2015 in Review

It’s fun to reflect on the year. Here’s what I wrote at the end of 2014.

2015 was marked by two major events: Leaving Rochester in January to move to Germany; and then leaving Philly in October to move to San Francisco.

I studied abroad in Germany from January until May. Home base was Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Württemberg. Freiburg is close to Frankfurt and Stuttgart on the German side; Basel, Bern, and Zurich on the Swiss side; as well as Colmar and Strasbourg on the French side. It’s a fantastic place. You can find pictures of Freiburg and other areas I visited on my Instagram.

Here are some scattered thoughts on that experience: The Black Forest and the Swiss Alps make for vivid drives. I still can’t bring myself to love German food.  It was amazing to be able to go to the opera nearly every week; I saw plenty of Verdi, was glad to be introduced Strauss, and didn’t find it hard to sit through two whole Wagner performances (Tristan and Götterdämmerung). Study abroad is an expensive way to live overseas, but it’s probably your best excuse for it. Freiburg is a nice place to spend a few months, but when I move to Germany again I’d like to live in Berlin. Berlin is vibrant, cheap, and interesting.

I returned home to Philly in May, just in time for graduation. I like to say that I dropped out twice: once when I went to work for Shopify for a year; the second when I left for Germany. It is a massive relief to have earned a college diploma; sometimes I still marvel that I managed to finish it at all. This was a terrific time to get out, by the way: Tuition has been getting higher and campus politics have been getting weirder.

I spent the summer looking for something new to do. I wasn’t sure what: I’ve worked previously in an art museum, at a tech company, at a telecom, and as an investigative reporter. I wanted to continue doing different things. Something that Susan Sontag said has always resonated: “What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.” I felt a terrible urge to move to New Zealand, because as a young Canadian it’s quite easy to obtain an open-ended work visa there. Here’s a romantic idea: Perhaps I would work for a few months in an orchard before finding surer footing as a writer.

I never had the courage to pack my bags and move. Instead I took another opportunity. First Round Capital introduced me to Ryan Petersen of Flexport. I signed on to write about global trade and logistics. I’ll link to some of these articles at the end of this post.

So I moved to northern Oakland, at the southern edge of Berkeley, in October. It was more or less random for me to have moved to the East Bay—housing was hard to find, and I basically took the first opening I found.

The Bay Area is mostly pretty great. There are some very nice drives outside the city; the weather is never humid, always hoodie-friendly; and I find it possible to get meetings with people I’d previously never hoped to encounter. On the other hand, I think this area to be overhyped in so many ways. Perhaps more in a later post.

A few notes on this blog:

Last year I wrote five big pieces, from topics like how hedge funds work, the causes for Peter Thiel’s pessimism, and American nuclear strategy in the ‘50s/’60s.

I enjoy every one of these essays, and writing all of them forced me to understand topics I wanted to know more about. That said, all of them were far too research-intensive.  I abandoned that approach in favor of shorter essays instead.

My favorites this year have been the following:

I’m glad that some of these were widely shared. Soylent got unexpected pickup, eventually getting featured on the sites of the BBC and the FT. My data analysis ended up on the site of the Washington Post, twice. Noah Smith was very nice to link to my piece on civil asset forfeiture for Bloomberg. And I’m very flattered that my favorite blogger picked up a few of these pieces.

Alas I don’t see that I’ll have much more time to post many more essays here. I focus most of my time now on writing about trade and logistics for Flexport. Let me take the chance then, to showcase my favorite posts published so far this year:

In a delightful twist, my piece on bananas was tweeted by Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. This was so unexpected; in a follow-up he wrote: “thanks Dan. Fascinating journalism.” In addition, just as unexpectedly, I was syndicated to a digital magazine for the IEEE. If you told me a few months ago that…

Books

Overall this was not a fantastic reading year, due more to a lack of time than anything else.

I started and didn’t finish Judt’s Postwar. I just got started reading Girard when logistics took over my life. I bought both Buddenbrooks and The Golden Bowl but never got to them. I’m so eager to do more Proust, Bleak House, Ferrante and Knausgaard, The German War, more Neal Stephenson, and the biographies Genghis Khan and Napoleon.

Here’s what I did enjoy reading this year:

Perhaps the single best thing I read this year was Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on the couple that adopted 22 children. It’s such a moving piece. George Packer on Merkel is also really good. And I loved Peter Hessler on the Chinese lingerie entrepreneurs in Egypt.

Wrapping up

I’m glad to have finally done some travel in Europe. And I’m also pleased to be here in the Bay Area.

Please reach out if anything here was interesting to you. I love correspondence, and I’ll grab coffee with anyone. I travel around the country occasionally for conferences, and will usually tweet out if I have free time.

Finally, please consider subscribing to my latest posts here: danwang.co/subscribe. I won’t publish often, but you’ll be updated immediately when I do. And I’m pretty active on Twitter, too.

Continue reading

Casual Carpool in Oakland and Berkeley

I’ve been living in north Oakland/south Berkeley for two months. This is a post about one of my favorite institutions: casual carpool.

Every morning I walk 15 minutes from my house to a spot in Rockridge, Oakland. There I’d find a line of cars waiting to pick up passengers. I’d get into a car and be driven across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, where I’d be dropped off two blocks away from my office in the Financial District. All of this is free.

The system is called “casual carpool.” It’s not app-enabled or have much to do with the internet. Instead it emerged since the ‘60s or ‘70s as a way for East Bay’ers to get into the city. It’s an excellent trade: Passengers get a free ride into the city. Drivers can use the carpool lane, saving on average 20 minutes and $4 on their morning commutes.

It works simply. A small sign is all there is to designate a pickup spot. There are about two dozen such spots in the East Bay, concentrating around East Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. The designated drop-off spot is the first exit off the Bay Bridge; it just so happens that my office is close by.

Casual carpool is structured to be maximally easy for everyone. For passengers, these spots are close to parking spaces or within walking distance of public transportation. The spot I go to is right before a highway entrance, to make it especially compelling for drivers to take passengers: If you see people lining up to save you time on your commute, why not pick them up?

The experience is shrouded in some etiquette. There typically isn’t a great deal of talking. It’s up to the driver to initiate conversation, and I’ve chatted perhaps a third of the time. It’s rude for the passenger to carry out a phone conversation over the whole ride. NPR is almost always on, loudly. You should to ask for permission to have food and coffee in the car. Drivers and passengers are supposed to match on the basis first-come-first-served; a driver should not look for the most attractive woman in the line and ask her to get in.

I find especially interesting the driver rhetoric towards accepting money. Occasionally someone will ask for a dollar, but more often I’ve had drivers insist to me that they won’t take payment. They say they do it “to be nice” and to be environmentally friendly. Of course we acknowledge that everyone saves time: When we drive past unmoving lines that are 50-cars deep, we wonder why more drivers don’t pick people up.

Two stories: I was once picked up by a person who turned out to be a federal judge of the United States; he sits on the court of the Northern District of California, and has been driving people from Berkeley for the last twenty-five years. He reported that exactly two of those experiences have been unpleasant. My favorite ride was when I rode across the Bay Bridge in a Fiat convertible, top down in the summer sun. It’s gorgeous to watch the sun rise over the city; sometimes you can see ships across the bay.

Alas casual carpool doesn’t work so well in the evening. There isn’t a centralized drop-off spot and there’s a much greater range of people’s after-work commute times. I take BART home.

I don’t know if casual carpool works like this anywhere else. For all the talk of Berkeley/Oakland friendliness, I think this has been so sticky because it’s a third-best response to the housing shortage of the city, the size of the population across the bay, and the constraint of the lone Bay Bridge as the only way to get into the city.

Casual carpool is so marvelous that I don’t particularly want to move into the city. I enjoy my morning commute; how many other people can say that?

Addendum, 12.13: As Samuel Hammond said in a tweet—isn’t this the original sharing economy?

Continue reading

How universities make raise fees with mandatory meal plans

Yesterday I saw a tweet that read: “Sometimes college only feels like a fraudulent money grab. Other times it appears to actually be that.” It links to this New York Times piece on how colleges bundle extra charges in mandatory meal plans.

I was sympathetic as I read the article. After all, I had to go through the same thing: For my first two years at the University of Rochester, I was forced to buy the most expensive or second most expensive meal plan the school offered, as was every other freshman/sophomore.

Then I got to the end of the article. The mandatory meal plan for the school being profiled, the University of Tennessee, cost $1899 a semester. Let’s round that up by $2 and call it $3800 a year. I looked up what that cheapest mandatory meal plan is at Rochester, and found that it’s… $5530 a year. (See section: “requirements by dining hall.” The freshman residence halls must buy the “Blue Unlimited Plan,” which costs $2765 a semester.) That means that freshmen and sophomores are mandated to pay ~$700 a month for food over the eight months in every school year.

Then I went to check what the mandatory freshman meal plan cost in 2010, the year I enrolled at Rochester. It was $4590. That’s a 3.8% rate of growth, or about twice the rate of inflation.

I went back five years again. In 2005-06, Rochester charged $4128 a year for the cheapest mandatory freshman meal plan. That’s a 3% rate of growth from 10 years ago to the present.

(As a side note, consider that tuition in 2005 was $30,540. It was $47,450 in 2015. That’s about a 50% increase over 10 years, or an annualized growth rate of 4.5%. That far outpaces inflation.)

The charges don’t entirely go to improving the quality or selection of food. Here’s a key paragraph from the Times article: “Yet the particulars of the contracts reveal that much of the meal plan cost does not go for an individual’s food. Colleges use the money to shore up their balance sheets, create academic programs and scholarships, fund special “training tables” to feed athletes, and pay for meals for prospective students touring campus.”

I haven’t looked at the cost of meal plans at other schools. They should be roughly comparable, but I’d always heard that Rochester was slightly pricier than average. Making a program expensive isn’t scandalous; making it expensive while mandatory is.

This wasn’t the most hard-to-swallow expense charged by Rochester. There’s something that caused me even greater shock when I was there.

If you want to graduate from Rochester early, say by a semester, you have to pay the school. I had been overloading an extra class every semester in the expectation that I’d be able graduate earlier. After all, I would complete all curricular requirements, right? But the school doesn’t look at it that way. If you’d like to get out of an expensive program, you’d have to pay for the privilege. Here’s how Rochester puts it: “Credits in excess of 16 per semester used for the purpose of accelerated graduation or completion of graduation requirements must be paid for at the tuition rate in effect at the time the credits were taken.”

This was something I never understood in my years in school, and no one in administration could justify it to me. When I ask academic counselors about it, they would shrug and give an embarrassed smile. I still don’t know how the person who came up with this program would explain it to students and parents.

The food wasn’t by any means amazing at Rochester, by the way. The dining facilities did always get nicer though.

(All records were accessed with the Wayback Machine on the University of Rochester’s website.)

Continue reading

Two types of writing

I believe that there are two types of attitudes when it comes to writing. You can have an English major’s mindset or a philosophy major’s mindset.

English majors write creatively. They create atmosphere, weave in intricate metaphors, and like to talk about the “craftsmanship” involved in writing an essay. It’s the approach behind poetry and short stories.

Philosophy majors write plainly. They clearly state premises and make obvious how conclusions follow from them. They share the mindset of journalists, who are told to avoid burying the lede.

I won’t deny that I favor the approach of the philosophy major (it is, after all, how I was trained). The tendency of the English major is to add complexity, while the philosophy major is taught to shear it down. I find too often that the English major’s approach makes the writing about the writer, not the argument. Instead of writing to convince, the piece becomes a vehicle to showcase the writer’s cleverness, and often in a way that feels self-indulgent. Personally I try to limit cleverness to the level of individual sentences. That means for example putting in a good turn of phrase or being humorous in an understated way.

The very best writing mixes both approaches. Even then I venture to say that it’s not a 50-50 mix; I suspect still that the philosophy approach dominates. A feature in the New Yorker might have a few bold structural gambits, but every sentence is kept simple and flows to the next.

Most people think that best place to learn to write is in an English class. I think it’s better to take a philosophy class. If you have a commitment to improve as a writer, don’t reach immediately for Murakami or Nabokov. Look for a good reporter or philosophy blog instead.

Sonderweg

I had intended to read Peter Watson’s The German Genius before I left for Germany. Instead I got to it only now, after I’ve returned. Here anyway are some thoughts.

The book is an intellectual history of Germany. Watson largely ignores political intrigue, bringing out instead the ideas of philosophers, musicians, scientists, historians, and industrialists. It’s to make a simple point: There’s a lot more to the country than the 12 years between 1933 and 1945. He regrets that the Third Reich so dominates popular imagination of Germany, and this 850-page book is his corrective.

To prove the point he makes to overwhelm with the sheer number of important German thinkers. It’s not just Kant and Goethe and Beethoven and Hegel and Freud and Wagner and Schiller and Nietzsche and Einstein and Marx and on and on. Take a look at these chapter titles: Physics Becomes King: Helmholtz, Clausius, Boltzmann, Reimann; Sensibility and Sensuality in Vienna; Munich/Schwabing: Germany’s “Montmartre”; Masters of Metal: Krupp, Diesel, Rathenau.

The approach is sometimes frustrating. Watson typically serves up a brief bio and an explication of a thinker’s main ideas. Most people receive a few paragraphs before they’re dismissed. So just when you think: “Hmm, tell me more,” Watson has already moved on to the next person. I found his treatment of quite a few people to be unsatisfactory. He skips over the fascinating details of Albert Hirschman’s work during the war, noting only that Hirschman was assistant to Varian Fry; on the intellectual side, he brings out Hirschman’s scholarship on development economics, but says nothing of his work on political science. What interesting details has he rushed over in the lives of other people? If you pick up this book, just be aware that he’s trying to be encyclopedic, and that breadth here is the point.

Watson is British, but some of his sentences feel very… German. Take this: “Gödel imagined (or rather, worked out mathematically) that if the universe were rotating, as he calculated it was (this was now called a “Gödel universe”), then space-time could become so greatly warped or curved by the distribution of matter that were a spaceship to travel through it at a certain minimum speed (which he calculated), time travel would be possible.” Then he moves on.

Consider another excerpt. This gives a better sense of what Watson is trying to do: “The pithiest way to show how German refugees affected American life is to give a list of those whose intellectual contribution was such as to render their names, if not household words, then at least eminent among their peers: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Arnheim, Erich Auerbach, Paul Baran, Hans Bethe, Bruno Bettelheim, Arnold Brecht, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Breuer, Hermann Broch, Charlotte and Karl Bühler, Rudolf Carnap, Lewis Coser, Karl Deutsch, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Döblin, Peter Drucker, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Hanns Eisler, Erik Erikson, Otto Fenichel, Ernst Fraenkel, Erich Fromm, Hans Gerth, Felix Gilbert, Kurt Gödel, Gottfried von Haberler, Eduard Heimann, Ernst Herzfled, Julius Hirsch, Albert Hirschman, Hajo Holborn, Max Horkeimer, Karen Horney, Werner Jaeger, Marie Jahoda, George Katona, Walter Kaufmann, Otto Kirchheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Erich Korngold, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Krenek, Ernst Kris, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Fritz Lang, Paul Lazarsfeld, Kurt Lewin, Peter Lorre, Leo Lowenthal, Ernst Lubitsch, Heinrich Mann, Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Mayr, Ludwig von Mises…” That’s not even all of “M,” and yes it goes to “Z.”

Now I don’t want to give the impression that this book is merely a bio mashup of important Germans. Watson takes all this material to argue that there is something of a German character after all. He brings up the term Sonderweg, which means “special path,” a German equivalent of “American Exceptionalism.” As I understand it, Sonderweg usually refers to Germany’s particular political development, but Watson relates it instead to the profundity of German culture.

So here’s what makes German thinkers German. Watson shows that Germans have always prized inwardness, or Innerlichkeit. It manifests for example as Kant’s ideas on the inwardly-looking structures of the mind; consider also the symphony, which is (usually) wordless and beyond words. Watson shows the historical roots of the concept of Bildung, which refers to self-cultivation and the desire to “enlarge” ourselves and those around us. Both are German tendencies which have been explicitly named and praised as virtues over many centuries.

Watson also cites other features that help explain the idea of a German character. He shows that German development has been affected by a relatively large educated middle class. And he brings out historical arguments that Germans are apathetic towards politics and tend towards a nationalist cultural pessimism. (He also shows how modern Germans no longer hold these ideas.) Finally, he considers whether the Nazi regime was a necessary development given these tendencies; read the book, I won’t try to discuss that idea here.

Last thing on Watson’s arguments before I present a few scattered thoughts. In the conclusion he writes: “Kant, Humboldt, Marx, Clausius, Mendel, Nietzsche, Planck, Freud, Einstein, Weber, Hitler—for good or ill, can any other national boast a collection of eleven (or even more) individuals who compare with these figures in regard to the enduring influence they have had on modern ways of thought?” Maybe, right? Britain is a candidate. Hume preceded Kant, Smith preceded Marx, Newton preceded Clausius, Planck, and Einstein, Darwin preceded Mendel, Locke and Mill preceded Nietzsche. It’s not just a question of chronology; the British thinkers came up with the fundamental ideas that the German thinkers built on.

Here are a few more short thoughts:

  • Three data points that support the idea for a large educated middle class: In the early 19th century, Germany had 300 universities to Britain’s 4. In 1900, it had 4221 newspapers to France’s 3000 and Russia’s 125. And before 1933, Germany had more Nobel Prizes than American and British scientists put together.
  • Reading ideas from certain German thinkers made me think of China. In both cultures there’s an emphasis on reading and education, and perhaps a philosophical cultivation among the upper class. But there’s also less happy stuff. Racial identities featured prominently in both cultures; people are or have been a bit too eager to believe that their race makes them especially inventive or philosophical. Prominent writers from both countries have offered arguments that their people are particularly allergic to liberal values, and that authoritarianism best suits their country. These ideas are now so out of the mainstream in Germany, but it’s disturbing how easily you can come across them in China now.
  • Watson wants us to think beyond Nazis, but I thought that the book’s strongest section was the part about the damage that Nazis caused. It’s the section that engages most actively with history, presenting how the political situation thoroughly profaned the intellectual culture. (One example: A few prominent scientists, including some who won the Nobel Prize, were actively encouraged to leave the country.) My favorite chapter was the one on German refugees in America. It discusses how they mostly failed to assimilate to American culture and how many returned to Europe (with most settling in Switzerland) when they got the chance.
  • Here’s a paragraph I found intriguing: “Dewey’s first point was that history has shown that to think in abstract terms is dangerous. It elevates ideas beyond the situations in which they were born and charges them with we know not what menace for the future. He observed the British philosophy, from Francis Bacon to John Stuart Mill, had been cultivated by men of affairs rather than professors, as had happened in Germany (Kant, Fichte, Hegel)… In particular, he thought that Germany—and its well-trained bureaucracy—had ‘ready-made channels through which philosophic ideas may flow on their way to practical affairs,’ and that Germany differed from the United States and Britain in that this channel was the universities rather than the newspapers.”

Watson collected a few dozen short quotes about Germany and German culture at the beginning of the book. Here are my favorites:

German problems are rarely German problems alone. – Ralf Dahrendorf

The word “genius” in German has a special overtone, even a tinge of the demonic, a mysterious power and energy; a genius—whether artist or scientist—is considered to have a special vulnerability, a precariousness, a life of constant risk and often close to troubled turmoil. – Fritz Stern

The Germans dive deeper—but they come up muddier. – Wickham Steed

The Allies won [the Second World War] because our German scientists were better than their German scientists. – Sir Ian Jacobs, military secretary to Winston Churchill

Schneehügel mit Raben

(Above, Caspar David Friedrich’s Schneehügel mit Raben, Snow Hill with Ravens. Watson remarks that Friedrich rarely depicts direct sunlight, and instead paints scenes of dusk, dawn, or fog… via Wikimedia Commons.)

Continue reading

Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

Popular Mechanics has been making predictions of technological innovations since it first started publishing in 1903. Greg Benford, a science fiction author, has collated some of them in a short book called The Wonderful Future that Never Was. They’re predictions on the future of cities, of transportation, of home life, and more, presented in short blurbs set with hand-drawn futurist art.

These predictions were made in magazine issues published up to 1970. It’s fun not just to see what they were and which came true. Studying them is informative for anyone curious to see how science enthusiasts talked about the future. The confident tone is as much a pleasure to read as any of the bold predictions. These types of matter-of-fact declarations are common: “scientists assure us that startling breakthroughs are only a decade away…” or “these remarkable advances are expected to come to the home in a short matter of time.”

I’ll share a some of these predictions, followed by a few general observations in the next section.

Predictions

My favorite entry is a 1951 prediction of personal helicopters, accompanied with an illustration of a man pushing one into a garage: “This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. it has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.” It’s not so much that I want a helicopter. Instead I love that the promise of ease is made with such earnestness.

There are lots of entries here on efforts to prolong life, for example with radiation, heavy water, and artificial organs. Scientists then talked of treating old age as a disease with a cure.

Self-driving cars, sort of, predicted in 1965: “Out on the highway, a new era is about to embark: the automated trip. GM’s proposed ‘Autoline’ is a complete speed and directional control system for vehicles, using remote-control electronic signals. Its main components are the inevitable computer, a control cable beneath the automated highway lane, and sensing devices and servo-mechanisms in automobiles that can actuate their controls. When perfected, Autoline will let drivers ‘phase’ into an automated expressway lane with their cars completely in command of the auto-line controls. Cars can thus speed along, virtually bumper to bumper, at 50 mph.”

Here’s a quote from a 1950 entry: “It’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, Dr. Irving Langmuir. ‘There is no fundamental reason,’ says Doctor Langmuir, ‘why we could not travel at the speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.’” Isn’t that the Hyperloop?

Frozen meals (1947) were one of many attempts to industrialize food, but it’s about the only one to be broadly commercialized. In 1926, scientists talked of making food from coal and extracting fats from petroleum. Chemists made a serious effort in 1940 to make grass digestible, so that it can be powdered and sprinkled on bread for the vitamins. Cellulose in the form of sawdust flour was predicted in 1962 to gain wide usage, for example as cookie dough.

Reading these food predictions made me blanch. They are far too grim, even for a Soylent enthusiast such as myself. See this, from the scientist who wanted to derive butter from petroleum: “Prof. Norris declared that food supply will never become an acute problem, so long as we have chemists.” I went to look up the process of making Soylent after reading that.

An IBM computer was used to translate Russian in 1954. It could process six basic rules of grammar, had a vocabulary of 250 words, and operated by punchcards. Here are some other computer-related predictions that we’re familiar with: video calling (predicted in 1940), virtual doctor diagnosis (1957), mapless driving (1967), and “downloadable” digital reading (1938). The last item involved radio delivery of newspapers every morning to a machine at home. From that entry: “Only perfection of certain technical details stand in its way, according to radio experts.”

This isn’t exactly a technological prediction, but it’s the one I’m most glad to not be realized. 1950: “In the year 2000, any marked departure from what your fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. If old Mrs. Underwood, who was born in 1920, insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is light as a thistle-down, she must expect people to talk about her ‘queerness.’ It is astonishing how easily the great majority of us fall into step with our neighbors.” No, what’s astonishing is how smug someone can sound when they want to enforce social conformity, on the preferences of blankets no less.

I spent a long time looking at an illustration of a “city of the future.” It’s long, so I’ve put it at the bottom of the post.

Now some general observations:

At this point I should disclaim that this is a picture book, filled with whimsy and not systematic rigor. Still, a few thoughts.

  1. How many of these predictions came true? I think it’s possible to summarize these in a fairly simple way: “Most predictions made before 1950 were realized; most made afterwards were not, with the exception of anything involving communications.” It’s not just that the engineering was difficult: scientists overestimated the enthusiasm for certain products (see: petroleum fat, sawdust cookies) and many ideas probably wouldn’t survive scrutiny of today’s regulators. On the other hand, people didn’t see cellphones, the internet, or software as we know it coming. The most ambitious communications technology portrayed here is the “television phone,” an expensive, awkward precursor to Skype.
  1. Now a question: What would the world look like if just one more field resembled communications, which succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most futurists? Communications technologies are significant in themselves, but they also impact many other areas. What if another technology improved so much that it could have discernibly broad and deep effects on other fields? There are many to wonder about, pick your favorite: medicine, rocketry, transportation, and so on.
  1. Improvements in energy could have even broader effects than communications. A lot of the failed predictions would stand a chance of working out if energy were super cheap, as a lot of people in the ‘50s thought would be the case when the country fully adopted nuclear energy. So to what extent is the failure of these predictions really a failure of the nuclear dream, in which we’d get clean energy that’s too cheap to meter? “Nuclear is eating the world” brings up entirely the wrong kind of image, but still we can wonder. On the other hand if Noah Smith is to be believed, maybe the hope isn’t dead, and lies in solar instead.
  1. A related point to #2: “High-tech” now refers almost exclusively to communications technologies, and the “tech industry” has become shorthand for software businesses centered around Silicon Valley. Isn’t that linguistic evolution a concession that the other fields have stagnated? Peter Thiel has made this point, and he tells us that “technology” in the ‘30s was understood as many things, including airplanes, the movie industry, secondary oil recovery, plastics, chemicals, and more. “Tech” today doesn’t have that broad connotation, and I wonder if that implicitly puts limits on our imagination.
  1. Let’s say you want to make these big predictions come true. How do you go about it, and I mean this in a general way? Are you supposed to pursue a PhD in the sciences? Which company do you aspire to join? And what do you do if you’re non-technical but want to work anyway on developing the technological future? It doesn’t seem like there are any obvious answers, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. I’ll confess that I’m pretty removed from the world of science and engineering, but from a distance, it seems that being an academic scientist is no guarantee that you’ll get to work on world-changing projects. Are there modern equivalents of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC? Or are they just more fragmented, out of the public eye but not hard to find if you’re an insider?

Thanks to Michael Gibson (@william_blake) for recommending the book. I like how it ends: “The enormous challenge demands new approaches, fueled by visions of futures that are utopian, even if we don’t get quite all the way there. The magazines of the twentieth century show us how to dream, with constraints. Our great problems all involve new technologies. But no one can achieve anything that he or she does not first imagine.”

Continue reading

Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading

I’ve recently been reading René Girard. As an exercise I decided to try my hand at something he does so well: applying the ideas of mimetic theory to works of literature. Here’s a Girardian reading of the books and the show that have become popular.

Girard’s ideas are tricky to summarize, especially in a way that attempts to convince. Instead I’ll leave all concessions to the reader, with encouragement to check out Girard on Wikipedia or to read this introduction from Imitatio.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of mimetic issues in A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m interested instead in pointing to broad themes. Please do let me know where I’m off in my grasp of either Girard or the ASOIAF storyline. (With respect to the latter, I’ll disclaim that I’ve kept up with the show but have not read the last book.) Now let me present the idea that mimetic desire is a significant part of Martin’s world.

External mediation by Targaryens

The books begin in the reign of King Robert Baratheon. Robert’s royal ascent is a recent one. It came about only recently after he led a rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty, which until then had ruled the realm for hundreds of years.

Why did the Targaryen reign last so long? We can begin by noting that they were literally a race distinct from the rest of Westeros. The Targaryens were a slightly magical people who came from a different continent, bringing with them their own language, religions, and customs. They helpfully had control of dragons, which they used to destroy unfriendly kingdoms. Thus began their rule.

Were the Targaryens were able to keep the peace for long because they were so different from the people they ruled? In Girardian terms, the desire by great houses (Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, etc.) to seek the throne has been externally mediated. The other kingdoms weren’t sucked in to mimetic rivalry because the Targaryens were on a different plane. There was not a sustained, general rebellion against them before Robert’s. The same is not true for the great houses in various kingdoms. House Reyne, for example, attempted to depose House Lannister, and every great house has trouble keeping smaller houses in line. No great house would challenge the Targaryens, but smaller houses would gamble on rebellion.

The Targaryen power declined over the course of a century. They gave up their religion, lost their ability to play with fire, and couldn’t keep breeding dragons. Robert rebelled when the Targaryens lost not just most of their might, but also most of their distinctiveness. It wasn’t just a question of power. It had been decades since the Targaryens had dragons, and it’s not clear how without them they could have warded off the invasion of another ambitious house. That’s how Robert’s rule began.

And how long did Robert keep the peace? A meager two decades. When lords realized that Westeros could be ruled by a non-Targaryen, their envy stirred. The Iron Throne switched from being a source of external mediation into a source for internal mediation. That may be the most fundamental reason for why war broke out in multiple places as soon as Robert became weak.

The collective murder of Jon Snow

Jon Snow is at once an extreme insider and an extreme outsider. He is at once a Stark and not a Stark. He’s the commander of the Night’s Watch but out of sync with his subordinates. He’s one of the few people who joined the Watch without lordly compulsion. He’s the perfect victim, a nonviolent person in a culture ruled by violence; it was he who wanted to save wildlings instead of letting them be killed by White Walkers. In one sense he’s barely a fit member of the Watch, and in another sense he’s an extreme one.

The show sets Jon up as a Jesus figure. I want to fixate not on the question of his resurrection, but instead on the facts of his murder. Since I haven’t read the last book, I’ll rely on the interpretation presented by the show 

The situation is precarious. Winter has come, a mutiny tore the Watch apart not long ago, and wildlings have been moving south en masse, some mingling with members of the Watch. Jon’s position as commander is hardly secure; he was elected recently and with a slim margin. And what is one of his first acts? To go on an expedition to save wildlings, the traditional foes of the Watch, and bring them south of the Wall.

Mimetic contagion spreads through the Watch. Brothers are starting to show visible hatred towards Jon, without presenting arguments against his actions or suggesting alternatives. A mimetic snowballing rolls through the group. Eventually a consensus emerges that Jon must die. It’s not clear if the conspirators plan anything beyond this move, since this is mostly a way to express their rage. They determine that Jon is the cause of the crisis and also the agent for its resolution.

Jon’s murder is a collective one. It takes many stabs from many people to kill him. Everyone gets a go, and no one can be pinpointed as the murderer. In the books, the attack is led by Bowen Marsh, a fellow steward, the same class that Jon belonged to. In the show, the final stroke is left for Olly, again a fellow steward.

See the parallels to the Girardian Christ? Jon died in part because he refused to engage with the mimetic cycle. The proximate justification for his murder is that he saved wildlings rather than ordered their destruction. It’s very much a turn-the-other-cheek renunciation of violence. And it was an effective invitation for the community to turn.

Shakespearean, not Marxist conflict

Here’s a more general point. 

There are dragons and zombies in the stories, but the stories are not primarily about dragons and zombies. That’s partly why the books and the show have earned critical acclaim. They’re mostly about people fighting each other, with rich depictions of ambition, betrayal, corruption, etc. amongst humans. Dragons and zombies are at this point peripheral, and instead we’re mostly served tales of intrigue between various houses. 

Knowledge that these monsters are out there hardly seems to disturb the various lords. Instead they view them as distractions to their main enemies: hostile houses.

And so we get a fundamentally Shakespearean, and that is to say, Girardian, model of conflict instead of a Marxist one. People are obsessed with fighting others like themselves. Wars aren’t fought to defeat collective, existential threats. Instead they’re fought to avenge honor, or very rarely for political or territorial gains. It’s Montagues vs. Capulets, not the huddled masses vs. capitalists.

Winter as mimetic crisis

At the time of the first book, magic had largely disappeared for at least a few decades. Lords came to rely on a supposedly rational order of maesters, a sage class with a scientific bent. The re-emergence of magic might be taken as a sign of mimetic crisis.

Consider a specific magical event: the Long Night. It was a winter that lasted for “a generation,” descending on the continent 8000 years ago. Ice zombies called White Walkers emerged from the north, raising wights to fight the living. Finally a hero drove these monsters back, and people built up a wall to seal them off. This was an event far in the past, one barely believed by the few who’ve heard of it. 

Let’s read this as a mimetic crisis. The cold, the snow, and the darkness are brought about by mimetic tensions; the conditions resemble a plague, in which animals die and crops don’t grow. The emergence of monsters may be a metaphor for the violence brought about by mimetic contagion. What does it take to defeat these monsters? A human sacrifice of an apparently random person. Azor Ahai first attempted to stop by the crisis by sacrificing a lion. When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his wife. The reasons she had to die are never particularized. Yet she is the person chosen to resolve the crisis, and her sacrifice is divinized because it allows the hero to forge a magical sword. He duly drives the monsters back.

Let’s look at winters more generally. One of the most interesting features of Martin’s world is that seasons arrive at uneven intervals. They’re apparently not tethered to any natural events. Perhaps that’s because they’re responsive to social events? I submit it’s not a coincidence that a new winter began and magic started to re-emerge at the end of Robert’s reign. The winter, the attacks by White Walkers, and the birth of dragons may all be a sign of the precipitating mimetic crisis, in which brothers turned upon brothers and the country broke out in a war of all against all.

Other instances of mimetic desire

There are many examples of Girardian ideas at play. I’ll only gesture at them here but leave them untouched.

Can we consider the varieties of orders that swear off mimetic desires (e.g. the Night’s Watch, maesters, the faith) to be especially successful organizations? Do the unharmonious relationships between brothers (e.g. Victarion/Euron, Renly/Stannis) outnumber the unharmonious ones, and is Jaime/Tyrion’s the exception that proves the rule? Can we find passages explicitly demonstrating how the Iron Throne mediates desire? How does the Ramsay/Roose relationship resemble the Jon/Ned relationship? And what’s with Arya’s surrogate fathers?

Final thought

I haven’t digged up a direct connection between George R. R. Martin and René Girard. Martin isn’t exactly Proust or Cervantes, but I see him as modeling Girardian ideas. Does anyone else think that his world fundamentally revolves around mimetic desire? Leave examples below.