Amazon’s American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story


Amazon has produced a dramatized version of the rise of Playboy magazine and its founder, Hugh Hefner: American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. Like everything else Amazon does, it is pretty awesome in my opinion!

Why should anyone care about this? The social issues and conditions that enabled Playboy to thrive are no longer relevant. Even if you don’t care about what might have interested men back in the early 1950s, I think the series is rewarding for its coverage of a rapidly growing startup company. Though he didn’t do it all while wearing a bathrobe (that came later?), Hefner did an amazing job of managing growth, extending the brand into television and physical clubs, and achieving his vision.

The series is interesting also for a seamless blend of documentary footage and modern dramatized footage. A lot of cameras were rolling back in the 1950s and there are also some interesting retrospective interviews from the early 1990s.

If you’re interested in a genetic basis for success, as explored in The Son Also Rises, the story is kind of interesting. Hefner was a remarkably successful person and his children, notably former Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner, turned out to be remarkably capable as well. (Young Cooper Hefner has recently taken over as Chief Creative Officer.) The practical genius behind the Playboy Clubs, Arnie Morton (later founder of Morton’s steakhouses), had a son who co-founded the Hard Rock Cafe chain and additional children and grandchildren who have been successful in the notoriously challenging restaurant business.

Students of cultural change will also be interested in the series. Footage from the 1950s shows a nation (well, at least hundreds if not thousands of Americans as the cameras panned around) of thin people. Americans who were out dining and drinking every night were as slender as today’s Hollywood actors. Lay off the Cheetos when watching…

What about economic change? Detroit and Baltimore were thought to have sufficient promise, in the 1960s, that Playboy developed Clubs in both cities. How about real estate? The company supposedly paid $2.7 million for a 37-story skyscraper, the Palmolive Building, in downtown Chicago! (Wikipedia makes it sound as though Playboy bought only “the leasehold of the building”.)

Some things haven’t changed as much as we might think. As covered in The History of Divorce, the big no-fault revolution in family law statutes happened in the 1970s. But Playboy’s first issue, December 1953 (available on, describes a system in which divorce can be easily obtained by a plaintiff (i.e., a de facto no-fault system). Pages 6-8 contain an article “Miss Gold-Digger of 1953.”:

subtitle: when a modern-day marriage ends, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. it’s always the guy who pays and pays, and pays, and pays.

[unlike in the old days when only rich defendants paid] alimony has gone democratic. .. Even the simplest wench can make a handsome living today. … The wife may be a trollop with the disconcerting habit of crawling in and out of bed with the husband’s friends. … When the judge grands the divorce, he will also grant the little missus a healthy stipend for future escapades and extravagances.

it’s important to remember that the modern gold digger comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. She’s after the wealthy playboys, but she may also be after you.

As in today’s family courts, judges 64 years ago were calculating a plaintiff’s profits according to a hypothetical theory of what a defendant might be able to earn:

a wife asked for an allotment that exceeded what her ex-husband was earning. … [The judge] ordered the man to “stop fooling around [with a commission-based sales job] and get a regular job.”

As with nearly all U.S. states (see Real World Divorce for the specifics), alimony profits varied with the judge:

there are very few actual laws regulating alimony. Most states don’t have statutes that set requirements for alimony payments. That leves each case in the hands of the presiding judge.”

The alimony deck is heavily stacked against any man in the game.

The economic incentives around divorce, custody, and child support haven’t changed…

The courts aren’t interested in whether a woman is capable of earning her own living. In fact, their decisions discourage any thoughts an ex-missus may have of returning to work. They penalize the girl who is willing to earn her own way by reducing or eliminating her alimony payments. It doesn’t take a very sharp sister to figure it’s a lot easier to stay home afternoons and play Scrabble with the girls and let the ex-hubby pay the bills.

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s narratives of women being victimized in the workplace counterbalanced against statistics showing that many women actually do work was being played out in 1953 more or less word for word:

The whole concept of alimony is a throwback to the days when grandma was a girl. A couple of generations ago, this was a man’s world, and a nice young woman without a husband had a difficult time making her own way. Nothing could be further from the truth in 1953.

In other words, the 1950s that we look back on as a period when women stayed home was perceived by at least some contemporaries as a time when women were peers in the office! (The series actually shows that Playboy depended heavily on women in creative and managerial roles, though top managers were mostly men until Christie Hefner took over.)

The series shows Hef being challenged by interviewers as a smut peddler. His mind was in the gutter while well-bred American men were occupied with loftier topics than sex. Hef’s standard reply seems to have been “I am making a magazine that covers the interests of men today and men are keenly interested in sex.”

It is pretty obvious that the Hefner family leaned on the scale during the production. At times, the magazine is portrayed as being primarily about social justice. Hef and associates were colorblind and working practically hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King, Jr. If true, why did the first black Playmate appear in the Centerfold in 1965, 12 years after the magazine’s founding? Wikipedia(!) says that the first Asian Playmate was in 1964. The bias is so obvious, however, that it doesn’t really take away from the series. You know that you’re getting the founders’ and insiders’ view of the project. It is a bit wearing to see Playboy’s quest to free Americans from the horror of having sex with the same person day after goddamn day aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quest to free Americans from race-based discrimination. And sometimes it is misleading. For example, the series implies that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan had something to do with a reaction against the civil rights movement.

Politics and government control the company’s fortunes to a large extent. Playboy has to pay a $100,000 bribe to New York officials to get a liquor license, without which its $7+ million investment in a Manhattan club would have become worthless. The magazine is nearly shut down by local officials in Chicago and Hefner is tried on obscenity charges. He doesn’t exactly beat the rap; the jury was deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal.

The series proves that nobody cares about aviation. In a long segment about the company’s private jet, the type (turns out to be a DC-9) is never mentioned. It sure look as though Hef had more fun in his converted airliner than did Donald Trump!

If the series covers the decline of Playboy I haven’t gotten that far yet. I don’t think it is fair to blame Hef for the fact that Playboy had only 20-30 years of being culturally significant and commercially vibrant. The company was an expression of one person’s vision and when Hef got older it wasn’t reasonable to expect that young men would want to adopt his vision. Perhaps more significantly, Playboy set itself up in opposition to the conventional-in-1953 idea that every American adult should aspire to be part of a married couple with kids in a suburban fortress.  In the 1960s, however, the Federal government began a multi-trillion-dollar assault on this idea with a welfare system that made single motherhood a smarter economic choice at the low end of the income spectrum. By 1980, nearly every state had adopted no-fault divorce. By 1990, many states had adopted child support guidelines that made single motherhood a potentially smarter economic choice at the high end of the income spectrum (e.g., because a brief sexual encounter with a high-income partner was more lucrative than a long-term marriage with a middle-income partner). Once the government opened its treasury and courthouses for the purpose of destroying traditional ideas of family, how would it have been possible for any private individual to have a significant ongoing impact?

Another way to measure Hef’s success as a thinker is to consider that Friedrich Nietzsche‘s views on religion shocked contemporaries, but only a few decades later they made people shrug. Hefner’s ideas remained fresh for about as long as Nietzsche’s. That’s not a bad run for anyone.

One interesting question is why there isn’t a successor to Playboy. Perhaps today’s young men wouldn’t be interested in the same things that Hef found interesting circa 1953, but why isn’t there a mass-market magazine catering to men in general? Aren’t we kind of back to where things were in the early 1950s, with Esquire and a bunch of hunting, fishing, and sports magazines? Playboy peaked at roughly 7 million issues sold in 1972. These circulation figures show that no men’s magazine today comes close to that, despite more than 50% growth in U.S. population. Is today’s population more fragmented? More androgynous? More static so that there is no point in learning about changes in the social environment?


Watching Comcast cable TV on a set that is in a different room?


Our Harvard Square apartment has quality Comcast Internet and TV service in a bundle (I convinced myself this was cheaper than Internet alone). The cable box sits on a shelf partly because the actual cable comes into the office, not the living room or bedroom where there are Samsung TVs (used as digital picture frames and computer displays; they are hooked up to Ethernet).

Right now we have a professor from Germany staying there. He was unhappy about the lack of TV service.

  • me: What do you want to watch?
  • him: CNN
  • me: I will send you an email message every morning reading “Donald Trump is a rich, white, guy and the people who didn’t vote for him don’t like him.” Then you’ll have learned everything that you would have learned from watching CNN.

He still wants CNN. Is it easy to have the cable box in the office and for the TV somehow to grab the show over the CAT5 wire? Or do I have to call Comcast and have them drill holes through the exterior walls to bring in more coax feeds? (and then have a cable box right next to each TV)

What happened at the March for Science?


I was too busy doing a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle with a 3-year-old to join the March for Science (plus I would be afraid that someone would rat me out as a mere engineer or, far worse, flight instructor). Can readers fill me in? What happened? Who marched? What did their posters say? Were there speakers? Who were they and what did they say? Amidst the complaints about the flow of tax dollars being reduced (an “attack on science” if Americans decide to spend more of their money on other things), was there a discussion of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”?

The web site says “Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are central to the mission and principles of the March for Science. Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of races, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, religions, ages, socioeconomic and immigration statuses.”

If there are actual scientists marching, can this be true? We can agree that science is one of the least diverse fields in terms of employment, right? And the people who make hiring decisions in science are scientists? So if women and certain minority groups have been excluded from science then it has to be scientists themselves who have done the excluding? Therefore we have the phenomenon of a group of demonstrated sexists and racists marching, at least in part, to denounce sexism and racism.

Recreation for soldiers in a war zone


Here’s part of an interview with an Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter search-and-rescue pilot:

What was your favorite video game while deployed in Afghanistan?

That’s easy. We were addicted to Halo. It was amazing: We had a bunch of computers linked together, and we could play capture the flag with 16 or so people. You could hear people yelling out tactical info like “Help! Johnson is sniping us from the waterfall!” and such. So much fun.

I didn’t see that one coming!

(Separately, who has read the interviewee’s book, Shoot Like a Girl? Does the pilot of a Pave Hawk actually do any shooting in real-world operations? I would have thought that was the door gunner’s job.)


iPhone 7 Plus camera has no clothes


After an epic struggle with the U.S. government’s dreaded eAPIS system and two phone calls (the elaborate web-based system for advising the government of people leaving and entering the U.S. was layered on top of the old one, so you have to call the customs agents on the phone even after you’ve entered all of the information about an inbound flight into a web site), we managed to connect with the U.S. Customs agent at the Burlington, Vermont airport. The light was hitting our tired 12-year-old flight school Cirrus SR20 just right so it was time for a photo. Here is the same scene with the basic camera and with the fancy “telephoto” lens that is the big innovation of the iPhone 7 Plus:

Should we have a codified legal environment for investing in startup companies?


Because I am stupid and like to work hard while underperforming the S&P 500, I do a bit of angel investing, mostly for MIT spinoff companies. One of my portfolio companies just received seed funding from a partner (Fortune 500 company), which means that the earlier investors are having their debt converted to stock. There are more than 100 pages of documents for me to review and sign and mostly I don’t understand them. I’m wondering if we could boost the U.S. economy a little, and perhaps reverse some of the trend away from startups that Tyler Cowen has identified, if we codified this stuff. The situation with startup companies is nearly always the same. A few insiders want to sell convertible debt to a few outsiders. Then a bigger outsider comes in to buy stock and the early outsiders get converted. The people who put up cash have preferred shares and get paid first when the company invariably fizzles and is sold for less than the total invested. Why not create a way for people to say “I want to skip out on all of the legal fees and use a standard structure”? This would save taxpayers money as well. If things go south and there is litigation, the judge doesn’t need to read 100+ pages of custom contracts to figure out who had which rights and responsibilities.

Readers: What do you think? Would this make sense? Obviously it is already being done to some extent by law firms using templates, but each law firm has a slightly different template!

Profiles in Mediocrity


Two professors take part-time jobs as activist investors in Tejon Ranch Company, which has underperformed the S&P 500 (chart) while the top managers get fatter and happier. Then the profs write about the experience: “Frank and Steven’s Excellent Corporate-Raiding Adventure” (Atlantic).


How to lose money: go after the do-gooder market


While down in Ft. Lauderdale I saw a beautiful cruise ship departing. The word “Fathom” was emblazoned on its side. Wikipedia says that this is a “social impact travel” product, set up in 2015. The basic idea is a one-week cruise, of which three days are spent in the Dominican Republic helping young people learn English, planting trees, etc. (web page with options) The line is operated by Carnival on the Adonia and she was built in 2001 and renovated in 2016. The monster ship is configured for only 704 passengers. This kind of “smaller ship” cruising is usually on the more expensive end of the spectrum.

How much does it cost to signal one’s virtue beyond Facebook? $399 per person, according to the Fathom site. That includes Carnival-grade hotel and 24/7 food for a week, the organization of “impact activities”, entertainment during the sea days, gym and “wellness” activities, classes, and ground transportation to the activities. It would be tough to stay home and prepare meals from ingredients bought at Whole Foods for less than this!

Given the hundreds of millions of folks on Facebook who express their deep feelings of concern for the world’s less fortunate, Fathom should be raking in the dough, right? If they want to run 40 weeks per year at 80 percent occupancy they need to get 22,500 would-be do-gooders to do more than “like” or “share” on Facebook. Let’s assume a purely American market for these cruises. Hillary Clinton got 48 percent of the popular vote in the most recent election. That represents roughly 156 million people (not all 325 million Americans can vote, of course, but any Hillary voter can bring children on this trip). Let’s assume that anyone who voted for Hillary professes concern for “the vulnerable.” Fathom thus needed to attract only 1 in 7000 of these folks every year in order to prosper.

How did they do? Wikipedia says “Fathom will discontinue operations in June 2017.”

Tips for tutoring 8th grade math


The 8th grader that I have been tutoring in math has been assigned to “advanced geometry” for next year. This is apparently the highest classification available in the local high school. Her father brought me a bottle of Champagne and said that all of the credit for this was due me. Of course it would have been rude to contradict him so I gratefully accepted credit for my student’s hard work.

Now that I have demonstrated the ability to claim success in this domain it is time to share what I have learned.

Basically the American K-12 math curriculum is so dull that it takes an almost inhuman effort to stay awake and focused while solving the pointless and repetitive assigned problems. As with flying, the crew concept improves performance. One crew member (the student) solves the problems while the other crew member monitors and offers reminders to (1) slow down, (2) write everything down, (3) make the smallest change to an equation at a time (e.g., don’t add 4 to both sides and divide by -3 in one step; that’s two operations and therefore one should rewrite the equation twice). The student will be trying to escape the pain and boredom by doing multiple steps in his or her head. This leads to errors that wouldn’t be made if the steps were simpler and the result of each step written down.

A lot of these problems are basically arithmetic, despite the fact that the subject is called “math”. The school expects exact answers from a calculator, but of course it is easy to be way off by pressing the wrong key. So I worked with this 8th grader on estimating techniques so that if there were a huge discrepancy between the mental or pencil/paper estimate and the calculated result it would be noticed before handing in the work.

In a competitive and lucrative marketplace for textbooks I would have thought that a great book full of real-world examples would be out there, but apparently our local school system didn’t find one. I’m wondering if the way that we’re teaching math actually is the right way. Can that be true? Just tell students “this is an abstract subject and if you want to get a good job one day you need to do everything we assign”?


U.S. has ten times more retail space (per capita) than Germany


We are a nation of mall rats, according to “What in the World Is Causing the Retail Meltdown of 2017?” (Atlantic)

By one measure of consumerist plentitude—shopping center “gross leasable area”—the U.S. has 40 percent more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the UK, and ten times more than Germany.

Now it is clear why our Ft. Lauderdale rental condo (more than $4,000 per week) contained a $20 set of Farberware knives:

In 2016, for the first time ever, Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.

Maybe don’t buy that commercial REIT right now…

Once autonomous vehicles are cheap, safe, and plentiful, retail and logistics companies could buy up millions, seeing that cars can be stores and streets are the ultimate real estate. In fact, self-driving cars could make shopping space nearly obsolete in some areas. CVS could have hundreds of self-driving minivans stocked with merchandise roving the suburbs all day and night, ready to be summoned to somebody’s home by smartphone. A new luxury-watch brand in 2025 might not spring for an Upper East Side storefront, but maybe its autonomous showroom vehicle could circle the neighborhood, waiting to be summoned to the doorstep of a tony apartment building. Autonomous retail will create new conveniences, and traffic headaches, require new regulations and inspire new business strategies that could take even more businesses out of commercial real estate.

Readers: What do you think? For every current robocall will there be a visit to our driveway tomorrow by a robovan? The doors will open and a loudspeaker on the roof will say “Dear Homeowner: please come out and look at the solar panels you could add to your roof”?

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