Reflections from an unglobalized part of the world

It hasn’t been very long since I’ve moved to Hong Kong. Something I find odd but a relief is how familiar this city feels, even though I’ve not spent time here before. Coming from San Francisco and Manhattan, I find this city pretty straightforward to navigate. I don’t mean only in terms of finding my way through the streets—after all, most of the city is squeezed along a narrow strip of land. Instead, nothing is very challenging about going to the shops, finding food, and taking the subway.

This is not the case in Kunming, in Yunnan province, where I’ve just spent a few weeks. I found it much more difficult to make sense of Kunming than Hong Kong, even though I was born in Kunming, grew up there until age 7, and visit every few years. Hong Kong feels so far away from New York and San Francisco, two other thoroughly globalized cities.

We’re all traveling to more places now, but I wonder if their novelty is limited by our tendency to travel to them in all the same ways. We use online booking to find hotels close to the city center, Yelp for restaurants nearby, and grab coffee in cafés that frankly all feel the same at this point. These rules don’t apply so neatly in Kunming. That city is a special place, here are some of my thoughts on an unglobalized part of the world, a description I mean mostly as praise.

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Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, far in the southwest of China, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. My love for Yunnan starts with the name: 云南, the characters for “Clouds” and “South.” South of the Clouds: It’s romantic enough of a name that Starbucks copyrighted it for a blend of its beans.

A few of Yunnan’s towns turn out to be popular with tourists, namely Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. One can easily find accounts of their scenic or cultural value, I don’t care to recount them here. Instead I want to discuss the distinctiveness of Yunnan relative to the rest of China.

First of all, Yunnan is far from the rich coastal provinces. Not only is it distant from the most developed parts of the country, it’s heavily mountainous, which significantly increases its inaccessibility. (High speed rail came to Kunming only by the end of 2016, after arduous track construction through tunnels and over mountains.) The province had been an independent kingdom until around the 13th century, when it joined the fold of the Yuan Dynasty through Mongol conquest. Yunnan is still the most ethnically diverse province of China, home to large portions of non-Han peoples.

The province is so far removed that locals like to work into speech that Beijing is far away. For example: “That apartment is so far from downtown that it might as well be in Beijing.” I think the phrase “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” is better adapted for Yunnan than anywhere else.

If you’re looking for modern developed China, Yunnan is not the place to go. The air there is good, without particulate from industry, though it can get dusty. It’s far from ocean ports, highly dependent on tourism, and Kunming’s income levels are far below that of other major cities. Few people speak English. Much of the province is reliant on tobacco or tea cultivation. In the city, property drives a great deal of local growth.

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My trips everywhere are organized around eating. The most memorable meal I had on this visit was at a tofu restaurant. It was in Chenggong, a new town nearby, to which Kunming recently moved its municipal government and universities. (Chenggong used to feature front and center when journalists covered Chinese ghost cities, an infamy I think it has outgrown.) More precisely, the restaurant was situated in a preserved village in Chenggong, one famous for making traditional tofus. Not only where the three tofu dishes of extraordinary quality, the hams, meat buns, soy milk, and greens were all cooked perfectly as well.

The government allowed this village to stay put in spite of commercial development all around it. Once you’re inside, it feels totally cut off from the rest of the city, much like when one is in a hutong. The village has three narrow streets, each barely enough for two cars to squeeze through side by side, and they all have to accommodate pedestrians as well. The restaurant is at the end of one of these winding roads, which brings you past through all the local establishments, until excellent tofu improbably awaits.

The quality of the meal combined with the difficulty of accessing it has much been on my mind, and it’s the main prompt for writing this post. To this day I’ve no idea what the place is called. You won’t find its website. It’s not in the tour guides. And the locals who go won’t be writing about it for you on Yelp.

And to a large extent, this was not an exceptional experience in terms of culinary revelation. In fact, many of the best places I’ve eaten at were like this to some extent. I found my favorite meals in mundane neighborhoods, areas very residential or difficult to get to from the city center. I was able to find these places only because my relatives, all of whom were born in Kunming, knew about them and took me. If I were not with locals, I doubt I’d have any idea these places existed.

***

My posts are full of idle generalizations, and I’m not afraid this one will be driven by another. Visiting Kunming has made me think more about isolation, and how that can be an asset for learning and discovery.

As part of his idea of “innovation starvation,” Neal Stephenson has written on how it’s become much easier to be discouraged from trying various things. If one comes up with a novel idea, it’s very common to search on the Internet to see if it’s been tried before. And usually it looks like it sort of has. That’s typically discouraging, and one drops the idea of developing something novel.

Here’s Stephenson: “What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new — and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields.”

If the map is full of blank spaces, it becomes exciting to discover new lands. That’s risky: Sometimes you get shipwrecked, sometimes your crew mutinies, sometimes you discover vast treasures of spice and gold. On the other hand, if satellites tell you that the world is fully mapped, or that Google tells you that your idea has been tried before, maybe you give up on adventure.

I have only a hazy understanding of Albert Hirschman’s ideas on development, but I think he’s written on something similar. If entrepreneurs or planners fully realize how finishing a project will be, whether that’s starting a firm or building a road, they may not start it at all. But they don’t realize that, so they get started, and then find it too difficult to turn back. And in most cases, the world is better off for their efforts.

If you don’t want people to be discouraged, maybe it’s better they don’t know of all the development already out there. The tradeoff is sometimes you waste the efforts of people who re-invent various wheels. But from a learning point of view, that may not be so negative. I submit that the process of manually working through solved problems is an underrated learning experience. Sometimes I re-do manual calculations of math problems usually trivial to solve; I used to make a habit out of re-typing various magazine articles (usually from the New Yorker) because it made me hyperaware of sentence construction; and one of the most valuable things I did as a musician was to copy whole swathes of sheet music. Rote copying drew derision, and nonetheless I regret not doing it very much anymore.

***

If you want to cultivate enthusiasm for innovation, I submit it’s better not to know of all the solved problems out there. Stephenson calls this “Galapagan isolation.” Isolation breeds boredom and guilelessness; it encourages a belief that there are still secrets left to discover in the world.

Thiel has used an entire lecture to remind us the importance of belief in secrets: “The people who actually solve hard problems are people who believe in secrets. If you believe something is hard, you might still think you can do it. You’ll try things, and maybe you’ll succeed. But if you think something is impossible, you won’t even try.”

I’m not saying that Kunming is a great place to become an entrepreneur. In fact it has a poor track record of innovation. But growing up there possibly brings you to the optimal point between isolation and exposure, more so than say Greenwich Village. Yunnan is isolated and inward-looking. That helps to instill a sense of self-abasement that prompts one to think that much more of the world is out there; and when one eventually gets to a large city, it may be easy to feel disappointment that it’s not as exciting as the fantasy constructed by imagination. Why not discover, experiment, and consider that the status quo isn’t necessarily great?

Most of all we should avoid this tendency identified by Thiel: “People are increasingly pessimistic about the existence of new and interesting things. Can we go to the moon? We’ve done that already. Mars? Impossible, many people say. What about chemistry?… The periodic table seems pretty set. It may be impossible to discover anything new there. The frontier is closed. There is nothing left to discover.”

I like discovery-hunger, although I admit that life in Kunming offers too many leisures to sate various hungers. I’d refine my argument in favor of isolation to suggest it’s better to grow up in distant places before you move to central ones; some frustration at not having easy access to information is helpful to encourage deeper exploration. An isolated place should have enough outside exposure, while offering a great deal of boredom, in order to induce people to go out and explore. At its best, isolationism induces the sense that many people far away are much smarter than you, and that you should be learning voraciously from the rest of the world. It should also encourage disappointment with the status quo, and an optimism that one can change it.

At this point it may be relevant to bring up that the most famous person from Yunnan is Zheng He. He was the eunuch who commanded the imperial treasure fleets that sailed from China to India and Africa, before the Ming emperors halted ocean expeditions.

***

Belief in secrets and a capacity for wonder manifests in non-entrepreneurial ways as well. Here are a few instances of that in Kunming:

Food supply chains are short, which means that what’s on the market is heavily seasonal. So people have different things to look forward to throughout the year, and they don’t expect that any particular fruit or vegetable will be around for long. Instead of looking for blueberries and strawberries year-round, people find a constant source of delight to discover that something has returned to market.

Mushroom picking is a good encapsulation of the exploratory tendencies of Yunnanese. Given its high elevation, plentiful trees, and mysterious other factors, Yunnan produces some of the best mushrooms in the world. I’ve gone on mushroom-picking expeditions, and I find them to be an excellent source of lessons of risk/reward tradeoffs. One might well find an extraordinarily delicious kind; one might well get poisoned. I’ve experienced both, and while I’m able to I shall continuing going on these adventures.

Belief in secrets can breed a hope for easy solutions, and that’s the flip side of the coin. For example, it might breed the lack of cynicism that makes people seek salvation through a cult; or to place faith in miracle ingredients in medicines; or fall for get-rich-quick schemes. I observe these tendencies in Kunming too.

(The front gates of Dali, a pretty town in Yunnan.)

***

Day-to-day life in China is rewarding, but here’s something I’m often annoyed by: Cars have right of way. Pedestrians must yield at crosswalks when cars turn, on sidewalks when cars exit from lots, at intersections not governed by lights.

There are too many times when, midway through crossing the street, that you see incoming traffic coming at alarming speed, and you realize that you’ve taken your life into your own hands. In the city, one might not have the luxury of walking through the streets deep in thought, pondering say the latest food revelation. Frankly it’s appalling, and enough to get you to sign on to the #BanCars movement.

Then again, after some thought, one considers that car right-of-way really is the efficient Coasean solution here. Given the number of pedestrians, it’s correct to place the cost on those who can stop most efficiently. Otherwise there would be no way for cars, buses, or bikes to get around at all.

Here’s a note on public transit in Kunming: There’s a good network of buses, but not much of a subway system. Kunming has been one of the largest cities in China to have been doing without one. And it has started to remedy that, with remarkable slowness. The city announced the construction of six subway lines in 2010: Seven years later, it has opened half of them. That’s a much slower rate than every other large city.

I draw a lot of delight at this lackluster pace. Why is it so slow? My imagination offers two explanations, both of which cute: Perhaps the veterans who built the mighty Beijing and Shanghai metros arrived in Kunming and were at last humbled by a cityscape they cannot reshape; or the system is being managed entirely by local engineers, who are way out of their depth working on a project on which they dare take only baby steps. I can gladly believe in either explanation, and am not sure if I really want to know what’s really going on.

***

A few final thoughts:

  • Some people say that the food in Beijing and Shanghai has been in decline. Kunming’s food is still impressive, I hardly ever regretted a meal. (Unlike in the States, where too often I felt I had to gulp down disappointment and calories in equal measure.) I’m optimistic that quality in Kunming will stay at a high level for a while longer. Development is slower, supply chains are still short, and people have the leisure time to be highly discerning about what they eat. Kunming supermarkets are often simply wet markets with a roof on top; until 2003, Walmarts used to sell snakes and slaughter chickens onsite.
  • A few general suggestions on local food: In the mornings, people eat mixian, or soupy rice noodles, which are silkier than wheat noodles. One might also look for ersi, a tangier form of rice noodles that I believe is not eaten outside of Yunnan. Lunchtime and dinnertime allow for greater extravagance. A few things to look for: Yunnan ham, soft tofus, local cheeses, bee larvae (or any other cooked insect), spicy beef, and local barbecue. Most of all, mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms, there are too many good kinds to count. They’re best in June and July, you’ll find all types then.
  • My rule of thumb for eating in China: So long as you’re wandering around residential areas, you really can’t go wrong with a meal. Go to big blocks of old apartments, and you’ll find good food nearby.
  • The Yunnan government has rolled out initiatives to fashion Kunming into a tech or finance hub. When I see these efforts, I wonder: Can’t it focus on its absolute advantages of agriculture and tourism? That seems to be working out well for New Zealand, Vermont, Bordeaux, and a bunch of other regions.
  • I very much like the idea of Hong Kong—this really is an astonishing place to find a skyscraper’d city—but I’m not yet sure of its execution.

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Tyler Cowen’s *The Complacent Class*

Reading The Complacent Class, by Tyler Cowen, reminded me of a few questions I’ve puzzled over for the last few years:

  • American colleges like to proclaim that they teach critical thinking skills: Not what to think, but how to think. Meanwhile, students who attend elite colleges typically enter one of a few career paths: finance, consulting, “tech,” medicine, or law. I’ve always felt this to be a bit of a paradox. Are there really so few good career paths that make sense for excellent students, who go into them after they’ve engaged in intense critical thinking? Or are most college students not such wonderful critical thinkers after all?
  • How adventurous can suburban life be when one is surrounded by people of similar socioeconomic class, and where nearly every social activity is mediated by the car?
  • Why do so few people share what they learn, from books, travel, and other experiences?

I’ll summarize Cowen’s book below, and then present other thoughts that reading it has prompted. As usual on this site, my pieces about books are less reviews, more records of things I’ve found striking.

***

Americans used to be so can-do, but they’ve lost some of that. Cowen’s book discusses the reasons behind and the consequences for that decline, starting with ways to measure the loss of restlessness: Americans are moving less between states; they’re starting new businesses at lower rates; and they’re marrying and living amongst people too much like themselves.

When the pie isn’t growing, it makes sense to dedicate yourself to protecting your own share. “What I find striking about contemporary America is how much we are slowing things down, how much we are digging ourselves in, and how much we are investing in stability,” Cowen writes. I’d put it in the following terms: too many parts of society are oriented towards bottom line activities of mistake avoidance instead of top line activities of taking risk and creating value.

Decades ago, people had a greater sense of urgency. As Cowen writes, some of this wasn’t always for the good. Anxious people are no longer so seduced by ideas like communism; and it’s a good thing that we haven’t had as many domestic bombings as the 2,500 between 1971 and 1972. But society loses other things when people aren’t dynamic. Not only is it economically unfortunate that productivity doesn’t grow; politics becomes more gridlocked, businesses wield greater monopoly power, and society as a whole loses the ability to regenerate itself. Toqueville considered the United States to be a land perpetually in motion; isn’t it a shame that seems no longer the case?

Americans are getting more passive—Cowen means this in the medical sense. More people are being prescribed opiods, antidepressants, and ADHD meds, all to induce calm. And: “Of all the drugs that might have been legalized [since the 1960’s], American citizens chose the one—marijuana—that makes users spacey, calm, and sleepy.”

“You can think of this book as detailing the social roots of the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long.”

***

After presenting various claims to argue the decline of American dynamism, Cowen identifies a country that very much has a cheerful, can-do spirit: China. “I have visited China many times over the past five years, for a different book project, and what I’ve observed there has made America’s social stagnation increasingly clear to me. That was one reason I came to write this book.”

I find claims for Chinese dynamism to be appealing. People I know who came of age during the Cultural Revolution make up a terribly interesting generation; it seems like you can pluck anyone over the age of 45 to find a totally improbable resumé. Cowen cites the examples of Jack Ma, who used to pester tourists for English lessons, and Wang Wenyin, a metals billionaire who used to live in a cement pipe. I personally know someone who never went to college and was instead a tank driver; then he was decommissioned and got into the manufacturing business; later on, he was involved in real estate, in Hainan no less; now he focuses his attentions on finance. So many other Chinese, my parents among them, have experienced swerves of similar magnitude in their careers.

Dynamism is the natural mode given 10 percent growth rates, which imply an economic doubling every seven years. If you grew up in almost any large city in China, you witnessed the construction of highways, along with the cars to jam them; the erection of skyscrapers, along with the companies to fill them; the laying down of rail tracks, along with the high-speed trains to glide over them.

I have only a bit of exposure to Chinese science fiction, and my impression is that it’s optimistic in the same way that American science fiction was optimistic in the ‘50s. That makes sense, right? Chinese society has advanced more in the 40-year period since the start of reform-and-opening than American society has between the Great Depression and the ‘70s. Authors extrapolate the growth they’ve seen in their lifetimes into the future; on the other hand, dystopian science fiction is the natural outcome of stagnant growth.

Thinking about that point makes me wonder if economists are poorly-equipped to measure how an optimistic vision can propel growth. If hipper boutiques and cafés are your only exposures to physical change, then it’s a bit more difficult to imagine a radically different future. Not so for people in Shenzhen and Shanghai. For Chinese who’ve lived through high growth rates over most of their lives, they’re right to expect a whole new world in a decade. On the other hand, if one’s physical environment never much changes, then it may be difficult to think about the future very much at all. Here’s Cowen: “We are using the acceleration of information transmission to decelerate changes in our physical world.” Must our imaginations be limited by the screen?

Technologically, my optimistic hope for China is that it will propel development in the world of atoms, picking up from where developed countries left off. Maybe it can take the torch on space exploration, to Mars and beyond. Maybe it can push forward nuclear fusion; it’s already been reported that American thorium scientists who could no longer develop the technology in the United States have taken their designs to China, which is happy to encourage their work. Maybe it will take the lead on life extension science, ocean exploration, cheap energy, and all the other things.

Peter Thiel has said that Chinese society is pessimistic and determinate. He writes: “Under determinate pessimism, you’ll be like China—stuck methodically copying things without any hope for a radically better future.” If that was once true, it is no longer. I submit that in many ways it’s optimistic and determinate; instead, it is the NIMBYs of Marin County and Palo Alto who are pessimistic and indeterminate, rationing out their land without necessarily a clear end goal. (Here is by the way a sampling of police blotter reports in the town of Atherton, California, where all the VCs live.) By the way, Zero to One has sold more copies in China than anywhere else in the world.

***

Who are a few uncomplacent Americans? I nominate three people for embodying restlessness and a particularly American kind of success.

I’ve already written about Philip Glass. When he received prize monies from Juilliard, he spent it on a motorcycle so that he could ride around the country. He was never afraid to go into steep debt to realize his creative works. Or to drop everything to go off on trips to India, Afghanistan, and Iran. He keeps composing for new settings, like films and opera houses. He was not a “professional composer” until the age of 41—up until that point, he had worked variously as a plumber, furniture mover, and taxi driver. (One time he was almost murdered in his own cab.) Three weeks ago I attended the premiere of his 11th symphony, commissioned for the occasion of his 80th birthday.

One doesn’t have to admire Steve Bannon’s policy views to see that he’s lived a unique life. The recitation of his career path (born in Norfolk; Virginia Tech; HBS; officer in the Navy; Goldman; etc.) doesn’t sufficiently convey the diversity of his experiences. He has been involved with Seinfeld; Biosphere 2; the rescue effort of the Iran hostage crisis; a World of Warcraft virtual gold mining company; Titus (the Shakespeare adaptation featuring Anthony Hopkins); Breitbart; the White House; and surely other interesting ventures I’ve never read about.

And how about Patrick Byrne, a philosophy PhD who founded Overstock.com? His Wikipedia profile has a lot of gaps, and he’s the kind of person I wish the New Yorker would feature. After teaching philosophy, he founded a company that made industrial torches, and then another company that makes police and firefighter uniforms. He contracted Hepatitis C from a trip to Xinjiang in his 20’s; ongoing treatment has required his heart to be stopped over 100 times. More recently, he has found greater fame for his embrace of Bitcoin, making Overstock the first major retailer to accept a cryptocurrency.

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Let me take this opportunity to register a complaint with the term “open-minded,” which is increasingly praised as an important virtue.

I’ve started to dislike the term. First of all, it’s unobjectionable—who would profess he is not open-minded? More importantly, it’s not always clear what the term refers to, and this is worth thinking through. It might indicate the state of being “soft-minded,” in which one would readily be swayed by better arguments. But often it tends to connote “empty-minded,” in which one accepts anything and retains little. Many people are indeed open to different cultures and ideas, but they’re not necessarily conceptualizing their experience, nor active in seeking new experiences out.

I would like for everyone to be “hungry-minded,” in which one realizes that there is so much to know. A hungry-minded person senses that he is expert in so few areas of knowledge; that terrible gaps plague even his supposed areas of expertise; that there are important areas of knowledge of whose existence he is barely even aware; and that he should be fixing these deficiencies, now and ravenously. My favorite people to talk to are those who look for new experiences, think about them in an analytic way, and are eager to share their thoughts.

Here’s kind of an analogy to determinate and indeterminate views of the world.

As I mentioned above, I’ve become enthusiastic for the idea that positive vision of the world is important for growth. To get to a more technologically advanced world, first people have to imagine one. That requires thinking hard about technologies of the future, and then taking the steps required to make them real. We can’t be optimistic in a merely vague way, and pin our hopes on policies that supposedly create room for innovation; instead we should be more direct.

It’s why I’m slightly skeptical of thinking that we can save the world with indeterminate policies like looser monetary policy or housing reform. Are so many companies waiting to make things happen if only we’d cut interest rates by 0.25 percent? Will so many excellent service jobs be created if rents in Manhattan and the Mission were only cheaper by $250? To me these are policies worth advocating for, but I must say that they feel so marginal. That’s especially the case with housing policy, which are disheartening if you consider construction in Asian megacities.

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The prescriptive antidote to The Complacent Class is a book like Tim Harford’s Messy. The most striking thing I learned from Harford is that the most success-oriented teams are usually the most miserable teams. For example, the amateur investment clubs that generate the highest returns are usually composed of people who don’t know each other well—it’s the only way to generate pushback on ideas that aren’t well thought through. Clubs composed of friends will find it more important to keep friendships intact rather than focus on returns.

Success often entails putting oneself in uncomfortable situations, like improvising during an important speech or flying a plane manually instead of relying on autopilot. Living a life that’s not so well-ordered can improve skill-acquisition. Both Harford and Cowen are somewhat critical of dating algorithms, although they argue that algorithms are overrated in different ways.

I’ve recently read another excellent book about a decidedly non-complacent people: La Place de la Concorde Suisse, by John McPhee, It’s a slim 1985 account of his being embedded in a French-speaking unit of the Swiss Army. The people take the army seriously—at least in 1985—by offering heavy support for conscription, permitting army practices to encroach on daily life, and regularly maintaining the elaborate system of hidden demolitions around the country. It’s odd to me that a country that hasn’t experienced warfare for centuries would maintain such a militarized culture. The book makes it feel that being Swiss is the civic religion of Switzerland, and the service in the army is the annual demonstration of faith.

I’m not sure the practice encourages dynamism, exactly, but it’s one way to ward off complacency.

(Do these happy Swiss cows realize that the barn they’re standing beside conceals an artillery gun? via Flickr)

***

Some final thoughts:

  • The part of the book I found the least compelling was the final chapter, in which Cowen says that sooner or later people will snap out of complacency. But his case isn’t well built-up. The longer that people have been complacent, the more stultified they are; will dynamism be easy to re-learn? Can we readily imagine that Europe will be so dynamic again? I’m not sure that it’s easy to make people dynamic, though China has successfully ordered restarts a few times in history. I’m happy to be pointed to discussions of this topic.
  • When Cowen says that “our political system has creaked to a standstill” or that “people are used to the idea of a world that more or less looks the same,” he’s not being contrarian. Instead he’s being reasonable. Still, I suspect that some people will accuse him of insufficient awareness of tech. The biggest objections to this book will come from those who haven’t been steeped in Thielian arguments for techno-pessimism.
  • I’ve long felt it unfortunate that the word “plastics” has been a putdown when people discuss ambition. Plastics are important, why do we make fun of that innovation?
  • Maybe we can lay the blame for complacency at the feet of Carter, who again and again entreated Americans to lower their expectations. He’s the president who encouraged people to carpool, who put on a sweater and asked people to lower their thermostats, and who oversaw repeated crises.
  • Little things matter when you read Cowen. The chapter titled “Why Americans Stopped Rioting and Legalized Marijuana?” is about how courts and bureaucrats have conjured legalistic tactics to reduce mass incidents. “Bureaucracy, whatever its other goals may be, is firmly on the side of the complacent class.” The chapter never explicitly mentions pot, except in the title. By introducing little oddities in the text, Cowen makes room for claims that are too difficult to baldly state; in other cases, watch for occasions in which he’s offering commentary on something other than what he’s directly writing about.

Thanks to MG for comments.

Addendum: I thank Joe Weisenthal for introducing the term “soft-minded” to me in the first place.

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Californian Dreams

I watched two movies recently, Hail, Caesar! and La La Land, both of which are celebrations of Los Angeles. They made me reminisce about the year I spent living in San Francisco, and prompted me to think more deeply about California as a whole. In particular, I wonder if California felt so odd (to me) because of the winner-take-all effects of tech and entertainment. What happens to the way that people think when two of its big industries have extreme blockbuster dynamics?

I have three questions:

  1. California’s economy is massive, but two industries dominate popular imagination: tech in Silicon Valley/San Francisco and entertainment in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Far fewer than 1 percent of all new stars and startups can expect to break out every year; those that do find terrific success. How do these dynamics change the culture of the state and the way that people live, if at all?
  1. California is the land of sunny optimism. But one detects, in so much of the creative output, a strain of melancholy, or at least ennui. You hear it in the Beach Boys; see it in both Hail Caesar and La La Land; read it in Philip K. Dick, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and so many others. What do people have to worry about in the land of gold and gentle weather?
  1. In a country of immigrants, California seems to be the state of immigrants. It’s not just that many are of Asian or Latin American descent; in the beginning (i.e. about a century and a half ago), California was significantly populated with migrants-twice-over who came from the eastern U.S. Within the self-selected group of immigrants, these people were willing to decamp once more to search for gold or fame. If the U.S. is the country of immigrants, is California then the most American of all states?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions directly, but here are a few thoughts around them.

***

Every movie can be thought of as a startup. They both begin as ideas in notepads. Creators pitch them to studios and VCs for funding. It’s up to the creator to sell the vision and recruit others who believe in them. Most startups and movies break even or lose money; a few become massively scalable successes that are economically and culturally important for years, perhaps decades.1 They have many differences, but they share at least these characteristics.

That’s from the perspective of creators and founders. For employees of startups and movie productions, there are similarities as well. Young people toil, not always in great positions, but they can always be on the lookout for other opportunities. It’s expected to be passionate about what you do. Things change in a big way if you meet someone willing to help you. (From one of the big numbers in La La Land: “Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know; the one to finally lift you off the ground… if you’re the someone ready to be found.”) Or people are not so fortunate. Tens of thousands of dreamers move to Hollywood every year, but only a few become stars.

One tangible difference between startups and movies is that the latter needs a team to assemble for a much shorter period of time. A more interesting difference is an intangible one: While both are blockbuster industries, one can argue that Hollywood has a more zero-sum attitude than Silicon Valley does. Annual consumer spending on movies and music is fairly stable, which means that studios are fighting over a non-growing share of peoples’ budgets. Meanwhile, only a few movies become blockbusters, making competition for that handful of roles more severe for actors. The world of startups doesn’t seem so zero-sum.

The zero-sum competitiveness of Hollywood is one reason that Peter Thiel disliked Sorkin’s The Social Network. He wrote that the movie is more emblematic of Hollywood than the positive-sum thinking that’s more common in Silicon Valley.

***

What accounts for the strain of melancholy in Californian optimism?

It’s warm and sunny in both Hail Caesar and La La Land. (When I saw La La Land on a snowy day, I thought that the director was playing a cruel joke to divide the movie in seasons: Los Angeles in the winter and summer scenes looked identical.) But you can pick out the constant doubt and deep unhappiness of the main characters. The lyrics of the Beach Boys are sunny too; but why do they sound so sad? Maybe California is less happy than it looks.

Is it because the sunsets in California are so singularly beautiful? It is darkness when the greatest point of beauty has passed. Do the long shadows of autumn drag themselves over our mood especially heavily because they bring darkness but not cold?

Does desperation accompany its natural optimism because homelessness is so plausible? La La Land’s opening number is about how California will always have another day of sun. The mild, warm weather makes that condition far less punishing than in the northeast. One certainly encounters many examples of it in San Francisco. Homelessness won’t likely affect most tech workers, but even for them the prospect of sudden, faultless unemployment looms large. Will they be able to stay in their very expensive apartments for long?

Are the landscapes of Northern California so stark and breathtaking because they’re far too dry? The Golden Gate is placid, and is that because the yellow hills and brackish water don’t allow life to thrive?

***

I haven’t spent much time in LA, but I loved my brief visit. It’s the only place in which a stranger at a party remarked to me: “I didn’t like my face, so I changed it, with plastic surgery.” One would not find such candidness in San Francisco or in New York.

Werner Herzog has great things to say about the city. He lives there now, having moved from SF’s Pac Heights neighborhood, where I used to live. It’s worth quoting him at length:

“Los Angeles is the city in America with the most substance, even if it’s raw, uncouth and sometimes quite bizarre. Wherever you look is an immense depth, a tumult that resonates with me. New York is more concerned with finance than anything else. It doesn’t create culture, only consumes it; most of what you find in New York comes from elsewhere. Things actually get done in Los Angeles.

“Look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and a wild excitement of intense dreams opens up; it has more horizons than any other place. There is a great deal of industry in the city and a real working class; I also appreciate the vibrant presence of the Mexicans. In the last half century every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California, including the Free Speech Movement and the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a dignified society, computers and the Internet, and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world. A fascinating density of things exists there like nowhere else in the world.”

***

Here’s something I’ve come to appreciate recently: There’s a world of difference between value-creation and mistake-avoidance.

In the corporate context, that’s the difference between top line and bottom line activities. The first is about generating revenue and the latter is about cutting costs. Upside is limitless for salespeople, while the beancounters have only so much to cut.

Let me sharpen the point with reference to writing. Academic writing is often plodding and obtuse; I submit that it’s because academics are more concerned with showing that they’re avoiding errors rather than trying to communicate incisive ideas. The opposite of academic articles may be something like blog posts; the latter may be fuzzy, poorly-defined, or outright mistaken, but that’s tolerable so long as they introduce fresh ideas.

I feel that California is a place that better embodies the top line mindset and that New York is dominated by the bottom line mindset. California, venture capital, and movie studios are trying to pick the winner that makes irrelevant their losses. New York is complicated, but I want to argue that it’s finance-driven, and exemplified by the practice of insurance in particular. Insurance is about collecting a steady stream of revenue—on the liabilities side—without making a catastrophically wrong investment that wipes out half the value of assets. (A more colorful way to put it is to pick up nickels in front of a steamroller.) Venture capital tolerates mistakes in the search for a winner; insurance spends most effort avoiding big mistakes.

Finding brilliant successes and avoiding catastrophic failures are very different activities. Both are important, but they require different mindsets. I’ve found it useful to distinguish the two in nearly everything I do and see. Maybe that distinction goes some way to explaining why California and New York feel so different.

***

I don’t know much about California’s history, but I do know that a lot of people moved to the state in the 19th century gold rush. After gold, there came a silver rush, an oil boom, aviation, entertainment, and tech. I’m stealing a friend’s phrase: “Manifest destiny continues, not only through physical space.”

Each of these are winner-take-all industries. So you see, blockbuster dynamics have continually infused the state. Maybe we should expect that the people who were willing to move to California to be some of the most ambitious and can-do people in the world. And that subsequent generations have been nurtured with the same values as people who worked in other winner-take-all industries.

Or maybe not. Northern California offers the most outrageous examples of nimbyism, which is the total antithesis to a culture that accepts change and risk. The government doesn’t seem so can-do either. In eastern SF, replacing the Bay Bridge was initially estimated to cost $250 million; it was completed nearly 20 years later, for $6.4 billion, or a run-up of roughly 2,500 percent. In northern SF, the government has spent more time and about as much money (in real terms) building an access tunnel to the Golden Gate Bridge than it did building the bridge. California’s high-speed rail will be one of the slowest high-speed rail systems in the world, at the highest cost per mile of track. No wonder the state’s finances are a mess.

Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour highlights California as a particularly glamorous icon. It’s always attracted the ambitious. But for all the innovations of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, I wonder if people have lost some of the risk-taking tendencies of the past. Longtime residents and Uber drivers are always eager to let people know that the city isn’t like it once was. Perhaps they’re right, and the city’s startup scene is imprinted with a little bit more of the East Coast finance culture than techs would like to admit.

And maybe this is the right place to cite that, under generous definitions, about 10 percent of the San Francisco workforce is directly involved in the tech industry. That figure is closer to 20 percent for the Bay Area as a whole. And the state may not be attracting as many migrants. California’s net migration was negative between 2003 and 2014, losing about a million more people than it gained through migration. Instead of moving from Oklahoma to California, traffic may now be more common the other way. While IT and entertainment are big sectors, together they account for only around 10 percent of state GDP—though it’s possible to argue for a bigger share under different definitions. The two big blockbuster industries may not have that big of an impact in the day-to-day lives of most Californians.

But if they do, then maybe that helps to explain a bit of the melancholy in the culture and why those who were once ahead have tried to lock in their gains.

***

(Picture I took last year, off Highway 1. Does the California coast look so calm because the dryness doesn’t allow for a lot of life to thrive?)

A few last notes:

  • I’d like to read a book about California. Not a fiction nor a work of poetry by a Californian author; instead I’m looking for a history of the state as a whole. Any recommendations?
  • Right now, Seattle is the part of the country I’d most like to visit. Going purely off the descriptions of Cryptonomicon, it seems like geek heaven. Is it California-lite, with its own set of tech giants and blockbuster dynamics?
  • I loved both Hail, Caesar! and La La Land while I was watching them. Upon reflection, I liked Hail, Caesar! more and La La Land less. Both films are excellently reviewed by Richard Brody: “The Coen Brothers’ Marvelous ‘Hail, Caesar!’” and “The Empty Exertions of ‘La La Land.’

Thanks to MG, EW, PS, SG, and AN for discussions of these ideas.

1. Thanks especially to Michael Gibson for elaboration.

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Liu Cixin’s *Three Body* Trilogy

Liu Cixin’s Three Body series is a science fiction trilogy that offers a vision of optimistic determinism. I enjoyed the first two books immensely, and thought to record some thoughts on the series as a whole, with spoilers kept to a minimum. As usual, my posts on books focus on the ideas I found most striking.

The most important thought: When I hear Peter Thiel saying that we can imagine the future with the help of science fiction, this is the kind of story I feel he means. The series emphasizes the importance of interiority and independent thinking. It presents a blueprint for how technology can advance, from building particle accelerators and fusion plants to colonizing the solar system and harvesting energy from different planets. It’s about how humans build new technologies, not how all scientific development culminates in dystopia. And like Thiel’s ideas, a layer of pessimism covers a radiantly optimistic core.

The premise. Liu Cixin’s favorite science fiction authors are Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I’m not familiar with either, instead his books remind me of Neal Stephenson’s: Full of science and philosophical engagement, with exposition of stunning ideas, all wrapped up in a tasty plot.

Three Body is primarily about first contact with aliens. The premise is mundane,
the setting is not. A science fiction trilogy that starts out during the Cultural Revolution, imagine that.

Here’s a bit more as background: During the Cultural Revolution, the daughter of a persecuted physicist gets involved with the Chinese effort to contact extraterrestrials, before the Americans and Soviets get to it first. In a moment of despair, Ye Wenjie secretly broadcasts a message to the cosmos; magnified by the sun, it invites any listening extraterrestrials to take humanity to task on its various moral failings. The message reaches the Trisolarans, who inhabit a star system four light years away from Earth. They’re so named because their planet revolves around three suns, which orbit in an unstable configuration.

Trisolarans have evolved with the three sun problem for millennia. Eventually they figure out that they cannot predict the path of the three suns, and thus they risk being swallowed someday by a stray. Trisolaran technology is significantly more advanced than human technology, and they send a fleet to Earth after receiving Ye Wenjie’s signal. Four decades later, humanity discovers her communications, and determine that the Trisolaran fleet would reach the solar system in four centuries. The rest of the books deal with humanity’s response to the Trisolaran mobilization.

I like best the descriptions of these two reviewers. From Jason Heller of NPR: “While in the virtual world of Three Body, Wang confronts philosophical conundrums that border on the psychedelic, all while remaining scientifically rigorous.” And here’s Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker: “Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale.” He likes the Chinese setting too. After remarking that sci-fi is often biased towards American themes of the war for independence and the Wild West, Rothman praises another of Liu’s stories: “I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety.”

Interiority. The three books prize interiority, to an almost sinister extent. Crucial plot points turn on deceptions, from people like Ye Wenjie and Zhang Beihai, who cultivate secrets and bear them in silence, with severe results for the rest of the world. The case is even more extreme with the Wallfacers, four people who are given extraordinary authority to develop defensive strategies that are meant to be hidden from the rest of humanity.

Incredibly, there’s a scene in the third book in which Earth’s greatest experts engage in esoteric analysis of a literary work, with debate afterwards on the work’s intended message. I myself am not a Straussian, and it makes me wonder if Liu is. Liu reminds people that “vagueness and ambiguity are at the heart of literary expression.” The work the experts analyze contains odd allusions and small inconsistencies, and Liu states that “real intelligent information must be hidden deep.” In a later scene, Liu castigates the uncritical reader: “Previous efforts at decipherment had failed largely due to people’s habitual belief that the stories involved only a single layer of metaphors to hide the real message.” Instead, the good reader must realize that truth might hide beneath multiple layers of metaphors.

People aren’t so susceptible to herd-thinking in Liu’s world. How are bubbles created? By the lack of independent thinking combined with the belief that majorities are generally right. In the Three Body world, key characters work through problems on their own. We see in scene after scene that the private ruminations of people lead them to determine the correct courses of action, without consulting public opinion first.

Liu focuses a great deal on the interior thoughts of the main characters. Everyone else is out of focus. His world is one in which countries largely cooperate with each other, letting go of most national pride to work together. At times it seems like the entire government apparatus is set up to serve our heroes. This efficient cooperation of government bureaucrats, all of whom are meritorious and think beyond themselves, is to me the most alien part of Liu’s world. Three Body could use some discussions of public choice.

A last thought about interiority: The governments of Three Body are comfortable with vesting enormous powers in people who aren’t thoroughly vetted first. This is most evident in the Wallfacer project and the Swordholder position, although it seems to affect many levels of elite selection. Placing trust in intelligent people is a lovely idea, but I feel this is soon becoming an unrealistic practice. Given all the records that people can surface, I wonder if it’s possible for anyone to escape severe vetting. I submit that in a few years, anyone who has a Twitter profile or a blog will not be able to survive Congressional confirmation, let alone be elected to high office. And I wonder to what extent the quality of government elites get worse (if at all), when we select for people who are willing to be really boring in their 20s.

Definite optimism. The books are very nearly a blueprint for how to build the future. Humanity has four centuries to deal with the arrival of the Trisolaran Fleet. In the meantime, scientists and governments work together to advance science to deal with the threat. They work on fusion, allowing humanity to obtain much cheaper sources of energy. They mine resources from asteroids and other planets. They move away from chemical-based rockets, and instead develop rockets based on radiation drives that use nuclear fusion. Their advances in software and hardware make cities are nicer places to live. They re-forestize the deserts. They colonize the rest of the solar system and they perfect creating enclosed cities on moons and planets. They develop engines powered by curvature propulsion (I do not know what this is) so that humanity can fly at the speed of light. My favorite part: They test out a version of the Orion Project—sending an object through space by exploding small hydrogen bombs behind it.

I always had the same question when I read about these technologies: Why should it take the threat of an alien invasion for humanity to develop them? I’m not advocating for curvature propulsion and fusion-based rockets. The point isn’t that Liu has identified the correct means on all the scientific questions, instead it’s about the goals. It shouldn’t take an alien threat to push us towards cheap energy and solar system exploration.

I quite identify with the themes of The Great Stagnation, and the saying that we’ve had lots of progress in the world of bits but not so much in the world of atoms. And I wonder if Liu Cixin’s imagination is a result of personally witnessing rapid economic growth and regular scientific milestones. Arthur C. Clarke was born in 1917, and Isaac Asimov was born in 1920. When they were young, they witnessed the development of the Manhattan Project and experienced postwar prosperity. 24 years after the Trinity Test, they saw the Apollo Project deliver three men to the moon.

Liu Cixin was born in 1963; liberal reforms began in 1979, and especially in the last decade, Liu has been heavily exposed to domestic scientific milestones. These include China’s space projects (Tiangong, Long March, Shenzhou), deep sea exploration (the Jiaolong submersible), better telescopes (Tianyan), and gleaming new bridges, trains, and cities. I’m not saying that other space programs have done nothing, instead that they don’t get as much domestic publicity as China’s media is able to muster. Liu has been compared to Clarke and Asimov in writing “classical” science fiction; I wonder if these authors all focused on writing about technological advances, instead of dystopian societies, because they all witnessed rapid progress. If so, let’s hope that more people in developing countries get into writing science fiction, and not leave it all to comfortable authors in rich countries.

The three books. I did not enjoy all three books equally. The first, Three Body Problem, is excellent. The second, The Dark Forest, is very good. The third, Death’s End, is too dismal for words. If you pick up the series, I suggest stopping by the end of the second book, which like the first is full of vibrant ideas. The trilogy could have wrapped up on a smart and philosophical note; instead, the ending felt hollow and Hollywood.

The second book is still good, but for me it never reached the quality of the first. The Dark Forest is a perfectly fine science fiction book, and it presents a compelling answer to the Fermi Paradox. My complaint with it is that it loses the distinctly Chinese flavor of the first book. The Three Body Problem is philosophical and historical. In one scene, Ye Wenjie visits her mother, whose denunciation of her father led to his death by beating; in another scene, she confronts the three students who actually led the beating. The first book doesn’t even have all that much science fiction in it, while the rest have all that you want and more. The science is great, but I liked better the parts that engage historically.

Every Chinese person I’ve talked to claims to have liked the first book better; every non-Chinese says the second is better. I miss the excellent footnotes Ken Liu prepared for the first book; there were fewer opportunities for them in the next two.

Another part of the first book I really liked: Liu explicitly discusses the ideas of von Neumann, Newton, Aristotle, Mozi, Copernicus, and more. There were fewer of these historical/philosophical discussions in the others.

Anti-intellectualism. Da Shi, the street-smart cop, is regularly proved right in his derision of intellectuals. Wang Miao first states that: “You know know that a person’s ability to discern the truth is directly proportional to his knowledge.” But later on he admits: “Many of the best scientists can be fooled by pseudoscience, and sometimes devote their lives to it. But pseudoscience is afraid of one particular type of people: stage magicians. In fact, many pseudoscientific hoaxes were exposed by stage magicians. Compared to the bookworms of the scientific world, your experience as a cop makes you far more likely to perceive such a large-scale conspiracy.”

It’s true that intellectuals deliver the scientific advances. But the intellectuals are responsible for causing all of humanity’s problems in the first place.

At one point, the world’s experts doubt that the character Yun Tianming could possibly craft a scientifically-rigorous literary work, because “after all, he only had an undergraduate degree.” I couldn’t help but feel that Liu Cixin, a software engineer at a power plant who didn’t study beyond undergrad, felt some bitter satisfaction at writing these words.

One last note on this topic: Throughout the trilogy, and especially in the first book, people discuss the merits of theory versus experimentation. Both sides had good arguments, and I didn’t follow which came out ahead. On the one hand, humanity kept lamenting a technological block that Trisolaris placed on Earth, stopping humanity from advancing on fundamental theory. On the other hand, many of the great advancements were driven by experiment-oriented people. If I re-read the books, this will be a theme I’ll focus more on.

Ye Wenjie recalled her father saying, “I’m not opposed to your idea. But we are, after all, the department of theoretical physics. Why do you want to avoid theory?”

Yang replied, “I want to devote myself to the times, to make some real-world contributions.”

Her father said, “Theory is the foundation of application. Isn’t discovering fundamental laws the biggest contribution to our time?”

Yang hesitated and finally revealed his real concern: “It’s easy to make ideological mistakes in theory.”

Her father had nothing to say to that.

The writing. A few of my friends have complained that the book’s writing isn’t very good. Ken Liu, translator of the first and third books, offers this thought: “The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.”

Some of the rhythms do feel odd. But I was able to perfectly picture some of these sentences in Chinese, and I want to assure my friends that the conciseness works better in the original language. For example, when describing a bath, I don’t regret that Liu wrote: “She felt her body turn as soft as noodles.” It adds a different flavor to the books.

Politically incorrect. Some parts of the books felt quite politically incorrect, I’ll discuss just two. First, Robin Hanson picks up on the strain of misogyny that’s especially evident in the third book. I was surprised at how often Liu described the human world as too “feminized,” and how men from only previous eras could be described as “tough.” At one point, a frustrated commander cries out: “Don’t you know that there are no more men on Earth?”

Hanson suggests that Liu is able to get away with this because he’s Chinese. I want to add another point. Liu portrays the other alien civilizations, which are all more advanced than Earth, as totalitarian societies. His implicit suggestion is that they’ve traded in personal freedoms for technological advancement and cosmic survival. Trisolarans live in a totalitarian caste system; another, still more advanced aliens lack even the ability to keep their own thoughts private. I haven’t seen anyone else call Liu out on this point.

***

I’ll return to the idea that this is the kind of science fiction that I think Peter Thiel wants people to read. A big theme is that it takes work build the future, that it’s possible, and that government has a role to play.

To conclude, here’s a scene I enjoyed from the first book, which beautifully describes the three body problem. In interviews, Liu has suggested that he’s able to turn visualize concepts into formulas, presumably this describes how he sees it himself.

I created a sphere in this infinite space for myself: not too big, though possessing mass. My mental state didn’t improve, however. The sphere floated in the middle of “emptiness”—in infinite space, anywhere could be the middle. The universe had nothing that could act on it, and it could act on nothing. It hung there, never moving, never changing, like a perfect interpretation for death.

I created a second sphere whose mass was equal to the first one’s. Both had perfectly reflective surfaces. They reflected each other’s images, displaying the only existence in the universe other than itself. But the situation didn’t improve much. If the spheres had no initial movement—that is, if I didn’t push them at first—they would be quickly pulled together by their own gravitational attraction. Then the two spheres would stay together and hang there without moving, a symbol for death. If they did have initial movement and didn’t collide, then they would revolve around each other under the influence of gravity. No matter what the initial conditions, the revolutions would eventually stabilize and become unchanging: the dance of death.

I then introduced a third sphere, and to my astonishment, the situation changed completely. Like I said, any geometric figure turns into numbers in the depths of my mind. The sphereless, one-sphere, and two-sphere universes all showed up as a single equation or a few equations, like a few lonesome leaves in late fall. But this third sphere gave “emptiness” life. The three spheres, given initial movements, went through complex, seemingly never-repeating movements. The descriptive equations rained down in a thunderstorm without end.

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I write for Vox on smartphones and Shenzhen

I’m very happy to have written a piece for Vox on how smartphone R&D made possible many other hardware innovations, like drones, VR headsets, and the hoverboard. A big part of the piece focuses on how Shenzhen, which makes most of the world’s smartphones, has become a high-tech manufacturing hub. Read the whole piece here:

www.vox.com/new-money/2016/11/4/13498504/shenzhen-smartphone-innovation-capital

It’s obvious when you think about it, but almost every piece of new hardware to come out in recent years owes a debt to smartphones. Excellent cameras, batteries, low-power processors, wifi devices, etc. are being put together in new ways to create products like drones, “smart” devices, and even something like the hoverboard. And they can be put together in many existing products, like cars and satellites, to make them do more. The “hardware renaissance” currently under way isn’t happening only because of the Internet or Maker Faires or because people rediscovered a love for gadgets; it’s mostly because smartphone R&D has made a lot of chips really good and cheap.

(The handy summary of this phenomenon is called “the peace dividends of the smartphone wars,” a phrase that’s not my own. Instead it comes from Chris Anderson, who coined it in a Foreign Policy piece, in a passage that focuses on drone developments.)

There’s a point about Shenzhen that did not make it past final editing: The city has been designated by the central government to be the center of one of three mega urban clusters.  It leads the Pearl River cluster of Shenzhen-Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Dongguan. The other two clusters are Beijing-Tianjin and Shanghai-Nanjing-Suzhou-Hangzhou; the government wants to cultivate these three places to be urban areas of over 50 million people each. (Adam Minter wrote an excellent piece about it here.) It’s a good sign that the central government designated Shenzhen to be the leader of that cluster, and that it didn’t give designate more historically or politically important cities like Chongqing or Wuhan.

Read “How smartphones made Shenzhen China’s innovation capital.”

Thanks to Sam Gerstenzang and Ju Huang for reading an early draft.

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“Melancholy,” by Laszlo Foldenyi

Laszlo Foldenyi, a Hungarian professor of art, has written a literary history of melancholy. It’s not a self-help book for the melancholic; it’s not a social science book on their tendencies and accomplishments; it’s not a psychological plumbing of a few famous people whom it afflicts. Instead, Melancholy presents depictions of the condition in mythical, novelistic, ecclesiastical, and historical terms.

The book’s main question is one from Aristotle: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?” There’s a startling, beautiful claim on every page. The ideas are too provocative and many to excerpt, but still I’ll share a few of the themes below, along with some of my commentary.

What is melancholy? If one has to define it bluntly, one might call it deep thinking plus sadness. (The project of the book is to define the term without bluntness.) It’s not mere depression; Foldenyi quotes a writer who regrets that particular term, “a noun with a bland tonality and lacking in any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline.” (253) There’s a much greater weltschmerz implied by the condition, and Foldenyi showcases the special despairs that grip those whom he call melancholics.

While reading the book, I kept wanting to look up the paintings Foldenyi describes; or to put it down and pick up something by Thomas Mann; at one point I tried to find a good biography of Goethe. Throughout are some gorgeous descriptions of sadness, recklessness, solitude, and suffering.

Who are the melancholics?

Foldenyi writes with far too much delight on the grandeur of melancholy. Here is an early claim, coming at the end of the first chapter:

Melancholics are prominent precisely because they are too full of life; because of them, existence overflows itself. That explains their unappeasable sense of absence: since they have left the world of moderation, overflowing is inconceivable without being emptied. The universe is damaged in their person; hence, melancholics’ sense of being among the elect, but also their self-hatred to the point of self-annihilation. That makes them strong and outstanding, but also exceedingly frail. Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are also unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence.” (48)

They clashed with everything… and that was why they were regarded as abnormal, because others generally satisfied common expectations. They regarded themselves, however, as the most normal of all.” (102)

Melancholia is resignation: “Melancholics can never be accused of being revolutionary.” (306)

The example of melancholics shows that they turn away from the world, and all the fixed achievements of civilization become questionable for them, while their indisputable capacities for learning and astuteness make them solitary and withdrawn.” (49)

Melancholics live in the same world as other people, yet they do not see the same world. They build themselves a new world into which they alone can enter…

They are Saturn’s children, and for that reason stupid, stuck in the mud, and dull-witted—that, at least, is how the world in general thinks of them, since melancholics are incapable of seeing the simplest of facts ‘normally,’ in conformity with public opinion. But being Saturn’s children, they are also clever, outstanding, magnificent, and wise—the same world asserts those things, too, for after all a melancholic can discover shades and perspectives of existence that remain invisible to an ordinary person.” (107)

Who is melancholic?

As with autism, melancholia in the famous is fun to diagnose at literary distance. Foldenyi shares his thoughts on a few artists whom he is certain are melancholic, like Dürer and Michelangelo.

Foldenyi asserts that all great art is sad art. “The greater the technical perfection of art, the more prominent the sadness… A creative artist feels perpetual dissatisfaction—however great the work that is brought into being, there is a feeling that he was unable fully to cast it into the form that he conceived in himself—and the viewers, if they lose themselves in the work, find themselves face-to-face with infinite sorrow (as in Don Quixote, for instance) or is the endpoint toward which everything heads (the movingly resigned final scene of War and Peace is like that).

Attributing melancholia to great artists feels like a dangerous game. Do we really know how they felt? Was the bon vivant and bachelor David Hume a melancholic? How about Stendhal, who loved life, but wrote works of stunning interiority? Let me throw out a few names offhand: Proust, Wittgenstein, Melville, Gauguin, Schoenberg… are they all melancholics?

Foldenyi singles out Caspar David Friedrich for particular treatment as a melancholic. Here he is on Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea: “The large painting depicts the tiny figure of a monk standing with is back to the viewer, in front of a vast sea and under an overcast sky. The solitary figure is the melancholic genius himself, born at the time of Romanticism. Friedrich, who according to reports from friends was characterized by the deepest melancholia and painted the most melancholy pictures of all time, had an infallible sense of all the touchstones of modern melancholia: metaphysical solitude, a compulsion for self-justification, suffering in self-enjoyment, a death wish merging into a fear of death, and a condition bordering on that of a genius.” (201)

Music and melancholy

Even more so than painting, Foldenyi asserts that sorrow is at the very foundation of music. “Is there really such a thing as cheerful music?” Schubert asks.

But when the world did not offer the melancholic the possibility of establishing a home, and he was surrounded ever more threateningly by objects, the role of music grew, and—lacking in all objective references as it does—it became the most melancholic of all the genres of art.” (166)

In a footnote, Foldenyi names a few pieces that programmatically deploy melancholia. These include CPE Bach’s Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins, and the Finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 18.

I thought to suggest two more pieces. Anyone can write in a minor key, but some pieces draw out sadness with special weight: Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, final movement, recording by Claudio Abbado with the Wiener Philharmoniker; and Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps, fifth movement, by Tashi.

(For an antidote, perhaps you’ll want to listen to Dance no. 3, by Philip Glass, which is ecstatically joyful.)

Sorrow does not spare even the king

Melancholia was not always treated the same throughout the ages. Foldenyi shares how the condition was treated in different ages, and then quotes from Pascal’s Pensées: “The melancholic is not fleeing the world but trying to find himself a quiet nook within it; he does not make immoderate demands; he is not enraged and raving, as in antiquity; he is not mentally ill, as in the Middle Ages; he is not desperately calling anything to account, as in the Renaissance; but he is above all, depressed: quiet, withdrawn into himself, feeble, and inert. According to Pascal, the aim of the French court at the time was to stifle the sadness and melancholia that was breaking out on all sides:

Put it to the test; leave a king entirely alone quite at leisure, with nothing to satisfy his senses, no care to occupy the mind, with complete leisure to think about himself, and you will see that a king without diversion is a very wretched man. Therefore such a thing is carefully avoided, and the persons of kings are invariably attended by a great number of people concerned to see that diversion comes after affairs of state, watching over their leisure hours to provide pleasures and sport so that there should never be an empty moment. In other words they are surrounded by people who are incredibly careful to see that the king should never be alone and able to think about himself, because they know that, king though he is, he will be miserable if he does think about it.” (173)

Melancholia and genius

This discussion of genius feels to me very… German: “A genius constantly, at every moment, endangers himself and keeps falling, spiraling down to ever-greater depths. He is not threatened by an external enemy, which is why he is unable even to defend himself. And what to an outsider appears to be creativity is in fact an internal rumination. True genius destroys itself—it is obliged to league with death.” (146)

Melancholy and death

Death is present on nearly every page of the book.

An openness to death distinguished them from others, the nonmelancholics; that was what made them chose, solitary, and at the same time, the unhappiest of souls.” (105)

Renaissance melancholia was an all-consuming flame… the subsequent time period has been characterized by a desperate effort to transform this flame into ashes, to make sadness fit for polite society—to tame melancholia.” (150)

Melancholy is reckless: Many of the Romantics did literally destroy themselves; they were so unconcerned about themselves that, sooner or later, earthly destruction was bound to ensue…Without batting an eye, they accepted that they could count only on themselves, and therefore they seemed reckless—assuming that one perceives recklessness not just in a physical sense (for example, leaping across a crevasse) but also in an intellectual sense (for example, thinking fully through a hitherto-inconceivable thought for the first time)… With a nonchalant wave of the hand, Kleist burned his manuscripts, among them two plays and a two-volume novel; after burning one of his works, Byron wrote that it caused him as much pleasure to burn it as to print it.” (222)

Melancholy and boredom

Melancholy paralyzes: “Boredom, hand in hand with sadness and inertia, puts up with everything; bored people allow the world the direct their footsteps. What really bores people is being condemned to inaction. Their personalities urge them to make the best of their rights and realize everything inherent in their individuality, but they have to endure being clapped in irons… for the person who is bored; it is not purely a matter of time passing but, as time passes, of recognizing the innumerable opportunities that are not being put to use…. The more extremely one is bored, the more stultifying one’s ego becomes to oneself.” (176)

The second-to-last chapter is called Illness. Foldenyi grandly asserts that scientists and doctors have disliked melancholy because it is beyond the scope of science. It can’t be understood as mere illness, of the body or of the spirit. But what if it can?

What if melancholy is a matter of, say, low testosterone? It’s at least casually documented that people with low testosterone feel little motivation with some distress.

Maybe it’s not hormonal. Even if it’s not depression, I wonder how much of this poetic trait can be explained by consultation with the DSM-5. Perhaps being melancholic is a function of having schizoid personality disorder; then combined with some form of autism, it creates great artists.

***

But I won’t insist. Reducing melancholy to some psychological or personality disorder renders the subject sterile. Instead, it’s far too romantic to wonder about the trait that has taken hold of Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Byron. And this literary, philosophical take is the correct way to approach the subject.

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“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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