The strangeness of Berlin

Berlin is one of the three cities in Europe that really made me go “wow.” It’s the one that I find hardest to characterize, but here’s an attempt.

Let’s start with the history. Berlin was hopping in the ‘20s, one of cultural capitals of the world. Soon the fanatics took over and made it the capital of the Third Reich. Next came the Allies’ bombs and the Soviet tanks. Then it was divided, and a massive wall broke it in half. That wall endured for thirty years before it was torn down. Now it’s a vibrant place of 3-and-a-half million.

You can’t go through all of that without being weird, and that’s putting it mildly. I went to Berlin before I visited London and Paris, and didn’t then appreciate that it’s so special. Now I’ve had the chance to reflect, and I think Berlin is simply far more interesting than the other two.

Walk around. Notice that Berlin has no organically-developed architecture. You won’t find the consistency of London and Paris. Everything clashes with everything else; there is not the white, neoclassical grace of Westminster, or the more striking grandness that grows along the Seine. Not every building agrees even with itself; witness the glass dome designed by Norman Foster placed on top of the Reichstag. 

After a while, you might alight on a thought. It’s an uncomfortable one, because you don’t really want to believe it, and maybe it’s because you’re just tired, so perhaps you shouldn’t entertain it at all—but you do. Berlin is sort of ugly.

There are no skyscrapers designed by brand-name architects, like in London. There’s no central, well-preserved “oldtown,” like in Strasbourg. The heart of the city isn’t dominated by a centuries-old cathedral, like in Cologne or Milan. If you want to see well-preserved cities on the eastern side of Europe, Berlin is not your best bet; go to Prague or Budapest instead. If you want to see “typical” German architecture, drive through the Black Forest, up to the Rhine valley, or through Bavaria. Berlin might be thought of as a northern Munich, with its old Baroque buildings mixed with contemporary work; only Munich is sunnier, richer, and a hundred times cleaner. To me it’s not obvious if Berlin is example of any aesthetic perfection; there’s always another city that does something better.

But I don’t take this lack of beauty to be a negative. Instead I think of it as quite marvelous.

When I reach for examples of German culture my references always go in one of two directions. It’s either the highly-polished works of Beethoven, Schiller, Brahms, or Fontane. Or it’s the really dark stuff: Berg’s gruesome opera Lulu; Kafka’s surrealist short stories; Brecht’s near-tragic Threepenny Opera; Schönberg’s atonal string quartets; Schiele’s crude, erotic paintings; Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; and on and on.

The first group feel like the product of a Munich or Cologne upbringing. The latter, with its seediness and edginess, belong to the spirit of Berlin. (Yes I know that many of the people here aren’t Germans, but their works are in German or they’re German-speaking and that’s what’s relevant.)

So what’s attractive about Berlin is precisely what’s missing in the cities that are beautiful. It’s not perfect and it cares not to be. Walking through its streets and thinking about the place is unsettling; you don’t know if something strange and unfortunate is going to happen next. That gives it an incredible vibrancy, a freedom that comes from knowing that it doesn’t have to be gorgeous or be beholden to the aesthetic past. Consider that both east and west were equally vigorous in destroying old buildings. The east even managed to demolish the Berlin Palace (Berlin Schloss), the summer residence of the Hohenzollern kings.

Berlin will surprise you. One hears all the time about how Germans are so great at planning and engineering. And then you hear of something like the construction of the new airport in Berlin, which has been so mismanaged that every year it needs to add two more years to its completion date, as well as a billion dollars more in loans. It was supposed to start operating in 2011, and completion now looks like it’s going to be 2017. The story of its construction involves huge plot twists, and at this point you can’t help but laugh at headlines like “Berlin Airport: The five biggest mistakes,” and “An endless debacle at the BER airport.”

What fun to live in a place like that, in spite of knowing that the hilarity comes from the mismanagement of your taxes. My great complaint with living in southern Germany is that it’s far too comfortable. Things are beautiful and need no change. The occasions for surprise are always structured. Where are the plot twists, the vendors selling delicious goods without a license, the spontaneity that comes when you know that neighbors don’t judge? Everything in the south is polite. Berlin is not that.

The message of Berlin is that not everything is set, that it has room for you. The latter I mean quite literally: There’s plenty of housing available. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month. It’s a small place, but a good location. Is it possible to live anywhere close to SoHo or the Ninth Arrondissement for less than seven or eight times that amount? And it’s not just housing; the food options are diverse and cheap, and you hear sometimes of the amazing nightclubs set up in abandoned warehouses.

Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever. Plan a visit before it turns into Paris.

(Here’s some color-footage of Berlin in July, 1945.) 


Space and military experiments in the sixties, and what we’ve lost

I’ve just finished Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s about Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, which paved the way for Gemini and Apollo.

Too much of it focused on the relationships between the astronauts than I liked, though I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if it went harder on the technical details. I wish that I knew enough physics and engineering to appreciate its details about propulsion. I don’t, and instead I most enjoyed reading about the environment that produced technology. (This is also how I felt when I read The Idea Factory, a book about the inventions that came out of Bell Labs.)

What’s most striking is how easy it was then to run experiments with unpredictable consequences. It’s almost unbelievable to read about everything that the American government was willing to try in order to beat the Soviets. Reciting anything like a precautionary principle to a scientist at that time would probably provoke incredulity and contempt. The sixties were a time when people won funding and permission for trying out really radical things, on a scale that’s hard to grasp today. Here are some examples of what I mean, by no means an exhaustive list of interesting projects of that time.

  1. The rockets that put the first American astronauts into orbit were modified intercontinental ballistic missiles. NASA made some tweaks to the Redstone and Atlas missiles, stuck astronauts on top of them, and shot them up. That was how Alan Shepard entered space in the first Mercury flight in 1961. Someone thought that you can send astronauts into space and bring them back to earth on missiles designed to deliver warheads, and they were right.
  2. The sound barrier was broken by an experimental rocket plane in 1947. The X-1 reached Mach 1.06 by being drop-launched from the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress. The X-planes managed to enter space, and the Air Force endeavored (unsuccessfully) to get them to be considered alternatives to NASA’s missions. Someone thought that you can break the sound barrier by launching a plane from the air rather than from the ground, and they were right.
  3. Then I learned that scramjets take this to a whole new extreme. Scramjets are drop-launched from about 50,000 feet, travel at around Mach 5 (~4,000 miles per hour), and can theoretically reach Mach 20. If I understand them correctly, scramjets don’t exactly have engines; instead they suck in a huge amount of oxygen, and “ram” that into a combustor to produce thrust. They travel fast enough that you can get from New York to London in less than an hour. Experimental flights were conducted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a patent for its design was first submitted in 1964. Alas it doesn’t look like there hasn’t been much more research and experiments with scramjets for the last few decades.
  4. Project Orion, an investigation into nuclear propulsion, was started in the late ‘50s. Physicists thought that you can travel through space by continuously blowing up atomic bombs behind a spacecraft, which would be protected from these explosions by a copper- or lead-tinted plate. This was however mostly theoretical, and no experiments were ever conducted.
  5. Speaking of nuclear explosions, perhaps the single best representative of the spirit of the times is the Starfish Prime test. James Van Allen had just told the world his discovery of a layer of radiation by the earth’s magnetic field when the military decided to detonate a thermonuclear bomb inside it. It was around 1960, when the military had begun conducting nuclear tests in high altitudes and outer space. Starfish Prime involved detonating a 1.45 megaton bomb (100 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb) in what’s now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The detonation temporarily altered the shape of the belt, destroyed a lot of satellites, and created an artificial aurora borealis that could be seen from New Zealand to Hawaii. Only later did we learn more about the belt and discover, for example, that it plays a crucial role in shielding us from solar winds. Here’s James Fleming, a science historian, on Starfish Prime: “This is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up…” and no less with a hydrogen bomb.

It wasn’t just the government and the military that conducted experiments. Ordinary people more broadly were impacted by innovations from the ‘60s. Microwave ovens were becoming commercially available, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution produced food for millions, people debated the merits of massive civil engineering projects.

The precautionary principle is now being invoked to stop people from drilling a hole in the ground to force up natural gas. Imagine learning about these innovations with the attitude of today. “Bring into our homes a machine that heats food by means of electromagnetic radiation? We need decades to study the effects of this.”  “Break the sound barrier? Why do we need to break stuff?” “Engineer new types of crops? Let’s stick with what’s natural.”

Now perhaps we shouldn’t detonate thermonuclear bombs in something we immediately discover. But it feels like we’ve lost something important. In the ‘60s, people thought about how something should work in theory, designed experiments, and ran them to to test their ideas. Their successes were the bases for new inventions, and ordinary people were able to accept them for commercial use.

With so many leaps in technology what a thrill it must have been to live in the sixties and look forward to the things to come. But something changed, and it feels like we’re no longer so eager to run experiments or accept even not-so-radical inventions. Commercial flight hasn’t gotten faster for decades. Our kitchens haven’t changed much in 50 years. The most successful commercial applications of military technology, namely GPS and the internet, both came from the ‘60s. What a pity that the moon landings in 1969 marked not a new era for human ingenuity, but a capstone for the old one.

Swiss Efficiency


“The Swiss can be divided into two general categories: those who make small, exquisite, expensive objects and those who handle the money of those who buy small, exquisite, expensive objects.” – Malcolm Gladwell

I spent last weekend in two parts of Switzerland: German-speaking Bern and French-speaking Montreux. Switzerland seems reluctant to designate a federal capital; regardless, most federal institutions are located in Bern, including the parliament, the federal council, and the central bank. Montreux is more of a resort town right on Lac Léman, better known as Lake Geneva.

It’s too easy to dwell on the beauty of Swiss cities and countrysides, or on how well the Swiss exhibit culture, or on their small quaint traditions. Instead I want to explore a different trope in this post, and share some experiences with the splendidness of seeing Swiss efficiency in action.

By efficiency, I don’t just mean the ability of the Swiss to work hard (although this is the country to overwhelmingly vote down a referendum to replace the four-week mandatory vacation policy with the more typical six-week policy). Instead I’m referring more generally to just how well everything works. When you’re dealing with services in Switzerland, everything that could be simplified is simplified. Servicepeople and public authorities have put in a tremendous amount of thought to make things work well. Here are some examples.

Trains. We have to start with this one, obviously. I needed to board five trains to get to the town I was visiting from Germany. A booking agent figured out all of the connections from the first leg of my trip. Of the four connections I had to make, three had gaps that were under five minutes. As an Amtrak rider, I sweat when I book long trips that leave 15 minutes for making a connection. When I dared to ask the agent whether a 3-minute schedule gap is enough, she looked back and responded plainly: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

And I did. Trains departed on the minute they were supposed to depart, and would arrive usually a minute or two earlier than scheduled. To me it’s all still amazing: I had to make 5-train trips, twice, sometimes with very tight connections. All of them connected smoothly, and it was all done with a single quick booking.

Trains, again. Here’s a more subtle way to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of service: When I was on the train that crossed German-speaking Switzerland to French-speaking Switzerland, the priority of the train announcements changed. When I got on, “Näster halt…” was first, “Le prochain arrêt est…” was second; when we crossed, these two flipped. How very cool that someone considered to do this.

Slipping safety. On the top of the Alps near Lake Geneva, I found steps that led to a viewing platform. These steps were made of steel grates, meant to reduce slippage and snow accumulation. On every third step of the way up you’ll find a vertical barrier, covering half the step, and alternating on the left and right side. At first I was annoyed because they forced me to zigzag when I climbed up. When I asked my friend what they’re for, he explained that if someone slips then they might fall by just three steps and not the whole way down. When they built the stairs, the designer thought about how someone might fall, and built this to prevent the most dangerous kind.

Parking lots. When we drove into an underground parking lot, there were electronic displayed that showed the number of free spots available and arrows pointing us to the closest one. We didn’t have to drive through every level hoping to find an opening. Instead we were directed to one immediately. This system is made possible because there’s a sensor above every single spot.

Queues. Other than for making small purchases, you find very few of these. Whenever you’re waiting to speak to a serviceperson, say for booking a train ticket, you pick up a numbered ticket from a machine and wait for your number to appear over a service counter. That leaves you free to sit down or wander a bit. This isn’t done just in train stations; I found this system in the tourism office and in the box office of a concerthouse. It took me a while to get used to how frequently that this system is deployed; always look around to see if you should have grabbed a ticket!

These are small examples, and apologies if these are in fact quite common around the world. I find these subtle little touches everywhere, and they’re are wonderful when you experience them. It’s like the whole country is run as a four- or five-star hotel.

Why and how are things like this? “Why” questions are always harder to answer than “what” questions, but I’m happy to present a few hypotheses.

Here’s the crudest: Everything in Switzerland is so expensive that it would be impossible to expect poor terms of service. If you’re paying the equivalent of 5 dollars for an espresso, or 30 dollars for lunch, or 50 dollars cable car ride, then excellent service should be part of the package. (This is mostly wrong, of course, because things aren’t necessarily as expensive for the locals, who are still the majority of customers.)

It would only be slightly better to offer: “Oh, that’s just how the Swiss are. It’s in their nature to be so careful and attentive.” Maybe that’s true, but as a first attempt we should look for social reasons to explain cultural tendencies.

I’d like to think that everything works so well because everyone expects things to work well. It’s a lot easier to shirk if you expect your co-workers at the next line to shirk. Likewise, it’s a lot harder to shirk if you expect to be the only broken part of the system, the person who messes up the fine work of others.

That doesn’t explain how the system got to be the way it is. A deeper explanation might be this: Maybe people feel especially respected and empowered here. A waiter in America typically sees it as temporary work; I’ve heard that waiters, and general servicepeople, expect longer careers here. Most of them are not graduates of elite colleges waiting for something else to turn up. Rather they may have gone to trade school and expect to serve a different role in society. They’re not looking to jump ship, and society finds ways to honor them for what they do, including through the welfare system by making sure that no one has too hard of a time to make ends meet.

And especially for the Swiss, perhaps the compulsory two-year military service gives people a good sense of what they can expect from their fellow-citizens. Here’s a quote from Luigi Zingales, reflecting on his rather different experiences in Italy: “If you start from the presumption that everybody around you is there to take advantage of you, you’re going to behave in a completely different way than if you are more optimistic about people around you.”

German services are certainly efficient, but the Swiss services are on another different level. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin, was so enamored of the German post that he wrote one of his few non-satirical essays, “Postal Service,” to celebrate its efficiency. I think that he would have been yet more impressed had he lived in Switzerland.

Here are some pictures from this trip.

Swiss Alps Moleson

From the top of Le Moléson. Mont Blanc is on the left, Lake Geneva is on the right.

Bern Parliament

The Swiss Federal Palace, which houses the National Assembly and the Federal Council. Every Tuesday and Saturday the plaza acts as a farmers’ market.

Bern Skyline

The Bern skyline gets to use the Alps as a backdrop.

Lake Geneva

Serenity on Lake Geneva.

Short thoughts on Germany

Here are some short, unsystematic thoughts on two months of living in Germany. Instead of giving broad overviews of what life is like here, I’m trying to keep these thoughts idiosyncratic. They’re mostly things I found personally surprising.

(Since moving to Freiburg I’ve also visited Berlin, Prague, Colmar, Strasbourg, Paris, Basel, Zurich, Milan, Luxembourg, and Brussels. I’ll share pictures of some of these places at the very end.)

Canadian > New Yorker > American > Chinese. I’ve tried introducing myself in various ways. People are most enthusiastic when they hear that I’m Canadian or that I study in New York; they’re not quite so impressed to hear “Ich bin ein amerikanischer” or that “Ich komme aus China.” When people hear that I’m Canadian they ask thing like whether I speak French, if it’s true that there are lots of jobs there, and whether people really don’t lock their doors. (The answers are “yes but not well,” “I guess in some areas,” and “I wouldn’t know since I’d never try to open a door without notice.”)

Germans follow rules. Most people don’t jaywalk; they will stand because the crosswalk light is red, not just because there are no cars coming. Cashiers don’t always examine my change when I’m buying coffee or groceries. On the train, nearly every car ends up being a Quiet Car; the conversations that get loud are usually in English or French.

Berlin feels oppressive. Its buildings are wide and not high. They’re huge, low-slung blocks, the sort that you’d use the word looming to describe. Many buildings cover the length of an entire street, and not just in the central Mitte area. You’ll find yourself walking beside the same wall for a few minutes, realize that it’ll be a while more before you can leave it behind, and then see that the next street is like this too. You won’t get this feeling in Paris, where buildings are lighter and more ornate.

Other Berlin thoughts: East Berlin is 1000 times more interesting than West Berlin. I didn’t have a single bad meal, and all of them were cheap. It’s amazing how different things can look at the end of a 10-minute walk. It’s much more edgy than Paris. You can find expressions of German shame all over the heart of the city, sometimes it feels like on every street. The Berlin Philharmonie has some of the cheapest student tickets I’ve found: 8 euros one night for a string quartet. The whole city is cheap: someone told me that rent for his two-bedroom apartment is 200 euros a month.  I’m already wishing of going back.

The European concert experience is less alienating than the American. I’ve seen some kind of show, usually an opera, in the half-dozen cities I’ve visited. Europeans tend to be better dressed, but they’re less reverent toward the concert experience. Here, ticket sellers are more friendly, ushers smile more, and the applause doesn’t feel so gratuitous. It’s amazing how cheap tickets can be in Zurich or at La Scala. A lot more young people attend, and I think not just because student tickets are so cheap and easy to get.

German bakeries are underrated. You’ll find a bakery on every other street. They’re independent but quite uniform. Behind a glass case you’ll find pastries, rolls, and either lunch-y sandwiches or cakes. Behind the counter are shelves of large, round loaves of bread, usually at least a dozen varieties. I don’t have their names down, but the typical German bread is dark, thick, and seeded. I much prefer these dark breads to the boring, crusty French baguettes. Alas I’m still not yet used to German coffee; it gets much better in Italy or France.

Chinese food is the opposite of German food, but you can make do. Chinese uses meat sparingly, and many dishes are about maximizing its flavor to enhance vegetables. Germans will give you a big piece of schnitzel or wurst, throw in some potatoes or fries, and round it out with sauerkraut or red cabbage. It’s hard to find greens here, and that includes spinach and kale, not to mention the heartier Chinese greens. Nonetheless you’re not entirely without hope if you want to cook the Chinese way. The key is to find the flavorful cured meats. Look for the salamis, Schwarzwald ham, and the drier sausages; you can find them cheaply and easily in any supermarket. Slice these up thinly, toss them in the wok, and then throw in lots of cabbage or whatever leafy vegetables you can find.

Germans come in all shapes and sizes. I’m getting better at distinguishing Europeans based on behavior and facial features. The French and Italians are distinct, and there are some giveaways that people come from Eastern Europe. But I don’t know yet how to tell whether someone is German. What are the signs that give it away?

Bitte (BE-te) is a very useful word. Its meanings include: please (as in both “Yes, please.” and “Please pass the salt.”), you’re welcome, pardon me?, and here you go. There are more uses depending on context. Another common German word is schön, which means beautiful, also with lots of uses based on context.

Germans talk to me in English. They would do this even before I open my mouth to badly say the few German phrases I know. This would only happen in Germany, which mystifies me; Zurichers would start with German, Parisians with French. My new friends insist that it’s because they wish to be polite and make me feel comfortable, which makes me feel guilty for making them speak in a different language in their own country. Everyone is so keen to speak English to me that I’m finding it difficult to practice any German at all. My American friends sometimes get annoyed at this too.

Some places in Europe feel more like China than America. I find very little similar between living in America and living in China. In Europe I occasionally get the same feelings I get walking the streets of China. In China and Europe, you find more open-air markets where you can grab a meal; the bargaining between pedestrians and drivers/cyclists tends to be more confident; it’s much easier to catch the smell of exhaust; and there’s more chaos but no less order. You get the sense that most people in cities are used to living in cities, which is a feeling I don’t much get in American cities. Or maybe I just feel this way because I’ve properly never lived in a DC or an NYC…

One final story. Here’s something that happened on the very first day that I arrived in Germany. I was getting off the train from Frankfurt when my bag bumped against the door and my water bottle fell out. The mid-forties German man behind me made a grab for it, but it ended up on the tracks. He told me to wait, and stood with me and all my bags for about five minutes before the train left the station. When we could see my bottle, he first tried to recover it when a rope knot he fashioned, and then looked for one of those grab tools you use to pick up trash.

Neither worked. He looked both ways, and said: “Grab my hand.” Then he jumped down, took the bottle, and hopped back on the platform. He handed it to me, turned around to leave, and called out: “It’s better for a German to get in trouble here than for an American.” I didn’t see him again.

It was very, very decent of him. I was infinitely impressed.

And now some pictures.

Landscape - Alps

The Faulhorn in the Swiss Alps, close to Interlaken. It took about two hours to get to the top with a sled, and it takes about 40 minutes to slide down to the bottom of the mountain.

Street in Prague

Here’s one of the streets in Prague that lead up to the castle.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. In the day you’ll find a Québec flag flying on the building immediately to the right of this picture. It turns out that the province keeps a very expensive office there for the sake of practicing “paradiplomacy.”

Lake Lucerne

River tour of Lake Lucerne on a foggy day.

Monument to Soviet Soldier in Berlin

Here’s the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten, featuring tank, artillery, and solider; the Reichstag is right behind. It’s very weird to think about this one.

Freiburg sunset

Sunset in Freiburg, close to the Münster. I live in the Stühlinger area, not far from the Hauptbahnhof.

Gate in Brussels

Here’s one more gate, this time in Brussels. Our friends nicknamed it the Brusselsburg Gate.

Culture - Musée d'Orsay

View from the top of the Musée d’Orsay, the museum that used to be a train station. Its focus is French art between 1848 and 1914. There I saw Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, which is stunning. It was tucked away at a corner gallery, and caught most of the people who walked by in surprise.


King Victor Emmanuel II, the Milan Duomo, and a single wisp of cloud.


One more picture of the Alps for you. This is at the bottom of that sledding trail.

Paris at sunrise

This is Paris at sunrise, from the Jardins du Trocadéro.

I have some nice pictures of Zurich in a separate post. You can follow me on Instagram to keep up. I’m also tweeting quite a bit on Germany/Europe.

Short thoughts on Zurich

From my home base in Freiburg, I’ve visited the following cities in the past month: Berlin, Prague, Colmar (France), Strasbourg, Lucerne, and Zurich. Zurich is my favorite, so I’ll share a few thoughts.

I spent two days in there, one of which in nearby Lucerne. The area is breathtaking, but the highlight is still the city. Zurich is old, but every building is well-maintained; you can’t say the same for Prague. The downtown area wraps around a river, which leads to Lake Zurich in a twenty-minute walk from the center of town. I lived in the east bank, close to the Grossmünster.

Here are some short, scattered thoughts of what I saw, with a few pictures thrown in between.

Zurich as a perfect city. Every one of the centuries-old buildings are well-kept; it does brisk trade with people near and far; it has so many opportunities for culture; and it’s on a lake that leads into the mountains. The people who live there are sophisticated, serene, and enjoy the highest standards of living on earth. They are nature-loving, live routinized lives, and they’ve built hidden defenses throughout the whole country, ever ready to be used against an invading army. Don’t you see? The Swiss are the elves of modern day. Has it been documented yet that Zurich was Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell?

(Isn't this Rivendell, or maybe the Grey Havens?) (Like, isn’t this Rivendell, or perhaps the Grey Havens?)

Zurich is expensive. Going to Zurich as a student is the easiest way to feel indignant towards the rich, Piketty-style. It’s a place where a cup of coffee costs around $5, where a slice of pizza costs around $15, and pasta around $30. No, you can’t find cheaper options if you look in a different part of town. When you walk around a big city and can’t find a lunch option for less than $15, you start to despair. How are prices driven this high?

That said, the best parts of my trip were the cheapest. The three things I most enjoyed: First walking around, which of course is free. Second going to the Swiss National Museum, which has cheap student tickets. And finally going to the Zurich Opera for Tristan. Last-minute tickets cost $17, for a splendid production. Who else offers Wagner of this quality for the same price as a slice of pizza would cost?

Zurich Operahouse(Zurich Opera House)

More people should be let in. Zurich has a high number of foreigners, but these are mostly already talented people from other developed countries. We all know that the Swiss are highly restrictive with granting residency and citizenship. When you walk around Zurich you can’t help but feel that this place could absorb a good number of immigrants/refugees from poorer places. Zurich gets more diversity and lower labor costs, and of course the immigrants benefit a great deal. There’s so much space; it shouldn’t be enjoyed only by rich foreigners and generations-old Swiss.

Swiss historical importance… I don’t know enough European history, but let me present a hypothesis. Zwingli did his most important work in Zurich, which makes it not just an important site for the Reformation but also the Counter-Reformation. The Swiss has either sent mercenaries or used its diplomatic position to influence every war in Europe. Pretty soon after it industrialized, it exported more per capita than any other country. Can we say that you get an outline of the entirety of European history if you study only Swiss history?

So much culture… I’m glad that such a good production of Tristan could be my first live German opera experience. The Swiss National Museum had fantastic displays, at just the right level of detail. The not-far Basel Kunstmuseum has an amazing collection. Swiss culture is splendid, and kept cheap. Tyler of course has a theory about this.

Little historical shame, but should there be more? You can’t walk two blocks in Berlin without being reminded of some terrible episode in German history. That’s not the case in Zurich. But Swiss history is by no means all nice. Some examples follow. Although Switzerland never permitted slavery, many families made great wealth from the slave trade. Although it never established colonies, it profited a great deal from colonialism. Although it doesn’t provoke conflict, it has sent mercenaries to fight in most major European wars. It has managed to make money from many of the terrible things done by Europe. You can argue in all sorts of ways that neutrality is not always morally justified. Maybe Berlin goes too far in the other direction, but shouldn’t Zurich be commemorating more?

Languages spoken in the street…  On the weekend I heard slightly more Chinese than English in the streets, and hardly any German. I wasn’t just only in the shopping district on the west bank; it was the same around the Grossmünster and Kunsthaus area too. The Chinese I heard spoke Mandarin, mostly in dialects from the northeast.

Catching stares... I was stared at more in Zurich than I was anywhere else. I don’t know why that would happen here more than in Prague or Colmar.

Every shop is closed on Sunday. Nearly two million live around the Zurich area, the city is a major business center, and it attracts many tourists who come here specifically to shop. So it’s mystifying why no store is open on Sunday. The only place open is a mall area under the main train station. Again Tyler has written on this.

Visit Zurich. It’s an aesthetic experience, and I don’t just mean that it’s nice to see pretty buildings. Just make sure to bring your wallet.

Zurich sunset


Added, 2/28: Here’s a sign that would have made no sense just a few weeks ago. I took this from the downtown shopping area. Apparently this chain store has these signs all over Switzerland, including in Geneva.

zurich-franc-sign cropped


It seems typical for bloggers to write a year-end review post. Here are some belated reflections on a year of blogging, and other stuff too.

This blog…

I’ve published a total of 64 posts this year. Most are pretty short; about half are small notes or excerpts of books or articles I’ve read recently.

The most important posts are my essays. There are five of them, and each one is fairly substantial—the shortest is about 2000 words, and the longest is about 5000.

Not all of them were well-read, but two got quite a bit of attention. Each of them took the #2 spot on Hacker News, did well on different subreddits, and got lots of social shares.

One of these pieces, a catalogue of Peter Thiel’s evidence of a technological slowdown, was especially well-read. It was covered by Marginal Revolution, Noahpinion, and other econ blogs; and it was linked-to by The Browser, FT Alphaville, the BBC, and Bloomberg View.

I have to say that I’m bemused that my most popular post was the one with the fewest of my own words. If you’re curious, my definite favorite essay is the one about the mechanics of nuclear bombs and American nuclear deterrence strategies. Here are all of them, listed in order of publication:

How are collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps structured (2800 words) — Goes through the entire process of how mortgages are packaged, re-packaged, re-re-packaged, etc. into CDOs. Then I explain how CDSs can be set up to bet against CDOs.

Civil asset forfeiture: When the law confiscates from the poor (2000 words) — Explains the procedures of civil forfeiture, its legal and historical basis, and how its revenues has been spent. I also highlight a few of its victims.

What are hedge funds, and what social functions do they serve? (2400 words)  — Goes through the distinguishing characteristics of hedge funds (limitations on raising capital, 2-and-20 etc.) and describes a few of the bigger players (historical and contemporary, including LTCM, Renaissance, and Quantum). Then I present an argument that hedge funds should be allowed to bear more risk in the financial system.

This second part was controversial, and many people didn’t like my framing of the topic. Most people didn’t like that I said that hedge funds serve any kind of “social function” at all.

Why is Peter Thiel pessimistic about technological innovation? (2000 words) — Collects some of Thiel’s evidence that we’re no longer technologically accelerating, organized by subject matter. These include his remarks on energy, space, computers, finance, etc. This was my most widely-read essay, mostly because of links from Marginal Revolution, the BBC, etc.

The logic of nuclear exchange and the refinement of American deterrence strategy (5000 words)  — My favorite. The first part is about the mechanics of nuclear bombs: their construction, delivery, stockpiles, effects upon explosion, etc. The second part is about the evolution of the views of America’s nuclear strategists, and how policy correspondingly changed. The heroes of this story are Thomas Schelling, William Kaufmann, and Robert McNamara.

Before I talk more about blogging, here’s one big note about the present…

I’m spending the next four months in Germany, all the way until May, when I graduate from Rochester.

I live and study in the city of Freiburg, a (small) city framed by the Black Forest in the state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s in the southwest, sitting close to that corner where Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland meet. The closest major cities are Strasbourg, France; Stuttgart, Germany; and Basel, Switzerland. Frankfurt, Munich, Bern, and Zurich are not far away. This area is gorgeous. Here’s a picture of the center of Freiburg, which I took from the top of a nearby mountain called the Schlossberg:

Freiburg from mountain

It’s my first time in Europe. My program also takes me to Berlin, Prague, Luxembourg, Paris, Stockholm, and London. I plan to spend lots of time in the Black Forest, and also to France and Switzerland which are so close. For the next few months, instead of researching and blogging about the stuff I’ve been interested in, I’m going to write as often as I can about Germany and Europe.

I’ve set up Instagram specifically for this trip. If you’d like to see what I’m up to, follow along here.

Some notes on blogging so far…

I’ve always found writing to be satisfying, so keeping this blog has been great fun. And it’s been productive in addition to the simple pleasure of writing out ideas.

I’m a big fan of James Somers’ idea that writing makes you more curious. When you have a regular commitment to present your thoughts to an audience, you start to notice more, you remember more, and you think differently about everything you see. It’s like a more attention-intensive form of being on Twitter, where you look for things to tweet about and package ideas concisely.

Here’s something else to mention since I brought up James. Before this year, my blog consumption consisted exclusively of economics professors. Only recently and with the help of Quora and Twitter did I discover that there are many kinds of bloggers out there. Three people in particular have been inspirations: Kevin Simler, Vera L. Te Velde, and James. They blog about all sorts of things informed by their intellectual backgrounds; it’s something that I’d like to do. They’ve all been at this for a while, and I wish that in a few years that I’d build as much as they have.

Blogging’s given me the chance to meet people online. Some very cool people have reached out, on Twitter or by email, after reading one of my posts. It’s new and novel that I get to know people by doing this.

Highlights of last year…

For those curious, here are some of my personal highlights of 2014:

Going to China. My grandfather passed away in November, 2013, and I spent the entirety of the following January with my family in the southwestern city of Kunming. This was my third and most meaningful trip after I left at age 7.

Working at Shopify. I spent the remainder of the year working at Shopify’s office in Toronto, as a content marketing intern on the growth team. It was exciting to be there. Shopify was growing so quickly that I was “older” than ~31% of the company after eight months. There’s no work experience like the one in a growing tech company.

Going to Public Choice Conference. In June I headed to D.C. for the Public Choice Conference run by Alex Tabarrok. In addition to Alex, I got the chance to chat with Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, and Bryan Caplan, all of whom I started reading since I started college. I also got to chat with the very cool Donald Marron, who has one of the most interesting economist resumés I’ve seen.

The books I most enjoyed…

Here are the books I had trouble putting down:

Wrapping up…

Where should I visit in Germany? I’ve been to Frankfurt and Berlin, and plan to head to Munich, Nuremberg, and the Cologne area. I’ve visited the nearby cities of Colmar & Basel, and want to explore all of the Black Forest. What else should I see in the next few months?

I love book tips. I’m currently reading Peter Watson’s The German Genius, Wolfgang Palaver’s biography of Girard’s ideas, and re-reading Moby-Dick. What should I pick up next?

Also, please feel free to give me other tips. I know that some people find it hard to follow this blog. What can I do to make it easier for you to find my posts? And I’m really quite a newbie photographer. Let me know how my pictures on Instagram could be better. Finally, do write me if you think that there’s something I’d enjoy learning about.

I’ll be writing a proper post on Germany soon. Consider subscribing to this blog, and/or following me on Twitter or Instagram.

The Logic of Nuclear Exchange and the Refinement of American Deterrence Strategy

The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.

What a stunning achievement—or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune. In 1960 the British novelist C. P. Snow said on the front page of the New York Times that unless the nuclear powers drastically reduced their nuclear armaments thermonuclear warfare within the decade was a “mathematical certainty.” Nobody appeared to think Snow’s statement extravagant.

We now have that mathematical certainty compounded more than four times, and no nuclear war.

– Thomas Schelling, 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics Lecture

When Robert McNamara was named the Secretary of Defense in 1961, he brought to the Pentagon a group of aides who came to be known as the Whiz Kids. They were young, book-smart men eager to apply the latest in systems analysis, game theory, and operations research to military strategy.

It did not take them long to alienate senior officers. Once to settle a particularly heated argument about nuclear plans, a 29-year-old Whiz Kid declared: “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have.”

The flip remark understates a fact that deserves great wonder: The world has now gone for seven decades while avoiding nuclear destruction. The thermonuclear war that was once regarded with the greatest of fears and as a mathematical certainty has not come to pass.

In addition, it’s also a startling display of the role that a group of civilians played in defining U.S. nuclear strategy. After a first draft by the military, American strategic objectives were subject to continuous refinements. Many of these refinements came from civilian theorists, most of whom came from the RAND Corporation, and few of whom had seen war. One of the earliest nuclear intellectuals from RAND started out as a naval strategist; when he produced his most important work on naval strategy, he had never seen the ocean, let alone set foot on a ship. In seminar rooms, these strategists pondered the novel challenges of the nuclear world and worked out ideas by discussing not the efficient application of force but rather the exploitation of potential force.

This essay is a short introduction to how nuclear weapons are created and deployed, and the ideas that strategists, policymakers, and the military implemented to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

(Published in prettier formatting on Medium.)

What Are Nuclear Weapons?


Thirty years after the detonation on Hiroshima, the world had produced enough nuclear weapons to create the equivalent of about 3 tons of TNT for every man, woman, and child on earth. Here’s context to put that figure into some sort of perspective.

Nuclear Explosions

What happens in a nuclear explosion? First, a huge blast drives air away, producing high winds and changes in air pressure that crush objects. Then come radiation: direct radiation will cause fatal illness in a matter of a few weeks, while thermal radiation will cause first-degree burns a few miles away. Fires immediately follow; a strong blast can generate a firestorm, which destroys everything in a concentrated area, or a conflagration, which is not so strong but spreads along a front. Then there’s fallout: particles are scooped up from the ground, get irradiated by the explosion, and spread depending on wind conditions. Finally, at a sufficiently high altitude, a blast might produce electrons that interact with the earth’s magnetic field, setting off an electromagnetic pulse that can destroy electronics and metal objects.

The world has set off over 2400 nuclear explosions, nearly all of them by America or the Soviet Union, most of them underground. Americans have tested most of their weapons in the southwestern states of Nevada or New Mexico, or on islands in the Pacific. The Soviet Union has conducted mostly in Kazakhstan or archipelagos in the Arctic Ocean.

Nuclear detonations have been set off underground, underwater, and in the atmosphere. They’ve had usually minor and sometimes permanent effects on the earth. As a dramatic example, America’s first hydrogen bomb, named “Ivy Mike,” completely obliterated the small Pacific island on which it was tested.

The effects of nuclear explosions have always provoked anxiety. Before the first nuclear test in New Mexico, Enrico Fermi rounded up his fellow scientists to place a grim bet. Some of them speculated that an atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and Fermi offered wagers on whether the Trinity test might destroy the atmosphere of the planet, or merely that of New Mexico state. More recently, Carl Sagan wrote that instead of igniting the atmosphere, nuclear weapons may cool the world enough to produce a nuclear winter.

The effects of nuclear tests have not always been well controlled. Shortly after the Ivy Mike test, America detonated the most powerful thermonuclear bomb it would ever construct. “Castle Bravo” was expected to yield a blast of five or six megatons, but instead produced a blast of 15 megatons. The blast carried fallout to inhabitants on the Marshall Islands, some of whom ate the radioactive powder they believed to be snow. Hundreds were overexposed to radiation, and a nearby Japanese fishing ship crew suffered from radiation poisoning. Fallout from that blast eventually spread 7,000 miles, including to India, the United States, and Europe.

The Mechanics of Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs

There are two types of nuclear bombs. The atomic bomb creates temperatures equal to those on the surface of the sun; and the much more powerful hydrogen bomb bring the equivalent of a small piece of the sun to earth.

The basic nuclear weapon is the atomic bomb, otherwise known as the fission bomb. Atomic bombs typically have yields measured in the thousands of tons of TNT, or kilotons. Their explosive force is generated from a fission process; fission occurs when a neutron enters the nucleus of an atom of a nuclear material, which is either enriched uranium or enriched plutonium. A large amount of energy is released in the process, which causes the nucleus to release a few more neutrons. In the presence of a critical mass, these neutrons go on to create a chain reaction. There are two types of bomb designs for initiating fission. The first is the gun assembly technique, which brings together two subcritical masses to form a critical mass; the second is the implosion technique, which compresses a single subcritical mass into a critical density.

On August 6th, 1945, the U.S. Air Force dropped the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Little Boy was a gun-type bomb with a core of 60 kilograms of uranium-235. About 700 grams of it fissioned (just over 10%), generating a blast of 12.5 kilotons; about 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed by the blast, while up to twice that number were killed by burns and radiation. Three days later, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb, known as “Fat Man,” was an implosion-style bomb carrying 8 kilograms of plutonium-239. Once again about 10% of the material fissioned, producing a yield of about 22 kilotons and instantly killing about 40,000 people. The complete detonation of its plutonium would have caused an explosion 10 times its size.

The more sophisticated and far more destructive kind of nuclear weapon is hydrogen bomb, otherwise known as the thermonuclear bomb, the fusion bomb, or the H-bomb. In hydrogen bombs, heavier isotopes of hydrogen are fused together to form helium. That reaction creates a great deal of energy, far more than the chain reaction possible in fission bombs. Hydrogen bombs are far more difficult to construct than the atomic bomb; nine countries possess nuclear weapons, but only five have definitely developed hydrogen bombs. A successful detonation requires the explosion of a fission bomb (the “primary”) to ignite a fusion (the “secondary”). The difficulty presented by the hydrogen bomb is the risk that the atomic bomb might explode prematurely and blow up the whole bomb, an event referred to as a “fizzle.”

Hydrogen bombs are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs. The first hydrogen device, which couldn’t be used as a weapon, was detonated by the United States in November of 1952. A true hydrogen weapon was not detonated by America until March, 1954. The bomb, Castle Bravo, was the most powerful nuclear explosion America would ever generate; at 15 megatons, it was over 700 times more powerful than the blast at Nagasaki. The Soviet Union would detonate its first hydrogen bomb in November, 1955. In 1961, it would go on to detonate the largest nuclear weapon ever: The Tsar Bomba had a yield of over 50 megatons, or over 2500 Nagasakis.

The value of a weapon of these sizes is not immediately obvious. A 1-megaton bomb would kill most people within hundreds of miles, while the largest of cities would be destroyed by a bomb of 10 megatons.

How Are Nuclear Weapons Delivered?

There are two types of nuclear deployments. Strategic weapons are launched against homelands, while tactical weapons are used on battlefields.

Strategic nuclear weapons are typically delivered in one of three ways. First, they may be launched from bombers; these can either take the form of free-fall gravity bombs or as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Second, they’re deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are launched from underground silos and are capable of reaching any target on earth. Finally, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are deployed by submarines, which can lie at sea for months and surface only to launch. The majority of warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles, while a few hundred are located at bomber bases.

There has been a greater variety of tactical nuclear weapons, though they’re no longer deployed. They were once a regular part of arsenals, including as torpedoes, mines, artillery, and rocket launchers. A young Colin Powell was an officer stationed in West Germany in 1958 when he was tasked with guarding against a Soviet invasion; if the enemy came over, he was to launch 280 mm atomic cannons, which fired artillery shells with yields of 15 kilotons (or about the explosive force of Hiroshima). These tactical weapons have never actually been put to use.


The global nuclear stockpile peaked at 70,000 weapons in 1986. Most have been owned either by the Americans or the Soviets.

Both countries have vastly reduced their arsenal. In the last 25 years, America has reduced its stockpile from about 23,000 weapons to around approximately 7000 today. Meanwhile, Russia has brought down its stockpile to around 8000 weapons, from a peak of 30,000 inherited from the Soviet Union.

There are seven other countries with confirmed nuclear weapons: France, China, the U.K., Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Israel is rumored but not officially confirmed to have nuclear weapons. Of all nine countries, five are confirmed to have hydrogen bombs: the U.S., Russia, France, China, and the U.K. India has claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, but scientists debate whether it was a true two-stage thermonuclear device.

The vast majority of nuclear weapons are and have been operated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union; the stockpiles of other countries are miniscule in comparison. Currently France has the next largest stockpile, at around 300 weapons, while North Korea has fewer than 10. Motivations for acquiring the bomb have varied for every country. China, for example, sought not to depend too heavily on protection from the Soviet Union, just as Britain decided that it wanted warheads not controlled by America. Meanwhile, though France was motivated by a similar concern not to depend too much on the United States, it has also developed nuclear weapons because it craved status. Charles de Gaulle believed that that the bomb would “place France where she belonged, among the Great Powers.”

American Nuclear Strategy


As America demobilized after the Second World War, Eisenhower believed that nuclear weapons were a cheap substitute to maintaining a large army to deter Soviet aggression. With his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, he defined a policy called “New Look” that relied on nuclear forces, as opposed to conventional forces, to deter aggression. The United States would be “willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing.”

What did that mean in practice? At the discretion of the president, the entirety of the American nuclear stockpile would be delivered to enemy targets, both military and civilian. It was a first-strike policy: The enemy faced vast destruction if the United States determined that it crossed a line. Eisenhower and his staff considered it the ultimate deterrence.

It also attracted immediate skepticism from strategists. Critics of the policy considered it reckless and crude. First, it seemed practically an invitation for the Soviets to strike America; before a major action, Soviet forces should eliminate the American means to respond. Second, Eisenhower drew no bright line for incurring nuclear attack. Was America ready to initiate nuclear exchange, and guarantee the deaths of millions, in order to prevent a small country from turning Communist? What about Soviet meddling in the internal affairs of an allied country? In other words, this commitment to initiate exchange was insufficiently credible.

Strategists who made it their living to think about nuclear exchange attempted to make improvements. Many of the them were analysts at the RAND Corporation, a research institute set up by the Air Force to improve engineering and ponder novel scenarios for the modern world. These analysts tried to create options between official U.S. displeasure and full-scale thermonuclear exchange.

The rest of this essay is about certain ideas they developed to reduce the likelihood of mutual destruction. It gives a broad overview of the evolution of American strategic thinking, which started from massive deterrence, then moved through to reject elaborate methods of defense, and ended up on relying on once again on a robust system of deterrence.


William Kaufmann was a RAND analyst and political science professor who tried to create opportunities to wage limited war given weapons of unlimited power. He developed and was the proponent of a strategy that came to be known as “counterforce.”

There are two types of targets: military, which includes airbases, command stations, barracks, etc.; and civilian, which means cities and industrial sites. Early nuclear plans made no distinction between them. When authorized by the president, the stockpile would be launched against every target deemed to be valuable.

Kaufmann developed a different strategy: In case of conflict, not every warhead would be launched, and those that were launched would strike only military targets. The goal was to wipe out the enemy’s military capabilities while warheads held in reserve would threaten enemy cities. In the ideal world, after suffering a (reduced) retaliatory strike, the United States would have eliminated Soviet military capabilities and would be able to use Soviet cities as hostages to bargain for surrender.

What were the virtues of counterforce, as opposed to the cities-also countervalue, strategy?

First, civilians would avoid the brunt of the force. Vast numbers of innocents in cities would be largely spared. In a full-scale nuclear exchange, defense scenarios anticipated hundreds of millions of Soviet and American deaths, no matter who launched first. A counterforce strike also gives an incentive to the retaliating side to also target only military sites. A successful counterforce attack was projected to save over 100 million lives. Moreover, from a strategic standpoint, it created a chance for nuclear war to be limited. Counterforce offered the enemy an opportunity to recognize defeat early and so surrender with its civilian force intact.

The Pentagon warmed to counterforce. By 1962, Secretary McNamara publicly declared counterforce to be official U.S. policy, and encouraged the Soviets to adopt it as well.

It also had its skeptics, who argued that there were no guarantees that it might work as planned. When the enemy detected ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers racing towards its territory, it had no way to determine that it was subject to a “mere” counterforce strike. It was not clear that counterforce might really stave off escalation, and perhaps the simplicity of massive deterrence was still the best strategy after all.

Curtis LeMay, director of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), thought it meant going soft on the enemy; Thomas Schelling, who worked at RAND and consulted for the Pentagon, never fully embraced it; and even McNamara ended up skeptical of its usefulness. As a result, American nuclear strategy see-sawed between counterforce and massive deterrence; it would be integrated into nuclear plans, and then quickly stripped away, only to be re-introduced years later.

Conventional War

In addition to counterforce, Kaufmann also advocated for another way to keep war limited: Building up conventional military forces.

This was precisely the strategy rejected by Eisenhower. The Soviets were far superior in troops and tanks, enough to overrun Europe. Instead of trying to match their forces, Eisenhower wanted to rely on the massively-destructive and easily-deployable nuclear bomb to stave off attack or deter aggression in the first place.

But massive deterrence was risky. The enemy will try out many gray areas to test which actions were permissible; in each instance the American president has to decide whether it permits the action and lose face or launch the warheads, which risks national suicide while guaranteeing the deaths of millions.

Kaufmann thought that it was reckless to use nuclear weapons at all, save only in the gravest of circumstances. He observed that America’s most successful foreign actions were carried out without the use of nuclear weapons (as was the case with the Berlin Airlift and the intervention in Korea), and continued to believe that their use could be spared.

But it would require that the United States invest in different means for response. He suggested building up conventional forces, which meant included significant ground forces to beat back a Soviet invasion of Europe and smaller scale teams that can be rapidly deployed to “hot spots.”

In the logic of deterrence, an investment in conventional warfare is a signal that nuclear arms were too dangerous to be used. Building up conventional forces was advocated not only by Kaufmann but also important figures like Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, two of the earliest nuclear strategists. The growth of conventional forces in the Kennedy Administration was an acknowledgment to the Soviets that they could meet conflict without compelling the use of nuclear arms.

Schelling, in his Nobel Prize lecture, considered conventional forces to be a form of arms control, one as if both sides signed a treaty not to engage in nuclear change: “The investment in restraints on the use of nuclear weapons was real as well as symbolic.” With more options available, going nuclear was moved even further back to be the path of last resort.

SIOP: Single Integrated Operational Plan

Until the end of the Eisenhower Administration, nuclear target planning was delegated to senior military commanders. No single group or person oversaw the selection of targets nor organized the deployment of the nuclear force.

Take a second to imagine what that meant. The president had only the binary decision to strike or not strike. If he decided to strike, it’s up to the different services, each with their own stockpile, to deploy the weapons. The Air Force, the Navy, and the Army made their own war plans. Multiple, redundant warheads would be delivered to a target if it was selected by more than one branch. Due to a lack of coordination, an attacking force might be wiped out by the detonation caused by another American strike. Everyone launched at their own pace; the Navy was found to have been planning strikes fifteen days after the start of war.

This was the state of American nuclear plans for over a decade. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were resistant to the idea of a single branch, which would most likely end up being the Air Force, to control all warheads. The Navy was loath to give up its prized nuclear-armed Polaris submarines, and regarded all moves to centralize to be a plot by the Air Force to monopolize nuclear weapons.

It was only towards the end of the Eisenhower Administration that military objections were overruled. In 1960, Eisenhower authorized the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (pronounced SEYE-OP) to coordinate a contingent plan of nuclear strikes. Only then did the United States integrate target selection into a national plan led by a single organization: the SAC.

SIOP went through different iterations. Some of them integrated the doctrine of counterforce, giving the president different options for launching strikes.

But still it didn’t eliminate concerns about overkill. SAC made extremely pessimistic assumptions about the probability of a successful strike. They planned to lay down four thermonuclear warheads with the power of 7.8 megatons for a Russian city the size of Hiroshima; the successful detonation of all of them would generate an explosive force 600 times more powerful than the 12.5 kiloton bomb that wiped out the Japanese city. It also did not consider the impact of fallout damage, because fallout generates little military value. These assumptions gave SAC the chance to constantly demand more bombs and bombers.

Still, most iterations of SIOP still emphasized the launch of nearly the entire stockpile. Plan 1-A would involve launching over 3000 nuclear weapons, projected to kill nearly 300 million people mostly in Russia and China. SIOP also targeted countries like Albania, for which the presence of a single large air-defense radar was enough to justify a strike by a megaton bomb; no consideration was given to the political fact that the country had been drifting away from the Soviet bloc.

SIOP was refined by different administrations and by different secretaries of defense, but it always suffered two flaws: massive overkill and relative inflexibility in the severity of response. Reading SIOP made presidents and generals feel “appalled” and “stunned”; it would be referred to by Henry Kissinger as a “horror strategy.”

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Herman Kahn and the Bomb

Herman Kahn is the kind of eccentric whom you no longer publicly see. In his capacity as an analyst at the RAND Corporation, he made a vast effort to get the public to consider his ideas: What happens next after thermonuclear exchange.

The thought of nuclear war was mostly too grim to behold, and Kahn acknowledged that head on by writing a book called Thinking About the Unthinkable. With morbid humor he challenged people to think about deterrence strategies, mineshaft shelters, and the hydrogen bomb. He loved debate, and he reached out to the public with “twelve-hour lecture, split into three parts over two days, with no text but with plenty of charts and slides.”

Kahn was the main inspiration for Dr. Strangelove. He was supposed to have the highest I.Q. ever recorded, and he made real contributions in shaping U.S. nuclear strategy through his commentary and analysis. He was accused by his colleagues and by the public of treating the annihilation of millions with far too much levity than the subject deserved. Some of the things he said have been really shocking, but it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t really see brilliant oddballs like him much in public, to listen to his ideas and then debate them.

Here are a few interesting facts about him, from two sources. First, Fred Kaplan’s book Wizards of Armageddon, which features him for a chapter:

Brodie and Kauffman approached the business of first-use and counterforce strikes uneasily, as acts of desperation among a terrible set of choices. Kahn, on the other hand, dived in eagerly.

At one point, Kahn had calculations on bomb designs plugged into all twelve high-speed computers then operating in the United States.

Calculations suggested that even with a purely countermilitary attack, two million people would die, a horrifyingly high number… (But) as Kahn phrased it, only two million people would die. Alluding almost casually to “only” two million dead was part of the image that Kahn was fashioning for himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless… Kahn’s specialty was to express the RAND conventional wisdom in the most provocative and outrageous fashion possible.

Along with an engineer at RAND, Kahn figured out on paper that such a Doomsday Machine was technologically feasible.

In the early-to-mid 1960s, Kahn would work out an elaborate theory of “escalation, ” conceiving 44 “rungs of escalation” from “Ostensible Crisis” to “Spasm of Insensate War,” with the rungs in between including “Harassing Acts of Violence,” “Barely Nuclear War,” “Justifiable Counterforce Attacks” and “Slow-Motion Countercity War.”

Kahn felt that having a good civil-defense system made the act of going to the nuclear brink an altogether salutary thing to do on occasion.

More than 5,000 people heard (his lectures) before Kahn finally compiled them into a 652-page tome called On Thermonuclear War. It was a massive, sweeping, disorganized volume, presented as if a giant vacuum cleaner had swept through the corridors of RAND, sucking up every idea, concept, metaphor, and calculation that anyone in the strategic community had conjured up over the previous decade. The book’s title was an allusion to Clausewitz’s On War… Published in 1960 by the Princeton University Press, it sold an astonishing 30,000 copies in hardcover, quickly became known simply as OTW among defense intellectuals, and touched off fierce controversy among nearly everyone who bore through it.

Strangelove, the character and the film, struck insiders as a parody of Herman Kahn, some of the dialogue virtually lifted from the pages of On Thermonuclear War. But the film was also a satire of the whole language and intellectual culture of the strategic intellectual set. Kahn’s main purpose in writing OTW was “to create a vocabulary” so that strategic issues can be “comfortably and easily” discussed, a vocabulary that reduces the emotions surrounding nuclear war to the dispassionate cool of scientific thought. To the extent that many people today talk about nuclear war in such a nonchalant, would-be scientific manner, their language is rooted in the work of Herman Kahn.

And from Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker:

In his day, Kahn was the subject of many magazine stories, and most of them found it important to mention his girth—he was built, one journalist recorded, “like a prize-winning pear”—and his volubility.

He became involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and commuted to the Livermore Laboratory, near Berkeley, where he worked with Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe. He also entered the circle of Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematician who had produced an influential critique of nuclear preparedness, and who was the most mandarin of the rand intellectuals. And he became obsessed with the riddles of deterrence.

For many readers, this has seemed pathologically insensitive. But these readers are missing Kahn’s point. His point is that unless Americans really do believe that nuclear war is survivable, and survivable under conditions that, although hardly desirable, are acceptable and manageable, then deterrence has no meaning. You can’t advertise your readiness to initiate a nuclear exchange if you are unwilling to accept the consequences. If the enemy believes that you will not tolerate the deaths of, say, twenty million of your own citizens, then he has called your bluff. It’s the difference between saying, “You get one scratch on that car and I’ll kill you,” and saying, “You get one scratch on that car and you’re grounded for a week.”

Kubrick was steeped in “On Thermonuclear War”; he made his producer read it when they were planning the movie. Kubrick and Kahn met several times to discuss nuclear strategy, and it was from “On Thermonuclear War” that Kubrick got the term “Doomsday Machine.”

Kubrick’s plan to make a comedy about nuclear war didn’t bother Kahn. He thought that humor was a good way to get people thinking about a subject too frightening to contemplate otherwise, and although his colleagues rebuked him for it—“Levity is never legitimate,” Brodie told him—he used jokes in his lectures.

Kahn died, of a massive stroke, in 1983. That was the year a group headed by Carl Sagan released a report warning that the dust and smoke generated by a thermonuclear war would create a “nuclear winter,” blocking light from the sun and wiping out most of life on the planet. Kahn’s friends were confident that he would have had a rebuttal.

How growing and marketing apples turned industrial

It’s apple season. A few years ago John Seabrook wrote a great history of the growing, distribution, and marketing of apples. It features the new breed SweeTango, which is nearly an industrial product which enjoys many IP protections and a sophisticated multi-national distribution strategy. The piece features lots of reporting and plenty of Red Delicious bashing, while the best part is about how new breeds are discovered. Here are some excerpts.

The history of apples in America…

Malus pumila, of the family Rosaceae and the tribe Pyreae, was domesticated some four thousand years ago, in the fruit forests of what is now southeastern Kazakhstan, near the city of Almaty. Frank Browning, the author of “Apples,” reports seeing apple trees growing up through cracks in the pavement there. The wild horses of the nearby steppe liked to eat apples, and could cover long distances, carrying the seeds in their guts. Apples travelled westward along trade routes, and show up in Persia around the time of Alexander the Great, and in Europe not long after; the Romans cultivated them widely. (The apple in the Garden of Eden was most likely a pomegranate, or possibly an orange.) The species came to the New World with the first European settlers, in the form of seeds, and the pioneers, as they pushed westward, took apples with them.

As the industry moved away from cider-making and toward table fruit, some of these apples were named, propagated by cloning—the method of grafting a piece of one tree onto the trunk of another, which produces fruit that is an exact genetic copy of the first tree’s—and promoted like pop stars. The Northeast had Jonathan, Esopus Spitzenburg, and Blue Pearmain (Thoreau’s favorite); the South claimed Winesap, Sally Gray, and Disharoon; the Midwest boasted Hawkeye and Detroit Red; and from the West came the Gravenstein and the Yellow Newtown Pippin. Their flavors were shaped by their respective climates—the shorter the growing season the tarter the apples tended to be.

In the twenties and thirties, refrigerated railcars allowed growers to transport apples over great distances, and, thanks to cold-storage warehouses, wholesalers and retailers could keep them for long periods of time. As regional markets gave way to supermarket chains, the number of available apple varieties shrank, and those which endured shed their regional associations. By the nineteen-sixties, most supermarkets carried three types of apple: McIntosh, a small, tart apple that John McIntosh had found growing on his farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1811; Red Delicious, originally the Hawkeye, a sweet apple discovered on a farm in Iowa in the eighteen-seventies; and Golden Delicious, found in a hay field in West Virginia in the eighteen-nineties. Apple breeders tweaked these apples, to enhance their industrial potential—they had to be durable, long-lasting, and attractive—generally at the expense of texture and taste (unlike many fruits, apples can look wonderful and taste terrible, and so they lend themselves to horticultural sleight of hand).

In the United States, apple production happens mainly in the shoulders of the nation—Washington State is the largest producer, and New York is the next largest. Not surprisingly, each of those states has a breeding program, at Washington State University and at Cornell. Minnesota is twenty-third among the twenty-nine apple-growing states, in volume of production; up through the eighteen-fifties almost no apples grew there, because it was too cold. Its breeding program was born not of abundance but of necessity. “I wouldn’t live in Minnesota,” Horace Greeley once said, while visiting the state, “because you can’t grow apples here.” That remark inspired a cantankerous apple breeder named Peter Gideon to prove Greeley wrong with an apple he named Wealthy, after his wife. The success of the Wealthy apple, introduced in 1861 and still grown in heritage orchards around the country, was the inspiration for the university’s apple-breeding program, in 1878, which was followed by the founding of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, where Bedford works. The station was built with funds authorized by the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided research-and-development money to land-grant universities for the promotion of agriculture.

How the apple market took off…

When Bedford assumed control of the apple-breeding program, in the early eighties, the U.S. apple industry was poised for a profound transformation. Something like the pre-industrial world of apples, where an apple lover had the choice of many varieties, was returning, not through heirlooms but through new breeds of super apples from other countries. Instead of standing mostly for places and people, the new apples would stand for images, sounds, and ideas—Royal Gala, Pink Lady, Jazz. This transformation had begun in 1975, when a Washington grower named Grady Auvil introduced a tart, green, hard-fleshed apple originally from Australia that Maria Ann Smith, a farmer’s wife, had discovered growing on the family’s compost pile in New South Wales, in the eighteen-sixties. The Granny Smith apple was widely propagated in New Zealand, became famous in the United Kingdom in the nineteen-sixties as the logo on the Beatles’ Apple Records, and, on arriving in the United States, expanded the pantheon of supermarket apples to four, demonstrating to apple breeders everywhere that U.S. consumers would respond favorably to a new apple. In the early seventies, President Nixon had imposed price freezes on all foods except fresh produce. Grocery retailers, looking to increase profits, expanded their produce sections. After controls were lifted, they continued to seek out new varieties of fruits and vegetables that could be marketed at a premium.

In the eighties, the Fuji, a large, sweet apple that was originally bred in Japan, was brought to the U.S., and quickly caught on. That decade, Braeburn and Gala apples, both from New Zealand, were also introduced to the U.S., to great acclaim; the Gala is now one of the most popular apples in many parts of the country. To Bedford these successes demonstrated that “if the consumer is given choices, and if they realize, by eating some of these apples, how good an apple can be, then the market can’t keep supplying lousy apples, because the consumer is not going to tolerate that.” The other thing the new apples proved, Bedford added, was that “an apple doesn’t have to look that good. The original Fuji was an ugly apple. It showed that if the flavor was pleasing, the customer could get past the appearance.” Meanwhile, Red Delicious began to decline. Washington produced roughly sixty million bushels in 1995; the state produces a little more than half that much now. In 2002, Congress spent ninety-two million dollars to assist struggling apple growers.

How new breeds are discovered…

Bedford’s apple laboratory, a thirty-acre parcel of rolling land about thirty miles west of Minneapolis, is planted with about twenty thousand apple trees. In May, during blossom time, Bedford and his student assistants make crosses between promising varieties: taking pollen from one variety and swabbing it onto the stamen of another, and then bagging those flowers to keep pollen from other trees out. Although the apple that grows on that branch will be true to the mother tree’s DNA, the seeds will be heterozygous, combining equal and unique parts of both parents’ genes so that every seed is distinct—another thing apple trees and humans have in common. Bedford hopes to get the best characteristics of both parents into the offspring, while producing an apple with an identity all its own. “Some apples look great but don’t pass those traits on,” he told me, “while others are not so great-looking but make good parents.” Each one of the three to five thousand seeds that result from a season of crosses will be unlike all the others and will produce a different tree. Bedford plants the seeds in a greenhouse, and grafts the budding trees onto outdoor rootstock the following summer. In about five years, he will have four thousand or so brand-new apples to taste.

In the fall, during the apple harvest, Bedford tastes apples from blossom times past, up to five hundred apples a day, in the hope of finding that one apple in ten thousand that will be released as a commercial variety. I spent an afternoon with him in early September, walking through long rows of young trees, and tasting apples of every imaginable size, shape, hue, and flavor, from musky melonlike apples to bright lemony apples and apples that tasted like licorice. “We don’t actually swallow, and we don’t really even have time to spit,” Bedford explained. “You just kind of hold a bit in your mouth for a while, until you get the flavor, and then let it fall out.”

If a tree produces exceptionally good apples for several years in a row, it achieves élite status and is awarded a number. Four clones are made from the mother tree’s wood, and those trees are grown in another orchard on the property, under commercial conditions. To evaluate the élite trees, Bedford carries a field notebook with twenty categories on a page, which, in addition to the “organoleptics”—all the sensory stuff, like flavor, texture, and color—include tree size, shape, and yield. He scores each category from one to nine. He generally continues these yearly evaluations for a decade or longer, in order to subject the trees to a representative range of extreme summers and winters and drought and flood, and in the hope of ferreting out all the quirks that apple trees are heir to. Some are wild in their youth but eventually settle down, while others bear fruit every other year; some bear smaller fruits as the trees age, while others drop their apples before they’re ripe.

Finally, a truly outstanding apple is named, the tree is patented, and clones are released to nurseries, where thousands of copies of the trees are made and sold to growers, for which the university collects a royalty of around a dollar per tree during the life of the patent. Large color posters of the five apples released during Bedford’s time at the agricultural station decorate his office, their swollen flesh glistening with beads of moisture, like centerfold pinups in a mechanic’s shop.

As we walked the rows, Bedford carried a can of orange spray paint. If an apple wasn’t reasonably tasty—and only two of the scores of varieties we tasted made the grade—and if he determined the apple to be fully ripe (which he did by cutting it open with a long-bladed knife and spraying iodine on the flesh; the starch in an unripe apple will turn black) then he coldly marked the tree for extermination by spraying orange paint on its trunk. That day, I watched him terminate dozens of unique hybrids whose like the world will never see again, and by the end of the day I had a newfound respect for the breeder as the godlike master of his domain, the ultimate arbiter of life and death in the orchard.

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Peter Thiel on what it means to bet on China and Alibaba

Peter Thiel is fond of a rhetorical device: “What seems like X should really be understand as ~X’” An example: “You have to think of companies like Microsoft or Oracle or Hewlett-Packard as fundamentally bets against technology.”

Here’s the trick applied to understand what it means to invest in Alibaba. Is Alibaba the next great technology company, or is it really something else?

Thiel touched on this in a talk at the American Enterprise Institute with James Glassman.

China thinks of the internet in a way that’s very different from the U.S. They think of information technology as something less important than we do economically, and more important politically.

And so these companies are fundamentally political investments. They’re protected by the government. They won’t face competition from Western companies.

So an investment in Alibaba is fundamentally a bet that Jack Ma will stay in the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. I suspect that that’s a good bet…

Relatedly, here are his more general thoughts on China, via his essay published (in 2008) for Hoover’s Policy Review. Is a bet on China a bet on successful globalization, or is it really something else?

One intermediate possibility is that the China of 2014 will be like the internet of 2007 — much larger, but with winners very different from the ones that investors today expect. The largest New Economy business is Google, a company that scarcely registered in early 2000. Might it also turn out that the greatest Chinese companies of 2014 will be concerns that are private and tightly controlled businesses today, rather than the high-profile and money-losing companies that have been floated by the Chinese state?

At the very least, outsiders need to understand that China is controlled for the benefit of insiders. The insiders know when to sell, and so one would expect the businesses that have been made available to the outside world systematically to underperform those ventures still controlled by card-carrying members of the Chinese Communist Party. “China” will underperform China, and a “China” bubble exists to the extent that investors underestimate the degree of this underperformance.

This limitation also may be framed in terms of globalization. In important respects, “China” as a financial economy is sustained by the absence of globalization — in particular, by the enormous amounts of capital trapped within China’s borders that must either suffer slow death from inflation (now running higher than Chinese bank deposit rates) or brave the acute sense of vertigo of the elevated stock market. Because the free convertibility of the renminbi would dampen equity speculation, a long “China” position is not a forecast that financial globalization will succeed, but rather a bet that its internal contradictions will persist.