there is a deep sense that capitalism in the West has become unfair. Certain players, led by big banks, extracted huge profits during the boom, and avoided the deep losses that they deserved during the bust. Citizens no longer accept the argument that this unfortunate outcome reflects the banks’ special economic role. And why should they, given that record bailouts have not revived growth and employment?

Calls for a fairer system will not go away. If anything, they will spread and grow louder. The West has no choice but to strike a better balance – between capital and labour, between current and future generations, and between the financial sector and the real economy.

“OWS is saying that you cannot have justice so long as the bad things happen to the person who borrowed but the bankster that lent the money gets paid off in full.” – gen

Social Harms from Excessive Income Inequality

Debt that is not legally dischargeable in bankruptcy shouldn’t be legal.

Debts that can’t be paid won’t.

The question is: who gets to eat the loss?

If the banks eat the loss it solves the problem of too much debt in the system & excessive income inequality. If the bankers are made whole on their incompetence & fraud driven bad loans while taxpayers  take the hit, then debt saturation remains & income inequality grows.

High income inequality leads to a near endless set of social problems.

In a just society a lender who makes bad loans goes under.

But we don’t live in a just society!


“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”- Benito Mussolini

“Corporations were created to protect the rich and powerful from market discipline” – Noam Chomsky

As banking fraud has ramped up, how has the US government responded?


“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” the president told them.

More Fraud Please.

If I had to sum up the attitude of America’s governing classes in one word, I would say: contempt.


I think this was the original logo for this site. It has so many layers of hidden messages inside of it…

  • how the words “terrorist” & evil are misused to label anything that challenges our current social hierarchy
  • how we all behave badly sometimes (even the penguins on Antartica)
  • the outsized sense of importance of trivial things when stuff goes bad & how self-aggrandizement can make us feel more important than we are
  • how people put their best face forward, but always have something in the background they hide / would rather not share
  • the fear people have of nuclear power & the unknown in general, even while we willfully poison ourselves daily with things like alcohol & sugar

I think that logo took about 5 minutes with AAA logo…years later I still love it & haven’t had a personal logo I liked as much since.

This was a quick design making a mockery of how self absorbed many blogs (including this one) are. I later archived the content onto a different domain & decided to start from scratch as a bland unbranded blog.

I think using the default design made me bored of it & I sort of stopped working on it. Since I posted about my dad’s American Legion site & hadn’t posted for years I thought it would be a great time to update to a logo that infused Steven Cobert styled patriotism & SEO. 🙂

As the worldwide economy has been melting down I have been reading a lot more broadly about the world & some of my interests don’t entirely fit in the tight niche of SEO, so I figured I may as well convert the site to WordPress (since I am more familiar with it & won’t have to bug our programmer about it if/when anything messes up) and put a new masthead on it. The current one is a play on the Panda update, where the widget bit was a $15 iStockphoto image & then I put some ugly text next to it. Though if I blog here regularly I will likely end up changing the masthead fairly regularly.

I do realize the font is sort of jacked. I could do it in Photoshop at some point if inspirations strikes. Sometimes leaving things a bit rough is better though, as it shows more character. 😉

Review of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that is quite deep and took me a while to read. In fact, I finished a few other books in the middle of this one because I did not want to rush through it and miss stuff.

The first 65% of this book consists largely of Viktor’s first hand accounts of what the Holocaust was like as a Jewish man stuck in concentration camps. This part of the book was a real gripping page turner…amazingly emotional and hard to put down.

Some thought that if you put people in the worst possible conditions their individuality would melt away and they would all display the same faults and cruelty and selfishness…but the underlying story Viktor wants to share is that each day we CHOOSE how we act and if we have the courage to become worthy of our sufferings. If that is true in concentation camps then it is surely true in regular everyday life. Environmental factors and biological factors are factors in shaping our days, but not factors in how we CHOOSE to live, we decide our attitude and if we want to maintain spiritual freedom.

Condemed men can have a “delusion of reprive” where up until the last moments of their lives they can hope destiny may not be met.

“The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Perceived injustice can cause far more lasting emotional pain than the raw physical violence often associated with it. The more awful a person’s environment the more they seek (and find) beauty in things that allow them to escape, even if only for a moment.

“The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, posses it?”

When people are stripped of their traditional societal status and divided into ranks people of a slightly higher rank may suffer from delusions of grandeur.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

He also quoted this killer Nietzsche quote “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

The second part of the book is an introduction of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy based on “a will to meaning.” This is the part of the book where I had to slow down and read it a couple times to make sure I did not miss anything…the 2nd and 3rd parts of this book are much more dense than the 1st part because they do not have as much backdrop narrative story to tell.

Some forms of psychotherapy view tension as bad, but natural tension between what we are and what we aspire to become is natural (and needed) to help push us to be the people we are worthy of becoming. If there is no tention in your life then you are not growing.

Given how efficent society is many of us are far beyond self-sustaining, leaving a void for what to do with our time. An exestential vacuum is a leading cause for depression, addiction, and anger.

“Success, like happiness, cannot be persued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended consequence of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Rather than asking the meaning of life man should answer for the meaning of his own life. “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Some suffering is unavoidable, and man can find meaning and push himself to grow through enduring such suffering.

Sometimes our fear of something creates anxiety and brings about the symptoms of the end problem, which reinforces the fear, and those mutually self-reinforcing behaviors spiral out of control. To break the cycle caused by hyper-intention we can use paradoxical intentions to wish for the poor outcome excessively hard…which reduces the perceived depth of fear and anxiety, and thus breaks the cycle (this strategy can be used to overcome a wide array of issues like sweating, stuttering, and some sexual issues).

The book finishes with “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

Western culture often makes the mistake of associating a person’s value/usefulness to society as being interchangible with their value as a person. But you are more than your job, and there is nothing wrong with having dignity even if you are not currently slaving away for the benefit of society as a whole. One day your (and my) utility will diminish, but it does not mean we become less of a person.

“An optimism in the face of tragedy and in the view of human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

5 star rating on this book…great great work of art that also happens to be non-fiction.

Lots of Great Finance Articles

Paul Kedrosky compares financial markets to wildfires, suggesting that an occassional fire might not be so bad

When wildfires burn a landscape, it’s not all bad. It cleans out underbrush, helping the next generation of plants and trees emerge. Wildfire is also required by some plants to propagate, like various species of chaparral, whose seed pods only open under the kinds of heat created by wildfires. Those species are, in a sense, fire-adapted.

but fires that are too frequent dramatically and perminantly change the landscape

In short, infrequent wildfires tend to be catastrophic, but overly frequent wildfires cause what fire ecologists call “type conversion”: the original plants are replaced by new species, and the new plants tends to be more prone to frequent fires. In other words, frequent fires make an already fire-prone landscape even more dangerous.

Amid the recent fire credit card credit lines are drying up and inflation adjusted US housing is already off 24%, according to professor Robert Shiller.

The alternative energy bubble has not inflated as quickly as some have expected, and the US economy is still left in shambles from debt and overconsumption tied to the real estate bubble.

In No manufacturing. No new ideas. What’s our economy based on? Joseph Stiglitz highlighted the casino nature of the US financial system:

To put it another way, had those in the financial sector allocated capital and risk in a way that fueled the economy, they would have had handsome profits. But they wanted more, and so established incentive structures that encouraged gambling. If they gambled and won, they could walk away with a share of the profits. If they gambled and lost, the investors would bear the consequences. It was almost as if the entire financial system was converted into a giant casino in which the system was rigged to guarantee those running the games huge returns, at the expense of the players. But in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the games are near zero-sum: The gains of the casino owners approximately equal the losses of the players. The financial-system-as-casino, on the other hand, is a negative-sum game. Those on Wall Street may have walked off with billions, but those billions are dwarfed by the costs to be paid by the rest of us.

The finishing touches on that latest botch may be upon us, with the Government potentially taking on over $5 trillion in mortgage backed securities, according to the WSJ:

The Treasury Department is putting the finishing touches to a plan designed to shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that would essentially result in a government takeover of the mortgage giants.