Things I’ve recently learned, 3.13.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2015 in Review

It’s fun to reflect on the year. Here’s what I wrote at the end of 2014.

2015 was marked by two major events: Leaving Rochester in January to move to Germany; and then leaving Philly in October to move to San Francisco.

I studied abroad in Germany from January until May. Home base was Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Württemberg. Freiburg is close to Frankfurt and Stuttgart on the German side; Basel, Bern, and Zurich on the Swiss side; as well as Colmar and Strasbourg on the French side. It’s a fantastic place. You can find pictures of Freiburg and other areas I visited on my Instagram.

Here are some scattered thoughts on that experience: The Black Forest and the Swiss Alps make for vivid drives. I still can’t bring myself to love German food.  It was amazing to be able to go to the opera nearly every week; I saw plenty of Verdi, was glad to be introduced Strauss, and didn’t find it hard to sit through two whole Wagner performances (Tristan and Götterdämmerung). Study abroad is an expensive way to live overseas, but it’s probably your best excuse for it. Freiburg is a nice place to spend a few months, but when I move to Germany again I’d like to live in Berlin. Berlin is vibrant, cheap, and interesting.

I returned home to Philly in May, just in time for graduation. I like to say that I dropped out twice: once when I went to work for Shopify for a year; the second when I left for Germany. It is a massive relief to have earned a college diploma; sometimes I still marvel that I managed to finish it at all. This was a terrific time to get out, by the way: Tuition has been getting higher and campus politics have been getting weirder.

I spent the summer looking for something new to do. I wasn’t sure what: I’ve worked previously in an art museum, at a tech company, at a telecom, and as an investigative reporter. I wanted to continue doing different things. Something that Susan Sontag said has always resonated: “What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.” I felt a terrible urge to move to New Zealand, because as a young Canadian it’s quite easy to obtain an open-ended work visa there. Here’s a romantic idea: Perhaps I would work for a few months in an orchard before finding surer footing as a writer.

I never had the courage to pack my bags and move. Instead I took another opportunity. First Round Capital introduced me to Ryan Petersen of Flexport. I signed on to write about global trade and logistics. I’ll link to some of these articles at the end of this post.

So I moved to northern Oakland, at the southern edge of Berkeley, in October. It was more or less random for me to have moved to the East Bay—housing was hard to find, and I basically took the first opening I found.

The Bay Area is mostly pretty great. There are some very nice drives outside the city; the weather is never humid, always hoodie-friendly; and I find it possible to get meetings with people I’d previously never hoped to encounter. On the other hand, I think this area to be overhyped in so many ways. Perhaps more in a later post.

A few notes on this blog:

Last year I wrote five big pieces, from topics like how hedge funds work, the causes for Peter Thiel’s pessimism, and American nuclear strategy in the ‘50s/’60s.

I enjoy every one of these essays, and writing all of them forced me to understand topics I wanted to know more about. That said, all of them were far too research-intensive.  I abandoned that approach in favor of shorter essays instead.

My favorites this year have been the following:

I’m glad that some of these were widely shared. Soylent got unexpected pickup, eventually getting featured on the sites of the BBC and the FT. My data analysis ended up on the site of the Washington Post, twice. Noah Smith was very nice to link to my piece on civil asset forfeiture for Bloomberg. And I’m very flattered that my favorite blogger picked up a few of these pieces.

Alas I don’t see that I’ll have much more time to post many more essays here. I focus most of my time now on writing about trade and logistics for Flexport. Let me take the chance then, to showcase my favorite posts published so far this year:

In a delightful twist, my piece on bananas was tweeted by Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. This was so unexpected; in a follow-up he wrote: “thanks Dan. Fascinating journalism.” In addition, just as unexpectedly, I was syndicated to a digital magazine for the IEEE. If you told me a few months ago that…

Books

Overall this was not a fantastic reading year, due more to a lack of time than anything else.

I started and didn’t finish Judt’s Postwar. I just got started reading Girard when logistics took over my life. I bought both Buddenbrooks and The Golden Bowl but never got to them. I’m so eager to do more Proust, Bleak House, Ferrante and Knausgaard, The German War, more Neal Stephenson, and the biographies Genghis Khan and Napoleon.

Here’s what I did enjoy reading this year:

Perhaps the single best thing I read this year was Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on the couple that adopted 22 children. It’s such a moving piece. George Packer on Merkel is also really good. And I loved Peter Hessler on the Chinese lingerie entrepreneurs in Egypt.

Wrapping up

I’m glad to have finally done some travel in Europe. And I’m also pleased to be here in the Bay Area.

Please reach out if anything here was interesting to you. I love correspondence, and I’ll grab coffee with anyone. I travel around the country occasionally for conferences, and will usually tweet out if I have free time.

Finally, please consider subscribing to my latest posts here: danwang.co/subscribe. I won’t publish often, but you’ll be updated immediately when I do. And I’m pretty active on Twitter, too.

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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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2014

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

This blog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freiburg from mountain

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

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

Some notes on blogging so far…

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

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

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

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

Highlights of last year…

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

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

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

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

The books I most enjoyed…

Here are the books I had trouble putting down:

Wrapping up…

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

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

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

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

Places I’ve lived

I’ve spent roughly equal parts of life in America, Canada, and China. Here’s that journey.

Pre-college

I was born in Kunming, a city in southern China, in a province that borders Myanmar and Vietnam. I grew up in a happy family until the age of seven. There I attended kindergarten and a single semester of elementary school.

Mom and dad decided that the three of us should live in Canada. We moved to Mississauga, on the outskirts of Toronto, in February, 2002. There I saw snow for the first time. I recall attending two elementary schools: Fisher Park (?) and Kingslake.

We moved to Ottawa in 2002. My dad started his Master’s in computer science. By then I was in grade four, attending Viscount Alexander.

We stayed in Ottawa for about seven years. I took the bus every day down Bank Street to Glashan Public School through grades seven and eight. This is the first and only school in which I stayed uninterrupted and for the full grades available.

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Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

This was a slog to get through. It’s good if you really want to learn the history of Apple. Also good if you want to know what a mean person Steve Jobs was. He’s a not a nice person person, and his face is plastered on so many inspirational posters. He should not be a role model.

Moments I remember best:

  • When he refused to give stock to employee #12, college friend Daniel Kottke.
  • When he abandoned his daughter, and acknowledged paternity only after a lot of pressure. He swore in a court document that he was sterile in order not to provide care.
  • When he cheated Wozniak out of a few thousand dollars when they designed a circuit board for Atari.
  • When he hardly acknowledged his parents as they dropped him off at Reed, after they sacrificed a great deal so that he could go.
  • And being a very mean boss in general.

Apple is mostly a design firm, hardly a company that’s revolutionizing technology. Sure he might be a genius, but there are CEO’s who better deserve our respect. I wish that we’d all be a lot more measured in our praise for this guy.