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 illusions 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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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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