Surprisingly Geometric

“For pigs, the ideal was a football shape. Cows were rectangular, and sheep tended towards oblong.” – Ron Broglio, as told to Anne Ewbank

I came across a delightful piece in the marvelous Atlas Obscura this weekend (h/t to a similarly delightful thread on this topic from @ZeenaStarbuck). Written by Anne Ewbank back in 2017, the piece is all about livestock – and livestock art – in late 18th and early 19th Century England. It’s also a charming illustration of Narrative at work.

You see, the ultimate status symbol to a gentleman farmer in the early 19th Century wasn’t a framed photo in the subject’s 54th Street office of him sitting, wearing a John Deere vest and John Deere hat, on a perfectly clean John Deere tractor that is three or four series too large for his property. It was a painting of his cow. And in a perfect world, this painting would tell the story of a very large, very rectangular, surprisingly geometric cow. An absolute unit, if I may use the expression.

The prevalence of this art form raises a question: in what proportions is fat, rectangular cow art the result of (1) 19th century cows being more muscular and more rectangular, (2) 19th century dilettante farmers instructing artists to display exaggerated muscles and geometry, and/or (3) 19th century British artists being a bit shit?

It’s hard to know for sure. But the unrealistic body image foisted on this poor sheep, made manifest in a couple body parts I’ll leave you to identify, leads me to believe that our second reason above probably bears the lion’s share of responsibility. It was mostly story-telling.

But the things that were happening to cows, sheep and other increasingly geometric animals in the real world still played an important role in the storytelling process. Incremental improvements in certain desirable (I guess?) features through selective breeding permitted ever more fantastical imaginings of just where a sheep might develop a bulging new fat deposit. Those fantasies, in turn, were used as models in the breeding and improving of yet more animals. This bears a lot of similarity to how Ben characterizes bull markets as “climbing a wall of worry.” It’s an expression which describes how investors create artificial hurdles to pretend that they are performing critical analysis, but then construct ever more ridiculous extrapolations when those largely meaningless hurdles are miraculously scaled. Yes, but have you seen their growth in pro forma adjusted EBITDA per pixel?

In other words, beware the sheep with legs too skinny to support its body weight, and beware small truths used in service of big lies.