Looking back, and ahead: World Wars, DAOs, and Writing
Coming back to a weekly cadence
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written here. And it’s been an extremely busy couple of months for me with travel, work, and some other projects that I’ve been helping with.
As a reminder, this is Sunday Snapshots, a weekly newsletter mostly about businesses and biographies with a healthy sprinkle of randomness — everything from restaurants, the craft of writing, machine learning, shadow power, and ill-fated drawings.
I’m excited to get back to writing consistently here every week — likely an essay on alternating Sundays with links to what’s been on my mind on the other weeks.
With that, let me share what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to over the last couple of months:
It’s tough to traverse the lake of 20th century history without feeling the reverberations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions underneath it. No other president changed the institution of the Presidency as much as FDR did. No other president changed the role of government in people’s daily lives as much as FDR did. No other President served as many terms in office as FDR did. And if FDR changed the institution of the Presidency, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt created the institution of the First Lady. Future influential First Ladies like Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama followed in her footsteps in carving out a role for themselves in the administration. No Ordinary Life by Dorris Kearns Goodwin explores the transformer, the creator, and the nation they led in the aftermath of the New Deal and over the course of World War 2. It captures how the Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were in conflict with the desperate need for America to rearm itself in the lead up to war — corporations build aircrafts, mom and pop shops don’t. It also captures how unilateral some of the initial decisions of the war were — like sending military and financial aid to Great Britain as the Germany armies routed Europe and set their eyes towards the island nation. None of Roosevelt’s generals supported this, instead favoring to retain all available resources to protect the United States. But the buck stopped with him and he made the decision to help the England. The accessibility of the book, despite the occasional boring minutiae of government, is a great reminder of why Goodwin is one of our most celebrated popular historians.
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta covers the same timeframe on the other side of the Pacific, detailing how the Japanese military and political leaders boxed themselves in to a point where they only had bad decisions available to them in the winter of 1941. Strapped for resources, strangled by criss-crossing lines of chains of command, and without clear objectives, the book gives the impression that they almost had to declare war on the United States. Absent during most of it is the Japanese emperor who while retaining a lot of latent power, doesn’t want to be seen as directly making the military decisions. To learn more about this, I’m following this book up with Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix.
On the lighter side of things, Is This Anything by Jerry Seinfeld is a great few-pages-a-day read with some of his best bits over the last 5 decades. And while the jokes in the book are funny, the sheer longevity of his career is nothing to laugh at. What strikes me as the driving force behind his success is a relentless quest to observe and question the mundane, combined with a systematic way to share the output of his adventures in human-watching. This output has transformed over the decades. What started off as a grinding 9 year sprint on Seinfeld has now been transformed into a breezing format on Comedians in Cars getting Coffee — I can’t imagine Jerry struggles through the later at all. Pair this with the conversation about his routines on this podcast.
And if people have been laughing at the NFT and DAO-mania hitting investors and early adopters alike, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be laughing for much longer. Things seem to get weirder and stranger. Underpinning it all is idea of the increasing importance of abstract value in the global economy, which is what Capitalism without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake is all about. It’s distance from our now-crazy-times — the book was written in 2017 — is an asset (no pun intended!) as it is not influenced by said craziness and yet it accurately outlines some of the theoretical underpinnings of what is happening in the markets right now. More on NFTs and DAOs to come soon. Credits to Barrett Scruggs for recommending this book on Twitter.
While Jamie Dimon’s J.P. Morgan might be “too big to fail”, it seems like it not too big to kowtow to the Chinese Communist Party. The growing awareness of the autocratic nature of the CCP is matched only by the complete lack of understanding of its internal machinations in the West. The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning by N. S. Lyons about the CCP’s primary philosopher-bureaucract fills a part of this gaping void. Particularly interesting is Huning’s belief that cultural integrity is a key ingredient — if not the key ingredient — for creating long-term economic prosperity. This view would explain some of the recent crackdowns on video games and private tutoring services in China. This philosophy has a “the good old days” feel to it and is reminiscent of American TV-driven monoculture before the internet. This has some obvious benefits, the primary one being that everyone is on the same page about the big things. But that monoculture got the US into a lot of trouble — to pick just one area, the government was able to convince the general populace into entering wars it had no business fighting. The tough tradeoffs in the changes involved here remain to play out in China, but the changes will not be voluntary for Chinese citizens.
Speaking of voluntary, would you voluntarily read 700 pages on geological formations about the North American continent? I, along with many others, would if it was written by John McPhee, whose genius is captured in The Mind of John McPhee. McPhee’s obsession with structure in his writing is well-documented and has some parallels to how Robert Caro starts his work with outlines. The theme of observation comes up again here — with McPhee being deeply curious about the mundane and having the literary abilities to transform it into something more interesting. I’m following this up with Draft No. 4, his book on writing.
Dieter Rams is widely known as one of the best industrial designers of the 20th century. Back when I would have shop class every day in high school, I remember poring over his designs and interviews. He is perhaps best known for his 10 principles for good design. It would be tough for me to think of a product that embodies these principles more completely than the Moka Pot. The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot is a general history of coffee couched inside a corporate history of the Bialetti Moka pot. I had fun reading it and poring over the patent filing.
Grand theories are seductive. I am not certainly not immune to their charms. So when I read The housing theory of everything by Sam Bowman, John Myers, and Ben Southwood, I was intrigued. A single solution to inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and falling fertility rates? Sign me up! Of course, the jumbled web of correlations and casualties here would make even a seasoned conspiracy theorist confused. But I think it is worth reading, as it shows both the potential and pitfalls of a silver bullet theory.
And when it comes to potential, it’s clear what Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos saw in its new CEO, Andy Jassy, to make Bezos hand over the reins to the trillion-dollar-and-growing empire. As outlined in Andy Jassy, Amazon’s new CEO, enters the right, it’s that Jassy is a boring company executive in the best sense of the word. Broadly speaking, this has been a good strategy for solving succession problems in the tech industry. Google and Microsoft (after the initial Ballmer stumble) have done very well under Sunder Pichai and Satya Nadella, both of whom by all accounts are just very good at making the company run without being “visionaries.”
From the road
New York City: I recently watched The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway. I’ll get to the show itself in a minute, but there is something to be said about the benefits of just not interacting with your phone for 3 hours. Maybe that's just me, but I suspect not. Back to the show. The acting was excellent — it gives you a true appreciation for the skill and preparation involved in live productions. The story itself is about the founding of the Lehman brothers and the company they created came out of every crisis stronger, until a crisis killed them. If you're in the New York area before January 2th, I highly recommend grabbing a ticket.
Austin: I visited the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin when I was there in October. Presidential libraries are interesting because they are quasi-government entities run by the National Archives, but the foundation which runs a particular library seems to have the ability to stretch credulity on facts. The LBJ library certainly takes this liberty when it comes to the 1948 Senate election (which LBJ stole) and his mistakes in Vietnam. The library does do an excellent job of capturing a sense of the times with changes in culture and media during the years of LBJ with the help of compiled TV clips and memorabilia from the 60s and 70s.
Charleston: If the beginnings of all things are small, then the small beginning of the US Civil War was the bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. It was interesting to be in such an unassuming place that sparked a national conflict whose effects this country still lives through. On a side note, Charleston is probably the most underrated food city in the country — I got some good recommendations from Twitter.
Cape Cod: If you’re ever in the Cape Cod in Massachusetts, you’ve got to make a trip up to the Portuguese Bakery in Provincetown. I tried the Pasteis amongst other things and was not disappointed.
I re-watched In the Mood for Love (2000) by Wong Kar Wai recently. What a movie. The colors. The composition. The soundtrack. The tension. The acting. Did I mention the colors? There are a few movies (see: Marriage Story and Scenes from a Marriage) that tried to capture similar themes, but In the Mood for Love remains the best in this genre.
Few movies have had a phenomenon named after them. Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa stands above the rest even in this sparsely populated group. It captures the fallibility of witness testimonies and the human desire to re-write the past in our mind in a way that makes us look better. Pair it with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
People largely enjoyed Dune (2021) by Dennis Villeneuve and I was not an exception. Again, it’s a feat to keep someone engaged for 2 and a half hours. The world building is solid and the CGI as an addition to, instead of a replacement for, real-world stunts was great.
Tampopo (1985) by Juzo Itami is just a light movie which is fun to watch. More food-centric movies please!
If there is a cinematic predecessor to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, High and Low (1963) by Akira Kurosawa has got to be it. The composition is good and the action is extremely well-paced. There are very few movies which can make laying out criminal evidence exciting, but High and Low manages to achieve this. It leaves you a bit uneasy, but in a good way.
Until next Sunday,