“The English and Their History,” by Robert Tombs

I picked up Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History after I read David Frum’s review. (MR also had nice things to say.) Professor Tombs is a historian at Cambridge who’s spent most of his career writing about France. The book consists of 900 pages of British history, focusing especially on the English people; it’s dense and comprehensive, covering every issue of historical importance, and usually quite briefly.

The book is tremendously satisfying to read. I enjoyed it at every moment, and wished that it would go on further as I approached the end. Here are some impressions, with a focus on things I’ve learned:

1. To my regret, I’ve never taken formal coursework in European history. Although I’ve lived briefly on the continent, I don’t have much solid knowledge of what was important in various epochs. This book corrects at least a bit of my ignorance around the history of Britain.

For example: I never really knew who the Normans were or when the Conquest took place. As it turns out, the Norman Conquest was an 11th century invasion of England by a French nobleman, William II of Normandy. He raised a fleet and an army to depose the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. After William secured England under his rule, major parts of state and society tilted towards French sensibilities. His status as the new English king combined with his possessions in France were major factors for centuries of warfare between the two countries.

The list of these illuminations goes on and on. Who were the Jacobites? Who fought whom in the English Civil War? How did the British get everywhere? Who are the eight Henrys and which of them were significant? Who ruled the Admiralty? Knowing a bit more about these questions is a nice confidence to have.

2. The English and Their History isn’t just a textbook. It gets beyond the dry recitation of facts by presenting various contrarianisms.

Frum’s review discusses three: 1. The English were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade, but reformers also took the moral lead in abolishing it throughout the empire. (A fact I found impressive: “The Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa.”) 2. English workers lived relatively well, usually better than their counterparts on the continent; the Dickensian depictions of squalor were the exceptions, not the rule. 3. The post-WWII obsessions with decline was quite a cultural exaggeration; the English misremember the past for being greater than than it was, and they understate how well off they had become.

And here are a few more quick ones I thought to present:

  • Contra Keynes, Tombs makes the case that Germany could have paid war reparations after all. For Germany, reparations were a greater political problem than an economic one.
  • In general, Britain’s island status made it easier, not harder to be invaded. For a long time, it was impossible for the state to defend every part of the coast; a fleet can sail up a bit further to a less guarded spot if it intended to invade. Before Britain could protect most parts of the island, it could only pray that poor sea conditions turn away foes. William the Conqueror and William of Orange were lucky; Philip II and Napoleon were not.
  • As often as not, Britain was a reluctant imperialist. Expansion was usually driven by local problems. Tombs lists a few reasons: “to control settlers; to restrain them from attacking natives; to defend them from reprisals when they did; to secure frontiers by pushing outwards, thus replacing existing problems with new ones; to fight wars against neighboring entities seen as a threat,” etc.

3. British foreign policy appears to have been consistent over the course of centuries: When a European country became too powerful, Britain financed its rivals. If Britain had to go to war, it used its overwhelming sea power to raid and blockade, rather than deploy its usually lackluster standing army to meet a threat head-on.

That strategy was well-implemented by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the paymaster of the coalition that set Dutch, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and troops from other countries against the French. (To finance these efforts, it relied on an income tax, trade with its colonies, and selling bonds abroad.) Its troops did fight and win, but it was really the fleet that put the most pressure on Napoleon and made a mockery of his Continental System.

Of WWII, here’s Tombs: “This was the last great imperial struggle, the fourth great war in which Britain was victorious by being able to mobilize global resources against a European hegemon.”

4. The formidable sea power resulted from centuries of investments in the Royal Navy:

“Trafalgar was in reality a one-sided battle, as was now invariably the case when the totally dominant Royal Navy got to grips with its enemies, inferior in training, morale, and physical health.”

“From 1793 to 1815, (the Royal Navy) lost only one line-of-battle ship to enemy action, but captured or destroyed 139… (the navy) was the most important and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society, and left few aspects of national life unaffected.”

“Blockades of French ports were progressively tightened as the navy learned how to spend long periods on station without its crews quickly falling sick—Admiral Collingwood, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, had not set foot on shore for eight years before he died on board in 1810… British sailors spent far more time at sea, giving the Royal Navy the advantage of tough and well-trained crews. They were led by a meritocratic and experienced officer corps… Food and drink were good and plentiful—about 5000 calories a day, including a pound of bread, a pound of meat, and a gallon of beer.”

Certain warships cost as much as the annual budgets of small states.

5. The book is comprehensive and readable. It covered all the things you ought to know about in sufficient depth, and the writing is always bright and clear.

Of course, being comprehensive entails the usual complaint: You wish that certain topics were covered in greater detail. The War of the Roses, for example, is discussed in a mere seven pages. As a casual Game of Thrones fan, I’d have cared to read much more.

6. In roughly the first half of the book, nearly all discussions focused on political and royal issues. Who was the reigning monarch? What was his/her relationship to Parliament? Which war did his death and succession cause?

And then in the latter half, the focus shifts almost entirely. After Victoria, the monarch is rarely brought up. Instead of offering an evaluation of the king or queen, Tombs doesn’t write about many at all. I’d have liked some acknowledgment of that. Did the sovereign start to matter less as Parliament took on more power? Was there too little materialistic and economic development to be written about? Did domestic issues and foreign policy become more important as England stabilized? Was it a matter of record keeping, in which economic developments were hard to track, but court machinations well-recorded?

The earlier focus on royal personalities made certain paragraphs bewildering. At some point there were too many Edwards, Henrys, and later on Georges, for me to keep track of. I gave up on certain sentences because I didn’t want to browse back to see which Charles/Edward/Henry was being referred to after all.

7. And here’s a slightly different form of the complaint above: Though there are many great discussions of culture, there’s still too much focus on kings and wars.

I wish that there were more discussions on economically interesting things. Enough on the personalities of queens and prime ministers. How did people adapt to the steam engine and the railroad? How did elites deal with the rise of German and American industry? How complementary were the colonies to the home economy? What was the social and economic impact of all of its scientific innovations?

8. Monarchy was in general not a stabilizing force for the country. Tombs mentioned that about the only succession to go well in a 100-year time span was that of Henry VII to Henry VIII. (The latter managed to provoke massive instability all on his own, without the assistance of succession problems.) Before George I, nearly every succession led to some lengthy war.

These succession issues made me think of Scott Alexander’s Neoreactionary FAQ. Strong monarchs may produce stable kingdoms, but their succession usually provoked political upheaval. The weeks after a monarch’s death were terribly fraught for all factions. There were always questions about the best claim; or people would be upset that the wrong religion now controls the throne; or foreign actors decide to take advantage of chaos to launch military action. I don’t much read neoreactionaries, and I hope that they acknowledge the fact that succession issues were the source for some of the worst wars.

9. To wrap up, here’s a gentle plea from Tombs to remember Britain’s contributions in WWII: “Had (Britain) made peace with Germany in 1940, Nazi dominance of Europe for the foreseeable future would have been unchallengeable, and American isolationism confirmed… Germany would have held the global initiative, with free access to oil, food, and raw materials. The subsequent defeat of an isolated USSR, simultaneously assailed by Japan, would have been inevitable, accompanied by a planned genocidal depopulation of much of eastern Europe.”

“In a nutshell: the defeat of Japan was overwhelmingly American; the evisceration of the German army was mainly due to the Russians; but the strategic defeat of Germany as a whole and that of Italy were primarily due to Britain.”

***

I’ll reiterate that I really like this book: It’s a comprehensive, readable account of the political and cultural history of a major power.

Another history quite excites me at the moment: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. I flipped it open in a bookstore, to land on a section describing the varieties of monarchies in Southeast Asia. How can one resist?

Now a question: Every country deserves to have its history written up like this, but right now I’m most interested in finding two; what’s the equivalent for France and Germany? In other words, which German/French history substitutes for a textbook, but is more gracefully written and viewpoint-driven? I’ve asked a few people, none of whom have offered pointers. I’ll appreciate any suggestions: danwyd@gmail.com.

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Thiel and Trump

In the spring of 2011, a year before he locked up the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney went to have breakfast with Peter Thiel in San Francisco. Thiel offered some political advice. Here’s the account from George Packer’s book, The Unwinding:

Romney said his campaign was going to focus on the economy, not social issues, and let the numbers make his argument. Thiel found him extremely polished and impressive, and he offered Romney a prediction: “I think the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests that you’re out of touch.” In other words, it would be a mistake for Romney just to argue that Obama was incompetent, and that things would automatically be much better with a different president.

Romney didn’t take it up. Here’s Packer again:

It was a point that Romney couldn’t grasp. He assumed that the more optimistic candidate would always win. He assumed things were still fundamentally working.

I thought of this passage as I listened to Donald Trump’s speech at the RNC Convention. Twitter lit up with indignation even as he was speaking, as people denounced the speech as dark and full of despair.

An hour before Trump took the stage, Peter Thiel went up to speak. Not only did Thiel speak on behalf of Trump, he also went through the trouble of becoming one of his national delegates. I couldn’t help but wonder if Thiel gave exactly the same advice to Trump that he did to Romney: Go for darkness and pessimism.

If he did, Trump exploited it ruthlessly. Note that Trump’s closest competitor in the primaries, Ted Cruz, has enjoyed a longer relationship with Thiel. And he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine himself. Both Trump and Cruz have managed to weaponize pessimism. Perhaps it was already Trump’s instinct to offer a bleak vision and didn’t need any convincing from Thiel. Still, his success in the primaries is evidence for Thiel’s idea that pessimism is the right tone to strike.

I’ve seen many takes on why Thiel is supporting Trump. In general I think they overcomplicate. I’ve never spoken with Thiel about his motivations, and I suspect that no one except himself knows why he’s doing this. But let me share my own speculations on his support of Trump:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Being a contrarian means taking contrarian positions. What could provoke greater delight than to take the complete opposite stand from (almost literally) every single one of your peers, who are public and passionate about their distaste for Trump? When one sees this degree of unanimity on any position, can a good contrarian possibly resist taking the other side? It’s too delicious of an opportunity to pass up.

(This is also kind of the “he’s a troll” explanation.)

He agrees with Trump on policy. Thiel has become less supportive of free trade; Trump bashes NAFTA all the time. Neither are enthusiastic about foreign interventions. Both want to blow up political correctness. Both have made positive noises on single payer healthcare, as well as raising the minimum wage. Both want to “build big things.” And isn’t Trump quite friendly towards the LGBTQ community? On a lot of major issues, the two are at least rhetorically aligned. When else is Thiel going to get this mix of left-right positions?

Still, I think that Thiel’s agreement with Trump on policy is being over-indexed by most commentators. A commitment to detailed policy proposals isn’t the key to understanding either man.

By the way, I don’t think that using Thiel’s background is the right way to understand the relationship. Thiel doesn’t make a big deal out of his identity, and in some cases you can read contradictions into them. It’s better to start instead from his beliefs.

He really doesn’t like Clinton. Thiel founded the conservative Stanford Review in the late-’80s, and published The Diversity Myth in 1996. All indications are that he was a righteous Republican in the ‘90s. And what unified all Republicans then? A hatred of the Clintons. It could be so simple that Thiel really doesn’t want the Clintons back in the White House.

He’s an accelerationist. Here’s the explanation I like the least: He’s supporting Trump to hasten the collapse of capitalist democracy/a functional government/social institutions. I think that Thiel’s distaste for democracy, if it even exists, is overblown. Thiel’s a fan of Benjamin Friedman’s work, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He wants to see growth more than anything else, so that people can come together to discuss how to increase the pie. That’s as opposed to having no growth, in which people bicker about how to divide a static pie. Everything is worse when the pie shrinks.

Consider his most original essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment. He considers it foolish and irresponsible to make bets on the end of the world. This was quite a big theme for him before he took up discussing technological pessimism.

One last thing: Two of his most famous philanthropic ventures involve getting people to drop out of college and to create self-governing societies. I’ve seen people refer to these to prove that Thiel wants society to blow up after all. But that’s quite wrong. Thiel is not trying to blow anything up. Instead, he’s advocating to exit decaying institutions, and to build new ones instead.

Hedging his positions. Thiel used to be a derivatives trader and managed a hedge fund. According to the betting markets right now, Trump is around 30% likely to win. Most of Thiel’s peers are rooting for the other side, and his support for Trump can be a hedge for the tech sector as a whole.

Potential payoff. There could be a lot for Thiel if Trump wins; traders have made fortunes from far worse odds. A cabinet position, perhaps? I’ve cheekily suggested that Thiel would make an excellent Secretary of Defense. The Pentagon has the biggest budget and a mandate to develop new technologies. Imagine what Thiel can do with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has worked on the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, and the Kennedy Space Center.

$500,000 was a small price to pay for getting in on Facebook early; becoming a delegate and speaking at a convention is a cheaper price still, for a far greater potential payoff. And in any case, Thiel’s funding of various unpopular causes has already sufficiently alienated him with polite society; he’s not about to lose many followers now.

And it’s not just the direct personal payoff. With the executive branch on his side, he stands to help out a lot of his portfolio companies as well. Many of his investments are in high-regulated industries, and stand to benefit a great deal from federal contracts, not to mention executive relief from Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, and on and on.

***

I wasn’t so surprised to learn that Thiel had become a delegate for Trump when news broke in May. Certainly I didn’t expect for him to go through the hassles of actually becoming a delegate, but his declared support needn’t have shocked. This is the sort of thing he does, and in this case I expect that he acted with gusto.

Here’s a not quite related point, to conclude: In 2014, Thiel said that Trump is “sort of symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City.” I’d love for him to unpack that. What is so bad about New York, and about the culture of the east coast more generally? And which person embodies the very best of New York?

Addendum, 9.6,16: Thiel publishes an op-ed in the Washington Post on his support of Trump. It focuses on his belief that Trump will improve the effectiveness of government.

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“Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” from John Brooks’ Business Adventures

A friend recommended that I pick up Business Adventures by John Brooks. It’s a book made recently popular by Bill Gates, who borrowed his copy from his friend Warren Buffett.

Business Adventures is made up of 12 chapters, each of which was separately published as articles in the New Yorker. It covers topics like insider trading, stockholder meetings, an early Wall Street bailout, and more. The very first chapter I read was “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” which profiles the company that was so important to the city of Rochester, where I went to college. (The story mentions the university quite a few times.) The company was initially named Haloid, and it struggled to develop a product before it found major success.

Brooks’ storytelling is superb. Here are a few things from the chapter that resonated with me. And at the end of the post, I’ll share a few of my favorite sentences.

1. In 1964, the company spent a year’s advertising budget to underwrite a series of ads supporting the United Nations. The UN is well established now, so it’s easy to ignore, or not know at all, that its growth was a matter of major controversy. Xerox’s CEO justified the expenditure in high-minded terms: “World cooperation is our business, because without it there might be no world and no business.”

The company ran into a storm of opposition. Thousands of letters poured in to denounce Xerox. They didn’t all come from members of the John Birch Society, although most did: some purportedly came from the presidents of major companies, who threatened to remove all Xerox machines from their offices unless the ad series was canceled. The company declined to give in.

It does not seem self-evident that the responsibility for promoting world cooperation should fall so heavily on a company selling photocopiers. How often do major companies take stands on positions of genuine public controversy? And how often do they maintain these public positions when their customers expressly threaten to cancel business? It feels remarkably brave.

2. Here’s bravery of a more obvious sort: The company invested a great deal in R&D for the product, at a time when it wasn’t clear that a breakthrough was possible. No one else had figured out how to build a cheap, efficient xerography machine that could print on untreated paper. Developing the machine eventually became a do-or-die affair for the company. Several early employees really stuck their necks out, including forgoing a salary and mortgaging their houses to help with the research effort. They were duly rewarded, but they may well have all been ruined.

3. I’ve never quite realized how important Xerox was to the city and to the University of Rochester. It’s fun to read the profile of the company and recognize so many names I’ve seen around campus. Joseph C. Wilson was variously the chairman, chief executive, and president of the company; his name is on the main boulevard of the university and one of the three major dining halls. The school has named its science library after Chester Carlson, who developed one of the processes critical to xerography. I haven’t seen the names of Sol Linowitz (a chief deputy) and John Dessauer (a chief researcher) around, but I’m sure that their names adorn professorships or different parts of campus.

Someone once told me that the University of Rochester had a massive endowment in the ’60s, second only to Harvard’s. Now it all makes sense.  Before Xerox had its breakthrough, the university bought a huge number of shares out of concern for helping out a struggling local employer. When the company took off, the university’s position did as well. Alas it wasn’t so successful at managing the money. Rochester’s endowment is now around $2 billion, while Harvard’s is around $32 billion.

Xerox was important to the city, not just to the university. I remember reading a 1971 book that describes the city this way: “Rochester prides itself on being one of America’s cultural crown jewels; it has its libraries, school system, university, museums, and its well-known symphony.” That was the heyday of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb. But it wasn’t able to keep growing or maintain momentum; the city’s population has been in decline for the last few decades, stabilizing only in the last few years. Instead of being able to tout these multinational industrial giants, the city’s largest employers have become the University of Rochester (because of the hospital system) and Wegmans (a grocery chain).

4. I’d always thought it a little funny that Xerox’s name so resembled Kodak’s. It turns out that it was intentional of the upstart to copy Kodak’s near-palindrome. The decision to change the name to Xerox from Haloid ran into virulent opposition from the firm’s marketing consultants, who declared the name unpronounceable and to sound too much like “zero.”

The chapter is my favorite so far in the book. Others I’ve read don’t come close to being as interesting, though perhaps I say that only because it has personal resonance. At some points Brooks is a brilliant writer, but at other times I’m put off by his self-consciousness. Anyway, here are three of my favorite sentences, all from the Xerox chapter.

In a society that sociologists are forever characterizing as a “mass,” the notion of making one-of-a-kind things into many-of-a-kind things showed signs of becoming a real compulsion.

I sent a couple of afternoons with one 914 and its operator, and observed what seemed to be the closest relationship between a woman and a piece of office equipment that I have ever seen. A girl who uses a typewriter or a switchboard has no interest in the equipment, because it holds no mystery, while one who operates a computer is bored with it, because it is incomprehensible. But a 914 has distinct animal traits…

Xerox salesmen are forever trying to think of new uses for the company’s copiers, but they found again and again that the public is well ahead of them.

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Things I’ve recently learned, 3.13.16

Here are a few things I’ve been recently thinking about:

1. Intelligence is overrated; curiosity and a bias for action are underrated. There’s an abundance of people who are able to come up with solutions once a problem is presented to them. There are far fewer people who are able to figure out how to frame problems in the first place, and to actually implement the solution once they have an idea. I’m not sure if Silicon Valley is more or less prone to this.

2. I’ve been having way too much fun recently reading up on British titles. Did you know that the “Commissioner in Lunacy” was a real position until 1914? No matter how much I research, I can’t figure out the responsibilities of the “Lord Privy Seal.” Relatedly, I’ve found fascinating why it’s the “British Army” while it’s the “Royal Navy” and the “Royal Air Force.” (The convention is repeated in other Commonwealth countries, e.g. the “Royal Canadian Navy,” “Australian Army,” and “Royal New Zealand Air Force.”) Apparently it has to do with the fact that armies are raised by local lords, and therefore under the control of Parliament; but if you want to invade France, you need the monarch to raise a fleet. Furthermore, Scottish troops would be reluctant to serve a “Royal Army” after the Acts of Union with England.

Still, it doesn’t explain why it’s the “Royal Air Force.” Didn’t the air force emerge from the army, which should strip it of its “royal” designation?

3. Of my recent Flexport articles, my favorite is: “Supply Chain of the Banana.”

4. I recently overheard an eminent writer say: “The problem with most people is that they’re not interested in anything at all. If you cultivate interests, people will think that you’re interesting yourself.” At first I thought “being interested in things” is not sufficient to being interesting, but I’ve warmed up to the idea.

5. My favorite recording of Mahler 3 is Abbado with the Wiener Philharmoniker. I can find no instance of cinematic music that’s more idiomatic than the opening of “The New World,” which features the vorspiel of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. And I’ve become fully comfortable admitting that hysterical Verdi > sublime Verdi.

6. Two questions: Why do so few people write consistently? It seems valuable, and I wish that more of my smart friends would put their ideas down in print. And why do so few people outbound? It’s usually not so hard to get a meeting with someone interesting, if you’d tweet or send an email. But so few people actually make the ask.

6. I’m trying harder to be direct and forthcoming. To do that, I’ve become more open about the things I’m ashamed about. I find doing this to be more valuable: First, it boosts confidence so that I can more quickly get to the point. And it also makes it easier for the other party to do the same.

I’m hesitant though to do that online, by which I mean Twitter and this blog. There’s much more room for misinterpretation print. Someone has said that it’s less risky to have a child than to write; at least you’re able to legally disown your progeny.

7. The most beautiful book title I’ve seen in recent months is *Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,* by Stephen Platt. The second best has to be: *The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.* I much prefer the UK version of Rose George’s book: *Deep Sea and Foreign Going,* to the American version: *Ninety Percent of Everything.*

8. Something else I’ve learned recently: Goebbels spent as much money on theatre as he did on propaganda, which is twice as much as he did on films. Apparently it was because theatre-going was very much an activity of the middle-class, of which Goebbels really needed support. (This is from Nicholas Stargardt’s *The German War*)

9. Some personal news: I’ve moved from northern Oakland/southern Berkeley to Pac Heights in the city. I love the college environment of Berkeley, but I found too good of a deal to pass up in the really nice neighborhood of Pac Heights. Living in the city already feels different, perhaps I’ll write more about it once I’ve been here for a while. In the meantime, do send me a note if you’d like to meet up. There are a lot of coffee shops and restaurants nearby.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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