What I learned in 2017

I thought to write a post on some of the things I’ve learned in the past year, along with some recommendations on what you should see and read.

Here’s a general principle I’d like to put forward: That learning, broadly defined, ought to accelerate over time. It’s an analytical error to analogize the growth rate of knowledge (and I’m going to be vague about this) to something like the growth rate of a country’s GDP. Instead of expecting it to slow over time, we should spend our days trying to accelerate the growth of our knowledge base.

My observation is that most people expect learning to decelerate. It’s not uncommon to see this attitude among fresh college grads: “I’m done with school and it’s time to join the workforce so that it’s time to implement all the stuff I’ve learned.” They tend to tie learning together with being forced to read books and attend lectures, and since they no longer need to do these things, therefore they don’t have to keep learning. The result is that they more or less lose interest in improvement.

Countries generally can’t maintain high growth rates, but that doesn’t equally have to affect individuals. I’d like for people to think in different terms. The world is big enough, and any individual is small enough, that we can accelerate learning over time. And I submit that positive belief that this claim is true would make it so.

Let me try to justify this in some theoretic terms.

  • Network effects. Learning more facts increases the value of the facts that one already knows. In other words, learning a new fact can help you increase the value of older facts. When you know more, you can identify a greater number of themes and form new theses. At certain levels of abstraction, you feel that you’re able to form novel insights, that things you didn’t previously understand have moved within your grasp, that a point you dismissed previously as mundane is in fact quite deep.
  • Positive returns to scale. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn. You can start skipping over stuff you’ve read before, because you’re familiar with the ideas or the methods of argument. (Do we still need to read that paragraph explaining, say, comparative advantage?) Thus one skips over the familiar stuff to get straight to the unfamiliar ideas.

Okay, maybe these are saying the same thing: they boil down to a claim that knowledge can compound. I’d like for us to think about how to accelerate the growth of learning. The traditional method of reading more books and trying to improve professionally are good starts; but it’s not enough to stop there. One can learn more by traveling to new places, being social in different ways, reading new types of books, changing jobs or professions, moving to a new place, by doing better and by doing more. Writing stuff out and putting ideas out there helps too, and I wish that my friends wrote more.

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Speaking of writing, I regret to have posted only six essays in 2017. It’s a low figure and I wish to do better. On the other hand, I’m pleased that each of them made some small impact in a few circles; more importantly, overall I’ve been pretty happy with their quality.

My two best pieces have been Definite Optimism, a proposal for developing a concrete vision of the future, as well as the importance of maintaining an industrial base; and Girardian Terror, which describes the problems that come from focusing our gaze on each other, instead of matters of the world. I’m delighted that Definite Optimism became my most well-read piece of the year. I don’t often write from the left, and I was pleasantly surprised that the packaging didn’t detract from the message.

It’s only this year that I feel that my posts have started to develop greater forward and backward linkages. That is to say, instead of most posts being idiosyncratic and unrelated to each other, more of them are cohering together into themes. Some people have remarked negatively upon the length of my posts. But there’s a way to think of them as very short indeed. I break my posts into sections, marked by asterisks, and I’d like to think they’re all modular upon my overall thought. While posts may look like they’re organized under distinct titles, my hope is that each individual section is a fractal for all my other views.

I kicked off the year with a piece on what I find so bizarre about California, and I present there a framework for viewing the world. My review of The Complacent Class has a lot to do with my review of the Three Body Problem, which makes sense since both are commentary about China. Why so few people major in computer science was the second most read piece of the year. Girardian Terror coalesced various themes of this site since its beginning, while Definite Optimism is commentary on my change in perspective since I moved from New York to Asia.

One should never be all that explicit when writing on the internet, so I’ll stay silent on the implications of my Girard and California pieces. I’m happy however to bring out a few questions I’d like more people to consider from my definite optimism post:

1. Why not let’s ask for the US to reach and sustain 3 percent GDP growth by 2020?

2. Are we sure that rich countries aren’t themselves suffering their own premature deindustrialization?

3. Why don’t we focus more on developing the developed world?

Certainly I wish to write more than six pieces a year. But I have to contend with the fact that I have a full-time job after all, and writing essays here is supposed to be for fun. (I don’t make much income from this site, nor do I ever intend to.) And while I wish I wrote shorter posts more often, much of my quick writing has moved to email correspondence with friends, so these posts end up more as polished final products rather than spontaneous thoughts. It’s the wrong tendency, I admit, for the blogosphere. But I think these kinds of thought-out posts work better for me, and therefore I won’t make any promises of higher output this year.

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It’s time to talk about books.

Most people don’t have a very high level understanding of the mechanics of China’s economy, generally speaking. You can be part of the solution and not part of the problem by picking up Arthur Kroeber’s book, China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know. It offers an overview of the main drivers of the world’s second-largest economy, including the property cycle, urbanization, the fiscal system, industry and exports, demographics, and more. (I should note at this point that I’m biased because Arthur is the head of research at my firm.)

I reviewed two books in these pages this year that I’m happy to recommend again. Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem series, and Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. If Three Body Problem is not your cup of science fiction tea, then I’m also happy to recommend Seveneves and Snow Crash, which I read back to back this year. (Though if you haven’t yet read Cryptonomicon, I say pick that up first.)

Much of my reading has been China-focused recently. I enjoyed Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, not only because its title is sublime; although it’s not really conceptually driven, it reads quickly, almost as if it were a novel. Unlikely Partners, by Julian Gewirtz, gives a good sense of how post-reform policymaking happened: through extensive arguments by different factions trying to hammer out a written document, which becomes policy for all. I’m enjoying making my way through the HUP series History of Imperial China, edited by Timothy Brook. They’re good because they’re more conceptually driven than chronologically so. (Thanks to Simon Cartledge for lending me all six books in the series.)

The most Chinese book I read this year was Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Man. It opens with the virtuous head of a merchant family, and then moves on to his more carefree and less competent descendants, who fritter away the family’s fortune and good name. It’s shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in four generations, culminating in death induced by typhoid. I thought it took great daring by the author to set the novel in Lübeck and Hamburg instead of Hangzhou or Beijing, but it worked well. By the way, I found Buddenbrooks to be much more easygoing and enjoyable than The Magic Mountain.

Two nonfiction books:

The Second World Wars, by Victor David Hanson. At some point one has to stop reading books about that war, and for me this about does it. The book is less about individual battle scenes and generalship; instead it’s a case for why the Allies had to win, based on a better grasp of strategy as well as far greater capacity for industry.

How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. It’s the best story of the East Asian economic miracle. Should you meet anyone who doubts that this subject is worth studying, I suggest responding with this quote: “Whereas Hegel saw the 19th century Prussian state as a manifestation of God’s will in history, I am assigning a comparable (but secular) place of importance to the East Asian economic miracles. The word ‘miracle’ truly does apply.”

In a sense, the best nonfiction I read this year was the Financial Times. It’s only this year that I finally had a subscription to the FT, and I wish I signed up years ago. Its culture section is excellent, and I feel that it delivers the most intelligent way to approach news. I like its tech coverage a great deal too, and I’d recommend my Silicon Valley friends to take a look; it most consistently focuses on the things that matter.

I didn’t do a great deal of fiction in 2017, and I intend to remedy that in 2018. I had wished to re-read the Proust series, but failed to finish. One piece of good news is that the second half of the new Penguin translations ought to be released in the US this year, so that fresh translation will provide an impetus.

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I watched only a single TV show this year, which I really enjoyed: Big Little Lies on HBO. The shots are beautiful and the drama is compelling; it was a significant inspiration for my piece on Girard. I regret to have mostly ignored TV as a creative stimulus this year, and concede that my imaginative capacity has possibly suffered as a result.

The very best movie I watched this year was The Florida Project, so good I saw it in theaters twice, the second time no less compelling than the first. The premise: Motels outside Disneyland in Orlando are pretty cheap, and they take on more or less permanent guests, most of whom don’t have very good jobs. And that’s all I’ll say. Some parts were really funny, some other parts were very moving, do try to go. (I thank Eugene Wei, without whom I would not have heard about this movie, for taking me to see it.)

Three other movies of note:

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke. I’d say that this is now my favorite Chinese movie. It and Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom have the best names in this post.

Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade. It’s terribly uncomfortable, and that’s part of the humor. At other times it’s very sad indeed. The magic of both Toni Erdmann and The Florida Project is that they make one sit very still in the theater, transfixed, with no idea how the current scene will resolve, nor what the next scene will bring.

Youth, Feng Xiaogang. This is straightforwardly a propaganda film. I say it’s worth watching for what Chinese reminisce about, and its production values are higher than most propaganda films out there. Its first minute is quite good, you can watch a Youtube clip here.

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A question I like to ask when I travel: “What would I be like if I grew up here? Would I be very different if I spent my childhood here rather than in Kunming, Ottawa, and Philly?” I find that asking it prompts better thoughts, and it encourages me to be more observant of the things around me.

One good thing about Hong Kong is that it’s very easy to leave Hong Kong. I don’t merely mean that the airport infrastructure is set up very well here; about half of humanity is within a six hour flight of this city. This year, I had the chance to visit every part of the Sinosphere (or places where people are majority Chinese): I live in Hong Kong, and I’ve visited mainland China, Macau, Taiwan, Vancouver, and Singapore.

There’s fantastic variety to these places. Singapore is a remarkable city, and it takes only one visit to see that. Out of all these places, I had the most fun in Taipei, which I found to be the place best optimized for eating and leisure. Macau certainly does the latter, but to proportions that approach the grotesque, while meal for meal, nothing beats the inventiveness of Taiwan.

My favorite travel experience was in China itself. It’s so easy to find accounts extolling holidays in places like Japan, Thailand, or Bali. They’re easy to appreciate, either because of their natural endowments or because they’re already so good at catering to tourists. I’d argue however that China delivers the most rewarding travel experience of all, precisely because there are so many weird frictions.

I submit that really every part of China is worth seeing, not just Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan are very different from Guangdong and Fujian, which are not at all the same as Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, which are so distinct from the Jiangnan, and on and on, to say nothing of the far west. Each Chinese province has roughly the population of a large EU country; there may not be as many differences between each province as there are between European countries, but they’re still huge.

One can’t so easily find accounts of how much fun it is to travel around China. Those who haven’t ventured far beyond Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing underestimate the sheer number of totally random stuff that happens to you. In stores, traffic, restaurants, and on the streets, I regularly come across behaviors and fixtures that I had no idea were a thing. You might be driving along miles of farmland, when suddenly a massive high-tech factory with the logo of a well-known foreign company looms up on the horizon; in a restaurant, I was asked one time to help with the cooking because chefs had to go out to buy more ingredients; you never know who might come up to you and tell you an interesting story. The lack of professionalism in nearly all things is sometimes frustrating but mostly hilarious.

There are many interesting stories from Chinese that we’ll never know. That’s true not only because in general we won’t know most interesting stories, not even in a single city block, but it’s especially the case in China, which has seen intense changes but few records. Most people who grew up through 1979 have had some extreme experiences, both happy and unhappy, and I wish that more of their stories can be recorded for posterity. A secular version of a monastery, say, supporting scholars whose sole jobs are to take down oral histories from ordinary people.

Here’s something underreported: how good the consumer experience is today in most of Asia. Retail and restaurant marketers should come over to Shenzhen, Singapore, Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo to see how sophisticated the consumer experiences are for young people. These stores make shopping and eating a fun experience, with their combination of good service, fun stuff to do while you wait, and inventive new foods.

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This year, my taste in music veered toward the conventional. I’ve found myself listening to a great deal of Beethoven, especially the third symphony—his most perfect of all—and to the string quartets. I’m not sure why exactly I’ve gone to those this year, I attended no live performance that rekindled this interest.

I attended a few memorable performances. I loved the Tristan from the last season of the Met, with Nina Stemme as Isolde and Simon Rattle as conductor. Strauss’ Salomé works well on disc, but it was fun to see it extravagantly performed live. Also at the Met, Jenufa and L’amour de loin were very enjoyable.

Usually I listen to Philip Glass when I write, and this year I got to attend a live performance. It was the premiere of his 11th symphony, by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, which Glass attended as well on his 80th birthday. And the very best musical event of my year was a performance of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, performed by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, as part of the Lincoln Center’s White Lights Festival. We stood in a chapel in the Upper West Side, as the choir emerged from the audience, finding ways to engage with us throughout the singing, deploying constant surprises in the dark space. I thought it was sublime, and the good news is that the ensemble performs it elsewhere, so perhaps you can catch it too.

I had a lot more Wagner this year. I find that Tristan and Das Rheingold work well on disc, and Parsifal too, especially the third act. Strauss as well, whose operas are exceedingly fine, most of all Daphne and Der Rosenkavalier. Verdi’s Otello is sometimes spoken of as comparable to Shakespeare’s play, but hardly anyone says the same about the respective Macbeths. Verdi’s Macbeth is not frequently performed, but I think that its ruminative parts are excellent reminders of why it is we love Verdi.

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(I enjoyed this cyberpunk series of Hello Chongqing)

On Hong Kong I shall write more later.

To conclude, why not let’s ask for the US to reach and sustain 3 percent GDP growth by 2020?

Are we sure that rich countries aren’t themselves suffering their own premature deindustrialization?

Why don’t we focus more on developing the developed world?