Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Munger Games

Everywhere I look these days I see vanity projects — from billionaires propelling themselves into almost-space to local businesswomen producing 13-episode podcasts — but the story of Warren Buffet’s partner designing a dorm for the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) takes the proverbial vanity cake.

According to the Santa Barbara Independent, the 97-year-old “billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect” Charles Munger donated $200 million towards a new student dormitory at UCSB “with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly.”

Munger’s design, which I presume he sketched out on the back of a Berkshire Hathaway quarterly report, calls for:

 …an 11-story, 1.68-million-square-foot structure that would house up to 4,500 students, 94 percent of whom would not have windows in their small, single-occupancy bedrooms.

The rooms measure 10 X 7 feet. Grandpa Munger thinks that if students are forced to live in bat caves (like he was, back in his day) they’ll be motivated to leave their rooms and socialize with each other in the larger common areas.

Munger Hall floor plan

Dennis McFadden, an actual architect, quit his post on USCB’s Design Review Committee over the building which he called “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”

In his letter of resignation, McFadden compared Munger Hall to another residence housing 4,000 students, Bancroft Hall at the US Naval Academy, which is “composed of multiple wings wrapped around numerous courtyards with over 25 entrances.”

Munger Hall, on the other hand, “is a single block housing 4,500 students with two entrances.”

The architect charged with bringing “Charlie’s Vision” (as the University is calling it) to life defended the design, saying rooms without actual windows will have “virtual windows” with “a fully programmed circadian rhythm control system to substantially reflect the lighting levels and color temperature of natural daylight.” It’s an idea Munger stole from Disney’s cruise ships except, apparently, his “are better.”

Munger Hall dorm room rendering

Rendering of Munger Hall dorm room with “virtual” window.

As for fresh air — generally believed to be vital to human health and well-being — it “will be vented into all rooms at twice the rate mandated by existing building codes and will be off-gassed directly to the atmosphere without any transfer to other rooms in the dorm.”

UCSB, facing a housing crisis, seems determined to press ahead with the project which Munger predicts will not only be “an extreme success,” but will inspire more buildings like it. Which it probably will, if Munger keeps funding them. It turns out this isn’t his first windowless student dorm — he donated $110 million to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, for the Munger Graduate Residences, which he also designed.

Luiza Macedo, a graduate student forced to self-isolate in Munger’s Michigan dorm during a COVID scare told CNN she didn’t see the sun for an entire week:

That was probably the low point of my experience here. It was being stuck in my room. A lot of people are incredulous that this was even a thing before all these articles came out about UCSB…like, how is this legal? How are they doing this to us?

I looked up the reviews on the university website and Munger’s Michigan residence had an overall score of 8.8/10 based on 117 reviews, but I noticed that even the positive reviews — which generally focused on the building’s newness, central location and facilities — often added a rather wistful, “If only all the rooms had windows…”

Although a disturbing number said, “You get used to not having windows.”

 

META

META Materials logo

META Materials logo

When I heard Facebook had changed its name to “Meta,” my first, Nova Scotia-centric response was to wonder if people would confuse it with Metamaterials, the Dartmouth-based company that recently adopted “META” as its own moniker.

And it looks like people did.

As Mike Murphy reported in MarketWatch on October 28:

Facebook Inc.’s corporate name change to Meta landed with a thud for many Thursday, but it looks to have been good news for one Canadian company.

Meta Materials Inc., a Nova Scotia–based material-science company that makes nanocomposites and other advanced engineering materials, saw its U.S.-traded shares soar more than 30% in after-hours trading Thursday, before settling down to an 18% gain in the extended session. That followed a nearly 5% gain in the regular session, after Facebook announced its name change.

Meta logo

Meta (né Facebook) logo

This despite an obvious difference in ticker symbols — Meta né Facebook (Murphy’s term) trades on the Nasdaq as MVRS, META as MMAT.

The same sort of confusion apparently occurred last year with Zoom Video Communications, which trades on the Nasdaq as ZM, and Beijing-based Zoom Technologies, which traded on over-the-counter markets as ZOOM. People trying to buy ZM, the company behind the ubiquitous videoconferencing app, were accidentally buying Zoom Technologies — sending the stock up over 1,800% to a peak of US$20.90 in March 2020. Trading of ZOOM shares was suspended and the company was forced to change its ticker symbol to ZTNO.

What’s interesting about Murphy’s article on the META/Meta confusion is that he immediately raises the possibility that it’s more “meme play,” a reference to META Materials’ entry onto the Nasdaq by way of a reverse takeover of a “meme” stock, Torchlight Energy. (You can read all about it here.)

Following Facebook’s announcement, META Materials CEO George Palikaras tweeted:

This was interpreted by Twitter as, variously,  Palikaras suggesting Meta (FB) was violating his trademark, Palikaras hinting he has partnered with Meta (FB), Palikaras hinting his company is about to be acquired by Meta (FB) or Palikaras “misleading investors.”

I will let you draw your own conclusions.

 

Meta

On the other hand, being confused with or linked to Meta (FB) might not be such a great thing, given that much of the reaction to Facebook’s name change was of this variety:

If you’re interested in a deeper discussion of the motivations behind the name change, I recommend this episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast in which host Paris Marx (originally from Newfoundland) talks to author Brian Merchant.

The discussion takes as a starting point this article Merchant wrote for VICE, in which he suggests that if the metaverse is indeed “coming,” as a “widening swath of Silicon Valley’s investor class, cheerleading pundits, and influential founders” would have it, it’s worth considering its actual source:

…a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises. 

Listening, I remembered I’d actually read Snow Crash (highly out of character for me, I’m not a sci-fi fan), but I’d forgotten details like this:

The hero of Snow Crash is named Hiro, and he is a gig worker delivery driver who moonlights as a hacker, and lives in abject poverty in a 20×30 storage unit he shares with an alcoholic roommate. “Hiro spends a lot of time in the metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.”

I think I forgot these details because they wouldn’t have hit me as hard 20 years ago as they do now. (Snow Crash was actually published in 1992, but I didn’t read it until the early 2000s.)

Now, although its depiction of the future is, as Merchant says, cartoonishly dark, there does seem to be something prescient about Stephenson’s novel. I highly recommend this discussion.

 

Betting on Annette

Bet on Me, podcast, Annette VerschurenSpeaking of vanity projects (I was earlier), it’s time to recap Episode 3 of Annette Verschuren’s Bet On Annette podcast, “Fish Guts to Gold: Creating a Sustainable future through bioengineering with Dr. Beth Mason.”

(“Better living through chemistry!”)

Mason heads the Verschuren Centre, so this interview gives you just a hint of what it might have been like if Andrew Carnegie had interviewed the head of Carnegie Hall, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The two met when Mason was working for Saputo and Verschuren was on Saputo’s board. (Fun fact: Saputo, Canada’s largest cheesemaker, bought — in 2014 — and closed — in 2016 — the Scotsburn plant in Sydney, throwing 100 people out of work.)

I tried to get to the bottom of the Verschuren Centre’s business model back in April, just after it had received its latest injection of public money. As best I can figure, it uses public money to help private companies commercialize their products in the hope these companies will then establish manufacturing facilities in Cape Breton. (And as I write that, I realize why the Centre is so dependent on government money — imagine going to a bank with that pitch.)

Mason gave two examples of green tech projects the Verschuren Centre is currently incubating. One is extracting peptides from fish guts and injecting them into processed food to create food that “is actually a wellness vehicle” instead of food that wreaks havoc with our gut flora.

The other is attempting to create a flavoring that will make fake burgers taste more like meat.

I can hear Michael Milburn beating his fist against his forehead from here: food IS a wellness vehicle, if you eat the right food, but that doesn’t include fake burgers (which are highly processed) or white bread injected with peptides. If you want to reduce your meat consumption and eat more healthily, you should probably just increase your consumption of fruit and legumes and vegetables.

But where’s the venture capital funding for that?

 

Mason frames what she does as making use of waste products — but “waste” just seems to be a word for anything, from fish guts to university research, that hasn’t been exploited for profit. That’s the approach to the world that has gotten us into this pickle and I am at a loss to see how it’s going to get us out.

The podcast ends with what I am beginning to realize may be the regular Goofy Gophers-like exchange of compliments:

Verschuren: Thank you for the contribution you’re making to Cape Breton, to Nova Scotia, to Canada and to the world. You are special.

Mason: Thank you, because you’re our inspiration.

On the bright side, Verschuren doesn’t design college dorms.