Arrant Pedantry and Shelby Foote

(February 23, 2018) Although Shelby Foote died a dozen years ago, he remains one of the most popular Civil War authors ever. Yet some modern historians and their students delight in trumpeting errors—no matter how inconsequential—that they discover in his three-volume narrative. Among the most vicious are those that attempt to discredit Foote because he was not a “trained historian” and was merely a novelist. (They say “novelist” like Mozart might have said “disco.”) But as Winston Churchill replied when told it was grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition: “That opinion is arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!”

Provided below are examples of two technical errors by Foote that don’t invalidate his fundamental points, although some critics imagine that they do.

First, Foote mistakenly writes that General John Buford’s Union cavalry division that met the initial Confederate advance on Gettysburg was armed with repeating carbines. It was instead armed with various models of breech-loading carbines that were loaded one cartridge at a time. But Foote’s point—that the Federals were armed with faster firing weapons than the approaching Rebel infantry—is valid.

Thus, Buford’s Division was more powerful than a single Confederate division from a firing rate perspective. Whereas a Spencer repeater’s firing rate was twice that of a breech-loading carbine, the breech-loader was still three times faster than the Confederate muzzle-loaders.[1]

Second, when explaining the value of speed in the design of ram warships to be used at the Naval battle in the Mississippi River near Memphis, Foote jumbles the applicable physics equations. He mistakenly writes that the force of the ram is equal to the ram’s mass multiplied by the square of its velocity. The correct equation matches the kinetic energy of the ram with its destructive power as follows:

Kinetic Energy = (½) x (mass) x (velocity)^2

Nonetheless, Foote’s basic point is correct. Doubling the mass of a ram merely doubles its destructive power. But doubling the speed of a ram quadruples its destructive power.[2]

While I have observed online discussions involving both of the above examples that included participants who portrayed themselves as  “trained historians” they failed to grasp, or concede, Foote’s significant points. Although they readily disparaged him for wrongly writing that Buford’s men had repeating carbines, they failed to admit that Buford’s breech-loaders still gave the Federal division a big man-for-man firepower advantage. Similarly, none seemed to understand why ram-velocity is a more important variable than ram-mass.

[1] Source 1; Source 2; Source 3

[2] That’s because two-squared equals four.

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Wrong Man for the West

(February 19, 2018) Two days after he replaced a passive George Randolph as the Confederate secretary of war on November 22, 1862, James Seddon took a decisive step — one that, had it played out the way he wanted, could have changed the outcome of the war. Above the two generals currently leading independent armies in the Western Theater, he placed a single commander, Joseph E. Johnston.

Confederate War Secretary James Seddon

Despite being a Virginian, Seddon was among the first in Richmond to recognize that if Gen. Robert E. Lee failed to win the war in the East, the Confederacy could lose it in the West. Eventually, that’s what happened. Lee did not win a second bid for victory at Gettysburg, but thereafter stalemated Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. Meanwhile, though, the Union’s successive victories in the West, culminating in Gen. William T. Sherman’s campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas, sealed the Confederacy’s fate. As the historian Albert Castel put it, the Confederacy “needed two Lees. It had but one.”

For a while, though, Seddon hoped that Johnston could fill that role. His selection wasn’t unanimously supported; President Jefferson Davis had misgivings about Johnston, but favored him over Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Seddon’s likely second choice.

continue reading my NY Times article here.

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Colonel Wilder’s Lightning Brigade

(February 16, 2018) Newly promoted rebel brigadier general John Hunt Morgan set out on a cavalry raid into Kentucky on Dec. 22, 1862. His objective: the railroad between Nashville and Cincinnati, the primary supply line for Gen. William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans was getting ready to move his 44,000 men against the 38,000 soldiers under Gen. Braxton Bragg, based in Murfreesboro, just 26 miles from Nashville. The Federal general didn’t have enough cavalry to simultaneously support a movement on Bragg and a hunt for Morgan’s 3,000 raiders, but he could ill afford to let supply disruptions threaten his attack plans: President Lincoln was growing impatient for results.

The same day Morgan’s troops were breaking camp, the Union colonel John T. Wilder arrived in Gallatin, Tenn. to assume command of an infantry brigade. Within days his was one of two infantry units Rosecrans dispatched to catch Morgan’s cavalry. Without horses, it was an unrealistic expectation, and Wilder was completely unsuccessful — an experience that left him seething with anger.

to read the rest of my NY Times article click here.

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Doubting The Obvious

(February 15, 2018) In 1996 I was a stockbroker helping the executives of public companies sell their stock on the open market under legal exemptions to Securities Act registration.

Only a year earlier, a trailblazing Internet company named Netscape first offered stock to the public. Twenty years before that I worked on Wall Street as a stock analyst when I learned about the computer network managed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). Termed DARPA-Net, it was actually the predecessor to the Internet. In 1996 none of the stock analysts at my firm covered Internet stocks. Therefore, I asked the research department director, Bruce*, if he would assign me as the “Internet Analyst” to cover socks like Netscape.

When I met with Bruce he said,  “You know, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Internet myself at home in the evenings. It’s pretty fascinating. But . . . what stocks would you cover? There aren’t many.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” I answered. “But take a look at this magazine.” I handed him a Red Herring. Look at all the companies that are presently private but also backed by leading venture firms.”

I gave Bruce time to thumb through Red Herring. “Yeah. I guess a lot of these companies are candidates for public offerings . . . But I want you to talk to John. Work-up a written proposal and I’ll send it to John.”*

John was Bruce’s boss. He was responsible for investment banking, stock research, and institutional stock sales. We met a few days later.

“Well, what do you think, John?”

“It’s interesting. But what stocks do you think you could cover?

Nodding as a way of signifying that he was asking a good question I said, “That seems to be changing weekly. But some ideas include Netscape, Netcom, America Online and Yahoo! . . . Did you see the Red Herring magazine that I included along with the proposal packet?”

“Yeah.” John took a breath, opened the magazine and looked it over for a few moments. “This magazine is a hell of a prospect list for investment bankers. But the companies are all privately owned.” That meant that they were not suitable for stock analyst coverage, because there was no stock owned by the public.

“True,” I answered, “but don’t you think that some of them will go public pretty quickly, considering the venture capital involvement?”

“Yeah, it sure looks that way,” said John.

“I’m especially intrigued by Amazon.com. I’ve bought books from them. I’m impressed with the broad selection, good pricing and prompt delivery.”

“I like them too,” replied John. “They could be pioneering an entirely new paradigm of retailing. They could be really big.”

In December 1996 America Online changed their Internet access pricing from metered rates to a flat monthly fee. Soon tens of millions of people were getting online. It was then obvious that the Internet was going to become a big business. I was appointed as our firm’s Internet stock analyst sometime before the summer of 1997. Amazon.com sold stock to the public in May 1997. I bought shares on the first day, although I had to pay a premium in the “aftermarket” because I was prohibited to buy stock on the original issue. Nonetheless, I sold the stock after it doubled in price.

Then I began to doubt the obvious. My firm engaged a prominent business school professor to conduct a full day seminar designed to help stock analysts pick winning companies. His chief message was that we should hunt for companies that enjoyed substantial competitive “barriers to entry.”

During one Q & A session another analyst asked, “What about a stock like Amazon.com?”

Before answering the PhD stepped away from the podium, walked in a little circle and then returned to the microphone. He answered with a rhetorical question. “What are the entry barriers in that business?”

Nobody answered.

The professor continued, “What is to prevent other, much larger, already existing terrestrial competitors from getting into their business? How will they survive once that happens?”

Again nobody answered. Finally, I said, “Online retailing is a new environment and requires a different DNA. Much like the leading vacuum tube companies such as RCA and GE got displaced by Intel and Texas Instruments after electronics components shifted from tubes to sold state devices.”

The professor nodded politely, but said nothing and there were no more pertinent questions.

But the damage was done. By the year 2000 many investors doubted Amazon’s viability. Even though Kleiner-Perkins was an early Amazon investor, Tom Perkins had turned pessimistic about the company’s future.

In contrast, Amazon presently appears to be invincible. It’s wrecking traditional retailing, instead of the other way around. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to first impressions. In retrospect, Amazon’s success seemed as certain as fleas on a yard dog. Perhaps first impressions represent—in a flash—the accumulated wisdom of our lifetimes. Conversely, doubtful second thoughts might be nothing more than rationalizations that pander to our worst fears.

An aged Mark Twain revealed a similar wisdom when he said, “During my lifetime I have suffered a great many calamities, most of which never happened.”

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*Bruce and John are pseudonyms.

Tom Perkins Finds Humility

(February 14, 2018) Forty years ago I phoned Kleiner-Perkins because I wanted to promote a fiber optics investment and/or get a venture capital job. Since I was working for a familiar Wall Street brokerage firm as a stock analyst I was able to get an appointment with Tom Perkins. For decades after I met him, his firm was generally the first stop for new promising ventures on the west coast. Examples include Airbnb, Amazon.com, Genentech, Google, Square, Sun Microsystems and many more.

Back then, most stock analysts did not visit venture capital firms because they only invested in private companies whereas analysts were supposed to opine on public companies. But a couple of years earlier I became fascinated with the potential for fiber optics. My research led me to become acquainted with a Bell Labs PhD who had perfected the semiconductor laser. He wanted to organize his own company. Since the semiconductor laser was the last invention required to transform fiber optics into a commercial reality, I was hopeful that Perkins would be interested.

But forty-five year old Perkins had no patience for my proposal. I remember little of our conversation except toward the end.

“Phil, this fiber optics thing is vague. Right now I’m backing a company that will introduce non-stop computing. We call it Tandem Computers. I can see a $50 million market right away.”

IBM dominated computing in 1977, which was mostly batch—as opposed to realtime—processing. It didn’t matter if such systems were down for a few minutes. I asked, “What computer applications need to be ‘up’ 100% of the time?”

Tom jerked both hands slightly above his desk and spat out, “Airline reservation systems is one example among many . . . Is there anything else I can do for you?”*

“Well, yeah. I want to get a venture capital job. I want to be able to invest in companies before they go public.

“You want me to hire you? Okay. Go out and found your own company and make it a multimillion dollar success and then I’ll hire you.”

I made no response but was thinking, if I make a multimillion dollar success I won’t need you.

Eventually Tom broke the silence. “Look, go out and visit some other guys. Go see Frank Caufield at Oak Grove Ventures. Also, go see Brook Byers.** He’s focused on recombinant DNA. It’s fascinating stuff. Go see Tommy Davis at Mayfield Fund. Those guys should give you a feel for how this business runs out here.”

I wrote down the names.

“Also, go by and meet the guys at Tandem Computers. They have a beer bust at five o’clock. They work hard but also have fun.”

I resented the last suggestion because I figured he just wanted me to write-up a stock research report after Tandem went public. That would help lift the stock price. But I visited all the guys anyway. I don’t remember much about the Byers visit because I had never heard of recombinant DNA. I remember that Caufield was friendlier than Perkins. Both Byers and Caufield later joined Kleiner-Perkins. My guess is that Caufield and Perkins adopted the good/cop — bad/cop routine toward applicants seeking venture funding. Tommy Davis underscored a point that all shared, “Phil,” he said, “we invest in people, not businesses.”

Thirty years later I interviewed Tom Perkins a second time. He did not remember me and I did not remind him. He had just published his Valley Boy autobiography and I interviewed him on a podcast.

“Tom, in previous interviews as well as in your book, you emphasize the value of Bill Hewlett’s mentorship.” (Hewlett was a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.)

“Yes, he was central to my success. Bill and I—”

“Yeah, well my question is not about Hewlett. It’s about another mentor you mentioned on a single page in Valley Boy. Someone that I’ve never seen mentioned in prior interviews or magazine articles about you.”

“Oh? Who’s that?”

“You wrote that a high school physics teacher named Wilson convinced you to go to MIT and helped you get accepted.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Okay. Here’s my question . . . Where would you be now if Wilson had never been a part of your life?”

Five seconds of silence ensued.

“Without Wilson I don’t know where I would be,” he answered wistfully without a trace of arrogance.

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*Perkins had the advantage on me because he had earlier been the General Manager of Hewlett-Packard’s Computer Division, which specialized in realtime minicomputers.

**I may have instead visited with someone at Sutter Hill Ventures instead of Byers. I do recall, however, that all the Valley VC’s I met at the time were abuzz about Byers and recombinant DNA.

The Most Undervalued Federal Commander

(February 13, 2018) Despite his brilliant victory at Vicksburg in July, some lingering doubts remained about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant when he took command of the besieged Union forces at Chattanooga, Tenn., on Oct. 23, 1863. Earlier, when his army was taken by surprise at Shiloh, he had amplified the misgivings of critics by denying the attack was unexpected and falsely claiming he was outnumbered two-to-one. More recently, a limp resulting from a horseback-riding accident during post-Vicksburg victory celebrations in occupied New Orleans fed persistent rumors of alcoholism.

But when Union infantry swept Confederate general Braxton Bragg’s army off Chattanooga’s battlefield on Nov. 25, 1863, they also brushed away any remaining doubts about Grant among the nation’s leaders. Newspapers immediately promoted him as a presidential candidate. After Grant convincingly denied the aspiration, President Lincoln called him east, and gave him full command of all Union armies.

to continue reading my NY Times article about General Thomas, click here.

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