What can a divided America learn from Switzerland?

Monday, January 31st, 2022

Switzerland largely avoids the divisions that characterize U.S. politics:

Americans typically try to explain this by saying, “Well, it’s so homogeneous.” But Switzerland is much more diverse than one might think.… It has four national languages; it’s been shaped by historical differences between the Catholic and Protestant regions; and there’s a wide urban-rural divergence, with only 10% of the population living in the 60% of the country covered by the Alps. Adding to the diversity is the huge number of immigrants: 30% of the population is foreign-born, about the highest percentage in the world.

Over the centuries Switzerland has developed an electoral system and a culture that defuses political tensions and delivers peace and prosperity. A polarized U.S. looking for lessons from Switzerland can study the country’s special recipe: vivid democracy, a strong aversion to centralizing power, and the deep sense of responsibility that citizens feel toward their country.

Switzerland is often described as a direct democracy, but that’s somewhat of a misnomer because citizens are not directly involved in every legislative decision and don’t even elect the president and other members of the executive branch. However, the Swiss people hold a unique political power, thanks to the two main tools of direct democracy: the initiative and the referendum.

The initiative allows any group of Swiss citizens to gather signatures and put a proposal for amending the constitution on the ballot. As a result, the Swiss people are summoned to polling stations usually four times a year and get to vote on a variety of questions—nothing is off the table. Such a system may seem to invite instability, but the opposite is true. Initiatives routinely fail to pass. The constitution may eventually get changed only after multiple attempts.

The referendum allows citizens to call for a vote on a law passed or a treaty negotiated by the federal government. For example, last week citizens voted to allow the government to require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for gaining access to most public indoor places, and take a variety of other COVID measures. Concerns that the government was granting itself too many powers drove the campaign against the law, but only 38% of voters agreed.


Underscoring the autonomy of the local jurisdictions, the cantons and municipalities collect more in tax revenue than does the federal government. In the U.S., by comparison, the states and other local authorities collect only 36% of the country’s total tax revenue.

Federalism also works as a counterbalance to the majoritarian tendencies of democracies. As seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, illiberal decisions and increasing centralization are inherent in democratic systems that don’t contain enough federalist checks on power. Increasing the authority of a central government, as those on the left in many countries advocate, can increase polarization because it leads to high-stakes, winner-take-all elections. Requiring the majority of cantons to agree on constitutional changes balances the power of the majority of voters, which in any country can cancel the rights of dissenting voices, jeopardize freedom and lead to tyranny.

One important dividend of federalism is that it helps keep taxes and regulations in check because of the competition it creates among cantons or states. If people don’t like their canton’s or municipality’s tax system, they can easily vote with their feet. U.S. taxpayers seeking to escape high state taxes and overregulation can do this too, but states are much larger geographically than cantons so this might mean moving far away from jobs, friends and relatives.

The purpose of their conflict will be to destroy the organization but leave the people and artifacts remaining

Sunday, January 30th, 2022

A community consists of people + artifacts + organization, Carroll Quigly argues in Weapons Systems and Political Stability, and when two communities are in conflict, each trying to impose its will on the other, this can be achieved by destroying the organization of the other:

That means that the purpose of their conflict will be to destroy the organization but leave the people and artifacts remaining, except to the degree that these are destroyed incidentally in the process of disrupting their organization in order to reduce their capacity to resist. In European history, with its industrialized cities, complex division of labor, and dense population, the efforts to disrupt organization have led to weapons systems of mass destruction of people and artifacts, which could, in fact, so disrupt European industrial society, that the will to resist is eventually destroyed.

But these same weapons, applied to a different geographical and social context, such as the jungles of southeast Asia, may not disrupt their patterns sufficiently to lower their wills to resist to the point where the people are willing to submit their wills to those of Wester communities; rather they may be forced to abandon forms of organization which are susceptible to disruption by Western weapons for quite different and dispersed forms of organization on which Western weapons are relatively ineffective.

“Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean

Saturday, January 29th, 2022

Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean:

The Greek word that we trace climate from was klima, which means “inclination,” “slope,” or “latitude” and klima can be traced further still, to the Greek klinein, “to lean”. There was a theory in antiquity that the world could be divided into seven distinct zones called climates, which were designated based on the slope or inclination of the northern celestial pole changing as one moved north from the equator. Climate was in use in English for well over a hundred years before we began to use the word in the 16th century to refer to weather conditions.

Once climate was applied to weather, it did not take very long before we began to employ the word in a figurative fashion. From the middle of the 17th century on we have considerable evidence of people using climate as a synonym of atmosphere (in the non-literal sense of that word).

It is important only when we do not have it

Friday, January 28th, 2022

The need for security is a constant need, Carroll Quigley notes in Weapons Systems and Political Stability, but it is important only when we do not have it:

That is why the United States, in the 1920s and 1930s, could have such mistaken ideas about the relative significance of security and prosperity. Because we had the former, with little or no effort or expense to ourselves, from about 1817 to at least 1917, we continued to regard this almost essential feature of human life as of less significance than prosperity and rising standards of living from 1920 till late in the 1930s or even to 1941. Accordingly, we ignored the problem of security and concentrated on the pursuit of wealth and other things we did not have. This was a perfectly legitimate attitude toward life, for ourselves, but it did not entitle us to insist that other countries, so much closer to the dangers of normal human life than we were, must accept our erroneous belief that economics was more fundamental than politics and security.

Many years ago, when I talked of this matter to my students, all in uniform and preparing to go off to fight Hitler, one of them, who already had a doctorate degree in economics, challenged my view that politics is more fundamental than economics. The problem arose from a discussion of the Nazi slogan “Guns or butter?”

I asked him, “If you and I were together in a locked room with a sub-machine gun on one side and a million dollars on the other side, and you were given first choice, which of these objects would you choose?”

He answered, “I would take the million dollars.”

When I asked, “Why?,” he replied, “Because anyone would sell the gun for a lot less than a million dollars.”

“You don’t know me,” I retorted, “because if I got the gun, I’d leave the room with the money as well!”

25 psi was all it took to accelerate a 4-lb. projectile to 190 fps

Thursday, January 27th, 2022

At SHOT 2022′s Industry Day at the Range, Umarex unveiled their brand new Primal 20, an airgun designed to shoot 20-gauge slugs:

Air guns can operate with surprisingly low pressures:

I have been saying this for a long time — barrel length is an important part of precharged efficiency — maybe the most important part! On the Mythbusters TV show, they shot a 4-lb. chicken carcass from an air cannon at 130 m.p.h. on just 25 psi! When they bumped the pressure up over 100 psi, four times as much, the velocity increased by less than 5 m.p.h. So, 25 psi was all it took to accelerate a 4-lb. projectile to 190.7 f.p.s. when shot from an 8′ cannon barrel.

Airguns from history got high velocity from very low pressures. Typically, they were pressurized to 500 psi, yet had the power to launch a .50 caliber lead ball with enough force to kill deer-sized game beyond 100 yards. The recorded velocities of the vintage big bores are in the 500 to 600 f.p.s. range. It wasn’t just long barrels that produced such remarkable results — they also had air valves that remained open far longer than modern PCP valves do.

In Airgun Revue No. 5, Tom Gaylord wrote about a Gary Barnes’ big bore rifle that shot a .457 caliber lead ball at 800 f.p.s. on just 750 psi! That rifle had 10 good shots at that pressure! The barrel was over 32″ long, which is long but necessary for low pressure to accelerate a projectile to high velocity.

If you’re not familiar with Lewis and Clark and their air rifle, it’s a fascinating bit of weapons technology.

It may indeed be that there is some extremely nuanced sweet spot

Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Among 14,000 Finnish people who were tracked for 40 years, those who used saunas frequently were way less likely to develop dementia:

Big if true. And that’s an impressively huge study! But let’s start peeling back the layers.

First of all, it wasn’t every sauna enthusiast who reaped the supposed protective effect against dementia; it was specifically those who used a sauna 9-12 times a month. Sauna bathers who hit the wooden bench 5-8 times a month — sorry, no effect. And those who went more than 12 times a month — again, no luck.

That should raise a caution flag in your head. When only a very specific subpopulation in a study experiences a benefit, it may indeed be that there is some extremely nuanced sweet spot. But it is more likely that the researchers collected a lot of data, which in turn allowed them to analyze many different correlations between sauna use and dementia; the more different analyses they can do, the more likely some of those analyses will generate false positives, just by statistical chance. And then, of course, those titillating positive results are the ones that end up at the top of the paper, and in the press release.

The protection against dementia for that 9-12-times-per-month set was big over the first 20 years of the study, and then faded later, so now we’re slicing and dicing data not only by sauna-frequency, but by time. And then there’s temperature. The Finns who saunaed in temperatures hotter than 100°C (212°F) actually had a higher risk of dementia than those who sauna-and-chilled below 80°C (176°F).

So if you want to prevent dementia, hit the sauna precisely 9-12 times a month at below 80°C — and, unfortunately, expect the protective effect to diminish in the future. Whew!

You need to learn to walk before you can run

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

You need to learn to walk before you can run, but getting better at walking doesn’t always help you get better at running:

A similar thing can happen in music too. For instance, have you ever encountered a speed plateau in a piece you’re working on? A section that you can play perfectly at about 80-90% of the final tempo, but no matter how hard you try, you keep hitting a wall, and can’t seem to get over the hump?


Back in the 1950’s, a psychologist named Paul Fitts wrote an influential paper about the relationship between speed and accuracy. Namely, that there seemed to be a proportional relationship between the two. Want to move faster? No problem, but your movements will be less accurate. Want to be more accurate? Ok, but you will need to sacrifice speed.


But going back to the walking vs. running analogy, is it possible that we could be developing bad habits by trying to learn a tricky passage too slowly as well?


In one study (Belkin & Eliot, 1997), a team of researchers recruited 16 children aged 6-11 to learn some basic hockey skills (none had any previous organized hockey experience).

The kids were randomly assigned to two different groups, and given some basic instructions on how to hold a hockey stick and how to stand. Then they were placed 25 feet away from the gym wall, and instructed to hit a street hockey ball at the wall — but each group had a slightly different objective.

One group hit against a wall which had a vertical line of masking tape placed on the wall. This was their “target” which they were instructed to aim for. After each shot, they were given their accuracy score, and encouraged to improve their score on the next shot. This was the accuracy group.

The other group of kids was simply asked to shoot the ball as hard as they could. Their wall was totally bare, with no target to aim for. So they basically couldn’t miss — they just had to hit the ball against the wall with maximum velocity. These kids also received feedback after each shot, but theirs was given in miles per hour — the speed of their shot as measured by a radar gun. After each shot, they were encouraged to shoot even harder. This was the speed group.

Over the course of two days, both groups improved. The accuracy group improved their accuracy scores by about 34% — from 95.975 cm on Day 1 to 65.375 cm on Day 2 (lower scores is better, indicating that they hit the ball closer to the target).

And the speed group improved their speed scores, going from from 18.275 mph to 21.188 mph (an increase of about 16%).

Neither of which is especially surprising, of course. And then Day 3 happened.

On Day 3, everyone was tested on both speed and accuracy. Unlike the previous day’s tests where each group was asked to focus on either speed or accuracy, this time both groups were being scored on their ability to shoot as accurately and as fast as possible. They were told that one wasn’t more important than the other, and that they both mattered equally.

As you can imagine, the speed group hit the ball significantly faster than the accuracy group — more than twice as fast, in fact (21.725 mph vs. 10.063 mph). And when it came to accuracy, the groups were no different. If anything, the speed group was even more accurate than the accuracy group (56.588 cm vs. 66.300 cm — though this difference was not statistically significant).

So after the same exact amount of practice, the group which was instructed to focus on speed (and where accuracy was de-emphasized), ended up performing substantially better than the group whose initial focus was on maximizing accuracy.

The researchers note that even over a very brief 2-day period of practice, the two groups developed very different shot mechanics. The accuracy group seemed to shoot with a tighter, more constrained set of motions. Their shot loosely resembled a putting stroke in golf.

The speed group, on the other hand, swung much more freely — with a longer backswing and follow through. A much more efficient and effective motion which was a closer approximation of what the shot should actually look like.

In other words, the stroke mechanics that were developed to maximize accuracy, worked ok for accurate shooting. But the same movements were no longer effective when speed was also important. Conversely, the mechanics that were developed to maximize speed, not only worked well for maximizing speed, but were much more easily adapted to successfully account for accuracy too, when that became an important factor.

Another study (Engelhorn, 1997), conducted over a 6-week period with 10 and 11-year old fast-pitch softball players, found that excessive focus on accuracy in the early stages led to the development of poor throwing mechanics, which ended up impeding overall development.

That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself

Monday, January 24th, 2022

More than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began:

Compared with the fall of 2019, the last fall semester before the coronavirus pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has fallen a total of 6.6%. That represents the largest two-year decrease in more than 50 years, Shapiro says.

The nation’s community colleges are continuing to feel the bulk of the decline, with a 13% enrollment drop over the course of the pandemic. But the fall 2021 numbers show that bachelor’s degree-seeking students at four-year colleges are making up about half of the shrinkage in undergraduate students, a big shift from the fall of 2020, when the vast majority of the declines were among associate degree seekers.

“The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore,” says Shapiro. “That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. I think if that were the case, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.”


“The easiest assumption is that they’re out there working,” says Shapiro. “Unemployment is down. The labor market is good. Wages are rising for workers in low-skilled jobs. So if you have a high school diploma, this seems like a pretty good time to be out there making some money.”

There was little point in discussing the Third World when they knew so little about how their own society worked

Sunday, January 23rd, 2022

In his final weeks at Georgetown, Carroll Quigly told the students in his “The World Since 1914″ class that there was little point in discussing the Third World when they knew so little about how their own society worked:

So I told them about the USA — really very hair-raising when it is all laid out in sequence:

  1. cosmic hierarchy;
  2. energy;
  3. agriculture;
  4. food;
  5. health and medical services;
  6. education;
  7. income flows and the worship of growth;
  8. inflation;

showing how we are violating every aspect of life by turning everything into a ripoff, because we…have adopted the view that insatiable individualistic greed must run the world.

Weapons systems have been decisive in shaping human social, economic, and political decisions

Saturday, January 22nd, 2022

Throughout history, society’s decisions regarding its weapons systems have been decisive in shaping human social, economic, and political decisions, as Harry J. Hogan explains in his foreword to Carroll Quigley’s Weapons Systems and Political Stability:

Dates Weapons Politics
970–1200 knight and castle feudalism
1200–1520 mercenary men-at-arms and bowmen feudal monarchy
1520–1800 mercenary muskets, pikes, artillery dynastic monarchy
1800–1935 mass army of citizen soldiers democracy
1935– army of specialists managerial bureaucracy

That concept grew out of Jim Henson’s experience adapting Sesame Street to the requirements of foreign markets

Friday, January 21st, 2022

The original Fraggle Rock was made with the intention of it airing in various forms internationally:

That concept grew out of Jim Henson’s experience adapting Sesame Street to the requirements of foreign markets. The human “wraparound” segments were produced separately in several countries, so the viewer could always relate to the world of the program. The series has appeared now in over 10 countries and languages. The head producer was Wesley James Tomlinson.

The original North American version, filmed in Toronto, features an inventor named Doc (played by Gerry Parkes) and his dog Sprocket. This wraparound was also used in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Scandinavia, Spain, Japan, and Eastern Europe. Dutch, Scandinavian, Spanish, Japanese, and Eastern European shows were dubbed in their respective languages.

The British inserts were filmed at the TVS Studios in Southampton, and later at the TVS Television Theatre in Gillingham, Kent (both studios since closed and demolished) and presents Fraggle Rock as a rock-filled sea island with a lighthouse. Exterior footage was that of St Anthony’s Lighthouse located near Falmouth in Cornwall. The lighthouse keeper is The Captain (played by Fulton Mackay), a retired sailor who lives with his faithful dog Sprocket. In the third season, as MacKay had died in 1987, the role was played by John Gordon Sinclair as P.K., (the Captain’s nephew) and in the fourth and final season by Simon O’Brien as B.J. (the Captain’s son). In 2014, 35 of these British wraparounds were still missing, believed wiped, although subsequent recoveries have gradually reduced this number.[7] As of December 2020, all 96 wraparounds have been found and handed over to the BFI, confirming that the entire UK production still exists in some shape or form.[8] Nickelodeon repeated it in the UK from 1993, as did Boomerang and Cartoonito in 2007. The episodes shown were the Canadian versions.

In the German version, the action takes place beneath the workshop of the inventor Doc (played by Hans-Helmut Dickow). The series was named Die Fraggles with 85 of the 96 produced episodes being presented in German.

In France, the wraparound segments take place in a bakery with its version of Doc (played by Michel Robin) who worked as a baker and a French Sprocket called Croquette. Doc inherited the home from his eccentric Uncle Georges (who was a noted inventor). Thus, when the frame story required the use of a mechanical device, Doc would find yet another of Uncle Georges’s machines. Plot-lines also frequently involved the elegant but unseen Madame Pontaven (who Doc repeatedly attempted to impress and invite to dinner with no success). Not all of the 96 episodes were produced in French.

The traditional yeomanry is losing out

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

The working class may have suffered the most in the past decades, but the angriest class in America may be the small business and property-owning class, Joel Kotkin says:

National chains and online services are replacing many traditional Main Street businesses — the insurance and travel agencies, the local banks, the High Street retailers and restauranteurs. To make matters worse, local smallholders increasingly find themselves dependent on what analyst Mike Lind calls “toll booth” companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, tech megaliths which are able to coerce small businesses to give up their data. Amidst the supply chain crisis, firms like Amazon and the big box stores use their bargaining power to minimize delays in deliveries in ways not available to smaller businesses.

The traditional yeomanry — like the “kulaks” or wealthy peasants in Stalin’s day — is losing out. As executive compensation reached the stratosphere at the big tech and finance firms, small businesses faced what Harvard Business Review described as “an existential threat.” Experts are warning that one-third of small businesses, which comprise the majority of U.S. companies and employ nearly 50 percent of all workers, could ultimately shut down for good.

Perhaps, Arnold Kling suggests, we are now living in the New Servants economy:

Tyler Cowen has a series called “those new service-sector jobs.” My favorites include Coffin Whisperer and Wedding Hashtag Composer. The demand for such services can only come from people with excess wealth, and the supply comes from people who realize that their best source of income is to cater to those with excess wealth. This is very different from the age of mass consumption, when Henry Ford tried to manufacture cars that his workers could afford.

Actually, I think that the biggest engine of the trickle-down economy is the nonprofit sector. I don’t have data on this, but I suspect that if you ask the next 10 young professionals you meet where they work, at least 3 of them will reply that they work for nonprofits.


I would much rather see billionaires invest in businesses in minority communities than fund nonprofits that donate to BLM.

The omission was glaring

Monday, January 17th, 2022

On Sept. 25, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures held its opening gala, and influential Academy members were outraged that Hollywood’s origin story was conspicuously absent:

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who was on hand for the gala, was immediately struck by the lapse. “I would’ve hoped that any honest historical assessment of the motion picture industry — its origins, its development, its growth — would include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up,” he says. “As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’ The omission was glaring.”

That sentiment is being echoed from Hollywood’s C-suites to the halls of academia. “It’s sort of like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting, and ignoring the Italians,” says Hollywood historian and Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. “That generation of early moguls — Carl Laemmle, Jack Warner, we know all their names — is a terrific story of upward mobility, living the American dream. It’s one of the great contributions of American Jews to American culture.”

I remember watching a documentary a few years back on the early days of Hollywood, and I was shocked that its message was effectively, the Jews control Hollywood, and that’s great! It was jarring to see such an unacceptable claim presented as true and good.

A few decades before that, it was acknowledged and good for a laugh:

Years ago at the elaborate annual SHARE fund-raising party in Hollywood, Phil Silvers and Polly Bergen did a number called “The Rabbi and the Nun,” in which he and she, suitably costumed, argued over who had the most influence in the industry, the Jews or the Catholics.

The nun offered the likes of Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby and Leo McCarey, the director. The rabbi countered with Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, the Brothers Warner, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle and an inexhaustible list of producers, directors and actors.

The contest was so one-sided that at last the nun said in exasperation, “The next thing you know, you’ll be telling me that our Dear Lord Himself was….” Her voice trailed off.

There is little excuse for young people to live in Hong Kong

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

Dan Wang has by now lived in each of China’s main megaregions:

Everything that can go wrong in urban design has gone wrong in Beijing. The climate is arid and prone to northerly sandstorms. Its streets are unwalkable, but a stroll would reveal that its imperial heritage, made up of alley houses called hutongs, is slowly being taken over by its socialist heritage, made up of gray Soviet blocks that tower over all. Beijing is therefore a desert steppe city with Stalinist characteristics. A decade ago, the city was a lively place. One can find no shortage of people reminiscing about visiting art shows and fun bars in hutongs, then grabbing roadside barbecue just outside. Today, it is a concrete no-fun zone and the most restrictive city in the country. But Beijing is redeemed by its intellectual life. It is the center not just of state power, but also universities and the biggest-dreaming startups. For those who can work up the courage to confront the mess of its urban city, a sparkling dinner awaits.

A hundred years ago, Shanghai (where I currently reside) was the city in Asia where the ambitious could live comfortably while making a great deal of money. A rough few decades later, that fact is true once more. Shanghai is by far the most westernized city in China, attracting perhaps the majority of foreign nationals as well as Chinese who have spent time abroad. One can live in the tree-lined former French Concession, which today hosts the greatest concentration of coffee shops in the world, and work in office settings little different from those in Singapore and Hong Kong. It’s easy to make day trips to the canal cities of east China that enchanted poets and emperors alike. Shanghai today is culturally on par with Beijing, offering no fewer selections of visual and performance art. A more valid contrast is that Shanghaiers are more concerned with practical affairs. Its people are focused on producing the sorts of food and fashion businesses that make the city still more livable.

The Greater Bay Area is a bit more of a mystery to me, given that I lived in the failing part—Hong Kong—rather than the growing part: Shenzhen. At the start of reform and opening, Shenzhen absorbed the shock troops of Chinese entrepreneurialism. The southeastern region has long focused more on commerce than culture, having produced relatively fewer objects of historical resonance. When the British seized Hong Kong, the port was a mostly-barren rock, while Shenzhen was barely a settlement at all. Even Guangzhou, a major mercantile hub, has never quite been a center of culture, only cuisine. The southeast is pursuing a strategy similar to Shanghai’s: the development of service sectors around a vibrant manufacturing base. But it is doing so with less taste. Although Shenzhen is less fun than Shanghai, its region is probably the most dynamic and forward-looking part of the country today.


The north is economically dysfunctional.… Beijing however has bucked the region and seen strong growth. It is the political center of the country and reaps every economic advantage from that status. That means retaining the bulk of the state sector as well as the industries most dependent on political rents. Thus it’s not so different from Washington, DC, with its mix of embassies, think tanks, and industries that need lobbying.


Shanghai is more commercially oriented. Around a thousand years ago, the region of east China started to transform into the fiscal center of the country, as people moved from the millet-growing north into the more productive rice-growing east. The area received another boost with the influx of New World silver, propelling Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou into the first cities in the world that made luxury goods for global markets. Dotted around these metropolises were market towns producing rice, ceramics, silk, and other goods. Shanghai came into its own through the slow collapse of the Qing. By the turn of the 20th century, it attracted the most dynamic Chinese entrepreneurs and became the center of the country’s industrial works. At the same time, Shanghai was the gambling and brothel capital of the world, the center of the country’s opium trafficking, and the extraterritorial playground for British, French, and American businessmen.


The fact I appreciate best is that Shanghai is highly livable. Among cities in Asia, Tokyo is a singular miracle, but I think that Shanghai is not lesser than Singapore, Hong Kong, or Seoul. Business executive types tell me that New York is the only city that rivals its dynamism. I agree that both cities have a special energy: both are on major waterways, invest a great deal in greenery, and have a thriving business environment to support excellent leisure activities. A huge number of people moved from Beijing to Shanghai after the start of the pandemic, including me. Whereas Beijing is hit hard by every domestic outbreak, Shanghai hasn’t had many cases while being the least restrictive city in the country. It’s hard for us fresh arrivals not to smirk at our friends in the north each time we read about new restrictions in Beijing.

The Shenzhen region is harder to write about given its patchwork nature. Shenzhen surpassed Hong Kong to be the region’s richest city in 2018. But it hasn’t been able to wrest leadership away from Guangzhou, which jealously guards its political power. Dongguan, Zhuhai, and Huizhou each pursue their own strategies, while Macau fits into the constellation as well (although it is less interesting given that it’s a single-industry town). Hong Kong, meanwhile, is a world unto itself. Since the political problems there over the last three years, the central government has made it obvious that it can think of the city only with exasperation. Rather than expect it to lead, Beijing is treating Hong Kong as something like an ulcer: a problem to manage away with hopefully not much more pain.

I left Hong Kong in 2018, before its protests and the ensuing political crackdown. I had hastened to leave then because I already felt the keen disappointment of living in a city in structural decline. I acknowledge that Hong Kong is an urban paradise: a tropical island with a splendid geographic setting, featuring a ring of skyscrapers that hug thickly-forested mountains. There the amenities of the tropics are easy to find: beaches, forests, wild birds and animals galore, all accessible by excellent systems of public transit. Manhattan meets Maui, in other words, at the mouth of the Pearl River. And there is still an interesting cast of characters, many of whom have adventured on the mainland or the rest of Asia, to enliven the city.

But Hong Kong was also the most bureaucratic city I’ve ever lived in. Its business landscape has remained static for decades: the preserve of property developers that has created no noteworthy companies in the last three decades. That is a heritage of British colonial rule, in which administrators controlled economic elites by allocating land—the city’s most scarce resource—to the more docile. Hong Kong bureaucrats enforce the pettiest rules, I felt, out of a sense of pride. On the mainland, enforcers deal often enough with senseless rules that they are sometimes able to look the other way. Thus a stagnant spirit hangs over the city. I’ve written before that Philip K. Dick is useful not for thinking about Hong Kong’s skyline, but its tycoon-dominated polity: “governed by a competent but fundamentally pessimistic elite, which administers a population bent on consumption. Instead of being hooked on drugs and television like in PKD’s novels, people in Hong Kong are addicted to the extraordinary flow of liquidity from the mainland, which raises their asset values and dulls their senses.”

Therefore I think there is little excuse for young people to live in Hong Kong. They should hop over to Shenzhen, which is an hour away by subway and decades younger by spirit. Shenzhen and Guangzhou are still attracting entrepreneurial types, producing an even more commercially-oriented culture than Shanghai. But while Shenzhen is pleasant, it is also a boring city with minimal culture. A friend relates an anecdote from a gallery artist, who said that clients in Shenzhen rarely comment on the art that they plan to buy. Instead they ask only its expected price in five years.

True autonomy is worth almost nothing

Saturday, January 15th, 2022

True autonomy is worth almost nothing when it comes to trucks, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher of Starsky Robotics explains:

At Starsky we modeled that our robotrucks could achieve 42% margins even if each had a dedicated remote person paying attention 100% of the time. Those margins would jump to 58% if that remote driver only needed to pay attention for the first and last miles.

True autonomy, on the other hand, would have added less than 2% to our bottom line. Which means that the technological achievement $70b has been invested in over the last decade is worth less to the trucking industry than automatic billing.

The US trucking industry is structured around the systemic shortage of long-haul truck drivers. The 3.5 weeks/mo an over-the-road (OTR) driver is expected to spend in a truck is so miserable that few will do it for even $60k/yr. On the other side, trucking is a highly fragmented commoditized industry, which puts no fleet in the position where they can raise prices sufficiently to afford to pay drivers more. The result is that the market typically has at least 50,000 too few drivers to meet demand.

This shortage defines everything in American trucking — it’s why our trucks have nice comfortable cabs (worse fuel efficiency but better driver retention), it’s why our railroads are so profitable (which is why Warren Buffet buys them), and why our supply chain has even been shaped to minimize how much time trucks need to drive in cities (drivers get paid by mile and hate driving in slow-speed cities).


$60k/yr isn’t enough to entice over-the-road drivers but it is more than enough to recruit drivers who get to sleep at home.


Trucking is a business with both high fixed and variable costs. For every dollar that comes in, the best run firms typically spend 75% of it evenly divided between fuel, equipment, and labor. They then spend another 17% or so of administrative overhead per truck before eking out an 8% profit margin.


American truck drivers are paid only for the miles they haul freight — the hours spent waiting to be loaded or unloaded and taking mandatory breaks are all unpaid. As a result, the $200/day drivers typically earn is really only for the 7 hours/day they move freight and not for the 14 total hours they’re on-duty. This delta is big — it means that the trucking company feels like they pay drivers $28/hr while drivers feel like they only get $14/hr (or $8/hr if you consider the 24 hours/day drivers spend in a truck).

Drivers who aren’t physically in a truck don’t need to lose productivity when the truck stops moving. Rather than twiddling their thumbs at a distribution center the driver could simply switch to a different truck in the fleet which has been loaded and is ready to move. The driver actually cares about earning $200/day — if they earned that by driving for 11 hours (vs being on duty for 14) their hourly rate would increase. The fleet would see their $200 buy them 57% more hours of a truck moving which would drop their labor cost by 30%, bringing it to just 17.5% of gross.

As a result a robotruck which is remotely monitored 100% of the time by a teleoperator who is looking only at that truck while it moves would cut labor cost from 25% of gross to 16.5% and have profit margins of 42.5%.

95% of the hours an OTR truck moves is on the highway. If you were able to eliminate remote supervision for the bulk of those hours you would see per-truck labor cost drop to just 1.75% of gross and profit margin would soar to 58%.

The hardest 1% of the technical problem, automating the surface streets and interchanges, would end up being worth only about $600/truck/yr. Level 4 truck autonomy has less value than a daily coffee.