Nomadland Reconsidered

This Joshua Keating critique of Nomadland is excellent. He starts off praising it.

“The film Nomadland, which cemented its status as the front-runner for Best Picture with six Oscar nominations this week, includes unforgettable characters and images. It heralds the arrival of a major directing talent in Chloé Zhao, nominated for Best Director, and features yet another masterful turn from Frances McDormand, nominated for Best Actress. But for anyone who has read its source material, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film feels oddly incomplete. The filmmakers chose to jettison the book’s muckraking journalistic spirit and economic critique, ending up with a film that’s supposedly an examination of contemporary society, but feels politically inert.”

Lucid, critical, respectful, the phrases “oddly incomplete” and “politically inert” strike the perfect chord.

His main critique:

“These are people who are adamant that they are not victims, have chosen the lifestyle they lead of their own free will, and are grateful for the opportunities they get. This is admirable in some sense, but in the case of modern nomadism, it’s part of the problem. As Bruder’s reporting shows, one of the reasons companies like Amazon like to hire retirement-age “workampers” for physically demanding jobs that seem better suited for young bodies is that they “demand little in the way of benefits or protections. … Most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.” The scrappy, no-complaints stoicism that makes these people appealing movie characters also makes them extremely exploitable.”

Keating convinces me that a very good film could’ve been even better.

My Person Of The Year

A New York Times primer for anyone who doesn’t know MacKenzie Scott, the eighteenth wealthiest person in the world.

“Ms. Scott, who was formerly married to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has pledged to give away most of her wealth. Her shares in Amazon were valued at about $38 billion last year but would have gained value during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Scott isn’t letting the pandemic stop her from making true on her pledge. Quite the opposite. Last week she revealed she was “the one behind the donations to dozens of colleges and universities, part of nearly $4.2 billion she had given to 384 organizations in the last four months.”

As impressive as the amount Scott’s given away is is how her team did it.

“The money came after weeks or months of hush-hush conversations in which Ms. Scott’s representatives reached out to college presidents to interview them about their missions, several of the presidents said on Wednesday. When they learned who was behind the effort, it was a surprise to them, too. But it could not have come at a better time — when the pandemic was hitting their student bodies hard, they said.

‘I was stunned,’ Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Prairie View, Texas, said of learning that Ms. Scott was giving $50 million, the biggest gift the university had ever received. She thought she had misheard and the caller had to repeat the number: ‘five-zero.'”

Scott is the antithesis of most ultra wealthy philanthropists who almost always give to their alma maters, most of which are already flush with nine or ten figure endowments.

“Ms. Scott’s latest gifts bring her charity to almost $6 billion this year, an extraordinary amount. In another unorthodox touch, she announced them in a Medium post on Tuesday. ‘This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,’ she wrote. ‘Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.'”

Experts on philanthropy were surprised to see Scott associate herself with institutions that were “much more humble and, indeed, needy.”

“To these institutions, a $20 million donation was the equivalent of several times that to a Harvard or Yale, and could have a disproportionate impact.

‘One of the things that’s so incredible about this massive grouping of gifts is that she does not have a personal connection to most, if any, of these universities,’ said Kestrel Linder, chief executive of GiveCampus, a fund-raising platform that works with colleges and universities.

Ms. Scott made gifts to more than a dozen historically Black colleges and universities, as well as community and technical colleges and schools serving Native Americans, women, urban and rural students.”

Dare to be different. And hella generous.

Sports Utility Vehicles

IHS Markit forecasts that SUVs will make up half of all U.S. car sales this year for the first time, strengthening further to 54 percent of sales by 2025.

“SUVs are a monument to a broader American failure that has seen pedestrians and cyclists forsaken for endless miles of road building, with non–car users forced to push what Miller calls “beg buttons” to pause traffic to enter roads that should be egalitarian public spaces.

SUVs . . . not only bring a stew of pollution and an element of fear to those attempting to traverse roads on foot or bike—they are also fundamentally inefficient. ‘You are taking a 200-pound package, a human, and wrapping it in a 6,000-pound shipping container,’ he said. ‘For some reason we think that is a good way to move through a city. If Amazon used that rationale it would be out of business in a week.'”

 

Weekend Required Reading

Three day weekend in the United States, so I expect local readers to read all of these especially closely. 

1. Online Privacy Should Be Modeled On Real World Privacy. Gather round, John Gruber is fired up.

“Just because there is now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on the abject betrayal of our privacy doesn’t mean the sociopaths who built it have any right whatsoever to continue getting away with it. They talk in circles but their argument boils down to entitlement: they think our privacy is theirs for the taking because they’ve been getting away with taking it without our knowledge, and it is valuable. No action Apple can take against the tracking industry is too strong.”

2. The Secret Adjustment Factor Tesla Uses to Get Its Big EPA Range Numbers. Outsmarting its competitors.

3. In Washington State, the revolving door between government service and lobbying is well-greased. 

“Washington’s revolving door received renewed scrutiny last year when then-state Sen. Guy Palumbo, a Democrat, resigned his seat to become a state lobbyist for Amazon. Prior to stepping down, Palumbo had been the prime sponsor of a bill to require state agencies to adopt cloud computing solutions for any new information technology investments. In urging his colleagues to approve the bill, which passed the state Senate but died in the House, Palumbo touted Washington’s homegrown cloud computing companies. ‘Namely Microsoft and Amazon who are the worldwide leaders in this space, Palumbo said at the time.”

How to get rich? Step one, get elected.

4. Police reforms face defeat as California Democrats block George Floyd-inspired bills. This is the substantive stuff to pay attention to as the media spotlight shifts.

5. The man who defied death threats to play at the Mastershttps://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32234719. My friend RZ loves golf. The Masters is his favorite tournament. He’s also a sociologist who studies Blacks in the elite. This one is for him.

6. ‘Greatest Met of All Time’: Tom Seaver Is Mourned Across Baseball. How can anyone read that and conclude you have to be mean and nasty to be an elite athlete?

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Being A Billionaire Is Hard

No, I don’t have first hand experience, I’m basing that conclusion on this headline.

Jeff Bezos is getting slammed for his donation of $690,000 to the Australian wildfire recovery, which is less than he made every 5 minutes in 2018.

The critics are forgetting that Bezos went through a divorce last year, so in 2019, it probably took a lot more time, maybe 7-8 minutes of work.

I wonder how many of the critics have given to the recovery.

One woman said she raised nearly twice what Amazon pledged by selling nude photos online.

To which I have no comment.

Why I’m Never Signing Up for Amazon Prime

By The Verge’s Vlad Savov.

Savov’s rationale is convincing. Among his arguments:

“Deals suck. Discounted goods are bad for me, as a consumer, because they nudge me into buying things I don’t need just to be frugal and collect the massive “saving” inherent in the discount. That’s how I’ve ended up with a collection of pristine, totally unworn sneakers that seemed too cheap to pass up.”

And:

“Free delivery is never free. Amazon Prime makes it unbelievably easy to shop unthinkingly. You can just order up a ton of things of the same class, try them all out, and return the majority, keeping only one. That phenomenon has been so prominent with clothes that Amazon formalized it with the introduction of Amazon Prime Wardrobe last month. But for each of those back and forth trips, there’s a truck, a boat, a plane out there, pushing stuff around the world for the sake of our sheer indulgence and indecision. I don’t care how anyone rationalizes this, I consider it wasteful and polluting and not something I want to contribute to.”

Also:

“Amazon’s employment practices are shit. . . . It was the subject of an undercover BBC Panorama documentary a few years ago, and reports of exploitative working conditions at Amazon warehouses persist. Everything about Prime that feels unbelievably cheap is only so because of the unbelievably cheap way that Amazon deals with the people discharging its duties.”

The only problem with Savov’s essay is his overly soft landing.

“I don’t expect anyone to follow or join me in resisting Amazon’s primal pull toward Prime. You’ve got your own priorities in life and, in all honesty, nobody’s going to fix global injustice by disregarding Prime Day and taking a nice walk outside instead.”

Vlad, I will happily follow you by continuing to resist the lure of Amazon Prime. And I’ll take a nice walk outside too.

Advice for New Investors

Or old. My previous reference and link to Amazon’s historic stock run up was a disservice to all of the esteemed readers of the humble blog. Same with my occasional references to Apple. Please strike all my references to individual stocks from the record.

Jeff Sommer restores order with “How Stocks Can Make You Rich. But They Probably Won’t“.

Heart of the matter:

How can those two sets of facts — the underperformance of the typical stock and the outperformance of the overall stock market — both be correct?

It is because a relative handful of stocks tend to outperform all others by tremendous amounts.

The conclusion:

“. . . most people picking stocks are unlikely to do well for very long.”

In related news, during the evening commute I enjoy listening to Seattle radio’s “Ron and Don”. They care about their community, they’re funny, and they have a beautiful rapport. However, their good work is seriously undermined by their pimping of an on-line trading school. They’re smart enough to know that 99% of day traders get their asses handed to them, despite that, they promote the shit out it.

I wrote them and asked why. No reply. Yet.

Inside Amazon

Despite only being two to three days old, this New York TImes Amazon expose has generated 5,735+ comments. And a rebuttal by Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos.

First, let’s acknowledge that the trustworthiness of the Times’s investigative reporting has regrettably slipped in recent years. Despite that, it’s an amazing peek inside the company that so many consumers, myself included, have to this point mindlessly supported. And by amazing, I mean really disturbing.

It’s a precautionary tale for any business or organization that believes data analysis or “metrics” is the answer to all problems.

Bezos says its not the company he knows. That probably means he’s completely lost touch with most of his employees’ day-to-day realities.

Amazonians’ long hours and personal sacrifices might make sense if it had a more inspiring mission than sell more shit and dominate retail. Another reminder that materialism shapes 21st Century U.S. life and wealth is a powerful motivator.

In skimming a small cross-section of the comments, I was struck by how many readers said they were completely cutting the Amazon chord. Will they follow through? Will they slow the giant retail supertanker? Time will tell.