The Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession 

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

King Arthur Flour has been around in America since 1790, but in their 230 years, they’ve never seen anything quite like the past few months.

🎶 Like a Rhinestone Jockstrap 🎶 

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Speaking of questionable purchases, perhaps you’d like to pick up Elvis Presley’s rhinestone-studded jockstrap? I’m sure there are worse ways to spend $37,000, though none immediately spring to mind.

This item is encased in glass, and includes a plaque which reads:

Elvis Presley
Owned and Worn Jock Strap

This unique item was custom made by one of Elvis’ fans. Elvis wore the jock strap until his tragic death in 1977. The jock strap was purchased directly from the Elvis Presley Museum.

I doubt it’s actually the case, but that wording certainly implies the King died in this jockstrap.

Astro the Grouch 

Monday, May 25th, 2020

It’s Memorial Day in America, a day to honor and mourn veterans who died wile serving in our armed forces. Paradoxically, it’s also the unofficial start to summer, and ordinarily a day of beaches, barbecues, and baseball. As a result of COVID-19, however, the 2020 Major League Baseball season has yet to start. Even so, baseball fans can still indulge their disgust for the cheating 2017 Houston Astros, thanks to a promotional item from Minnesota’s St. Paul Saints.

As the Saints’ staffers planned the 2020 promotional schedule, they plotted how to roast the newly sanctioned Astros. A trash can? Of course. Inside? Knockoffs of Oscar the Grouch and Orbit, the Astros’ mascot, carefully designed to skirt copyright violations.


Pressing the button will unleash a couple of bangs, or even a specific pitch.

With the season in doubt, the Saints have now decided to sell the item online, with a portion of the rather steep $35 price going to charity. Personally, I’ll be content to chuckle at the fact that this exists, write about it, and then move on.

“Money Stuff” Is Hilarious Financial Writing 

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

On Monday, I wrote about pizza arbitrage. As a result, I wound up reading Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff” column at Bloomberg, and he is doing tremendous work. A few choice quotes:

On MoviePass

Meanwhile MoviePass itself is up for auction in its Chapter 7 bankruptcy, with bids due next month. Naively I would think that a pandemic would be good for MoviePass: If your business is buying movie tickets for $14 and selling them for $10 a month, months when all the movie theaters are shut down should be relatively profitable.

The “relatively” there is key.

On SoftBank’s Truly Bizarre Slides

I would think that you get the horn when SoftBank plows money into you at a billion-dollar valuation, and the wings when you manage to make money during a pandemic, though these are highly technical financial questions and I might be wrong on some subtleties.

These are real slides from SoftBank’s May 18th earnings presentation. To be fair, if you might be on the hook to buy $1 billion worth of WeWork stock for $3 billion, you’d probably cheap out on hiring graphic designers too.

On Our Bizarre New Economy

In the old economy of price signals, you tried to build a product that people would want, and the way you knew it worked is that people would pay you more than it cost. You were adding value to the world, and you could tell because you made money. In the new economy of user growth, you don’t have to worry about making a product that people want because you can just pay them to use it, so you might end up with companies losing money to give people things that they don’t want and driving out the things they do want.

This would be funny, except for the fact that it’s true.

I wouldn’t have guessed that there was hilarious financial writing to be found out there, but Levine is doing it, and doing it well. You can find the “Money Stuff” at Bloomberg, and subscribe to get it via email here.

A Veil of Darkness 

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

A very clever Stanford-led study has determined that when police are unable to visually determine a driver’s race because of nighttime darkness, they stop fewer minorities. It’s clear that systemic racism remains an issue.

Much More on the Yellow Multipurpose Machine

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020

One week ago, I made note of an email from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) about nearby railroad construction, taking particular notice of their reference to a “yellow Multipurpose Machine”. This machine wasn’t shown or described further, and I found it very intriguing. Since that post, I’ve received several relevant emails.

First up, it appears Bill K. managed to track down the actual MPM in question:

As best I can figure, they may be describing [the Herzog] Multi-purpose Machine. Here’s a promo video of what this machine is/does. The rail equipment would very certainly stop and start frequently.

The promo video1 says “Herzog’s MPM is a must-have for any railroad engineering department”, but after just 60 seconds of marketing, I kind of want one for myself. As I’m sure you’re aware, I, too, am serious about safety, efficiency, and cost control.

I also noticed something strange written on the front of the MPM in the video:


Emphasis (visually) added

If you’re wondering what the heck that could mean, as I was, this Straight Dope post has you covered. Sadly, it’s nowhere near as salacious as it sounds.

In last week’s post, I emphasized the fact that the MPM is “required to sound its horn when it stops and starts.” This led reader Michael I. to email some experts for a recommendation on perhaps lessening the overwhelming awfulness of this. I was CC’ed on that email, and while I doubt we’ll be receiving any sort of answer at all, it did allow me to learn of the existence of the Noise Abatement Society. They “raise awareness and educate about measured, considered, and responsible use of sound”. In a world overrun with far too much unnecessary noise, I’ll give a very soft cheer for that. Hip, hip, hooray.

MassDOT also sent its list a follow-up email, which included some additional explanation of the yellow Multipurpose Machine:

During all phases of construction taking place around-the-clock in the Lowell Line rail corridor, the yellow multi-purpose machine MPM (a long piece of heavy construction machinery on rail cars) will be staging work. Federal railroad regulations require the vehicle to sound its horn during stops and starts.

You might notice they’ve typed the machine’s name in a completely different way, and doubled it up to boot, rather like writing about an “automated teller machine ATM”. You should definitely notice that they’re now passing the buck on the mandatory honking, calling out federal regulations for that. I’m sure the nearby residents will be comforted to know they can blame Washington, rather than local officials, while being annoyed in the wee hours.

Finally, friend-of-the-site Don H. shared a tangential story of his own time dealing with MBTA construction, many moons ago.

Having spent my formative years in a quasi-Animal House triple-decker on College Ave many decades ago, this whole project also reminds me of the Red Line extension in the 80s. (That really dates me.) Harvard Square itself was that era’s Big Dig ground zero. Not a month went by without the construction company either chopping it up or subsequently repaving it, all while routing traffic through every available back street, alley, and store lobby to make room. At one point they literally applied the jack hammers to still-warm *week old* asphalt. We could only conclude that the construction crew didn’t like hacking through tough old road surface so they instead kept it fresh, with the smooth feel of cutting through brownies fresh out of the oven.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this bonus yellow Multipurpose Machine content. If you’ll excuse me, I’m suddenly craving a warm baked good.


Footnotes:

  1. As always, the video is archived here. ↩︎

I Actually Probably Don’t Want to Know 

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

In local Boston news, a man and his snake have been reunited after being separated for an entire year. Venkman the corn snake slithered away from Gene Atwood’s home last May, traveling to parts unknown, before ultimately winding up in the undercarriage of someone’s car.

About a year ago I failed at locking the enclosure, and he managed to escape. I spent months searching the house and leaving out little treats (WARM DEAD MICE ON LITTLE PLATES), AND never had any sign of his existence. the enclosure was very close to the eaves of the attic so i always figured he got in there and perished in the fiberglass insulation or something. … I had heard stories of snakes showing up after being lost for a year or more, but it is honestly, truly bewildering.

How exactly did Atwood warm the dead mice? On second thought, never mind. Let’s embrace the mystery.

Pizza Arbitrage 

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Only in the insane economics of Doordash could a restaurant get paid $24 for a pizza they ordinarily sell for $16.

If capitalism is driven by a search for profit, the food delivery business confuses the hell out of me. Every platform loses money. Restaurants feel like they’re getting screwed. Delivery drivers are poster children for gig economy problems. Customers get annoyed about delivery fees.

Ranjan Roy’s pizza arbitrage would make Milo Minderbinder proud.

They Don’t Need Masks When Nobody Is Flying 

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Long-time readers know that your humble author is no fan of America’s TSA, particularly when it comes to their invasive scans. Propublica has uncovered yet another reason to despise the agency: they’ve been hoarding N95 masks doctors and nurses desperately need.

Reduced Flights Reduce Meteorological Accuracy 

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Well, file this under unexpected consequences of a global pandemic: Weather forecasts may suffer from reduced accuracy, because less data is being collected due to the sharp drop in airplane flights.

For years, thousands of airliners and cargo planes have been involved in a side gig that few passengers or package shippers have been privy to: gathering and transmitting weather data that’s then used for improving weather forecasts issued worldwide.

It makes sense that planes are used to gather weather data, but I certainly wasn’t aware of it previously.