Thiel and Trump

In the spring of 2011, a year before he locked up the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney went to have breakfast with Peter Thiel in San Francisco. Thiel offered some political advice. Here’s the account from George Packer’s book, The Unwinding:

Romney said his campaign was going to focus on the economy, not social issues, and let the numbers make his argument. Thiel found him extremely polished and impressive, and he offered Romney a prediction: “I think the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests that you’re out of touch.” In other words, it would be a mistake for Romney just to argue that Obama was incompetent, and that things would automatically be much better with a different president.

Romney didn’t take it up. Here’s Packer again:

It was a point that Romney couldn’t grasp. He assumed that the more optimistic candidate would always win. He assumed things were still fundamentally working.

I thought of this passage as I listened to Donald Trump’s speech at the RNC Convention. Twitter lit up with indignation even as he was speaking, as people denounced the speech as dark and full of despair.

An hour before Trump took the stage, Peter Thiel went up to speak. Not only did Thiel speak on behalf of Trump, he also went through the trouble of becoming one of his national delegates. I couldn’t help but wonder if Thiel gave exactly the same advice to Trump that he did to Romney: Go for darkness and pessimism.

If he did, Trump exploited it ruthlessly. Note that Trump’s closest competitor in the primaries, Ted Cruz, has enjoyed a longer relationship with Thiel. And he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine himself. Both Trump and Cruz have managed to weaponize pessimism. Perhaps it was already Trump’s instinct to offer a bleak vision and didn’t need any convincing from Thiel. Still, his success in the primaries is evidence for Thiel’s idea that pessimism is the right tone to strike.

I’ve seen many takes on why Thiel is supporting Trump. In general I think they overcomplicate. I’ve never spoken with Thiel about his motivations, and I suspect that no one except himself knows why he’s doing this. But let me share my own speculations on his support of Trump:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Being a contrarian means taking contrarian positions. What could provoke greater delight than to take the complete opposite stand from (almost literally) every single one of your peers, who are public and passionate about their distaste for Trump? When one sees this degree of unanimity on any position, can a good contrarian possibly resist taking the other side? It’s too delicious of an opportunity to pass up.

(This is also kind of the “he’s a troll” explanation.)

He agrees with Trump on policy. Thiel has become less supportive of free trade; Trump bashes NAFTA all the time. Neither are enthusiastic about foreign interventions. Both want to blow up political correctness. Both have made positive noises on single payer healthcare, as well as raising the minimum wage. Both want to “build big things.” And isn’t Trump quite friendly towards the LGBTQ community? On a lot of major issues, the two are at least rhetorically aligned. When else is Thiel going to get this mix of left-right positions?

Still, I think that Thiel’s agreement with Trump on policy is being over-indexed by most commentators. A commitment to detailed policy proposals isn’t the key to understanding either man.

By the way, I don’t think that using Thiel’s background is the right way to understand the relationship. Thiel doesn’t make a big deal out of his identity, and in some cases you can read contradictions into them. It’s better to start instead from his beliefs.

He really doesn’t like Clinton. Thiel founded the conservative Stanford Review in the late-’80s, and published The Diversity Myth in 1996. All indications are that he was a righteous Republican in the ‘90s. And what unified all Republicans then? A hatred of the Clintons. It could be so simple that Thiel really doesn’t want the Clintons back in the White House.

He’s an accelerationist. Here’s the explanation I like the least: He’s supporting Trump to hasten the collapse of capitalist democracy/a functional government/social institutions. I think that Thiel’s distaste for democracy, if it even exists, is overblown. Thiel’s a fan of Benjamin Friedman’s work, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He wants to see growth more than anything else, so that people can come together to discuss how to increase the pie. That’s as opposed to having no growth, in which people bicker about how to divide a static pie. Everything is worse when the pie shrinks.

Consider his most original essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment. He considers it foolish and irresponsible to make bets on the end of the world. This was quite a big theme for him before he took up discussing technological pessimism.

One last thing: Two of his most famous philanthropic ventures involve getting people to drop out of college and to create self-governing societies. I’ve seen people refer to these to prove that Thiel wants society to blow up after all. But that’s quite wrong. Thiel is not trying to blow anything up. Instead, he’s advocating to exit decaying institutions, and to build new ones instead.

Hedging his positions. Thiel used to be a derivatives trader and managed a hedge fund. According to the betting markets right now, Trump is around 30% likely to win. Most of Thiel’s peers are rooting for the other side, and his support for Trump can be a hedge for the tech sector as a whole.

Potential payoff. There could be a lot for Thiel if Trump wins; traders have made fortunes from far worse odds. A cabinet position, perhaps? I’ve cheekily suggested that Thiel would make an excellent Secretary of Defense. The Pentagon has the biggest budget and a mandate to develop new technologies. Imagine what Thiel can do with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has worked on the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, and the Kennedy Space Center.

$500,000 was a small price to pay for getting in on Facebook early; becoming a delegate and speaking at a convention is a cheaper price still, for a far greater potential payoff. And in any case, Thiel’s funding of various unpopular causes has already sufficiently alienated him with polite society; he’s not about to lose many followers now.

And it’s not just the direct personal payoff. With the executive branch on his side, he stands to help out a lot of his portfolio companies as well. Many of his investments are in high-regulated industries, and stand to benefit a great deal from federal contracts, not to mention executive relief from Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, and on and on.


I wasn’t so surprised to learn that Thiel had become a delegate for Trump when news broke in May. Certainly I didn’t expect for him to go through the hassles of actually becoming a delegate, but his declared support needn’t have shocked. This is the sort of thing he does, and in this case I expect that he acted with gusto.

Here’s a not quite related point, to conclude: In 2014, Thiel said that Trump is “sort of symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City.” I’d love for him to unpack that. What is so bad about New York, and about the culture of the east coast more generally? And which person embodies the very best of New York?

Addendum, 9.6,16: Thiel publishes an op-ed in the Washington Post on his support of Trump. It focuses on his belief that Trump will improve the effectiveness of government.

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“Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” from John Brooks’ Business Adventures

A friend recommended that I pick up Business Adventures by John Brooks. It’s a book made recently popular by Bill Gates, who borrowed his copy from his friend Warren Buffett.

Business Adventures is made up of 12 chapters, each of which was separately published as articles in the New Yorker. It covers topics like insider trading, stockholder meetings, an early Wall Street bailout, and more. The very first chapter I read was “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” which profiles the company that was so important to the city of Rochester, where I went to college. (The story mentions the university quite a few times.) The company was initially named Haloid, and it struggled to develop a product before it found major success.

Brooks’ storytelling is superb. Here are a few things from the chapter that resonated with me. And at the end of the post, I’ll share a few of my favorite sentences.

1. In 1964, the company spent a year’s advertising budget to underwrite a series of ads supporting the United Nations. The UN is well established now, so it’s easy to ignore, or not know at all, that its growth was a matter of major controversy. Xerox’s CEO justified the expenditure in high-minded terms: “World cooperation is our business, because without it there might be no world and no business.”

The company ran into a storm of opposition. Thousands of letters poured in to denounce Xerox. They didn’t all come from members of the John Birch Society, although most did: some purportedly came from the presidents of major companies, who threatened to remove all Xerox machines from their offices unless the ad series was canceled. The company declined to give in.

It does not seem self-evident that the responsibility for promoting world cooperation should fall so heavily on a company selling photocopiers. How often do major companies take stands on positions of genuine public controversy? And how often do they maintain these public positions when their customers expressly threaten to cancel business? It feels remarkably brave.

2. Here’s bravery of a more obvious sort: The company invested a great deal in R&D for the product, at a time when it wasn’t clear that a breakthrough was possible. No one else had figured out how to build a cheap, efficient xerography machine that could print on untreated paper. Developing the machine eventually became a do-or-die affair for the company. Several early employees really stuck their necks out, including forgoing a salary and mortgaging their houses to help with the research effort. They were duly rewarded, but they may well have all been ruined.

3. I’ve never quite realized how important Xerox was to the city and to the University of Rochester. It’s fun to read the profile of the company and recognize so many names I’ve seen around campus. Joseph C. Wilson was variously the chairman, chief executive, and president of the company; his name is on the main boulevard of the university and one of the three major dining halls. The school has named its science library after Chester Carlson, who developed one of the processes critical to xerography. I haven’t seen the names of Sol Linowitz (a chief deputy) and John Dessauer (a chief researcher) around, but I’m sure that their names adorn professorships or different parts of campus.

Someone once told me that the University of Rochester had a massive endowment in the ’60s, second only to Harvard’s. Now it all makes sense.  Before Xerox had its breakthrough, the university bought a huge number of shares out of concern for helping out a struggling local employer. When the company took off, the university’s position did as well. Alas it wasn’t so successful at managing the money. Rochester’s endowment is now around $2 billion, while Harvard’s is around $32 billion.

Xerox was important to the city, not just to the university. I remember reading a 1971 book that describes the city this way: “Rochester prides itself on being one of America’s cultural crown jewels; it has its libraries, school system, university, museums, and its well-known symphony.” That was the heyday of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb. But it wasn’t able to keep growing or maintain momentum; the city’s population has been in decline for the last few decades, stabilizing only in the last few years. Instead of being able to tout these multinational industrial giants, the city’s largest employers have become the University of Rochester (because of the hospital system) and Wegmans (a grocery chain).

4. I’d always thought it a little funny that Xerox’s name so resembled Kodak’s. It turns out that it was intentional of the upstart to copy Kodak’s near-palindrome. The decision to change the name to Xerox from Haloid ran into virulent opposition from the firm’s marketing consultants, who declared the name unpronounceable and to sound too much like “zero.”

The chapter is my favorite so far in the book. Others I’ve read don’t come close to being as interesting, though perhaps I say that only because it has personal resonance. At some points Brooks is a brilliant writer, but at other times I’m put off by his self-consciousness. Anyway, here are three of my favorite sentences, all from the Xerox chapter.

In a society that sociologists are forever characterizing as a “mass,” the notion of making one-of-a-kind things into many-of-a-kind things showed signs of becoming a real compulsion.

I sent a couple of afternoons with one 914 and its operator, and observed what seemed to be the closest relationship between a woman and a piece of office equipment that I have ever seen. A girl who uses a typewriter or a switchboard has no interest in the equipment, because it holds no mystery, while one who operates a computer is bored with it, because it is incomprehensible. But a 914 has distinct animal traits…

Xerox salesmen are forever trying to think of new uses for the company’s copiers, but they found again and again that the public is well ahead of them.

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Things I’ve recently learned, 3.13.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…


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: 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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Casual Carpool in Oakland and Berkeley

I’ve been living in north Oakland/south Berkeley for two months. This is a post about one of my favorite institutions: casual carpool.

Every morning I walk 15 minutes from my house to a spot in Rockridge, Oakland. There I’d find a line of cars waiting to pick up passengers. I’d get into a car and be driven across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, where I’d be dropped off two blocks away from my office in the Financial District. All of this is free.

The system is called “casual carpool.” It’s not app-enabled or have much to do with the internet. Instead it emerged since the ‘60s or ‘70s as a way for East Bay’ers to get into the city. It’s an excellent trade: Passengers get a free ride into the city. Drivers can use the carpool lane, saving on average 20 minutes and $4 on their morning commutes.

It works simply. A small sign is all there is to designate a pickup spot. There are about two dozen such spots in the East Bay, concentrating around East Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. The designated drop-off spot is the first exit off the Bay Bridge; it just so happens that my office is close by.

Casual carpool is structured to be maximally easy for everyone. For passengers, these spots are close to parking spaces or within walking distance of public transportation. The spot I go to is right before a highway entrance, to make it especially compelling for drivers to take passengers: If you see people lining up to save you time on your commute, why not pick them up?

The experience is shrouded in some etiquette. There typically isn’t a great deal of talking. It’s up to the driver to initiate conversation, and I’ve chatted perhaps a third of the time. It’s rude for the passenger to carry out a phone conversation over the whole ride. NPR is almost always on, loudly. You should to ask for permission to have food and coffee in the car. Drivers and passengers are supposed to match on the basis first-come-first-served; a driver should not look for the most attractive woman in the line and ask her to get in.

I find especially interesting the driver rhetoric towards accepting money. Occasionally someone will ask for a dollar, but more often I’ve had drivers insist to me that they won’t take payment. They say they do it “to be nice” and to be environmentally friendly. Of course we acknowledge that everyone saves time: When we drive past unmoving lines that are 50-cars deep, we wonder why more drivers don’t pick people up.

Two stories: I was once picked up by a person who turned out to be a federal judge of the United States; he sits on the court of the Northern District of California, and has been driving people from Berkeley for the last twenty-five years. He reported that exactly two of those experiences have been unpleasant. My favorite ride was when I rode across the Bay Bridge in a Fiat convertible, top down in the summer sun. It’s gorgeous to watch the sun rise over the city; sometimes you can see ships across the bay.

Alas casual carpool doesn’t work so well in the evening. There isn’t a centralized drop-off spot and there’s a much greater range of people’s after-work commute times. I take BART home.

I don’t know if casual carpool works like this anywhere else. For all the talk of Berkeley/Oakland friendliness, I think this has been so sticky because it’s a third-best response to the housing shortage of the city, the size of the population across the bay, and the constraint of the lone Bay Bridge as the only way to get into the city.

Casual carpool is so marvelous that I don’t particularly want to move into the city. I enjoy my morning commute; how many other people can say that?

Addendum, 12.13: As Samuel Hammond said in a tweet—isn’t this the original sharing economy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few more short thoughts:

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

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

German problems are rarely German problems alone. – Ralf Dahrendorf

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

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

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

Schneehügel mit Raben

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

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Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now some general observations:

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

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

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

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