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Browser Interviews: Dan Wang

Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, today I'm with Dan Wang who is a Shanghai based writer focusing on China's technology development. Welcome to The Browser.

How to channel Xi Jinping Thought

Baiqu: So, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about China's technology developments? I mean, this is your area of expertise, so where would you recommend that they start.

Dan: I spend a lot of my time thinking about things a bit broader than that. Every morning when I wake up, I wonder what's going on in the mind of Xi Jinping, China's top leader, and I try to figure that out, and a lot of my thoughts now are very much concerned with determining what Xi Jinping Thought looks like over the next few years. To do so, I do things like subscribe to Qiushi, which is the party's main theory magazine, the English translation is known as Seeking Truth. In addition to all of my technology work, I write annual letters – basically a very long essay in the beginning of the year, every January 1st – thinking through a little bit more about what's going on in China. (You can find these letters on my site).

Now, my quick summary now of what's going on in China, what people have to realise, is that this is both a dynamic society as well as a repressive one. I used to work in California, in Silicon Valley, and the saying from Mark Zuckerberg was "move fast and break things." And I feel that this is a society that practices move fast and break things, not just in tech, but in so many other areas. And in addition, this  is a society that practices move fast and break people.

So we have both move fast and break things and move fast and break people. And I think we should never forget that both of these things are true, that we cannot let the repressiveness and invalidate the dynamism, nor vice versa. That is a lot of what I try to figure out in my pieces and to try to come to terms with this society that is always very changing, for the better, and also for the worse, it is all a big contradictory mess that we have to figure out how to really understand.

Baiqu: That's very well put. And my question really, which I'm sure everyone is thinking, is how do you wake up every morning and channel into the mind of Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful men in the world, who's also very mysterious? Do you have  a practice, is it more academic, or are you doing a more kind of a spiritual channeling of Xi Jinping in your mind and trying to think about what he might be pondering for the day?

Dan: It's completely mystical. First, it has to be informed by my dreams; second, it has to be informed by the 7:00 PM daily news broadcast of what the General Secretary did the previous day; and third, all of the government's announcements. Once you have this potent mix and we have a result... usually it is wrong. So my track record in fact here has not been a very good one.

Baiqu: But, you know, keep going, hopefully at some point you'll get it right.

How to find inspiration

Baiqu: Great. Okay. Second question. What would you recommend if someone is searching for inspiration?

Dan: A drive down the coast of California. Every year I try to do this once, to go down the California State Highway 1, which I typically do going from San Francisco – where I used to work, which I think of as my spiritual home – to drive down, not quite to Los Angeles, but to something like San Luis Obispo. It is, I think, one of the most gorgeous drives in the world, where you have a Pacific ocean on your right, you have these gorgeous waves that are coming by, you have these dune hills on your left – every time I go, when I see and smell the sea air, when I can hear the waves, I always think that this is such a marvellous thing. Driving back through also is a fantastic experience.

Now in this COVID year, things have become much more challenging to actually hear the California coast. Now what I have done to try to replace that experience in China is to travel much more in this big country. Three weeks ago, I just cycled from Guiyang in Southwest China to Chongqing, which was around 600 kilometres through the mountains of the Southwest. Another fantastic experience, kept going by bowls of noodles every three hours along with some ice cream to replenish myself, and the scenery really is out of this world as well. But Baiqu, as soon as I can, I'm going to go back and do some camping in Sea Ranch in California and drive down to San Luis Obispo with the incredible Pacific ocean on my right and these beautiful mountains on my left.

Baiqu: Oh, you painted such a beautiful picture.  I've never been to the West Coast, but now I want to go and I want to do this exact route. I mean, I'll have to learn to drive first, but then I will do that. So do you think it's the mixture of nature and being in motion that kind of brings inspiration for you?

Dan: It is the mix of nature, plus being in motion and thinking a little bit more about the built up physical environment. Now the one disappointing thing about California is that in terms of building it is a catastrophic failure. The San Francisco municipal authority has spent about 20 years trying to add a bus lane to the main thoroughfare and so far, it has still not succeeded. In something as simple as houses, San Francisco is very, very poor at building. I'm full of denunciations of San Francisco. And to me, it is a little bit disappointing that it's best work, the Bay Bridge, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge took place nearly a hundred years ago and it has lost the ability even to build something as simple as a bus lane. Consider Treasure Island, which the authorities built in a spate of celebration because they built the Bay Bridge too quickly and I think that  California, rather, isn't able to do something like that anymore.

Now, when I think of my favourite Chinese cities, I would say that they are one Hangzhou, which is close to Shanghai, and the other is Chongqing. Both of them have very different approaches to nature. Hangzhou I think is very well-integrated into nature, its centre piece in the centre of the city is a massive lake. It is surrounded by tea plantations, gorgeous mountains and it is the first place in China where I thought this is quite like the rivers, lakes and woods of Southern Ontario, where I grew up.

And then it's a completely different interplay with nature in Chongqing, in which I feel that the authorities have overcome them. It is a fantastic, vertiginous city, I think the most cyberpunk city in the world, where you go into a building, go up 11 floors by elevator, and come out street level again, you have subways that traverse buildings, and it very much represents a conquest of nature whereas Hangzhou is integrated with nature. And I want to see a little bit more of that in California. So, you know, maybe Los Angeles can represent a conquest of nature, San Francisco can represent a surrender of nature right now. We have neither. I would like to see more.

How to make quarantine more tolerable

Baiqu: Cool, that's brought it right back to California. But I like what you said about Chongqing, I've been there and I never quite thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess it is a real feat in the way that they've built this mammoth of a city.

So next recommendation, what would you recommend, in COVID times especially, to make post travel quarantine more tolerable?

Dan: I spend a lot of time thinking about the operas of Mozart and in particular, the three Italian operas of Mozart. So these are the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. And I think the standard, um, ha response to, you know, what is the right Mozart opera of these to appreciate, everyone, usually cites Don Giovanni. I'm going to present a little bit of a dissenting view, and I'll put my bet on Cosi Fan Tutte, which is certainly my favourite of the three. And Cosi Fan Tutte has very much a poor rep among not just musicians, but all sorts of critics, because it's story is manifestly silly and its morality is at best confused, and at worst quite repulsive. And I think what people can't quite reconcile with Cosi Fan Tutte is that Mozart vested some of his very best music into what is such a strange opera.

And, you know, in my mind, I think we just have to accept is that this is a story in which the emotional register far exceeds the dramatic setting. And that's kind of a bad thing, but it is just something that we have to deal with. We cannot ignore that Mozart wrote to some of his most tender music in the duet, which really forms the emotional centre in the opera, in the story. And it is pretty annoying that we have to go through Albanians with disguises and a lot of silliness in order to get there but I say, let's ignore it, the story is dialectical, what we have to do is simply close our eyes and think about the music and not think about the silly Albanians, but in my view, that is the very best piece of music that Mozart composed.

Baiqu: Wow, that's a very strong argument. And can I ask, do you listen to a lot of opera in general? Is that your usual playlist in the background when you're at home working or relaxing, or are you quite eclectic in terms of your music taste?

Dan: Oh, very much so, I'm afraid that my musical knowledge extends from the Italian operas of Mozart through the Italian operas of Donizetti, and Bellini, and Rossini, terminating in Verdi. I know nothing else, but within this canon of mostly opera buffa I know a little bit. So I wonder if there are many other people like me out there Baiqu, what do you think?

Baiqu: I am sure there are, and you know, anyone who's reading this interview, please comment and tweet at Dan so that he knows he's not alone.

Dan: Great, thank you.

Baiqu: Yeah. What is it about opera that draws you in so much? What do you love about it?

Dan: Well, with respect to these composers especially, I think it is a mixture of momentum and thinking very carefully, especially about the soprano's role in a buffa opera in which they are thinking a lot about how to make the soprano's voice as appealing as possible, either to be fully supported by the orchestra or to be completely unsupported, or to be supported only by a few instruments - usually the clarinet, oboe, or a few violins. And then within basically these rules, I think there is a lot to play with. So the extraordinary lyricism of the soprano, sometimes the tenor, but especially the female voices, the thinking about momentum and a tremendous sense of melody.

In my view, these things are not just entertaining, but also it can be very, very profound to have a sense of that Italian style in which you're doing - it seems like they're just offering up pieces of genius and then dashing it off rather carelessly and moving on. Now I think that is such a great impression to convey, and that is very much the skill that I think Mozart mastered to be able to dash off these pieces of music which are perfections and then to move on to the next one. That is not really the sense that we're getting from the German composers, from the Beethovens and the Wagners, are spending way too much effort to deliver drama. I rather prefer the Italian approach.

How to experience China differently

Baiqu: Great! Thank you for that.

Okay, next question – moving far away from Italy, closer to where you are. What would you recommend if someone wanted to experience China in a different way? So not your typical Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, or partying in Shanghai, something a little bit different. What would you suggest?

Dan: Well, partying in Shanghai is a lot of fun. I recommend it.

Baiqu: Yes it is. Alongside the partying, what else should people do?

Dan: In addition to the Italian opera, do let me know if you want to party in Shanghai, via tweet.

But I agree with the premise, you know, thinking, taking a look at something like the Great Wall or the old Summer Palace in my mind has never been all that fun. Um, because these things are not so different to, in my view, from a Google search of the images. It is not that substantially different in a way that I think Google Images can not possibly convey the majesty of the California coast.

In my view, what can not really be conveyed very easily on China are two things: first, the extraordinary dynamism of the society, which I observe closely in Shanghai in which you have things changing all the time, and that is not something that we see very much in the west anymore, in my view.

I used to work in California, as well as New York City. These are by consensus two of the most dynamic places in the U.S., and I don't see that they are quite so dynamic as places like Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Beijing.

And, you know, when I think about the ever-changing society in China, I think about the physical infrastructure, which is getting torn down all the time. People would complain that  you don't have marvellous buildings  from, let's say the Song dynasty or the Tang dynasty in the way that you would have incredible cathedrals being preserved and France, but the plus side of this equation, I think is that things are changing. The physical environment is changing all the time, which I don't see that the Chinese are so attached to these gorgeous buildings that their ancestors have made. They're after brighter and newer things.

We have the central government orienting itself as very much an institution for change. The most important, economic agency is the National Development and Reform Commission – Reform is in the title. I used to be a philosophy major. I studied quite a lot of Hegel, and I think this is very much a Hegelian set up, in which reform can never terminate, there will always just be more contradictions to resolve. And Development is also a wonderful word. I think the worst thing in the world is to be a developed country because the means that nothing new can change what you want to be is a developing country, because things can continue to change.

The other part that I think cannot be adequately conveyed is the joy of Chinese food. I spend a lot of time figuring out where to eat. My favourite cuisines are Shanghai, the broader region of Shanghai cuisine, Sichuan food as well as food from Yunnan, which is the far Southwest.

Yunnan food, to me, is using the methods of Southeast Asian cooking with Chinese ingredients or vice versa. I've always been confused about which was which. But the food of Yunnan is very interesting indeed. Every year I try to go to the mountains of Yunnan to pick the mushrooms, the mushrooms are really the stars of the cuisine. I put on some galoshes, I put on a hat, take a picnic basket and then go picking the mushrooms. The good news is that I've only been poisoned three times, and the even better news is that they keep getting more delicious.

Yunnan cuisine features rice in pretty much everything. You have noodles made out of rice, you have pancakes made of rice, and it can be a very tasty sort of rice product. And third, I think the Yunnan hams are really one of the stars of Chinese cuisine. It can be a really marvellously tasty affair, and between all of these things, I think that Yunnan cuisine has become  more trendy in China now. I hope it can become more trendy where you are, reaching even the far away lands like London. That will be good.

The Cure For An Existential Crisis?

Baiqu: That would be good. I miss Yunnan food a lot. And you're right, rice does feature in everything, there's the rice wine as well, which is very delicious. And I really liked the Yunnan grilled cheese, it reminds me a little bit of halloumi, but it obviously tastes very different. And I think, especially in East Asian cuisine, you don't have cheese featured very often -- in Tibet yes, and then in Mongolia I think there's a lot of dairy consumption, but Yunnan cheese for me is quite special.

So yes, I'm looking forward to the first authentic Yunnan restaurant London. That'd be very cool.

Alright. Next question, and seeing as you studied philosophy I think this is a good question for you to answer. What would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?

Dan: Let me refer to one of my favourite books. So, Olaf Stapledon, who is  a British Hegelian, wrote a science fiction book in the 1930s called Last and First Men. Last and First Men is a fairly short piece of work and it is, in my mind, 200 pages of high stimulation. What Stapledon tries to do is to convey the evolution of humanity throughout 18 different species of humanity, until the point where they reach a star faring species. And the gestures and these books are all something like "let's move ahead by 70,000 years and think about the eighth iteration of the human species." And it is just an extraordinary work in which humanity makes catastrophic blunders, they get wiped out by random things like disease and pandemics and solar flares even, in addition to warfare. But they constantly improve in a Hegelian manner, to become ever better.

And in my mind, you know, what we need to do to get out of existential crises is to try our own hand at trying to pay out the next million years of human evolution, let's lift our gaze above the horizon, not to think about what's going on in the next three months, but let's figure out what's going on in the next 3 million years, this should be a good kick to get us out of our existential angst.

Your favourite board game, hobby, and daily habit

Baiqu: That's an excellent answer. Thank you, and I will check out this book. It sounds very, very fascinating and very close to home.  

Now we're onto our last question, which has three small questions tagged in it. Can you recommend one board game, one hobby, and one daily habit?

Dan: Daily habit and hobbies now are very much more physical exercise. I am cycling quite a lot more, and I am played squash quite a lot more. One is more about endurance, the other is competitive. I'm a very competitive person. And in fact, both of these combine very well in my favourite board game, which is Avalon.

I've been playing Avalon for seven, eight years now, and it is something I think about all the time. The very basic premise is that there are seven of us around a table, three of us are evil, they know who each other are. Four of us are good, in general they don't know who anyone else is. And the aim of the game is for the evil people to insinuate themselves as good people. And for the good people to deduce who the evil people are. Very much like a game of the Politburo, if I can say that.

I play Avalon with different sets of people in different cities, I notice very striking variations between them. So the weakest players tend to be the tech workers I play with in San Francisco. They're poor at judging probabilities. Moving fluidly between good and evil roles and, um, sticking too much with our early deductions, to too much of a degree.

The people I play with in New York, a far more financy crowd tend to be better on every dimension. I think one of these things that's true is that, you know, one of the jobs that is a useful at an investment bank is to figure out how to get your boss in trouble without getting yourself in trouble. And that is one of those skills that tends to be quite a bit more useful in something like Avalon.

And the very best players I know in Avalon are the Mandarin speaker who are in finance that I played with in Hong Kong. Those people are just incredible. And I wonder if it's something in the Chinese culture, which is always having to think about hierarchy, always having to think about social interactions, as well as being very good at deduction, which Avalon demands - if all of those combined to make the Chinese people I played with very good at Avalon, and to what extent, I should really be scared of them, given that they are so good at this game of logic and lies.

Baiqu: This sounds like a really fascinating game. I've never played it, but I want to pick it up. I guess it could almost be a testing ground every time you moved to a new city to try and suss out, you know, who are the characters and who you're surrounding yourself with.

Dan: I should write a book about this.

Baiqu: You should, it's really fascinating, and also the differences that you've seen across the different types of people you play with. I wonder, have you played with creative types, like artists or writers?

Dan: You know, I've heard that the very best people at Avalon are police detectives, because they are just so good at sussing out when people are not being quite consistent – I've never had the pleasure yet to you play with a bunch of police detectives, I hope to have that chance.

Baiqu: Well, this is the third request coming out of this interview, police detectives who want to play Avalon, please tweet.

Dan: Yes, Wonderful.

Baiqu: Well, thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure listening to you. I feel like I've learned a lot, I'm sure everyone else will. Have a great evening and Shanghai.

Dan: Thanks. And keep those tweets coming.

Dan Wang:  

Qiushi - the official theoretical journal of the Communist Party of China

California State Highway 1

Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte


Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Avalon - the board game

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Browser Interviews: Soumaya Keynes

Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, and today we are sitting down with Soumaya Keynes. She writes about European economics for The Economist, currently based in London, and she also co-hosts a podcast called Trade Talks. Welcome to The Browser.

Soumaya: Thanks so much for having me.

Baiqu: So today we are going to pick your brain about a couple of recommendations for our readers and our listeners, and if you're ready, we can just dive right in.

Soumaya: Let's do it.

How To Sound Smart In Conversations

Baiqu: Perfect! Recommendation one, what would you recommend if someone wanted to come across as being smart in a conversation?

Soumaya: Ooh, okay. I think I'm contractually obliged to say that they should read The Economist because I think that's literally how we advertise ourselves, but to try and be a little bit less cringe.... That's a really good question. I guess I'd say read lots – not necessarily The Economist although that helps – but to read lots and read intentionally. I think subscribers to The Browser probably already have that one covered. But I think there's a lot of passive absorption of information that we do, kind of assuming that it will come to us by whatever social media strands there are, and I often find that my own diet of information is very much little snippets - the 600 word article about something, scrolling through the news or whatever. Whereas I have much more interesting thoughts, and just end up thinking about much more interesting things, when I've actually said: okay, I'm dedicating this time. This is my Saturday morning, I'm going to go in search of deeper things to read.

I also - and this is really not going to be on brand - I also don't listen to podcasts so much anymore. I've basically started listening to audio books instead, where I find that the depth that you're kind of guaranteed is more conducive to retaining information, and being able to use that information in real life and in conversations.

This sounds incredibly obvious, to read books. Okay. Maybe a way for me to think about this is just to think about what people who I think are smart, what I think they do. Because you ask the question and I'm like, well, of course I'm not smart - or I don't want to admit to trying to seem smart, right, that's maybe a shameful thing to admit to. You should just let your natural intelligence beam out of your skin or something.

Baiqu: I liked what you said about reading intentionally, and also interesting about podcasts. With audio books, do you also listen to it on faster speed so that you finish the book quicker?

Soumaya: So I did that and I have listened to books at some crazy speeds. There's one, I think I listened to it more than double speed, which - I'm going to partly blame the reader, who was just being offensively slow. But also it was quite a boring books, so it was kind of fine.

I don't do that anymore. The reason is that I was told that there are studies - and I never looked into them myself, so, you know, listeners go and search these out - there are studies that show that if you listen to things very, very quickly, your brain just doesn't retain the information as well. And so it feels like you're being super, super productive, but actually you just don't remember anything. And I actually have problems retaining things; I think just normal problems as all humans do. But I decided that for that purpose, I was going to listen to things on one-time speed, even if it means that I'm a bit less efficient. I also was listening to books at the gym and there's just so much noise that if you're going too quickly, then you'll miss things.

Baiqu: Yeah. And I don't know, personally, I feel like when my heart rate's at a certain level, I'm actually not taking anything in.

Soumaya: Yeah. My main focus is like, when will this treadmill hit the target, or the number of minutes that I want to get.

Baiqu: Yeah exactly. All right. Next question...

What would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about economics or European economics? Take your pick, just your area of expertise.

Soumaya: No, let's do economics because I mean, I'm three weeks into my beat, right. So my learning curve is vertical right now. Yeah, so only economics: I think the best way to get into it is through economic history.

One of my favourite books about economics is called Grand Pursuits by Sylvia Nasar, and that essentially tells the story of economics through these various thinkers. It's really really good, and you come away from it, first of all, with some basic econ, but second of all, understanding that economics is this very young subject, right?

Our understanding of it has changed a lot over relatively recent history, and you come away from it understanding that there aren't really very many rules in terms of how the economy works, and all these great thinkers who now we're like, oh, Keynes said this, or Marx said this, they were all responding to their time, right?

They all had these ideas in the context of their time, and when you read this book, you understand: oh, this idea came from this experience of this. There was a government that literally just confiscated people's property, that didn't feel nice - that shaped their views on confiscation of stuff. You realize how different the context was then, and therefore you're careful about understanding the value of these amazing ideas, but also careful about applying them in today's context. I think it really shows the discipline as this living thing that should be updated and amended and revised and what have you. And in a way, I kind of want all economists to read it, to be like: oh, these laws that we were taught, that we can describe in algebra, maybe they're dependent on institutions that change over time, or cultural, social norms, that also change over time. So maybe we should all just be much more open-minded to things changing.

How Did You Get Interested In Economics?

Baiqu: Yeah, I love that. Excellent recommendation, I will actually want to pick that up after this conversation.

What made you interested in economics? I mean, I heard you speak about women in economics and that was really fascinating, but can you tell us a little bit what got you interested in economics. Because you were an economist before you became a writer, right?

Soumaya: Yeah. So this is actually kind of an embarrassing story.

So essentially at school, I really, really liked maths. I was on the school math team cause that's how cool I was, and it was really cool just for the record. But yeah, so I really wanted to do maths. With A-Levels in the British system, you specialize, so my A-Levels were maths, further maths, physics and economics. Then I realised I probably wasn't gonna be a mathematician and I didn't really like physics and so - economics! I mean, I liked it, it seemed super interesting, it seemed policy relevant.

I think at one very young age, I was like, yeah, I'm just going to do econ, go into the city, earn loads and loads of money, retire when I'm 30, and start my own theater company. That was a kind of strange plan that I held for about three months. So I think the 18 year old me went into economics for slightly the wrong reasons. It was like, oh, there's maths, it's a science, so much rigor... Um, great, I can use this toolkit to understand... you know,  I'm sure my personal statements when applying for things were pretty painful.

And now, well, first of all, I see the various flaws in the institution that is economics. But, you know, I'm into it, right. I bought in, I'm a card carrying writer about economics and former economist. It's kind of amazing to be working on something where you feel like you're asking really important question, and it's good to have data as a discipline. It's good to have something that's empirical. It's good to have to think carefully about what this set of evidence actually tells us. Like, can we apply that to other settings? You know, things like monetary policy, central banking, they sound really boring, but oh my, are they important.

If you just think about how bad it can be when things go wrong. Arguably in the U.S., in the Eurozone, essentially the government, the central banks, they didn't get it right. Maybe the central banks couldn't get it right. But the consequence was people whose lives were just not as good as they should have been, demand for them as workers wasn't high as it should have been, that had consequences for wages. You've got various inequalities. You know, really, really important consequences. So I think it's important, which is good, and it's a standard of evidence - the careful thinking that is good. That's not to say the other disciplines are not careful. I just think that there is value in the toolkit.

I think it's vaguely instructive that I arrived at university and I was a bit of an outlier in that actually by then, I didn't want to go into the city. I was interested in economics, I was interested in economic policy.  I then went to work for the government after university, went to work for a research Institute. So my reasons for getting into economics weren't the greatest, but I think the reasons that I found to stay in it were pretty good. Just in terms of wanting to do good, if that doesn't sound too cheesy.

Baiqu: Not at all, and I love that because I think there are reasons for why you get into something and then there are reasons for why you stay. And actually I think, as you go on, it almost doesn't matter why you go into, it is the reason why it makes you stay that's what it counts for, right? When you look back at your career or even a relationship and you're like, ah, those are the reasons that kept me in this, and that's what it gave me.

We talked earlier about books that people can read; discussed this idea of knowledge consumption, and intentional reading. As a journalist, do you ever feel a sense of responsibility?  Do you feel this pressure that other people are consuming what you've written, and that's informing their thought process and their worldview?

Soumaya: I mean, absolutely. And I think it's really interesting. There's definitely a spectrum of people out there in the world and journalistic institutions generally. On one end of the spectrum, you've got people who basically will write things because they're striking or interesting, or maybe they want to spark debate, or because their employer tells them to. And then on the other end of the spectrum, you've got people who are like, the number one thing, the first question is: is what I write true?

I am solidly on that end of the spectrum, which is good. The economist is great, it values things being true as one would hope. But I think perhaps if I were to leave that, the demand for the striking take or the really hardcore opinion, that could be bad for me.

We go to print on Thursday mornings, and so I just never sleep very well on Wednesday nights. And it's very anxiety inducing on Thursday morning when everything goes live. I think there are also some writers who really, really want everyone to read their piece. I'm actually not in that category, partly because I guess I'm very afraid of getting things wrong, and I think that makes me a better journalist, right?  I really care about that. If I didn't feel a sense of responsibility, if I didn't have the sense that it mattered, then you know, what am I doing with my life? Right?

The Cure For An Existential Crisis?

Baiqu: What would you recommend as the best cure for an existential crisis? Assuming you've had at least one.

Soumaya: I've had loads! Sleep, exercise, holiday. Although sometimes I have existential crises just before the holiday, because I'm basically spent, and then sometimes I go on holiday and actually that's the thing that brings on the existential crisis, because I can step back and think: oh God, what am I doing with my life?

Writing things down I feel helps a lot. I'm one of those bullet journaling people, which I would also recommend. I tried it once ages and ages ago and kind of did it half-heartedly and it doesn't - I mean, it's just a long to-do list if you only do it half-heartedly. And then I invested a bit more in it and now I'm really into it.

And I think being kind of earnest, and willing to embrace what can seem like slightly cheesy methods of just working out what you're doing. I have a page where I just write out my goals, which you know, I would definitely smirk at someone for doing that if I saw it on an open notebook on the tube - but I definitely do it. You know, it's that kind of thing.

Baiqu: The writing things down, it really helps me too. I haven't tried bullet journaling. But maybe I'll look into it.

Soumaya: It's great, because also you get to buy really nice notebooks.

What is the best thing you've bought on Amazon?

Baiqu: Buying nice stationery is just so satisfying. I feel so happy when I have it on my desk.

What is the one thing you'd recommend from your Amazon purchases over the last year? During the pandemic?

Soumaya: Best Amazon purchase? I bought a treadmill, which is I guess a weird purchase. My husband loves me very much, enough to allow me to have a treadmill in our apartment - in a flat, sorry, I live in England now.

But it's kinda been a game changer. I mean, you can get really cheap treadmills off Amazon. Basically you can watch TV on the side. I moved on from audio books a bit, because I basically worked out - on the treadmill at least - the code to exercising more was to have some really, really trashy, terrible TV that was completely addictive. So you end up looking forward to seeing the next episode and hey, you're also running for three miles as you're watching. I mean, the first question was what should you read to make you smarter? The opposite of that is to watch the absolute tripe that I've been watching.

Baiqu: So trashy TV for a healthy body. And good books for a healthy mind.

Soumaya: Yeah, my body is my temple, my mind is being trashed essentially.

Your favourite app, audio book, and trashy TV show

Baiqu: Cool. All right. Last question is a bit of a rapid fire. So I'm gonna ask you if you can recommend one website or app that you really like; one audio book or the one that you've been listening to lately that you like; and because of the treadmill, one trashy TV show.

Soumaya: No, that's far too probing! Okay, okay. The first one was website or app. I mean, it's funny, I spend a lot of my life thinking how I can spend less time on apps and websites, so it's kind of the opposite. I like Feedly, which is kind of a blog reader.  It seems to be the least horrendous blog reader out there.

There was a kind of internet service - I don't know if this counts! - that I was really into, called Nuzzel, where you would hook it up to your Twitter account and then it would send you an email every day with the five most shared articles by people you follow. Which was great, so I basically disabled my Twitter newsfeed and just got this email with the five most shared articles, so I could use Twitter to tweet things out and get messages and so on. But I didn't feel that sense of FOMO because I was getting these articles. Twitter just bought the company and so suspended the service. I'm pretty devastated, but they're promising to bring it back. So everyone should watch out for that, 'cause it was great.

And then a book. So I'm listening right now to a book called Post War by Tony Judt, which is magisterial - which I think is just code for very long. But it's this book about post-war Europe, and it's really, really, well-written; it's very, very rich. I guess I'm slightly struggling a little bit because it's obviously not character-based, and I find that often to retain things and follow a narrative, I need characters and people.

The book that basically was the best book I'd read in a really, really long time, was Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, and it's about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I won't say much more. It's character-driven. I spent the first bit of it being like, eh,  where is this going? Why am I being told about these disparate stories? And then they all come together, and if you're like me and you have some knowledge of The Troubles, you just come out of it with such a richer impression of that story - from one side.

Okay, and then the third one was trashy TV. So I like short trashy TV, because I'll just get addicted to things when it's too long. One of my favorites was 90 Day Fiancé, and I picked that one out because it's one of the least trashy. It can be a really, really interesting look into the US immigration system.

Essentially the premise is that two people want to get married. One of them is an American citizen and then they want to marry someone who is not. And then that other person comes in on a fiancé visa, and they have 90 days to get married. If they don't get married then that person can't stay, they have to go back - and there's a mix of relationships, right? Some people who clearly barely know each other; many people who are just clearly, deeply in love and who were just going through this bureaucratic hurdle. So the documentary follows them as they're dealing with these constraints. You know, you can't work on this visa. But then also the various culture clashes of these people being introduced to their families, the families sometimes not being that accepting of the way that this has happened. And I don't really enjoy car crash TV, so there's enough wholesome "this all works out" that it's fine. And then there is the occasional car crash, which is a bit less wholesome. But yeah, it's probably on the more thought-provoking end - because they're really interesting questions about exploitation, who's exploiting who, massive power imbalances in some of these relationships.

Baiqu: Another thing that I haven't heard of, but I feel like I need to watch it now. Great. Thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure talking to you. I was looking forward to it and I've definitely learned a lot, and I'm taking things away that I'm going to look up post conversation. So thank you Soumaya.

Soumaya: Thank you for having me.

Soumaya Keynes:

Grand Pursuit: The Story of the People Who Made Modern Economics by Sylvia Nasar

Post War by Tony Judt – history of post-war Europe

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – about The Troubles in Northern Ireland

Not yet a subscriber? Every day, The Browser Newsletters sends you five fascinating pieces of writing to subscribe and delight you, each one hand-picked and beautifully capsuled by our editors Caroline Crampton and Robert Cottrell. In a world consumed by bots, noise and breaking-news, The Browser gives you carefully-curated writing of lasting value.

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The Browser On... International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we went through our archives to bring you profiles of (and by) remarkable women. From the poor farmers’ daughter who became an oil tycoon to “the Mao of women’s liberation” (a phrase apparently intended as a compliment), here are five women whose stories are by turns admirable and inspiring… and well worth rereading.

Alma Mahler, profiled by Cathleen Schine in The New York Review and by Bee Wilson in The London Review of Books

“Like the stories of most notorious women, Alma Mahler’s is one of sex and power. She had a liking and a talent for both… She saw it as her mission to draw talented men from many worlds into her orbit and to render them ‘brighter.’

She had her first kiss aged 17 with Gustav Klimt, while travelling in Genoa. Klimt found her beautiful but also something more: ‘She has everything a discerning man could possibly ask for from a woman, in ample measure; I believe wherever she goes and casts an eye into the masculine world, she is the sovereign lady, the ruler.’”

Artemisia Gentileschi, profiled by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic

“Artemisia Gentileschi is a painter who makes you feel like a mind reader. Even by the high standards of 17th-century Europe, her work is impressively sensuous, dynamic, and psychologically acute…

Like many trailblazing women, Gentileschi played the system in ways that later generations might find uncomfortable… Choosing biblical subjects allowed her to repel charges of smut. Nonetheless, her Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy looks more like an encounter with a Rampant Rabbit than a profound religious experience.”

Sarah Rector, profiled by Lauren N. Henley in Truly Adventurous

“If Sarah had found Aladdin’s lamp, as one newspaper later noted, she could hardly have commanded the genie to conjure a wilder scenario than this… [In an instant, she went] from poor farmers’ daughter to a budding tycoon. Some 2,500 barrels of oil per day spewed out of Sarah’s property, making it what was then the biggest producing well in one of the biggest oil fields in the country.

Everyone wanted to know more about Sarah Rector, about her unbelievable luck and especially about her money — and many would stop at nothing to get it for themselves.”

Kate Millett, profiled by Maggie Doherty in The New Republic

“Without a source of income and, in her words, “up against a wall,” she began to work urgently on her thesis. Millett decided to expand a “witty and tart” paper, also called “Sexual Politics,” that she’d delivered at Cornell the prior year. In the expanded version, she would trace the way literature reflected the sexual revolution and counterrevolution. As she later told Time, the project “got bigger and bigger until I was almost making a political philosophy.” She filed the dissertation in 1970; one of her advisers compared the experience of reading the work to “sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker.”

Suddenly, she was wanted on every college campus. She was invited onto daytime talk shows... Her phone rang constantly. Her portrait graced the cover of Time; the magazine crowned her “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation.””

Andrea Dworkin, profiled by Dorothy Fortenberry in Commonweal

“Dworkin shaped our current world without ever being recognized or appreciated as Great... We get our ideas of how we’re supposed to be—shaven or not, angry or otherwise—from somewhere, and one of those places is her work.

Dworkin was a Bad Girl, ditching school, fighting with (or sleeping with) her teachers, and then she was a Hurt Girl, doing drugs and turning tricks, and then she was an almost Dead Girl, and then she couldn’t be a Bad Girl anymore.”

Every day, the Browser editors look at hundreds of articles and select the finest five to surprise and delight you. Each of the articles cited was previously features in the Browser. If you're not a subscriber, please do try us out.

Featured Browser articles:

Cathleen Schine, It Had To Be Her
Bee Wilson, She Gives Me Partridges
Helen Lewis, Isn’t She Good — For A Woman?
Lauren N. Henley, The Richest Black Girl In America
Maggie Doherty, What Kate Did
Dorothy Fortenberry, One Of Those Serious Women

Free 3 min read

The Browser on... Love

by Jacob Silkstone. The Browser on... is a weekly series of selections from our archives on a topic of interest.

“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf, heralding the arrival of Modernism. A century later, according to Sophus Helle in Aeon, the character of love changed just as radically. The catalyst wasn’t a new artistic or literary movement, but the release of Disney’s Tangled:

the ideal of heterosexual romance has been dethroned by a new ideal: family love. The happy ending of our most-watched childhood stories is no longer a kiss.
Just a few centuries ago, romance held a much less central position than it does today: love was primarily a question of family allegiances and controlled reproduction. This changed with the advent of modernity, where romantic love acquired the cultural acclaim that it commands today. And if the nature of love has changed before, it can change again. Disney’s depiction of love over the past decade might be a sign of what’s to come.

Paradoxically, the end of a relationship is often the time when we feel most in love, as Alain de Botton points out in The School of Life:

We start to realise something at once deeply puzzling and not a little embarrassing too. We acknowledge that we have started to find our about-to-be-ex-partner — from whom we have struggled with every sinew to separate at enormous cost and inconvenience — distinctly charming.

De Botton’s explanation is that “crushes are secretly fuelled by the lowest of expectations.” Falling back in love at the end of a relationship, we are “merely enjoying an artificial rush for someone because we have – in a deep part of our souls – finally given up hope of ever trying to live with, or be happy alongside, them.”

Meanwhile, Scott Barry Kaufman studied attraction to psychopaths in Scientific American:

Both males and females on average were about equally unimpressed with psychopathic characteristics in a potential romantic partner… [but] those with higher levels of psychopathic characteristics were more attracted to those with psychopathic characteristics. Those with higher levels of traits associated with Self-Centered Impulsivity were particularly likely to find psychopathic traits attractive in a mate.

Hybristophilia, a powerful attraction towards someone who has committed a crime, isn’t common in the general population, and tends to fade over time:

research shows that female's attraction to Dark Triad traits tend to decrease with age, and for both men and women, psychopathic characteristics are a strong predictor of divorce.

Many crimes, of course, are ostensibly committed for love. In n+1, Sean Williams profiled Jovie Espenido, a police chief in the Philippines who also happens to be a Christian minister. Adhering to an ultraconservative moral code, he advocates bloodshed (almost exclusively targeting the poor) in the name of love:

Before his arrival in Ozamiz, Espenido oversaw the death of a mayor in Albuera, a small fishing town 200 miles north. Upon reassignment he quoted Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”
Everybody in Ozamiz invoked God. Jun Fernandez, a lawyer who worked closely with Espenido, told me he had questioned Espenido’s ability to wipe out the KB before witnessing his piety. “His abiding faith in God is so strong that every time we meet, we pray,” he said. “Before we leave we pray. We leave for somewhere, before we start traveling we pray. We come home, nobody steps out of the car, not until we have prayed, that we arrive safely.” That innocent lives have been lost to the drug war is “unfortunate,” Fernandez added.

Thousands of miles away in Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church also view their religious conservatism as an act of love. Hillel Gray interviewed several members of the church for a profile in The Immanent Frame:

To casual onlookers, their protest signs appear to be motivated by pure hate. Yet church members see the picketing as an act of love. They insist that they do not hate those condemned, but rather that they are conveying God’s hatred. It is the Bible that requires them to love their neighbor by means of exhortation and rebuke. To the WBC, the picketing—the act of rebuke—is a message of tough love. As Margie Phelps told me recently, they are “pleading the case for repentance.” WBC members repeatedly claim, we are your best friends because real friends would not leave you stuck in sin.

Virginia Woolf wrote in The Waves that “love is simple”, but it’s hard to think of anything as complex.

Every day, the Browser editors look at hundreds of articles and select the finest five to surprise and delight you. Each of the articles cited was previously features in the Browser. If you're not a subscriber, please do try us out.

Featured Browser articles:

Sophus Helle, Love Isn’t What It Was

Alain De Botton, The Feeling of Being Back in Love with the Person You’re About to Leave

Scott Barry Kaufman, Are Psychopaths Attracted to Other Psychopaths?

Sean Williams, In The Name of Love

Hillel Gray, Who Deserves To Be Hated?

Free 4 min read

The Browser On Dogs

by Jacob Silkstone. The Browser on... is a weekly series of selections from our archives in conversation.

A quick google search will inform you that the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend” originated with King Frederick the Great of Prussia, describing his beloved greyhound in 1789. This seems unlikely: for one thing, King Frederick the Great died in 1786. He did ask to be buried with his greyhounds, though, and he also founded Germany’s first veterinary school, and issued decrees to protect plants.

Writing in the TLS, David E. Cooper suggests that even in Palaeolithic tribes, dogs would almost certainly have been “companions first and workers second.”

The usual utilitarian view that dogs were first put to practical uses – hunting, guarding, pulling – and only later became inserted into family life as pets is implausible.... Konrad Lorenz was right to speculate that the appeal which playful puppies have for children, and indeed their parents, was crucial to their adoption into our ancestors’ communities. Nor should one ignore the emotional service that dogs – their geniality and affection increasingly selected for over the centuries – have rendered to humankind, in addition to their contributions as herders, hunters, guides and much else.

The value of those contributions has continued to increase. In History Today, Beatrice Johnston describes the later Middle Ages as “one of the most ‘doggy’ periods in history”:

Hunting and hawking were by far the most popular sports of the leisured classes, who also liked keeping dogs simply as pets; and the rest of the population used them for protection and herding. Performing dogs were much admired, and people loved to hear fabulous yarns of the extraordinary fidelity and intelligence of dogs.... A greyhound, the favoured gift of princes, was the usual hero of the medieval dog story... This paragon was the noble lord’s special pet, and his effigy was often placed on tombstones at his master’s feet.

There was even once a dog saint; near Lyon a greyhound was said to have killed a dangerous serpent attacking his master’s child and, like the mythical Gelert, was himself slain on suspicion when the child could not be found. Afterwards his remorseful master buried him honourably beneath a cairn of stones where trees were planted in his memory. Later the dog was revered as St Greyhound, or St Guinefort, and rites were held at the grave for sickly children suspected of being changelings.

By the Victorian Era, Colin Dickey (writing in LARB) records that dogs were viewed rather differently, noting the sinister undertones to high society’s obsession with breeding and bloodlines:

Dogs had ceased to be dogs and become commodities… things that could be quantified, sorted, shaped, and judged.... Victorians were in many ways obsessed with reimagining domestic spaces and who belonged in them — an obsession that was particularly acute in some of the most beloved literature of the time, from the Brontës to Dickens.... As breed culture developed, it soon borrowed from phrenology and eugenics, attempting to recreate class values in the world of the dog… The emphasis on cultivating aesthetic features through breeding and developing “pure” blood lines for the improvement of the breed had all the hallmarks of the burgeoning science of eugenics.

In the middle of the following century, dogs were very much part of the war effort, as Jason Daley explains in Truly Adventurous:

At the outbreak of World War II, the Germans had an estimated 200,000 highly trained dogs trotting at the heels of their armies. They even sent 25,000 trained sentries to the Japanese military. The usefulness of the German K-9 units had quickly convinced the British and French to establish their own war dog programs in the early 1940s.

Meanwhile, in the US, socialite Arlene Erlanger was the driving force behind ‘Dogs for Defense’:

She was one of the first people in the United States to breed the then-exotic poodle. In 1937, her black standard poodle, Rumpelstiltskin, won the American Kennel Club’s Best in Show… A who’s who of the dog world immediately joined the ranks of Dogs for Defense... Hollywood celebrity Greer Garson gave her prized poodle, Clicquot. Rudy Vallee, a popular singer and one of the first teen idols, enlisted his Doberman Pinscher, King. Ezio Pinza, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera, donated his two Dalmatians…

But, of course, not everyone agrees that dogs should play so large a role in our lives. Dormin presents an extended case against owning dogs at all:

Most dogs in the Western world have miserable existences. Their subservience to their owners may very well be a product of meaninglessness and boredom rather than organic appreciation.... I think of dog owners kind of the same way I think of people who have sex with furniture. Even if there isn’t something wrong with the act itself, being into the act indicates something very wrong with the actor.

Basically, dog owners seem to enjoy indulging in a feeling of unearned dominance over another being. They like the idea of having a fairly emotionally sophisticated animal being completely dependent upon them. And they especially enjoy the Stockholm Syndrome-esque sense of loyalty the animal develops to the entity upon which its continued survival entirely depends.… If you were a sociopathic businessman trying to create an industry to exploit people’s emotions for money, you could not possibly design a more perfect racket than dog ownership.

It seems safe to assume that Frederick the Great would have disagreed....

Every day, the Browser editors look at hundreds of articles and select the finest five to surprise and delight you. Each of the articles cited was previously features in the Browser. If you're not a subscriber, please do try us out.

David E. Cooper, The Ways of Dog to Mann

Beatrice Johnston, The World of Medieval Dogdom

Colin Dickey, Companion and Commodity: The Victorian Dog

Jason Daley, Dogs of War

Dormin, Against Dog Ownership

Free 3 min read

Paywall (And Other) Etiquette

(revised on 18th March 2021)

Robert writes: I am suggesting to my Browser colleagues that we mark up our recommendations with shortcodes indicating how to approach metered paywalls and registration requests on publishers' websites.

My argument is that, if we do this, we can feel more relaxed about recommending content from publications with metered paywalls and/or registration requirements. We can indicate confidently to our subscribers that, say, the requirement on the New York Review Of Books website for all first-time visitors to register, is, in our view, a reasonable one.

We are, by the way, firmly in favour of paid content, and of fair pay for writers. But we also suspect that the natural unit of paid content is the article, not the annual subscription, and that publishers are foregoing revenues and frustrating readers by insisting uniquely on subscription models.

So long as some publishers choose to offer free access to a few of their articles in order to draw readers' attention to the general excellence of their content and thereby attract new subscribers, the Browser is happy to assist them by recommending the very best of these articles to a wider readership.      

Here is the current draft for shortcodes attaching to article recommendations on The Browser. I would be pleased to receive comments on this from readers, writers and publishers:


U = Ungated, free. No restrictions of which we are aware.

TU = Temporarily ungated. We have reason to think that this piece, while free to read at the time of recommending, will be paywalled later. Carpe diem.

MP = Metered paywall. Visitors are allowed to read a set number of free pieces each week or month. If we know the number, we will tell you: for example, a recommendation for an article on Harper's, where visitors can read one piece free per month, will be marked MP 1/m. But most publishers prefer to keep the rules of their metered paywalls obscure, and to change or a/b test them unannounced, in the entirely respectable hope of eventually persuading frequent visitors that it would be easier just to buy a subscription.  

B = Bypassable. This shortcode is usually associated with a metered paywall. MP+B indicates that visitors who reach their limit of free pieces can open a "private browsing" or "incognito" window in their (small-b) browsers to start a new quota. This may sound anti-social; but publishers know perfectly well about this workaround; it would be relatively easy for them to block "incognito" visitors if they wished to do so; and many have put in just such a blocker. We conclude that, where we encounter a bypassable paywall, it is part of the publisher's strategy.

R = Registration required. Again, usually associated with a metered paywall. MP+R indicates that new visitors must create an account to access free content, typically by giving an email address. Reserved for well-behaved publications, such as the New York Review Of Books.

PDF = It's a PDF. It may take longer to load, and it may not play well with read-later services, but the PDF has defied expectations of its inevitable demise for almost 30 years, and we have to learn to live with it.    

Special cases:

Medium. We can't work it out at all. The general idea seems to be a metered site-wide paywall, but delivered via unpredictable pop-ups and blockers. Whereas most metered paywalls pursue a strategy of temptation, Medium pursues a strategy of frustration. I have found pieces inaccessible on Medium which even the authors themselves had assured me were free. We do occasionally recommend pieces from Medium, but the caprice of the paywall greatly raises the bar. I would be particularly pleased to hear from writers who publish on Medium what they understand the paywall rules to be, how these are communicated to them, and how much control they have over the settings for their own content.  

Der Spiegel. Often greets casual visitors with a pop-up that looks like a paywall, but is really just an accept-cookies request that goes away when you click "accept".

New Yorker. Metered paywall, fabulous content, but generally absent from The Browser since all of our subscribers seem to be New Yorker subscribers or devotees who read the whole thing anyway.

New York Times. Same situation as the New Yorker.

Free 15 min read

A Conversation With Felix Salmon

This is the edited transcript of an open Zoom conversation conducted on Sunday 3rd January.

Topics include: Cities, Covid, work, television, Trump, media, China, philanthropy.

I've known Felix for such a long time that we were chatting away before the Zoom session opened, and then segued into the planned Q&A without breaking for a formal introduction, for which error of protocol I apologise.

Felix is columnist and chief financial correspondent for Axios; author of that piece in Wired about algorithms and distributions which explained the 2008 financial crisis; a patron of the arts (in partnership with Michelle Vaughan, @black_von); an effective altruist; a bicycle rider; and an Englishman in New York.

The label "Question" in this transcript indicates a question from the Zoom room; if you were the asker of the question, and you would like to be identified, please email me. Likewise, if you spot an error, please point it out.

Robert Cottrell  []  


FELIX: ... a bicycle is something comprehensible. The diamond frame bicycle is one of the greatest pieces of design that has ever been created, up there with the suspension bridge. I have started using electric bikes now. I moved from having my own bike to navigating New York on a Citi Bike because Citi Bikes are much better for one-way journeys, and now Citi Bikes have an electric option. I love it. Lazy people can stop worrying about how hard it will be to get over this or that bridge. We'll just zoom around on beautiful bikes. Electric bikes have the potential to really transform cities.

There's quite a literature on how cities get to be the size that they are, and that has a lot to do with ease of getting around – the radius that you can travel from a given point in a given time. So we are measuring in minutes, not in miles, and the key number for an acceptable commute is something like 40 minutes. You want to be able to get from where you live to where you work within 40 minutes, whether you are walking or taking high-speed rail. Bicycles work so well because you can have lots of them on the street without causing traffic jams, and with an electric bike you can get pretty much anywhere in New York City in 40 minutes.

ROBERT: The clock strikes 17, we're into Zoom time and I feel that I should be asking you a first structured question about the year ahead. So I'm going to ask you the biggest one first: Do you think like this year is going to be better than last year?

FELIX: 2020 was garbage. A shit show. Terrible. So the bar is incredibly low. In terms of public debate, the low point of 2020 was in March and April when we were seeing exponential growth in Covid cases, everyone was shifting to log-scale charts, no-one knew when the exponential growth would stop or how it would stop. Every kind of extrapolation seemed reasonable, there was this great unknown in front of us, and it was terrifying. There is no way that we are going to find ourselves in that kind of situation in 2021, just because we know so much more now than we did then.

We know how the disease works. We know how it doesn't work. We even have a vaccine that can prevent it from killing people. Obviously some other terrible exogenous event may come along and make this year worse than last year in a different way, but in the absence of any such event we are not going to revisit those terrible weeks in March and April.

ROBERT: What do you think you've learned from 2020? In my case — it's something that came up when I was talking to Anatole Kaletsky last week — I've learned that Keynes was right when he said that in the future we could live very well while working very little. That's pretty much what we've been doing for the past year, except that we've been doing it involuntarily.

FELIX: I don't quite agree. One of the things that has been interesting and slightly counterintuitive about 2020 is that so many people did not lose their jobs entirely. They went on working. Lots of jobs disappeared in tourism, bars, live entertainment, the sections of the economy that were being vapourised outright, but most people don't work in those sections of the economy, and most people did not lose their jobs. They kept on doing their jobs and they found themselves working at least as much in 2020 as in a normal year. They were at home, but they were not leaning back in the La-Z-Boy living a life of Keynesian leisure. More typically they were taking the hours they saved by not commuting to the office, and adding those on to their working day.

So we can certainly go back to Keynes to refresh our ideas about fiscal policy, but I don't think his prophesy of a new leisured society has come any closer. Bear in mind, too, that many people had a lot more childcare to factor into their day, which had previously been outsourced to schools. You might push back here and say that spending time with your kids ought to be a pleasure, and a lot of parents, when they look back on their lives, will wish that they had done more of it, but even so, it can feel like work at the time.

ROBERT: In terms of what we might call billable hours of work, did you put in more hours last year than you would have done in an ordinary year?

FELIX: Because of the lockdowns? Yes, definitely. Because the way people stop working, the way I stop working in normal times, is that I physically remove myself from my computer and I go off to bars and restaurants and theaters and movies and beaches and mountains. I go places and meet people and do things that are physically somewhere else. And when you are stuck at home within a very small radius of your computer, you naturally just wind up spending more time on your computer, and spending time on the computer is basically what I do for work.

ROBERT: I think of your passions in life as being finance, fine art, and philanthropy. Let me ask you now about the arts, culture. Culture is supposed to thrive in adversity — starving artists cutting their ears off in garrets, dissident poets producing works of genius in the gulag. I appreciate that the Trump administration was more offensive to liberals than it was truly oppressive, but it seemed to produce a lot of outrage in a lot of artists, and I wonder if that led to better art.

FELIX: One of the things I used to do quite a lot when I wasn't working, or in order to not work, was go to the theatre. And I remember telling everyone who would listen in 2018 and 2019 that we were in a golden age of theatre, the productions on Broadway were astonishingly good. Things you might be lucky to see once in a decade were coming round twice a year. Theatre is a collaborative enterprise, it just ground to a halt in 2020, but yes, whatever the reasons, in the years immediately before 2020 it was spectacularly good.

It's become something of a cliché to talk about the golden age of television, at least since The Sopranos, but it's still true. The entry of Amazon Prime and Netflix and Disney Plus and Apple TV and streaming in general has created a a whole new universe of great TV shows. One of the highlights for me was Watchmen. I thought that was just an incredibly great show, and there have been many, many others.

TV, like theatre, is an incredibly complex, expensive, collaborative form of art, which for obvious reasons had to hit pause for much of 2020. But the time-frame of your question was the Trump Administration, and the answer is that it has indeed been an exceptional time for the big collaborative art-forms — theatre, TV, film. Sorry To Bother You, for example, was an amazing feat of creativity. I have every hope and expectation that we'll get back there post-Covid.

As for 2020 and Covid, well, by definition, it's much harder to do great collaborative things during a pandemic. So we're going to have to wait and see if that was a year for individual genius. If someone wrote a great novel in 2020 it will get published in 2022 and we will discover it in 2023. As to whether it will be a novel about Covid or foregrounding Covid is another question. King Lear was written in a plague year, 1606, but it doesn't have much to do with plague, explicitly at least. On the other hand, the last great plague in New York was AIDS, and that led to the creation of great art-works about AIDS and around AIDS: Angels In America, for example.

It also led to a fallow period for the performing arts in general because AIDS wiped out an entire generation of creative geniuses. It took a long time, decades, to recover from that. We have recovered, and the new generation of baby geniuses is here, and that's awesome. One of the few good things you can say for Covid is that it did not wipe out an entire generation of creatives in the way that AIDS did, or the double-header of the First World War and the 1918 flu pandemic did.

QUESTION: You have been talking almost entirely in terms of Manhattan, the City. What about the suburbs, and the wave of migration there?

FELIX: Really good question. Absolutely. During the panic months of Spring there was a very visible movement of people out of the city and into the suburbs and beyond — doubtless including people who were going to move anyway, and just did it faster, plus people who decided that Covid had changed the perceived utility of cities, it was nowhere near as much fun being in a city during a pandemic as during normal times. Inevitably you're going to see a mean reversion there. People are going to siphon back, out of the suburbs and into the city again, once Covid is suppressed on a long-term basis, and probably that's a good thing on an environmental level; the model of having cars and driving everywhere and low density planning is a bad mixture for the planet. It's also worth remembering that the suburbs are not always an escape to safety. The opioid epidemic was largely based in suburbs.

I still think I am long cities and short suburbs and maybe long exurbs. We talk now about a permanent shift towards more remote working, but the remote work trend will actually help cities and exurbs more than it will suburbs. If you want to maximise distancing, or you are indifferent to distancing, you can move to the middle of nowhere. The point of the suburb is to put you within that 40 minute radius for being able to commute to work. But if you don't need to live within 40 minutes, if you don't need to live in the centre of town, you also don't need to live in the suburbs of the town.

QUESTION: If 2020 was the year of Covid, 2021 will be the year of the vaccine. What do you expect there?

FELIX: If developing countries get the vaccine much later, or otherwise find it difficult to adjust and emerge from the Covid crisis, then inequalities of wealth between richer and poorer countries are going to increase. We've got liberalism pushing one way and altruism the other way and we need both.

The area of the world that I'm most concerned about right now, Sub-Saharan Africa, has been managing really quite well through Covid. The Covid hit was milder in virtually all of Africa — with the exception of South Africa — than it was in most of the rest of the world, partly because the population is so much younger. But if there is a long period of reduced growth to follow, say five slow years, then the compounding effects of that that are going to be incredibly bad in terms of persistent poverty.

As for access to the vaccine, it is a real problem but a fixable problem. Even under this US administration we saw an extra $4 billion going to GAVI, the global vaccination alliance. We do have supply constraints in terms of how quickly we can produce vaccines, but we also have more and more vaccines being approved in more and more countries. What we don't seem to have is any real IP constraints on the vaccines. If there is a way to produce these vaccines in Brazil, say, people will do that and no one will really object. Certainly China will be doing that, India will be doing that.

Right now we have two main vaccines being produced in large numbers and going into people's arms. Those are definitely going into rich people's arms, maybe into some poor people's arms too. That's going to give the rich world a head start of maybe nine months to a year in terms of vaccines. Even so, I'm hopeful — taking into account the number of vaccines that will ultimately be proven effective, the number of countries that are technologically capable of producing them, and the general global consensus that, in order for the world to get back on track, we need everyone to be vaccinated, not just the rich.

We are not going to vaccinate the entire world. We haven't been able to eradicate polio after all these years. There are still pockets of polio in Nigeria and Pakistan. By this time next year Covid will doubtless still be with us in some parts of the world, but we will have a clear picture of who has been vaccinated, who will be getting vaccinated soon, and who for whatever reason is not getting vaccinated, and we can act on that.

ROBERT: Change of topic. Do you think that the media has emerged stronger or weaker from the Trump presidency?

FELIX: When you say the media, you mean the news media, right? That's natural enough. When journalists think about the media, they think of journalism. Whereas, of course, journalism is a pimple on the face of most media organizations. Netflix is a media organization that has no journalism. Amazon Prime and Disney too. Technically, Disney does run a news organization, it's called ABC news, but ABC news is just an annoyance really to Disney and probably if they could get rid of it, they would because it's unhelpful to relations with China.

The media in general has done well out of COVID. People have been stuck at home streaming stuff on television. The news media has done well out of Trump: People have been reading more news than they normally do, not only because they are stuck at home but also because they've been feeling outraged about Trump or Trump's critics or outraged about police behaviour or outraged about protesters. In short, an uptick in disposable income, thanks to Covid-driven fiscal policy, has gone partly into subscriptions to news organisations, which have found themselves able to build up a bigger paying subscriber base.

So that's been good. In a subscription economy the lifetime value of a subscription can be enormous. Once you start subscribing to something, you generally stay subscribing to it. There will be a drop-off, but I doubt that the size of the drop-off will be smaller than the size of the uptick.

More subscribers means that news organizations have been able to beef up their coverage. We have learned how to do journalism remotely. We have great journalists doing great work and now they can get paid properly for it.

QUESTION: How did you position yourself vis-a-vis the Trump administration? Did you feel that you were an opponent, professionally, or a neutral commentator?

FELIX: Depends which hat I'm wearing. When I do my podcast, Slate Money, I am more open about — like, Trump just makes no sense and it's bad for the world and for the country. When I have my Axios hats on, I play it slightly straighter, more impartially. Both are fine.

ROBERT: What frustrated me early on about Trump was that we soon found we had nothing of value to learn from him. We just watched him bumping into things, and sometimes they broke.

FELIX: Even so, I have learned a lot about America and Americans in the past four years, especially in the past year. If you look at the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump with great enthusiasm in 2020, after it was abundantly clear to everyone exactly what he was about and what he stood for — that in itself has been an education, and not only for me.

Imagine the effect on the Biden administration, with John Kerry leading on climate change and Tony Blinken as secretary of state. How can these people hope to engage the world, and say, in effect: "We represent a trustworthy country that really cares about the world". The world is going to turn back to them and say, "You are not a one-party state. There will be another Republican administration eventually and we have seen what the Republican base believes in. We believe that you will be able to make promises that you can keep for the next four years, but what comes after that? You have just had four years of chaos in the White House, and a large part of your population seems to want another four years of chaos".

This is a really profound change for America's international relations. It is going to be very, very hard to undo the damage that Trump has done to international confidence in America, and all the more so while so much support for Trumpism is on show at the polls and in the Senate.

ROBERT: So Trump may have broken things in a way that can't be repaired?

FELIX: Let's say it will be really hard to repair the damage that has been done to American democracy, especially in this current post-election period; American democracy now looks intrinsically fragile. It was never perfect: The electoral college makes no sense, there's a huge amount of gerrymandering, Republicans and whites have much more power than they should do in proportion to their numbers, especially in state legislatures. Democracy was already weak in those ways, but now it is much weaker. Its mechanics still depend on 18th-century ideas of how long it takes for vote tallies to get across the country, that kind of thing. It needs to be made more robust.

ROBERT: What will be the job of the media during the Biden presidency? Does the media have a duty to help Biden rebuild confidence in the government of America?

FELIX: It took a while for the media to understand and accept just how much about Trump and his behaviour was objectively crazy.

ROBERT: At first they tried to dignify him, or at least to maintain the dignity of his office.

FELIX: And then they came to see that they had to report the news in an objective way, and the objective facts with Trump were that he and his people were doing crazy things. So if the media maintains the same objectivity with respect to Biden, they will find themselves reporting on a normal presidency which is dignified and not crazy. The news cycle will simply move away from the White House.

It's hard to remember anything before 2020, I understand this, but before Trump the news didn't used to all about the president all the time, you could go weeks without the president being on the front page. Biden will be off the front page for weeks at a time and that's going to be normal and that's going to be fine. We will be able to concentrate on everything else that has been going on in the world.

Biden has a lot of rebuilding to do inside government. The institutional capabilities of the permanent civil service have suffered badly under Trump. Many good people have left, and they have not been replaced. It will take years to get things back to where they were. When Obama took over from Bush, there was lots of goodwill on both sides, and even then it took the best part of a year to get the Obama team into place and working effectively. This transition is so full of bad will that it is scarcely a transition at all. So it could be that President Biden's ability to get much done will be constrained by Trump's legacy. There's lots of ways things might go horribly wrong. But I'm getting more hopeful.

QUESTION: What has Covid taught us about the relative effectiveness of democratic and authoritarian government?

FELIX: Interesting. When Covid hit China, the executive powers were initially too slow to act. But when did act, they acted with decisiveness, and they really got Covid under control very quickly in a country of a billion people. I think this experience made a big impression on the Chinese leaders themselves. They saw just how much power they had, and they saw the value of acting quickly and decisively. They are now applying those lessons in other areas — notably in reining in some business tycoons. They're basically saying: "Hey, if we can use this power in public health effectively, we can use this power in other places too".

It's possible that some effect of that kind will play out even in liberal democracies. New Zealand is a liberal democracy, but they've had an election which seemed to show that the population accepted and applauded the expanded form of executive power that the prime minister took upon herself when Covid hit. They were like, "thank you for doing that". Is that a mandate for acting similarly in areas beyond public health? You could see it that way.

ROBERT: It's been painful to watch America's handling of Covid, but if we see this as a trade-off between personal liberty and public health, is it possible that history might judge America more kindly?

FELIX: Tensions between American individualism and public health go back a long way. I've been saying for years that if an American government today tried to put fluoride in water or iodine in salt there would be an absolute uproar, they would never be able to do it, yet these are clearly effective and good public health interventions. The appetite of the American public for any kind of public health intervention has decreased enormously. That is a problem. We have seen with Covid how big a problem. We are seeing more of it in Britain too. And it's not a problem in which I see any silver lining.

ROBERT: Felix, a last question. I know you think a lot about effective altruism. We've all had a rotten year in 2020. So if we all want to do something good, if we all want to make our world better, what do we do?

FELIX: It depends who you are. High-end philanthropy is very strategic. It is Bono lobbying George W. Bush and world finance ministers; it is building institutions that change the world. I'm at the charity end of the spectrum. I like to find people who need help, and help them. There is no wrong answer here. The main thing is to do something rather than nothing. If you are thinking about giving your time or money to a good cause some time in the future, then do it sooner, do it now, front-load your effort. Give right now and give as much as you can afford to give. Think about it, but don't overthink it. If you need a starting point, go to


Free 9 min read

Anatole Kaletsky On 2020

Commentator and consultant Anatole Kaletsky talks with Browser editor Robert Cottrell about lessons learned from 2020, in a Zoom conversation for Browser subscribers and friends which took place on Sunday 20th December 2020, introduced by Uri Bram. This is a lightly edited transcript. Errors and omissions are those of the editor.

ROBERT: Anatole, you and I have known one another for a very long time, and I don't think we've seen a year like this past one. Do you think it's a year to remember or a year to forget?

ANATOLE: The answer depends on who you are. For some people it has been quite a profitable year; very profitable for Jeff Bezos; and a surprisingly prosperous year for many people in the financial sector in Europe, people who've managed to carry on doing their jobs, or, at least, receiving their salaries. But for most people it has been an absolutely terrible year.

Historically, it's definitely going to be a year to remember. A number of things have fundamentally changed course. The world is moving on to a new trajectory for years and even decades to come.

ROBERT: Are we talking here about changes in our systems or changes in ourselves? Are we seeing the world in a new way after the adversities of the past year?

ANATOLE: We have learned some things about human nature, the role of government, relationships between individuals and societies; but I don't think the pandemic has actually taught us that much about the ability of people to cope with extreme adversity, because actually, by the standards of the history, and by the standards of parts of the world today, the so-called suffering that we're all going through in Europe and America is very, very minor. Statistically, for most people the pandemic means the inconvenience of not being able to see one's friends or family, of not being able to go out shopping and so on. I don't think that even registers on a scale of human adversity.

Also, in Western societies, we've been offered the most amazingly comfortable safety mats by our governments. People in Britain have been comparing this year with the Blitz, but we haven't got bombs falling on us. Covid hasn't taught us much new about coping with adversity.

What the past year has taught me is that people in Western societies are now willing to accept more and more restrictions on their lives, which reverses or contradicts the conventional economic wisdom of the last 30 or 40 years.

People are showing themselves willing — even eager — to accept leadership and control from governments and other institutions. In this respect the past year really has marked a turning point. This is the end of an era of neo-liberalism during which the prevailing doctrine in Western societies was that people were individualistic, that they were determined to shake off the shackles of government, that they wanted to make their own way in the world.

What we're finding instead is that people can easily and quickly be tipped into great anxiety and great uncertainty. We keep hearing this word "herd", as in "herd immunity". People are desperate to find this "herd immunity", to find their "herd". They are showing themselves willing to accept instructions from governments which, in my view, do not always make sense.

To the extent that there is any kind of controversy in any of the major Western nations about the extent of government controls, all the opinion polls suggest that people want more control from government rather than less. This refutes the neo-liberal concepts drummed into us since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Whatever people wanted in the 1980s, it isn't what people are really looking for now. What they want now is comfort, and control, and constraints, rather than freedom. That's how it strikes me. I've been really surprised at the degree of public support for lockdowns all over the world.

ROBERT: American individualism seems to have been largely counter-productive in the face of Covid; while in China, we've seen the upside of dictatorship — the forceful use of administrative resources has been very helpful in suppressing the pandemic. Is this a significant moment for the balance of soft power between America and China?

ANATOLE: It is. People are beginning to think: "Well, maybe it is better to live in a more controlled and regulated society than in some sort of free-for-all". The personality of Donald Trump has also been a major factor. So yes, alongside a psychological and sociological turning point, we can also see a geopolitical turning point. Much of the world is starting to accept the inevitability of China's rise to become a full and equal counterpart of the United States, not just economically, but also in terms of influence on the world, shaping the world's future, including the political future.

The rise of China has been under way for decades. But this is this year when the full consequences of that process become clear — equalisation between America and China, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, between the Western European liberal way of looking at things and the Asia Confucian way. It is very unlikely that either side is going to completely overwhelm or somehow sweep away the other.

ROBERT: Donald Trump's presidency has changed most people's ideas of America. Has it changed them irreversibly?

ANATOLE: The belief in American supremacy, in American dominance, has gone. So has the belief among a lot of people that American hegemony is a benign force in the world. You could say that these things have been breaking down throughout our lifetimes — since Vietnam, and then Iraq, and then the Arab spring — and that this is the culmination of a of a long process, it was going to happen anyway, sooner or later. But Trump accelerated things, and I don't think the effects will be reversible.

The other thing which is happening right now, in the last few weeks and even as we speak, is a crisis of of American democracy, of the idea that America is a model democracy. A third of the Congress and something like 50 or 60 million Americans seem to believe that the result of the election should be overturned in order to keep President Trump in office. That's not going to happen, but the very fact that there is this movement to keep Trump in office, a widely popular movement, must raise questions about whether America is still a genuine democracy. I'm not sure that genie can be put in back into the bottle. If much of America has given up on democracy, can we be confident that any democracy anywhere in the world is any more durable? Can we believe in German democracy, or French democracy, without American democracy?

ROBERT: You have been outlining here a fundamental shift in the way that people think about political ideals and political institutions; and a rebalancing of power between America and China. This feels like a prescription for immense uncertainty and for catastrophic mistakes along the way. To say nothing of the further effects of Covid. Why are so many financial markets doing so well, at least as we speak?

ANATOLE: There are two extreme viewpoints, both of which I have believed at various points during the year. One is that markets have just gone mad and that this is a bubble, a speculative bubble. You can point to Tesla, which is worth more than all the auto companies in the world put together, even though it hardly makes any profits. And have you ever heard of a company called Nikola? It is essentially a Tesla clone, which plans to make electric trucks as opposed to electric cars, and the name Nikola associates the company with Tesla in investors' minds. Nikola went public in March with no revenues and no profits and by the end of June its shares were up six-fold, valuing the company at more than $20 billion. They are down again now. So certainly we've had some market madness, and things do overshoot.

On the other hand, given that so many people were expecting that the shock of Covid would be catastrophic and would lead to a complete market meltdown, when that didn't happen, you got, not panic, but the opposite of panic, you got people saying: "Oh my God, I've been out of this market. I've sold everything. Buy, buy, buy". People were willing to buy everything. So you could say it's been speculative overshooting in both directions.

But I think there is another way of seeing things. The prospects for the world economy have actually improved tremendously as a result of what's been happening. What has happened is that governments have responded in ways going far beyond monetary policy. Central banks have been printing money like it was wallpaper since the 2008-2009 crisis, that's nothing new. The really big thing that has happened this year is enormous budget deficits — unlimited spending by governments, in effect, governments all over the world directly pumping trillions of dollars and euros into the private sector, giving and lending directly to companies, paying and subsidising wages, deferring or waiving taxes, on a scale that was not merely way beyond anything ever predicted or experienced, but way beyond anything that anybody even imagined possible.

ROBERT: Except for the modern monetary theorists.

ANATOLE: Even they didn't really believe it was possible. They believed it would work, theoretically, but they didn't believe it could actually happen. And it did. Let me tell you an anecdote.

Just after the lockdowns were announced in Britain and America, I wrote an article for my consultancy clients. I published a version of it on Project Syndicate saying: "Look, people are being prevented from going the workplace, from earning, from spending. In principle, this situation could be stabilised and resolved quite easily by having governments pump the equivalent amount of money into their economies, into their private sectors".

I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and said that the world economy could be stabilized if every country spent between 15 and 20 percent of GDP, which they would have to borrow in the coming months and pump into their economies, preferably by providing wage subsidies of 80 or 90 percent of lost wages. I said it wouldn't end up costing very much at all because the central banks could print the money; it would be perfectly feasible; but we all know that governments are not going to do this. Anywhere. And, therefore the outlook for the world economy was frightening.

A week after I published that article, the British finance minister, Rishi Sunak, announced a policy of borrowing 15 percent of GDP, which would be £200 billion, and using the money to pay 80 percent of the wages of anybody unable to work because of  Covid. Things that had seemed completely impossible to me and even to the finance ministers themselves were being done. Another week later the American government came along and said: "Well, 80 percent, no, that's not good enough. We're going to pay 110 percent of the lost wages to everybody who's rendered unemployed by Covid". So, as a result of that, it became likely, or at least possible, that there would be a rapid bounce back the moment the public health situation recovered, which of course it hasn't yet.

What I think the business community and the financial markets are beginning to sniff out is that this is not just a temporary reversal of policies. It is a longer-term change in the philosophy of how the world economy should be managed. I think we are going back to a post-war — 1950s and early 1960s — philosophy about the role of government and the management of economic activity, which may lead to economic conditions more like those of the post-war period ... Somewhat higher inflation, but also much higher growth targets, with the object of maximising growth while minimising unemployment, and accepting the higher inflation that might result. Those conditions are actually pretty good ones for the stock markets and the property markets.

We can trace this change in philosophy back to the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the disillusionment that followed. There was a global disillusionment with neo-liberalism, Thatcherism, Reaganomics, whatever you want to call it. There was a sense of impending breakdown, but it wasn't clear what was going to come after this collapse of the market-fundamentalist view of the world.

Ten years ago I wrote Capitalism 4.0, in which I pointed out that capitalism had survived crises in the past by reforming in response to social pressures. It would emerge in some new version, although it was never obvious to anybody at the time what the new version was going to be. It would take ten or fifteen years for something new to emerge, and I think a period like this may be what we are going through now.

ROBERT: So Keynes may yet be proved right in his prediction that people in this century will need to work far less in order to live well? That's pretty much what we have been doing for the past year, albeit involuntarily.

ANATOLE: Or, it may also end in tears, very quickly. This image I've presented of a return to the post-war golden age of economic growth is not shared, I think, by the majority of economic commentators, who believe that the long-term consequences of printing and spending money will be more stagflation and social unrest, as in mid-1970s Britain. But if you look at the way that the financial markets are behaving, I'd say that mine may be the majority view among investors, even if few people consciously share it.

ROBERT: It seems we are re-discovering a whole new world of economics which has been more or less undiscussable for half a century if you wanted to be taken seriously as an economist.

ANATOLE: Something of that kind happened when Britain went off the gold standard in the 1930s. Sidney Webb, the Labour politician, said: "Nobody told us we could do that". Nobody imagined that Margaret Thatcher would be able to get away with making 3 million people unemployed in 1980s Britain, closing down industries that were thought to be the absolute foundation of the economy. What we believe we can or cannot do in economics is usually rooted in some arbitrary rules of monetary policy or deficit spending. The Maastricht criteria, for example, are just beliefs, they are not scientific principles, and I think we have now seen through them.

ROBERT: Your reference to Maastricht makes me realise that we have managed to review 2020 without once mentioning Brexit. For that and much else, many thanks.


Free 2 min read

China | Taiwan

involved: china, taiwan, hong kong, united states

The Chinese, despite having a reputation for opacity, are in fact quite meticulous in announcing their big moves well ahead of time, as they did with Hong Kong.

Thanks to Huawei and the trade wars, the retaking of Taiwan has now moved inside the Overton window of PRC policymaking: we're no longer hearing open-ended rhetorical proclamations of "one China" at party conferences; we're deep into think-tank debates and policy papers about cost-benefit analysis for Chinese supply chains (control of Taiwan Semiconductor would spare China from having to attempt a Manhattan-project-sized 2-10 year struggle to reach those levels of precision on their own).

I also sense the loose beginnings of an explicit timeline — "within Xi Jinping's term", which is in theory could mean his lifetime, but I think when people say that sort of thing they tend to mean five years.

I'm persuaded that the Chinese could explain away the Hong Kong debacle to Taiwan's satisfaction: It is a tragic truth that China did stick to its hands-off promises in the Basic Law (well 90% of them at any rate), and that Hong Kong was doing very well after 1997, until Hong Kong itself revolted, provoked largely by the stupidity and incompetence of its own local government. I'm not trying to mitigate the tragedy of Hong Kong here, just to say I think China could successfully rationalise its behaviour in talks with the Taiwanese.

I doubt anybody now thinks America would go nuclear against China on behalf of Taiwan; so, in a sense, the military bit is already over, since China would certainly be the better bluffer. Even in conventional weaponry I doubt the Americans would dare to fight inside the Taiwan Straits; they'd be lobbing stuff in from Okinawa.

We might then have a stand-off akin to a Cuban missile crisis, but nothing the Chinese couldn't escalate by dropping a small nuclear weapon on a US Antarctic base or unpersonned atoll or something, just as proof of concept.

So, all told, I can see the way to a Hong Kong-style autonomy deal for Taiwan which is acceptable to the Taiwanese. The sting in the tail for the Americans would be that their help would not even be wanted. And, after which, America would face a far more formidable China, once Taiwan with all its technology and weaponry had been integrated.

Free 3 min read

The Browser In 2020

involves: paywalls, Granta, Medium, Agnes Callard

My friend and colleague Jacob Silkstone, the Weekend Editor of The Browser, has been compiling our year-in-review issues which go out from Christmas Day to New Year's Eve, and also running some quick numbers on the pieces we have recommended throughout 2020. He reports:

In 2020, the Browser featured writing from 533 different publications.

The remarkable thing here is that almost every day of the year featured at least one publication unique to that day (on Christmas Eve, for example, we featured Bright Wall Dark Room for the first time all year).  

The majority of publications (344) cited were cited only once during the year.

The publications we recomended most often were:

1 New York Review Of Books (49 times)
2 Paris Review (37)
3= Aeon (35)
3= Guardian (35)
5 LitHub (23)
6 MIT Press Reader (21)

Granta was featured heavily in the first half of the year; Less Wrong in the second. Both make the top 10 of the full-year list.

I think the individual writer we've featured most frequently is Agnes Callard (8). Ed Simon has been featured 4 times.

We featured NYRB pieces almost every week until the start of November, and then stopped featuring them for the rest of the year. Similarly, we published 19 pieces from Granta, but barely any later than June. Anything to do with stricter paywalls at certain publications?

I can partially answer Jacob's last question. The New York Review Of Books redesigned its website and paywall in November. Under the old system, a few pieces from each issue of the Review were placed outside the hard paywall online; under the new system, as I understand it, visitors to the Review website have to create a free account to read anything much at all; I am not yet sure how the metering — the number of free-to-read pieces per visitor — works; and, consequently, with great regret, I have been hesitating to recommend Review pieces for fear that Browser subscribers will find it cumbersome or impossible to read them.    

As for Granta — everything they touch is wonderful, so the fact of their high ranking is not a surprise; the distribution across the year, however, is a surprise and a puzzle. I haven't noticed, still less reacted to, any overt changes in Granta's paywall; some pieces are free to read and some are not; I think it may be that free-to-read pieces early in the year were weighted more towards essays and memoirs; whereas free-to-read pieces later in the year were weighted more towards fiction and poetry, genres which in general feature much less frequently on The Browser.

I suspect Less Wrong would be placed even higher if I had attributed every piece I found there to the Less Wrong URL. In practice, where I saw that a Less Wrong post was cross-posted from a writer's own website, I would cite the writer's own URL, to encourage discovery.

My biggest frustration has been the Medium paywall, which pops up in all sorts of unexpected places, even on articles which the authors themselves have assured me are free to read. I'm in favour of paid content; good writing is worth good money. I'm delighted that publishers make so much fine writing available freely as a marketing strategy, enabling The Browser to exist in this flux as a sort of critic. But in Medium's case the paywall is operated by Medium, it prioritises the interests of Medium over those of the writers and publishers, and I doubt that it works very well for anybody at all — least of all for writers hoping to find readers, and readers hoping to find writers.  

Finally, I'm thrilled to see Agnes Callard topping our writers' list. I've admired her work since first encountering it via Tyler Cowen, whose conversation with Professor Callard was a marvel. I doubt she has ever said or written a dull word.

Professor Agnes Callard

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