Two types of writing

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few more short thoughts:

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

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

German problems are rarely German problems alone. – Ralf Dahrendorf

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

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

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

Schneehügel mit Raben

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

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Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now some general observations:

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

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

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

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Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading

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

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

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

External mediation by Targaryens

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

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

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

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

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

The collective murder of Jon Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespearean, not Marxist conflict

Here’s a more general point. 

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

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

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

Winter as mimetic crisis

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

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

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

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

Other instances of mimetic desire

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

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

Final thought

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

The life of Philip Glass

I picked up Philip Glass’s memoir not because I’m very familiar with his music, but because I’d heard that he drove taxis and worked the odd plumbing job before he was well-known. I know of few other people in the classical music world who’ve taken a similar path, so I thought that this would be an interesting account of a life in the arts.

I ended up being far more impressed with it than I expected. Words without Music is written simply, winningly, without much commentary on music. And that’s just fine because we get to read about Glass’s very interesting life. (I’ll share a few excerpts below.)

Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab. The book offers many other interesting details, e.g. deciding to attend the University of Chicago at age 15, inviting a blind and homeless musician to live with him for a year, hitchhiking through Iran before it was closed to Americans and Afghanistan before it was invaded by the Soviets.

These biographical details are manifestations of a quality I admire. Glass never needed much convincing to drop everything in his life to go on a risky venture. I’m not familiar with the many plot twists in his life, and found the book engaging because I had no idea what new adventure he was going to go on next. It’s astonishing how open-minded he is. Consider: His decision to go to India was based entirely on seeing a striking illustration in a random book he grabbed off a friend’s shelf. In addition, he never hesitated to go into personal debt, at times quite steep, because his music couldn’t wait. The book is filled with instances of him saying “sure, when?” to improbable proposals without dwelling on their costs.

He seemed uninterested in stabilizing his position with more regular income. He never took up an honorary conductor position. He never ensconced himself in a plush conservatory professorship. And he didn’t even apply for grants because he didn’t like that they imposed terms.

Glass is either oblivious to conventions or fond of ignoring them. He mentions a few times that he was born with an “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” gene. There’s often reason to distrust these proclamations, but I did enjoying cataloguing his contrarianism. Other performers may look down on amplifiers, but he adapted them no less to the opera house. Other musicians may revere figures like Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger, but he rebelled and talked back to them. Other composers may scoff off film soundtrack commissions, but he tried them out and with success. Other music students may spend their Juilliard prize monies to practice and compose, but he bought a motorcycle so that he can ride around the country. When people made fun of him for appearing in a whiskey ad, he retorted: “It seemed to me that people who didn’t have to sell out… must have had rich parents.”

Here is a short clip of “In the Upper Room,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp and performed by the Ballet de Lorraine.

Now some promised excerpts. These are passages I found striking.

Being able to visualize: My father taught me to play mental chess. I would be with him in the car and he would say, “Knight to Bishop’s 3” and I’d say, “Pawn to Queen 3.” We went through a game together and I learned to visualize chess. I was probably seven or eight years old and I could already do that. Years later when I was learning to do exercises in visualization, I discovered I had developed this aptitude when I was very young… I discovered that many people couldn’t see anything, but I could see right away, and that was a big help. I had a number of friends who said they were having trouble visualizing and I realized I didn’t have any trouble. When I wondered why I didn’t I remembered those chess games that Ben and I used to play.

Keeping an open mind: When my father started to sell records, he didn’t know which were the good records and which were the bad… But he noticed that some records sold and some records didn’t, so as a businessman he wanted to know why some of the records didn’t sell. He would take them home and listen to them, thinking if he could find out what was wrong with them, he wouldn’t buy the bad ones anymore. In the late forties, the music that didn’t sell was by Bartok, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. [emphasis DW’s] Ben listened to them over and over again, trying to understand what was wrong, but he ended up loving their music. He became a strong advocate of new music and began to sell it in his store.

Working: Luckily for me, I never minded earning money as best I could, and I actually enjoyed working at the [steel mill]… My curiosity about life trumped any disdain I might have about working. So if this was a reality check, then I had happily signed on at a fairly early age.

On being influenced by Bruckner: One major, and unforeseen benefit of the Bruckner expertise I acquired came when my friend Dennis Russell Davies became the music director and conductor of the Linz Opera and the Bruckner House Orchestra. I went to Linz for the first time with the poorly conceived idea that my music would sound better played by an American orchestra, because they would understand the rhythms I was composing. To my surprise, the Bruckner Orchestra played these compositions better than American orchestras.

Upon noticing an man in his sixties composing music in a coffee shop, when he was doing the same while still a student: It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings… The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.

An exercise: I took the Mahler Ninth as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full-size orchestra paper.

An early job: In Pittsburgh, I wrote some music for children in grade school and some for high school orchestras… At the end of the year we had a big concert, where all the music I had written was played. It was very satisfying. Here I was, twenty-six years old, and I was having a complete concert of my own music.

His first wedding: We continued our trip, driving west to Gibraltar. “You know,” JoAnne said, “we can get married here for five pounds.” We were both twenty-eight years old… We took our five pounds to the civil office of a Mr. Gonzalez, and that’s where we were married.

At a performance in Amsterdam: Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging on the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing again, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five to six seconds.

Please indulge me as I wrap up with a complaint. For some reason Google Music offers woefully light coverage of Glass’s music. There are few of his symphonies, few of his early works, no Akhnaten, not even Satyagraha. You might expect him to be well covered given that he has some status in pop culture, but no. Why are his albums so absent from Google Music?

Two months of Soylent

I’ve been drinking Soylent, the powdered meal replacement, once a day for nearly two months. Here’s what it’s been like for me, separated in different modules so that you can read whatever you’re most curious about.

Why I got it. The University of Rochester is located inside the bend of a river. A huge cemetery caps the bend so that the only ways out are the tips of the curve. You can cross the river via a bridge, into a neighborhood responsible for a big chunk of all crimes committed in upstate New York. The upshot is that for a city-based college, the U of R offers unusually few good food options close to campus. The dining halls serve dining hall food, expensively; there are no substantial grocery stores around; there are few restaurants, even fast food joints, nearby.

I like to cook, and right before senior year I was living in the center of Toronto while working at a company that offers daily catered lunches. After that summer I decisively gave up hope that college food could be fun. So I ordered Soylent.

(Incidentally, the company I worked at runs the software used to sell Soylent.)

Taste. I’ve received two types of Soylent: Version 1.3, which I’ll call cake-mix Soylent; and Version 1.4, which I’ll call burnt-sesame Soylent. The earlier one comes with bottles of oil that are to be mixed with powder and water; the latter version is straight powder.

1.3 has a sweet taste. It’s presumably the version reviewed by The Verge, which likened the flavor to peanut butter mixed with milk. Appealing, no? Those though aren’t the words I’d use. For me it smells and tastes like those Betty Crocker vanilla-flavor cake mixes: A bit oversweet, but otherwise quite pleasant. The consistency is thin, so it doesn’t go down all that smoothly.

I prefer 1.3 to 1.4. This newer version is bland, hardly sweet. It has more of a savory taste, and the best I can do to describe it is to say that it reminds me of slightly burnt sesame seeds. There’s a bit of a nutty flavor. It’s thicker and smoother, but I do miss the sweetness of the old version.

As I started to drink Soylent regularly, I got scared of the possibility that I’ll one day find it too revolting to swallow. That won’t happen soon, but the thought lurks. Once you reach that point you never want to drink this stuff again, no matter how thoroughly it’s modified and updated. A problem I’ve had with both versions is the persistence of clumping; you can’t get rid of the occasional bit of dry powder in your mouth as you drink. Making it with warm water doesn’t eliminate them. No matter how aggressively I stir and shake, they’ll always be there, undissolved. (Note: I don’t have a blender and haven’t at all been creative with the mixture, for example by adding fruits or cocoa.)

Last thing about taste: You’re supposed to make Soylent the night before and let it chill in the fridge. One day I forgot to do that and had it “fresh.” It was awful. Good Lord. Never drink this stuff warm.

Satiety. Soylent is filling for the moment, but I get hungry soon afterwards. I usually have it to replace lunch, and am looking for food three or four hours later. I’m not a snacker, but I have to keep a stock of apples and cookies. Soylent might make more sense for breakfast, when convenience is more of a premium and where the distance to the next meal is shorter.

I can’t see myself going entirely without food, as anyway this was never my intention. I enjoy cooking if I have easy access to ingredients! I’d be hitting the point of revulsion much sooner if I have this more than once a day.

Health. I’ve experienced no noticeable changes in health or digestion. Some people say that they lose weight, get more energy, or even get to see skin improvements. I haven’t noticed these or any other changes. It’s all been… normal.

Storage, preparation, and convenience. The raw powder can last a long time (upwards, it’s claimed, of two years). But watch out for the caveat: Soylent spoils quickly once you make it.

It takes me four days to finish a batch. Twice when I skipped a day the last quarter of Soylent spoiled, and when it was always refrigerated too. So I’m wary of taking it out and bringing it for example on a hike. You run the risk of spoilage, it tastes terrible when unchilled, and the container is hard to clean in the outdoors.

Making Soylent is as convenient as promised. All you have to do is dump a bag of powder in a pitcher made by the company, throw in water and oil, then shake/stir. With the new Soylent, you don’t even have to add the oil. These are the basics. I’ve learned tweaks, e.g. having water in the pitcher before adding the powder to reduce clumping.

It takes maybe ten minutes, and then I have lunch for four days. Washing the big, gooey pitcher requires lots of soap and water, but of course that’s easier than doing lots of dishes.

Has it been life changing? Not really. The positive take is that Soylent is great if you’re not expecting a lot out of it. I’m little affected healthwise. I don’t find that I have a lot more extra time. That said, it is nice not to have to think about what to do for lunch.

I guess that the biggest benefit of Soylent for me is a psychological one. I don’t always want to cook, but I’m frugal enough not to want to eat out more than a few times a week. I’ve always been a lunch packer. Soylent makes it easy for me to get out of cooking every day without having to feel guilty about eating out. After all, this stuff is cheap, about $3 per meal.

Frustrations with the company. I placed my first order last July, hoping that the shipment would start in September. Soylent told me to wait until October. Come October, a delay: The company told me to expect it in November. Come November, delay again. By the time the powder arrived I had already moved to Germany. Soylent doesn’t ship internationally so I had to wait trying it out until I returned.

Once the subscription started everything was smooth, but the delays were annoying. The advertised two-month waiting period turned into a five-month one.

Ideological commentary. You see I’ve saved this until the very end. People give me incredulous looks and questions when they see that this is what I’m “eating.” Some react with visible sympathy, as if I’ve never enjoyed good food. It’s in vain that I assure them that I grew up in one of the great food cultures of the world, or that I don’t mind cooking, or that Soylent doesn’t demand that I give up on the world of solid food.

Quite a bit of the skepticism directed towards Soylent feels misplaced and elitist. I don’t understand why people are so derisive of it. I challenge the doubters to declare that every meal they have is a plate of nutritious deliciousness, prepared simply, and enjoyed in the company of friends. For the rest of us, there’s at least one meal that involves little cooking, is meant to be quick, and is not often nutritious. That’s called breakfast, and for that at least, isn’t Soylent a great replacement?

People, Soylent is a straightforward Pareto improvement over lots of common situations. It’s simpler and better for you than to get donuts and iced coffee; or a hot dog in a cafeteria before a meeting you’re late for; or a frozen microwave dinner after an exhausting day. Tastewise, Soylent is about as interesting than the latter two. This stuff should be sold in (refrigerated) vending machines, and well-stocked in corporate fridges. It may not be super tasty, but it’s pleasant and nutritious.

Other issues. No I haven’t seen the movie. Yes I would order more when I run out.

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Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself

Peter Thiel is asked the formula for starting great businesses at every talk he gives. His answer is every time the same: “There is no formula. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

In his interview, Tyler offers a summary of Thiel’s thought. (Search for the paragraph that mentions Tocqueville.) I haven’t read enough Girard to follow the part about original sin, but Tyler describes Thiel as someone who is trying to get us to break free of socially-derived opinions and to see the world without distortions.

I was still in Europe when I read this, and it prompted me to think about the social environment there. It’s not at all hard to find people beating up on Europe as a bad place to start a tech company; you’ll find no lack of grievances about its regulatory attitude, its taxes, its anti-trust initiatives, its punitive bankruptcy codes, and so on. Still, I think that it’s underrated in one significant way. I submit that from a Thielian perspective we might expect great entrepreneurs to be better developed in Europe, especially in Germany, because it’s easier to be independent there.

(This is my second post on Tyler’s talk with Thiel, the first is here.)

My favorite review of Zero to One argues that despite appearances the book is not about how to found startups, but really it’s a book of ethics. Thiel thinks that we live in a society of deep conformism and constrained imagination. For him, the key to doing something great (of which starting a company is just one example) is to uncover insights hidden from popular opinion, or in other words to think for yourself.

Tyler has written that there’s an enormous sense of freedom in Sweden: “Autonomy reigns… Sweden is the land of the true individualist, sometimes verging on atomism.” I think it’s easier to be individualistic in Germany too. When I lived there I felt a freedom that’s unavailable in America, a social one not related to regulations or government expenditures. First you’re more free from pursuing status markers; second there are fewer pressures to conform. I’ll make this case focusing mostly on education.

Moving from Canada to go to an American suburban high school and then an American college was distressing in one particular way: It was hard to meet the need to keep up. In college especially you feel these irresistible pressures to seek and display prestige, most of which were earned by going through ever more grueling tournaments. When you enter college you’re with this big pool of students more or less like you, all trying to distinguish themselves in four years or so. That creates an environment that breeds the most intense mimetic pressures. The more that people wanted something (anything), the more it became desirable. This would work its way through until those with only marginal interests get sucked in too.

I think that’s how you’re led to situations where something like 45% of the graduating Harvard and Princeton classes in 2007 entered finance. (That figure is 31% for the Harvard class of 2014.) Toss in consulting, tech, and medicine and you’ll probably claim over a majority of the career aspirations of graduates from elite colleges. Now step back; isn’t that odd? For all of the talk about training people to think critically, somehow you find everybody trying to enter one of very few career paths.

Thiel has asked: “Is this a reason that we ended up sometimes underperforming because we are insecure about things, we want to get validated by winning various competitions?” Now I’m skeptical of the claim that all of us secretly dream of ditching finance to become marine biologists. But I think that these paths are so common because they offer not only prestige, but also assurance that others want this highly-desirable thing too.

Everybody in the world feels these pressures to some extent. I think though that in Germany this is less pronounced; there are fewer markers of social prestige, and it’s more normal to go on different career paths.

Start with schools. There’s no designation of an elite stratum of universities; no “Ivy League,” no “Oxbridge,” no “Grandes écoles,” no “zhongdian daxue.” While certainly some schools are better regarded, choosing a university better resembles a lifestyle choice. If you want to be in a big city, maybe you’ll go to the University of Munich or Humboldt in Berlin. If you want to be in a sunny area and be surrounded by hippies, maybe you’ll go to Freiburg or Heidelberg. Each of these have specialties of course, but they’re all about ranked the same, and they cost the same too (free except for a small administrative fee).

It’s not just postsecondary. Germany is often praised for its system of apprenticeships. From fifth grade on, students are separated into grammar schools (Gymnasiums and Realschulen) and vocational schools (Hauptschulen). Grammar school students are prepared for college work, while Hauptschule students are taught more work-related skills. After school they move on to apprenticeships in fields like construction and IT. It may be most desirable to enter a grammar school, but early on kids are aware that different paths are possible.

When I say that growing up in Germany helps bestow independent thinking skills, I’m not saying that it’s because they’re all taught Straussian art of close reading. Instead I’m arguing that society has suppressed the value of certain status indicators, and that encourages people to think for themselves. To put it another way, there are fewer tournaments for kids to go through, and the value of winning them is not so high. Germans I’ve met are incredibly humble. Nobody feels the need to perpetrate an international hoax about how desirable they are. In addition, people aren’t all drawn to the same fields like finance and consulting. They take up professions like baking or manufacturing, and work with the earnestness that comes from knowing that their work is dignified; it’s easier for them to do the equivalent of moving to Dayton to study widget machines.

Let me end with one last speculation. Germans are taught about the crimes of the Nazi state since elementary school. The Holocaust is mentioned in no fewer than three subjects: biology, history, and German language. People are taught that crowds can be wrong, and that it’s a duty to stand apart if you disagree. Maybe these frequent exhortations to avoid groupthink increases independent thinking on the margins.

Time to summarize. Thiel thinks that great businesses are built by people who discover secrets hidden by conventional opinions. I submit that you can become that sort of person more easily if you grow up in Europe, particularly in Germany. Put aside the question of taxes and regulations, and consider the social environment. America holds dear a lot of status symbols. Germans have fewer elite reference points and makes it common for people to pursue non-prestigious work; those in the services aren’t all trying to earn their masters’. Therefore we should expect more independent thinking to come from Germans.

Thiel himself thinks that Germany is too pessimistic and too comfortable. The best argument against everything I’ve said is to point out that, in fact, Germany has not produced any Facebooks or Airbnbs. Actually, the best-known German tech entrepreneurs may be the Samwer brothers, who are notorious for copying successful ideas from Silicon Valley to try to scale them in other markets. So much for originality.

So maybe taxes and regulations matter more after all; I also don’t want to pass over cultural norms that stigmatize failure. But if the limiting factors to great entrepreneurship is independent thinking combined with courage (as Thiel has said, courage is in shorter supply than capital or genius), then maybe it’s better to be away from America. After all, policies are easier to fix than the social environment, and original minds may grow up over there and start companies over here.

P.S. This column appeared in the Times just yesterday on why so few tech companies have emerged from Europe. At the end there’s this quote: “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat.” I think that everything except the part about “stability” would be positives for Thiel.

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