Reflections from an unglobalized part of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

A few final thoughts:

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

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Tyler Cowen’s *The Complacent Class*

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Some final thoughts:

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

Thanks to MG for comments.

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

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Californian Dreams

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

I have three questions:

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

What accounts for the strain of melancholy in Californian optimism?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A few last notes:

I’d like to read a book about California. Not a fiction nor a work of poetry by a Californian author; instead I’m looking for a history of the state as a whole. Any recommendations?

Right now, Seattle is the part of the country I’d most like to visit. Going purely off the descriptions of Cryptonomicon, it seems like geek heaven. Is it California-lite, with its own set of tech giants and blockbuster dynamics?

I loved both Hail, Caesar! and La La Land while I was watching them. Upon reflection, I liked Hail, Caesar! more and La La Land less. Both films are excellently reviewed by Richard Brody: “The Coen Brothers’ Marvelous ‘Hail, Caesar!’” and “The Empty Exertions of ‘La La Land.’

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

1. Thanks especially to Michael Gibson for elaboration.

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Sonderweg

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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The strangeness of Berlin

Berlin is one of the three cities in Europe that really made me go “wow.” It’s the one that I find hardest to characterize, but here’s an attempt.

Let’s start with the history. Berlin was hopping in the ‘20s, one of cultural capitals of the world. Soon the fanatics took over and made it the capital of the Third Reich. Next came the Allies’ bombs and the Soviet tanks. Then it was divided, and a massive wall broke it in half. That wall endured for thirty years before it was torn down. Now it’s a vibrant place of 3-and-a-half million.

You can’t go through all of that without being weird, and that’s putting it mildly. I went to Berlin before I visited London and Paris, and didn’t then appreciate that it’s so special. Now I’ve had the chance to reflect, and I think Berlin is simply far more interesting than the other two.

Walk around. Notice that Berlin has no organically-developed architecture. You won’t find the consistency of London and Paris. Everything clashes with everything else; there is not the white, neoclassical grace of Westminster, or the more striking grandness that grows along the Seine. Not every building agrees even with itself; witness the glass dome designed by Norman Foster placed on top of the Reichstag. 

After a while, you might alight on a thought. It’s an uncomfortable one, because you don’t really want to believe it, and maybe it’s because you’re just tired, so perhaps you shouldn’t entertain it at all—but you do. Berlin is sort of ugly.

There are no skyscrapers designed by brand-name architects, like in London. There’s no central, well-preserved “oldtown,” like in Strasbourg. The heart of the city isn’t dominated by a centuries-old cathedral, like in Cologne or Milan. If you want to see well-preserved cities on the eastern side of Europe, Berlin is not your best bet; go to Prague or Budapest instead. If you want to see “typical” German architecture, drive through the Black Forest, up to the Rhine valley, or through Bavaria. Berlin might be thought of as a northern Munich, with its old Baroque buildings mixed with contemporary work; only Munich is sunnier, richer, and a hundred times cleaner. To me it’s not obvious if Berlin is example of any aesthetic perfection. There’s always another city that does something better.

But I don’t take this lack of beauty to be a negative. Instead I think of it as quite marvelous.

When I reach for examples of German culture my references always go in one of two directions. It’s either the highly-polished works of Beethoven, Schiller, Brahms, or Fontane. Or it’s the really dark stuff: Berg’s gruesome opera Lulu; Kafka’s surrealist short stories; Brecht’s near-tragic Threepenny Opera; Schönberg’s atonal string quartets; Schiele’s crude, erotic paintings; Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; and on and on.

The first group feel like the product of a Munich or Cologne upbringing. The latter, with its seediness and edginess, belong to the spirit of Berlin. (Yes I know that many of the people here aren’t Germans, but their works are in German or they’re German-speaking and that’s what’s relevant.)

So what’s attractive about Berlin is precisely what’s missing in the cities that are beautiful. It’s not perfect and it cares not to be. Walking through its streets and thinking about the place is unsettling; you don’t know if something strange and unfortunate is going to happen next. That gives it an incredible vibrancy, a freedom that comes from knowing that it doesn’t have to be gorgeous or be beholden to the aesthetic past. Consider that both east and west were equally vigorous in destroying old buildings. The east even managed to demolish the Berlin Palace (Berlin Schloss), the summer residence of the Hohenzollern kings.

Berlin will surprise you. One hears all the time about how Germans are so great at planning and engineering. And then you read of something like the construction of the new airport in Berlin, which has been so mismanaged that every year it needs to add two more years to its completion date, and needs to take out another billion in loans. It was supposed to start operating in 2011, and completion now looks like it’s going to be 2017. The story of its construction involves huge plot twists, and at this point you can’t help but laugh at headlines like “Berlin Airport: The five biggest mistakes,” and “An endless debacle at the BER airport.”

What fun to live in a place like that, in spite of knowing that the hilarity comes from the mismanagement of your taxes. My great complaint with living in southern Germany is that it’s far too comfortable. Things are beautiful and need no change. The occasions for surprise are always structured. Where are the plot twists, the vendors selling delicious goods without a license, the spontaneity that comes when you know that neighbors don’t judge? Everything in the south is polite. Berlin is not that.

The message of Berlin is that not everything is set, that it has room for you. The latter I mean quite literally: There’s plenty of housing available. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month. It’s a small place, but a good location. Is it possible to live anywhere close to SoHo or the Ninth Arrondissement for less than seven or eight times that amount? And it’s not just housing; the food options are diverse and cheap, and you hear sometimes of the amazing nightclubs set up in abandoned warehouses.

Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever. Plan a visit before it turns into Paris.

(Here’s some color-footage of Berlin in July, 1945.) 

@danwwang

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Swiss Efficiency

Moleson-sur-Gruyeres

“The Swiss can be divided into two general categories: those who make small, exquisite, expensive objects and those who handle the money of those who buy small, exquisite, expensive objects.” – Malcolm Gladwell

I spent last weekend in two parts of Switzerland: German-speaking Bern and French-speaking Montreux. Switzerland seems reluctant to designate a federal capital; regardless, most federal institutions are located in Bern, including the parliament, the federal council, and the central bank. Montreux is more of a resort town right on Lac Léman, better known as Lake Geneva.

It’s too easy to dwell on the beauty of Swiss cities and countrysides, or on how well the Swiss exhibit culture, or on their small quaint traditions. Instead I want to explore a different trope in this post, and share some experiences with the splendidness of seeing Swiss efficiency in action.

By efficiency, I don’t just mean the ability of the Swiss to work hard (although this is the country to overwhelmingly vote down a referendum to replace the four-week mandatory vacation policy with the more typical six-week policy). Instead I’m referring more generally to just how well everything works. When you’re dealing with services in Switzerland, everything that could be simplified is simplified. Servicepeople and public authorities have put in a tremendous amount of thought to make things work well. Here are some examples.

Trains. We have to start with this one, obviously. I needed to board five trains to get to the town I was visiting from Germany. A booking agent figured out all of the connections from the first leg of my trip. Of the four connections I had to make, three had gaps that were under five minutes. As an Amtrak rider, I sweat when I book long trips that leave 15 minutes for making a connection. When I dared to ask the agent whether a 3-minute schedule gap is enough, she looked back and responded plainly: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

And I did. Trains departed on the minute they were supposed to depart, and would arrive usually a minute or two earlier than scheduled. To me it’s all still amazing: I had to make 5-train trips, twice, sometimes with very tight connections. All of them connected smoothly, and it was all done with a single quick booking.

Trains, again. Here’s a more subtle way to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of service: When I was on the train that crossed German-speaking Switzerland to French-speaking Switzerland, the priority of the train announcements changed. When I got on, “Näster halt…” was first, “Le prochain arrêt est…” was second; when we crossed, these two flipped. How very cool that someone considered to do this.

Slipping safety. On the top of the Alps near Lake Geneva, I found steps that led to a viewing platform. These steps were made of steel grates, meant to reduce slippage and snow accumulation. On every third step of the way up you’ll find a vertical barrier, covering half the step, and alternating on the left and right side. At first I was annoyed because they forced me to zigzag when I climbed up. When I asked my friend what they’re for, he explained that if someone slips then they might fall by just three steps and not the whole way down. When they built the stairs, the designer thought about how someone might fall, and built this to prevent the most dangerous kind.

Parking lots. When we drove into an underground parking lot, there were electronic displayed that showed the number of free spots available and arrows pointing us to the closest one. We didn’t have to drive through every level hoping to find an opening. Instead we were directed to one immediately. This system is made possible because there’s a sensor above every single spot.

Queues. Other than for making small purchases, you find very few of these. Whenever you’re waiting to speak to a serviceperson, say for booking a train ticket, you pick up a numbered ticket from a machine and wait for your number to appear over a service counter. That leaves you free to sit down or wander a bit. This isn’t done just in train stations; I found this system in the tourism office and in the box office of a concerthouse. It took me a while to get used to how frequently that this system is deployed; always look around to see if you should have grabbed a ticket!

These are small examples, and apologies if these are in fact quite common around the world. I find these subtle little touches everywhere, and they’re are wonderful when you experience them. It’s like the whole country is run as a four- or five-star hotel.

Why and how are things like this? “Why” questions are always harder to answer than “what” questions, but I’m happy to present a few hypotheses.

Here’s the crudest: Everything in Switzerland is so expensive that it would be impossible to expect poor terms of service. If you’re paying the equivalent of 5 dollars for an espresso, or 30 dollars for lunch, or 50 dollars cable car ride, then excellent service should be part of the package. (This is mostly wrong, of course, because things aren’t necessarily as expensive for the locals, who are still the majority of customers.)

It would only be slightly better to offer: “Oh, that’s just how the Swiss are. It’s in their nature to be so careful and attentive.” Maybe that’s true, but as a first attempt we should look for social reasons to explain cultural tendencies.

I’d like to think that everything works so well because everyone expects things to work well. It’s a lot easier to shirk if you expect your co-workers at the next line to shirk. Likewise, it’s a lot harder to shirk if you expect to be the only broken part of the system, the person who messes up the fine work of others.

That doesn’t explain how the system got to be the way it is. A deeper explanation might be this: Maybe people feel especially respected and empowered here. A waiter in America typically sees it as temporary work; I’ve heard that waiters, and general servicepeople, expect longer careers here. Most of them are not graduates of elite colleges waiting for something else to turn up. Rather they may have gone to trade school and expect to serve a different role in society. They’re not looking to jump ship, and society finds ways to honor them for what they do, including through the welfare system by making sure that no one has too hard of a time to make ends meet.

And especially for the Swiss, perhaps the compulsory two-year military service gives people a good sense of what they can expect from their fellow-citizens. Here’s a quote from Luigi Zingales, reflecting on his rather different experiences in Italy: “If you start from the presumption that everybody around you is there to take advantage of you, you’re going to behave in a completely different way than if you are more optimistic about people around you.”

German services are certainly efficient, but the Swiss services are a league above. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin, was so enamored of the German post that he wrote one of his few non-satirical essays, “Postal Service,” to celebrate its efficiency. I think that he would have been yet more impressed had he lived in Switzerland.

Here are some pictures from this trip.

Swiss Alps Moleson

From the top of Le Moléson. Mont Blanc is on the left, Lake Geneva is on the right.

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Short thoughts on Germany

Here are some short, unsystematic thoughts on two months of living in Germany. Instead of giving broad overviews of what life is like here, I’m trying to keep these thoughts idiosyncratic. They’re mostly things I found personally surprising.

(Since moving to Freiburg I’ve also visited Berlin, Prague, Colmar, Strasbourg, Paris, Basel, Zurich, Milan, Luxembourg, and Brussels. I’ll share pictures of some of these places at the very end.)

Canadian > New Yorker > American > Chinese. I’ve tried introducing myself in various ways. People are most enthusiastic when they hear that I’m Canadian or that I study in New York; they’re not quite so impressed to hear “Ich bin ein amerikanischer” or that “Ich komme aus China.” When people hear that I’m Canadian they ask thing like whether I speak French, if it’s true that there are lots of jobs there, and whether people really don’t lock their doors. (The answers are “yes but not well,” “I guess in some areas,” and “I wouldn’t know since I’d never try to open a door without notice.”)

Germans follow rules. Most people don’t jaywalk; they will stand because the crosswalk light is red, not just because there are no cars coming. Cashiers don’t always examine my change when I’m buying coffee or groceries. On the train, nearly every car ends up being a Quiet Car; the conversations that get loud are usually in English or French.

Berlin feels oppressive. Its buildings are wide and not high. They’re huge, low-slung blocks, the sort that you’d use the word looming to describe. Many buildings cover the length of an entire street, and not just in the central Mitte area. You’ll find yourself walking beside the same wall for a few minutes, realize that it’ll be a while more before you can leave it behind, and then see that the next street is like this too. You won’t get this feeling in Paris, where buildings are lighter and more ornate.

Other Berlin thoughts: East Berlin is 1000 times more interesting than West Berlin. I didn’t have a single bad meal, and all of them were cheap. It’s amazing how different things can look at the end of a 10-minute walk. It’s much more edgy than Paris. You can find expressions of German shame all over the heart of the city, sometimes it feels like on every street. The Berlin Philharmonie has some of the cheapest student tickets I’ve found: 8 euros one night for a string quartet. The whole city is cheap: someone told me that rent for his two-bedroom apartment is 200 euros a month.  I’m already wishing of going back.

The European concert experience is less alienating than the American. I’ve seen some kind of show, usually an opera, in the half-dozen cities I’ve visited. Europeans tend to be better dressed, but they’re less reverent toward the concert experience. Here, ticket sellers are more friendly, ushers smile more, and the applause doesn’t feel so gratuitous. It’s amazing how cheap tickets can be in Zurich or at La Scala. A lot more young people attend, and I think not just because student tickets are so cheap and easy to get.

German bakeries are underrated. You’ll find a bakery on every other street. They’re independent but quite uniform. Behind a glass case you’ll find pastries, rolls, and either lunch-y sandwiches or cakes. Behind the counter are shelves of large, round loaves of bread, usually at least a dozen varieties. I don’t have their names down, but the typical German bread is dark, thick, and seeded. I much prefer these dark breads to the boring, crusty French baguettes. Alas I’m still not yet used to German coffee; it gets much better in Italy or France.

Chinese food is the opposite of German food, but you can make do. Chinese uses meat sparingly, and many dishes are about maximizing its flavor to enhance vegetables. Germans will give you a big piece of schnitzel or wurst, throw in some potatoes or fries, and round it out with sauerkraut or red cabbage. It’s hard to find greens here, and that includes spinach and kale, not to mention the heartier Chinese greens. Nonetheless you’re not entirely without hope if you want to cook the Chinese way. The key is to find the flavorful cured meats. Look for the salamis, Schwarzwald ham, and the drier sausages; you can find them cheaply and easily in any supermarket. Slice these up thinly, toss them in the wok, and then throw in lots of cabbage or whatever leafy vegetables you can find.

Germans come in all shapes and sizes. I’m getting better at distinguishing Europeans based on behavior and facial features. The French and Italians are distinct, and there are some giveaways that people come from Eastern Europe. But I don’t know yet how to tell whether someone is German. What are the signs that give it away?

Bitte (BE-te) is a very useful word. Its meanings include: please (as in both “Yes, please.” and “Please pass the salt.”), you’re welcome, pardon me?, and here you go. There are more uses depending on context. Another common German word is schön, which means beautiful, also with lots of uses based on context.

Germans talk to me in English. They would do this even before I open my mouth to badly say the few German phrases I know. This would only happen in Germany, which mystifies me; Zurichers would start with German, Parisians with French. My new friends insist that it’s because they wish to be polite and make me feel comfortable, which makes me feel guilty for making them speak in a different language in their own country. Everyone is so keen to speak English to me that I’m finding it difficult to practice any German at all. My American friends sometimes get annoyed at this too.

Some places in Europe feel more like China than America. I find very little similar between living in America and living in China. In Europe I occasionally get the same feelings I get walking the streets of China. In China and Europe, you find more open-air markets where you can grab a meal; the bargaining between pedestrians and drivers/cyclists tends to be more confident; it’s much easier to catch the smell of exhaust; and there’s more chaos but no less order. You get the sense that most people in cities are used to living in cities, which is a feeling I don’t much get in American cities. Or maybe I just feel this way because I’ve properly never lived in a DC or an NYC…

One final story. Here’s something that happened on the very first day that I arrived in Germany. I was getting off the train from Frankfurt when my bag bumped against the door and my water bottle fell out. The mid-forties German man behind me made a grab for it, but it ended up on the tracks. He told me to wait, and stood with me and all my bags for about five minutes before the train left the station. When we could see my bottle, he first tried to recover it when a rope knot he fashioned, and then looked for one of those grab tools you use to pick up trash.

Neither worked. He looked both ways, and said: “Grab my hand.” Then he jumped down, took the bottle, and hopped back on the platform. He handed it to me, turned around to leave, and called out: “It’s better for a German to get in trouble here than for an American.” I didn’t see him again.

It was very, very decent of him. I was infinitely impressed.

And now some pictures.

Landscape - Alps

The Faulhorn in the Swiss Alps, close to Interlaken. It took about two hours to get to the top with a sled, and it takes about 40 minutes to slide down to the bottom of the mountain.

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