Noah Smith has been churning out great essays lately. I was tempted to give the first one four stars.
China has a fateful choice to make | Noahpinion
What was the last time countries were “brimming with ambition, like tigers eyeing their prey, keen to find every opportunity among the ruins of the old order”? The 1930s. The “old order” of the time was the global power of the U.S., Britain, and France. And the tigers in question were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — nations brimming with a mix of pride in their supposed superiority and resentment over past humiliations, eager to claim their place in the sun.
We all know how that movie ended.
Finding opportunity in geopolitical upheaval, dominating Eurasia, dispensing with universal standards of human rights — these are all part of the same eagerness to overthrow the liberal global order. And this desire is manifesting in all four of the crises listed above.
It’s China’s desire for allies against the democratic powers that saw it turn to Russia, and which now forces it to waver and equivocate on what ought to be a clear-cut situation, drawing the suspicion of the world. It’s Xi Jinping’s vision of a martial society that led him to crack down on internet companies, video games, and pop culture — and on real estate. And it is Xi’s determination to prove China’s superiority that is forcing China to lock down in the face of Omicron while it seeks to reinvent mRNA vaccines. These problems all would have cropped up to some degree in any case, but the desire to supplant liberalism have exacerbated the costs China faces from each.
That path, however, is not the only path available to China.
The Weakness of the Despot | New Yorker
Kotkin has a distinguished reputation in academic circles. He is a professor of history at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. He has myriad sources in various realms of contemporary Russia: government, business, culture. Both principled and pragmatic, he is also more plugged in than any reporter or analyst I know. Ever since we met in Moscow, many years ago—Kotkin was doing research on the Stalinist industrial city of Magnitogorsk—I’ve found his guidance on everything from the structure of the Putin regime to its roots in Russian history to be invaluable.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Kotkin about Putin, the invasion of Ukraine, the American and European response, and what comes next, including the possibility of a palace coup in Moscow. […]
The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had nato not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before nato existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.
I would even go further. I would say that nato expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today. Where would we be now if Poland or the Baltic states were not in nato? They would be in the same limbo, in the same world that Ukraine is in. In fact, Poland’s membership in nato stiffened nato’s spine. Unlike some of the other nato countries, Poland has contested Russia many times over. In fact, you can argue that Russia broke its teeth twice on Poland: first in the nineteenth century, leading up to the twentieth century, and again at the end of the Soviet Union, with Solidarity. […]
With Ukraine, we have the assumption that it could be a successful version of Afghanistan, and it wasn’t. It turned out that the Ukrainian people are brave; they are willing to resist and die for their country. Evidently, Putin didn’t believe that. But it turned out that “the television President,” Zelensky, who had a twenty-five-per-cent approval rating before the war—which was fully deserved, because he couldn’t govern—now it turns out that he has a ninety-one-per-cent approval rating. It turned out that he’s got cojones. He’s unbelievably brave. Moreover, having a TV-production company run a country is not a good idea in peacetime, but in wartime, when information war is one of your goals, it’s a fabulous thing to have in place.
The biggest surprise for Putin, of course, was the West. All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China, et cetera: all of that turned out to be bunk. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the bravery and smarts of the Ukrainian government, and its President, Zelensky, galvanized the West to remember who it was. And that shocked Putin! That’s the miscalculation.
Time for a Diplomatic Revolution | Noahpinion
This changes the global strategic situation overnight. Suddenly, the U.S. has a new and powerful ally in the form of a reunited Europe, while China’s most important ally turned out to have feet of clay. The war is not yet over, but things are looking much brighter for the democratic powers.
It’s not enough, though. To meet the new authoritarian challenge, the U.S. and its existing allies will have to bring more partners into the fold. A 21st century diplomatic revolution is necessary in order to create a coalition that has the power both to stabilize international relations and safeguard the human rights that have gradually but steadily made the world a better place to live.
It starts with India. […]
All of these moves — allying with India, rapprochement with old enemies in Latin American and the Middle East — will run into opposition from liberal internationalists who believe that the U.S. should penalize and punish human rights abuses and anti-democratic governance in all of these countries. They will decry Modi’s persecution of Muslims, Maduro’s assumption of dictatorial powers, Iran’s human rights abuses and proxy wars. They’ll also raise this objection regarding the authoritarian governance of Vietnam, another Asian country that the U.S. needs to forge an alliance with. The liberal internationalists will ask: If we choose to ally with such people and such regimes, how are we making the world safe for democracy?
And the answer is: Because the fight for human rights and democracy is not helped by purity tests. Pragmatism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
A BRIC, impenetrable to sanctions | Euro Intelligence
But we did not think this through. For a central bank to freeze the accounts of another central bank is a really big deal. Economically, what this means is that the entire transatlantic west has defaulted on our most important asset: our fiat money. Russia’s central bank reserves were earnings from legitimate sales, mostly to the west. Courts can freeze assets if they are obtained illegally. But this was not the case here. Russia has violated international law by invading Ukraine. But its central bank accounts held abroad are legal.
With this one sanction, we have done all of the following: undermined trust in the US dollar as the world’s main reserve currency; forestalled any challenge the euro might ever make; reduced the creditworthiness of our central banks; encouraged China and Russia to bypass the western financial infrastructure; and turned bitcoin into a respectable alternative transaction currency. At least the blockchain is not going to default on you.
Vladimir Putin is playing this cleverly. He says Russia will stick to its international contracts and obligations. Russia will not default. It will continue to supply gas, as Russia did during previous wars. Europe is, of course, right to seek greater independence from Russian energy. The quid pro quo is that Russia is becoming more independent of the west too.
Even without the west, a commodities-rich Russia has many markets at its disposal. China will remain a solid business partner. So will India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. And of course South Africa and Brazil, along with most of Africa and Latin America. Russia isolated? You must be kidding. Or suffering from an inflated perception of the transatlantic west in the 21st century.
Now consider what the Chinese will make of our sanctions. The Chinese government knows that its large exposure to US assets is equally at risk. What the US did to President Putin over Ukraine can be done to President Xi over the Uyghurs. The process of de-dollarisation will take time. But China is never in a hurry.
As a direct result of these decisions, we have turned the dollar and the euro, and everything that is denominated in those currencies, into de facto risky assets.
'People, ideas, machines' II: catastrophic thinking on nuclear weapons | Dominic Cummings
The Cold War was won. The West concluded ‘we were right’. Many in the world of policy concluded: there is a reliable theory of nuclear strategy that allows us to send carefully calibrated signals, like ‘escalate to de-escalate’. You can see this false confidence in many politicians, journalists and academics over the past month. e.g. Professor Elliot Cohen’s calls for America to attack Russian forces because he’s confident Putin is bluffing.
After the 1991 collapse some scholars went to talk to those actually in charge in Russia. They read documents. They discovered that we’d been wrong in crucial ways all along.
Actually the Soviets planned early and heavy use of nuclear weapons in many scenarios including outbreak of conventional war in Europe.
The theoretical basis of some of the west’s analysis, such as game theory from the likes of the economist Schelling, had been disastrously misleading. More important (I think) was the development of a theory that encouraged leaders/strategists to ignore an eternal lesson of history: one story after another of people risking death in ways opponents or observers thought ‘irrational’, ‘crazy’. (Remember the Jews’ response to Pilate’s severe and credible threats to kill them — they lay down and turned their necks to him and said do it! And it worked!) The actual motives and thinking of specific leaders was discouraged in favour of calculating balances of weapons. Bureaucracies focused on what can be counted and calculated rather than imponderable questions with no clear and comforting answers. The former was comforting. The latter seemed paralysing and/or nightmarish. Bureaucracies naturally gravitate toward the former unless very strong counter-pressures apply.
Not only were we wrong about that, but, because of how incentives work in the policy world, after 1991 nuclear weapons retreated to being a very niche subject. Very few senior politicians and officials now have studied these issues. Many of them, and influential journalists, believe we have reliable theories of ‘nuclear strategy’ and ‘nuclear escalation’.
The Battle of the Gauges | History Today
Queen Victoria was definitely not amused. Whenever she travelled from her estate on the Isle of Wight to her castle at Balmoral, she encountered the inconvenience of twice changing trains, once at Basingstoke and again at Gloucester. She had no choice: even royalty was obliged to mind the gap between railway tracks of different widths. Stations were regularly plunged into chaos as angry passengers and their cumbersome luggage were transferred between two sizes of train, while disgruntled manufacturers repeatedly protested about the delays and expense caused by the transition from one gauge to another. The Railway Clearing House estimated that each track shift added the equivalent of 20 miles to transport costs, but the business titans in charge refused to yield. By 1866, despite numerous attempts to impose conformity, there were still around 30 stations in Britain where the rails abruptly altered width.
This clash of wills and technologies – soon dubbed the Battle of the Gauges – lasted for decades. The major conflict was between supporters of narrow gauge and broad gauge tracks, which might sound as farcical as the episode in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, when the Lilliputians argue about whether boiled eggs should be opened at the big end or the little one. But the outcome – eventual victory for the narrow gaugers – entailed long-term, international consequences. Rather than being a petty squabble between petulant technophiles, the Battle of the Gauges resulted in two Acts of Parliament within two years and divided public opinion about the relative merits of modernisation and tradition.
How are the Big Sanctions hurting Russia so far? | Noahpinion
And let’s also recall that these sanctions have several potential purposes:
To hurt Putin’s rich allies and induce them to pressure Putin to stop the war
To hurt Russia’s ability to sustain its war effort in Ukraine
To increase popular unrest in Russia and thus pressure Putin to stop the war
I’m not exactly sure which of these objectives European and U.S. leaders had in mind when creating these sanctions, and it’s even possible they didn’t know what they expected the results to be. But already we can begin to see how these sanctions will hurt Russia economically. Russian economist Maxim Mironov, who now works at IE Business School in Madrid, summed up many of these effects in an exasperated post the other day:Fascinating thread from Prof. Maxim Mironov on what sanctions are likely to mean for the Russian economy. "My scientific conclusion... is that the Russian economy is fucked. Double fucked, because most Russians don't know what's coming." Image is my amateurish translation.Меня многие просят прокомментировать санкции. Если вкратце, то мое научное заключение, как профессора финансов, доктора Чикагского Университета - это ПИЗДЕЦ. И двойной пиздец, что жители России, даже образованные, в большинстве своем не понимают, что их ждёт. Объясняю на...Maxim Mironov @mironov_fm
That’s a pretty good overview. Let’s take a look at the two most important areas that Russia will feel the pain: Consumer lifestyles and defense manufacturing.
Wonders and warnings from the ancient world | The Critic
Attempts to answer the time-old question of why Rome fell have been characterised in recent years by a new awareness of the role that factors including pollution and climate change played. Anyone who has shrugged at the suggestion that the weather had anything to do with the demise of such a mighty empire will, I think, come away from this book persuaded that climate change and natural disasters provide an important part of the answer. Far from being moralistic and attempting to apply the examples of the past as a warning, Stephenson lays down the evidence unemotionally, and lets it speak for itself.
The causes of change were not purely driven by human behaviour, though smelting and, even more so, heavy warfare in the era of invading Huns and Vandals, had a significant environmental impact. Pollen records reveal a dramatic decline in the growing of cereals in Greece by about 600AD and, from the seventh century, pollination was happening predominantly through nature rather than agriculture.
The root cause of this was the destruction of arable land following invasions and the decline in human settlements. Add to this diminishing sunlight — measurements of “deposited radionuclides” indicate a significant reduction of light between the midfourth and late seventh centuries — and we are looking at a radically different landscape in this period from that of the High Empire.
Natural disasters (or were they?) also played a part. The later fifth and early sixth centuries witnessed a number of major volcanic eruptions. Vesuvius, which famously buried Pompeii when it awoke from seven centuries of dormancy in 79AD, erupted in 472 and 512, bookending, as Stephenson notes, the overthrow of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus.
Best Reading On Ukraine And Russia | The Browser
Every week, our editor Robert Cottrell writes a special letter our Friends Of The Browser circle – we'd like to share with you this week's letter, covering recent pieces on Ukraine and Russia. […]
China has learned priceless lessons from the Ukraine invasion: That the West can get its act together; that American military intelligence is currently better than anyone imagined; that even a thrown-together civil defence force can embarrass an invading army. China must be thanking its lucky stars that it did not elect to learn these lessons in Taiwan at its own expense.
What is good for China is not necessarily good for Xi Jinping. I wondered last week who was writing well about China-Russia relations, and the answer is: Nikkei Asia, which thinks that Xi has overplayed his hand on Ukraine so clumsily that the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee are moving to rein in Xi's increasingly personalised dictatorship and reinstate a more deliberative collective leadership.
The Nikkei view is that Xi took at face value Putin's assurances to the effect that Ukraine would collapse when the first Russian tanks rolled in, and the West would scarcely whimper. He duly backstopped Putin in February, doing shoulder-to-shoulder photo-ops and talking up their mutual admiration — without seriously consulting his Politburo colleagues beforehand.
Believing what Putin said would have been a rookie error almost incredible in a statesman at Xi's level. Failing to consult before revising China's line on Russia would have been a sin more or less equivalent to visiting each member of the Politburo Standing Committee and slapping them in the face.
And yet, a comeuppance for Xi would probably increase still further the net gains to China from this whole affair. Xi's dictator-for-life act was becoming ever more of an insult, even a danger, to his Communist Party colleagues. His reactionary turn has been unpopular with everybody save for ideologues. By reining Xi in, but not throwing him out, China could give Russia a lesson on how dictatorship ought to work.
The Current Thing | Stratechery
Go back to the point about the explosion of content on the Internet: the first order implication is that there is an explosion of ideas; after all, anyone can publish anything. Presumably this means that there are far more categories of thought than ever before! And, if you dig deep enough into the Internet, this is true.
Most people, though, don’t dig that deep, just as they don’t dig that deep for content or contacts or commerce: it’s just far easier and more convenient to rely on Google or Facebook or Amazon. Why wouldn’t this same dynamic apply to ideas? Being informed about everything happening in the world is hard if not impossible: humans evolved to care intensely about what happened in their local environment; however, first mass media, and then the Internet, brought news from everywhere to our immediate attention.
Given that, it seems entirely reasonable — expected even — that we all outsource our intuition for what events matter, and what our position on those events should be, to the most convenient option, especially if that option has obvious moral valence. Police brutality against people of color is obviously bad; people dying from COVID is obviously bad; Russia invading Ukraine is obviously bad; why wouldn’t each of us snap into opposition to obviously bad things?
This dynamic is exactly what the meme highlights: sure, the Internet makes possible a wide range of viewpoints — you can absolutely find critics of Black Lives Matter, COVID policies, or pro-Ukraine policies — but the Internet, thanks to its lack of friction and instant feedback loops, also makes nearly every position but the dominant one untenable. If everyone believes one thing, the costs of believing something else increase dramatically, making the consensus opinion the only viable option; this is the same dynamic in which publishers become dependent on Google or Facebook, or retailers on Amazon, just because that is where money can be made.
Again, to be very clear, that does not mean the opinion is wrong; as I noted, I think the resonance of this meme is orthogonal to the rightness of the position it is critiquing, and is instead concerned with the sense that there is something unique about the depth of sentiment surrounding issues that don’t necessarily apply in any real-life way to the people feeling said sentiment.
I Watched Russian TV So You Don’t Have To | The Atlantic
When there isn’t much good news from the front, a popular angle is how unfairly America and Europe are treating Russia. On Time Will Tell, a talk show on Channel One, pundits complained that people were discriminating against Russians abroad, in part evidenced by a photo of the empty Russian Tea Room in New York. “Where are the civil-rights defenders?” someone asked. 60 Minutes, another talk show, played a clip of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling for Putin’s assassination, saying someone should “take this guy out.” “Imagine what would happen if we suggested killing Biden!” one panelist said. “Can. You. Imagine. What. Would. Be.” On another talk show, The Great Game, war experts waxed on about the folly of invading Iraq—the sort of whataboutism that was typical of Soviet-era messaging.
To the extent that Russian television shows discuss casualties, they attribute them to Ukrainians, who, according to Russia’s state TV, use “human shields” and prevent their own citizens from fleeing through humanitarian corridors. (Foreign journalists and Ukrainian officials say neither claim is true.) An attack on British journalists outside Kyiv—which the journalists themselves attributed to Russian hit squads—was blamed on Ukrainians too. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about some of this, “no one is talking about this in the West because the West glorifies Nazis,” according to one Russian-TV pundit. (The “Nazi” claim appears geared toward older Russians, who revere the Soviet Union’s role in winning World War II.) Overall, Russian TV creates the false impression that Ukrainians are shooting at themselves, says Alexey Kovalev, the investigations editor of Meduza, an independent Russian news site that opposes this narrative and has been blocked by Russia. Kovalev has recently fled Russia, and spoke with me from a Baltic country.
And Russians, with dwindling news options, tend to buy what their government and its media allies are selling. Russians with Ukrainian relatives buy it. Acquaintances of Kovalev buy it. The alternative—that the invasion is not justified, that Russians are the aggressors—is too horrific to entertain.
At the Bottom of an Icy Sea, One of History’s Great Wrecks Is Found | New York Times
Explorers and researchers, battling freezing temperatures, have located Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship that sank in the Antarctic in 1915.
Do Americans Really Want Permanent Daylight Saving Time? | FiveThirtyEight
What everyday people actually want, though, isn’t as clear. Polling shows that people generally don’t like the disruption of gaining or losing an hour twice a year, although their feelings might not be as strong as politicians make it out to be. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted days before the clocks changed in November, for instance, only 21 percent of Americans said they were looking forward to the end of daylight saving time coming up, while 34 percent said they weren’t looking forward to it; 38 percent said they didn’t care. But there was more consensus on the concept of changing the clocks than on the solution: Among the 63 percent of people who wanted to eliminate the practice of gaining or losing an hour, 48 percent said they wanted permanent daylight saving time, 29 percent said they wanted permanent standard time and 21 percent had no preference. […]
But in exchange for later sunsets, people have to be OK with dark mornings. And that’s not a universally popular tradeoff. Americans actually experimented with permanent daylight saving time starting in January 1974, and it didn’t go well.
Wordle, 15 Million Tweets Later | Observable
So, to really understand Wordle, I had to look at the tweets – all 15 million of them […]
With that in mind, here’s the distribution of Wordle results among all tweets:
As expected, four is the most common guess count, with frequency decreasing rapidly on either side. Getting a Wordle-in-one is quite rare, with less than a third the volume of losses (denoted with an “X”).
Now, let’s break that down by target word.
How to Stop a Nuclear War | New York Times
These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.
Second, they mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.
Third, they imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker.
U.S. News Ranked Columbia No. 2, but a Math Professor Has His Doubts | New York Times
A professor identified several data discrepancies that Columbia University provided to U.S. News & World Report, renewing the debate over the value and accuracy of college rankings. […]
Michael Thaddeus, who specializes in algebraic geometry at Columbia, has challenged the university’s No. 2 ranking this year with a statistical analysis that found that key supporting data was “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.”
In a 21-page blistering critique on his website, Dr. Thaddeus is not only challenging the rating but redoubling the debate over whether college rankings — used by millions of prospective college students and their parents — are valuable or even accurate.
Each week Albert's links are a welcome addition to my weekend reading. With so much to read and never enough time, I appreciate recommendations from sources I trust (hello Longreads et al). This is another great week for links with numerous superb ones relating to Russia and Ukraine. I read the NYT, the New Yorker etc, but with Albert's efforts, I would have missed the Noahpinion pieces of the one from The Atlantic. And even the excellent Remnick Q&A in The New Yorker could have slipped past in the ocean of content swirling past me. So as always, thanks!