Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading

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

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

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

External mediation by Targaryens

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

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

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

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

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

The collective murder of Jon Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespearean, not Marxist conflict

Here’s a more general point. 

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

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

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

Winter as mimetic crisis

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

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

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

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

Other instances of mimetic desire

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

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

Final thought

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

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The life of Philip Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two months of Soylent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Data on police officers killed since 1961

In 2012 I put together some data for Radley Balko on the purported rise of police killings. Last week I saw that Dara Lind prepared something similar at Vox. My data goes back a little bit further than Dara’s (her’s goes to 1996, mine to 1961), and I thought to put up what I have here.

The FBI keeps track of two types of police deaths: Accidental deaths and felonious killings, which involves the deliberate killing of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. I’ve collected three statistics related to the latter. First, number of officers feloniously killed since 1961; second, the rate of felonious deaths per 100,000 officers since 1989; and finally, average felonious deaths per five-year period since 1961. I present these statistics in chart form here, and at the end of the post I share my data file and talk about the process of obtaining these figures.

Everything is collected from the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI. One comment from the 1990 UCR report I found very interesting: “The 1990 total was the lowest since the FBI started collecting such data in the 1960s.” I was able to find online older UCR report up until 1961, and that has made me somewhat confident that my data goes back to the first years that the FBI started to keep track of this number. I’d like to keep updating this as new data comes in so that it can be a complete and easily-searchable source of for these numbers. Your help and feedback is appreciated.

Here’s the summary: In general, the job of policing has become much safer since 1961. Here are a few interesting points.

  • More officers were feloniously killed in the 11 years between 1970 and 1980 (1228 deaths) than in the 21 years between 1993 and 2013 (1182 deaths).
  • The rate of felonious killings per 100,000 officers has declined from about 18 in 1989 to about 5 in 2013. It was over 3 times safer to be a police officer in 2013 than 26 years ago.
  • In the five years between 1971 and 1975, an average of 125 officers were feloniously killed per year. Most recently, between 2006 and 2010, the equivalent number is 50. That’s more remarkable given that the number of officers employed has increased considerably since the ‘70s.

Now the data. Click on these pictures to zoom.

Number of officers feloniously killed since 1961

police-fatalities

I’ve put in a trendline to better illustrate the decline. The peak year for deaths was 132 killings in 1972. The safest year recorded was the most recent: 27 deaths in 2013. That’s nearly an 80% drop. The number of deaths has steadily decreased since the ‘70s, with two spikes in 2001 and 2011.

Next, felonious killings per 100,000 officers since 1989

police-fatalities-rate-per-100,000

You’ll see from the data source in the next section that the number of officers has grown from about 400,000 officers in 1990 to about 530,000 officers in 2000. Still, this decline in the rate of killings isn’t just driven by an expanding denominator (number of officers), but also a declining numerator (number of killings). The number of killings has decreased even when the number of officers grew by over 25%.

The data on the number of officers serving is really difficult to find, which is why my cutoff has been 1989, the last year for which I can get reliable data. I’ll talk more about this in the next section.

Finally, five-year averages of felonious killings

average-police-fatalities-decade

This is just an aggregation of the first chart, useful for seeing the decline of felonious killings in half-decade chunks.

Summary

Every time a police killing makes it to national headlines, voices pipe up warning of an ominous trend in the rise of police officer killings. (See Radley’s recent compilation of some of these articles.) This data indicates that policing is much safer than in the past.

2013 was the safest year recorded for felonious killings of police. It’s hard to go down from 27 deaths. Consider that an increase of 9 felonious killings of police in 2014 would be a 33% rise from the year before; meanwhile, 9 felonious deaths over the 1972 peak would be only a 5% increase.

The data

I’ve compiled everything I’ve found into a Google Doc that you can find here. The first sheet holds the data I’ve collected, along with the source of every year’s UCR report. The next three sheets hold each of the three charts above. You’re very welcome to use it as you like, but please link to this original post or mention @danwwang.

Now some remarks about how I got the data. It was a big challenge to find some of these data points because collections are so haphazard, so I especially welcome feedback and corrections if you catch any errors.

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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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Space and military experiments in the sixties, and what we’ve lost

I’ve just finished Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s about Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, which paved the way for Gemini and Apollo.

Too much of it focused on the relationships between the astronauts than I liked, though I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if it went harder on the technical details. I wish that I knew enough physics and engineering to appreciate its details about propulsion. I don’t, and instead I most enjoyed reading about the environment that produced technology. (This is also how I felt when I read The Idea Factory, a book about the inventions that came out of Bell Labs.)

What’s most striking is how easy it was then to run experiments with unpredictable consequences. It’s almost unbelievable to read about everything that the American government was willing to try in order to beat the Soviets. Reciting anything like a precautionary principle to a scientist at that time would probably provoke incredulity and contempt. The sixties were a time when people won funding and permission for trying out really radical things, on a scale that’s hard to grasp today. Here are some examples of what I mean, by no means an exhaustive list of interesting projects of that time.

  1. The rockets that put the first American astronauts into orbit were modified intercontinental ballistic missiles. NASA made some tweaks to the Redstone and Atlas missiles, stuck astronauts on top of them, and shot them up. That was how Alan Shepard entered space in the first Mercury flight in 1961. Someone thought that you can send astronauts into space and bring them back to earth on missiles designed to deliver warheads, and they were right.
  2. The sound barrier was broken by an experimental rocket plane in 1947. The X-1 reached Mach 1.06 by being drop-launched from the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress. The X-planes managed to enter space, and the Air Force endeavored (unsuccessfully) to get them to be considered alternatives to NASA’s missions. Someone thought that you can break the sound barrier by launching a plane from the air rather than from the ground, and they were right.
  3. Then I learned that scramjets take this to a whole new extreme. Scramjets are drop-launched from about 50,000 feet, travel at around Mach 5 (~4,000 miles per hour), and can theoretically reach Mach 20. If I understand them correctly, scramjets don’t exactly have engines; instead they suck in a huge amount of oxygen, and “ram” that into a combustor to produce thrust. They travel fast enough that you can get from New York to London in less than an hour. Experimental flights were conducted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a patent for its design was first submitted in 1964. Alas it doesn’t look like there hasn’t been much more research and experiments with scramjets for the last few decades.
  4. Project Orion, an investigation into nuclear propulsion, was started in the late ‘50s. Physicists thought that you can travel through space by continuously blowing up atomic bombs behind a spacecraft, which would be protected from these explosions by a copper- or lead-tinted plate. This was however mostly theoretical, and no experiments were ever conducted.
  5. Speaking of nuclear explosions, perhaps the single best representative of the spirit of the times is the Starfish Prime test. In 1962, James Van Allen announced to the world his discovery of a layer of radiation by the earth’s magnetic field. The military promptly decided to detonate a thermonuclear bomb inside it. It was around 1960, when the military had begun conducting nuclear tests in high altitudes and outer space. Starfish Prime involved detonating a 1.45 megaton bomb (100 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb) in what’s now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The detonation temporarily altered the shape of the belt, destroyed a lot of satellites, and created an artificial aurora borealis that could be seen from New Zealand to Hawaii. Only later did we learn more about the belt and discover, for example, that it plays a crucial role in shielding us from solar winds. Here’s James Fleming, a science historian, on Starfish Prime: “This is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up…” and no less with a hydrogen bomb.

It wasn’t just the government and the military that conducted experiments. Ordinary people more broadly were impacted by innovations from the ‘60s. Microwave ovens were becoming commercially available, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution produced food for millions, people debated the merits of massive civil engineering projects.

The precautionary principle is now being invoked to stop people from drilling a hole in the ground to force up natural gas. Imagine learning about these innovations with the attitude of today. “Bring into our homes a machine that heats food by means of electromagnetic radiation? We need decades to study the effects of this.”  “Break the sound barrier? Why do we need to break stuff?” “Engineer new types of crops? Let’s stick with what’s natural.”

We shouldn’t detonate thermonuclear bombs in something we immediately discover. Still it feels like we’ve lost something important. In the ‘60s, people thought about how something should work in theory, designed experiments, and ran them to to test their ideas. Their successes were the bases for new inventions, and ordinary people were able to accept them for commercial use.

With so many leaps in technology what a thrill it must have been to live in the sixties and look forward to the things to come. But something changed, and it feels like we’re no longer so eager to run experiments or accept even not-so-radical inventions. Commercial flight hasn’t gotten faster for decades. Our kitchens haven’t changed much in 50 years. The most successful commercial applications of military technology, namely GPS and the internet, both came from the ‘60s. What a pity that the moon landings in 1969 marked not a new era for human ingenuity, but a capstone for the old one.