Why I Am Not A Successful Alternate-History Writer


So, it’s an alternate history where everything is like it was here, only instead of the gold standard countries drifted to the gold dragon standard. It’s 1893. Industrial-capitalism-driven finance, as embodied by J.P. Morgan, has after decades of fighting reached a tentative but solid-looking peace accord with the nascent environmental movement, as embodied by John Muir. But danger is mounting. The Granger movement is pressing hard for the re-adoption of silver dragons as a foundation for currency outside South Asia. And the so-called Treaty of Oyster Bay may collapse against the deepening of the balance-of-payments crisis in Washington. As Grover Cleveland fends off appeals from the Bryan wing of his own party, and arranges his own secret and possibly illicit cancer surgery, Muir and Morgan have to work out whose sides they want to be on, and what they want to press for, before the endangered North American Gold Dragon is lost forever.

My fellow reading group members described it as featuring “oh Lord even more words?” and bringing up memories of “how much my head hurt as a kid when I asked my parents what it meant that, like, France was buying Japanese Yen”. Other comments included, “do the dragons even do anything?” and “did you have to call it the Bland-Allison Act? Is that even a joke? What is this thing?” and, in what I consider a glowing review, “can you at least have a dragon eat Prescott Hall or something? Please?”

In the first sequel it’s 1898 and rumors of a major cache of gold dragons coming out of the Yukon threatens to scramble the worldwide recovery from the Panic of 1893. The rush of American settlers into northwestern Canada presents great new challenges to the meaning of Canadian — and Alaskan — national identity, just as biologists find their understanding of the development of dragons challenged by the extreme-cold-weather breed’s anomalous sides. The new potential for Canadian self-determination calls into question the whole constitutional settlement of the British Empire, at a time when Australia and New Zealand’s needs for local constitutions and the stirrings of a new war with the Boers occupy Her Majesty’s Government, and the scientific minds try to square paradigm-shattering data about evolution and thermodynamics into their worldview.

My beta readers describe the roughed-out novel as “incredibly many words between cool parts that have dragons” and “are you working out some crazypants obscurant flame war with somebody about this Lord Carnavon [sic] guy?” And when I bring new chapters to a group session at the bookstore people’s eyes light up and they hide behind the Coffee Table Art books and do that thing where they playfully feign tossing manuscript pages into the fireplace! The kidders. They have to know by now I know there’s a grate over the fireplace.

Now the second sequel is set in the early 1910s and pulls back from the questions of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Dominions and prospective Dominions to more closely examine United States monetary policy. Between the influence of the Populist movement on American politics and the passing of people like Morgan, the public’s coming around to accept the need for regularized, boring systems that can handle dragon-related crises instead of trusting that Great Men will somehow be found when needed. And so it’s a struggle among the followers and students of the previous generation’s greats to exactly work out the parameters of the Federal Preserve System.

I only have this in a roughed-out form, mostly notes on my laptop. But already Scrivener is so excited by this it’s set my computer on fire and several of its programmers have come around my house to holler at me at six in the morning, every morning, for a week now. But even they have to admit that the couple chapters I’ve written “don’t read nearly so much like a manifesto as I expected” and “wait, so, like, are banks just keeping dragons in vaults or something? Like, can tellers go in back during lunch and pet one? Do bank robbers come out with nests of dragons?” I don’t know, but that might be interesting if I can find space for a side story that petty in what I figure’s going to be a 700,000-word book!

Now I know all this sounds great, but I know my readers are trying to be nice so the stories aren’t that compelling. At that I still think the publisher might not have thrown me out on the street and kicked me in the back if I hadn’t insisted on naming it The Origin of Specie trilogy. I’m sorry, but her suggestion of The Gilded Age is a great title but it would need a story set in the 1870s to make the title sensible and I can’t think of anything sensible for that era.

PS no stealing my story, I e-mailed it to myself in an attachment I haven’t opened yet so I can prove it’s mine.

Finley Peter Dunne explains High Finance


While I imagine many people are interested in How To Understand International Finance these days, I thought I’d step back to the turn of the 20th century and Finley Peter Dunne’s Mister Dooley, who in Mr Dooley’s Philosophy explains high finance. And yes, I understand, the dialect writing makes it harder to read. It’s worth it.

Mister Dooley on: HIGH FINANCE

“I THINK,” said Mr. Dooley, “I’ll go down to th’ stock yards an’ buy a dhrove iv Steel an’ Wire stock.”

“Where wud ye keep it?” asked the unsuspecting Hennessy.

“I’ll put it out on th’ vacant lot,” said Mr. Dooley, “an’ lave it grow fat by atin’ ol’ bur-rd cages an’ tin cans. I’ll milk it hard, an’ whin ’tis dhry I’ll dispose iv it to th’ widdies an’ orphans iv th’ Sixth Ward that need household pets. Be hivins, if they give me half a chanst, I’ll be as gr-reat a fi-nanceer as anny man in Wall sthreet.

“Th’ reason I’m so confident iv th’ value iv Steel an’ Wire stock, Hinnissy, is they’re goin’ to hur-rl th’ chairman iv th’ comity into jail. That’s what th’ pa-apers calls a ray iv hope in th’ clouds iv dipression that’ve covered th’ market so long. `Tis always a bull argymint. `Snowplows common was up two pints this mornin’ on th’ rumor that th’ prisidint was undher ar-rest.’ `They was a gr-reat bulge in Lobster preferred caused be th’ report that instead iv declarin’ a dividend iv three hundhred per cint. th’ comp’ny was preparin’ to imprison th’ boord iv directors.’ `We sthrongly ricommind th’ purchase iv Con and Founder. This comp’ny is in ixcillint condition since th’ hangin’ iv th’ comity on reorganization.’

“What’s th’ la-ad been doin’, Hinnissy? He’s been lettin’ his frinds in on th’ groun’ flure — an’ dhroppin’ thim into th’ cellar. Ye know Cassidy, over in th’ Fifth, him that was in th’ ligislachure? Well, sir, he was a gr-reat frind iv this man. They met down in Springfield whin th’ la-ad had some thing he wanted to get through that wud protect th’ widdies an’ orphans iv th’ counthry again their own avarice, an’ he must’ve handed Cassidy a good argymint, f’r Cassidy voted f’r th’ bill, though threatened with lynchin’ be stockholders iv th’ rival comp’ny. He come back here so covered with dimons that wan night whin he was standin’ on th’ rollin’ mill dock, th’ captain iv th’ Eliza Brown mistook his shirt front f’r th’ bridge lights an’ steered into a soap facthry on th’ lee or gas-house shore.

“Th’ man made a sthrong impression on Cassidy. ‘Twas : `As me frind Jawn says,’ or `I’ll ask Jawn about that,’ or `I’m goin’ downtown to-day to find out what Jawn advises.’ He used to play a dollar on th’ horses or sivin-up f’r th’ dhrinks, but afther he met Jawn he wanted me to put in a tick er, an’ he wud set in here figurin’ with a piece iv chalk on how high Wire’d go if hoopskirts come into fashion again. `Give me a dhrop iv whisky,’ he says, ` f’r I’m inthrested in Distillers,’ he says, `an’ I’d like to give it a shove,’ he says. `How’s Gas?’ he says. `A little weak, to-day,’ says I. `’Twill be sthronger,’ he says. `If it ain’t,’ says I, `I’ll take out th’ meter an’ connect th’ pipe with th’ ventilator. I might as well bur-rn th’ wind free as buy it,’ I says.

“A couple iv weeks ago he see Jawn an’ they had a long talk about it. `Cassidy,’ says Jawn, `ye’ve been a good frind iv mine,’ he says, an’ I’d do annything in the wurruld t’r ye, no matther what it cost ye,’ he says. `If ye need a little money to tide over th’ har-rd times till th’ ligislachure meets again buy’ — an’ he whispered in Cassidy’s ear. `But,’ he says, `don’t tell annywan. ‘Tis a good thing, but I want to keep it bottled up,’ he says.

“Thin Jawn took th’ thrain an’ begun confidin’ his secret to a few select frinds. He give it to th’ conductor on th’ thrain, an’ th’ porther, an’ th’ can dy butcher; he handed it to a switchman that got on th’ platform at South Bend, an’ he stopped off at Detroit long enough to tell about it to the deepo’ policeman. He had a sign painted with th’ tip on it an’ hung it out th’ window, an’ he found a man that carrid a thrombone in a band goin’ over to Buffalo, an’ he had him set th’ good thing to music an’ play it through th’ thrain. Whin he got to New York he stopped at the Waldorf Asthoria, an’ while th’ barber was powdhrin’ his face with groun’ dimons Jawn tol’ him to take th’ money he was goin’ to buy a policy ticket with an’ get in on th’ good thing. He tol’ th’ bootblack, th’ waiter, th’ man at th’ news-stand, th’ clerk behind th’ desk, an’ th’ bartinder in his humble abode. He got up a stereopticon show with pitchers iv a widow-an-orphan befure an’ afther wirin’, an’ he put an advertisement in all th’ pa-apers tellin’ how his stock wud make weak men sthrong. He had th’ tip sarved hot in all th’ resthrants in Wall sthreet, an’ told it confidintially to an open-air meetin’ in Madison Square. `They’se nawthin,’ he says, `that does a tip so much good as to give it circulation,’ he says.’ I think, be this time,’ he says, `all me frinds knows how to proceed, but — Great Hivins!’ he says. `What have I done? Whin all the poor people go to get th’ stock they won’t be anny f’r thim. I can not lave thim thus in th’ lurch. Me reputation as a gintleman an’ a fi-nanceer is at stake,’ he says. `Rather than see these brave people starvin’ at th’ dure f’r a morsel iv common or preferred, I’ll — I’ll sell thim me own stock,’ he says. An’ he done it. He done it, Hinnissy, with unfalthrin’ courage an’ a clear eye. He sold thim his stock, an’ so’s they might get what was left at a raysonable price, he wrote a confidintial note to th’ pa-apers tellin’ thim th’ stock wasn’t worth thirty cints a cord, an’ now, be hivins, they’re talkin’ iv puttin’ him in a common jail or pinitinchry pre ferred. Th’ ingratichood iv man.”

“But what about Cassidy?” Mr. Hennessy asked.

“Oh,” said Mr. Dooley, “he was in here las’ night. `How’s our old frind Jawn?’ says I. He said nawthin’. `Have ye seen ye’er collidge chum iv late?’ says I. `Don’t mintion that ma-an’s name,’ says he. `To think iv what I’ve done f’r him,’ he says, `an’ him to throw me down,’ he says. `Did ye play th’ tip?’ says I. `I did,’ says he. `How did ye come out?’ says I. `I haven’t a cint lift but me renommynation f’r th’ ligislachure,’ says he. `Well,’ says I, `Cassidy,’ I says, `ye’ve been up again what th’ pa-apers call hawt finance,’ I says. `What th’ divvle’s that?’ says he. `Well,’ says I, `it ain’t burglary, an’ it ain’t obtainin’ money be false pretinses, an’ it ain’t manslaughter,’ I says. `It’s what ye might call a judicious seliction fr’m th’ best features iv thim ar-rts,’ I says. `T’was too sthrong f’r me,’ he says. `It was,’ says I. `Ye’re about up to simple thransom climbin’, Cassidy,’ I says.”

Why I Never Finish Just Reading A Stupid Book Already


The book isn’t stupid, to be exact. It’s Beggar Thy Neighbor: a History of Usury and Debt, by Charles R Geisst, who probably knows what he’s talking about overall. The book’s from a university library. It doesn’t have a jacket. These are all marks of book respectability. But then I run into a line like this — and it’s exactly like this, in chapter 4 — and I’m thrown:

In 1853 the secretary of the Treasury estimated that around 60 percent of the bonds issued by Boston and Jersey City and 25 percent of those issued by New York City were held by foreigners.

It’s a straightforward sentence even if it’s rated “very hard to read” and is too short to judge what its readability is like anyway. Yet I’m wondering things I know I’ll never get answered. Here’s some.

  1. Obviously, the big one: Thomas Corwin or James Guthrie? I mean, c’mon, this wasn’t even a boring change of presidential administration like in 1857. This was a major change in the political status quo. Why, Corwin and Guthrie were born in completely different north-central Kentucky counties. So which one was estimating?
  2. Why was Corwin or Guthrie estimating this? Did it come up as part of the daily work of Treasury Secretary-ing? What work, then? I know he can’t have just finished the work of signing every new-issued dollar bill early that day and gone casting about for some way to fill an hour and forty minutes before he could duck out for home in good conscience. Maybe he was quarreling with the State Department. Perhaps he figured if he whipped out some snappy numbers about city bond holding by foreigners then it would help. Or was he just idly working it out, the way you might work out how much of Florida would sink beneath sea level if all the elephants of the world were to stand on Kissimmee? Was his curiosity professional, I mean?
  3. If he was working it out for a quarrel with the State Department (or whoever), did the numbers help his case any? It’d be a fine thing to work out foreign bond holding for Boston, Jersey City, and New York City and then find the answer made you look like the bigger fool. I guess it helped or we wouldn’t have heard the answer, unless someone on his staff leaked the numbers to make him look bad. Read any history of the United States in the 1850s and you get all this talk about the runup to the Civil War. Nobody mentions what assistant secretary of the Treasury might be trying to make Corwin or Guthrie look bad in a quarrel with the State Department about foreign-held municipal bonds.
  4. Why study Boston, Jersey City, and New York City? What made that the short list and not some other cities? Was the foreign-held municipal debt situation of Novi, Michigan too boring to consider? What did Milledgeville, Georgia, do to not rate consideration? Were Corwin and Guthrie even aware of Batesville, Arkansas? I don’t quarrel with looking into the municipal debt situation of Boston and New York City, since they’re interesting towns. But why does Jersey City make the list? I vaguely like the place, since I’m from New Jersey and we’re deeply invested in insisting Jersey City is the next Hoboken which is the next Brooklyn which is a good thing we swear. And Jersey City has a lot to recommend it. For example, its Pavonia neighborhood is indirectly named for peacocks, and how many neighborhoods can you say that about? Besides the Peacock District that I’m assuming exists in Kaatsheuvel, in North Brabant in the Netherlands, I’m guessing not many. Plus Jersey City has the Pulaski Skyway, not a single square foot of which isn’t terrifying in every way. But why would that bring the city’s bond situation to the Treasury Secretary’s attention? In 1853 the Pulaski Skyway was literally less than 150 years away from being built. That can’t have attracted their attention.
  5. Why worry about foreigners holding municipal bonds, anyway? Was the Treasury scared the foreigners would do something disreputable with them, such as lick the bonds before redeeming them? But then why not have the finance department just open overseas mail while wearing gloves?

Also, the book is not at all clear that quotes from around 1820 from the New-York Daily Times are not from the New York Times we know today. There were like six New York Timeses between the 1820s one and the modern one. I’m comically impotently enraged by all this.

And the book goes on for hundreds more pages. How can I finish? (I finished reading it on Monday.)

One-Stop Jabbing


I’ve been reading Jack Zipes’s translation of the Grimm Fairy Tales, and that’s been compellingly odd because so many of the stories just are. One I just finished was about three brothers who apprenticed themselves to various masters and came back to compete for their father’s affection and his house by showing what they could do.

The one who’d gone with a barber showed how he could lather up and shave the beard of a hare while it kept running, which I have to admit is pretty good. The blacksmith showed how he could re-shoe a galloping horse without breaking its stride, which is awfully impressive although it seems needlessly hard. The one who went with the fencing master showed how he could strike drops of rain so swiftly and so alertly that he could stay perfectly dry in the middle of a downpour, which I didn’t even know was something fencing masters trained for.

Anyway, the brothers stayed together, sharing their father’s house and prospering together their whole lives, and now I’m stuck on what was that? I understand the logic of a one-stop place for barbering and blacksmithing. That just makes good sense. But fencing? I would imagine most of the work for fencing masters involves jabbing people with swords and you can’t just arrange for most people who need jabbing to come by the old barber-blacksmithing shop, not most of the time.

Although maybe I’m just not understanding the partnership. Maybe the fencing brother gets a contract to jab someone, and his brothers send out offers of free haircuts or metalworking until the contracted victim accepts, and comes over, and that’s how it works.

No, wait, that won’t work, because advertising wasn’t invented until 1918, when John R Brinkley needed to sell the idea of implanting goat testicles into human bodies. (You can see why that idea needed some promotional push to get going, especially among the goats.) There must be something that I’m not understanding. That would be foreign exchange markets: when a bank says it’s buying, say, euros with dollars, doesn’t that just mean it’s switching its own database entry that says “dollars” on their account to “euros”? How is this even doing anything, much less affecting the world economy?

Robert Benchley: How To Understand International Finance


[ I am surprised I haven’t posted this before. In this essay from 1922’s Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley explains modern finance, using the example of the German war debt to make it all surprisingly clear. As with all great humor, it’s pretty true. ]

It is high time that someone came out with a clear statement of the international financial situation. For weeks and weeks officials have been rushing about holding conferences and councils and having their pictures taken going up and down the steps of buildings. Then, after each conference, the newspapers have printed a lot of figures showing the latest returns on how much Germany owes the bank. And none of it means anything.

Now there is a certain principle which has to be followed in all financial discussions involving sums over one hundred dollars. There is probably not more than one hundred dollars in actual cash in circulation today. That is, if you were to call in all the bills and silver and gold in the country at noon tomorrow and pile them up on the table, you would find that you had just about one hundred dollars, with perhaps several Canadian pennies and a few peppermint life-savers. All the rest of the money you hear about doesn’t exist. It is conversation-money. When you hear of a transaction involving $50,000,000 it means that one firm wrote “50,000,000” on a piece of paper and gave it to another firm, and the other firm took it home and said “Look, Momma, I got $50,000,000!” But when Momma asked for a dollar and a quarter out of it to pay the man who washed the windows, the answer probably was that the firm hadn’t got more than seventy cents in cash.

This is the principle of finance. So long as you can pronounce any number above a thousand, you have got that much money. You can’t work this scheme with the shoe-store man or the restaurant-owner, but it goes big on Wall Street or in international financial circles.

This much understood, we see that when the Allies demand 132,000,000,000 gold marks from Germany they know very well that nobody in Germany has ever seen 132,000,000,000 gold marks and never will. A more surprised and disappointed lot of boys you couldn’t ask to see than the Supreme Financial Council would be if Germany were actually to send them a money-order for the full amount demanded.

What they mean is that, taken all in all, Germany owes the world 132,000,000,000 gold marks plus carfare. This includes everything, breakage, meals sent to room, good will, everything. Now, it is understood that if they really meant this, Germany couldn’t even draw cards; so the principle on which the thing is figured out is as follows: (Watch this closely; there is a trick in it).

You put down a lot of figures, like this. Any figures will do, so long as you can’t read them quickly:

  • 132,000,000,000 gold marks
  • $33,000,000,000 on a current value basis
  • $21,000,000,000 on reparation account plus 12-1/2% yearly tax on German exports
  • 11,000,000,000 gold fish
  • $1.35 amusement tax
  • 866,000 miles. Diameter of the sun
  • 2,000,000,000
  • 27,000,000,000
  • 31,000,000,000

Then you add them together and subtract the number you first thought of. This leaves 11. And the card you hold in your hand is the seven of diamonds. Am I right?

Better Eating for 2015


I don’t think I’m saying anything too outrageous if I assert that Olive Garden is a restaurant which exists and has some definite traits in addition to its existence. I wouldn’t make many more strong assertions about it because I can’t really work up the energy to, but that might change come Fiscal Year 2015. According to the Strategic Acton Plan put forth by Olive Garden corporate overlords Darden, Olive Garden has a Strategic Action plan to put forward, and it’s easily the most gripping Strategic Action Plan I’ve read in hours. Among other things their Holistic Core Menu and Promotion Plan (page 21) says they hope to offer “New Culinary-Forward Platforms”, with a side serving of “Simple, Compelling Price-Pointed Promotions,” for which I think everyone who’s struggled to chew down the old, bland, price-unpointed promotion will be grateful.

The new plate ware will feature being much closer to the food so it looks bigger.

I also appreciate that, according to page 23, Fiscal Year 2015 will see “New Plateware That Lets The Food Be The Star”, as opposed to the current plateware, which upstages the food by pulling all those first-year drama student tricks like standing upstage and dropping props and coughing during key moments in the food’s monologue. But I also appreciate the preview from the Strategic Action Plan since, as the picture indicates, apparently the major breakthrough in Olive Garden plateware is that they’re finally using their digital cameras’ Macro feature. Either that or the plan is to have newly-trained staff keep pressing patron’s heads closer to the table, at least until they admit the stardom of their “Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich” or “Pappardelle Pescatore”. Either way, it’s going to be exciting.

And now I just wonder when the Olive Garden Fiscal Year starts, and I bet you weren’t thinking at all about that question when you got up this morning (Olive Garden financial affairs experts excluded from this bet). Also “plateware” is a thing that’s not just dishes and cutlery, I guess?

Investment Advice As I Got It


“Your problem with money,” explained the advisor on the phone, “is that you aren’t doing the things that make it grow into more money.”

I granted this. “But I do make the effort. I give my money plenty of food, fresh water, let it winter over in the greenbackhouse … ”

“The problem is your investments. Have you figured out any that give you a better return than Mallo Cup redemption points? If I know you, probably not, because you keep losing the Mallo Cup cards after licking the mallow off them.”

This did sound like someone who knew me. “What should I be investing in, then?”

Continue reading “Investment Advice As I Got It”

Uncertain Investments


I’ve been trying for a while to do that thing where your money turns into piles of bigger money, without using counterfeiting, so I have to look at investments where someone else does the counterfeiting for me. But I’m skeptical about this new one e-mailed me. The prospectus says they’re going to make self-hopping socks, so that you don’t have to go about manually making your socks fly up off the floor anymore, thereby freeing up large parts of the day for other chores, such as towel-waving. Besides the automatic socks they figure to sell conversion kits so people can adapt their earlier footwear to the new standards. They estimate growth over the first three years at “eleventy kerspillion percent” and are listed on the Camden, New Jersey, Stock Exchange, under “bouillon (soup)”. And yet I don’t know; something about it feels too good to be true. Still, it’s only a couple bucks to get started, or I can trade them a pair of worn-out sandals or some packets of Arby’s horsey sauce. I like that sense of scrappiness in a startup.

But Inside Pfizer …


Now I’ve got to wondering: how do the employees inside Pfizer e-mail their co-workers in the division that makes Viagra? Maybe it’s one of those things where they substitute a code word, like “Nigerian Prince” or “green card” or something at least until the IT department finds out about it. Or maybe it’s one of those self-correcting problems since as I understand it nobody uses e-mail anymore except people being pompous and students making incompetent pleas for higher grades (“Hey, Proffy, if you don’t count the thirteen classes I missed I had perfect attendance and it’d really help my GPA if I got at least a B+ in the course so can you bump me up from that D a little thanks!”), and people in the modern fast-paced economy of today just instant message or text or, if need be, stop in to see someone and make grunting noises while holding a rock in a threatening manner.

I guess I also wonder how those people who do high finance stuff e-mail partners about deals where they could make a huge profit without having to do much, but they probably have gold-plated e-mail programs or something like that which are smarter than ours.