Saturday, March 21, 2015

British Travels, Part 2

Sometimes when I travel, the things that are striking are the absences compared with my home (adopted, in this case). America is very much the land of convenience. When one wants something, one wants it immediately, available exactly where one is standing. Anything else is an affront, an imposition from bad design and customer service. If you want to see this, next time you’re in an airport from a different country, take note of how far you have to walk to find a bathroom from the moment that you decide you have to go. In nearly every US airport I’ve been to, it’s rare to have to walk more than 50m, usually more like 20m. In Frankfurt (and in Perth, I recall) it was at least 100m as the median.

The other one is rubbish bins out in public. In most major US cities, they seem to be spaced about 10m apart, so that if one has the urge to get rid of something, the cost to putting it in the bin instead of on the ground is essentially zero. In London, bins in public don’t seem to exist at all. I got handed a ‘certificate of climbing the London monument’ as I exited, and immediately looked for a place to throw it out, but there wasn’t one. Because I viscerally hate the idea of littering, it became the equivalent of a stone in my shoe for the rest of the day, having to be fished out and put back in each time I wanted to get my wallet or phone. For this daily hassle, we can thank the repulsive IRA, under whose bombing campaigns all the bins were removed and never replaced. Just when you thought you’d seen every way that that contemptible organization had managed to make the world a worse place, they find another way to surprise you.

Related to the previous post, the place that is similarly as inspiring as St Paul's Crypt is the National Portrait Gallery. Because this is forced to display parts from different eras, you can see the relative pathetic state of Britain in sharp contrast. The main benefit, however, is that this makes it much better as a museum experience. To wit, the rubes are all in the modern section looking at paintings of Paul McCartney, so you can enjoy the Tudors, Stewarts and Victorians in relative peace and quiet.

I was interested to find that the big driving force behind the museum was the great Thomas Carlyle, the most fascinating of Victorian political philosophers, and the biggest influence behind Mencius Moldbug, the most fascinating of modern ones. It’s always nice to find that your interests and views independently align with people whom you admire, to avoid the conclusion that you like the same stuff as them simply because they told you to like it.

The National Portrait Gallery is my favourite place in all of London. It is one of the very few museums where the subjects of the paintings are of considerably more interest than the artists, making it essentially an art museum dedicated to history. What a splendid idea! Take my advice, start with the Tudors and Stewarts and end with the Victorians to feel inspired for the day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On London's greatness past

It is interesting to compare the fate of two St Paul’s Churches. The one in London was famously and mercifully intact and mostly unharmed after the German bombing during the blitz. Which was a pretty darn lucky outcome:

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt (which I wrote about here), however, was bombed out, and rebuilt hurriedly afterwards in a deliberately modern style to strip out nearly all of the original church elements. As a result, it’s a bland whitewashed circular room, where the only parts of interest are the flags from different regions and an organ at the front. It’s as if the post office were charged with building an assembly hall.

St Paul’s in London manages to capture both the glory and tragedy of Britain. The glory is in the rich history from when it was a world-bestriding empire. The tragedy, of course, is that the modern version of Britain is a shriveled, diminished entity, squatting in the remains left over from when it was still a serious country. Instead of Winston Churchill or Pitt the Elder, we have David Bloody Cameron. Put briefly, there is almost nothing good in Britain – institutional, architectural, cultural, literary, even for the most part scientific - dating from after 1945. Ponder that, if you will. Even the graffiti these days is worse. Consider the relative elegance of the lettering on this carving inside the stairwell of St Paul's.

But if you want to see what Britain once was, look at St Paul’s Crypt. What an inspiring monument to great men! The statues and plaques tell you what the society at the time valued. Most of them are tales of heroism, sacrifice, and leadership. Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are justly revered, as are a number of military figures who died securing what was ultimately a victory. There is a large proportion of people from military backgrounds, but important people from other walks are represented too – Joseph Turner, John Constable, Christopher Wren, William Blake, Samuel Johnson. The only category of greatness that seems relatively underrepresented, for some reason, is science. If you are any kind of historian, it won't escape your notice that some of the accounts tend towards hagiography – you probably didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Lord Kitchener or General Gordon, for instance. It also becomes apparent that the men were drawn largely from the nobility. But rather than this fact being a source of embarrassment, as it would be today, it was a source of pride. This was how things were meant to be – nobility meant the requirement to perform acts of valor and leadership, often (in the military context) ending up killed in the process. These are not the tombs of kings or idle nobility. These are the tombs of citizens who were beloved enough by their countrymen for their deeds to warrant a place in the halls.

To take one random example that made my Australian heart glad, I was pleased to see the memorial to our former Governor General, the great Viscount Slim:

What kind of testimony does such a person produce from his contemporaries?
George MacDonald Fraser, later author of the Flashman novels, then a nineteen-year-old lance corporal, recalled:
"But the biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion … it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I've ever seen who had a force that came out of him...British soldiers don't love their commanders much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual."
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely has recommended Slim's memoirs (Defeat into Victory) (1956) describing Slim as "perhaps the Greatest Commander of the 20th Century"

Military historian Max Hastings:
"In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him ... His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion."
That, my friends, is what greatness looks like.

But you will notice, if you look closely, a subtle change in the recent memorials. The last monuments to specific heroism date back to World War 2. Society is now so pathologically egalitarian that greatness often makes us uncomfortable. The only modern military memorials in St Paul's crypt are for groups, not individuals – lists of the dead from wars. What is celebrated is their sacrifice, not their achievement. And this is why all the dead are listed equally, as is common and indeed appropriate to war memorials. But St Pauls Crypt was formerly not primarily a war memorial, whose function was solemn remembrance of loss and sacrifice – it was a triumphal place of individual greatness and heroism. And that is something we no longer do. The only individual greatness we celebrate any more is athletic, and to a lesser extent, commercial (Steve Jobs, for instance). But neither would appropriately be described as fields of heroism. Instead, heroism, to the extent that the now-devalued term is used, is identified with actions mostly formed on compassion, rather than on achievement. Today's "heroes" are more likely to be people caring for the unfortunate, or looking after a sick or dying relative. That is noble, and praiseworthy, and admirable. But it is not heroic.

One view you might form is that such heroism no longer exists. But it does. If you doubt it, read at random some of the recent awardees of the Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. We simply do not celebrate it.

Doubt it not, if St Paul's had been destroyed during the London Blitz, whatever version they rebuilt would have never had most of the current monuments inside, if they included any at all. It seems more likely that they would have scrapped the whole idea altogether.

More shame us.


As if to emphasise the contrast, here's a modern individual memorial they are willing to include:

Working for nuclear disarmament, eh? How's that going? How would you compare that with, say, the Battle of Waterloo?

Are you, like me, embarrassed on behalf of modernity?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notes from Heidelberg

-If you want to see how long-lived civic effects can operate, just compare Mannheim and Heidelberg. Both have quite famous universities. One also has the BASF chemical factory next door, and hence was bombed flat in World War 2. The other one is fairly well preserved. Hence, 70 years later, one is a kind of ugly but functional university town, and the other is chock a block with Japanese tourists. The relative price of old German buildings got a lot higher after WW2.

-Regarding the above, the spectre of the war still hangs heavy over the country, with little reminders like this everywhere you go. I well understand the rationale for why the towns were bombed, brutal though it was. If you don't believe me, read Paul Fussel's arrestingly-titled 'Thank God for the Atom Bomb'. Still, when you see how pretty Heidelberg is and how ugly Mannheim is, it made me sad for how much of German history was lost in WW2. But then I realised how much I was doing exactly what the War Nerd skewered so well in his great column on why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta:
But there does happen to be one demographic—an arguably insane one, indeed—which does not accept that war is cruel: the bitter white Southern neo-Confederate one to which Leigh belongs. For them, war was wonderful when it was just brave Southern gentlemen killing 360,000 loyal American soldiers.
That was the good war, as far as they were concerned. War became “intrinsically cruel” for them when that dastardly Sherman started visiting its consequences on rural Georgia, burning or destroying all supplies that could be used by the Confederate armies which had been slaughtering American troops for several years. Oh, that bad, bad Sherman!
You know what’s worse than a little girl asking “Mister Soldier” not to burn her house? Getting your leg sawed off by a drunken corpsman after a Minie ball fired by traitors turned your femur into bone shards. Or getting a letter that your son died of gangrene in one of those field hospitals where the screaming never stopped, and the stench endured weeks after the army had moved on. 
Of course, this is all lost on the Phil Leighs of the world, who—for reasons that cut deep into the ideology of the American right wing—always take burnt houses too seriously, and dead people far too lightly. To them, burning a house is a crime, while shooting a Yankee soldier in the eye is just part of war’s rich tapestry. So their horror of messing with private property joins their sense of emasculation, and their total ignorance of what war on one’s home ground actually means, to form a sediment that could never have been cured, even temporarily, except by the river of armed humanity Sherman sent pouring south and east from Atlanta on November 15, 1864. That cold shower woke them for a little while, at least—long enough to quicken the end of the war and save thousands of lives.
He's right, of course. In the context of the horror and atrocity of World War 2's 50-odd million dead, it is obscene to be worrying about lost buildings. The lost buildings, however, are salient and visible. The mountains of corpses, by contrast, are long gone.

 -I was talking to a German man, age early 30s or so. He was saying how his grandfather lived in Leipzig, which was also heavily bombed by the incendiary fire-bomb method. But the thing that his grandfather figured out is that the way these bombs worked is that they were just a flammable gel dropped into the house - the effects came because they set other stuff on fire, but only once they'd had a chance to get the blaze going. Of course, this always happened, because people hide in their basements during bombing raids. But the guy's grandfather decided instead to keep large piles of sand and buckets of water on all floors of his house. He put his family in the basement, and when a bomb went through the roof, he extinguished it. When the bombing raid was over, every other house on the street had been burnt to the ground, except his.

-Walking up the steep hill to the castle in Heidelberg, it gives one a strong sense of the wisdom of Sun Tzu's observation that 'it is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill'. I would not like to advance up that road while fighting hand-to-hand combat with swords and getting showered with arrows.

-For a reactionary like me, there is something quite stirring in seeing a castle with statues of kings from hundreds of years in the past. The tradition hangs thick in the air, in a way that is hard to describe. We indeed live in a kingless age.

-From the castle, I watched the sun set for the first time in quite a while. Because of the fog/smog/haze, the sun was a deep red while still relatively high in the sky, and actually faded into nothing before reaching the horizon. The last time I remember seeing this, incidentally, was 15 years ago in Munich. Perhaps there's something about German sunsets.

Bun Arbitrage

It is left as an exercise to the reader to show that, under the law of one price and the absence of arbitrage, the market-clearing price of a hamburger bun in Heidelberg is zero.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thoughts from Frankfurt

-I never tire while in foreign countries of seeing the subtle differences in appearance of people. German men often have a certain demeanor about them that always seems very recognisable - soft-spoken, small wry smile, horn-rimmed glasses, well-dressed with clothes that are cut a little tighter than American or Australian fashion. I actually was reminded of it just by the clerk at the front desk of the hotel when I arrived. It's a different look from, say, the Danes, where I've spent a bit of time. Of course, a good part of this is probably just the power of suggestion - recognising Germanness once you know the nationality is a lot easier than being able to guess German heritage based on appearance alone. Based on the number of questions I've received in German while walking through the streets, apparently I don't look sufficiently Australian (or American, as some might argue is more relevant these days) for me to be identifiable as a foreigner.

-Another contrast between Frankfurt and Copenhagen is the nature of the public squares. Both cities share the same narrow, walkable streets common to cities designed before the automobile. But in central Copenhagen, huge swathes are filled with gorgeous old architecture from centuries in the past. Frankfurt, by contrast, had the misfortune of being bombed flat in 1944. No, really:

File:Frankfurt Am Main-Altstadt-Zerstoerung-Luftbild 1944.jpg

This, as it turns out was doubly unfortunate. Firstly, being bombed flat is bad news at the best of times. But the mid-1940's was far from the best of times aesthetically, because it meant that the city was being rebuilt just as the west was getting into some of the most ghastly forms of architecture in history. Hence even in the Frankfurt squares with old-looking buildings, not only are they noticeably of recent vintage, but they're next to horrible 50's and 60's looking square concrete and glass monstrosities. A shame, really. Wars have consequences, that's for sure. At least things improved with the modern skyscrapers, which are much nicer. I got to see the Commerzbank Tower up close, which I remember from a desktop photo on my old computer years ago, where the shape made it look like it was only half finished with bits sticking up off the top.

Commerzbank Tower

-I wrote last time from Copenhagen about the pleasures of walking idly through foreign cities. I can't improve much on those notes, except that since then I learned that the French have a term for this kind of activity - Flânerie, with me taking the role of the Flâneur.

-For a recovering introvert who occasionally enjoys relapsing into his natural state, it is glorious to be a monolingual English speaker in Germany. Nearly all the service staff here speak English, so you can order whatever you want (when you're trying to spend money, most people will find a way to figure out what you want). In addition, the museums are courteous enough to put nearly all their explanations in English and German (there was even a public statue of Goethe that had a translation of the plaque in English too - not sure what Goethe would have thought of that). But more than that, it is an active pleasure to not speak German. Especially in museums, most people's conversations are inane and distracting. When they're in a language you understand, you can't help but listen, even when it's annoying. But when it's just unintelligible German, you observe the people at a pleasant sociological distance, and their conversation is just the linguistic curiosity of different sound combinations than what you're used to.

-I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the art museum here, helpfully titled 'Monet' in huge letters. Of course, at least half the paintings weren't actually by Monet, but the museum folks know what sells. Just show the rubes some paintings and call them all Monet, they won't know the difference! I imagine Cezanne and Degas are spinning in their graves, but hey, what are you going to do?

-There was one aspect of the Monet exhibit that was really striking. In some of the side rooms, they displayed some contemporaneous black and white photographs of some of the areas being depicted in the paintings - men in row boats on rivers with cypresses next to them, Parisian street scenes with horses and carts. The effect was really quite shocking. The photographs looked incredibly drab and mundane. All these glorious scenes that one had simply imagined to be like the beautiful paintings instead looked like everyday stuff that you would walk past. Of course, they looked old, but in a vaguely dirty and primitive way, not in a romantic way. The effect was rather similar to when one sees photos of famous celebrities without their makeup on, and they look ugly and ordinary. It struck me that Impressionist painting does a similar job to makeup and a soft focus lens - brushing out the details that make the world imperfect and familiar. No wonder people like it, especially when they have very little sense of what the original source material was.

-In the Paulskirche church, they have a fascinating history of German politics during the 19th century. The building was the house of the first German Parliament, after the Germanic states started to unite once Napoleon no longer ran the place. The stories of the politicians really emphasise the Moldbug point about how much the world has moved left over time. Back then, the 'radical far left' believed that there should be democracy under universal (male) suffrage. The far right wanted the restoration of rule by hereditory aristocrats. Worth bearing mind next time someone talks about how 'extreme' the modern Republican party has become. What was also remarkable reading the stories is seeing right wing movements actually win for once. And decisively, too - the German parliament was shuttered. Take that, modernity! Of course, seeing where this increased nationalism ended up puts a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. But it depends where you finish the line - if you chart things up to World War I, the Allies hardly come off looking more civilised or just in their cause than the Axis powers. If you see German politics as a continual line from the mid-1800s to the Nazi party (which I suspect most modern Germans do), then it's a lot more problematic. Then again, the continuation from socialism to Communist atrocities is hardly edifying either, but somehow the left never seems to lose much sleep over that one. Cthulu swims left, after all, except for a hundred odd years in Germany.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Thirty-Something Single Man's Ghost of Christmas Future

Part 1, from Junot Diaz - The Cheater's Guide to Love. If you take out the infidelity part (which, ultimately, is only a plot opener for the real dynamic of a great love lost by one's mistakes), the rest sounds rather believable.

Part 2, from SMBC, which is unambiguously the best comic in existence today:

On the myopia of macroeconomics

On matters of macroeconomics, I am mostly an agnostic in the classical sense - one who is unsure where everyone else (in the original, stupider people, but that seems presumptuous) seems to be sure.

Of course, the fact that everyone else is sure and manages to come to wildly different conclusions is always puzzling. Should the Greek government be spending more to grow its way out of debt, or spending less to pay off the existing debt? I confess, dear reader, to not being very confident in my answer to this question. Partly this may be because I'm an idiot who didn't learn enough macroeconomics. The latter is certainly true. Although the chances that I know less macroeconomics that half the idiots spouting off about austerity on facebook is also quite slim.

Every now and again, I'm struck by a sense that a lot of macroeconomics seems rather unimaginative, in the sense of focusing only on the current set of institutional arrangements that we have, rather than contemplating very different sets of arrangements and figuring out whether they might be an improvement.

This is fine, if you think that the current arrangements are the product of extended scientific experimentation. But given that a lot of them seem to have come about mostly by historical accident, it's hard to be so confident that we live in the panglossian best macroeconomic world of all macroeconomic worlds.

For example, everyone who's anyone knows that the optimal way to run a money system is to have all currency printed by a central bank on special pieces of paper. These pieces of paper should have a fixed face value, and be backed by nothing but the central bank's presumed desire to avoid too much inflation.

Be honest, how confident are you that all of these assumptions are optimal?

The paper aspect is surely not optimal. As I've said before, we exist on a 'paper standard' - the real money is the electronic dollars recorded at the bank, and people have the notional ability to convert all of these to pieces of paper. Which they do occasionally, for a small amount of their dollars, and over time will do less and less. But already, it would be totally feasible to convert all currency over to electronic forms without too much effort. Should we do it? Should it have already happened?

Once you start doubting, it makes you wonder how sure you are of the rest of it.

What would happen if the US switched to a gold standard? Let's take it as given that the loss of monetary policy would be a problem. But how big, exactly? If you had to forecast the stock returns on the day the policy was announced out of the blue, do you think you could come within +/- 5%? I'm not sure I could. Are you also equally confident that the gold standard wouldn't have any offsetting benefits to at least partly counterbalance the loss of monetary policy?

This ambiguity is especially true when you ponder things like Bitcoin. It's still going merrily along - Stripe now lets you accept it easily as a payment form. Sure, both search volume and price are lower than a few years ago - it seemed like there was probably a bubble at the time.

One way to look at this graph is to think 'Ha, look at how far it's fallen! The increasing scandals and decreasing interest surely herald the end for Bitcoin.'

The other way to look at it, which I think is more relevant, is that Bitcoin is still going after almost 4 years, even though very few academic economists can explain its existence at all.

To wit, the standard requirements for money is that it is a unit of account, a mechanism of exchange, and a store of value. Bitcoin has the first two, but not the third - there's nothing inherently valuable about certain mineable bits of information, hence nobody should be willing to hold it. Yet they are. And in response, few respectable academic theories seemed to have evolved much beyond 'people are idiots' and 'you can't short it'. At some point, this is a bit unsatisfactory. Shouldn't you at least consider the possibility that the third requirement is not actually 'store of value' but rather 'belief that the next guy will accept it'? In which case 'store of value' is just a way of getting there, and Bitcoin seems to be on the way to being accepted without it. And once something becomes widely accepted, this belief becomes self-fulfulling.

The reason that I think it behooves one to have a little modesty in one's own theories here is that I am almost certain that if you took academic economists from 100 years ago and told them that instead of trading gold-backed currencies, people will be entirely comfortable accepting otherwise worthless pieces of paper issued by the government, and nobody will think this odd, they would say you were crazy. And frankly, they'd have a point. After the fact, economists will be around to tell you that the key thing actually is that the bits of paper have a reliable value as a way to pay tax bills. But doesn't this sound like a rationalisation? It's certainly a lot flimsier than 'it's tradable for actual gold', and yet a) here we are, and b) people are now saying that any further decline in the inherent value of currency is absolutely unthinkable, notwithstanding the huge decline we've already made.

There are tons of examples. Central banks themselves were a random populist intervention that economists took decades to even begin to rationalize. So was deposit insurance. These schemes both predated our formal understanding of why they seemed to work.

Given all this, I think it's okay, and probably even desirable, to have pretty darn flat priors about macroeconomic policy. You probably don't want massive deflation, to jack up interest rates to 20% overnight, or to permanently spend more than you earn. But you're a braver man than I if you think our current institutional arrangements are close to optimal.